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Archive for September, 2011

Another pending review for Collegetimes; here’s my review of Drive. 🙂

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80s pop music on the radio.  A man walks onto the screen with a white scorpion jacket and two dark leather driving gloves; his hair slicked back.  Every one of his words are punctuated with a pause…a quiet glance.  And you start thinking to yourself one of two thoughts: what in the world is going on in this film or how brilliant is this movie?  This isn’t just another review stating that Drive is a love-it-or-hate-it film; I feel that Drive is a film that is specific to two types of audiences, one that loves a powerful, non-special effects-laden gorey action film and another that is entranced by the artistic nuances behind Refn’s mind.  Drive doesn’t always work as it wants to, sometimes having its very disparate and stylistic parts completely running into each other; but for those in the mood to see a very different type of action film with such visceral brutality and symbolic nuances, this is the film for you.

Drive follows the Driver (Ryan Gosling), a stunt car performer by day and a getaway driver by night.  All that is known of his background is that he came to Shannon (Bryan Cranston) a few years prior and became one of the best drivers around town.  However, Shannon also has a past dealing with shady crooks for quick cash and has gotten the Driver mixed up in one of these small-time schemes as a race car driver, being financed by Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Pearlman).  The Driver also soon meets his next door neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).  Soon, he is thrust into a heist that involves everyone he knows and will force him to make some consequential decisions on his life as he knows it.

Drive will be divisive because of its content and style, but some of this does have to do with some plot and cinematic approaches Refn takes with the film.  The story moves at a fairly good pace, but there are some questionable twists and turns that seem to not fulfill both the film’s vision as a dark action film or to a particular character’s actions  Some of these scenes refer to Pearlman’s character in which the eventful scene with him and Gosling feels a bit shortchanged to Christina Hendrick’s character who felt completely underutilized.  Even the ending of the film, as understandable as it is, didn’t seem to completely gel with the flow of the scenes, ending in what seemed to be the easier way out to finishing the film.  On the other side is the film’s zany sense of style.  It’s apologetically bombastic and strange from the get-go, and audiences that don’t buy the crazy musical choices and the ultra-violence are going to have a difficult time accepting the film at all.  However, I do believe that Refn does miss a few key points to connect the film better with audiences.  The musical soundtrack, for instance, seems more intrusive to some scenes than beneficial while the film as a whole while other scenes seem so much more campy than intended.  In these scenes, Refn’s style unfortunately conflicts with his vision and creates more of a muddled mess.

Yet for those audiences that accept the idiocracies of the film, Drive opens up as a much symbolic and smart action film both in terms of its visceral nature and subtle commentary.  The first and most important reason the film works is Gosling.  He embraces the fascinating character of the nameless Driver.  Shy and humble in the beginning, he gives an interesting charm into this transformation into a rough, bloodthirsty man.  There’s a strange brilliance about how these two sides play next to each other and juxtaposes an action hero who is heroic but not a hero in the traditional sense.  Next to him, although much more simpler than Gosling, are the two main villains, Brooks and Pearlman who both give a somewhat stereotypical Italian mob boss feel to the L.A. area.  They have a right amount of apprehensive fear when they’re on screen as well as some humanity to bring weight to their fairly heinous actions.  The other element that makes Drive work is the mise-en-scene.  From the odd 80s’ pop soundtrack (both diegetic/non-diegetic), when it works correctly, adds so much flavor to a scene, to the beautiful cinematography that creeps and crawls through L.A. and its denizens adding both context and atmosphere (along with some surprisingly tasteful slow-motion), to the strong and crisp sound design which adds so much weight when cars crash and guns fire, Refn has all his bases covered to make his film work on a bevy of aural and visual levels.  This attention to detail is very important to why some of the most memorable scenes, as few as they are, come in its action driving scenes.  They play out in very intelligent yet visceral ways that (excluding the obvious product placement) always feel tense and feels like there are big stakes being played.  The hits, the crashes, and the drive never feel too much like a magician’s trick but a cat-and-mouse game that will keep your eyes on the screen.

All of these points lead to the core story itself which work on two different levels.  One is that Refn is definitely a man who works well with his many character layers to make sure audience members understand the depth of his characters, excluding (on purpose) the Driver.  Exposition is always told out through a random conversation with some character-specific dialogue and important glances.  This natural feel moves to the plot devices as well which, while sometimes feeling arbitrary, are many times paced well enough to never feel unnatural.  Finally, the plot works on levels of heavy symbolism and commentary.  Although debatable, I feel that Refn creates Drive as this anti-hero dark action film to showcase the gravity and weight that other action films may laughably put off.  This film is heavy on its violence, reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange in some respects, and it doesn’t just showcase this without consequence.  Indeed, when Gosling becomes a maniac protector, other characters take notice in many ways the audience does; sometimes to disgust or tepid laughter.  As over-the-top as the violence is, each death and blow feel impactful, as if to ask other action films what their characters are thinking and contextually feeling when the ‘hero’ kills other characters or makes an impactful choice.

Drive, to no one’s argument, will most likely go down as the most unique action film of the year.  Mainstream audiences will most likely be fairly estranged with the final product as it definitely eschews to the weird, combining a poppy 80s’ soundtrack and movie aesthetic with some surprisingly ultra-violent scenes.  However, if a moviegoer can get past these more superficial trappings, Refn has created a dark action film that at the one hand is visceral and tense while on the other side, strangely commentating on the state of the modern action film by creating such a film.  There’s few stranger and more visceral films out there this year so give it a shot if you think you have the chops. 

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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A good action film either requires a delicate balance of very disparate parts (creating a memorable plot with intriguing characters and high-octane fights ala Casino Royale) or a unique characteristic that it excels at (putting together style, speed, and intensity into the action ala 300).  Its very difficult to make either of these two scenarios happen however as major action films have to contend with marketability and budgetary problems.  So comes Colombiana, a film that evokes some of the best films (a mix of Bourne and Godfather in some ways) and makes strides to create a new, 21st century film femme fatale.  The unfortunate truth is that Director Megaton and crew seems to have been either rushed or never allowed to expand on the concept along with falling into some stereotypical errors, making Colombiana an ‘okay’ effort that has some strong moments but never elevating itself beyond.

Colombiana follows Cataleya (Zoe Saldana), a young woman who had her parents killed by Marco (Jordi Molla) and his men, who were hired by Don Luis (Beto Benites).  After escaping her captors, she flies from Colombia to Chicago where she lives with her uncle, Emilio (Cliff Curtis).  Her one goal in life after this is to become an assassin for Emilio but ultimately to enact revenge on her parents’ killers.  The film follows her journey as a young woman in a life filled with pain, regret, and death.

Colombiana’s strengths lie within its central characters and high energy and pacing.  First and foremost, the film flows well and keeps it interesting due to the development and characteristics of Cataleya.  Megaton spends a surprising amount of time developing the earlier years of Cataleya that pays off in being able to create some interesting character dynamics within the character between feeling revenge and remorse.  Saldana does a great job in keeping these character qualities intact within her acting while playing the femme fatale assassin.  To my personal recollection, Saldana really pulls off one of the better female action stars in recent memory with a sexy and sleek look.  Additionally, Megaton directs some great action sequences that brim with energy.  Reminiscent of both the Bourne and the newer Bond films, the action stays both close and frenetic along with having some scenes that are more pulled back that takes in the scene itself.  Perhaps the biggest compliment to give is that no two action scenes are completely alike and give a nice flavor to the proceedings.  Topping off the film is some various uses of interesting cinematography that pan and swoop around areas along with some good musical choices (namely the Spanish-flavored guitar) that add to the atmosphere and intrigue of the film.

Yet all of these stronger points are bogged down due to some more amateur and unpolished errors.  One of these boils down to the lack of care given to any other character other than Cataleya.  These periphery characters, ranging from her love interest to even the villain, Don Luis, are perhaps initially interesting as their characteristics give off a possible larger story surrounding their lives.  However, by the film’s end, it is apparent that they stand nothing more than being plot devices to spur another action scene forward.  Sure, it is noted why we should take Don Luis to be evil or why the CIA is reviled by Cataleya, but simply leaving it at that simple level doesn’t excuse the film for not exploring the concepts any further.  Instead of some memorable characters or a deeper level of complexity that would have even supported growing Cataleya to a new level, the superficiality of the characters is what came off as the most apparent source of my initial discontent.  In addition, throw in some clunky dialogue that seems to be written to be so straightforward along with some poor direction in key emotional sequences, and it is further cemented how emotionally detached the audience gets from what should have been engaging and connected issues.  When Cataleya cries out to a character that the villains had killed her family, there is a problem when the audience feels the line is more forced and corny than appropriate and melancholic.  Even the soundtrack which can be praised when it gets the Spanish flavor right is actually very bombastic and schizophrenic for most of the film.  This is distracting and overbearing when it is at its worst and again, feels so stereotyped and overplayed.  In the end, all of these problems stem from a lack of polish and complexity.  In Megaton’s direction to find an appropriate tale for a femme fatale, the end product is only halfway there with the other half full of just strange decisions and disparate ideas that never take it beyond the arena of a standard, mediocre action film.

Colombiana is a relatively good action film with a strong heroine but is marred by its reluctance to aim for complacency than complexity.  There are some great action sequences and the core character of Cataleya has some intricacies that are engaging to watch unfold.  However, Megaton and his crew never go the extra mile to distinguish this film from the countless other films that have come before it and end up with more of a mediocre effort than any unique product.  Colombiana isn’t bad.  It simply didn’t reach the potential it set out for itself and ended up with a standard action film that people won’t necessarily remember after the next few years.  

Director: Oliver Megaton  
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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This review is currently pending on Collegetimes.us but thought I would post it here before it completely disappears from the movie theaters.  Enjoy! 

What would you say if you were told that another ‘you’ existed on a planet only a rocket flight away?  What would your family think?  Or the next door neighbor?  Would it be an opportunity or would it be a frightful experience?  Another Earth explores these theoretical but fascinating questions through the eyes of a young female ex-convict.  The film suffers from an overenthusiastic case of experimentation and some instances of an overbearing sense of emotion.  However, Another Earth really works as a human drama wrapped around a strong premise that is intriguing and thoughtful.

Another Earth follows Rhoda (Brit Marling), an inquisitive 17-year-old girl who has been admitted to M.I.T. and has a carefree and open-minded look on life.  One night, she drinks and goes on a joyride.  The same night, astronomers discover the existence of Earth Two, a planet that has started to orbit nearby Earth and has the same attributes as our planet.  Rhoda looks up at Earth Two and crashes into John Burroughs (William Mapother) and his family.  Four years pass by.  Rhoda is freed and taken back home.  She hears of an essay contest to go on a rocket to Earth Two as well as learning that John is the only survivor of the crash.  The film follows her journey as she learns more about Earth Two and her attempts to receive forgiveness from John.

Some legitimate complaints do exist for this sci-fi drama in its haphazard design and overly emotional tendencies.  The strange structural choices drag the film down as Cahill seems to embrace an experimental outer layer to a narrative that plays relatively straight.  A much stronger and focused style would have helped to convey the film’s themes and emotions clearer without having to try and slap on a number of design choices that don’t always mix together well.  An instance of this happenings occurs when Rhoda lies in the ice and is suddenly taken to her bed.  The scene was attempting to try to evoke a sense of spirituality and transcendence with its music and editing but came out more jumbled and confusing.

Another editing oddity comes at the hand of an overabundance of flashbacks.  When they showcase a new perspective or a different possibility, there is not much of a problem; yet when a scene repeats itself just to potentially remind the audience of a scene that occurred perhaps thirty minutes ago, it seems unnecessarily redundant.  These strange decisions also occur with the emotional drama.  At times, the film veers towards the melodramatic as scenes don’t appropriately reach the emotional state that Cahill seeks.  Again, the result feels weird as a scene ends in tears, but contextually, it just doesn’t feel as if the emotions are at that level yet.  [One sidenote…something more of a commentary than a criticism.  The concept of Earth Two is explored on a theoretical level yet is never explored in much detail in terms of actual discovery and feedback.  It feels as if there is a lot left to the premise to be wrestled and tangled with.]

On the other hand, Another Earth entangles such an intriguing web of thoughts along with a great fiction of a world not too far from ours.  The first compliment is concerning the atmosphere.  For a film dosed with a lot of sci-fi elements, there are very few special effects used at all throughout.  Instead, the one big investment was made in adding an ominous and looming Earth Two in the background of many shots.  In addition to this is a heavy dose of atmosphere with people always staring up at the sky or hearing a background radio or television analysis of the planet.  These moments feel like they are interesting interludes rather than intrusive narrative points, which make them fascinating to listen to or watch as the film transitions to its next scene.  This intriguing play on the atmosphere links to the strong premise itself as Another Earth ultimately tells a very human story without ever the need for flashy special effects or interplanetary drama.  The central plot really centers on Rhoda and her journey for redemption and has Earth Two act as a sort of background character that weaves in and out of her life for the better and for the worse…again, an interaction that plays out well.

Additionally, the film is bolstered by a subdued but poignant performance by Marling who grows into her character more and more as the film progresses.  This push-and-pull between being an ex-convict and a dreaming genius makes for a good character study that never quite veers into the predictable or the mundane.  Just as well, the cinematography and the music, as much as they are jarring when the work is inconsistent, are beautiful when they contribute to the atmosphere.  There is something breathtakingly beautiful and natural as Rhoda stares at Earth Two on the rocky alcove by the ocean as the music clicks into cue.  It is definitely one of the best film moments of 2011 so far, and similar moments trickle through the film in various spots.  Finally, these elements, from the atmosphere to the mise en scene, all work well together to showcase the film’s bigger questions and themes and thoughtfully explore them.  Perhaps individually, they have been looked into by different films in better ways yet together, Cahill finds some original ways to view the issues of life after prison; the path to self-redemption; life in the universe; and the concept of dimensions.  Taken as a whole, Another Earth is a captivating film that uses only the simplest of gimmicks to make some poignant thoughts on the human life and the possibilities that lie out there.

Another Earth is a methodical film that treads the viewer through a redemption story with a replica Earth looming in the background.  Director Cahill has some trouble completely focusing his plot with some overly melodramatic moments and disjointed moments that plod, but these problems never bog down the overall achievement of the intriguing premise.  Another Earth is an exploration of the human spirit both at its worst and best and utilizes its sci-fi premise to not only explore other worldly questions but also to extenuate the themes humans face on a day-to-day basis.  The film perfectly captures all of these emotions and human questions with the unforgettable imagery of Rhoda, standing in front of the globe of Earth 2 and its moon; an image that evokes curiosity and unasked question that test a person’s everyday existence.  

Director: Mike Cahill
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 92 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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