Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Movie Review: Drive

This seems to be the year of Ryan Gosling.  The ex-Mouseketeer has turned into one of the best actors working in Hollywood today and gives his second great performance of 2011 in Drive.  With Crazy Stupid Love in his rear-view mirror and The Ides of March (George Clooney's political drama) on the way next month, Gosling is sure to be considered for multiple films come Oscar time.  (By the way, I'm not sure how I feel about Eddie Murphy hosting the Oscars.  I guess it depends on if the old Raw/Delirious Eddie Murphy shows up or if the more family-friendly Norbit / Shrek Eddie Murphy decides to host. .... anyways...) It'll be hard for him to top what he's accomplished in this film.

Gosling plays a stunt driver in LA that ends up moonlighting as a wheel-man for small heist jobs.  He ends up meeting a love interest in his building (played by Carry Mulligan) and through a series of circumstances winds up involved in a heist job gone wrong where a cast of mob thugs (including great performances by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman) puts him and his associates in trouble.  I won't spoil the plot for you but needless to say Director Nicolas Winding Refn puts a lot of effort into Pulp Fiction style scenes of extreme violence once the action gets going in the second half of the movie.  The first half of the film is particularly slow as Refn builds the characters using very minimal dialogue.  Some scenes were a bit awkward and puzzling as Gosling and Mulligan would just stare at each other, saying a few words every minute.  It was odd but helped build up Gosling's "driver" (yes, he has no name in the movie) as a quiet loner.  Throughout the film, Gosling is able to convey a great deal of emotion without actually saying a word.  He has a commanding presence on-screen and I believe he is a shoe-in to win an Oscar within the next five years.  Without him, this movie could not be made.

The music in this movie is very effective in setting the tone.  Cliff Martinez (who scored recent movies I've seen like Lincoln Lawyer and Contagion) is one of my new favorite composers and features synthysizer-heavy 80's style music that drives the action.  Every time Gosling is at the wheel of his car, we get a muted techno beat that thumps along as the tires grip the road.  The gritty atmosphere of LA is portrayed perfectly in the collection of songs put together in this soundtrack.  Refn features a lot of night shots that help build tension throughout the film.

I have to admit, as soon as I left the theater after seeing this film, I was very lukewarm in my reaction.  I enjoyed it but I was a bit let down after hearing all the rave reviews from other critics.  I was all prepared to give this 3 JRs due to the quirky dialogue and slowness at times.  But after I let the whole experience sink in for a day or so, I kept thinking back to the movie and how much of an effect it had on me (it helped that I've already downloaded the amazing soundtrack and am playing it constantly on my phone).  This is definitely an unconventional movie and one that love-it-or-hate-it you'll be thinking about for days.  Drive is a very tense and beautifully directed movie that ends in an edgy and bold nod to tough crime dramas like Scarface and Collateral (particularly since Michael Mann also shot that movie mostly at night).  Make sure you see this in the theater as the sound alone is worth the amplification (I'm hoping Martinez is given an Oscar nod for his work here).  4 (teetering on 4.5) JRs for Drive, a unique slice of independent cinema.

PS:  If anyone wants to get me an early Christmas present, I'd love to get a replica of the totally cool scorpion jacket that Gosling wears in the movie.  It would make a pretty smooth Halloween costume.

Movie Review: Contagion

After hinting at his retirement from directing, Stephen Soderbergh returns to major multiplexes with a movie more fit for the small screen in Contagion, a hodgepodge of A-list Hollywood talent, assembled to warn us of the potential for a serious pandemic.  Many people have dismissed this account of a fictional global disease as simply an Outbreak clone but in actuality this is really more of a study on human paranoia on a much larger scale than what Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman dealt with.  As the audience, we are left to witness mass hysteria over a rapidly spreading disease and the governmental efforts to contain and eradicate it.

The plot of this film focuses on the outbreak of a contagious virus that possibly originated somewhere in Hong Kong.  The respiratory illness kills the infected in a matter of days.  Once the virus starts spreading cities around the world start following quarantine procedures.  Both the CDC and World Health Organization are determined to find the source of the virus and develop an effective antidote.  All of this action is shot by Soderbergh with excellent precicion that makes the disease and the media coverage seem very authentic.

Similar to Soderbergh's Traffic, Contagion is played out in separate pockets of stories set around the world.  Each area of interest is lead by a capable lead actor.  Matt Damon, who loses his wife (Gwenyth Paltrow - shown above giving her best creepy death stare) and stepson early on, is stuck in Chicago trying to deal with his biological daughter who has a case of cabin fever during the quarantine process.  Lawrence Fishburne and Kate Winslett are big wigs at the CDC and attempt to contain the outbreak as much as possible.  Jude Law is an aspiring blogger in the UK and tries to expose a conspiracy about the production of the antidote.  Marion Cotillard is a WHO worker who gets stuck in a situation in Asia.  All of the leads give great performances as you would expect and veteran supporting actors like Elliot Gould and Bryan Cranston provide solid assistance. Soderbergh proves that while he may be near the end of his directing career, he still commands a ton of respect from the best actors working today.  Contagion would probably be just another TV movie of the week without this stellar cast.

Overall this is tense storytelling from a well accomplished director.  Soderbergh beats us over the head with the notion that we should be more careful in public places to avoid contracting diseases.  I developed a slight case of OCD on the way out of the theater and washed my hands as soon as I got home.  This movie doesn't do anything particularly new though and it drags on slightly towards the end.  I would recommend waiting for a rental with Contagion as there really is nothing that lends itself to be viewed on the big screen.  3.5 out of 5 JRs for this one.