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.

MMM: How To Train The Social Speech

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three selections from the Oscar nominated scores of 2010.


‘The King’s Speech’ has a marvelous score by Alexandre Desplat, as warm and human as the film. The title track blends reserved whimsy with tension and unfolding tragedy.


‘The Social Network’ won the Best Score Oscar, and it deserved it. Very inventive and memorable, it’s a shame that the Academy didn’t recognize the same level of invention present in the film itself.


‘How To Train Your Dragon’ is a film I haven’t seen. John Powell, one of the most prolific working composers these days, really outdid himself here. Evocative, with unique instrumentation and lovely progression. Truly listenable.

The King’s Speech

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Warm, resonant, and perfectly crafted cinema that pops with strong performances.

Review:  Something I notice about great movies is that they often play so strongly that it makes me wonder how everybody else missed the mark.  The drama is so deceptively organic that it leaves me, the stumbling storyteller, wondering how I became such a dunce.  If filmmaking is like a farming metaphor, ‘The King’s Speech’ was ripe for the picking.  If in truth we’re all walking about blindfolded, director Tom Hooper and company had fate’s guiding hand.  It’s so good that they must have cheated.

I’ll put off the puffery for a moment.  ‘The King’s Speech’ appears as a simple story, an inspirational drama about overcoming personal difficulties to do great things.  The trouble is, great movies like this aren’t simple, they’re just compact.  The tapestry is woven tight.  There are no bizarre rabbit trails or meaningless moments bridging story beats.  Every word, every shot, every emotional beat is part of the organism.  No perfect dividing line exists between good and bad cinema, but certainly one of them is unity.

Here’s what I mean.  ‘The King’s Speech’ appears simple because its emotional center never sways, always developing the central character in direct and indirect ways, examining him from every angle; character, culture, criticisms, and whatever is necessary.  If you said, “It’s a film about British monarchy in the early days of World War II”, you would be partly correct.  In a strictly dramatic sense, the only reason the British monarchy is in this story about a king is that it reveals something about his character, a vital part of his emotional journey.  Even saying, “It’s about speech therapy“, is not completely on the mark.

There’s a tool you’ve probably heard of that storytellers use to help isolate the kernel of emotional truth behind a good story.  This is a premise.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, just dramatically sufficient.  Consider this version of the premise from IMDB:  “The story of King George VI of Britain, his impromptu ascension to the throne and the speech therapist who helped the unsure monarch become worthy of it.” If in some way any moment of the film diverts from this premise, there’s something wrong.  You’ll notice.  Compromising unity is like breaking a bone.  It makes forward movement awkward at best.   Again, I quote Stanley Kubrick, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction.  It should be a progression of moods and feelings.  The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” Filmmaking is not like writing a novel, designing a video game, or painting, well, a painting.  They all have things in common, to be sure, but in effect film is music evolved.

Okay, now that I’ve rattled off my usual cool, detached analysis, here’s a little specificity.  I loved, perhaps most of all, the familial element.  Despite a distinctly tragic backdrop — both personally for George VI and culturally — it felt warm.  Human.  Relatable.  Whimsical, maybe.  I had this big silly grin on my face for most of its running time; that is, when the filmmakers weren’t yanking the tears out of my ducts.  Partially it was from the clear, classical craftsmanship, but mostly it came from the performances.  If Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush get Oscars, they deserve them.  Unsung, I feel, is Guy Pearce as Edward VIII.  I didn’t realize it was him until the theater lights came on.  And I mustn’t forget Helena Bonham Carter!  She’s the picture’s backbone.

I love this film.  As a resonant, accessible story (forget the swearing!) and clever cinema, it’s not only Oscar-worthy, it’s classic.

NR: The Sci-Fi Ghetto

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

It’s painfully predictable that I would comment on the Oscar nominations (find them all here), but I’m going to do it anyway.  My interest, though, is in one particular issue that continues to torture nerds, geeks, otaku of certain colors, and anybody with an interest in fair play.  It’s the aptly named sci-fi ghetto.

This is the stigma associated with science fiction and fantasy works of all kinds that often prevents them from being taken seriously by most critics.  As enlightened critic Andrew Gordon points out, “…certain film genres are read as ‘less fictional’ (Westerns, gangster, and war films) and others as ‘more fictional’ (the musical, horror, and fantasy).” [1] It’s a skewed understanding of fiction and, sadly, a prevalent attitude.  Ursula Le Guin found that, in America, the cultural mindset is “to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful”, which she ties to “our Puritanism”. [2] Many great movies are ignored at the Oscars as a result.  They tend to get technical awards, but Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, etc. are reserved for “higher” movies.  After all, who needs that juvenile, unsophisticated, fast food genre junk?

Oh… Oh, that’s right, okay.

A really good example of the cultural dissonance between what the Oscars deign to honor and what the public actually appreciates is in the case of the 55th Academy Awards, where ‘Gandhi’ beat ‘E.T.’ for Best Picture.  Richard Attenborough, the director of ‘Gandhi’, said “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” [3] By quoting this I am not implying that historical dramas are all “mundane”, but that a movie’s emotional power transcends its trappings.  There’s no reason a sci-fi, fantasy, or (to add a veggie to this stew) an animated film should be disregarded because its subject or narrative style is distinctly different from so-called “less fictional” works.  Either it’s good or it isn’t.

While ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ were given nominations this year, there’s little hope of them winning, for the reasons I gave above.  I’m inclined to believe that ‘The Social Network’ will win for being a topical, up-to-date film, even over other dramas like ‘The King’s Speech’.  I’m not sure that it’s the year’s best picture, but I don’t believe that I’m qualified to make that judgment.  I don’t believe the Academy is either, for that matter.  The difficulty I have with the Academy’s pending decision is that ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’s loss due to critical snobbery is a foregone conclusion.  I’d love to be proven wrong.

NR: The Importance Of Poster Art

James here.

Some of you are aware of the recent commotion over a particularly bad poster for Tom Hooper’s new historical drama ‘The King’s Speech’.  Slashfilm, among others, posted something about it.  My thoughts are not so much about the poster’s obvious badness as they are about the relationship between advertisement and a movie’s narrative, and how critical it is to make the movie live outside the cinema.  I’m about to make a whole bunch of pretentious, arrogant and repetitive statements, so take it as my thought process, written out for your edification.

Bad King's Speech Poster

The above is a bad poster. Why? Because it doesn’t communicate the film’s essence. It looks, as many have said, like an ad for a run-of-the-mill Hallmark movie.  There’s nothing wrong, per se, with putting your stars up front and center.  If you do so, you should use them to get your film’s premise, themes, core emotions, and actions across.   You see, the title says ‘The King’s Speech’ but the photoshopped stars do not.  If I saw this in a theater lobby, I’d glance at it, probably without it registering in any meaningful way, and move on to a more interesting poster.

Sam Smith, a designer of good posters, spent just 30 minutes and came up with something excellent, in my opinion.  It is, by his own admission, rough, but it works.

Note that it makes the title pop and stick in the brain. ‘The King’s Speech’, visualized in such a humorous and bizarre way, now seems a good deal more intriguing. The names of the stars are still prominent. With more time and money invested, you could turn out a detailed poster with, say, Colin Firth’s face reflected in the period-era mic. Weird, yes. Memorable, yes.

Cinema works on the saturation quotient.  Of course, you must have all the right elements, but once you do, you grow them.  A story is a living thing.  A big, populist story — like, say, a movie — should be a very big, unavoidable living thing.  Advertising is not just the way that artists and investors tempt people to come in, pay hard-earned money and sit in the dark for two hours.  Done right, it’s seduction of the best kind.  We want to be seduced.  We want to believe.  The wise advertiser knows not to merely sell the product, but to tell the story, and storytelling is all about raising questions, getting hooks in, creating possibilities.  Film advertising should imply a world.

For the most part, Hollywood gets this.  It’s why viral marketing exists, and works.  Still, I’m frustrated by the overwhelming number of bad posters out there.  Posters are critical.  I think I remember a good poster and a good trailer more than any other aspect of marketing.  Other ads tend to draw from these two, so that’s probably why.  So, if your movie’s poster is as lazy as that of the ‘The King’s Speech’, it’s not a good sign.  Take a page from artists like Sam Smith and find the central, intriguing image(s) that made your movie come together, consciously or unconsciously.  If a movie doesn’t have a discernible compelling image, don’t bother advertising.  Save your money and ours.

Budding filmmakers like myself need to embrace marketing as an artistic challenge.  It’s easy to sell the movie short by making the main event the only thing of substance.  That’s all wrong.  Treat the movie like a bucket of paint and splash it all over the wall.  Make it unforgettable.  Make it a world.