Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On DVD/Blu-ray: "Thor" and "Meek's Cutoff"

Thor (2011) 
115 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

Where you stand with the Marvel Universe and Norse mythology will determine the success of "Thor," something of a two-hour teaser for the mega movie "The Avengers." It's out of the closet that the upcoming superhero mash-up will assemble Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Thor, who now gets his own origin story. Under the umbrella of other Marvel superhero efforts, "Thor" doesn't rise above "Spider-Man," "Hulk," or "Iron Man," even with his mighty hammer, but it's still fairly fun. 

In the Puente Antiguo, New Mexico desert, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor professor (Stellan Skarsgård), and college friend (Kat Dennings) are studying strange weather in the night sky when a blustery hunk drops out of a cloudy wormhole and is hit by their van. "Where did he come from?" inquires Jane. Here's the story to "Thor's Day" (not Thursday): Norway, 965 A.D. The arrogant God of Thunder, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is exiled from the mythical realm of Asgard by his angry father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), for waging a war with the Jotunheim sphere's monstrous Frost Giants and proving himself an unworthy prince. So when Thor and his hammer are banished onto our planet, just not together, Jane must help the ripped foreigner find his secret weapon and get back to Asgard. Meanwhile, the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), steals Jane's equipment and research to investigate a "security threat." Also, back on the Asgard homefront, Odin knocks on death's door and Thor's jealous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), takes the thrown. 

For a goofy, larger-than-life Marvel Comics movie, "Thor" mostly avoids derisive snickering but it is gloriously, unabashedly ridiculous. All of this is directed by Kenneth Branagh (yes, there's only one Kenneth Branagh), who uses his Shakespeare-adapting credentials to take the Asgard section quite seriously, almost to painfully earnest degrees, but respects the 1962 Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic and its fanboys. Besides a little expository voiceover by Hopkins early on, Branagh just drops us in on the goings-on without hammering a lot of mythology into our heads. Once Thor lands on Earth, the tone becomes intentionally funny, and the movie becomes an entertaining blend of hammer-time action and fish-out-of-water humor. 

Though Thor isn't going down as the most interesting hero of all time, Hemsworth handles the role with aplomb. With the appropriately god-like physique and blonde tresses, the Aussie stud manages some mighty charisma and comic timing to go with the brawn, and he plausibly transforms the hothead into a humble gallant. Proving how loose and fun she can be for the third time this year, Portman is charming as Jane, but her budding romance with Thor is too undercooked to really matter. Dennings walks away with most of the wisecracks as smart-alecky comic relief Darcy. Hopkins still has enough ham left in him, wearing a metal eye patch as wise King Odin. Hiddleston surprisingly underplays the role of Loki, who questions his bloodline. Thor's warrior gang, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanoby Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), are a cool bunch, especially during a battle against a giant, Gort-like robot in New Mexico, but deserved more attention. Unfortunately, Rene Russo (back on the screen six years later after the "Yours, Mine & Ours" remake) is given about five lines and fades into the scenery as Thor's royal mother Frigga. 

"Thor" looks great, Branagh bringing style with his canted camera angles and a distinction between both worlds in the production design. The Kingdom of Asgard looks like a more computer-generated, futuristic Rivendell from the "Lord of the Rings" with a rainbow bridge, but its artifice reflects the comic book's roots. As for the ultra-small southwestern town, it looks like a set, but that's part of its charm. Shout-outs to other Marvel characters, an eyeblink-long cameo by Hawkeye (an uncredited Jeremy Renner), and a post-credits teaser (connective tissue to "The Avengers") are hidden Easter eggs for the squealing Comic-Con crowd. It's not one of the greats, but "Thor" is solid as a hammer.

Meek's Cutoff (2011)
104 min., rated PG.
Grade: C

Oftentimes, a film comes along that might've worked better in a documentary format or as a short film rather than a feature. That's the case with "Meek's Cutoff," a neo-Western whose drama is so spare that the film fails to make a more lasting impression. Independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt tries to rekindle the minimalist approach that of her previous slice-of-life effort, the beautifully told, equally pared-down "Wendy and Lucy." If the viewer is in no rush for anything to happen, "Meek's Cutoff" promises an arid, tedious journey to nowhere. 

Set on the Oregon Trail, circa 1845, a three-wagon train of pioneer settlers make their way across the perilous trail with their food and water supply becoming scarce. Frontiersman Stephen Meek (a grizzled, unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood) is the hired trailblazer to guide the families—Emily and Soloman Tetherow (Michelle Williams, Will Patton), Millie and Thomas Gately (Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano), and Glory and William White (Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff) with their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson)—through a cutoff over the Cascade Mountains in search of water. Meek is a braggart who talks big game and spins a good 'ol yarn, but he's an unreliable leader as their two-week journey prolongs itself to five weeks. When a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux) crosses their path, Meek holds him captive to lead them to water. The wives stand back as the husbands make the decisions, but Emily has enough of a backbone to give their Indian prisoner some food and water, mend his mocassin, and even stand up to Meek. 

Reichardt, her loyal writer Jon Raymond, and debuting cinematographer Christopher Blauvet focus on the emigrants' hardships and boredom, and the harshness of the terrain, within an allegorical subtext about xenophobia and gender roles. Contrary to most American Westerns, "Meek's Cutoff" is devoid of artifice or much action, but deliberately paced and meditative in its quiet stillness. Sometimes, all that's heard is a squeak of the wagon wheels and the whoosh of the wind. Williams ("Wendy and Lucy"), in a pioneer calico dress, anchors the film in her pre-feminist role with plain-spoken persuasion. She becomes the only willing person in the wagon train to question Meek, with a little rifle know-how no less. The actors all do yeoman's work, often directed to just "be," doing a lot of walking and their day-to-day chores in real time. Reichardt keeps her subjects at a distance for long takes in medium and establishing shots. Blauvet's exquisitely serene cinematography and Reichardt's choice to shoot in a boxy 1:33:1 aspect ratio underscore the vast desolation of the landscape. 

With all that noble authenticity found in its vivid observations, it's a shame the screenplay's characters and modicum of narrative conflict are treated as a means to an end. Sure, "Meek's Cutoff" captures how it really must have been back then, but the mundane monotony becomes, well, monotonous and it all lacks a finite destination. For all we know, the journey hasn't even ended yet. Only the most patient cinephiles will admire the film's unfussy stretches without growing restless, but there's only so much to ponder over watching grass grow.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Worst Movies of 2011...So Far

1) Super - Should've been a geeky, subversive goof, but instead it's smug and off-putting. It's hard to root for anyone, as there seems to be a contempt for its characters and audience. Tonally all over the place and looks cheap. Pointless and unfunny.

2) Love, Wedding, Marriage - Sitcommy, unfunny rom-com with unlovable characters. Mandy Moore as a marriage counselor? Please.

3) Creature - No budget, no laughs, no scares--that's "Creature" for ya. B-movies can be fun, but this one is BAD. 

4) Your Highness - The Princess Bride with cock jokes. Lame and crude script wastes overqualified cast.

5) Salvation Boulevard - Great cast and source material for what could've been a biting dark comedy, but this is such a muddle filled with bad ideas and cartoony performances.

6) Passion Play - Megan Fox plays an angel with wings, literally, that falls for Mickey Rourke's jazz-playing lost soul. Ugh. Bizarre and laughable without being interesting or enjoyably campy.

7) Red Riding Hood - "Twilight-ized" fairy tale with good-looking people looks good, but what little brains it has. 

8) The Roommate - A formulaic From Hell thriller that uses a checklist to rip off Single White Female under the college-dorm criteria. Not trashy enough to be fun.

9) The Dilemma - Schizoid buddy comedy/adultery farce/relationship drama is too sour for comedy and too broad for drama. Little works here.

10) Transformers: Dark of the Moon - A grinding, endless, noisy, idiotic pile of nothing. Not as excruciating as "Revenge of the Fallen," but if you didn't care then about smashing robots, you won't care now.

Best Movies of 2011...So Far

1) Drive - Smooth, alive, aurally and visually stylish, and cast to a fare-thee-well, "Drive" has emotion, style, mood, pulpy violence, and a deep, charismatic performance by Gosling who barely says a word.

2) Super 8 - This loving, thrilling, engaging film is a geeky, Spielbergian homage and a great summer entertainment. Strong performances, skillful direction, and affectionate writing.

3) Bridesmaids - The funniest comedy of the year, hands down. Raunchy, yet warmly felt, human, and always funny. Kristen Wiig gives a star-making performance, as do her co-starring bridesmaids.

4) Contagion - Eerily realistic, tensely riveting, and intelligently written, this is one cautionary tale that will give you OCD about washing your hands. Mostly juggles its cast with aplomb, and director Steven Soderbergh gives it all a cool, efficient pace.

5) The Help - A Hollywood crowd-pleaser, but emotionally enriching and wonderfully satisfying. Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer are all powerhouses.

6) Hanna - More of a Grimm's fairy tale than the dimwitted "Red Riding Hood," this packs a wallop. Star Saoirse Ronan and director Joe Wright make a great team with this trim, relentless, enjoyably pulpy ride. Funky, unusual music score by The Chemical Brothers. 

7) Win Win - A low-key, perceptive character-driven slice of life that's small in scale but satisfies in a big way. Life-like, complex, and unsentimental, just like the performances and writing.

8) Hesher - An anarchic, gutsy, heartbreaking dark comedy that has a fun, weird spirit. It's tough and poignant in all the right places, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is hilariously crass, raw, uninhibited, fearless, and unpredictable.

9) Attack the Block - A low-budget Brit sci-fi comedy that's fresh, goofy, stylish, energetic, briskly paced, and lots of fun.

10) Everything Must Go - You can't pigeonhole Will Ferrell this time. In an authentic, sympathetic performance, Ferrell doesn't get laughs but shows the depth we didn't know he had. 

Honorable Mention: Insidious, Midnight in Paris, Paul, Rango, Red State, Scream 4, Submarine

Lautner preens and pouts in absurd "Abduction"

Abduction (2011)
106 min., rated PG-13.

Ever since he sported the ready-for-war crew cut and first took off his shirt to reveal a brick-shithouse build in the "Twilight" movies, Taylor Lautner has been groomed as the next Matt Damon. His first headlining vehicle, "Abduction," could be a teenage "Bourne Identity," but it feels more like a bad Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. 

First introduced as a daredevil, riding on the hood of a speeding truck and then thinking he's old enough to party like a college frat boy, Pennsylvania high schooler Nathan (Lautner) has it tough. He drinks too much, wakes up shirtless on the front lawn of a house party, and gets picked up by his father, Kevin (Jason Isaacs), who makes his hung-over son box him. His mom, Mara (Maria Bello), is a bit easier on him by just grounding him. Nathan has good friends and he's the top wrestler on the team, but as he tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Bennett (Sigourney Weaver), he feels like a stranger in his own life. Then after doing online research for his sociology project about missing children, Nathan and his neighbor classmate, Karen (Lily Collins), come upon a photo of a 3-year-old named Steven Price who looks just like him. Conveniently, he recognizes the stained baby shirt in the picture and finds the same shirt still in his dresser drawer. Coincidence? Not a chance. Immediately after Mara confesses what's been kept a secret from Nathan, shady bad guys shoot down his parental impostors. From there on, Nathan and Karen go on the run and must be careful who they trust, including CIA Agent Burton (Alfred Molina). 

"Abduction" answers questions to why Nathan is having dreams of a dying woman and who his birth parents were, but those answers are more trivial and less interesting than the howlers that ensue. Before Nathan and Karen evade a bunch of assassins and federal operatives, one of the injured bad guys tells them there's a bomb in the oven. When did they find the time to plant a bomb? And why would the dim couple run to open the oven? Did they expect confetti? After this, Nathan checks Karen into a hospital, where Dr. Bennett shows up as his prime protector and proceeds to hide the three of them undetected behind, get this, a bouquet of balloons. Next, she tells them to jump out of her speeding SUV and onto a "soft curve" on the side of the road. Great protection. Then, later on a train, watching the barely legal Lautner suck face on a train with the bushy-browed Collins feels like voyeurism. And once he shows off his martial-arts skills on a henchman, the movie intercuts between establishing shots of the train moving to a flashback of Nathan training with his pretend father. Get on it with already! In the climax, set at the Three Rivers Stadium for a Pittsburgh Pirates game, a gun is placed under a seat, another convenience for the plot. 

Unsuspensefully directed by John Singleton ("Boyz n the Hood") and inanely written by Shawn Christensen, "Abduction" at least moves fast enough that you might not realize how little sense it makes (but maybe you will). Even for an escapist action-thriller, it's a surprise no one gave a screenplay once-over to patch up all the plot holes and clean up the laughable dialogue. Also, why would talents such as Bello, Isaacs, Weaver, Molina, and Michael Nyqvist (of the Swedish "Millennium" trilogy) even participate? Lautner may be able to carry a cover of "Tiger Beat," but an entire movie is a different story. Whenever he tries to emote, we await his grand transformation into werewolf Jacob. His blank looks are all the same. Down the road, Lautner could be an action hero, but "Abduction" is the wrong vehicle to promise that. There's plenty to laugh at, not with, in this vapid, underthought potboiler, also one of the more sloppily edited movies in recent memory. 

Grade: D +

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Despite cold release date, "The Debt" makes for a solid actor's drama

The Debt (2011)
113 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Premiering at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, "The Debt" was originally scheduled to open in December 2010, in time for the Oscar season. But once the studio was sold by Disney to Filmyard Holdings, the film found its new distributor in Focus Features, being released at the hopeless end of August. That's never a good sign, but considering the pedigree behind and in front of the camera, "The Debt" still comes off solid. 

A remake of a 2007 Israeli film under the same moniker, the story concerns three former Israeli Mossad agents—Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds)—who have been long honored as heroes for over thirty years. It begins in 1997, Tel Aviv, where Rachel and Stephan's daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), has written a book about the trio. That's where the film flashbacks to 1966 in East Berlin when Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington) were dispatched for an undercover mission to capture a notorious Nazi criminal-turned-gynecologist, Dr. Dieter Vogel (a chilling Jesper Christensen), the "Butcher of Birkenau," and transport him to Israel to stand trial. Things don't go exactly to plan or as they were written on the page, and a lie that they've kept as an oath for three decades catches up to them during the press of the book. Will one of them come clean? 

Though not quite the taut, sensational espionage thriller as its marketing campaign insists, "The Debt" is classy, very well-acted, and generally absorbing. Skillfully directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") from an unconvoluted screenplay by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, "The Debt" seesaws between both timelines. Madden makes sure the well-stitched story's 1966 section makes up about seventy-five percent of the film's run time since it is the most tense and compelling. The film didn't really need a romantic rivalry, which feels like a wedged-in device to create more internal tension, but it's propelled by the character of Rachel, portrayed with captivating poise and toughness by in-the-moment Chastain and the reliably great Mirren. Both actresses suffer a facial wound on their right cheek that communicates internal emotional scarring as well. Real suspense mounts as the brave Rachel poses as a woman trying to get pregnant, consulting OB/GYN Dr. Vogel, as well as the quietly suspenseful stage-like scenes in which they each take "watch" and feed the imprisoned doc. 

The performances are strong and weighty by the young and old, but on the mistake of the casting directors, Csokas looks more like he'd grow up to be Hinds and Worthington to Wilkinson. Starting out as a drama, "The Debt" fulfills some of its thriller genre promise with climactic surprises and a satisfying justice-must-be-served finale that strains credibility. Still, what an effective film for such a landfill of a release-date month. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Finally on Blu-ray: "Halloween II" (1981) and "Heathers"

Halloween II (1981)
93 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

This solid, bloody sequel picks up immediately where its predecessor left off, continuing with the unstoppable Boogeyman stalking survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) on Halloween night. Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) shot Michael Myers six times, but he knows and we know that he's not finished yet. 

Much of the film takes place inside the Haddonfield Hospital, so Michael can kill off nurses, security guards, ambulance drivers, and more sex-crazy teens. More watchable than other sequels, "Halloween II" may feel like a slasher-pic retread but at least it completes the story. Directed by Rick Rosenthal in his feature debut, the film has a clean style in its building of suspense, creeping around the hospital, and planting of shocks, even if the pacing often plods once we get to the hospital. 

"A Night of the Living Dead" TV spot is a fun touch. And written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill again, it nicely ties up the relationship between Laurie and Michael: she is actually the other Myers sister. (Said twist also puts more emphasis on Laurie's singing “Just the Two of Us” in the original.) Some logic inconsistencies glare here and there too, like why aren't the cops watching over whimpering, shattered Laurie? 

Though done with less restraint than Carpenter's classic—higher body count, more explicit murders, and some gratuitous female nudity—"Halloween II" is better than the afterthought it's been treated as.

Heathers (1989)
102 min., rated R.
Grade: A 

Comedy doesn't get any darker than it does here in "Heathers," a subversive, cynical, viciously funny jet-black comedy and satire that mocks teen angst and high school politics without being overly pretentious or heavy-handed. 

Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a high school popular wannabe, who gets tired of hanging with her snotty clique of megabitches (or as Veronica calls them in her journal entries, “a bunch of swatch dogs and Diet Coke heads”), all named Heather. She later agrees with her new hellion boyfriend, J.D. (Christian Slater), to give the head bitch a reality check that turns into an accidental kill. Then teen suicide becomes the new fad since Heather “did” it. 

Michael Lehmann's "Heathers" has a meaner edge than its teen contemporaries, turning John Hughes' cycle of sweet movies on its heads, from Daniel Waters' smart, biting script and clever, snap-crackle-pop dialogue. Ryder, post-"Beetlejuice," makes her Veronica a brilliant but unsure young woman, Slater does a devilishly cool Jack Nicholson impression as J.D., and the “Heathers” (Kim Walker, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk) are all funny, vulnerable, and wonderfully bitchy. 

Lick it up, baby, lick...it...up, "Heathers" is an interesting original that's been imitated over the years; check this one out. How very.

"Straw Dogs" remake is pointless but still tense

Straw Dogs (2011) 
110 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

"I will not allow violence against this house," David Sumner (James Marsden) firmly states as he takes a moral stand. Below the surface, the remake of "Straw Dogs" is still about renewed masculinity, the definition of rape, and instinctual violence, but unlike Sam Peckinpah's controversial, subversively violent 1971 shocker with Dustin Hoffman as the nebbish, spineless David that has to do some "manning up," it won't inspire the same debate or discussion. Besides transplanting from Cornwall, England to Blackwater, Mississippi and changing David's occupation from a mathematician to a Hollywood screenwriter, "Straw Dogs" is virtually a beat-by-beat remake but only a partial facsimile of Peckinpah's disturbing ideas. 

Marsden and Kate Bosworth play David and Amy, his TV-actress wife, who stay at her family's farmhouse of her Deep South hometown so David can work on his screenplay about WWII's Stalingrad battle before they put the land on the market. David has hired Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), the town's hunky ex-quarterback and Amy's former flame, and his drooling buddies to fix the damaged barn roof on their property. David tries to fit in with the roughneck locals, chugging heavy beer (because Bud Light is for city wimps) and paying cash (because credit cards are strictly used by rich people), but they mock his big-city intellect. Once Amy jogs along her property without shoes or a bra, she gets angry when the contractors "practically lick the sweat off her body" and realizes why she should never have come back home. Sure enough, Charlie and his Blackwater boys will put David's masculinity to the test, and they will huff and puff and (try to) blow the house down. But David's house is David's castle. 

"Straw Dogs" doesn't deviate much from the original screenplay, both based on Gordon Williams' novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm. This time, there is a spoken explanation of the title, but the same story beats and plot points are all here (i.e. the strangulated cat, the town idiot flirting with a country bumpkin's teenage daughter). Writer-director Rod Lurie's faithfulness may be a fault of the film, as a great deal of scenes, shots, and lines of dialogue are reproduced (however, the original's metaphorical last line is left out). He does retain the same country/city friction, slow-burn tension, and viscera, and finally executes a wildly violent kill-them-all revenge beatdown with those pots of boiling oil and that nasty bear trap. Whereas the original film's violence was intense and contentious upon the time of its release, the violence here is brutal but less shocking and exploitative than a "Saw" movie of our desensitized times. The last act of revenge will make most audiences cheer, which in actuality would make us the sick ones, celebrating violence. The technical credits are proficient, although the only real downside is the generic music score by Larry Groupe, swelling at every chance it gets.

As Hoffman and Susan George's successors, Marsden and Bosworth make an even more credible couple. They actually have a conversation about whether or not Amy is "asking for it," which brings a bluntness rather than an ambiguity. David's character arc is less sudden, as he shows some backbone before the ultimate showdown. Whereas George played Amy more childish and needy, Bosworth makes Amy more likable and tough, although her rash decision about attending a football game, post-rape, makes little motivational sense. That said, the pivotal rape scene in 1971 held more of an ambiguous implication on Amy's face. This time, it's more matter-of-fact and objective but harrowing enough without rubbing our noses in it as some horror films do. All of the rednecks are painted in the broadest of strokes as leering, drinking "I Spit on Your Grave" hicks. James Woods' perpetually sozzled and belligerent ex-high school football coach, especially, lacks any form of subtlety and thus lacks menace. On the other hand, Skarsgård has more wiggle room for charm and skeeze as Charlie. 

Like a renovated house, the foundation is the same but a few cosmetic changes and tweaks are made for better or worse. What was once complicated, ambiguous, and gray is now more black-and-white and maybe less interesting. Remaking "Straw Dogs" is as necessary as Gus Van Sant remaking Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" into an in-color, shot-for-shot Xerox Copy, but on its own terms, Lurie's film is solidly tense, just unremarkable.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Stylish, cool, flawlessly cast "Drive" zooms to the top of 2011

Drive (2011)
100 min., rated R.

Smooth, alive, aurally and visually stylish, and cast to a fare-thee-well, "Drive" is only a genre piece on the surface. It's a lot more than that; a neo-noirish crime thriller, a character study, a love story, and a mood piece that completely envelops you in its atmosphere. Also, it's sitting pretty as one of the best films of 2011. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is known for combining pulpy violence with arthouse aesthetics. 2008's bonkers, expressionistic "Bronson" was Refn's calling card and an explosive "A Star is Born" showcase for Tom Hardy's talents, and now "Drive" is his first cinematic symphony. 

Ryan Gosling, known only as "Driver" and sometimes called "kid," is a force of mysterious cool as a part-time mechanic/movie stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. He has no real family and doesn't really come from anywhere, but he's lived in Los Angeles for a while and knows his way around the streets as well as he knows his automobiles. Wearing leather gloves and a silver racing jacket with a gold scorpion embroidered on the back, and a toothpick wedged in between his lips, Driver always has a clean escape when it comes to driving and outsmarting the cops. Once he gets involved with his neighbor down the hall, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), Driver is respectful towards the mother and son, and offers a helping hand. When the husband and father, Standard (Oscar Isaac), gets released out of prison and expects to pick up where he left off with Irene and Benicio, the driver politely keeps his distance, until Standard gets in trouble with his "former" thug life. The driver takes on a job that will clear Standard's debts but put his own butt on the line. 

When we first meet Driver, it's in the film's spectacular, mostly dialogue-free drive-and-escape sequence, as sleek and methodically paced as everything else. Once that job is over, the next shot of Driver has him dressed in a police uniform, but it's a gag: he's at work on a movie set. Emotions may be hidden under a mood of style and brutality but surprisingly run deep with the unspoken bond between Driver, Irene, and her son. We actually care what happens to this potential family unit. Driver is a man of few words, so the challenge falls upon actor Gosling to add depth and charisma to a cipher, using his own devices. Cracking a smile on occasion and rarely blinking, we can see into Driver's soul and eventually his bottled-up intensity explodes like a pop of a cork. Making the ambiguity compelling, his actions speak a lot louder than relying solely on what's written through dialogue. That's not to say Hossein Amini's screenplay, based on James Sallis' book, is underdeveloped because most, if not all, of the dialogue pops and the twisty neo-noir plotting cannot be predicted. 

As the sweet and damaged Irene, Mulligan resonates in the role, even given a limited character on the page. Her courtship with Gosling is so beautifully conveyed without so many words. Bryan Cranston works wit and emotion into his supporting role of Shannon, the kid's garage boss and mentor. Ron Perlman, in showy Joe Pesci mode, chews the scenery as Nino, a loud, hotheaded mobster working in his own pizzeria. And Albert Brooks's turn as Bernie Rose is deliciously deadly, like you've never seen the comic veteran before. He's especially frightening and blackly humorous when he takes his anger out using kitchen utensils. With only an odd five minutes' worth of screen time, Christina Hendricks even makes a memorable impact as a skanky, gum-chewing dame named Blanche, also involved in the job. 

"Drive" recalls early Michael Mann ("Thief") from the hot pink, lipsticky credit font to Cliff Martinez's pulsating, '80s-tinged synthesizer music score and songs, including but not limited to "A Real Hero" by College and Electric Youth, and Desire's "Under Your Spell." Director Refn masterfully commands this material with an eye for compositional detail and a real filmmaker's craft to create a dreamy, hypnotic mood. Beautifully quiet calm builds the tension, punctuated by sudden bursts of Quentin Tarantino-esque ultraviolence that will provoke shock laughter. All of this could've been distracting and self-indulgent in the hands of a lesser director, but Refn knows what he's doing. "Drive" isn't really about driving, although the car chases are the most exciting and cleanly edited you'll ever see since 2007's "Grindhouse." There's a lyrical, heart-pounding scene in an elevator, in which Driver grabs a romantic kiss from Irene before he knocks out one of the henchmen and beats his face in with his foot. 

From the school of "show, don't tell" filmmaking, "Drive" is a fantastic entertainment for the mainstream, ecstasy for movie lovers, and an electrifying work of art that should make Refn a household name. 


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On DVD/Blu-ray: "Hesher"

Hesher (2011)
105 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

"Hesher" is the alternately anarchic, gutsy, and heartbreakingly human indie dark comedy that James Gunn's "Super" wanted to be. Although the details are nothing alike, both are edgy independent films about antiheroes and both feature Rainn Wilson, whether it be top billing or not. 

Joseph-Gordon Levitt plays the burnout sloth of the title, the id personified: a profane, misanthropic, half-dressed, straggly-haired, heavily tattooed metalhead-stoner who drives in a van and doesn't give a fuck. Inked across the chest is a stick figure shooting itself in the head and a giant middle finger on his back. Like a ray of sunshine that hasn't bathed in weeks, Hesher comes to the rescue for the Forney family. Bullied 13-year-old T.J. Forney (played by Devin Brochu) is lost, emotionally that is, after losing his mother in a car accident. He makes it his goal every day to get back the remains of the family car from the impound lot, despite what the unsympathetic owner (John Carroll Lynch) tells him. His depressed father Paul (Rainn Wilson) is practically dead already, sleeping all day and paralyzed with grief. T.J.'s fuzzy-headed grandmother Madeleine (Piper Laurie) doesn't know what else to do to comfort her son and grandson, plus she's going senile. 

When T.J. throws a rock through the window of an under-construction house Hesher's been squatting in, the straggly-haired, tatted-up pyro begins popping up into the kid's life like a specter at opportune times (like when T.J. is getting beat up in the bathroom) but never defends him. Then after Hesher literally barges into Madeleine's house, neither she or Paul really notice their unexpected visitor, until Hesher rips off his clothes, sitting on the couch in his underwear watching porn. Later on, Hesher gets revenge by torching T.J.'s bully's car but leaving T.J. to be caught at the scene of the crime, or when Hesher breaks into someone's pool (claiming it to be his uncle's), throwing lawn furniture into it and setting the diving board aflame. In the presence of Grandma, Hesher tells T.J. to accompany his grandmother on her daily walks "so she doesn't get raped." Sharing life's gloom is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a luckless grocery store clerk who can't even afford a parking ticket. Hesher's unconventional influences just might rub off on these troubled souls and shake away their grief. 

Directed by Spencer Susser, from a script by Susser and David Michod (who impressed in directing his feature debut, "Animal Kingdom"), "Hesher" explores loss and grief but has such a fun, weird spirit. The characters are interesting, flawed, and sympathetic, and the performances are soul-baring gems. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is hilariously crass, raw, uninhibited, fearless, and unpredictable, further proving he's such a versatile young actor that he doesn't have to be pigeonholed into playing a type. His Hesher is never grating or show-offy but is his most fiery performance, and that's not just because the character is a pyromaniac. Gordon-Levitt's having a high time with all the offensive behavior, but conveys Hesher's internal humanity with his eyes and even in his crude-joke versions of metaphorical, inspirational stories. 

How Hesher is written is as an enigma of contraditions, as we have no idea where he came from. Is he an imaginary Tyler Durden for T.J.? No, because everyone sees him. Is he a guardian angel in Metallica form? Maybe, but Hesher isn't really the protagonist anyway. T.J. is, and Devin Brochu is astonishing. He's an unaffected child actor and this should be his ticket to get more work. Rainn Wilson plays the father pathetic and empathetic as you, too, can feel his pain. Piper Laurie is wonderfully loopy and touching as Grandmother, and she shares nice moments with Hesher, including one where she takes a hit from his bong. The role of Nicole is slimly developed, but Portman works her capable charms in frumpy mode. 

It may sound like "Hesher" is trying too hard to shock and be weird and edgy, but it goes into dark places that are grimly funny without drowning in misery and moving without dripping of sentimentality. Under its hard shell, the film finally earns a touchy-feely climactic scene at a funeral that its characters deserve without feeling incongruous. A subplot involving stolen cash is forgotten about, but that's just a nit that doesn't have to be picked. "Hesher" easily could've been a bleak, unpleasant time, which many will still find it, but it's like a "heavy-metal 'Mary Poppins'" that's tough and poignant in all the right places. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Cheap "Creature" from the DVD bin

Creature (2011)
92 min., rated R.
Grade: D

"Creature," a very low-budget horror movie, looks like it has all the makings to be another "Hatchet," a gruesome good time that could be seen playing at the drive-in back in the 1980s. But looks can be deceiving. That 2007 swamp-set throwback was B-movie fun with gobs o' gore and bonus humor. This one isn't. Production designer Fred Andrews makes his writing-directing debut and inscrutably earned a nationwide theatrical release for "Creature." But it's little more than straight-to-DVD fare and a depressing waste of budgetary resourcefulness, gory prosthetic body parts, and female nudity. 

Before the title comes up, a young woman bears it all for a full-frontal and takes a dip in the gator-infested swamp, for no reason at all, other than to become the titular creature's lunch. She should've known the movie's tagline: "Terror Has Teeth!" Cue the main course when an SUV full of three young couples—hyper Oscar (Dillon Casey) and his flirtatious sister Karen (Lauren Schneider), photographer Emily (Serinda Swan) and her Navy SEAL brother, Randy (Aaron Hill), and the siblings' significant others, brawny black guy Niles (Mehcad Brooks) and Southern belle Beth (Amanda Fuller)—makes a pit stop at a cruddy, gasless gas station in the Louisiana swamps. It's run by inbred hillbillies and Chopper (Sid Haig), who tell these damn city kids about the local legend of a half-man-half-alligator creature known as Lockjaw that still, to this day, lurks around the "House That Grimley Built." Naturally, the kids dare to check the house out and set up camp. Everyone but them knows this is a bad idea. 

While it has the classic setup for a get-what-you-pay-for slasher pic with a swamp thing, "Creature" sells itself short. Besides some bi-curious girl-on-girl action, no such luck for blood-thirsty horror fans. The feeding-time fodder is made up of nitwits, the Horror 101 hillbillies are obnoxious and never creepy, the creature poses as much threat as a buzzing fly, and the kills are moderately gory but routinely executed. What's more, the movie is only 92 minutes and feels much longer with its sludgy pacing. A better-deserving Haig tries his best to rekindle the twisted, over-the-top icon of Captain Spaulding, and Pruitt Taylor Vince (!) mumbles and stomps around as the local fool. Out of the younger cast, Swan is the most appealing of the girls and Brooks is decent as the token black jock, the hero for once. 

As if the creature mythology wasn't already nonsensical, Andrews and Tracy Morse's script gets less coherent from there. By the time bayou worshippers readily appear and disappear for a big sacrifice and inane plot twists about keeping-it-in-the-family incest roll around, you know this isn't intentionally inept filmmaking. The big showdown between the survivors and Lockjaw is lamely set up in choppy slow-motion and then strangely shown off-screen inside a sinkhole. Since "Creature" plays things straight and can't even get that right, it makes a lot of other bad B movies seem fun by comparison. Where's Swamp Thing when you need him?