U.S.: Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011, Sony
Drive is an L.A. street action movie to tighten your throat, twist your guts and set your pulse racing. But there's thought in the show too. Story-wise, it's lean, mean and stripped to the bone, but it's also drenched with modish, chic visual style and a few ideas about modern life and what it does to us and others. Especially the drivers.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the flashy Dane of The Pusher Trilogy and Bronson, it's about a movie stunt driver played by Ryan Gosling who steers getaway cars as a "night" job. At home, in his rare down-time, he falls in love with the woman down the hall: nervous Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) just got out of the slammer and is now being forced into another heist himself by the shady moneymen Nino and Bernie (played by Ron Perlman, who's good, and Albert Brooks, who is tremendous).
Drive is full of well-executed action scenes and sharp acting and ironic/iconic dialogue and that ultra-snazzy visual style, all glowing colors and deep shadows -- all of which helped win Refn the Best Director prize at the last Cannes Film Festival. It's a movie built largely out of our memories of other movies, but that's not necessarily bad. We know where this show is coming from early, as soon as we know Gosling's character has no name but The Driver -- just like Ryan O'Neal in Walter Hill's 1978 The Driver or Dwayne Johnson in the recent Faster.
Neo-noir is this picture's middle name, and its forebears are The Driver (of course), John Boorman's 1968 Point Blank with Lee Marvin, Peter Yates' 1968 Bullitt with Steve McQueen, William Friedkin's 1971 The French Connection, Clint Eastwood's modern shoot-'em ups, Michael Mann's outlaw movies Thief (1980) and Heat (1995) -- and even perhaps Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 Le Samourai, which has a hero, hit man Jef (played by Alain Delon) who's just as cool, just as silent, murderous and secretly romantic as Gosling's Driver is here.
As you'd expect from a movie with that kind of lineage, Drive begins with a great action-chase-street-set-piece, and it gives us a little -- a very little -- dip under Gosling's opaque exterior (a mask, chewing a toothpick) by letting us know that he's a movie stunt driver by day, and a freelance getaway driver by night or off-hours. (He allows his robber/clients only a five-minute leeway to get to his car from the time they set after pulling their jobs).
He's also a prospective racing car driver, for whom his damaged auto shop owner/patron Shannon (Bryan Cranston) wants to get sponsorship -- with Shannon turning to the very same criminal financiers, Nino and Bernie, who want Standard to pull a job for them, a job for which Standard wants The Driver to drive.
And The Driver does, mostly because he's in love with Standard's wife, Irene and his little son Benicio (Kaden Leos).
As the movie goes on, it alternates its always-thrilling action scenes with the more emotional character stuff -- including that very brilliant turn, an Oscar-worthy one, by Brooks as the deceptively good-natured gangster, financier and ex-movie producer Bernie. Drive also gets more violent, and the violent scenes are short, but extremely bloody. Since the movie plays some of its carnage with razor-sharp comic timing (especially Brooks' scenes), it becomes more and more disturbing as well.
Drive definitely doesn't suggest that crime pays, just that it can look good while it goes over the edge. But it's true that there's something sinister and icily detached about that kind of comic violence. Drive suggests a world where brutality is rampant, where greed rules, where immorality thrives. But look around you: Is that view all that wrong? The movie may be stylized, but it knows where the underworld dirt is.
The Big Year (B-)
U. S.: David Frankel, 2011, 20th Century Fox
"Nice" and "good-hearted" are two adjectives that you can sincerely and honestly apply to the movie The Big Year, an all-star comedy (Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Steve Martin) about a big annual North American contest for birdwatchers -- excuse me, birders.
"Funny," however, it's not -- despite Mr. Martin, despite Mr. Wilson, despite Mr. Black.
Perhaps that's because movie or TV comedy, which can be gentle and warm and humane and also be great, also needs a certain amount of acid to keep its motor running, at least sometimes. And The Big Year -- which pits its three stars against each other as the prime competitors in a race to see who can spot and record the most birds in a single year (a "big" one), just doesn't have enough mustard for its honey.
A pity -- because the movie also has a gleaming, well-upholstered production to go with its top cast -- and it is a top cast. Black plays joyously unkempt computer ace Brad Harris. Wilson is slick drive contractor and birder legend Kenny Bostick. And Martin, using that seraphic smile of his, plays joy-filled retired CEO Stu Preissler -- three men who have enough time on their hands and/or money in the bank, to devote an entire year to the great bird chase.
And backing them up, in parts that don't overly tax their talents, or their capacities for niceness, is the estimable assembly of Dianne Wiest, Anjelica Huston, Brian Dennehy, Rashida Jones, Tim Blake Nelson, JoBeth Williams and Kevin Pollak, with John Cleese (no nicey-nice he, usually) handling the narration. For starwatchers that's a total of 11, and we've just started. Incidentally, the contest birders are on the honor system, which -- though one more cheat would have livened the show up a bit -- makes this an unusually gentlemanly (and nice) competition.
The director, David Frankel, has a stellar record on TV (Band of Brothers, Sex and the City, Entourage), and a good one in movies (from the acid high-fashion The Devil Wears Prada, to the honeyed dog story Marley and Me). He's the son of Max Frankel, the one-time executive editor of The New York Times, and much of the movie struck me as having the tone and temperament of a New York Times-ish party, packed with classy appetizers and national celebrities, a little dull perhaps, but well-appointed, goodhearted, gleaming, nicely done in most respects.
You may think I'm strictly suggesting more, and more biting, comedy as an antidote to this film's occasional dull lapses. That would help, but what it's also missing are the actual wonder and joys of bird watching (excuse me, birding), the beauty of all those winged marvels and their soaring lives in the skies and trees above us. The Big Year has a formula it follows, a little shallow and repetitive. It tends to show us Black, Wilson, and Martin staring raptly at birds; then we get a smidgen of birdlife -- and not always real birds at that.
A suggestion. Ty to schedule a double feature, pairing The Big Year with one of two truly wondrous ornithological documentaries available: Winged Migration, produced and co-directed by Jacques Perrin, or The Life of Birds, written and narrated by David Attenborough. Then you'll see what magic The Big Years could have had and is missing -- besides missing a few mean laughs.
Dream House (C)
U.S.: Jim Sheridan, 2011, Universal Studios
In Dream House, an almost mystifying misfire, a would-be classy, smart horror movie that self-destructs, Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton, a New York City publishing house editor who quits his job and moves out of the city -- with his angelic wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and their two adorable daughters Trish and Dee Dee (Taylor and Claire Geare, of Inception) -- to write a novel in the rustic comfort of homey, small-town New England. Soon enough, however, Will learns that the dream house he purchased is more of a nightmare.
Somebody murdered three people there, a mother and two children, and whoever it was may be lurking around again.
Since the movie is set in New England, you might expect the novelist to look or act a bit like New Englander Stephen King -- though Daniel Craig (007) has a wounded but literate mug that's right for this character, just as Weisz and the Geare girls are good choices for his family. But instead, it's the movie that gives you the déjà vubies. The plot resembles, in many ways, King's best book, The Shining, with a touch of Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island, two novels that were turned into excellent movies.
Dream House, by contrast, is an original by David Loucka (The Dream Team) and it simply, deceptively, has the look of a classy novel-derived picture, as well as a very good cast: the four above plus Naomi Watts as Ann Patterson, the woman next door, Martin Csokas as her angry ex-husband, Elias Koteas as a sinister kibitzer, and Jane Alexander as a compassionate psychiatrist.
Lusty Irish director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, The Field) and sometimes great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff) are the pair that make this move look good -- scary and plush. The script, though -- a critical cliché these days -- makes the movie a shallow, unconvincing, faintly obnoxious time-waster, unless the culprits are the people who took the movie out of Sheridan's hands and re-edited it. That script lacks everything it might need to compete with its models -- or even to compete with The Amityville Horror.
The basic situation of Dream House makes no sense (even on its own genre terms,), the ending is annoyingly off he wall, and the ending after the ending is even worse. Probably the only way to get scared watching it is to bring a Stephen King novel into the theater and read it by flashlight.