Monday 26 September 2011

Review: Drive

Year: 2011
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay: Hossein Amini
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Albert Brooks.

Synopsis is here:

If I wanted to act clever; when talking about Drive, I'd say something along the lines of: A brutal symphony, tinged with flecks of 80's nostalgia and machismo. But people who read this blog often should know that smarts aren't my strong point. Hell, I'm not even sure what I just said makes a lick of sense, so it's probably best to say that I felt Drive was a damn fine piece of Trash.

It's a film that clearly knows it's style over substance (there's really not much too it in terms of subtext) but WHAT style. Old school car chases (you know ones where you can see what's going on), unsubtle overblown moments in slow motion and brutality that one could describe as hyper violence.  Huff Post writer and prominent blogger Scott Mendelson hated the movie and likened it to a direct to DVD feature. However, I disagree entirely. Unlike many direct to DVD films, Drive doesn't mince words and puts its visuals, sense of place and tone to good use. Like Mendelson I don't see any underlying symbolism but I don't think the film is trying to hand any and it's all the better for it.

Drive appears like a throwback to Bullett. We have a strong silent "hero", whose intentions are good but morals are cloudy. It's easy to get frustrated at the films desire to eschew dialogue in place of lingering glances and thoughtful pauses, at first I found the film a tad clumsy with the films characters and their initial meetings with Gosling coming across a little awkward at first. However as the film goes on, the actors, their characters and the film begin to fit in their skin. We see moments involving Gosling's Driver and Carey Mulligan's Irene pretending to act like a normal family or relationship. We know this is not true throughout and I do believe it shows in the acting. From the tenuous smiles to the faux small talk we sense a connection but one that may be tragic. It great to see a relationship develop like this without the need to frivolous, throwaway trite dialogue.

It would be easy to dismiss Gosling's Driver as having a lack of backstory, however the film informs us of everything we need to know about the character in other ways. Listen to how his boss Shannon (a wonderfully on form Bryan Crannston) talks about how this drive literally dropped from the sky, look at the bare walls of the drivers apartment and how he lives (particularly at his simple rules as a getaway driver). Most importantly the films last moments involving the driver do sum up the characters life, relationships and how they interact when placed together with everything else placed together. No the film is not "deep" in the way I would describe something like Tree of Life is (or wishes to be if your a detractor) and lets not fool ourselves into thinking that this is ground breaking cinema but Drive, like Hanna, is taking generic genre tropes and taking them in different directions. It's 80's style soundtrack and slick visual style (one that does feel like a Euro director filming in America) mixed with an almost teenage angst and hardcore violence do make it stand out and the mixture of actors and direction do give it it's own voice. Compare this to something like Takers which truly wears it's generic elements on it's sleeve and I do feel you can see Drives clear strengths.

Gosling and Mulligan grow into their roles (still not fully getting the love), while Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman take pleasure in their antagonistic parts. The cast all work well, although I'm very disappointed at the fact that Christina Hendricks has even less to do than Mulligan. The star of the film however I feel, is the action. Like Hanna, we are given well executed, expertly handled set pieces (the beginning reminds me of the "slow car chase" of way of the gun at points) which grind and crunch as well as gearboxes that get worn down. Every violent act carries real weight, unlike the films pace which unlike the last Refn film I watched (Bronson) is far more breezy than I expected.

I, like so many others loved Drive, it's as brash and ballsy as the muscle cars it exhibits. It's polished design is light years away from the chaos cinema we've seen so much of in recent cinema. An old school action film with art house strands that keeps things simple and the entertainment high.

Friday 16 September 2011

Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Year: 2011
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Screenplay: Bridget O'Conner, Peter Straughan
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch

Synopsis is here:

At one point in the movie Kathy Burke's supporting character mentions that the second world war were happier times because at least then you were proud to be English. Burke's small almost throw away statement is one the solidarity she felt at the time of war, now lost due to an alleged mole at the head of the "circus" (MI6).  This for me is the crux of Tinker Tailor Solder Spy; a film which, almost ironically comes out at a peak of general mistrust from all around Britain.

This film adaptation of John La Carre's novel is a complex and complicated thriller, and what drives it isn't so much who the much talked about actually mole is (although I'm happy I didn't guess it straight away), but more on how loyalty is brought and corrupted. The film's seemingly low key climax is one that displays how far trust has been stretched for the wish for control. The film's final montage of the stellar cast (a beautiful mixture of both big and small screen actors) shows how deep the scars have been inflicted on these people.

Alfredson's film works so well because it take time over showing how deeply isolated the spy game is. Close relationships are broken, belittled and bargained for, information is called gold dust for good reason and moral compasses are as murky as the films cold, drab colour scheme that Alfredson utilises to enhance the tone of the film. The film is literally as grey as the the shades these characters dwell in.

Let's be very clear about this, this is no Bond or Bourne movie. The lines are never drawn out and the information we receive is drip feed to us. Alfredson demands that we hold attention for this movie and those who do will be rewarded. Dialouge is often coded and it's important to see the slight changes within a characters face rather than the words they speak. The film never speaks down to you, and Alfredson is happy to tell the films story within the visuals and the body language of the characters. The pinnacle of this lies in the performance of Gary Oldman who at 53 plays George Smiley as if he's at least 12 years older. We discover everything we need to know from the eyes behind the thickly rimmed spectacles. One of the films highlights is superbly crafted monologue by Oldman in which his brief meeting with the mysterious Karla highlights all the emotion the crackles beneath the surface. In watching the brief recollection we see that it's how the story is told (pinpointing the exact moments of loss both professionally and emotionally) that really makes what is said hit home as hard as it does.  The film is littered with such moments. Vast amounts of information communicated not by trite dialogue, but solemn glances and knowing looks.

I loved this movie not only because of its brilliant cast and delicately sombre tone, but its an eye for detail and a wish to let said details envelop around you. The film makes sure you know it's two hours long and makes sure that every character is accounted for. The depth we manage to gain from even one scene of some the supporting roles is at times astonishing. Those who rely on the summer sun blockbuster guns, girls and car chases will be sorely disappointed that Commissioner Gordon doesn't do any physical ass kicking here. But those looking for an adult feature will find much to gain from it. The paranoia lies within the characters as thickly as the dusty old rooms they inhabit. The relationships and trust these people have worked so hard to build is on a constant knife edge. Despite being a period piece (Early 70's) the understands that even now in the age of information it's all about holding the right cards. Everyone here has poker faces to die for.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Review: The Guard

Year: 2011
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong

Synopsis is here

As The Guard is an Irish film, it's no surprise to me that I have to scraper to an art house cinema chain in a small town in order to catch a screening. I didn't do too much reading into it due to a mixture of time and a general not-particularly-botheredness about it. However due to a Q & A screening for Red State being pulled and me managing to watch the film elsewhere, I took a plunge on the film as I had nothing else to do with my time. A couple of hours later and I come out of one of my favourite films of the year. A deceptively touching story, a character actor knocking his lead performance out of the park and a screenplay with dialogue as charming and witty as it is un P.C.

It's no surprise that the director John Michael McDonagh is the brother of In Burges director Martin McDonagh as The Guard features the same knockabout humour which made the 2008 hitman comedy a popular cult favourite. The buddy comedy aspect is also with both films however this film is much more interested in playing around with the particular sub-genre, turning aspects on it's head and casting a wry eye over the usual genre elements. Consider Gleeson here as an Irish Eddie Murphy to Don Cheadle's more straight edged Judge Reynold. The film merrily toys with the idea of a black Yale educated FBI agent full out of his element in gaelic, small town Ireland. It's important to see this compared to the Rush Hours, Cop Outs, 48 Hours or Last Boy Scouts within the genre. We see the "streetwise black guy" so often it's almost second nature. The simple act of turning this aspect on it's head makes way for some good humour (seriously worth watching for Don Cheadle's reactions alone).

We get racial jibes about swimming and growing up in the projects by Gleeson's character, but it's not at Cheadle's (or the audience's) expense in any shape or form as McDonagh has created a character who deftly balances the suggestion that his ignorance may all be a massive joke which helps him be a better officer...or not. Is he playing dumb as he knows more about the case than you think and all this FBI nonsense is getting in the way or is he just a naive, tackless old bugger who just not used to the situation he's thrown into?

Gleeson's Gerry Boyle is a wonderfully full-bodied character (gleefully embraced by Gleeson) who has relationships which germinate around him as the film goes on. Once again I like it when this happens and the film doesn't feel like a robotic reading of a script. The relationship between his dying mother (a wonderful Fionnula Flanagan) is gently humorous as well as heart-rendering, while the partnership with Cheadle's Wendell Everett knocks banter, misunderstandings and finally friendship like no bodies business.

The whole film is like this however; chocked full of silly character moments from a strong cast (short and sweet turn from Mark Strong) and a script which constantly plays with the idea of the buddy cop movie. We get lowest of the low criminals with extraordinary high taste in culture and philosophy, a kid so hooked on genre T.V he plays a conversation with Boyle as if he's that first edgy witness (you know the one that's ALWAYS in these things), while a characters first day on the job is the worst day of his life (consider those cops who don't to that last day of retirement due to a bullet related illness).

Ireland is gorgeously captured through the lens and the films gentle meandering pace and manner is held together with laugh out loud one liners and sharp asides. The film is also happy to shift tones in it's more quieter character moments giving the same emotional tap that In Burges was happy to provide.

Interestingly while In Burges comments on religion, guilt and sin, The Guard appears more focused on existentialism. It's low life constantly questions not the pointlessness of their job, but life itself while the films ambiguous climax could be lost on a first viewing, becoming clearer on a second glance. The clues lie within the relationships that Gerry Boyle has and loses. Boyle is asked if he's real fucking dumb or real fucking smart. We've seen the answer in his eyes throughout the movie and it's more than you think.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Review: Red State

Year: 2011
Director: Kevin Smith
Screenplay: Kevin Smith
Starring: John Goodman, Michael Parks, Melissa Leo

Synopsis is here:

I'm not sure about other film fans but I've wanted to see this movie since it was first announced (mid 2007?). The idea of a Kevin Smith Horror film appealed to me, but the idea of a Kevin Smith horror film based on the religious right of America? How could I not be there? 

However despite this a lot has happened in the world of Kevin Smith and unfortunately not a lot of it I would consider that positive. For you see for sometime now Mr Smith has really had it out for those who dislike his movies, namely the critics and bloggers who are invited to press screenings. Since Cop Out gaining some of the worse reviews of his career, Smith has gone all out with all sort of attacks on those who write about film. His Twitter now a base of operations with a large allegiance of fans who will blindly attack anyone who says otherwise about the man's actions. 

Seeing how Smith has acted, reacted and lashed out to those who oppose him has been a strange experience. It's obvious that Smith's films; no matter which ones they may be, are extremely close to him and so they should as they are his works (although I've never got why Cop Out got him the most worked up) and I do find Smith's ideas with distribution intriguing ones. However, Smith's way of going about things seems to be based more on personal grudges and getting people out of joint than anything else. To his his movies is to have a personal slight on the man himself and I know for a lot of people the thought of that is just not true. 

The issue is; now Smith has made things personal, bridges will burn and relationships will crumble. Smith's fan base will keep the man going until the day he dies, but what about his idea of releasing films made by other people under his methods of independent distribution? Smith wants to change the game but the game isn't ready to play ball yet and Smith's wish to personally call everyone out and insult those who have a differing opinion could affect the very people he's trying to bring up. 

All these thoughts, twitter rants and otherwise cloud the fact that Kevin Smith has made an "It's a nasty-ass $4mil horror flick with few (if any) redeeming characters." All the posturing, throwing the toys out of the pram and general unpleasantness should detract that Red State; part religious right horror, part action siege, is in my opinion, the strongest work he's done in years.

Smith, never really considered as a "visual" director has re-invented himself here, giving himself aesthetic that pushes the authenticity of the universe he's written. The drab and sparse art direction of the church, the dropped frame rate and use of handheld digital, the obtuse angles and awkward close ups all work here. There is a beauty in the ugliness of it all, reminiscent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (The roadkill, the chainsaw dance during sunset) or The Wicker Man (the climax), that Smith manages to capture and he's done it by taking risks within himself. It's simple things like seeing corpses in a cold stock room while Michael Parks' demented preacher's whiskey smooth, middle American drawl sings psalms over the soundtrack or the offbeat editing which aids the uncomfortable vibe the film gives off.   

The discomfort is centralised by a titanic performance by one Michael Parks. Parks allows the Phelps-like Abin Cooper is both snake charmer and snake. The sweetness of his voice seems to never let you forget that there is sin behind those eyes. Parks' Charisma is what takes us through the film's middle act, a lengthy, character building monologue not only tells us all we need to know about the darker aspects of the church but also how easily Parks has charmed them. His words sound warm but the fear is there in harsh and Swift retribution which is quickly and silently dealt out without argument. While Parks is the charm, Melissa Leo is the hysteria. In a role which, while predicable and trite at times (See The Mist or The Omen for similar and better displays), never the less bounces off every well with Parks more "subtly" devious role. Rounding off a trio of solid performances is a straight edged display by one John Goodman, his face betrays the look of a man whose knowing, tired and still unsure about everything falling around him. 

Unsure is the most important word for Red State as it is a film that is constantly questioning the idea of trust and blind faith. Many characters place so much trust in those above them in command only for them to fall to a fate most heinous. Ideals of faith are questioned at all sides and as clear as this is a work of fiction, Once the bullets start flying there's the niggling feeling that this is where things can go. The shadows of Waco hover over the film and the mixture of the such themes and the films aesthetics help give off an unconventional and yet tenable feel to proceedings.

Smith's decision to create a film that deals with horror that's more closer to home is far more commendable idea than the spite of remakes and generic genre fare that the U.S (mostly mainstream) have had to contend with. It plays out almost like an American version of Frontiers but of course it's nowhere near as extreme (read gory). It's a shame that there are flaws that hang out for all to see. While I have no problem with the film flipping between genres or even tone (who knew that Smith could create action sequence as visceral as he does) the narrative that hangs everything together should be better, especially from a writer like Smith. Scenes often clunk together and don't feel as organic as they could. It's great having John Goodman in the film but do we really need him on the phone basically spouting off exposition so late in the game? I don't need lovable characters but Smith wish for no one as likeable takes away so much tension. To rack up the fear we need someone to latch on to truly. The teens we start off with a left behind as soon as we hit the compound, Cooper is a personification of evil and Goodman enters far too ate in the game.

We also have lots of secondary characters but why are they so silent? Why do many of the family members add nothing to the narrative in terms of character? With all the chaos that Smith gives us why is everything tied up so neatly? The script also features humour that doesn't have to be added? Do we really need the films last (off screen) line for instance? Maybe Smith wished to diffuse the situation slightly with a bit of lightness but I like the questions he asked and I would have liked the film even more if he didn't feel the need to answer everything.

Never the less, there's an edge to the movie that I really liked, something that keeps the attention and it's not Smith's wit this time round. It's the subject matter and the approach to proceedings. It's the coldness that hides behind that warm exterior of Cooper, it's the idea that the more "touched" members of society are stockpiling for a war they believe is coming and one mistake could set everything off. After watching Red State, I was considering re watching the film again. To squeeze even out of the juicy bits of the film. Smith's is retiring after Hit Somebody. Watching Red State makes me hope it's a sabbatical. 

Sunday 4 September 2011

Review: Super

Year: 2011 (U.K release 2011)
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon

Synopsis is here

So James Gunn's Super rears it's head upon whining that it's just the same as Kick-Ass by people who didn't read the memo on Defendor and Special which both slipped under the radar. Hell even at a stretch you could bemoan that Mystery Men is almost kinda like Kick-Ass but only at a stretch. That's aside, it's no surprise to see that with similar material Matthew Vaughan brings a slick piece of gloss to the big screen, while Gunn's Super is a little darker, murkier and reminiscent of his twisted Troma roots. Super appears to us with a much more visceral look to the beatings on screen and a more troubled insight to the psyche of some of the tortured minds of these wannabe superheroes. Needless to say, Kick-ass doesn't have a squid like creature opening up a characters skull in order for the finger of god to poke the brain inside.

If that last sentence piqued your interest then you will be more than fine with Super, I know I was. I reacted to the film in the same way I reacted to Observe and Report in that you shouldn't laugh at what's gong down but the timing and absurdness of it all makes it hard not to. It revels in it's irrelevance but it also works as it has a  Rainn Wilson performance that towers over his great comedic work in The American Office. There's a softness in his quieter moments that helps elevate the performance as Wilson balance his troubled character with equal amounts of pity and pathos.  The humour is there too as his zealous yelling of "SHUT UP CRIME" were always able to make me crack a smile.

Wilson is joined by a game cast with Liv Tyler and Micheal Rooker being underused but solid enough while Kevin Bacon takes a sleazy bite of scenery once more, as he did in recent comic-book feature X-men: First Class. Ellen Page lets loose in a bizarre little role as a geeky side-kick to Wilson's Frank. However despite the film clearly being an offbeat character piece, the moments with her character seemed underwritten. I get the feeling that Gunn could have done even more with such a character, unfortunately Page's Libby is left a little to the wayside, as it a plot strand with Gregg Henry's Detective role who quickly loses important once his main scene is done.

This doesn't distract from the main fact that Super; with it's over the top violence and dark comedy, is still an entertaining distraction. While Kick-Ass lightened some elements of the original material to make it a bit more palatable to those who didn't read the comic, Super keeps things as black as it can giving the film a weird super hero, king of comedy vibe. A guy like me who knows of Gunn's z-list beginnings, found it easy to get on board with the offering we get here. For others I give you the litmus test: Ellen Page talking about her "gushy" genitals while donned in a super hero costume. Not liking that? Best avoid the movie.