Drive (2011)

A Note: I’m no longer going to post review summaries, seeing as they are redundant and often pass over points I stress in the bodies of the reviews themselves.  So there it is.  

You are seated on a ratty bed in a motel room. All is still, and quiet. There is a woman in the bathroom, crying. You hear something outside the door. The knob moves ever so slightly. Outside the bathroom, a man raises a shotgun. You roll over and take hold of the mattress, throw it at the door, and–

Saying any more would spoil one of the fantastic action sequences in Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliant ‘Drive’, an adaptation of James Sallis‘ neo-noir novel. This, like ‘No Country For Old Men‘, is a master class in suspense.  What Refn does in silence and stillness is infinitely more effective than the roar and the shake of the generic modern action picture.  Here is a film where we can look into a performer’s eyes and see the soul behind them, or the lack thereof, and so much more is said in the pauses than the scant lines of dialog.  Here is a film with bright neon and deep shadows, with rumbling engines and the creak of leather gloves.  Here is a film where a moment of love and one of violence can occur in frightful sequence stretched out so long we feel we will snap.  I daresay, quite pompously, here is a film.

Before I go any further, take a look at this two minute clip of the film’s opening sequence on the Cannes Festival site.  Now you know what we’re talking about.

According to Refn, in an interview with Jeff Goldsmith on the Q&A Podcast, the idea was to translate fairy tale archetypes into a neo-noir setting. Gosling’s Man With No Name character, the Driver, is therefore the Knight, prompted to protect the Damsel, who is played by the stunning Carey Mulligan.  But there’s no point in using archetypes, in my view, unless you subvert them, as is par for the course when you’re talking film noir.  Refn goes on to describe the now infamous scene in the elevator (you’ll have to see it; probably between your fingers) as the film in a bottle, the central moral conflict displayed at its clearest.  It is the ultimate neo noir sequence; it demonstrates the director’s ability to slow down time and extend a powerful, beautiful moment, only to shatter it with an act of brutality, severing the link between the Knight and the Damsel beyond repair, on account of their natures which they cannot compromise.

Every supporting performance in the film is wonderfully wrought, but I’d like to further highlight Gosling and Mulligan.  They play the two sides of the coin, and share a quietness and an ability to communicate best with their eyes and the slightest movements of their lips.  As Refn observes in the Q&A interview, filmmakers and audiences are often scared of silence, and I would add that this is because dialog is the clothing which naked emotion demands.  Refuse to cover it, however, and the scene is wrought with suspense; sometimes of the dangerous kind, sometimes of the sexual, sometimes of the moral.  If you want to know if your male and female leads have chemistry, put them in a scene together where they cannot speak, but have so much to say.  Suffice it to say, Gosling and Mulligan have it, and that tension underlines the whole film.

Nicholas Winding Refn clearly understands something so damn crucial to the art that it makes some other filmmakers appear downright pathetic.  If you, the hypothetical filmmaker, have a whole movie full of giant robots blasting through skyscrapers with lasers and missiles, and you still can’t manage the visceral shock generated by a single sound in Refn’s film, you’re doing it wrong.  Stop making movies.  If you’re a filmgoer, however, and you would rather be awash in the mind-numbing, meaningless chaos of a ‘Transformers’ film than seek out the human truth present in films running the gamut between ‘Drive’ and ‘The King’s Speech’, than you should probably stop watching movies.  Yes, I know I’m being harsh and leaning hard on hyperbole; but there is nevertheless such a thing as taste, and an obligation as an informed viewer to cultivate the good and shirk the bad.

If there’s anything wrong with ‘Drive’, is that it has no business being this good, much less in this market, with ungrateful audiences who will gladly patronize the latest regurgitated fluff and somehow still find room to complain about the lack of original material.  Seriously, people; this movie might not be your cup of tea, but it’s a damn sight better than most fare.  In truth, ‘Drive’ is an anachronism, something you could’ve caught an auteur making in the ’70s and early ’80s.  It makes me rather giddy to declare this thing Kubrickian.

For further exploration of this film, I recommend, of course, the excellent interview referenced earlier, as well as the hilarious (and insightful) thoughts of Film Critic Hulk; Matthew DeKinder’s review; Laremy Legel’s review; Jim Emerson’s thoughts (though I disagree thoroughly on some points); a very good comment on Emerson’s site; and anything else of repute you happen to find on Google.

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Classic Review: The Truman Show

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A true modern classic, delving deep into philosophy while not compromising its broad appeal.

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Review:  Wait.  ‘The Truman Show’.  Classic?  It’s only 11 years old!  It’s not as famous as films from the same decade, like ‘Jurrasic Park’ and ‘The Matrix’!

Yeah, that’s right.  I just read your mind.

Well, not really.  ‘The Truman Show’, directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey in a role that took him from strictly comedy to dynamic drama, came out in 1998 and was the 11th highest grossing film of the year.  I remember going to see the film in theaters, while my brother went to go see Roland Emmerich’s ‘Godzilla’ (which I still hold to be a fun B-movie).  I didn’t get the philosophical backbone of the story at the time, but looking back on it, I realize it is very rich.  It’s a dystopian sci-fi drama about a man, Truman Burbank, whose entire life is faked.  He lives inside the world’s largest structure, a dome containing an island and a faux ocean.  The first child legally adopted by a corporation, he is being viewed, unawares, by an audience of millions on television.  Christof, the creator of the show, fancies himself Truman’s caretaker and a true artist, but some disagree.  Conscientious people are constantly trying to break in and warn Truman that his life isn’t what it seems.

The story is very close to the philosopher Plato’s allegory of ‘The Cave’, which I’ll let you look up on your own.  The idea being that Truman, once he discovers that his world is a fake, cannot go back.  He has to get free.  Since everybody around him in the dome is an actor, he starts breaking his daily routine to throw them off.  He erratic behavior is especially affecting to his “wife”, who ends up breaking character in front of him in a moment of desperation.  Carrey’s performance, as he goes from happy, to discontented, to dangerous and rebellious, is utterly convincing.  Equally convincing is Christof, played by Ed Harris, who shows us a man so obsessed with his work that he fancies himself a god.

So far I haven’t mentioned why this is a classic.  Obviously, it just hasn’t been long enough- and isn’t popular enough -to be considered universally a classic film.  Some do, however, citing it as “prophetic” of the coming of reality television in the 2000s.  I would agree.  It is an excellent, excellent movie, both funny and heartwrenching, with an excellent score to boot.  The visual effects seem a little subpar, especially in contrast to the following year’s hit ‘The Matrix’, but they are adequate.

‘The Truman Show’ is dystopian, in that it shows us just how far we can take our entertainment.  When we treat people as objects, who knows what lengths we will take to ensure perfect entertainment.  The motivation for trapping a human being in the dome is a desire for genuineness.  Truman, Christof explains, lives in a fake world, but his every feeling is real.  Christof seems convinced that he has the right to give Truman life or take it away, for  the sake of the show.  Truman is an object to him.  From Truman’s point of view, freedom is the ability to take control of his own life and to live from his heart.  The film illustrates why the doctrine of free will is so instinctual; we have to be in control of our own lives, whether in the end we are good or evil.  Determinism threatens this, and makes human desire seem irrelevant.  If desire is irrelevant, then so is creativity, exploration, love.  All that makes us human is stripped away.  Truman made the decision to be free from the shadow world (look at ‘The Cave’, please), and in doing so preserved his freedom.  He had only an illusion of freedom previously, but since he was enlightened, he couldn’t turn back.  It is established that he has a crippling fear of water early on in the film, and as he approaches the film’s climax, he overcomes it and takes a boat out on the faux sea.  His humanity gave him the strength to overcome his fear.

Most definitely a 4 star film.  I heartily suggest you rent it, or buy it.  Take a good, long look at ‘The Truman Show’.

Classic Review: Jaws

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A mesmerizing, thrilling adventure that transcends the trappings of its genre.

I can almost guarantee youve seen this poster before.

I can almost guarantee you've seen this poster before.

Review:  Bah… dum.  Bah…. dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum. Bah-DUM!  Almost anyone you ask will identify the theme to this film, a testimony to the brilliance of a young John Williams, in his first of many collaborations with director Steven Spielberg.

This first film was ‘Jaws’.

Based on a popular novel, Spielberg’s clever adaption has earned a reputation entirely detached from its source material.  It’s an amazing testament to the production crew’s resilience that this film was ever finished.  They were beset with numerous problems from the get-go, but as necessity is the mother of invention, they managed to turn these lemons into a pitcher of suspenseful lemonade.  Audiences in 1975 clearly agreed, and the film became the very first bona-fide summer blockbuster.  It is clear that ‘Jaws’, due to its broad appeal and lasting popularity, is more than a horror film; it is a suspense masterpiece on the level of Alfred Hitchcock himself.

The film opens with what is arguably the most horrific moment of its entire narrative.  The death of a young woman, going for a midnight skinny-dip, is the only time I felt truly disturbed.  Granted, it’s bloodless and simply ends with her being pulled underwater, but the sound effects, music, and especially the young actress’ convincing performance makes it unwatchable.  It also proves only an implication is necessary; the minds of the audience members are quite adequate in deducing the lurid details.

After this, it picks up. Amity’s Police Chief, Martin Brody, played by the late Roy Scheider, goes out to investigate the report of a body on the beach.  After discovering the woman’s remains, he immediately concludes that there is a killer shark on the loose, and sets out to close the beaches.  And now we are introduced to our first conflict, presented to Brody by the Mayor.  He warns that the July 4th weekend is coming up, and thus the beaches must stay open, for the sake of the town economy.  Amity’s biggest week can’t be shut down based on one isolated incident.  Brody, still skeptical, continues to lobby for closing the beaches, while the word gets out about the shark attack.

With the stage set, the filmmakers continue to up the threat- or possibly perceived threat- of the shark until it reaches a breaking point for Brody.  His own son is nearly killed by the shark, and he finally enlists the help of the eccentric fisherman Quint (played by Robert Shaw), and Matthew Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss).  The three men get on Quint’s boat, the Orca, and head out into open sea in search of the monster.

To this point in the film, the shark, a Great White, is never fully seen.  One day on the boat, Brody is instructed by Quint to throw out chum (dead fish and the various trappings of dead fish), in order to draw the shark.  It sure does, giving the audience- and Brody- quite a shock.  Brody quickly retreats to the cabin, and famously warns Quint, “You’re going to need a bigger boat”.  The men then spring into action, spotting the shark again and estimating its size to be around 25 feet long.  Brilliantly, in this film it doesn’t really matter that the shark is huge, as intimidating as that is.  Since footage of the shark is sparse, due to issues with the animatronic model they used during filming, the shark is more a presence or character than a monster.  You really believe it is out to get those men on the boat.

There is no disputing the fact that the film is quite terrifying, especially if you don’t know anything about it.  Every frame, once they are on the water, is wrought with underlying tension.  The shark is a constant threat.  Nevertheless, there is something that distinguishes it, for me, from being a horror film.  The tone is much closer to one of Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run adventures, such as ‘North by Northwest’, than that other Hitchcock film, ‘Psycho’.  Some of the shark’s victims do bleed, and some are dismembered, but I never got a sense of violence any more extreme than Spielberg’s later work, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, with one exception, that being the opening scene.

All things considered, ‘Jaws’ is very well crafted.  It has stood the test of time.  It’s a shame that when filmmakers nowadays want to thrill moviegoers with a scary movie, they resort to sadistic, self-parodying schlock films in the vein of ‘Saw’ or ‘Friday the 13th’ as opposed to a genuine adventure like ‘Jaws’.  An adventure, if it is truly an adventure, should be scary.  There’s nothing wrong with having a film that respects human life whilst instilling genuine suspense.  I suppose that’s what truly separates ‘Jaws’ from horror… a filmmaker who knew the audience was there to have fun, not be disgusted.  Sort of like Hitchcock.