Drive -2011-


Directed Nicolas Winding Refn. 100 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

Drive was my second-favorite film of 2011 (The Tree of Life took the top spot), and it will always have a special place in the chamber of my heart that stores movie memories. I first saw it at the North American premiere as part of the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, and it blew me away. I’ve seen it twice more in theaters and at least three times on home video. Consider me a fan.

I provide this preface to give folks a heads-up of my potential bias. I won’t be reviewing Drive so much as I will be gushing over it. However, I’ll try my best to justify my imminent gush (eew).

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Nic Refn’s breakthrough feature is its masterful use of contrast in all aspects of the film. Its setting is Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world (or at least until China catches up), but the action takes place in areas most LA films ignore. Instead of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, you see Reseda and Northridge. Instead of Griffith Park, you see MacArthur Park bordering Filipinotown. The downtown scenes are missing film favorites such as the Bradbury building of Blade Runner notoriety. Even when the Driver escapes to the Staples Center, he does so at the end of a Clippers game. These location choices help emphasize the point that while these characters are living in the same City of Angels we know from the pictures, their lives are far from the glossy ideal.

Speaking of gloss, the movie sports neon lighting that would impress a whole roomful of Michael Manns. The darkness in Drive reveals its brightest scenery (in a critical scene that takes place in a fully lit elevator, the lights mysteriously go dark. I won’t be surprised if that scene is referenced in many future films). The film uses violence sparingly, but the sequences are Peckinpah-brutal and, interestingly enough, usually happen in the daytime.

All of the actors do a great job with Standard (played by Oscar Isaac whom I’m glad to see ascending the showbiz ranks) being a particular stand-out. One could argue that Ryan Gosling is on autopilot, but I thought that his silence and facial reactions revealed plenty about the character. When the Driver does speak, however, he makes the words count. Albert Brooks delivers arguably the best performance of his career, and no, I don’t want to get into a debate about Defending Your Life or Broadcast News. His inexplicably absent eyebrows make the already frightening Bernie Rose a near-perfect villain.

The beauty of Drive’s story is that the Driver and Bernie are very similar characters whose placements on the moral spectrum are mainly a product of bad luck. Both of them have implicitly sordid pasts and return to their old ways to resolve their friends’ fuck-ups. The Driver and Bernie are logical people who would rather avoid conflict, but they both easily revert to being ruthless killers when they see no other choice. Like the scorpion crossing a river on the frog’s back, it’s in their nature.

Aside: The soundtrack (which includes Kavinsky, Desire, Chromatics, etc) and the score by Cliff Martinez are exactly right for the film.

Aside: Obviously Drive owes a debt to many films that influenced its style (particularly Walter Hill’s The Driver), but its direction is so confident that it never feels derivative.

(Seen and written on 2013-10-11)

Only God Forgives -2013-


Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 90 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Amazon Instant Video)

 Only God Forgives has been trashed pretty unanimously among critics, and in light of this fact, I feared that the film would be to director Refn what To The Wonder was to Terrence Malick, who had previously been batting one thousand. The film doesn’t come close to matching the stripped-down brilliance of Drive, but I found it to be enigmatic and engrossing. Mark me down in the “dissent” camp.

 The film’s poor reviews are right to bemoan the film’s often glacial pacing, but I suspect the negativity was also influenced by the audience’s desire to see another Drive. Refn didn’t make it for them – instead, he made a spiritual follow-up to David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I guess Nic got tired after waiting six years and counting for another Lynch. If you want to get anything done…

 All of the trappings are here: the long pauses riddled throughout dialogue scenes, the femme fatales, the macabre criminal underworld and psychotic characters, and plenty of singing in nightclubs. Even the score by Cliff Martinez carries the influence of Angelo Badalamenti in its notes. Much like Inland Empire, Only God Forgives is a movie that the viewer shouldn’t try to “solve” in a sitting. After all, if you dissect a frog, you’ll understand why it works, but then again, ya killed it.

My recommendation – view the film when you’re already drowsy, and let the nightmare wash over you.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-30)

The Place Beyond the Pines -2013-


Directed by Derek Cianfrance. 140 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 Like his previous picture, Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is another beautifully shot study of non-nuclear families and the way in which they may transform – or break – over time. While the film still has the aesthetics of a Sundance flick (complete with a score by Mike Patton, frontman of Faith No More, Tomahawk, Mr. Bungle, and three dozen other bands), its substance is closer to a European epic such as Bertolucci’s 1900 or Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Hell, there’s even a big spoonful of Ibsen motifs thrown into the mix. It’s a tall order, and I appreciate Cianfrance’s courage to attempt a saga of American tragedy.

 To attempt, however, is not necessarily to accomplish. Beyond the Pines is a far from perfect film. The second half (you can tell exactly where they would have placed the intermission if the film had been released in the 60s) just can’t match the pacing and intensity of the first. The Sophocletic drama is often too heavy-handed, and the newly introduced character simply aren’t as interesting as the film’s leading men and women. All of this is a considerable letdown since I fully believe that a writer/director of Cianfrance’s talent should have been able to follow through with his ambition.

 Perhaps a crucial piece of the Pines puzzle is sitting on some cutting room floor somewhere. The film clocks in at a hefty 140 minutes, and I know that Cianfrance’s first cut was significantly longer than that. If someone from the Criterion Collection is reading this, I wouldn’t mind seeing an extended cut one of these days, so keep that in mind.

 While Beyond the Pines does not rise to greatness, there’s still lots to recommend here. The performances by all the major players – Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, and Bradley Cooper ­– are some of their finest work. I really need to tip my nonexistent hat to Cooper, an actor whom I usually find to be distractingly conspicuous, for disappearing into his role. The inclusion of Ray Liotta is a nice touch, and I thank Cianfrance for not overusing him. Like crime-drama cologne, a little Liotta is all you need.

 Some of the best scenes in the film come not from it’s A-list but from Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Robin, Gosling’s mentor/accomplice. Mendelsohn has been working in Australian film and television since before I was born, but American viewers have become more familiar with him in recent years (recent credits include the psychotic bank robber Pope in Animal Kingdom, corrupt corporate magnate Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises, and air-headed junkie Russell in Killing Them Softly). Someone on Twitter a few weeks back tweeted that Mendelsohn would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the next five years. I don’t doubt it.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-29)