October 31, 2011

Drive (2011)

Absolutely brilliant! With its quietly calculated and mysterious Ryan Gosling (who is taking a break from being the heartthrob du jour, but perhaps only perpetuating his status with his strong, silent-type unnamed hero) the film is everything I wanted it to be and more. From the Dirty-Dancing-style hot-pink titles and electro 80’s sountrack, you immediately realize that this is not yet another Fast and the Furious or Transporter rehash. It is a driving movie but it is not a movie that’s all about driving. In fact, the driving sequences are but a small portion of the film, and I rather interpret the title as the drive that pushes someone to achieve their goal, whatever that may be in the driver’s case. While very little is said about Gosling’s character, he is surrounded by an array of well defined characters (the fragile Mulligan, the ruthless Perlman and Brooks, the flawed, father-like Cranston) through which we learn much more about the driver than we do from his own actions. If there is any downside to this, is that Christina Hendricks is severely underused, with but a brief role that doesn’t do her justice, but considering the the rest, can easily be forgiven. It’s been compared to everything from Tarantino, to Lynch to classic noir, as well as the more obvious references to 60’s/70’s driving films (Bullitt, The Driver) but despite the comparisons, Drive stands on its own, with Refn providing his personal brand of art/action/drama that is at once original and a tribute to its predecessors, making this one a definite must. 

October 4, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Here is what is an essentially coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence formula, that Malick attempts to turn into something bigger than it really is. Evoking (through imagery, narration and soundtrack) both spiritual and metaphysical aspects of the world and of life. Unfortunately, wrapping the central story in experimental imagery and CG dinosaurs with a sprinkle of a depressed Sean Penn isn’t enough to turn this slower, poorer version of Stand by Me into the next Space Odyssey (to which reviews often draw parallels for some reason). Don’t get me wrong, I love Malick’s work, mostly from Days of Heaven onwards, but unfortunately this one is uneven and overly long considering the subject matter. It has all the Malick signature moves like the rustling grass and insect sounds and wind, but unfortunately it doesn’t manage to captivate the viewer as much as his previous work. Some reason for this might be that not many can relate to growing up in 1950’s Texas like Malick, or perhaps it is due to the religious undertones that by now seem outdated and preachy. There are many great feelings that this film evokes, particularly the ones triggered by Malick’s skillful portrayal of nature and landscapes, but ultimately, the so called plot falls flat, with the only redeeming factor (other than Malick’s direction) is Pitt’s performance, with the rest (including, unfortunately Hunter McCracken, the main child protagonist) being largely typecast. While not a perfect film, I am still anxious to see the next project to come from Malick, which will hopefully balance his repertoire of great work.

October 2, 2011

Melancholia (2011)

With perhaps one of Von Trier's largest cast of feature actors including Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård (Eric Northman on True Blood), John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier (as the comic relief), Melancholia is a 2 part end-of-the-world story that slowly unravels with a constant feeling of dread and anxiety, albeit not one motivated by the coming apocalypse. Starting with gorgeously composed tableaus that sum up the whole film and satisfy our need for aesthetic excellence, the film quickly switches to the shaky-out-of-focus mess that is Dogme95 style. As the ‘plot’ develops, we are introduced to the star-studded cast, nicely used throughout the spellbinding first half of the film, where the elaborate wedding party slowly disintegrates into a colossal mess, though not an unexpected one. Kirsten Dunst nicely fulfills the role of the anxiety-ridden depressed bride, and she carries the first half of the film with great success until her eventual collapse at its end. Changing pace and greatly reducing cast, the 2nd half becomes more familiar Von Trier territory, with Dunst becoming less central and Gainsbourg taking the lead. Presented as the strong, stable half of the two sisters in the first half, Gainsbourg slowly switches roles with Dunst, becoming more and more agitated as the impending apocalypse nears. It is as if Justine came to terms with humanity’s fate whereas Claire is just now beginning to see reality and refuses to accept it. The film isn’t perfect, at times it drags on and risks boredom (though considering Von Trier’s past work, this shouldn’t be a valid complaint) but overall it fits nicely within the director’s repertoire. Visually, the first part is bathed in tungsten and gives the whole wedding a very warm, emotionally driven look, whereas the 2nd part features colder colors, with a lot more outdoor shots on cloudy days, providing the backdrop for Gainsbourg’s character’s half of the story. Overall more subdued than Von Trier’s other work, but as Justine exclaims to her new ex-husband at the end of the first half, “What did you expect?”