Art House

Fasten Your Seatbelt: Drive

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I do not drive, personally, so generally speaking I can’t speak from experience about the thrill of driving a car in any situation whatsoever. But if driving is anything like the thrill of Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film, maybe I should stop procrastinating on getting my license. Winding Refn’s near masterpiece of a film, Drive, is a sucker punch to the gut, something that can be as subtle as, to use driving analogies, strolling down a street at midnight and something as thrilling as getting into a car chase.

Winding Refn hones in his mastery of the medium in this film, which was pretty up to scratch anyways, as evidenced in his previous works like Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Here, the director and the star become one, in a way. Ryan Gosling’s stunt driver/getaway driver is a silent enigma, his introversion and solitude reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault and Melville’s Le Samourai. The director’s piece is just as silent as his driver, using long tracking shots, slow pans, and very little dialogue. The script, by Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) changes the original novel’s format, written by James Sallis, making it into a more linear story line with a more coherent plot. As opposed to a standard and conventional driving thriller, it becomes a character study, almost a silent psychoanalysis of its protagonist. Heady though it sounds, that fact does not affect the thrill of watching the film.

What is it about this film that makes it so spellbinding? I am honestly not quite sure. The mood of the film is spelled out in its music, much of the time, using neo-1980’s sounding tracks that are, in a way, characters themselves. The music, though, helps underline the character of the Driver, someone so contemplative and one whose expressions  could be used to fill a book that the character remains complex and not completely readable. A film that transcends every genre you could try to pigeonhole it in (neo-noir, crime, action, thriller, etc.); the music acts somewhat as a narrator. Illustrating the complexity of Gosling’s Driver with No Name, the music’s tone shifts appropriately to whatever the mood is in the current scene, reflecting the feeling of Gosling’s emotions. It makes complete sense that the music would play an integral part into the construction of Winding Refn’s film. What else do you do when you’re in the car, especially as a passenger? You stare out the window, contemplating the meaning of life and you listen to music. The music shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic, where sometimes the Driver is aware of the music and others when only we, the audience can hear it. It may be only conjecture, but if the music can be accepted as both an underlining of who the Driver is as a character as well as a narrator, the music can not only be seen as soundtrack to the film but also to the Driver’s life. It is almost as if the Driver is perfectly conscious of the music playing in his head, the mental playlist he has created that describes who he is. Regardless of what it is, the use of songs like “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” accentuate the gritty mood for this masterpiece.

Every emotion is discernible on Ryan Gosling’s face and, while that may be true, it doesn’t make him easier to read. It does, however, make his performance that much more interesting and powerful. He is a mystery, one whose past is unknown to anyone in the film, even to the two closest people to him in the film, Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the boss of an auto-repair shop, and Carey Mulligan, the woman whom he falls for and whose husband he attempts to help so that she and her family are safe from the men after her husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). Perhaps this is a defense mechanism, but nevertheless, the Enigmatic Driver never really reveals himself to anyone. Gosling’s portrayal of such a stunning character, a silent one who is mostly influenced and moved by the sheer atmosphere, is incredible. Well known for his romantic leading roles in stuff like The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love, Gosling feels much more at home here in a hybrid crime drama-neo noir. He is able to delve into character and become the Driver, an important aspect of the film. Without him, the film would probably fall to pieces. Because the film is so contemplative and devoid of dialogue, it would take complete dedication for an actor to really jump into the role. What Gosling does with the character is make it his own, creating a perfect amalgam of the existential hero from so many great films. It is not a derivative character, but one molded and shaped at Gosling’s (and Refn’s) will. He is one of the most elusive and intriguing characters in recent memory.

The supporting cast is great, filled with interesting and colorful characters. Mulligan plays Irene with a sensitive fragility, just as quiet as the protagonist, and just as tender. This mutual tenderness may be why the two characters work so well and fall in love with one another so easily. Even though it’s a quiet portrayal, it is not so understated that it is not noticeable; it is a perfectly noticeable role. The silence between the two, especially when in the car, is their own form of communication. They are, to some extent, kindred souls. They are able to create intimacy without anything physical. Just a look and just the music on the radio; that’s all they need. It reminds me of the line from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in which Uma Thurman’s Mia says, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. Where you can just shut the f*** up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”

Albert Brooks plays against type in a stunning turn as a mobster who, originally, planned on investing in this Driver to race cars for him. Shame that didn’t go so well. This Brooks, who is certainly not the same guy we love and kind of loathe in Broadcast News or even Finding Nemo, is violent, unpredictable, and smarmy. He takes pleasure in getting as much as he can and at any cost. It is honestly a little shocking to see Brooks in such a violent role, verbally and physically, but it is thrilling nonetheless. Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy, Cronos) also shows his villainous side as a foul mouthed, ruthless Jewish mobster who owns, of all things, a pizzeria. With a slight Stallone-esque mumble, Perlman remains just as fearful as normal.

Ryan Gosling may be the star of the show, but an element of the film that accentuates the existential tone of the film is Drive’s superb cinematography. Newton Thomas Sigel, who worked with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects, creates a perfectly constructed symphony of slowly moving images. Slow and swift, the tracking shots throughout the film again accentuate the tone of the film. The film is so beautiful looking that you could blindly pick a random still from the film and it would be a work of art. The lighting is extraordinary, the tones shifting from scene to scene to reflect the mood of the Driver. Looking at this film wowed me and intoxicated me, for it is a stunning film to see.

Cut to the chase (scenes)? Yes, it can be a rather violent film. But the violence comes out of nowhere, which shook me to my core. The shocking inclusion and unexpectedness of the violence is perfect. Refn has said that the film is a bit of a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, and like that film, its violence quakes on the screen. Drive, with its somewhat glacial pacing and quiet and serene mood, lulls you into a false sense of security and then, to put it bluntly, blows your mind. The car chases are just as exciting. Resembling the car chases more like Bullitt and The French Connection, in that the cinematography and look is cohesive and discernible (as opposed to chaotic, ahem Fast and the Furious), the chases pumped adrenaline into my veins. Tense and taut, the chase scenes were memorable and exciting.

Drive is a memorable exercise in subtlety as well as showmanship. It is at once complex and simple. Its protagonist embodies the existential hero, so well portrayed by Gosling. It is fair to say that the film was robbed of several Academy Award nominations this year: Director (Refn, who luckily won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), Cinematography, Actor (Gosling), Supporting Actress (Mulligan), Editing, and Supporting Actor (Brooks). It managed to nab one nomination and an important one for the film, Sound Editing. Sound plays a huge role in the tone, making one feel there with the characters. It is not complete silence, as the whirring of cars pass by. Paying homage to the great car chase films and even Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “Lonely Man”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a carefully executed thrill, and one of the best films from 2011. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be an exhilarating ride.

Grade: A

The World is Not Enough: Review for Melancholia

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It’s the end of the world and Lars von Trier knows it. He probably relishes the apocalyptic notion, but the Danish provocateur’s newest film Melancholia is an operatic opus that manages to illicit a grand feeling of nausea, hopelessness, and, of course, melancholy. Von Trier’s last film, Antichrist, was more graphic, but what Melancholia lacks in graphic sex and organ mutilation, it makes up for in sheer atmosphere and tone.

The film is divided into two parts, each named for the respective sister it focuses on. The first part focuses on Justine, played ethereally by Kirsten Dunst in her best role in years, a woman who has just gotten married and is doing what nearly everyone does to some extent: wearing a mask. Her sparkling façade is done only to please her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard), her distant and frustrated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at Cannes for Antichrist), and her edgy brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). Behind that mask of lies, she’s a mess. And it seems that she’s been a mess for a while. In the posh castle where her wedding party is being held, as she loses her grip, domestic chaos ensues, slowly marring the entirety of not only the wedding but of her life. This is, of course, representative of how depression can ruin one’s life so easily.

In the second half, dedicated to Claire, the end of the world is coming in the form of a fly-by planet called Melancholia. While Claire and her scientist husband become more and more worried, Justine remains serene, her pessimism and cynicism being completely manifested in the form of complete calmness. Claire breaks down; she is unable to handle the stress, but the strained relationship between the two sisters actually becomes stronger. Estranged though they may be, and as cynical as Justine, through her depressing, has become, this unified sense of doom brings the two together.

If you’ve seen any of the other films that the Danish auteur has made, perhaps most scarringly Antichrist, von Trier relishes suffering. He wants to make the audience suffer just as much as the characters he creates. This isn’t for pure maliciousness, but to accentuate drama and emotion, to place the audience in the situation of the characters on the screen.

Melancholia is driven by its stunning performance by Kirsten Dunst. Having made a strong debut as a questionably happy teenager in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, the depressing subject matter of Melancholia is nothing new for the actress. It is a brave performance, one where we see Dunst at her most vulnerable, probably that we’ve ever seen of an actress on the silver screen (von Trier has a way of getting his actresses to become completely naked on the screen, in more than one way). Dunst has dealt with the pains of clinical depression and to go back and recreate that feeling as a performance is an extraordinary thing. Bravura is the word that best describes the performance, not wrought with the same kind of overacting that maybe other actresses would have given it. It’s honest. The kind of vulnerability that Dunst shows on the screen as a fragile, broken individual is almost like sex: we see her naked; we see her scars; we see who she is without the distraction of the façade she shows at the wedding party.

The supporting cast is excellent as well, with Stellen and Alexander Skargard playing father and son, the latter of whom is marrying Justine. The trouble is that von Trier has put so much effort into putting and illustrating the depth of Justine, Claire, and Claire’s husband, the other characters seem repellent and flat in comparison. They aren’t as thoughtless as the “after thought” character, but they aren’t as heady. It is the same kind of problem that was actually avoided in Antichrist, where von Trier only dealt with two characters; He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and one he did not avoid in his minimalist, Our Town-esque Dogville, with a cast of nearly 20 actors. Von Trier is a technical genius, an artist who can make every frame mean something, but his characterization often falls short when it comes to the supporting players. That being said, it does leave more room for the leads to not only shine, but nearly explode with talent and pathos.

Kirsten Dunst’s bravura performance was only a surprise insofar that the amount of vulnerability she showed was rather unprecedented for what some think of as a fairly mainstream actress (which is an incorrect evaluation in my mind), but the real surprise here may have been Kiefer Sutherland’s angry, frustrated brother-in-law. His scientific mind and refusal to tolerate Justine’s troubles makes him instantly unlikable, one who continues throughout the film to say things like “Do you realize how much this [wedding party] cost me? I hope you’re happy.” It is said without any kind of sympathy. His virility was shown frequently on 24, but it was with a government state of mind. Here, it’s just him and just his personal reservations and problems. It’s a very strong performance, one that is just as good as any of the angry male characters that von Trier has written.

Gainsbourg is also not a surprise. She was just as emotionally stripped and naked as Dunst, only in von Trier’s Antichrist, but here she shows a different kind of suffering. The crazy and insanity that Claire goes through is one of stress, not grieving or mere psychosis. Gainsbourg, whom I believe should get more notice in the United States, is able again to illicit emotion in the audience and portray pain like no other contemporary actress.

Unsurprisingly, von Trier’s Melancholia is a visual feast. Utilizing the hand held techniques of Dogme 95, the cinematography of Manuel Alberto Claro is glorious, sumptuous, and ultimately, hypnotic. One is always surprised at how the visuality of a film can still remain incredibly beautiful even though it uses a handheld camera. The prologue and the grand finale, though, are the most gorgeous to see. The Prologue of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” sweeps the screen with emotion just as the earth ends. It’s a swell of images and it makes for one hell of a beginning.

One could easily write more and more on Lars von Trier’s newest film. It may not be as intense or shocking as his other films, and it is comparably rather tame, but it is perhaps his most accessible. Regardless of accessibility or graphic content, the film stands as a piece of art, one that can be interpreted in many different ways (The first half may be a critique of upper -class bourgeois lifestyle, more nastily satirical than Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. The second may be of familial construct, the bond that unites family but also that breaks it.) Its exploration into both Justine and Claire is the film’s focal point. The way von Trier constructs his films is inventive and original and the performances he gets out of his actors is unbelievable. While the metaphor may have been rather obvious, who knew that depression manifested as the end of the world could be so beautiful and, yes, so full of melancholia.

Grade: A-

Loyalty, Anarchy, Subversion, and Bravery: Four from Criterion

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Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) | Directed by Louis Malles 

Louis Malles’ sensitive masterpiece is a nicely straightforward film, devoid of the usual murky metaphors that usually inhabit Criterion films. Taking place during World War II and in a private school for Catholic boys, Malles retraces his childhood making the film semiautobiographical. A sense camaraderie between two boys begins, but Julien Quentin discovers that his friend, Jean Bonnet, is a Jew in hiding at the school. Julien keeps the secret, and a beautiful sense of intimacy and friendship builds. The relationship between the boys is actually quite natural and realistic. Not too pushy or filled with cornball, but filled with the same kind of naturalism and realism that would occur in any other friendship. But the film is deeply emotional and filled with nuance, and while the subject matter, and its ending, are riveting and dark, the film itself basks in delight and observance of friendship and loyalty. Beautifully made and wonderfully acted, Au Revoir Les Enfants is a gorgeous piece of art and closure for the director.

Grade: A-

If…. (1969) | Directed by Lindsay Anderson

Lindsay Anderson’s artistic piece of revolutionary cinema is a dreamlike, murky film. But its message is wildly clear. Malcolm McDowell portrays Mick Travis, who becomes the leader of a small group of anarchists at a boarding school in England. But the film is much less straightforward than that and, like any great art film, refuses to let the viewer stay on track. The film lingers and patiently examines the various atrocities that are committed both by the school staff and the Whips, the prefects or superior senior students who run the school like prison. The film seems not only to be deeply anarchic about overbearing governmental systems, but social class systems as well. The Whips aren’t really superior for any reason other than by seeming self-appointment. With incredibly socialistic tendencies and dialogue that reeks of revolution, Anderson’s If…. Is a one of a kind masterpiece that builds up to an incredible and disturbing climax.

Grade: B+

Crumb (1995) | Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Underground comic artist Robert Crumb is a repellent figure in my mind. That’s not to say I don’t understand his motivations; on the contrary, his use of satire and subversive humor is convincing, conniving, and well-drawn. But his general disdain for people and is obsession with sex is disconcerting. In Terry Zwigoff’s discomfortingly intimate documentary Crumb, the director manages to make the best documentary about the most repellent figure. Here is an unflinching piece of biography, that shows its subject in an honest, powerful light. We even get to meet Crumb’s family, people who are so clearly in need of help that it’s saddening watching Crumb talk down to his nearly catatonic brothers. (His sisters would not be interviewed for the doc.) It’s like the photography of Chuck Close: it catches every disgusting, interesting, true thing about the subject. So, I give kudos to Zwigoff for that. But it’s not a fun documentary; it isn’t pleasant, or nice, or entertaining. A lot of what Crumb says may anger the viewer, but then again, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. What is nice, however, is the side interviews with fellow cartoonists and criitcs that shed light on Crumb’s work, analyzing specific comics and offering insight into their meaning and their context. I advise you rent this before you buy it.

Grade: B-

Paths of Glory (1957) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s impressive and raw drama starring Kirk Douglas is an intense examination of the war machine and its horrible consequences. When a battalion of soldiers in France during World War I are sent on a suicide mission and fail at completing it, three are picked to be tried for cowardice. Aside from the beginning actions, the film plays much like an extremely dramatic, moving courtroom drama. We see the various people at the top who are so deeply corrupted that they are willing to  lie and execute three innocent soldiers. Kirk Douglas is fiery and perfect as their general. Paths of Glory is one of the most moving, terrifying, raw anti-war films ever made.

Grade: A