Drive (2011) Review

1 02 2012

Copyright 2011 Bold FIlms

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Drive is an extremely stylized film that borrows heavily from two different, yet quite separate, eras of American cinema: the 1940s and the 1980s.  From the 1940s, the film borrowed heavy traits in its presentation from the popular film noir genre that was at its peak during this era; the soundtrack, filming style and titling attributes were all borrowed from 40 years later in the 1980s, giving off a very reminiscent feel to such films as De Palma’s Scarface.  However, as much as I appreciate high stylization for certain films, it does take more than that to be a truly great movie.

Ryan Gosling plays our unnamed hero, a part-time mechanic, part-time movie stunt driver and part-time driver for criminal activities.  When performing the latter, he has a very standard set of rules which he abides, that are not to be broken.  At the body shop, he works for a man named Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who assists him at times and has a history of being involved with criminals like Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).  Shannon enlists Rose’s help in the amount of $300,000 to fund a stock racing car idea, with Gosling’s character being the driver.  Around this same time, Gosling’s character meets his next door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).  He finds that she lives alone with her son because her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison, and he and Irene develop a certain relationship together.  Upon Oscar’s return, Gosling character (wouldn’t this be easier if he had a name) finds out that Oscar was indebted to some guys from prison who are now threatening his life, as well as Irene and Benicio’s.  To help, Gosling’s character agrees to be the driver for a job that will clear Oscar of his debts and save Irene and Benicio.  Unfortunately, however, the job ends up going very wrong.

Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, this film, as mentioned earlier, is highly stylized and the handling of the visuals works great for the type of picture it is.  Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography further helps to develop the polished look of the movie, and there many shots throughout that I was very impressed with.  I think in a lesser year for cinematography, Sigel would have had a good chance at getting a nomination for this film.  Yet, polished looks aside, the story only held my attention to a degree.  It was interesting and I liked the film alright, but it wasn’t spectacular by any means.  Gosling did a good job in the lead role, as did Albert Brooks.  Again, however, Brook’s adoration for his role as Bernie Rose is a bit overrated in my book.  Yes, it was a good performance, but it wasn’t anything to write home about; we’ve all seen that character before.

I can see how many people really loved this film, and I can see how some didn’t care for it at all.  My opinion falls somewhere in between; it was good, but I’ve seen a dozen films off the top of my head with the same basic elements that I thought were better.

Senna (2010) Review

27 01 2012

Copyright 2010 Working Title Films

★ ★ ★ ★

I came across the name of this documentary in looking over an Empire Magazine article on Oscar snubs.  Since the film was released in many parts of the world in 2010, but still many others in 2011, the line as to whether or not it could qualify this year has apparently been a point of contention.  Though I don’t know a lot about Formula One racing, though I am a huge fan of automobiles in general, the reviews I read led me to giving this one a shot on Netflix Instant Watch.

Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian kart racer that migrated to Europe for kart racing, and eventually, found his way into Formula One racing at the age of 24.  Throughout the 1980s, he became one of the sport’s best competitors and a three-time Formula One World Champion.  His feuding on and off the track with French driver and three-time World Champion Alain Prost helped bring further popularity to the sport, and his personal calm demeanor and humility made him a fan to many outside the sport as well.   In his native Brazil, he became somewhat of a personal treasure during Brazil’s crushing economic and political turmoil of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  His death in 1994 at the age of 34 from a crash brought increased attention to the dangers of Formula One racing and instilled new guidelines to help keep drivers safe.

The entire film is put together from archive footage.  Though there is voiceover narration throughout from different drivers, commentators, medical staff and others, they never actually appear on screen visually.  It’s amazing the amount of footage that had to have been compiled for this film and the editing of it all together is amazingly precise.  As a viewer, one literally forgets that they are watching an amalgam of old television, stock and personal film and video footage; to the viewer, it’s as if you are watching a narrative film on Senna’s life with him in the leading role.  I’ve never before seen this kind of take on a documentary, but it worked wonderfully and, obviously, is only something that is feasible if a lot of source footage is available.

Maddie, my girlfriend, can’t stand racing or cars nine times out of ten, though I do make her watch Top Gear several times a week and call her beloved car a “pry-us” like they do on the show when bashing the vehicle.  However, even as someone not really interested in the sport of Formula One racing, she really enjoyed the film.  So, that leads me to believe that whether you love racing or could care less, there is something this film has for everyone.  Senna was a smart and very able athlete in his field, but above all a humble and gracious person it would seem, and to see his professional career unfold with the story telling techniques used in this documentary is absolutely magical.

Moneyball (2011) Review

26 01 2012

Copyright 2011 Columbia Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

With the announcement of the Oscars and things starting to settle down a bit after the move, it is now time for me to begin my annual ritual of watching as many of the nominated films as possible.  Since this film has already been released on DVD, it was an easy choice to get ahold of as I start my journey through what is left of the year’s best films that I haven’t yet seen.

I love it, for my blogging purposes at least, when movies are easy to summarize; this one might be the easiest film summary of any I’ve written yet.  The movie is based on the true story of Oakland Athletics General Manager and former pro player Billy Beane (Bradd Pitt), who rather than replace three key players that were traded from his roster to richer teams the standard way, employs a statistician, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), in hopes of creating a winning team by the numbers on a budget.  Couldn’t be much easier than that, right?

Though the film is easy to summarize, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good film.  Just as I was not a fan of the vampire genre, but really enjoyed Let the Right One In, I’m not a huge fan of sports movies, but really liked this one.  Pitt gives a commanding and heartfelt performance as Beane, and the theme of the movie, to challenge old fashion values when you believe they are no longer valid or right, really hits home with the conditions plaguing our country currently.

This film was also a welcome return of director Bennett Miller who hasn’t made a feature since 2005 with the exquisitely well-done Capote.  So far in my tally, I can’t call this the best film of the year, but it is a very well made and engaging movie.  Though I am happy for Jonah Hill’s nomination, I don’t know that his performance was that endearing or that far separated from a normal Jonah Hill performance; however, Pitt’s performance could be some strong contention in the Best Actor category.

Even non sports fans like myself will find something to love about this film.  Honestly, it’s the best sports movie I’ve seen in a long time and, though not a fan of the genre per se, I have seen my fair share and completely understand the allure and magic of the game(s).  It will be interesting to see if Pitt hits Oscar glory this year; though a huge star in many respects, this comes as only his third Oscar nomination.  His previous being for the leading role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008 and first for supporting actor in 1995’s 12 Monkeys, a personal favorite of mine.

Let the Right One In (2008) Review

25 01 2012

Copyright 2008 EFTI

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

I’m not really a very fervent fan of the vampire genre.  I feel these days that it is overused in everything from movies to novels to tv shows; it’s hard to trace when this vampire mania originally started, but it has definitely gotten out of control and is appearing everywhere ad nauseum.  Heck, I’m not even a fan and have seen two vampire themed movies in the past week!  That aside, however, this one did something unique with the subject matter and for that, I really enjoyed the film.

Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his mother in a dreary apartment complex in Sweden.  In school he is bullied by a small “gang” of children lead by a little snot named Conny (Patrik Rydmark).  In his spare time, he has dreams of the revenge he hopes to one day get on his oppressors.  In the meantime, however, he weakly takes their daily taunts and physical abuse.  A strange man and his supposed daughter move in to the apartment next to Oskar, and around this time various murders begin happening around the city.  Because one of the murders was a child, Oskar’s mother restricts his playtime to the courtyard in front of their apartment building, and it is here one night he meets the girl next door, a pale, strange acting child named Eli (Lina Leandersson).  The two soon become fast friends and, though Oskar knows something is different about Eli, he still accepts her just as she accepts him for his shortcomings.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson on a very low budget in today’s terms for a feature film ($4,000,000), the movie carries quite an eery quality to it throughout. The cinematography and direction, mixed with the stark cold atmosphere naturally provided by the filming location, gives a very disjointed feel to the film.  Being a horror film, this almost unnerving mood fits the story perfectly.  Also, though it never says, I think the film is supposed to take place in the 1980s; either that, or Sweden is way behind technologically from the United States, as all the cars, clothing and housing had a dated feel to them.

The two young actors, Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson do a tremendous job in their roles.  Leandersson, especially, will likely have a long and varied career ahead of her.  Her subtleties in facial expression and body language to put across that she was really a 200-year-old vampire trapped in a 12-year-old girl’s body, was handled better than many adult actors could have achieved.  I also really enjoyed the maturity of the relationship between the characters of Oskar and Eli.  Even though they carried a certain amount of the innocence and naiveté of childhood, their relationship with each other was very much like that of a burgeoning relationship between two adults in the way they spoke to each other and interacted.

In short, this film was a unique and interesting take on the now over played theme of vampirism.  The acting, direction and story came together beautifully to present a film that holds up as a good coming of age drama, as much as it is a horror film.  If the cliches of the horror genre usually annoy you or become tiresome, then this is a smart, clever alternative that makes for a much better viewing experience.

Heathers (1988) Review

3 01 2012

Copyright 1988 New World Pictures

★ ★ ★

Knowing of the cult status of this film for some time, I’d long had a certain level of curiosity as to what it was all about.  Not finding anything else interesting on Netflix Instant Watch last night, Maddie and I decided to give this film a go.  The first 20 or so minutes were a bit concerning as to where the film was going, if anywhere, but, eventually, the movie smoothed itself out for an interesting and enjoyable viewing experience.

In a nutshell, this is a surreal and bizarre analysis of the cliques and daily interactions of high school life, and when I say surreal and bizarre, I mean very much so.  Veronica (Winona Ryder in her first leading role) is a newly initiated popular girl with her friends, the three Heathers (Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk and Shannen Doherty, respectively).  They wreak havoc on the unpopular kids and do the usual things that stereotypical “sassy” popular high school girls would, but Veronica is more disenchanted with their behavior than the others.  After meeting the mysterious new kid, J.D. (Christian Slater), they form a relationship and, subsequently, a pact to dissolve the school of the tortures of high school societal pressures by systematically killing the culprits (i.e. jocks, popular girls, etc.).  As time goes by, however, Veronica realizes the wrongs they are committing are worse than the day-to-day life of high school hierarchy, so she cuts things off with J.D.  Yet, this only fuels his need to “show them all,” leading to his magnum opus to blow up the school and commit such a huge disaster that it will set precedence in high schools across the country.  Though a dark comedy at heart, watching this after the atrocities at Columbine and other schools in America over the past 15 years, the scenes play out a lot more eerily than originally intended.

Every scene of this film elicits a dream-like, spooky feeling; the camera movements, lighting, direction and acting all add to this disjointed mood.  I think it helps keep the point of dark comedy in perspective, as too realist a handling of this subject matter would just be macabre.  Structurally, the film suffers from some unevenness and doesn’t fully pull off what it is trying to achieve I don’t think, but it does clean itself up in the last half and, as mentioned earlier, provided an enjoyable, though not completely satisfying, viewing experience.

The Help (2011) Review

30 12 2011

Copyright 2011 Dreamworks SKG

★ ★ ★ ★

I have to be honest, this was not a film I was expecting to enjoy.  Usually, when the girlfriend and mother are excited about a movie, that means that it will definitely not be my cup of tea.  However, I am pleasantly surprised to report that I enjoyed this movie; I wouldn’t say it is a masterpiece as lauded by some critics, but it’s definitely an enjoyable and solid film.

The story takes place in Jackson, Miss. in 1963, a place where racial intolerance was at an all-time high.  Many African-American women were employed as maids to white families, a job that offered little appreciation and even less pay/benefits.  Aibeleen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer) have been maids, raising and feeding white children, for as long as they can remember.  Free spirited Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is one of the white children that was raised by an African-American maid.  Unlike her blatantly racist “friends”, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), she doesn’t agree with Jim Crow laws and the under appreciation and maltreatment of African-Americans as a lower class.  Wanting to become a novelist, Skeeter takes a job at the local paper, but has higher aspirations of working for Harper and Row in New York.  She gets the idea about interviewing African-American maids in Jackson as a way to tell their story, while also helping her writing career.  Harper and Row are interested in the idea and Skeeter enlists the help of Aibeleen and Minny.  Through the process of writing, Skeeter learns a lot about the life these maids lead and, likewise, within the town, becomes more aware of the racial intolerance and two-sided ways of her peers.

The story has many more plot points than the brief synopsis above, and elicits a well-woven tale of history, friendship, civil action and triumph of the human spirit.  From what I hear from my girlfriend, the book is even more in depth and interesting.  Directed aptly by relative newcomer Tate Taylor and beautifully shot by seasoned veteran Stephen Goldblatt, this is a very solid film; however, the top accolades go to the cast, primarily Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who give some real knock out performances.

As stated at the beginning of this review, this is not the typical type of film I usually enjoy.  So, if I enjoyed it as much as I did, I’m sure it will fit the bill for anyone looking for a well-written, tightly put together drama.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) Review

23 12 2011

Copyright 1971 Warner Brothers Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

I recently watched this film for the third time.  The first screening I had was when I was about 15, then I had to watch it for a class in college and, this time, I was fulfilling my duty as a cinephile in getting my girlfriend, Maddie, to watch the film in its entirety.  Unlike my experience with Goldeneye recently, this film has aged like a fine wine to me over the various screenings at different times in my life.  I think upon my first viewing, I was too young to fully understand and enjoy the subtleties of the film; my second viewing, being for a class, was somewhat diminished, but this viewing was just right.

Though I’m sure most of you have seen this film before, here’s a quick synopsis to refresh your memories.  Young Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is in a sort of near future gang with three other youths known as Droogs; they spend many an evening terrorizing innocents, raping young women and performing other lewd and obscene acts towards society.  One night, while on one of their joy outings soliciting a bit of the old ultra violence, they come to the country home of an author and his wife.  They proceed to rape the wife and brutally beat up the author and make him watch as they ravage his spouse while hauntingly reciting “Singin’ in the Rain”.  Shortly thereafter, one of his Droogs gets the idea of challenging his authority; for that, he pays a hefty price.  However, little does Alex know, that this authoritative beating of his colleague will eventually get them to turn their backs on him and leave him to the police one night when his haunting of an older woman ends up killing her.  He is sentenced to prison, where he is sought after by the other inmates for his youthful looks and delegated to the hardships of prison life.  He strikes a bond with the prison chaplain, and eventually is chosen to be part of a new experiment.  This experiment will get him out of prison early and is supposed to “cure” his evil ways.  Known as the Ludivico Technique, Alex is subjected to various chemicals that create a general unwell feeling in his body as he watches hours upon hours of movie footage that shows women getting raped, people beaten and other atrocities.  They even include his beloved music in the technique by coincidence, killing his ability to enjoy Ludwig van Beethoven and get a nice, warm vibraty feeling all through his gutiiwuts.  Upon release, Alex is found to no longer have a home, is beaten by his former friends who are now with the police and he even makes a wrong turn into the author’s house from years prior for which he pays dearly.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this film still elicits a strong response even in our present day and age.  Many scenes are still shocking in their violence and depiction of moral abuse.  However, what hit me the most with this screening was the theme of the film; I think before, it had eluded me to some degree.  Upon my first viewing, I enjoyed the film, but don’t think that I truly understood the theme in its entirety, my second viewing was of course filled with the nagging over analysis of the film, but this time I felt I truly got the message Kubrick wanted to deliver.  Is the overriding of the freedom of personal choice something we are willing to let be decided by the powers that be in society?  Is the need for order, even by overriding a person’s natural behaviors, a moral or immoral gesture?  What are the consequences of such a decision and how will they play out in that person’s subsequent life?

The atmospheric lighting by John Alcott, precise (as always) directing by Kubrick and general mood of the film creates a reality that is scary to imagine.  The mood is further exemplified by the amazing electronic rendition of Henry Purcell’s “Requiem: Funeral for Queen Mary II” by Wendy Carlos, not to mention the wonderful performance by McDowell in the lead.  Few films are stylized as meticulously as this one, and though difficult to watch on a basic level, the thoughts and questions it provokes are rewarding in the end.

My Name is Bond Series: Goldeneye (1995)

21 12 2011

Copyright 1995 EON Productions

★ ★ ★ ★

A viewing of this film from the other night was probably the first time I had seen this movie in its entirety since soon after its home video release in the mid-1990s.  Being that I was only six-years-old when Licence to Kill came out in 1989, and there was a nearly six year hiatus between films due to various problems and law suits, this was the first Bond movie that I was able to see upon release in theaters.  For that, it does hold a special place in my heart; however, my viewing of this film as an adult has diminished my memories slightly from the grandness it was to my twelve-year-old mind.

The pre-title sequence takes place nine years earlier than the rest of the film and recounts Bond’s loss of good friend Alex Trevelyan, aka 006 (Sean Bean), to Russian General Ourumov while on a mission in Russia.  Fast forward nine years later, while on a bit of a retreat and review, Bond runs into gorgeous Xenia Onatopp (get it? “On the Top”), portrayed by Famke Janssen.  Suspicious of her background, Bond follows her and catches on that she is planning to steal a top secret Tiger Helicopter.  Too late to stop her, she and an unnamed accomplice get away with the helicopter during a publicity event demonstrating the vehicles functions.  Her accomplice turns out to be General Ouromov and, with him, they destroy a military communications base in Russia and steal vital information about the Goldeneye project, which is an electromagnetic pulse device.  The only two survivors of the siege on the communications base are programmers Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming) and Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco).  Grishenko we find later is assisting the antagonist, and Natalya becomes the good Bond girl figure for the remainder of the movie.  In investigating the destruction of the base, Bond uncovers an villain he would have never presumed and then goes on to save the world as usual.

Whew!  That plot is harder to condense than you would think, but in reality, its not as complicated as it sounds.  I was blown away by this film when I saw it in the theaters in 1995; I’m sure a large degree of this was due to my never having experienced Bond on the big screen, and my age at the time.  Seeing the movie again at 28, I can’t say that it was as pleasing for me as it was when I was younger.  It’s still a good Bond film, possibly still Brosnan’s best, but not near as interesting or exciting of many others in the canon.  Though I will admit, Famke Janssen is as hot to me now as when I was a kid – that might be the only constant variable in the two viewings; what can I say, sometimes I’m a sucker for the bad girl.

In the end, however, it was just a “good” movie to me, rather than “great” as it once was.  Literally every line out of Brosnan’s mouth is a pun or a cute comment, this didn’t bother me years ago, but drove me nuts this time around.  Furthermore, I think I am just too familiar with the story to truly enjoy it, as I saw it in the theatre and on VHS years ago and played the heck out of the Goldeneye video game for the Nintendo 64.  Heck, I still play that game sometimes.  All and all, I chalked the review up to mix my feelings of long ago with my feelings upon recent viewing and feel that I’ve satisfied both my twelve-year-old and 28-year-old opinions on this movie.

Hugo (2011) Review

19 12 2011

Copyright 2011 Paramount Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

It was a bit perplexing at first, hearing that acclaimed director Martin Scorsese’s new movie would be a children’s fantasy tale in 3-D; however, in the end, I was pleasantly surprised and delighted by the visual and storytelling experience.

The film is based off the part novel, part graphic novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick.  Young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in the Montparnasse station winding the clocks after the death of his father and desertion of his uncle, the true clock winder for the station.  His father (Jude Law), who was also a clockmaker and mechanical expert, left Hugo an Automaton, a mechanical man that can be wound up and draw pictures or write poems that are pre-programmed in the mechanics, he found at the museum in which he worked.  Prior to his death, he and Hugo were working on fixing the automaton.  Determined to complete the project, Hugo scrounges parts here and there around the station to finish his project; some parts are taken from toy maker and shop owner, George (Ben Kingsley).  Upon getting caught stealing, he develops a sort of relationship with George, but much more so one with George’s granddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz).  The two young children’s adventures together lead them to finding out more and more about George and, eventually, opening up a chapter in his life that he had long put aside.

Without giving too much away about the film, in short, it is a movie about the magic of the movies, the love of illusion, and most of all, the imagination of childlike wonder.  Scorsese, at nearly 70 years old, has beautifully captured the look and feel of what it was like to be a child, and in doing so, created a wonderfully satisfying piece of filmmaking.  Furthermore, if you opt to see the film in 3-D, I would hasten to say that the three dimensional effects in this film are some of the best I have ever seen.  Rather than using the element of 3-D filmmaking to just throw stuff off the screen at the audience, Scorsese uses the medium to full effect in creating an environment that wholly works for the film itself.

Performances by all the lead actors and supporting cast of Sacha Baron Cohen, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, and others are excellent.  The cinematography, set design, editing, script, every part of this film comes together beautifully to create a lasting and timeless piece of filmmaking in my opinion.  It’s films like this that make me see that there is still hope in the world of cinema.

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) Review

8 12 2011

Copyright 2011 Participant Media

★ ★ ★ ★

Having worked in the newspaper industry for just under one year in 2008, I am fully aware of the hardships the industry is going through.  The paper where I worked, which was a small tri-weekly 6,000 circulation local paper, had once printed its own papers on site, had a devoted staff and large work area.  During my tenure, the paper was hit with another round of lay-offs, the printing on site was long gone and outsourced to a sister company and we were moved from the town we covered to the sister company’s offices in a larger close-by market.  In the end, our paper was reduced to an editor, sports editor, myself (as News Assistant and later Features Editor) and one full-time devoted reporter.  

This film studies essentially the same problems my little rural North Carolina paper was going through, but at one of the most prominent newspapers in the country, The New York Times.  The Times has long be heralded as one of, if not the, most important newspapers in the world.  Many times, stories that first appear in The Times will appear in other papers two to three days later.  Their reporters have long been the gold standard in the industry and have garnered a slew of Pulitzer Prizes.  In this film, which covers from about 2008-2010, we see the effects of the digital world on this behemoth of a paper.  Lay-offs, uncertainty, astronomical financial loss, all of these are analyzed and touched on by, not only Times reporters, but also people from the digital media industry.  With a focus on The Times’ new media unit, we see the stresses of everyday life in the print industry and how they are trying to cope with what is happening to their industry.  The most important point throughout, however, is that we need good, solid reporting of the news, no matter how it is digested.

When I saw recently that CNN laid off a large number of dedicated photojournalists in favor of free, individual uploaded content on iReport, I almost got sick to my stomach.  A Lamen with a camera phone in their backyard is not reporting.  In these days and times when our country is in dark peril, we need reporters who are going to go out and report our news content with the highest of integrity.  Though it may seem easy to some, good reporting is a skill like any other that takes education, practice and years of trial and error.  To reduce this profession to any 12-year-0ld with a video camera is a disgrace and not the kind of society I want to live in.

I have had two positions since my time at the newspaper and, even though they are more in line with what my degree and core interests are, I think I enjoyed the day to day work of the paper more than either of the other two.  Yet, making a living in the newspaper industry is extremely difficult.  These are trained professionals making less than $30,000 a year much of the time.  I hope a bridge between quality content and the digital spectrum can be reached soon, not only for the sake of my friends in journalism, but for the sake of the content we will receive as the end user.  I realize I have gotten up on a pedestal about this topic, but it is one that is close to the heart.  In regards to the film itself, it is a well done and engaging documentary that I think anyone interested in the state of our newspaper industry should watch.

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