Chuck Koplinski: Director fires on all cylinders with thrilling 'Rush'

Who could have predicted that the director of "Grand Theft Auto" (1977) would one day be at the helm of the greatest auto racing film ever made?

Ron Howard, who cut his teeth on low-budget flicks like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Eat My Dust," does just that with "Rush," an exhilarating look at the world of Formula One racing, circa 1976, that focuses on one of the bitterest rivalries in sports history.

It comes as no surprise that with today's advanced filmmaking methods, this is an exciting exercise, but what separates this movie from the pack is the examination of the relationship between two fierce competitors who couldn't be more different in their pursuit of a common goal.

English driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) not only had movie star looks and a brashness to go with them, but was also a consummate driver who never backed away from taking a chance behind the wheel, trusting his instinct and bravado to get him to the winner's circle. His polar opposite was Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), an Austrian who came from money, was not particularly attractive and was able to build his cars in such an exact manner that it gave him a distinct edge. That he was smart and disciplined held him in good stead as well.

While the film spans six years, it focuses primarily on the 1976 Formula One season when Hunt and Lauda were in a fierce competition for the championship, a campaign that saw one driver suffer a horrific accident and another take personal stock of himself both on and off the track.

Without question, the film is exciting. Placing his tiny cameras in every conceivable spot in and out of these racecars, there's not an angle that Howard leaves unexplored. As such, he's able to recreate what it's like to be caught in one of these speeding death traps in ideal as well as deadly conditions. This is Howard's most assured film; it brims with life — and death — and he executes it with a degree of precision and confidence that mirrors the approach his characters take toward living, that of being constantly on the edge.

And while the film is genuinely thrilling, it's the exploration of the relationship between Hunt and Lauda that gives it heart. Peter Morgan's script takes the time to delve into the background of these men, and we're allowed to see what compels them to put their lives on the line every time they take to the track. Hemsworth is quite good, proving he can do more than swing a big hammer and cut an imposing figure, but Bruhl is the real find here. He's able to bring out Lauda's arrogance, stubbornness and lack of social graces, yet he has us in his corner the entire time.

Early on, we're told that two Formula One drivers die each year, and yet this does not detour Hunt nor Lauda into finding a safer line of work. It's suggested that hubris, insecurity and perhaps a bit of a death wish push each of these men, casting them as tragic figures even when standing in the light of glory.

As with the best sports films, "Rush" poignantly underscores that the best of athletes are not only inspired to defeat their competition in the arena but by their inner demons as well.

'Rush' (4 stars out of 4)

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Stephen Mangan and Christian McKay.

Directed by Ron Howard; produced by Andrew Eaton, Eric Fellner, Brian Grazer, Brian Oliver, Howard and Peter Morgan; screenplay by Morgan.

A Universal Pictures release. 123 minutes. Rated R (sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use.) At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Writer-director-actress shines as triple threat in "In a World." (3-1/2 stars)

Smart, funny and pointed, Lake Bell's "In a World ..." is an unexpected delight that delivers a blistering look at the state of modern feminism with a spoonful of hilarious sugar. Having written, directed and starred in the film, the actress shows great promise in the way she handles multiple storylines as well as how she turns stereotypical characters and situations on their heads to inspired results. But what may be most refreshing about the movie is the fact that Bell takes us into a world that heretofore has gone unexplored, that of professional voice-over artists.

Carol (Bell) is a voice coach who has yet to reach her full potential as she lives in the shadow of her father Sam (Fred Melamed), a legendary voice-over artist. With her father about to receive a career achievement award and starting a new life with his much younger girlfriend, Carol despairs over her lack of success. That she's toiling in a male-dominated industry does not deter her, but she fails to realize the chips are stacked against her breaking into this old-school, all-boys club.

However, word gets out that a new sci-fi franchise is about to be launched (think, an ultra-low-budget "Hunger Games") and the producers are looking for a distinctive voice to narrate its trailers. Not only does Carol decide to throw her hat in the ring, but her father reconsiders retiring and does so as well, while an up-and-comer in the field (Ken Marino), who has eyes for our heroine, gets ready to audition as well.

While this is the through-line of the film, Bell also includes a subplot revolving around her sister's troubled marriage and another in which a tongue-tied producer (Adam Scott) is unable to express his feelings for Carol. Each of the stories revolves around a character that's not being heard or is unable to speak, which is a reflection of Carol's plight.

However, Bell goes out of her way to point out how women have been marginalized, not simply by men, but in some ways by themselves, by embracing the stereotypes that have been thrust upon them. In interviews, the actress has used the term "sexy baby voice virus" to describe how young women have adopted an adolescent, high-pitched, singsong way of speaking in an effort to be sexy. These women pop up again and again in the film, and the way they are portrayed and treated leaves no doubt as to how Bell feels about this trend.

Wholly entertaining, thought-provoking and ultimately empowering, "In a World " is the sort of film I wish I saw more of. Not only does it have something pertinent to say, it does so in a way that's intelligent and nonthreatening, the sort of approach likely to win over any viewer who doubts there's a significant portion of our population struggling to be heard.

"Cloudy 2" an undercooked concoction. (2 stars)

After being pleasantly surprised with 2009's "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," I was hoping that the same sense of invention and humor that made the first entry in this series so charming would be present in the follow-up.

Alas, it was not to be as this undercooked sequel plays like a cake that hasn't been fully baked or a souffle with no eggs or, well, I could make food comparisons all day, but something vital is missing from this production. While the directors of the first film, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, are credited as co-writers; their sure hand behind the camera is sorely missed as filmmakers Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn are unable to corral the story and build a sense of gleeful momentum, which is vital to films of this sort.

The adventure picks up right where the first film left off. Inventor Flint Lockwood (voice by Bill Hader), despite having destroyed his island home Swall Falls with his invention that turns water into food, has been hired by the conglomerate Live Corp., run by his idol Chester V (Will Forte). However, what our hero doesn't realize is that he's being duped, and his boss wants nothing more than to get hold of his creation, convinced he can work out the kinks. Unfortunately, V's minions are having a hard time locating the invention, which is now churning out mutant food creatures. So, Flint, his girlfriend Sam (Anna Faris), his father (James Caan) and their friends head back to Swall Falls to find the rabid food re-processor and turn it off so that it can be recovered.

This premise takes far too long to set up, and the way the locale switches back and forth may confuse young viewers. Because it takes so long to set things up, the film never catches fire, as it lurches from one misadventure to the next with Flint and his crew encountering one mutant creature after another. Cameron and Pearn are obviously riffing on "Jurassic Park" as the characters encounter creatures such as Flamangos, Shrimpanzees and Bannaostriches among many others with a sense of wonder and delight. The visuals are very good here, and you can tell that the animators involved had great fun creating these food/animal hybrids with the brightest colors their computer palettes could provide.

Too bad the story becomes repetitious and predictable, while the jokes come off as tired rather than inspired. You know you're in trouble when the action in the background proves more intriguing than what's happening in the foreground (Flint's spastic monkey steals one scene after another) while flatulence and defecation jokes, the final refuge of desperate screenwriters, pop up far too often.

And while the film is never less than fun to look at, intriguing visuals do not a full meal make where "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2" is concerned.

For DVR alerts, film recommen-dations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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