I heard on the news this afternoon that the Indian Grand Prix in New Delhi was today. I had no idea there was Formula 1 racing in India. Could I care less? Poser la question c’est y répondre. As it happens, though, I did see this film a couple of weeks ago, which has F1 racing as its subject. Now I have—or had—zero interest in F1 (or NASCAR, or any kind of auto racing), failed to see the appeal of it as a spectator sport, and absolutely did not have this movie on my ‘to see’ list when it came out last month. But then I noted the top reviews—American and particularly the French—and, above all, the gushing reaction of Allociné spectateurs, a certain number of whom seemed to have come across the film almost by accident. Intrigued—and as it was playing at a cinema around the corner from one of my places of work—, I decided to check it out, what the hell.
The verdict: it’s a terrific movie. Absolutely excellent. Top notch entertainment at its best. The pic is about the real life story of the bitter rivalry between two racing car drivers, the Englishman James Hunt (McLaren) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Ferrari), in the early-mid 1970s and that reached its climax during the 1976 F1 season, as they vied for the F1 World Championship. Lauda’s name rang a bell but not Hunt’s and, needless to say, I had no memory of that F1 season (or of any such season prior or subsequent). Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry and detestation of one another was fueled by their diametrically opposed personalities: Hunt the wild-and-crazy Playboy party animal; Lauda serious and straight-laced, faithful to his companion, and entirely focused on his work and winning. But they developed a respect for one another—grudging but that became genuine—in the course of the 1976 season, a respect that was facilitated by their similar class backgrounds and personal circumstances—sons of bourgeois families repudiated by their fathers, who could not abide their career choices—, and the terrible accident sustained by Lauda on the race track that year. Actors Chris Hemsworth (Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (Lauda) are perfectly cast—so it is said by those who know—and the film is faithful to the story of the rivalry (so I understand). And the depictions of the actual races on the track are riveting. I can now see the appeal of auto racing, and particularly F1. This is director Ron Howard’s best film—of the few I’ve seen, at least—since ‘Apollo 13’. When it comes out on DVD I’ll surely see it again. And it’s almost certain to make my ‘Top 10 best of’ list this year. Sans blague.
For the record, I’ve seen two other (sort of) biopics in the past month. One was Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ (en France: ‘Le Majordome’). Everyone knows what this one is about so I don’t need to recount it here. Reviews of the film by Paris critics weren’t bad and it’s been a big hit among the French cinema-going public, but my reaction was somewhat less enthusiastic. The acting is fine and all—particularly the casting choices for the US presidents—but too much of the film is fictionalized (though French movie goers likely think they’re seeing a true story faithfully reenacted; there is also an important translation error in the French subtitles, but I won’t get into that here). E.g. the real life White House butler, who inspired Forest Whitaker’s character, only had one son and who was not a black power activist. Cuba Gooding Jr’s character here not only never existed but his parcours has chronological problems and with one contrivance after another. Contrivance is a general problem in the film. It’s feel-good Hollywood but the point, insofar as the film has one—WSJ critic Joe Morgenstern aptly calls it an Afro-American ‘Forrest Gump’ (a film that had no point, though which was better than this one)—, is not clear to me. The movie may be seen (at home, via Netflix)—for the ensemble cast and a certain entertainment value—but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor.
The other film seen of late was Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Behind the Candelabra’, about Liberace (played by Michael Douglas, perfectly cast) and the love affair he had, in the latter years of his life, with the young hunk Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon). In the US the film was only shown on HBO—Soderbergh couldn’t get Hollywood financing for it, the big studios deeming it a sure box office failure on account of its gay theme—but it had a regular commercial release in France last month (under the title ‘Ma vie avec Liberace’), with lots of publicity (Michael Douglas came to Paris to promote it), and good reviews, both critical and Allociné spectator. It’s okay but left me (and the friend with whom I saw it) unsatisfied. Liberace was an interesting personality and an exceptional showman—plus a great pianist—, but the film focuses too much on his homosexuality, his kitschy tastes, and the specific story with Thorson. One gets the idea early on in the film. At a full two hours, it’s a little long for what it is. In other words, it drags. It may be seen (again, chez soi on DVD or streaming) but is not essential IMO.