Sep 21, 2011

Four Thoughts on Drive

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn, Screenwriter: Hossein Amini
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman
Year: 2011
My Grade: A

Few people will argue if you call Gosling one of the best actors of his generation. He’s proved himself in films as varied as Half Nelson, The Believer, Lars and the Real Girl and Blue Valentine. But not every great actor is necessarily a movie star. Gosling, though, was always destined to be a superstar since The Notebook. Earlier this year, he forayed into mainstream Hollywood films with Crazy, Stupid, Love, too. In Drive, he finally gets that iconic role we were waiting for him to get. Front and centre, exuding coolness and kicking ass! This might not be his best performance – some of his past work is really hard to top – but it’s possibly his most memorable. He’s now gained every right to sing “I’m Martin Sheen. I’m Steve McQueen. I’m Jimmy Dean.”

At the risk of broadly generalizing the merits of this film, I’ll say that I think its best quality is being stylish. Not since No Country for Old Men has there been a film where the director’s fingerprints could be seen on virtually every frame. And I say that as the highest compliment. From the cursive hot pink titles, to the dimly lit streets of Los Angeles, to Ryan Gosling’s already iconic scorpion jacket, to the elevator, everything is meticulously constructed and put together with surgical precision. The glossy sheen of the night and the sun-kissed surfaces of the day are absolute marvels to look at. The seamless editing that allows the camera to linger enough to maximize tension and the electrifying sound mixing create a sense of suspense most thrillers can only dream of. Really, as far as technical decisions go, Refn has not made one mistake. Top that off with Cliff Martinez’ pulsating, but hypnotic score and this is easily the year’s most stylish film.
This abundance of “style” might overwhelm some, but I didn’t mind it one bit. Refn’s direction is instinctive and visionary, and for me, never gets in the way of storytelling.

The Supporting Cast
For a genre film, Drive has more great performances than most. Though Gosling and Refn are the show stealers, the supporting cast is never left behind. Christina Hendricks’ role is short but its intensity is the bedrock of one of the film’s best scenes. Ron Perlman is flawless, though that’s hardly surprising to anyone who’s familiar with his career beyond the Hellboy films. Albert Brooks’ much-talked-about villain is richly layered and successfully against-type. Bryan Cranston’s performance is subtler but also self-effacingly powerful. Then there’s Carey Mulligan. Given her physique and her relative unknown status, I worried that she’d get stuck playing cute, charming, fragile girls after An Education. Then she comes and hits me with these two performances in Drive and Shame in less than a week and all those concerns are gone. Admittedly, this is not as much as a revelation as Shame, but the type of cute, charming, fragile girl she plays here is far from the one in An Education. The silent games she plays with Gosling and their exchanges of meaningful stares make this one of the rare instance in action cinema where the romantic subplot isn’t gratuitous. Thanks to Mulligan, it’s actually one of the best parts of the film.

Addressing Complaints
There are generally three types of complaints I’ve heard or read about this film: That it’s too slow, that it’s too gory or that it’s too clichéd.

I can’t really argue with the first group other than to say that I personally never felt bored by the pace of Drive. We’re used to action films that make cuts every two seconds and change the camera angles a gazillion times in every scene to excite audience. I’d blame this more on the marketing that led people to believe they were in for Fast and Furious 6, but honestly, any action film that doesn’t use shaky handheld cameras or CGI and can hold a sensational scene like Drive’s opening sequence together for minutes at a time should be welcomed with open arms.

To the second group, all I can say is “Oh, grow a pair!” I know that sounds stupid and insensitive on my part, but the outbursts of violence are the finest conclusion to the sustained lead ups and a huge relief for our heightened sense of anticipation. Besides, violence never feels incongruous and is rather authentic to the tone of the film.

As for the clichés, I’ll be honest. I noticed them and I dug ‘em. Refn takes the clichés and polishes and glosses and paints them, or even turns them on their head and gives us something we don’t expect. I don’t think what we see in Drive counts as cliché if only because of the sheer unpredictability of the film. The themes are familiar, but Refn offers us a new way of looking at them.

Sep 13, 2011

More TIFF Coverage on The Film Experience

Head over to The Film Experience where my coverage of Toronto International Film Festival continues. You can read reviews of Shame and Rampart here, and Alois Nebel and Good Bye here

Sep 10, 2011

TIFF Coverage on The Film Experience

The title of the post is pretty self-explanatory. Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience was kind enough to give me space to cover the Toronto Internationl Film Festival on his site. Here's the first column on Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre and Jafar Panahi's This is not a Film.
And check back again as the festival moves forward.

Sep 8, 2011

A Good Year: But was 1993 really a good year for Spielberg?

Welcome to the second episode of mine and Robert’s series “A Good Year”. We are very excited to a have a special guest for today: Jose of Movies Kick Ass. In this episode, we look back at 1993 when the iconic American director Steven Spielberg had two critical and commercial hits in Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park.
*Catch up with the idea of the series here.
Amir: I have a feeling this conversation is not going to be as focused as our last one because, well, these two films are completely different. So let me start with asking you guys this: how do you think these two films have aged? It's been 18 years. The 90s are now so long ago.

Jose: I'm in the minority who thinks Jurassic Park is a much better movie than Schindler's List. Spielberg knows how to make entertainment better than he knows how to make art. The years have been much kinder to Jurassic because regardless of the truly awful sequels, the film manages to remain fresh and exciting. The effects are still state of the art and it's one of those few movies (King Kong and Lord of the Rings are others) that still feel timeless in terms of these effects. Like this year’s Super 8, I feel Jurassic Park embodies that same childlike spirit with which we embrace cinema. Schindler's List on the other side has become cornier and preachier with each passing year.

Robert: Jose, I thought I was alone in thinking that Jurassic Park was better than Schindler! The effects are absolutely timeless and there's so much else right with it.

A: "Preachy" is my biggest problem with Schindler's List. Since the emotional impact of my first visit of the film has worn off for several years now, repeat viewings only make its punch less effective; not a good sign for any film, let alone an emotional one centered on the Holocaust. I don't want to start knocking the film from the get-go, I recognize its many merits, but isn't it also incredibly repetitive in some stretches?

R: I, too, think the "preachiness" is the problem. It was only the first viewing for me, but I definitely felt the length, and in the same vein, my biggest problem with the film was the informative title cards. It almost seemed like a pedantic cop out, as though the screenplay didn't trust itself enough to explain the material. That's not to say that I wasn't extremely moved by the film, I was crying like a baby for the last twenty minutes, but it can definitely be clunky. Perhaps we should talk about its merits though? I feel bad being this dismissive so early on in our conversation!

A: We should. And speaking of merits, Raise your hand if Ralph Fiennes isn't the first thing that comes to your mind!

R: *raises hand* I was so disappointed, actually, because I really like Ralph Fiennes! I think his biggest issue was the accent, which seemed almost satirical. But how about Liam Neeson? His recent filmography left me totally unprepared for how good he was in this – his characterization is complex and a bit cold, and at the same time, completely real and effective.

Jose and I think he's the standout. Robert prefers Liam Neeson.
J: I think Ralph is the greatest thing about this movie (yet the Oscar that year...seriously?) and it reminds us about the power of great acting, I love how lacking in self-consciousness he
is in this movie. He just lets himself get lost inside this monster of a man. His scenes are chilling.

A: Somehow I always feel like that with Ralph. I'm aware that I’m watching him on the screen, like in In Bruges, but he's fully so immersed in the role. But isn't the 1993 best supporting actor line-up an impossibly brilliant one? I mean we're talking about that category, always filled with "should have been nominated before, so why not now?" nominees and then in 93, all five are amazing. I don't think Jones is as good as Fiennes, but if anyone's gonna take it from Ralph...

J: Despite its many merits, though, I have never understood why it ranks so high in those AFI top tens. And like most of Spielberg's oeuvre it shines for its use of corniness and extreme emotional manipulation (the sequence with the survivors is tacky manipulation at its worse!)

A: I assume you're referring to the last scene at Schindler's shrine? If so, then yes, it’s incredibly manipulative. By that time I'd become completely disappointed in the film's ending though. The scene before it, where the survivors are looking for a home to settle in, ruins the movie for me because ideologically, what I appreciate in the film is that it shows how the morally conscious man can escape political restraints. I like how it distances itself from politics. But there, it comes back and throws a huge political statement at us and it sort of breaks the film's construct.

J: Like he did with Munich and the Twin Towers finale, the man cannot for the love of him let an audience try to figure out metaphor and allegories on their own. He just has to digest the meaning of the movie for them every single time.

A: My idea is that there's no side-taking when it comes to the holocaust because, well, who isn't on the victims’ side, right? So why end the film on such an openly political note like the issue of the settlement, when the whole time our focus has been not on the politics of the war, but on the hardships that these victims had to go through; and we were "emotionally" manipulated. In a way I wish we'd been controlled, but hadn't steered away from that direction.

J: I agree. It's the same with the little girl in the red dress thing! We get it, these people suffered, there's no need to highlight an innocent child to keep on proving himself right. Despite of the superb cinematography, I feel that the film goes out of its way to punch our proverbial emotional guts in order to make us condemn anyone that even dares to question the nation of Israel.
The gorgeous cinematography of Schindler's List is one thing we all agree on.
A: The more I try to explain this, the more trouble I'll be in though. I don't mind having political statements in the film. A film like The Pianist for instance, (also about the Holocaust, also emotional, but infinitely stronger and subtler than Schindler in my opinion) makes political statements as well, but in Polanski's hands, it seems more coherent with the rest of the film than it does in Schindler.

J: The Pianist is infinitely better because other than the political statements made by Polanski, it becomes almost unbearable because of its excessive humanity. You wonder what Polanski knows that Spielberg doesn't, about the way in which emotions do not have to be attached to cheap sentiment. I have always wondered why it is that he's so good at working with children who are unarguably tougher at figuring out and then he's so terrible at "encoding" the ideas behind his movies using figures of speech or symbols.

R: Amir, you put it perfectly. I think the problem lies in what you mentioned earlier, that Spielberg is more of an entertainer than an artist. There's nothing "entertaining" per se about Schindler and so he feels as though he really has to spell it out. On the other hand...I was really impressed with how brilliantly successful Jurassic Park was in tackling complex issues without even once being preachy. For example, it deals with humans' relationship with nature so gracefully, whereas it could have easily taken the Avatar route and beaten you over the head with it. It's Spielberg's stronger area and it just seems to work automatically better.

J: I have to say, I was so sad when I read on The New Yorker the other day that in purely scientific terms Jurassic Park would never be possible, because the film makes science seem so exciting and brimming with promise that you actually expect dinosaurs to be waiting outside after you watch it. 

A: Spielberg has a deft hand in making "entertainment" as opposed serious dramas. Perhaps because under the guise of entertainment he doesn't feel the pressure to send messages across and keeps his themes subtle. Before re-watching Jurassic Park for this discussion, I wondered if I'd enjoy it as much as I did when I was a kid. But it doesn't feel different at all. There's something to find under the layers here that feels fresh so many years on.

J: The funny thing about him is that it's in his silly "entertainment" films where some of his most complex ideas can be found. See for example how Close Encounters and E.T. both tap onto the absence of parents to deliver extraordinary observations that would've made Freud himself squeal with delight. 

A: I watched E.T. again a few months back when Toronto's Bloor cinema screened it. It was extraordinary. Aside from the pleasure of watching its marvels on the big screen for the first time (another Spielberg film that still looks state-of-the-art), I was blown away by just how mature this film is. I wish he'd stick to making films like that. I want to talk about the specifics of Jurassic Park but before that, I'm curious what you think of his films this year. He's done the "two films: one artsy, one pulpy" trick three times since 93. 1997: Amistad and Jurassic Park 2, 2002: Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, 2005: Munich and War of the Worlds. His fifth time would be this year. Ignoring the fact that we picked 93 because of the acclaim of both films, which one of the four is your favourite? And do you think 2011 can top any of those years for him?
State-of-the-art effects of Jurassic Park
J: I never can figure out which one's the artsy and which one's the commercial one when it comes to 2002. Both movies are exquisite genre flicks (one a moody sci-fi noir, the other a delicious retro caper) and they both succeed precisely because they don't take themselves too seriously. I honestly think they might be the best two films the man has directed since the 70s and 80s. War of the Worlds was an utter fiasco and Munich albeit stylish and sort of intriguing, was yet another preach-fest.

R: Gosh, that's tough, because I'm missing a lot of those films from my repertoire. However, I'm going to say that probably '93 is my favourite, because I do really like Schindler and I adore Jurassic Park. I'm not a big fan of Catch Me if You Can and War of the Worlds is just horrendous. I have a feeling this year might just be the best though. War Horse looks like it could be the perfect balance of art and entertainment.

A: I admit that I haven't seen War of the Worlds yet, simply because everyone has the same reaction to it as you guys. But ‘02 might just take my vote too. Minority Report (probably the artsier of the two) is one of the smartest Sci-Fi’s of the aughts, and Catch Me If You Can gave us Amy Adams, aside from being amazing entertainment.

R: Oh gosh! Where would we be without Amy Adams? She was so great in that movie (and in pretty much everything else).

A: I don't know if Tintin was ever that big a deal in North America, but where I grew up, it was a huge deal and as a big fan, I was disappointed by that trailer. The comics never hide their playful childishness, but it seems like Spielberg has made it too dark. I always felt uncomfortable with the idea of his adapting them to films.

R: I wasn't familiar at ALL with Tintin until the trailer, so I can't judge based on the source material, but I do think it looks extremely interesting. Anyway, I think now's a good to bring up the man behind a large part of Spielberg's magic - John Williams. Would Schindler have been half as heartrending had it not had the elegiac violin score? And the score for Jurassic Park is perhaps my favourite of Williams’ work, if not in the top three. The fact that it didn't get an Oscar nomination that year is atrocious.

A: Hah, Robert, you’re such a music nut. I was wondering how long it would take you to bring him up. I do listen to both soundtracks from time to time though. I had no idea he didn't get nominated that year. So weird! I like the Schindler soundtrack a lot, but Jurassic part is real pop culture staple. It’s instantly recognizable.

R: Haha! I was itching to say something about him. As far as the Jurassic Park snub, I was surprised too. I mean, Schindler’s score won that year, but I was totally taken aback when I saw that Jurassic wasn't even nominated. They play it over the speakers at Universal Studios here in Florida and so it also brings back a lot of memories of going there will my family and it has real sentimental value. Not only that, but it's just a plain exhilarating score - it totally captures both the beauty and the horror of that darned island.

J: So, do you think Jurassic Park would've been a better Best Picture contender than Schindler's List?

R: Well, I mean, if by "better contender" you mean "had a better chance to win" then absolutely not. But if you mean "you would have picked to win" then absolutely! It seems strange to pick a movie about dinosaurs over a movie about the holocaust but I'm getting the idea that we're all unanimous about which one we prefer.

A: Well, there's no reason to be embarrassed at preferring dinosaurs when it comes to movies. We ALL bitch about the academy always going for the same things every year. Mot that they didn't in 93, but you get the point... when it comes to best picture winners though, Schindler's List looks like a respectable winner to me, despite all its flaws. It’s not exactly an embarrassment in the way, say, Around the World in 80 Days is. Compare it to A Beautiful Mind and then Schindler hasn't even aged a day.

R: Picking A Beautiful Mind is so effective for me in your metaphor as it's easily the worst Best Picture winner I've seen. And like you said, Schindler is a respectable winner. It hasn't aged gracefully, and it's imperfect, but there's a lot going for it and the Academy has made worse decisions. Honestly, that cinematography alone makes the film completely worthy of all of its praise - it's so unbelievably gorgeous.

J: I'll have to go with Crash as worst Best Picture ever...but anyway if it had been up to me that year The Piano would've won the Oscar and Jane Campion would've beaten Kathryn Bigelow to the first female Best Director by a good 16 years... sigh.
I still think that basically the biggest problem with Spielberg and his filmography is how hard he tries to be important. For example take 1998 when people were shocked that Saving Private Ryan lost Best Picture to a "sentimental movie". If you ask me, the weep fest that year was Ryan and not Shakespeare in Love which romance and all was still a cerebral celebration of art.

A: I love The Piano! And on that note, did any of you notice what a great year Sam Neill had, too?  I mean the year's biggest blockbuster here, plus Cannes winner and Best Picture nominee? Whatever happened to him?

J: Only god knows!
Sam Neill in Jurassic Park
A: I think it's important to note the difference between Oscar's relationship with Spielberg, and Spielberg himself though. I mean yes, he does try to be important, but we already mentioned that he can let loose and actually make better films. When it comes to the Oscars though, they want to reward his "weep fests" as opposed to his lighter fair. I'm honestly surprised the academy gave E.T. a BP nomination. Anyway, before we finish up the conversation, I wanted to ask you guys about your favourite scenes from each film.

J: Schindler's: I complained about it I know, but the red dress sequence is bewitchingly beautiful. Jurassic Park: the brontosaurus and the trees and sunset! It's pure magic!

R: Schindler’s: This is kind of an off-kilter choice, but I think one of the best scenes was the one with Ralph Fiennes and Embeth Davidtz, where he is trying to seduce her. I was dissing Ralph earlier but he and Davidtz are both so great in this scene and the tension is impeccable.
Jurassic Park: There are so many great moments but I love when Drs. Grant and Sattler see the dinosaurs for the first time. Laura Dern and Sam Neill are so great, and their absolute wonderment in beholding the mythical creatures they studied for so long is absolutely moving.

A: I love your choices.  I’m trying hard to remember the guy's name from Schindler's List, but I’ve already returned my DVD so I can't check. Anyway, I’m talking about the old man who Amon Goeth is trying to kill but his handgun doesn't work, and then his assistant's doesn't work and the man survives.  I also love the scene after his "reform" when he realizes he just can't control himself and shoots the cleaning kid after he lets him leave his house.  In Jurassic Park my favourite is probably the second last scene where the tyrannosaurus rids them of the raptors. Such an exciting scene that one is. 

R: Oh, those are fantastic choices Amir! The scene with the faulty handgun is superb. 

A: One last question! I’ve been thinking about this since we started the discussion. For better or for worse, Spielberg left a huge mark on American cinema and reshaped blockbusters. Not with these two films, but long before.  If the list maker in you were called to task, would you rank him in the top 5 most influential American directors of all time? Top 10?

R: I would say that Spielberg absolutely does belong on a list of at least the top 10 directors. Sure, his films aren't all brilliant masterpieces and there are plenty that I personally dislike - but he's made such an impact on cinema for such an extended period of time that it's impossible not to recognize his influence on others. No matter how you feel about current Hollywood blockbusters, how could they even exist if it wasn't for movies like Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park? Again though, it's his ability to entertain that has made the biggest impact, not his artistry. I can certainly understand how that distinction would cause some to dispute his impact on cinema as a whole.

J: Influential? By all means but so are Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich in the economic matter of things.
I actually got to thinking the other day if in fact Spielberg and George Lucas didn't actually screw the extraordinary road filmmaking was taking during the 70s when you had the films of Coppola, Fellini, Bergman, Lumet, Truffaut, Weismuller, Allen and Altman actually being successful at the box office while contributing to the art form. Then came silly Steven with Jaws and Lucas with Star Wars and they changed the game turning it into a "who will deliver the biggest blockbuster" contest... 
There is no way Spielberg should ever rank among the greatest directors of all time, as a businessman hats off though.

A: I agree with both of you and my question was "influential" too, not "greatest". I don't think Michael Bay is influential in the way Spielberg was, Jose. Spielberg, as you put it, came along and changed the definition of blockbusters. To imagine films by any of those directors you named could be box office hits today is inconceivable. But it's equally difficult to imagine Michael Bay changing the medium the way Spielberg did, even if we think the change was for worse. Bay is just feeding off what Spielberg left him, not to mention that Spielberg actually produces Bay's films.

R: I definitely don't think Spielberg belongs on a BEST directors list, but a most influential one. Jose's argument is totally spot-on, but I still stand by what I said.

A: Well, Let’s wrap this up. It’s been a pleasure talking to you both. Are there any final notes you want to make? Something that didn’t come up earlier?

J: All good on my side.

R: I think I've said all I want to say. It was so great discussing such an interesting and different pair of films with you guys!

*You can read the previous episode here.

Sep 4, 2011

TIFF Coverage

Once again, it's that amazing time of the year when all Torontonian cinephiles will get to indulge in the gift that is TIFF! This year I've opted mostly for titles that will not be released by the end of the year, so there will be no coverage of The Descendants, Ides of March, and the like. Although I'm really sad to say that I missed tickets on two of my most anticipated films of the year, Asghar Farhadi's Berlin winner A Separation and Take This Waltz, the second feature film from Toronto's very own darling Sarah Polley. On the bright side, the former will be released by Sony Pictures Classics on December 30th in the States and through Mongrel Media on January 13th, 2012 in Toronto. No distributor has been announced for the latter yet, unfortunately.

I won't share all the titles I'm covering, to make the coverage more interesting. Suffice to say, it will feature some Cannes hits and newer titles like Oren Moverman's Rampart, Steve McQueen's Shame and Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights.

Woody Harrelson in Rampart (src)

Sep 1, 2011

1995 Best Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility

This post is dedicated to Brandon, from Movie Mania as part of his look back at the supporting actress nominees of Oscar ‘95!

I took this as an opportunity to finally watch Sense and Sensibility. It’s surprising to myself how long it took me to get to this film given my admiration for both Ang Lee and Kate Winslet. It’s probably my usual reservation about costume dramas. But I chose Winslet because her career has obviously taken off enormously since that Oscar nomination. It was her first but she went on to five more nominations, one win, some age-related record breaking, Hollywood superstardom and general awesomeness.

In the film, she plays Marianne Dashwood, the second daughter of the Dashwood family. Along with her mother and sisters Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Margaret, they’re forced to leave their home when Mr. Dashwood passes the house to his son (from another wife) before his death.

Winslet’s introduced in a beautifully lit frame as she plays the piano, but this serenity doesn’t last long. Her character is revealed to be the much livelier and more exuberant of the two sisters. The contrast between the two sisters actually becomes the film’s device in developing their characters. 

When Edward Ferras (Hugh Grant) is introduced and the reserved Elinor falls for his awkward and self-effacing character, Marianne tests Edward’s passion by getting him to role play a passage from a book. Winslet captures the naïveté and childishness of Marianne’s romanticism with a mastery that justifies the nomination on its own. Later, confronting her sister about her frustration with Ferras’ inexpressivity, she says:
“What a pity it is that Edward has no passion to read!
... I think him everything that is amiable and worthy.” 

This combination of idealist youthfulness with Winslet’s physical features makes the character all the more likeable. It isn’t a surprise that Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) falls for her instantly as he sees her. Not incidentally, Brandon sees her first just the way we saw her at the beginning: gracefully playing the piano under natural side-lighting.

One of her best scenes comes when she first meets John, the heartthrob who sweeps her off her feet when he helps her after falling from a horse. Winslet’s nervousness and her impatience at the thought of meeting John again is both hilarious and a showcase of her talents.
“He lifted me as if I weighed no more than a dried leaf!”

The arc of Winslet’s character is a wide one that takes shape as a result of several twists in her love life. All the while Winslet captures both the comic spirit of the film and the dramatic transition in her own character’s move from an inexperienced lover to the woman who is mesmerized by Colonel Brandon’s reading at the end. That she can convey this transition, her revelations and her feelings with so little as a look like this one is a testament to what a great actress she is.  (The entire ballroom sequence is my favourite part of the performance.)

Between 1994’s Heavenly Creatures and Sense and Sensibility, Winslet really established herself as one of the greatest young talents in the 90s. Luckily (and in part, thanks to Titanic) her star never faded. We’re already heating rave words about her next performance in Polanski’s Carnage.