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Column Fri Sep 16 2011

Drive, Straw Dogs, I Don't Know How She Does It, The Lion King 3D, Amigo & Where Soldiers Come From

Drive

I've now seen Drive, the latest movie from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, twice, and both times I loved it equally for different reasons. The first time was back in July, and I got into the film's retro, Michael Mann-ish qualities -- colors and light that popped off the screen, the almost pornographic way that Refn lets the camera glide over the curves of the vintage cars that populate the movie, and the sleazy electronic score and songs (usually with a female singer) that is draped across every scene. I fell in love with the vibe of the film before the plot even kicked in.

And then there are the performances, which is what held me captive the second time I saw it. I thought it was amusing that star Ryan Gosling's character, Driver (no names are necessary) has no dialogue for the first 20 minutes of the movie outside of a short opening-scene monologue in which he describes how he operates during the heist for which he is the getaway driver. This is clearly a speech he has given many times before, and he recites it with the passion of a robot...or a sociopath. The opening heist is brilliantly staged as Driver avoids the police and manages to essentially hide in plain sight.

Before long, the plot reveals that Driver is, in fact, a professional stunt driver for films, explaining his fearlessness behind the wheel. But we get a sense that he longs to be a race car driver, a goal which he and his partner Shannon (Bryan Cranston) are working toward with the help of a former film producer and current gentleman mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, playing it straight and scary, but still garnering a few laughs) and his thuggish partner Nino (Ron Perlman), who likes to swear a lot, but is a classic bully and consummate fuck up. Shannon convinces Rose to invest in a stock car for Driver to race in and hopefully make a lot of money for both, but Shannon is historically unlucky and we never get to see a single race because life has a way of fucking everything up for everybody.

On a more personal note, Driver gets to know Irene, a woman who lives down the hall from his modest apartment with her son. The boy's father (Oscar Isaac) is in jail and one the verge of release. Once he's out, he needs to pull a fast job to pay back some tough customers, and somehow he manages to get Driver involved in what should be a quick and easy heist (with a third party played by Christina Hendricks). But in Driver's world, very little goes as it should.

During both viewings of Drive, I couldn't get enough of watching Gosling play this stoic, coiled cobra of a man, who seems ready to either hit the gas or lash out in unspeakable acts of cruel violence, depending on the situation. He wears an almost ridiculous white satin jacket with a scorpion design stitched across the back. On anybody else, the jacket would look very silly; on this guy, it's the ultimate badass wardrobe, especially when he starts to get blood on it. People should not mistake talking for acting, and if you are someone who does that, then Gosling's performance will make you crazy. He says everything he needs to say with his eyes and his actions. The only time he smiles and seems to engage in anything resembling small talk is when he's with Irene and her son; they clearly bring out the best in him, which is why they are in constant danger.

The real discovery here is not Gosling (who continues to hold the title as the best actor of his generation), but Brooks, whose Bernie Rose is just as capable of unexpected bloodshed, but you can tell he hates having to resort to wielding one of his vintage straight razors. His role as executioner includes compassion. After almost unnoticeably slitting the wrists of one victim, he simply holds the person's hands and says, "It's already done. You won't feel a thing, just let it happen," or words to that effect. It's soothing and shocking all at once. If Brooks doesn't get an Oscar nomination, I'd be shocked.

Mulligan can't help but be good in everything she does, but she provides just the right combination of alluring and sweet as Irene. Just as much as Driver does, we want to protect and slightly worship her. And Refn doesn't even try to hide his adoration of her either, as he lights her like a goddess. I've been an unapologetic fan of Refn's since his Danish Pusher trilogy, through Fear X, Bronson, and his surreal Viking saga Valhalla Rising. Perhaps more than any non-horror director working today, Refn has a true gift for shooting extreme violence, knowing when to hold back and when to let the rivers of blood explode. With Drive, he reveals that he also knows how to shoot a great car chase, but this is not an action film, so don't come crying to me about the lack of high-speed chases sequences.

Drive is a character-driven drama punctuated with some shocking moments of violence. It's also a fantastic showcase for L.A. atmosphere, showing overviews of the city that are stunning and locations we don't often get to see on screen. Drive manages to be both an art-house film and B-movie that brings out the best of both arenas. It doesn't fit easily into an genre, so stop trying to. It's an apparition of a movie that still manages to pound its points home. This one is going to shake you up a bit, and you're going to be a better person because of it. Drive is the kind of film that makes me love my job, love movies, and love getting up every day hoping I'll see another movie as good.

To read my exclusive interview with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Straw Dogs

I try the best I can when I see a remake to put the original out of my head, but when it's a film as well regarded (be me and a few others) as Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, well, it's a little tough to push that highly provocative and ground-breaking work to the side. I tend to enjoy the works of writer-director Rod Lurie (The Contender, Nothing But the Truth, The Last Castle) but I really question his purpose in reworking and updating Straw Dogs, not just because I hold the original film sacred but also because he seems to have ripped the guts out of the source material, Gordon Williams' novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm, by turning the plot into a glorified home-invasion film rather than one where the events spring forth from a marriage in which a young, pretty wife sees her husband as a spineless, dickless shadow of a man.

Peckinpah was brave enough to include a rape scene in which the word "rape" might need to be followed by a question mark. Needless to say, Lurie isn't quite so ambiguous and the battle lines between good and bad are a little too clearly defined. The basic premise is the same: David and Amy, a young married couple (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth), go back to her hometown -- this time in the deep south rather than the English countryside -- so he can begin work researching his latest screenplay. Despite Marsden being a more handsome man than Dustin Hoffman was in the original, we know he's a gutless wuss because he's the only person in the movie that wears glasses. Way to stereotype, Mr. Lurie.

Turns out, her old boyfriend Charlie (Alexander SkarsgÄrd) is also a contractor, and it just so happens the barn on the couple's property is in need of a new roof, so they hire Charlie and his crew of leering, jeering rednecks to do the roof. The verbal jabs about David's manhood start out light, but are quickly amplified the more David calls into question the work ethics of the crew, who drink beer on the job and only work for a few hours a day, so they can go hunting in the afternoon. Amy apparently forgot to pack any bras for the trip, so she's poking through every garment she owns, which is especially noticeable while she's jogging. Certainly the builders notice her, and when she complains to David, he says she should take it as a compliment that they're looking at all.

As things escalate, and the pranks against David become more severe (the cat left strung up in the house is blessedly still carried over from the original film), and you kind of know where it goes from there. A subplot involving James Woods as the cantankerous, drunken former football coach and a local "slow" adult character (Dominic Purcell) goes absolutely nowhere, and feels horribly crowbarred into the proceedings. The great Walton Goggins surprised me by being in Straw Dogs, and then surprised me again by being utterly wasted by Lurie in what barely amounts to an extended cameo.

But the problems with Straw Dogs go much deeper than misuse of actors. The way it exists with Lurie's adaptation, this is barely a step above a boorish horror film with hillbillies attacking people in a cabin. The actors aren't to blame, nor is the clearly talented crew that put this film together; Straw Dogs is a great looking movie, without a doubt. But the tension seems artificial, every plot device is telegraphed about 30 minutes ahead of actually coming to light, and the disturbing themes that Peckinpah sought to drive home are utterly absent from the new version. And quite frankly, during the event that finally brings the couple and the rednecks to blows at the end of the film, I'm not sure who to root for, since the couple seems to be in the wrong of the fight.

And no offense to an actor I truly like in most films, but what is it exactly about James Marsden that screams dweeb? Is it his broad shoulders or six-pack abs or perfect smile? Hoffman pulled this character off because it wasn't much of a stretch. But other than the glasses, I'm thinking Marsden is the wrong guy for this role. He and Bosworth don't seem like the mismatch they're supposed to be. In the end, I found Straw Dogs artful but deplorable, technically impressive but morally bankrupt. Do yourself a massive favor and go watch the original film; it holds up beautifully, and the sinking feeling it will leave you with won't be in your wallet.

I Don't Know How She Does It

With a crowbar, a bicycle helmet, and a tub of Vaseline, is my guess. Oh, Lord, did I loathe this movie. Now I know that most standard-issue romantic comedies deserve our spite, but the new Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle I Don't Know How She Does It is not a romantic comedy, unless you include the contemptuous level of flirting that goes on between Parker's working mom Kate and the head of her company, played by the still devilishly handsome Pierce Brosnan. I'm pretty certain the goal of this inane film was to capsulize the plight of women who want it all -- a career, marriage, and kids -- and that's a fine subject for a movie willing to take its subject with a degree of seriousness and respect. But director Douglas McGrath (basing his movie on the novel by Allison Pearson) wants us to laugh at Kate and those around her, while still forcing life lesson after life lesson into our heads with cinematic subtlety equivalent to a wrecking ball to the right ear.

And there are some interesting kickers. First off, Carrie, er, I mean, Parker narrates the movie. Gee, I wonder where they got that idea. Thanks to the dumbing down of all morals to this story courtesy of ham-handed dialogue, "Sex and the City" fans will have no trouble recognizing all of the Carrie-isms in Kate, trust me. Second, some of the secondary character (including those played by Christina Hendricks as the best friend, Olivia Munn as the assistant, and Seth Meyers as the office rival) speak directly to the camera as if being interviewed for some documentary about the greatest of Kate. Holy shit, I hope the makers of When Harry Met Sally sue like a motherfucker. Seriously, who besides a select few sitcoms do the interview thing anymore. The narration and interviews represent the worst kind of lazy writing from screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, and it all underscores what is a terrible, terrible film that probably would have been just as terrible without those narrative devices.

Greg Kinnear is saddled with the job of Kate's recently unemployed architect husband, who bitches and moans because his wife is spending too much time in the office. He's not always like that, but when he is, I wanted to throttle him. Let's do the math, dude: Your wife is out of the house making money to support you and your two children, something you are not doing. I'm sorry if that makes you feel emasculated, but suck it up and go make me a pot pie, sweetheart. Hendricks (who can also be seen in this week's Drive) is nothing more than a walking message board loaded with slogans about how working women are treated differently than working men. Yeah, I saw Nine To Five too, Red. Now go balance the checkbook. Olivia Munn (who I never thought was even a little bit funny before this movie) plays the somewhat robotic Momo, a workhorse of an assistant who never wants kids and is married to her job. She likes Kate, but considers her choices insane for a career-minded woman. Yes, Momo is one-dimensional comic relief.

None of the other actors are even worth mentioning, since they glide along this movie's surface just like the film itself skates across the issues it's pretending to address. We spend the duration of I Don't Know How She Does It waiting for either a disaster at home that will drag Kate away from work to deal with, or an emergency at work that will tear her away from her family. One such scene set on Thanksgiving Day -- when Kate must deal with a client early the next morning causing her to fly out right after dinner -- seems so unbelievable that I refused to believe it, so there.

This film oversimplifies what I believe is a serious issue. And no, I'm not saying you can't laugh at serious issues, but I Don't Know How She Does It belittles its case and sets the women's movement back to the early 1980s at least. The movie suffers from the classic flaw of telling instead of showing, and it doesn't so much stop the story's momentum as much as it keeps it from ever accelerating in the first place. Cliches, stereotypes, and decades-old themes are no basis for a modern look at women's issues in the workplace or in the home. Or maybe it is, and I'm just threatened by powerful women. You decide.

The Lion King 3D

Surprisingly, the 3D doesn't add much to the already gorgeously rendered 1994 animated tale of Simba (voiced as a grown lion by Matthew Broderick). But that in no way takes away from the power of seeing The Lion King on the big screen, where it truly belongs. Disney has wisely not added anything beyond the converted 3D element. The songs are still as catchy as ever thanks to Elton John and Tim Rice, and the vocal performances by the likes of Nathan Lane, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Moria Kelly, Ernie Sabella, Cheech Marin, and Robert Guillaume remain note perfect. I'll admit.

I'd forgotten how purely evil Jeremy Irons is as Simba's uncle Scar, who kills the boy's father, makes Simba think it was his fault, and then takes over the pride, only to watch it suffer at the hands of the local hyenas. Every word that drips from his tongue is loaded with venom. He's a little devil, that one.

There isn't much to say about The Lion King, except that this is a great opportunity to take your kids to see it on the big screen. The audience of mostly children and parents I saw it with all knew the movie, which made it possible to sing along and be awed by the power of these larger-than-life characters actually projected larger than life. It's still a magnificent experience watching this film in a theater full of people, and even though you likely own it on DVD, The Lion King is still better than 90 percent of what's in theater now and 100 percent better than anything in theaters aimed at youngsters.

Amigo

There are few filmmakers whose careers I admire and respect more than John Sayles, truly one of the original kings of independent filmmaking, a man who made a comfortable living writing and polishing and re-writing scripts (often without credit) and used that money to help finance his own works and stay as far from the studio system as he could, except for distribution purposes. Each and every one of his works is varying degrees of good or great, and the list is seemingly endless: The Return of the Secaucus Seven, The Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Lone Star, Passion Fish, Limbo, Silver City, and now Amigo, a fictional account set during the U.S. invasion of the Philippines circa 1900.

Across 17 features, Sales' strength has always been in writing characters, often many characters with intersecting storylines across different strata of society, and Amigo certainly qualifies as we witness the systematic destruction of a jungle village not by fire or bullets, but by politics and an occupational force that truly doesn't belong there. Sound familiar? I'm guessing Sales wants it to. The local mayor (the wonderful Joel Torre) typically is solving problems as grand in scale as a pig breaking through a fence and eating a neighbor's garden. But when American troops move in and set up a garrison (led by Garret Dillahunt), the mayor must bridge the gap between between the occupying forces and his community, all the while trying not to look or act like a collaborator.

The third party in this scenario are a group of rebels living in the jungles outside the village, one of which is the mayor's son, who fled the village just as the troops moved in; another is his brother, a leader of the rebel forces. Every time the troops make strides in looking less like aggressors, Dillahunt's commanding officer (an exceptional bastard played by Chris Cooper) comes in a tightens the clamp on the villagers trying to get them to reveal the location of the well-armed rebels.

One particularly shifty character is Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), who had been put in solitary confinement by the mayor, set free by the Americans, and takes every opportunity to point to the mayor as a liar who should not be trusted. Sayles is not kind to those who hide behind religion in this story. What we know about the mayor from the beginning is that he is a kind, fair man who is loyal to his country but willing to live a peaceful existence with the Americans as long as they are around, so it's strange to hear different people accuse him of anything else during the course of the story.

Some of the young actors playing soldiers (including "Raising Hope's" Lucas Neff, D.J. Qualls, and Dane DeHaan, who recently kicked all kinds of ass on the final season of "In Treatment") are quite good, although they often come across as generically racist and ignorant. I liked that, in typical John Sayles fashion, we even get to know the Chinese men working for the Americans, although to the rebels, they are as American as the whites are. Amigo features a story that has never been told, told in a way that is fascinating and revealing, as Sayles slyly draws parallels between current events and those one hundred years ago. Sayles will always impress me, and is the latest example as to why. The film is playing for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Where Soldiers Come From

For reasons I cannot explain, documentaries that break my heart to some degree are my favorites. I love to learn about people, places and events as much as any documentary fan, but there is something about getting to know actual human beings and then having them involved in something that is haunting and moving that just kills me a little bit inside. And I love it. The latest doc from filmmaker Heather Courtney (Letters from the Other Side) is the extraordinary Where Soldiers Come From, a very different look at the very young people who are still going to fight in the Middle East.

The movie focuses on a tight-knit group of friends living Hancock in the upper peninsula of Michigan, a community with few opportunities for work and many for mischief. The three core members of the group--Dominic, Cole and Matt--sign up for the National Guard after high school (some want money for college; other just want out of Michigan), and soon other friends follow suit. And after suitable training, the young men end up in Afghanistan, and somehow Courtney gets embedded with them.

Although they certainly see combat, their man function is to clear roadside bombs by either spotting them just off the main roads or simply by rolling over them in their mostly well-armored vehicles and having them go off underneath them. And yes, this is captured on film; yes, this happens a lot; and yes, it is absolutely terrifying. In between missions, we spend a lot of time with the men in their makeshift quarters watching movies, listening to music, and generally shooting the shit to pass the time.

I've seen Where Soldiers Come From compared to The Deer Hunter in the way it captures both war-time activities and the working-class environment a lot of these soldiers come out of. If the title of the film were a question, the answer would be, They come from economically struggling communities that don't offer kids a lot of options out of high school. We get to know the parents, siblings, and girlfriends of these main subjects; and watching them struggle with their loved ones being gone and the hardships they face upon their return is tough to see. This is a brutally honest snapshot into this world, and if you ever wanted to know who the men and women are that are still fighting in our country's name, you won't find a better portrait then this. This film is powerful, essential viewing.

Where Soldiers Come From is playing for weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Two of the subjects of the film, Afghan vets Dominic Fredianelli and Cole Smith, as well as director Heather Courtney, will be present on Friday and Saturday for audience discussion. Do not miss this rare and special opportunity.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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