Tag: movie review

Movie Review: Drive

 

Drive is a strange movie. As an action film it’s too slow. As a character piece it’s character isn’t super compelling. As a crime movie it focuses very little on the crimes. However, as a movie it’s really great. It is like Hanna in that the style propels the film more than any other element. It is like Hanna in that it does some things that you wouldn’t expect from a movie about a guy that drives really well. It is like Hanna in that it’s one of the best films of the year so far. In fact, only Hanna is better than this, from what I’ve seen.

Nicolas Winding Refn‘s first “American” movie is about Ryan Gosling‘s Driver, a guy that drives really well. Sometimes he does it on the racetrack, other times he does it on Hollywood sets, but he gets the real bucks being a getaway driver for various criminals as they crime their way through Los Angeles. As I looked through Gosling’s IMDb sheet I was shocked to find I’d only seen him in two other things: Remember the Titans and an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. And I don’t remember him in either. I don’t know how I missed most of his career, but he’s really good here. He doesn’t have much to say in terms of dialogue but the way he inhabits the Driver character is pretty great. You can tell all you need to know from the movement of his eyes or the way he puts on his driving gloves.

And the movie gives you enough time to study those performance elements. It’s not the crazy, non-stop, kinetic wonderland that Hanna is. It’s a slow, deliberate, methodical film. As you might expect from a movie called Drive, there’s a lot of time spent going from place to place. But this isn’t wasted time. It’s time for the Driver to think, and time for us to watch him process the world. The actual car chase scenes are few and far between, though done very well and in a way that I haven’t seen before. In an early scene we see the Driver lose the cops, then get spotted again, then lost, then spotted. It makes sense in a way that I haven’t seen on film before. He doesn’t go around destroying the police cars or anything, he just knows exactly what he’s doing and in doing so evades the cops eventually.

There’s also a few other people in the movie. I’ve always liked Carey Mulligan and she’s charming as ever in this film. She doesn’t have much to do other than fall in love and then find out who the Driver really is, but she plays those moments well. You understand what’s going on with her at all times, just like you do with the Driver. The other important character is the main crime boss, played by Albert Brooks. This isn’t the typical role for Brooks, a mostly serious and seriously screwed up bad guy. He does the role well, though, and it’s easy to see how he became such a big guy in the LA underworld.

The direction is phenomenal. The movie is very stylish, from the way the camera moves to the intensity of the lighting and the use of slo-mo everything is working overtime to bring you into the Driver’s world. There are a few scenes of violence that top most of movie-dom in terms of what you see and hear, though it’s interesting to note that after somebody gets their head blown off in all of it’s gory glory, the camera declines to show the next person’s death. It’s an interesting choice to stay on the Driver instead of cutting to his opponent’s bloody body and an effective one. Nothing would top the explosion of blood and brains so instead we see how the Driver deals with his first bloody act. The score, too, errs on the obvious side. Besides the pulsing electronic score by Cliff Martinez there are some songs that get right to the point of what the Driver is feeling at the moment. The lyrics can be a bit on the nose but in a movie called Drive which plays everything in an up-front and stylish way they fit right in.

Drive is a movie that only a few will truly love. People will be turned off by the pace or the violence or the style or the minimalist acting. If all of those things work for you, though, Drive will end up among your favorites of the year, as it does for me.

Movie Review: Hanna

I just want her to stop saying vomitorium, alright?

What’s half fairy tale, half revenge movie, and half coming-of-age film? Hanna! And, to ruin the surprise, it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. It’s not perfect, it’s not unimpeachable, but it’s a load of fun and has a grace and style that propels it past any negative points.

Hanna is the latest film from director Joe Wright, whose earlier Atonement had a lot going for it but never quite congealed into something great. He brings back the breakout star of that film, Saoirse Ronan, to play the title character, a girl raised by her dad (a serviceable Eric Bana) in the snowy wilderness somewhere in Europe. He didn’t just teach her how to play with dolls, though. Her lesson plan includes hunting, multiple languages, combat training, and a story about an evil woman who would kill her. Of course, she can’t stay hidden away in the frozen Tundra, so she activates a beacon which tells the evil woman where she is. What follows is a cat-and-mouse movie where the cat and the mouse change positions and sometimes chase their own tails.

The things that Atonement did right, namely the directorial flourishes and sense of pace and acting, are all done even better here. Hanna is a wild romp through Europe complete with strange campsites and even stranger abandoned amusement parks. The sense of location weighs heavy on Hanna’s shoulders. She’s never been away from her house in the woods and everything is new to her, enhancing the already strong feeling of being out of place. She never stays in the same place for long, but each spot is extremely evocative and you get the feeling that a whole movie could take place at every one of them and there’d still be more to film. In an early prison-break scene a cold-war era building gives Hanna plenty of places to hide from the bad guys and Wright a plethora of backgrounds for his frenetic and inventive camera work. This isn’t one of those super shaky action movies, but the action doesn’t slow down at all. I had no trouble following what was happening in the action scenes, which makes sense, because that’s what Hanna feels most comfortable doing. It’s during the scenes where normal human interaction happens that Hanna feels out of place, and the camera bears that out. Wright manages to get in one of those long takes in here, too, and this one is even more awesome than the one in Atonement.

The problem with Hanna is probably in the character motivations. There’s no real reason for Hanna to hate what amounts to the Evil Stepmother character, played marvelously by Cate Blanchett, outside her father’s brainwashing. Everything works from scene to scene but you just kind of have to accept everybody’s motivations from the get-go and everything will work fine from there. There’s a particularly wonderful set of scenes involving a vacationing British family that are hilarious and sad at the same time. It’s the life Hanna should have had but never will. I love the ending of this movie, also. The location, the direction, the acting, everything works. It’s a spectacular scene, one of the best of the year.

Hanna is a strong, intelligent young woman. A real role model, if such a thing exists. She’s kind of like Alice, wandering through a weird world where little makes sense. Alice with a bow and arrow. And a rocking score by The Chemical Brothers. And people trying to kill her.

Hanna – Directed by Joe Wright

Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

No subject is terrible if the story is true and if the prose is clean and honest.

There is something in a person that will yearn for the golden days. You know the ones. Before. When everything was better. The art was better, the culture was better, the people were better, the world was better. It was always better, back then. There weren’t the social, political, cultural problems that we have today. Everybody was happy and awesome. Owen Wilson‘s Gil feels this was about the 1920’s in Paris. That’s when all the great writers lived and Gil, a neurotic Hollywood screenwriter, wants to be there – or then – instead of here and now. And it’s an alluring proposition. What writer wouldn’t want to hang out with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway? Who wouldn’t want to commiserate with Dali and Picasso about your love problems? There’s no denying that the 1920’s in Paris were a happening time. But would you want to live there?

It’s an idea we’ve all had. Woody Allen (in the first of his that I’ve seen, shamefully) explores it by giving Gil the opportunity to live life in the 20’s. After a quick car ride through the magical streets of Paris he finds himself at a party where Cole Porter is the musical accompaniment. The real Cole Porter. He gives his novel to Gertrude Stein for criticism and inspires Luis Buñuel‘s The Exterminating Angel. He drinks with Fitzgerald and Hemingway and takes an art history lesson from Picasso which he later regurgitates during a modern segment. It’s a fun time. As his late night visits to late years go on he meets an enchanting young Parisian woman, Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard. These two begin to meet up more and more and their attraction grows. It gets to the point where Gil wonders whether it’s cheating on his wife, the beautiful Rachel McAdams, to be with a girl from the 1920’s. It’s kind of slight but also kind of important.

That really describes the film. Kind of slight but also kind of important. I don’t mean important like it will change the way the world works or have and deep cultural impact, but its viewers should find themselves thinking about some of the ideas in the film. See, Adriana thinks that the glory days were the Belle Époque, some 50 years earlier. She, too, is trapped in thinking that the present is just not good enough and that yesteryear was better in some ephemeral way. And when those magical Paris streets give Gil and Adriana the chance to go to the Moulin Rouge during it’s heyday they gladly do so. But it’s here that Gil realizes the key point of the film and the thing that makes it important. This kind of idealism is just a combination of foggy memories and insecurity with the present. The toils of today is what makes living worth it. We are a product of our times and as much as we’d like to be elsewhen we have to come to grips with the fact that we are built to live today. Olden days might seem better but things were just as bad then, if not worse. Yeah, the 1920’s seem like a cool time to be but we know that it was a hard time for a lot of people, too. Hell, Hemingway was probably only as good as he was because he went through a lot of crap in WWI. There’s something about the struggles that make the highs better. And it’s fine to look back and identify what might have been better if only to apply it to your modern life.

That’s not to say this film is a serious treatise on the perils of nostalgia. It is a Woody Allen movie, after all, and the jokes are hilarious. Tom Hiddleston‘s Fitzgerald, Alison Pill’s Zelda Fizgerald, Corey Stoll‘s Hemingway, and Adrien Brody‘s Dali were highlights, each playing the myth and the person in small amounts of screen time while highlighting Allen’s superb screenplay. I’d watch a movie with Brody’s Dali and Stoll’s Hemingway saying things at each other for 90 minutes. There’d be talk of rhinocerous confrontations and war wounds. It’d be great. The film remains funny throughout, though the modern day stuff is a little less interesting. I get that it’s supposed to be a bit on the boring side so we’ll see what Gil sees in the 1920’s section but purposefully lifeless is still lifeless. Only Michael Sheen‘s pompous professor character brings the consistent funny in the early goings, establishing Gil as a lowly writer-for-hire trying his hand at “real literature”. Here is where the slight criticism comes in. The revelation is not earth shattering. The perils are not all that perilous. The jokes are not side-splitting. There’s some romantic drama but even that doesn’t seem to matter all that much. This isn’t a knock, really. I’m the guy calling Winnie the Pooh the best film of the year so far and that has little to nothing going on in terms of drama or deep meaning. It just makes for a movie that could slip out of your mind if you’re not careful. Midnight in Paris is a quick, fun, thoughtful movie that is worth seeing and worth taking the lesson from but ends up being a just little too minor for its own good.

Midnight in Paris – Written and directed by Woody Allen

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I have a confession. I love movies where animals attack humans. I’ve seen Anaconda and several of its sequels. Deep Blue Sea has become one of my most viewed movies through its seemingly constant play on the SyFy channel. There’s just something about seeing dumb people get eaten by an animal, scientifically screwed-around-with or not, that appeals to me. It’s like the animals are getting back at the humans for having such better resources and doing absolutely nothing with them. And the cool death scenes help, too. When the trailers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the prequel to the 1968 classic combo of cheesy acting and cheesier makeup, came out I got a bit excited. There’s a cool story to tell detailing how the apes went from our science test subject to ruling the world. Unlike some prequels and origin stories, this one had the potential to give us some new ideas within the universe. Whether director Rupert Wyatt was up to telling it, though, remained to be seen.

It doesn’t take a genetically modified ape to tell you that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a good movie. It’s fun, exciting, and even surprisingly moving. As the title implies, this is a movie about the genesis of the new world order where apes are the ruling species, not humans. The movie begins by focusing on James Franco‘s scientist character as he tries to develop a cure to Alzheimer’s (a well worn trope in the animals-killing-people genre; see: Deep Blue Sea) by testing his cure on chimps in a lab. He grows attached to one baby chimp whom he takes home and begins to raise as if he were a human child. The home life stuff sets up an interesting father-son relationship triangle as Franco’s dad – admirably played by John Lithgow – suffers from the very disease his son is trying to find a cure for and Franco must take care of him along with his adopted son, Caesar the chimp. The first section of the movie is a kind of coming of age story for Caesar and it is done quite well as he struggles to reconcile his super-powered chimp mind with the animal instincts he possesses. Of course, none of this emotional storytelling would be possible were it not for the performance capture technology and Andy Serkis‘ fantastic ability to be physically expressive. This is a movie that relies upon a wordless performance by an actor who is replaced digitally by a chimpanzee. If the effects didn’t work it would be laughable. But the technology is there and Serkis gives one hell of a show. If there is any justice in the world he will be recognized come award season for the nuance with which he plays Caesar. There’s a shot at the end of the first act as we see Caesar rising through the Redwoods at Muir Woods and as he does so time moves on, season to season, as Caesar ages and grows up. It’s an astounding shot, fluid and beautiful, one that would feel right at home in The Tree of Life if The Tree of Life were about an ape uprising.

Of course, everything is not fine and dandy at home for Caesar and company. After an incident with a neighbor Caesar is sent to an ape preserve on the outskirts of San Francisco and is tortured by the people running it. There’s a small problem with the movie here because these people, lead by Brian Cox and Tom Felton, are purely evil. There’s no effort to make them anything other than a glorified plot device, the thing which provokes Caesar to begin the revolution which gives the film its title. Felton, particularly, just gives his constant Malfoy sneer and when he is called to give perhaps the defining line of the franchise it is powerful only because of the baggage the audience carries into the movie, not the performance itself. This section, however, also gives us more time with Caesar. It’s here where we realize he is the true main character of the film and his journey from abandoned kid to leader of the ape rebellion is fun to see. The two non-chimp apes trapped in the preserve are fun, too. The orangutan and gorilla give the film a bit of diversity and the gorilla in particular is kind of horrifying. The apes soon escape and begin a pilgrimage to Muir Woods. This leads to the only real big action scene in the film. There are a lot of fun little details in this section, from Caesar riding a police horse to the too-often-spoiled-in-commercials shot of a gorilla jumping towards a helicopter. This is the kind of destruction I wanted to see and it mostly delivers. My only problem is that the apes are generally pacifists. The film comes up with other ways to get all the humans to die but the apes do very little killing of their own. Only the truly evil people meet their ends at the hands of the apes. I guess this has something to do with the fact that the movie is rated PG-13 and that we’re supposed to be identifying with the apes as heroes at this point but I was still a little disappointed. That said, what happens in the big fight scene is really cool to see. The CGI is, once again, stunning.

The script has a few key shoutouts to the original film and most of them are done well and integrated well enough to not distract from the film too much. There is one element of the original films which is shown here and executed very well. It’s satisfying on both the plot and emotional levels of the movie but I won’t spoil it for you as most of the delight is in the telling. The original film makes some political allegories, as science fiction stories are wont to do, and this one follows suit, to some degree. The idea of being cautious with animal testing is not wholly original or even all that compelling in the course of this movie. What is compelling, though, is the story of Caesar. It’s more of a character piece, really, than a wide ranging metaphor and it is better for it. The rise of Caesar is well told and the real heart of the film. It’s not going to be one of my favorite movies of all time but it is really good. It’s a well-directed, smart, fun sci-fi movie and that’s all you can ask for.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Directed by Rupert Wyatt, written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver