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Artistic ambition held back by its source material
While Nils-Winding Refn clearly has "artistic ambitions," I don't find his films all that interesting in the long run (Bronson being the most compelling of the 4 that I've seen).
I certainly wouldn't hold up "Drive" as a shining example of narrative cinema. The story and characters are nothing more than sketches that have been utilized countless times before, and the only thing that made the film different, and the slightest bit interesting to me, was the director's cinematic style, which tapped into techniques (including a dash of subtle sensation) that are uncommon to mainstream cinema.
Refn prefers minimalist storytelling and slick styling to make superficial associations without providing anything of real substance to sink into or explore, opting instead for the typical Hollywood action pathways.
People have called "the driver" enigmatic and mysterious, but the truth is, he only seems so because virtually no information is provided about him beyond a few hints, and his strength is only demonstrated in his superhuman ability to out-think and out perform everyone else in battle.
The entire movie actually resembled a template for a video game or contemporary action comic book. Just consider what is given import in the film, as well as where, and through what it aspires to take us, moreover how it ends up: Neither story nor character development stray very far from the basic plot, and there is a long, violent conclusion (actually a series of violent incidents, one after another, that end up with nobody left).
If you want to see a movie with some similarities that actually develops an authentic story and character, with a real sense of place, try Bullhead, from Belgium. In fact, I would argue that the most interesting cinema these days is not being made in English, though it is only seen and appreciated by tiny minority.
...Drive does work in several ways:
1) because Refn creates his own brand of stylish cinema crossing in elements of mainstream cinema, combining "realism" and the "potboiler" with touches of Bergman, using an artsy technique that mixes long takes and silence with quick edits, sound, and fetishist action/violence in a way that wows the mainstream movie goer who has never seen anything like it, much less in the context of a genre film.
2) as a post modern, deconstructionist take on the genre film, a la Jarmush (think Ghost Dog, or the more deconstructionist Limits Of Control, which I hated), Cronenberg (Eastern Promises and History Of Violence), even early Tarantino and the later-day Scorsese. References to films like Mann's, Thief, are spot on, but there are also numerous references to Peckinpah (and Steve McQueen) in particular (The Getaway), as well as to Sergio Leone, which not only give it support, but make its contemporary take/styling more than just derivative.
I wonder what Godard would think of it? After all, Breathless was the first deconstructed "cool, hard guy" film to be made, more than 50 years ago.
Problem is, there was not one thing about Drive that I have not already seen dozens of times in American movies, beginning with the method-actor characterizations of the 50's and 60's (Brando comes first to mind, but carries right on down through Clint Eastwood, and just about every Hollywood action anti-hero).
The driver with no name, who rarely speaks: A toothpick in his mouth tough guy (with a sensitive soul) who looks like a GQ model, and whose only expression other than stone face is a glib smile that's supposed to mean everything he doesn't express... I already said that Gosling borrows a lot from McQueen, but he also uses James Dean and the young Mickey Rourke, who, of course tapped the young Brando.
Problem is, with each reincarnation of this archetype the meaning gets diluted until it becomes only a posture and nothing more, effective only in how it conjures up these other actors and their movies, while contributing nothing to the archetype it is alluding to.
Driver actually has no character of his own, only mannerisms, and there is nothing substantial about the film. It's only interesting in terms of all the movies and characters it references from Hollywood past, trimmed down and reliant upon familiar archetypes and stories, done up with a contemporary styling that blends art house cinema and Hollywood.
At times Refn's postmodern, playful stew works wonders, but there are also times when it backfires completely, such as when the Driver boards the elevator and kisses the object of his courtly love (who's nothing more than the object of a fairytale knight's devotion) for the first time before pushing her aside and not only murdering the hit man standing next to him but stomping him repeatedly as we hear his bones crack. How romantic! Cut to the loving, face of his Madonna as she backs safely into the garage.
Bottom line is that there was not enough "new material" to really captivate me much less enrich the bare-bones' story, and it ended up being not much different from all of the other movies built around dysfunctional males who can only find their way (and know how to survive) as warriors, by means of repeated acts of violence against whatever "bad guys" are threatening them, or some innocent member of society.
The only thing I really wondered about in Drive is what made Driver the way he was, or why everyone in the movie had to die except for the girl? Talk about self-defeating.... Half way into the film (once I fully understood what the director was doing) I could pretty much intuit everything that was going to happen scene by scene, moreover how it would be portrayed.
For me, despite a few moments of genuine brilliance, this film was ultimately not very satisfying, even somewhat pretentious.
2 Guns (2013)
Are video games emulating Hollywood, or is it the other way around now?
Formulaic action/thriller, and the more I reflect on it the worse it gets. Yeah, the actors all do their jobs well, and there is good "buddy chemistry" between Denzel and Mark, as well as a few signature lines, but one of these every 5-10 years is enough to cure my curiosity about what the mainstream public finds appealing in a movie, especially since it seems almost exactly like the last one of these I saw 5-10 years ago, and so on, where everything in the movie serves as an excuse for a fight, crazier and crazier car chases, bigger and bigger explosions, and more and more unconscious torture and killing, intermingled with some smartalec dialog and various threatening put downs by whoever has the upper hand at the moment.
Of course, there is also time for a bit of T & A, though it amounts to very little compared with all the testosterone exercises among men, where good guys get to do bad things because the bad guys force them into it, and where there is little of value to believe in or make meaning of aside from the possibility of making lots of money and finding a partner you can trust.
O Som ao Redor (2012)
Wow, what an amazing film!
The people who find it dull (and there are quite a few judging from the IMDb reviews) really have dull minds.
While this movie plays like a slice of life drama in a neighborhood in Recife, every single scene is carefully and meaningfully put together to speak about the nature of social structures in Brazil which date back to plantation times.
These things may be more discernible in Northeastern states like Pernambuco where the plantations once flourished and formed the basis of the societal constructs and defined human relationships, but their residue still permeates the country as a whole, which, while trying to move beyond them, still remains mired in the same kind of stratifications.
The film opens with black and white pictures of a plantation and then segues into a drama in 3 acts, using a crisscrossing narrative that delves into the day to day lives of various people who live and work on same street. And through their interactions and involvements we are given a very clear picture of class system as microcosm.
This film is more than a simple slice of life. For those of you familiar with the films of Lucrecia Martel (Argentina), what seems to be disconnected and inconsequential is put together like a jigsaw puzzle that leads brilliantly to the films final scene, at which point the entire story crystallizes before our very eyes, and we realize how well it has been supported and enriched by all we have been shown.
Throughout the film, there are narrative constructs for use to take hold of: the chapter headings, certain scenes that foreshadow, and a soundtrack the underscores where we are headed, without ever being exactly clear what we should prepare for. And this is, to a large part, the filmmaker's genius.
La mujer sin cabeza (2008)
La Mujer Sin Cabeza is Brilliant
Martel is quickly becoming a master of her own filmic sensibility, which I might call the "art of eavesdropping cinema," and she makes consummate use of something inherent to the medium to take us inside the characters and content of stories that have almost nothing to do with traditional plot points.
As an audience, we are all eavesdroppers (or voyeurs) when we watch a movie. And Martel's sensibility, or way of telling a story, is not only to provide clues to what she is investigating, but to inform us with what she considers important about it. There is a bit of Hitchcock (Rear Window comes to mind), and certainly some of Altman's audio technique around conversation. There is also an exploration of neurosis that one might liken to Almodovar (her producer), yet without the bold, soap operatic farce. And there is also something of Bergman and Antonioni.
La Mujer Sin Cabeza (while not my favorite of her films) is still a sure step forward as a filmmaker. This is not only her most focused film, but it makes use of a more developed cinematic technique than either of her previous two films. Strangely, it has not been received as well. The problem, I believe, has much to due to the predisposition of most film viewers, who not only lack of patience, but the ability to adjust to a film operating in ways they are not accustomed to.
Martel's narratives may seem disjointed at first, as they jump from one scene to another without obvious connection, but they are extremely well thought out. The problem, as I said, has more to do with confounded viewer expectations, and the inability to adapt to a different approach in cinematic narrative, one that is very appropriate to the content of Martel's design. For the uninitiated, her films benefit from a second viewing, if only because what at first seems insignificant or disconnected is actually very important, and provides access to her dry subtle satire.
The power of "Mujer Sin Cabeza," (as with all films) is grounded in our perceptions of the main character's experience (or our experience of her perceptions), which not only infect us with her mental / emotional state, but draw us into the kind of life that she leads, in the balance, providing us a window into modern day Argentina.
Here, we are also made aware of a social system in the midst of decay, being held together by the ever more twisted and frayed threads of a colonial past that seeks preservation, in spite of increasing moral dysfunction, and the inability to take responsibility for anything that interferes with the social system beyond making it disappear...
Un conte de Noël (2008)
Another brilliant French film
This one, however, is not for everyone. Most people will probably not only have trouble with its length, but its style, as well. Both as wild as it is imaginative, this film is like a post-modern jazz score, mixing elements from a variety of cinematic styles that are jarring (at times), but always interesting to behold. And as long as the film is, it always keeps moving and changing before our very eyes. What makes its odd stylistic combinations work is the compelling depths of its explorations into family and the bonds the unite, or divide us. Like and The Royal Tennenbaums, with a nouvelle vague twist, the film is not only full of odd combinations of image and music, but seems to jump from one film to another from scene to scene, as if each character or emotional quality (from light comedy to serious drama) were each receiving its own rendering. At times, the characters turn and speak directly to the camera. The filmmaker also intercedes by providing chapter headings and keyhole views, but, somehow, what could have become a cacophony of chaos, turns into a wonderment of cinema that any real cinephile will be amazed to behold and want to experience again....
Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993)
The Beauty of Blue
The "beauty" of Kieslowski's later works has little to do with "pretty pictures," but everything to do with his cinematic imagination, and his ability to tap into and enrich the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic content of his work.
The opening sequence to "Blue," involving the car passing through a tunnel, as we are immersed in the ambient sounds (hearing bits of familial conversation, viewing the swish of vehicles and splash of lights through the window), followed by the passage into late afternoon light (and the silvery blue balloon being sucked out the side window flapping in the breeze), just before the accident, is as astounding in its beauty as it is penetrating in its content....
This film is resplendent with cinematic sequences as unique and profound as its opening, and, throughout," Kieslowski's use of sound as a way to access Binoche's interior process is absolutely brilliant. Witness the sequence, when she finally feels able to step out into the world again and move into the city after the accident. She rents an apartment on an upper floor of a large, strange vacuous building, and there, that first night, through her window, witnesses the beating of a man on the street, who escapes and runs into her building, the fear on her face, as she listens to him climb the long metal escape stairway, floor by floor, still followed by his assailants, as he comes closer to her....
But it is not only the imagery (Binoche blurry through window, staring vacantly somewhere as she experiences intimate relations for the first time since the accident), or ambient sound (the sudden clamor and echo of the indoor swimming pool as she comes up for air from under water) that reflects the nature of her psyche, but Preisner's haunting music that simultaneously takes us back to her husband and her tragedy, as much as towards her recovery of self as she engages her creative process.
She is a woman who has lived in the shadow of her husband, while yet participating in the creation of the very music he is famous for, and as the music enters the film, each time, it is her reflecting on and coming to terms with all that it represents to her, including, finally, the bridge to her salvation....
This is not a typical Hollywood redemption tale handing us the standard prescription for such a tale of woe, no "how to reclaim your power as a woman course 101." This is a tale of truth, and we believe Binoche every time she makes a decision because we are not only privy to her experience, but fully involved in the process of transformation that becomes her liberation.
I could go on and on through every scene like this, but it is better to watch and listen to the film several times by yourself....
Eastern Promises (2007)
Eastern Promises, Hollywood fulfillment
Can't get over all the people extolling the virtues of this mediocrity. I'll admit that it held my interest up through its climax in the baths, but delivered nothing thereafter. Reminiscent in some ways of The Godfather, in its portrayal of a crime family, it is also the story of a young midwife, who is drawn by circumstances into their web, and Viggo's character, who lives in the moral quagmire between them.
As a crime drama, however, it ultimately suffers from having this dual focus, as much as from the incredulity surrounding both stories, their wedding, and more importantly their development. Several potentially interesting themes are introduced in the course of the film, but none of them are explored to any satisfaction (the screenwriter and/or director seems to prefer jumping from one to another and using them as props for a few stylish scenes rather than treating any of them with the respect of someone with anything interesting to say), and in the end its hard to say what the film is really about.
The characters suffer from the same sketchy profiling, and while most of the performances are very good (given what the actors have to work with), compared to a film like The Godfather, the people being played are drawn too superficially to resonate afterward. The Russian mob boss is a wolf in sheep's clothing, and yet goes against his character and chooses to sacrifice his only competent soldier to protect an incompetent son who is clearly dangerous to his operation. The emotionally weak, yet vile son, meanwhile, is provided no consistent, believable persona (to use the Godfather again, he is one minute Jimmy Caan, the next John Cazale) and seems to function almost completely as a catalyst for others to play off of; a counterpoint conceived to give evidence of, or reveal something about Viggo and his father. Then, there is the midwife, who is introduced as an important character only to be dropped midway through (when Viggo takes over) until she reappears in the end with all of her problems resolved, and we are then supposed to feel her emotional journey. The entire confrontation involving the four of them down by the river struck me as lame- everybody rushing from the hospital to the dumping ground in various disturbed and damaged states to arrive at a big love-in around a baby that only midwife seems to want. What a waste of Naomi Watts. Even Viggo (who is brilliant as the film's centerpiece) has no real character to work with. Think about it: Who is this guy, really, besides a quasi-moral bad ass? Part one character from other movies, part another, is what Cronenberg's people are; insubstantial at the core.... and the same is true for his stories.
Cronenberg's latest efforts (this and History Of Violence) are a weaker cross between early Lynch (Blue Velvet), and a later-day Scorcese (The Departed), and if you enjoy those kind of films, you may like Eastern Promises. Perhaps like the The Departed, it is more easily appreciated as a Hollywood style hybrid of cross-genre realism, and stylish entertainment. 3 out of 5 for the most overrated director out there. A posturing," cool guy," Cronenberg plays with and mixes Hollywood stereotypes and clichés (a la Tarantino, even Jarmush), but he doesn't always do it very well, and often to the detriment of other aspects of the film, its story, and its characters.
Your cinewest correspondent
Le petit lieutenant (2005)
One of the best of the year (so far)
Le Petit Lieutenant makes Eastern Promises look like the mediocre knock off it is. "Eastern..." has nothing substantial to offer beyond a couple of signature scenes and is ultimately forgettable after the echo of its posturing and violence subside (can't really understand why the critics adore Cronenberg so much), and it is no more evident than when I compare his film to another that works so much better, like Le Petit Lieutenant (an 8 1/2 out of 10)
Both are dramas that operate fully within the "crime genre," but whereas there is very little that is original or compelling beyond the dramatic pretense of Eastern Promises, the French film is rich with characterizations and direction that lend depth to its realistic story. Whereas "Eastern..." creates slick, hip Hollywood scenes that tease and gratify our primal senses without really engaging any of its real dilemmas, "Petit..." draws us in (via a casual documentary like style) to the life of a young detective just out of cadet school who is becoming familiar with his co-workers and line of work on the streets of Paris. It is through him and his interactions with everything around him that we begin to experience something more dramatic, almost without realizing it, until the tragedy of common (rather than postured) occurrence invades our psyche, and plays out amidst a suspense created by the tension of anxiety, anguish, and inner strength of his chief inspector (a woman), portrayed with great humanity by Nathalie Baye.
Like all Hollywood movies, Eastern Promises offers the semblance of real drama at the beginning, only to abandon its stories and characters as it lapses into the improbability and titillation we have all grown accustomed to at the cinema. The french film, on the other hand, demonstrates its concern for the people it has given life to by engaging our own humanity rather than our anticipation of the next thrill that lies around the corner....
your cinewest correspondent
West African Delight
While not for everyone (the antithesis of a Hollywood film), "Waiting For Happiness" is pure cinema at its finest, and one of the best African movies I have ever seen. Reminiscent of contemporary Iranian cinema," Sissako's poetic imagery resonates with a sense of place and describes the lives of those who inhabit it. While there is an absence of plot and scripted dialog, as well as no clear protagonist, the story is marked by the characterizations and tempo that reveal a community sandwiched between the ocean and the dessert; between ancient rituals and adaptations to modernity, fluctuating between hope and acceptance, life and death, always with patience and dignity. Full of quiet compassion, everything swept by the wind, "Waiting For Happiness," doesn't explain everything. Instead, it gives you an experience that is palpable for you to make sense of.
"Code Unknown" and "Crash"
Both have similar themes. They both deal with the psychological and communicative dysfunctions particular to our modern, multicultural world. Both films also deal with the suffering we create through our behavior toward one another by way of our assumptions, beliefs, and prejudices.
Stylistically, however, these two films have little in common. Whereas "Crash" plays like a pilot for a TV series, weaving its characters and their stories together in support of its themes (holding our hands throughout and taking us where it wants us to go), "Code Unknown" is a puzzle in fragments that we must assemble ourselves from the information we are given. Whereas "Crash" connects too many improbable conversations and events with possible ones in order to hit us over the heads and wrench our hearts with its message, "Code Unknown" entrusts us with cinematic clues and metaphors that we must use to construct our own understanding. In "Crash" everyone tells us everything they feel and think thereby limiting the possibilities of what we are allowed to imagine. To the contrary, "Code Unknown" invites us to rely our own abilities (as perceivers) to discover what truths there are."Crash" has a few brilliant scenes, but once we have seen it there is nothing left to experience, wonder about, or really discuss. The show is over, and now we know everything about it (just as with every Hollywood film) . "Code Unknown" (like all works of art) is made up of one brilliant scene after another, but more importantly it entreats us to reflect, as well as interpret. It also invites us into conversation about it, even asks us to return and discover again.... your cinewest correspondent