Archive for September, 2011

Drive

Saturday, September 17th, 2011—Film

Drive (USA 2011, Action/Crime/Drama/Thriller), Writer: Hossein Amini; Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

I’m in the midst of a few things tonight, but wanted to stop and write a bit about Drive, because it’s so exceptional that I can’t not throw down a few words. So I’m aiming for something of a drive-by blog post here, but I’m finding it hard to write only a brief synopsis of why Drive is so amazing; there’s a lot to say and appreciate about the movie. Film students, take note!

The direction is phenomenal. Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is the man to blame for that, and he just picked up the Best Director award at the Cannes International Film Festival for his efforts. Refn is known for a slew of films I haven’t seen, but all of which seem, upon quick review, to involve at least their fair share of violence and murder. Examples include the Pusher trilogy, Bleeder and Fear X. Drive is no exception. Based on the novella of the same name by James Sallis, Refn’s latest flick is about an unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) who spends his days as a mechanic and stunt-car driver, his nights as a get-away driver for crooks in the Los Angeles area.

Here’s where it starts getting hard to merely summarize the fabulous aspects of Drive. But I’m trying… Refn frames his scenes and characters exquisitely; he knows exactly how to create and hold tension with the composition and length of the shot, as well as in the arrangement of characters and props (mise-en-scène). He draws brilliant performances from his actors, including Bryan Cranston as Driver’s questionable boss, playing very much, and very well, against type. All of this—the amazing acting, cinematography, storytelling, mood-setting—is illustrated in the opening get-away sequence, which offers enough fodder for an entire essay of its own.

Sound! The sound is extraordinary in Drive: the recordists and editors did a great job with the ambient sound; the pulsing electronic score hovers in the background like a nagging thought tugging at your memory (but in a good way); and the soundtrack is totally awesome. The disco/techno beats blast out in contrast to the dark, nuanced tone of the story and its characters. As subtle as the film is about character development and backstory, a tune like College’s A Real Hero will chime in to tell us straight up that Driver is “a real hero and a real human being.”

Refn seems to have fun playing with contrast and defying expectation. Even the font of the credits clashes with the somber opening scenes; retro pink neon letters are unabashedly slapped over broody, moody shadows.

So much to say… Cutting ahead to the pièce de résistance. The cast is solid all around. I mentioned Cranston, who is joined by a wonderful group of actors, including Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and the deeply talented Carey Mulligan as Driver’s love interest (though I’d like to see her branch off of the whole “sweet, ethereal and innocent” bit sometime soon). But the standout performance comes from the fantastically gifted Gosling. I would LOVE to feature him on Kickass Canadians. I’ve written about him a few times on this site: Lars and the Real Girl, The Believer, Blue Valentine. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Gosling is among the greatest actors of all time, and on top of that he seems to be a profoundly interesting, unique person. His choice of films alone speaks volumes about his character.

In Drive, Gosling doesn’t talk much; barely at all, in fact. But he communicates plenty with his eyes and body. Refn’s film demands a very technically precise performance from Gosling, and he pulls it off brilliantly. More than that, the actor is able to embody a fully realized person in spite of the fact that the script gives us very little to go on by way of who Driver is. We’re told almost nothing about the character’s past. It’s clear from his actions, and the scrap word tossed out here and there, that he’s very experienced at what he does. But it isn’t until he’s called upon to respond with violence that we know just what he’s capable of. When he strikes, it’s with chilling ease, skill and speed (so that’s why there’s a scorpion emblem on his jacket). It leaves you wondering: “Where did he learn to kill like that?”

Whatever his background, it also taught him not to fear love and to follow a code of honour that includes loyalty and integrity. He has a deep well of violence churning within him, and you see him struggle at times with whether to draw from it or leave it be. But on the whole, he seems to have a pretty solid sense of right and wrong. Driver, Irene (Mulligan) and her young son seem to be among the few “good” people in Drive, and their scenes together seem to exist on another plane; magical wisps that somehow floated into the rest of Drive and took root. I don’t mean to suggest this as a flaw; their scenes come across as stolen moments in time, and again hark back to Refn’s apparent fondness for toying with contrast, and preconceptions about genre.

Honestly, Gosling’s performance, the use of sound, mise-en-scène, direction, genre convention… So many aspects of this film could be broken down and analyzed at length. I’ll stop here, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend Drive. It’s an artful, intelligent, unique, entertaining, gripping movie that deserves the recognition it’s getting. One of the best I’ve seen. Outstanding.

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Happy Birthday, BD! You’re the reason I started this blog, four-and-a-half years ago…

Contagion

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011—Film

Contagion (USA/United Arab Emirates 2011, Sci-Fi/Thriller), Writer: Scott Z. Burns; Director: Steven Soderbergh

Walking out of the theatre after having seen Contagion, my first thought was, “What’s the point in making that?”

Not that the film wasn’t expertly made.

Contagion travels the world in pursuit of a host of characters dealing with the outbreak of a new virus called MEV-1, a deadly hybrid of bat, pig and human flu strains. It’s directed by the talented, inventive and versatile Steven Soderbergh, who gives Ang Lee a run for his money when it comes to range (Soderbergh helmed Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Out of Sight, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, among many others). It’s written by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant), who’s known for his highly intelligent scripts. And it features a jaw-dropping cast that includes Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne… Even supporting roles are filled by the likes of Bryan Cranston and John Hawkes (exceptional in Winter’s Bone and Me and You and Everyone We Know.

On top of that, Contagion’s score is cool and fitting. And given the number of principal characters the film checks in with, its pacing is excellent, hitting on subtext and events that occurred off-screen with just the right touch. All in all, it’s a very sleek production.

But for all its technical prowess, the film lacks any real emotional punch. This is due partly to the volume of characters we’re presented with, but also to the way in which they’re treated. It’s as if they’re being reported on by an objective observer. Rather than creating any strong attachment to the characters, the film offers a fairly detached account of what would most likely happen—or in some cases, what has happened—in the event of an outbreak.

That ability to project what would most likely occur in the real world was precisely what I liked about Neill Blomkamp’s remarkable alien flick District 9. But in that case, it was based on something, well, alien to planet Earth. (District 9 also succeeds in creating a far greater emotional hook with its story and characters.) With MEV-1, we’ve seen similar scenarios played out in real life, with outbreaks such as H1N1 and the bird flu. So, in spite of the film’s many great aspects, Contagion left me wondering: “Why bother?”

I mentioned this to my sister as we left the theatre and she argued that the point is simply to present a scenario, as is the case with almost any movie. Still, I came away feeling empty, and that’s rarely the case with a film I consider to be “good.” With Contagion, there was no dramatic pull, no feelings elicited, not even—for lack of a better word—a resounding message. It didn’t make me care. It did, however, make me wish I could interview Soderbergh or Burns to ask why they wanted to tell this story.

Presumably the film’s narrative structure is meant to parallel the way the virus works: logically, without emotion, moving from person to person and sometimes back again. If that was the thinking behind such a removed approach to storytelling, it makes sense to me. But it doesn’t change the fact that Contagion left me cold.

Given all that, I’m struck by the odd choice of taglines for the film: “Nothing spreads like fear.” I never got a strong sense of that fear, even when the looting and murdering began; those activities were underplayed and presented in an almost clinical manner. But I guess “Nothing provokes thought like hyper-intellectual filmmaking and experimentation in narrative presentation” doesn’t exactly flow lovingly off the tongue…

It’s probably unclear from this review whether or not I recommend Contagion, and that could render this post as pointless as the film itself. I’ll try to remedy that: I think I recommend Contagion. It’s a very well made production, and a good study in dialogue, direction, editing, score, acting, cinematography… But otherwise, it’s kind of like watching the news, except that it’s fiction, so you don’t really need to know about it.

I can’t imagine how bad a film would have to be to keep me from wanting to see a cast like the one in Contagion. And having Soderbergh at the helm never hurts. So if you appreciate great actors or are a fan of the director, go for it. Or if you’re in the mood for a sociological study, give it a whirl. If none of those things reel you in, it might not be your best bet.

Put it this way: I don’t regret having seen it, but I won’t be in a rush to watch it a second time on video. Call it a rental.

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I came across an interesting article about Contagion in the Atlantic that was written by an epidemiologist. The most salient point to me is the unfortunate tendency the public has to dismiss public health organizations as somewhat extraneous when outbreaks don’t play out in the worst-case scenario. As Dr. Larry Madoff points out, recent outbreaks were contained because the regulating bodies did their jobs very well, not because the viruses didn’t pose a legitimate threat. Worth a read, I think.

a peek inside the fishbowl promotes Kickass Talks for CARE

Friday, September 9th, 2011—News

Thank you to blogger extraordinaire Andrea Tomkins for posting about Kickass Talks for CARE on her blog a peek inside the fishbowl.