Slow in the fast lane

DRIVE

The danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has mentioned the impetus for “Drive” in many interviews. He met with Ryan Gosling, who wanted him to be the director. The meeting didn’t go so well. They get in a car, listen to an REO Speedwagon song, and suddenly Refn has it: “Drive” is a movie about a guy who drives in his car and listens to songs. He tells Ryan this, weeping with relief or joy or some combination of both. They both agreed, and went to make the movie.

With the exception of one or two sequences depicting Gosling in his car, chewing on his toothpick, with gloved hands clutching the steering wheel a little too tightly, I thought Nicolas was full of crap when he told that story. Don’t be fooled. This is not a minimalist low key movie about a getaway driver. I think the first third may be a decent argument for that, but the rest of the story is generic, grade B mobster movie stuff that left me wondering what movie Nicolas set out to make.

There’s a scene towards the end where Ryan’s character stalks a mobster on a dark beach, wearing a mask. The whole concept looks like it was taken out of a John Carpenter movie. It was evocative, and very effective, but completely incongruous with everything that preceded it.

I felt there were several kinds of movies here, with all different styles at play. Refn references Michael Mann with his overhead night time LA shots. He references Tarantino with his overt violence. He calls up Carpenter at the end, on the beach. Under different circumstances I would have appreciated everything mashed up like that. Refn is singling himself out by pushing style over substance. But it is not a singular vision. It’s muddled. Here’s a movie where that experiment falls short of the goal line.

Style is what a director brings. Story is what a screenwriter brings. Let the former serve the latter under most circumstances. Unless you are David Lynch, or Refn’s older counterpart, Lars Von Trier. Then you may have some room to maneuver around the script because of pedigree. Generally Refn’s style is to subsume dialogue in favor of silent storytelling. Visually that is probably the most interesting thing you can try to do. Difficult, but ultimately rewarding, right? Let a look between two people say more than words ever can.

A lot of those moments come between Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams and Oscar Isaac. It’s a dramatic triangle that shows the most interesting directions that the movie can go. But after a heist gone wrong, it’s cut far too short (about 1/3 into the movie), leaving us with nothing else as interesting, except generic B movie mobster movie boredom.

The mobsters in this movie talk as if their dialogue was written by a screenwriter who just watched Pulp Fiction and set out to write his own version of that movie. Frankly I was surprised by the generic level of mobster-speak. I was surprised by the generic story choices, eschewing a compelling love story in favor of a routine mob plot.

There is nothing less interesting to me than bad mobster movies. I just don’t relate to guys who act like hardasses going around stabbing and shooting their way through an arcane underworld.  They are caricatures I have seen one hundred times before. I’m not super intrigued by intense violence either, unless it is driven by a dramatic context that feels emotional. (yes, Tarantino is the master of it)

The violence in this movie is not emotional. I was laughing during the most egregious violence. Probably not the intended effect, I am guessing. The violence comes with a certain fetishism. It would probably exist in this movie whether the script dictated it or not.

In the end, “Drive” is just another bad mob movie. Set aside the new wave (or is it new new wave if it’s made today) soundtrack, and the deep, penetrating looks from Ryan Gosling, and I don’t really know how entertained I would have been otherwise. While I am glad to see Albert Brooks on screen, I don’t really think playing a violent mobster was anything inspired. Brooks is a charming guy. He charmed his way through the 80s and 90s. Here it’s just a variation on the mobster character. Mobsters are always charming. They always pretend to be a good friend and then they do something violent that contradicts their character. Not a big surprise. At first I thought Refn made a smart choice casting Brooks, and in retrospect I resent that he was even used.

Killing for art’s sake

THE KILLER INSIDE ME


“The Killer Inside Me” suggests there are two characters: “Me”, and the “Killer” that lives inside of that character. But there is only one character here. And I’m not sure you could call someone who murders people a fully realized character. These are the sorts of folks that need to be institutionalized, rather than turned into pieces of art.

I suspect there might have been more going on in the novel this was based on, but I’ve never read Jim Thompson. My roommate was an avid fan, and within months he was collecting his books like baseball cards. Are they all different? Or is there something similar in all of his novels that makes them fun to read? Thompson wrote pulpy crime novels. What does every pulpy crime novel have? My guess would be lots of killing.

I don’t see the fascination. Philosophically, I’m aligned with Clint Eastwood on this one:

It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.

Director Michael Winterbottom said he wanted the killing scenes to feel realistic, because killing someone shouldn’t be treated lightly the way it’s portrayed in films.

I would agree with that, but I wouldn’t make a movie to illustrate the point. I know it’s real because I see it on the news all the time. I don’t need a lesson from the director of “24 Hour Party People”.

But if there is a lesson, it better entertain. I don’t think the film sets out to teach much, or to entertain much. It’s obsessed with violence and that’s where it returns when the director feels he’s losing your attention.

It is well crafted, that much I can say. A lot of attention is paid to the details, such as the cinematography, and the music, which try very hard to make us believe we’re in the more innocent days of America and the sheriff we meet (Casey Affleck) would never have violent sex with a girl and eventually kill her for being a whore.

Affleck plays the role with a southern accent, and a small town affectation in which he’s only concerned with the present, and not so much with what happened in the past, or what happens in the future. Both are important for the audience, because the past might explain his current behavior, and his future will bring us a sense of closure and justice to all the atrocities he’s inflicted on innocent people. But here’s a guy that isn’t so interested in all that. If whatever happens to him under the court of law or elsewhere gives him no pause for thought, it would never be satisfying for us to see it anyway.

We get flashes of his past – molesting his sister for starters – that probably offer some answers for why he has a “killer” inside him. These are the kind of answers that you would expect from a filmmaker like Rob Zombie, who showed us why Michael Myers became a murderer. His parents were cruel to him! He grew up po’ white trash. 2 plus 2 equals 4.

In storytelling, these are reductive explanations that don’t bend or move the story one way or the other. It’s actually just like throwing water on ice. Like in Zombie’s Halloween remake, we’re shown explanations that really aren’t explanations. The same goes here.

What I can’t figure out is where the actors came into the process. Jessica Alba read the script and must have responded to the character only because she was wildly sexual and adventurous during a time in American history where women couldn’t do those things. That was compelling to her as an actor? Just change the time period, and then ask if the character is still interesting. More importantly, ask if her character would realistically behave the way she does, getting beaten to death by someone who’s apologizing while he does it. Here’s a guy, ramming his fist into your head, and all you can do is look up at him and ask, “What are you doing?”

If we’re going for realism here, Winterbottom gets it very wrong. And because he gets it wrong, and does it deliberately, what he’s made is sensationalistic, and exploitative. I’ve seen it called “art house torture porn”. Personally I’m ready to retire the terms “torture porn” and “art house” and just leave one word.

Let’s just call this one “torture”.

When ambition results in catastrophic failure

HEAT


“Heat” is like the Titanic. It’s hyped up, built with infallible material, and it ends up sinking in about the same number of hours as that ill-fated ship.

Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino don’t simply share billing on a poster. In the film they are actually enemies. Robert is a robber, Al is a cop. Cops vs. robbers. Good guys vs. bad guys. It was destined to be iconic, and looking back this is one of the biggest cinematic disasters mankind has ever recorded.

It’s absolutely the result of Michael Mann. A casual viewer can easily pick up on his modus operandi. He likes to shoot cold, heartless stories like it’s some sort of challenge. Heist films are a natural shoe-in for that style, because typically the director is more invested in the heists than the characters. See any David Mamet heist movie to know what I’m talking about.

What you get is an alternative treatment to Ambien for your insomnia. Just put in “Heat” or everything else Michael Mann has ever made, and you will feel your eyelids slowly close. The darkness that awaits you will be more heavenly than any you’ve experienced before.

There is no reason to tip toe around the subject of Michael Mann’s “Heat”. The time for thoughtful discussion is over. We’re not going to talk about what this movie does right, which I can tell you in three words: His gun battles. (damn I guess I just talked about it) You know what, Michael? I get it. I appreciate your meticulous attention to detail. Now go figure out how to tell a story without boring me half to death!

From Fresh to Prince

Fresh came out in 1994, the same year as Pulp Fiction. I want to mention that because Samuel Jackson has a supporting role in it as a chess playing father to the titular character. Based on what characters wear, and how everything is “stupid” this and “stupid” that you know this was released in the early 90’s, but I didn’t anticipate it being the same year. It is just amazing how one movie can completely change the trajectory of an actor’s career. It’s also worth noting how timeless Pulp Fiction still is to this day whereas you definitely feel the age on Fresh, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Urban movies about the plight of black youth were really coming into their own around this time, with the big first one being Boyz in the Hood. I remember watching that on pay per view when I was a kid, noticing how many f bombs kept exploding in my face (The Last Boyscout was another one of those memorable f bomb raids on my innocent mind). It was a legacy that had its time and place. Fresh is a standout film from that era with performances that are authentic and a storyline that’s a little different from the rest.

Fresh gets entangled as a drug runner for two competing drug lords. He’s different from other kids because he cares about his education and wants to keep his good attendance. He recognizes this sort of lifestyle isn’t going to take him far even if he’s told it will. Once he learns his junkie older sister has relationships with both leaders, he makes an attempt to win her back from their influence by pitting them against each other. The chess motif is pretty intense here. Fresh is literally an excellent chess player because he was taught by his dad, who still gives him lessons at the park. Techniques to win the game of chess can also be applied to the game of life. What is kind of funny about the father-son dynamic is you learn how his father hasn’t seemed to heed his own advice. You’d assume with all his scholarly wisdom he would get out of the rut he’s in. But that’s what makes his character so interesting. He means well for his boy but he’s got problems of his own. The way he earns money is beating others at chess. He puts up pictures of Bobby Fisher on the wall of his mobile home and tells Fresh he’d beat him if he ever sat down for a speed game at the park. You think this guy might have a few delusions of his own. The final scene of the film when they’re together playing chess at the park ends the film on just the right note and leaves open the possibility there will be more growth between them.

For the things this movie does right, I wish to god someone warned me about the gratuitous dog violence.  I recalled reading about a dog fighting scene but somehow missed the memo regarding Fresh strangling a dog, then shooting it twice with a .45. Director Boaz Yakin completely flips the script on us with that one and makes us re-consider our protagonist. It doesn’t ruin the film but it’s inexplicable and sad. You totally crossed the line with that one, Boaz. Hopefully there’s nothing like that in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

The generic thriller

STATE OF PLAY

You ever watch a movie, and then a day later you can’t even recount what happened? Or who was in it? Or what it was even called?

You find these in grocery stores all the time. They sit on shelves in the check out aisle. They’re hidden under the weight of other horrible movies inside of large bins. The digger you deep you think, the more likely you are to find that treasure lying at the bottom. But all you find is something like State of Play.

I wish I could tell you what it’s about, but truthfully I don’t remember. There’s a journalist in it, and he goes around trying to uncover some super secret plot that just unfolds into a bigger crisis that involves politicians and the CIA. At least, I’m pretty sure it was the CIA. Shit.

Russell Crowe does a great job as the journalist with the crazy hair who goes around asking questions. He asks the right questions, he gets answers that help him unlock what he needs to know to get his story printed and out there for the people to read. The people have to know the truth. What is the truth? It’s complicated, you’ll have to watch the movie. But trust me, a day will go by. Two days will go by. Soon you’ll be at the grocery store, digging through a pile of movies and see one you haven’t watched before. Although the cover of it looks awfully familiar…aw what the hell. You’re pretty sure you’ve never seen it. And it’s only 5 bucks.

There’s a new Scorsese in town…

A PROPHET

…and he doesn’t come from North America.

Lately it seems we’ve been importing a lot of the best crime dramas. The Departed was probably the last memorable one, and that was based on a Japanese movie. Basically it appears the well has run dry for quite some time when it comes to gritty crime dramas. It’s like the horror genre when it ran out of gas post-Scream. We started copying what Asians were doing.

Though this isn’t Japanese (it’s French), I wouldn’t be surprised if we remade A Prophet. It’s one of those movies ripe for an aging lifer like Jack Nicholson who sinks his fangs into the meat of a younger prison inmate named Malik. He forces Malik to kill an Arab since they share the same cell block. He provides him protection and enlists him for more important work when he sees he’ll remain loyal. It gets to a point where you’re not sure who benefits from the other more. The pendulum swings back and forth. Ultimately though it is about how their relationship changes, one that can be considered forced servitude. There is always the tension underneath what’s going on: will Malik ever manage to kill his old Corsican mafia captor or just let him rot behind bars?

I won’t say what he does, but either outcome is just as much of a reward for Malik as it is for the audience. We go through a lot with him during his six year sentence. It begins with the murder of the Arab. It doesn’t go according to plan. He’s supposed to hide a razor blade in his mouth until the moment he has to strike him in the jugular with it. But just holding the blade in there is hard enough and takes practice and time in front of the mirror spitting out blood before he can get it right.

We don’t know what Malik did to get into prison. For us he’s just a blank slate who has little choice in the matter of becoming a murderer. Even though the Arab dies a painful and horrible death, he still talks to Malik in his cell and hangs out like a ghost that haunts his conscience and won’t let him forget what he did. It builds our sympathy for Malik so that as he gets on in his years, grows a mustache, gets to leave prison for good behavior and becomes embroiled in criminal activity in the real world, we’re still rooting for him to prevail.

When I think of crime dramas that are “gritty” there are always some elements of a classical construction that gives it the feeling of theatricality. Scorsese, for all the grit he rubs into his stories, loves style even more. He has no problem editing in a montage laid over a sweet Rolling Stones song. It gives his film energy. It’s badass. There’s nothing harder than a mafia movie with a thumping rock soundtrack. Well, turns out there is something harder than that. What I liked most about this film was that it felt real. I wasn’t watching a movie. The theatricality, the escapism of Scorsese was absent.

Here there are a couple American hip hop tunes laid over a montage. There’s some American blues too. For a film made in France about a guy who can speak French, Corsican and Arabic while American music is in the soundtrack, it’s the foreign equivalent to what Scorsese would be doing today if he was a little younger and born a Parisian who grew up on Scorsese and wanted to best him at his own game. I guess that’d be a cosmic paradox, but you get the idea.