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 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.