Wednesday, 21 September 2011


Director Nicolas Winding Refn has created an instant cult classic. This film is unquestionably cool. For example, avoiding all driving clich├ęs, the soundtrack features not a single guitar, instead opting for an electronica bubblegum audio backdrop which beautifully matches that oh-so-modern of cities in which it is set: Los Angeles.

A mysterious stranger in the shape of the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) offers his customers no guns, no muscle, just a means to get away. And all done with a four-stroke of genius. It’s basically cowboy mythology updated to a very dangerous present. He becomes inextricably involved with a young mum (Carey Mulligan). Her ex-con husband’s past is catching up with him and putting them and their son in danger, so the Driver offers his services to help them.

Gosling’s performance is slightly weird - it’s not exactly the manliest. But as soon as he gets in the driving seat he’s as Alpha as they come. Killer casting prevails. Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame) proves further acting mettle. Christina Hendricks (of Mad Men) makes her mark in a smaller role. Ron Perlman leaves his usual big-softyness for dust, playing a genuinely scary character. And going well against type, Albert Brooks plays someone who simply enjoys killing.

It’s a beautiful-looking film. It’s vibrantly colourful. It’s also remarkably violent. But this movie called Drive - about a stunt driver who also drives getaway cars - is slightly lacking in one aspect: the eponymous driving. The action mostly surrounds the noir/thriller aspect and not the stuff on four wheels. Although a little short-changed on this front, the initial car chase is perfection. Shot entirely from inside the getaway vehicle its tension and exhilaration easily rivals that Holiest of Grails of car chases, from Bullitt.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Forget everything you've learnt. Being a spy is not sexy. Exhibit A Yer Honour, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The ironically-monikered George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is stuffy and middle-aged. (NB: this is in the days when being in your fifties looked like being in your seventies.) At one point he unceremoniously removes his Walther PPK - that’s James Bond’s gun - not from a sleek shoulder holster but from a shabby plastic wallet just as he might his sandwiches. This, incidentally, is a rare occasion when we actually see some hardware.

It’s the early seventies. The Cold War is positively glacial and Smiley is tracking down a double agent in British intelligence. The action flows at glacial speed too. There is little made of actual operations. They are momentary but incendiary. The onus is on finding the Soviet mole in the “Circus” (The Secret Intelligence Service).

The performances and attention to period detail is the main charm. The production design is stunning, and all things sartorial – even the most staid – offer some kind of allure. Weirdly, the film manages to be attractive while simultaneously showing up the crappiness of seventies Britain and its Empire in serious decay. Smiley is a laconic sort and, as a result, Oldman delivers a potent, internalised performance. He is backed by a strong British cast – from relative newcomers (Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberpatch) to stalwarts (Mark Strong, Ciarin Hinds, Tobey Jones) to an Oscar-winner (Colin Firth) to a living legend (John Hurt). Unsurprisingly, the acting’s not bad.

Smiley almost disappears within the large cast and fragmented story. Other than being King of the poker face we are given little indication of his strengths. It is not a character-driven story of Smiley but it’s neither a balls-to-the-wall spy flick. Instead, it occupies a vapid no-man’s land between the two. It is easy to be dazzled by such slick production value when the actual story is lifeless as this.

File:Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Poster.jpg

Monday, 12 September 2011

Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone has a lot to offer in terms of authenticity. Director Debra Granik’s film set in a methamphetamine-afflicted community in the Ozark Mountains drips with realism. It’s a shame it’s so dull. When the majority of a film’s cast is made up of dangerous rednecks high on crystal meth, it really should be more interesting than this.

17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has a messed-up mum and an absent father. This means she has to raise her two young siblings. Daddy is a meth chemist awaiting trial. He has put the house up as part of his bond and gone AWOL. If he doesn’t turn up to court they lose the house. To save the family home Ree searches for her father, meeting a number of people who are disturbing or disturbed.

Granik cites Ken Loach and Mike Leigh as influences. Visually she has more to offer than both of those directors. Then again that may be down to the tiniest hint of Americana being so much more cinematic than a lot of say, London. The attention to detail – in all things hillbilly – is impressive; the younger kids playing has a touch of Gummo about it, guns are casually loaded and left lying around like any household item, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a squirrel being skinned for dinner before. However, none of it says a huge deal other than, it sucks being this poor. And there is a lot of repetition – in terms of imagery and even plot.

Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence is good but, as with the film in general, overrated. The superb John Hawkes - who I’ll always think of as the awkward Richard in indie favourite, Me and You and Everyone We Know – here plays a twitching ball of drug psychosis, like Dennis Hopper on a bad day. Sadly the script he was given is weak. The dialogue is minimal and what there is of it carries little weight. Granik does have a good eye but if the characters are going to talk this little then the images need to say a lot more.

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