Sunday, September 18, 2011


He drives around at night a lot. He gets paid to do that, but you get the feeling that he'd do it anyway. He's a lonely man. So removed from humanity that he doesn't even get a name. The credits list him as Driver. Driver is played by Ryan Gosling (Crazy Stupid Love, The Notebook) who continues to remind us why he's one of the best actors working today. When we meet him, he's driving a getaway car. What follows is one of the most exciting car chases in recent memory. Unlike what we get in something like "Fast Five" it feels real. The movie seems to know how it feels to be pursued by the cops.

Driver is one of those 'By day, by night' types. By day he's a Hollywood stunt driver, rolling over cars and stuff. We know what he does at night. His handler for both jobs is a crusty, local mechanic named Shannon (Brian Cranston). Shannon is bit of a father figure to Driver, albeit an exploitative one, and sees a future for the kid as a stock car racer. Shannon gets a pair of his gangster pals to sponsor the car. The gangsters are played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. They are an odd pairing, casting wise, but they work great together. Both are menacing but for different reasons.

Early in the film Driver befriends his neighbor Irine, played by Carry Mulligan. The romance that develops is not hot n' heavy. It's shy and tentative, almost chaste. But it's clear that she's bringing something out in him, something that's been hidden for perhaps his entire life. Unfortunately it gets put on hold when her baby-daddy, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison. In a lesser movie Standard would have been an abusive husband that Driver has to rescue her from. But thankfully, it's not a lesser movie. Standard and Driver become friends, in a way, and Driver offers to help him get out of his mob debt by helping out on a heist. The film heats up considerably from there.

This is a very stylish film. The car chases, while sparse, are utterly fantastic. The film looks great and director, Nicolas Winding Refn, is a master of visual storytelling. He wastes nothing. He doesn't load the film down with too much talking. Driver doesn't speak much, he just does things. As a presence, Gosling walks around like the reincarnation of James Dean or Alain Delon. He chews his toothpicks. He wears his white, scorpion jacket looking like a knight, or a superhero. Of course, he's not really a superhero, he's a man-child with anger issues. It is fitting then, that the jacket gets more and more bloodstained as the film goes on. We don't learn much about him. We don't know if he was born emotionally distant or if he was made that way by some past trauma. I vote for the past trauma. I think the key is a scene near the end where Driver goes to kill one of the main villains. Driver wears a latex-rubber mask he stole from his day job. It's such a dehumanizing mask that it doesn't feel like he's hiding his identity so much as he's building a wall between himself and the world.

I wrote in my review of Bronson that Nicolas Winding Refn would one day direct a great film. That day is here. The problem with Bronson was it's lack of thesis. This film has one in the form of a song, A Real Hero, which plays twice in the film. In Bronson, Refn kept his protagonist at arms length. Here, Driver is keeping the world at arms length, and like that song, he is left to wonder what it feels like to be "a real human being."

Grade: A+

Friday, September 16, 2011


Sometimes a movie depends so squarely on a lead performance that it's casting becomes the film. Nicolas Winding Refn's 2008 film Bronson is just such a case. Bronson tells the true tale of Englands most violent prisoner. Michael "Bronson" Peterson. Bronson is played by Tom Hardy (Warrior, Inception), and the film follows him throughout his hyper violent life.

Tom Hardy IS the film. Without Hardy as Bronson, there is no film. Period. And there in lies the problem. Hardy is fantastic and fearless in the role, but there isn't very much else going on here. The film is essentially 92 minutes of Bronson hitting things. There is some variety to be sure. Sometimes he's hitting things while in jail, sometimes in an insane asylum, sometimes in underground boxing matches. Near the end of the film he abandons the whole 'hitting' part and tries his hand at being an artist, but it doesn't feel right so he goes back to hitting things and the movie pretty much ends.

To be fair, you can't have the movie without the hitting. Bronson was and remains Englands most violent criminal. He is a difficult character. He's spent time in 120 prisons and logged over 30 years in solitary confinement. He takes joy in causing pain, loves being in prison, and nothing else. He's not quite human. But where as other directors, such as Scorsesse, might find some sort of thesis or point to Bronsons life, Refn just presents it. Perhaps he's saying that there is no point, that some people are just violent sociopaths and that's that. If that is his point, it is a depressing one. I honestly don't think the film is really trying to say anything. It's as if script-development stopped when the lead role was cast and that is simply not enough. If anyone can make any sense out of this film, this man, please post your ideas in the comment section.

The real story here is Tom Hardy as Bronson. He is a force of nature, and he is unlike anyone else working in the buisines. He's built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he moves like Charlie Chaplin. The way he moves and uses posture is lightyears ahead of most other actors. Even his shoulder-blades give a great performance in this film.

Refn is a good director and this is a very stylish film. A dangerous drinking game can be made out of spotting Stanley Kubrick references. You get the feeling that Refn will one day make a great film, but this is not it.

Grade: C+

"Bronson" is currently streaming on Netflix Instant. Hardy is currently appearing in the MMA drama "Warrior," and will play the villain in The Dark Knight Rises. Refn seems poised to break into big time too with "Drive," which opens today.


I've never seen any of the "Fast & Furious" movies. I'm not a snob, I just never got around to them. So I decided to dip my toes in with the most recent installment "Fast Five," which was a surprise critical and commercial hit. It can be an interesting experience, dropping into a franchise five installments in, there is clearly a lot of back story I missed, but filling in the gaps is kinda fun and it adds dimension to the story. If I get some details of the mythology wrong in this review-I apologize.

The film presumably starts off where the previous installment left off, with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) heading off to jail. Off course, his friends Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) bust him out in a manner involving fast cars. How no one is killed is beyond me, but oh well, moving on.

The gang finds themselves hiding out in Rio. They say that they're going to go straight, but that never works out in movies about criminals and soon they find themselves embarking on one. last. job. This time against a local drug dealer. Things are complicated due to the arrival of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson who plays Luke Hobbs, an elite FBI manhunter. He's a badass dude, he's got this whole elite team dedicated just to tracking down Toretto and his crew, and a big SUV that even Batman would envy.

It's important to mention that SUV because, that's the kind of movie this is. It has people in it who have 'stuff' going on, and that's nice, but really, people in this movie are defined by what they drive. Toretto with his Dodge Charger vs. Hobbs with his Bat-tank. It's a testosterone soaked rivalry that you just know will end in pain. When people do talk, it's in movie trailer dialogue. They are constantly saying things like, "Let's settle this once and for all" and "We need a team."

The heist plot is fun, even if it is out of the action-movie cliche handbook. The preparation sequences are several notches below Oceans 11, but they are more than sufficient for this type of movie.

So lets talk turkey - the action scenes are top notch, really well done. Director Justin Lin, a vet of the franchise, understands how to shoot an action scene. He knows how to set up an action scene so the audience knows what's where and who's who. That should not be high praise, but the action genre is in such disarray that it kind of is. Perhaps it is a testament to how difficult action film making truly is. But this film pulls it off with boldly dumb style. There is a fun sequence involving a train that is so ridiculous that I broke out into applause. Also, the safe dragging conclusion causes memorable amounts of property damage, as it should.

"Fast Five" is a film for the 10 year old boy in all of us. Cars go fast, and sometimes go boom. The title is fine, though Vroom Vroom 5 - This Time In Rio would have worked too.

Grade: B