A Touch of Sin, the new movie written and directed by film and troublemaker (not necessarily in that order) Zhangke Jia, has more than a touch of a touch in it. It’s a portmanteau film revolving around four different people who end up doing violence in modern day China, all driven by the corruption and greed that is oozing its way past the Communist idealism, and all inspired by true events.
In this post-Mao China, men with axes stop motorists on lonely roads for money; local enforcers extort bribes from truck drivers who want to drive through their city; and prostitution is commonplace (it has one of the most extravagant whorehouses you’re going to see on film in some time–the ladies of the evening kinkily marching out to patriotic military music in red army uniforms with short shorts and midriff revealing shirts is one of the highlights of the movie).
The film is a riveting look at how power corrupts and money corrupts even more. It’s uncompromising and shocking. Jia shows his characters great empathy, no matter how horrifying their actions, while the bleak landscape offers no sympathy for any of them (beautifully shot, if that’s the word for it, by Yu Likwai). It paints a very dark picture of Jia’s country and is apparently being released in China, but how is anybody’s guess.
Also based on true events is Rush, but oh, what a difference an ocean can make. In fact, while I was watching this movie about rival race car drivers, all I could think was, Do writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard realize just how bad, how really terrible, their movie is? And then I checked out the critic conglomerate called rottentomatoes.com and saw that it received a 92% rating. 92%. From the top critics, the ones with jobs at places like the Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic and The New Yorker (that earthquake you just felt was Pauline Kael turning in her grave).
So I suspect the answer to my question is, no, they don’t. But at least they have an excuse. But for the life of me, I have no idea what possible apology the critics could come up with. Rush is a big, over the top, studio type film that falls resoundingly flat, runs out of gas almost immediately, crashes and burns from the opening shot, as well as any other number of puns one can come up with to describe just how appallingly dreadful it all is (it’s a real drag, in other words).
The story revolves around a 1970’s rivalry between James Hunt (a blond-haired, blue eyed satyr) and Niki Lauda (an emotionless, stoic Austrian), Formula One drivers lusting to be world champion. To be fair, Morgan and Howard have set themselves a high bar. They have given us in these central characters two of the most unlikable people one has met on film in some time. Worse, they have given us two of the most boring people one has met on film in some time. They also give these two a rivalry based upon reasons that are so petty, it’s almost impossible to take it seriously, much less become emotionally involved in the stakes. In fact, there were times when I wondered why Morgan and Howard hadn’t made it a dark comedy; the basis of the story almost seems to demand it at times.
I don’t know how anybody can drain all excitement and interest out of a movie about racing, but Howard has somehow managed to do just that. He does little to dramatize what the races are like (the camera is more often than not kept at a distance, like a spectator who couldn’t get a good seat). He seems to have almost no interest in the thrill and passion of the racing experience or in seeing it through the eyes of the characters; instead he only seems to care about who wins what race—the exact opposite of what is interesting the audience.
He does try his best, though. Most of the time he keeps that camera moving, never letting it stop to smell the roses, with frantic tracking shots and quick edits. It does imbue the movie with some tension at times, but more often than not it just feels like a desperate attempt to hide the fact that there is no there there on the screen.
Morgan’s dialog is basically everyone explaining to everyone else how they feel and why they act the way they do. And there’s just so much of it. Even more enervating are the taunting back and forths between Hunt and Lauda that never rise about the basic “Oh, yeah?”, “Yeah”, “Oh, yeah?”, “Yeah”, “Well…yeah”. I doubt Wilde could have put it any better. And the actors (a bland, as usual, Chris Helmsworth as Hunt and a buck toothed Daniel Bruhl as Lauda) can’t seem to do much with the material either.
I’m not sure why this movie made me so angry. It certainly isn’t Morgan and Howard. They’ve both created solid and successful entertainment in the past and everybody has a failure at some point. No, I think my real anger is toward the critics who should know better. People, this movie doesn’t work and you have no excuse for not knowing that. You really need to get your act together.