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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Movie Review: Drive

Article first published as Movie Review: Drive on Blogcritics.

One of the most unusual films to appear on American screens this year is Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Defiantly offbeat and challengingly structured, it's a distinctive take on the genre.

Ryan Gosling, fresh off his romcom success with Crazy, Stupid, Love, is back in serious mode as an unnamed character who is drifting through life, stunt driving for bad action movies by day and working as a getaway driver at night. Seeking to exploit his talent behind the wheel, his boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), manages to talk his boss, mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), into investing in a race car with which they can make some real money.

Driver (as Gosling's character is listed in the film's credits) meets and starts to fall for Irene (Carey Mulligan), a struggling young mother who lives down the hall from him and whose husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. Just as their relationship begins to blossom, she learns that Stan is about to be released.

Shortly after Stan returns home, trouble comes calling. He's severely beaten by thugs to whom he owes protection money for refusing to pull off a heist for them. They threaten to harm Irene and Benicio as well, so Driver volunteers to pilot the getaway car on the condition that once they receive their money they'll leave Stan and his family alone for good. What follows is a twisting and turning plot that certainly has its surprises, but to classify it as a mere action thriller doesn't do it justice.

Driver is a man of few words. Even when he's with Irene, he's content to smile at her in silence, which seems to be a relief for her, because she doesn't have to contrive something to say. All the talking is done by Shannon, Rose and Nino (Ron Perlman), Rose's big-mouthed partner. Otherwise, the film is strikingly silent. Like Driver, when it has nothing to say, it says nothing at all, which I found refreshing in this era of jacked-up, exploding Michael Bay soundtracks.

And the film's title doesn't simply describe the action of getting behind the wheel and putting the pedal to the metal, although there's plenty of that. Drive can be more accurately described by another definition—motivation; a purpose in life. Until Driver meets Irene and sees the trouble Stan is going to get her into, he's rudderless. Now, as with Travis Bickle's newfound purpose to rescue Iris in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, he has something to make him act. And, like Bickle, he resorts to extreme violence.

Drive pays tribute to films of many decades at once. The hot pink opening titles, swooping nighttime views of Los Angeles and Cliff Martinez' synth score are reminiscent of Paul Brickman's 1983 Risky Business. The grittiness brings to mind Scorsese's '70s films. The graphic violence is right out of Tarantino's '90s playbook. And with its antihero star, it also owes a debt to French existential cinema and film noir.

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel provides a vivid palette for the film, using color for dramatic emphasis and giving us a well-deserved break from the endless stream of desaturated, green-tinged movies we've seen this decade. Even the violence—shocking as it is—is artistically rendered.

The always-reliable Cranston is good as the edgy Shannon, always looking over his shoulder as if something horrible is about to happen to him. Brooks plays against type as the cheery but cold-blooded Rose. Mulligan is a good match for Driver, and the many scenes in which not a word is exchanged between them nevertheless have emotional heft. Gosling has never been more internalized. Here, he's acting mostly with his eyes and gestures, and it's mesmerizing.

If you go into Drive thinking you're going to see a Fast and Furious clone, you'll be disappointed. But if you want to be challenged by some really distinctive and rewarding filmmaking, this one's for you.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Soderbergh's Contagion Is Spreading

Steven Soderbergh has certainly proven his versatility as a director. From the bitter nostalgia of 1993's King of the Hill to the lighthearted fun of the Ocean's series, he's demonstrated that he's up to the task in a variety of genres. And, as his 2000 adaptation of the British series Traffik proved, he can take material with multiple storylines and grim story matter and make it…entertaining. Contagion is almost as effective.

The film begins with a cough—Beth Emhoff's (Gwyneth Paltrow), to be exact. She's flying home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong, and she's quickly becoming ill. By the time she gets home to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), her condition is much more dire. After falling to the floor in convulsions, she's transported by ambulance to the hospital where they are unable to save her.

At the same time, all over the world, other people are becoming sick—and other people are also dying. At the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is alerted to the outbreak, and sends his epidemic intelligence officer, Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minneapolis to investigate. As more and more people fall ill, the search for the source of the outbreak becomes more intense.

The film is populated with an impressive array of stars. In addition to the three performers previously mentioned, it also features Jennifer Ehle as a CDC doctor who uses herself as a test subject for a potential vaccine; Bryan Cranston as the government officer Fishburne reports to; Jude Law as a medical blogger with questionable scruples; Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization doctor who travels to China to hunt down the source of the outbreak; and Elliott Gould as a researcher who, while not officially employed by the CDC, does "projects" for them when governmental red tape proves too daunting.

Damon is terrific as a man who is driven to overprotect his daughter after the sudden, shocking deaths of his wife and stepson. Law is given a mouthful of crooked teeth to make his "crackpot" image more complete.

Fishburne brings gravitas with glimpses of human emotion to his role, and the always elegant Winslet stirs compassion as the doomed doctor whose only interest is to start saving lives. Ehle thankfully avoids doing a Joan of Arc in her depiction of the earnest researcher who truly cares about the future of humanity.

Paltrow has one of the shortest and most shocking roles in a film since Janet Leigh was killed off in Hitchcock's Psycho. In one scene, she's hugging her husband and child upon her homecoming—minutes later, her dead-eyed, black-tongued visage fills the screen as a surgical saw whirs and her scalp is pulled down from the top of her head.

The only false note is the appearance of real-life CNN medical specialist Sanjay Gupta, grandstanding as himself to interview Cheever, which was intended to add realism to the film but really breaks the fourth wall.

Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns (who earlier teamed on the Damon comedy The Informant!), traverse the continent, showing the spread of the contagion and how people are reacting to it. They also give us a chilling glimpse into the disintegration of society, as once-normal people become criminals, breaking into stores and houses in search of food and a bogus homeopathic cure espoused by Law's sleazy blogger. Wisely, they avoid going ridiculously over the top for cheap dramatic effect. As a matter of fact, the film avoids proselytizing, except for Law's crackpot rant about government and big pharma conspiracies (which, on second thought, are probably true) and lets the events propel the story forward.

Some reviewers have complained that a multitude of characters and the film's efficient 104-minute running time render it too brief to make any emotional connections, but I think they're wrong. It's a tribute to the performances of the actors, particularly Damon and Winslet, that they can engender sympathy for their characters in just a few quickly sketched scenes.

And Soderbergh and Burns have carefully mapped out the characters and their various stories so that—even though they cut rapidly one to another—they're coherent and maintain the suspenseful pace. Soderbergh, as cinematographer, "color codes" the film to keep the various strands in control, even as the epidemic spins out of control.

Ironically, Soderbergh has announced that his next film, Liberace, starring Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist and Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson, is going be his swan song—so that he can focus more on his painting. If this is true, it's a tragedy for the world of cinema.

But maybe it's a good thing for the art world.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Retro Review: The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave

Although I'd read about it for years (and even worked for the company that distributed it for television), tonight is the first time I actually sat down and watched the Italian 1971 giallo/erotic thriller, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, and I'm sure glad I did. What a premium slab of Euroschlock!

Spaghetti western star Antonio Di Teffe (here billed as Anthony Steffen) plays Lord Alan Cunningham, a man who'd been confined to an asylum after the tragic death of his beloved red-headed wife, Evelyn, but is now back at his dilapidated old castle, bringing ginger hookers home to torture and kill them. I guess everyone has different ways of grieving.

His groundskeeper, Albert (Roberto Maldera), who is also the late Evelyn's brother, constantly spies on Alan's evil deeds and gets his palm greased regularly in exchange for his silence, occasionally bringing up the memory of his dead sister to keep the cash flowing.

And his psychiatrist, Richard Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) constantly frets about his patient, advising him to get married again or move to London, never once getting a clue about Alan's sadistic lifestyle. When Alan goes to a nightclub and sees a bizarre striptease performed by a red-headed (of course) woman named Susie (Erika Blanc), he offers her a thousand pounds to spend the weekend with him and they head back to the castle where he starts to do what he does best, but she escapes before he can deliver the death blow.

Remembering his doctor's good advice, Alan goes to a party hosted by his cousin, George (Enzo Tarascio), meets a red-headed woman named Gladys (Marina Malfatti) and proposes to her after a roll in the hay. And she accepts.

His urge to kill put on the back burner and delirious with happiness, Alan has the castle restored to its former glory and moves the whole family in, including his Aunt Agatha (Joan C. Davis). But soon he's seeing the ghost of Evelyn wandering everywhere so he freaks out and starts whomping on Gladys. Everyone has a hidden agenda and spying eyes are everywhere.

Aunt Agatha is confined to a motorized wheelchair, the result of paralysis, but when she sneaks out at night for her trysts with Albert, it's revealed that she is faking her handicap. At first, it seems like Albert and Agatha are the ones trying to drive Alan crazy to get their hands on his fortune, but Albert is dispatched with the bite of a poisonous snake clutched in the gloved hand of an unseen assailant, and the same killer bashes Agatha's head in with a rock before dragging her body into a cage to be devoured by Alan's pet foxes. Yes, you read that right.

Of course, it turns out that cousin George is the actual schemer, working in cahoots with Gladys. Alan goes nuts again, Dr. Timberlane has him hauled away, and the two double-crossers retire to George's summer home to enjoy their newfound fortune over a glass of champagne. But just as Gladys is starting to feel the effects of strychnine-laced bubbly, who should appear but Susie, who'd actually been the one plotting with George all along! Gladys may be dying, but she still has enough pep to grab a knife and ventilate Susie while George gloats. How convenient for him! He even tells the two dying women, "The worms are waiting!"

Cheerily, he goes outside, only to be confronted by Alan, who'd faked his crack-up to expose his cousin. George tries to kill him with a really big stick, but Alan throws a handy drum full of sulphuric acid (or as it was helpfully printed on the drum, "acido solforico") into a nearby swimming pool and pushes George into it. His flesh burning, George crawls out of the pool into the hands of waiting policemen who carry him off like a quarterback who just won the big game. Now wait a minute—how the hell can four cops carry a guy bare-handed who's just been soaked in sulphuric acid?

The joy in films like this is the detail, though, from the inappropriately cheery music to the hilariously tacky '70s decor. The actress playing "dotty" Aunt Agatha is a good ten years younger than either Alan or George, and she looks it. Gladys' hair keeps changing from super-curly to straight, sometimes in the same scene. When Alan greets his cousin at the party where he meets Gladys, George is wearing a kaftan and one huge hoop earring. There is no explanation. There are singers at the party performing a rock number whose lyrics don't even remotely begin to match their mouth movements. As a matter of fact, their mouths are closed even as the vocals keep carrying on. And since Alan has forbidden any red-haired women at the castle (except Gladys, I guess), Aunt Agatha has hired a bevy of maids, all wearing the same ridiculous curly blond wig, which makes them look like a bunch of Carol Kanes...or Little Orphan Annies.

Susie's strip show begins with a coffin being carried out on stage, the lid swinging open, and Susie's wiggling butt emerging from the box. It's supposed to be erotic, I guess, but it's absolutely hilarious. As she dances to the groovy music and blows out candles, there are repeated cuts to different members of an audience of rather elderly men and women smiling and watching appreciatively.

To make matters worse (or better), Blanc looks a lot like Karen Black. She has amused me before in the Belgian-Italian co-production The Devil's Nightmare (also 1971), in which she plays a succubus who menaces tourists in a remote castle. The hilarious highlight of that film involved a topless girl taking a snooze in bed when a snake slithers in the window to attack her, and its hissing is just some guy saying "Ahhhhh…" on the soundtrack. But Blanc and Rossi-Stuart also co-starred in a bona fide classic, Mario Bava's Kill, Baby, Kill!, from 1966—the one with the ghost child—and she's still working today. Rossi-Stuart died in 1994 and Anthony Steffen, who was actually of noble blood, left us in 2004.

Evelyn has lots of nudity, mostly breasts, but a couple of almost subliminal lower areas. As a matter of fact, entire scenes take place with the woman completely topless or wearing an outfit that only covers her nipples. There's not much gore, but when Aunt Agatha is thrown into the cage with the foxes, there's a nice shot of the creatures dragging away a big gloppy string of entrails and chowing down on them. Gladys' stabbing of Susie is pretty good, too, but when Albert is bitten by the snake and is supposedly writhing in agony from the effects of the venom, he looks just like Steve-O! And, God, the art direction…it's like A Clockwork Orange threw up on Barry Lyndon (with apologies to Stanley Kubrick).

Director Emilio Miraglia only made six films, and his other gialloThe Red Queen Kills Seven Times—has garnered something of a cult following. I think I'm going to have to check it out.

This is one of those films you can enjoy either in a party situation or alone where you can relish each scene in jaw-dropping silence. It's weird, it's funny, it makes little sense, but it's never boring. They just don't make 'em like this anymore. Like other Italian (or Spanish or French) genre films of this era, it exists under a multitude of alternate titles and running times. I saw it on a Sinister Cinema DVD, which was uncut but pretty worn and green, but I didn't mind it—beat-up drive-in prints add to the atmosphere of movies like this. Beware of other bargain bin companies offering the television print that excises the nudity and violence—which is kind of the whole point, isn't it?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Film Review: The Devil's Double

Article first published as Movie Review: The Devil's Double on Blogcritics.

Released on an extremely limited basis by Lionsgate prior to its upcoming November 21 DVD release, The Devil's Double isn't the fascinating abomination I was prepared to see based on reviews I'd read. Quite the contrary, it's a well-made thriller boasting mesmerizing performances by Dominic Cooper as both Uday Hussein and his body double.

Although it's based on true events, director Lee Tamahori (The Edge, Die Another Day) went to great pains to make everyone understand that it's a gangster movie, not an authentic biopic. Certainly, it has its share of excesses, but no more than you'd see in a contemporary R-rated horror film. Besides, its real-life subject was a vicious brute who didn't hesitate to indulge his sadistic desires.

In the film, Uday orders Lieutenant Latif Yahia become his fiday, or body double. As children, they'd been schoolmates together, and Uday remembered that people had always commented on their physical similarities. When Latif refuses, Uday imprisons him and threatens to harm his family, breaking him down until he finally agrees. After some plastic surgery and some coaching, Latif is ready to step into the role, appearing at public events deemed too risky for Uday, and dodging assassins' bullets.

Since his family has been told he's dead and Uday considers him to be his personal property, Latif loses all interest in living. Only when he begins to realize the depth of Uday's depravity and mental illness does he begin to fight back, even taking his employer's mistress as his own.

Cooper, best known for The History Boys and (yikes) Mamma Mia, finally gets a chance to shine in these dual roles. Although helped along by some makeup and a truly horrendous dental appliance, he does an excellent job delineating the two characters, especially with his eyes. Latif regards the world (and Uday) with disgust and distrust, while Uday comes off at first as a Jerry Lewis character. That effect doesn't last long, though, when he reveals his taste for drugs, violent sex and general mayhem. He's a spoiled brat—a dangerous spoiled brat.

Raad Rawi as also good as Menum, Uday's "handler," tasked with keeping his crazed charge under control while making sure Latif does his job. He is, in fact, just as trapped as Latif, who at one point calls him "a good man in a bad job." With her oval face and striking blue eyes, French actress Ludivine Sagnier (A Girl Cut in Two) is an odd choice as Sarrab, Uday's mistress, but she does fine.

Award-winning stage actor Philip Quast certainly looks the part as Saddam, and there's a twisted "like father, like son" moment when, after Uday overdoses on sleeping pills, he bursts into his hospital room and, furious at his weakness, threatens to cut off his genitals. Jamie Harding, as brother Qusay, doesn't have many scenes, but a welcome moment of humor occurs when Uday calls his brother on the phone to praise Latif's performance as him, but Qusay isn't convinced. "For one thing, he's sober," he tells his brother. "And for another, he's not foaming at the mouth."

The film takes place prior to and during the first Gulf War, and the Malta locations are certainly evocative of what this environment may have been like. The set designs are also good, bringing the lavish Hussein palace and other environs to life. Strangely, two separate scenes in the same nightclub have the same song—"You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)"—playing in the background. Maybe that was crazy Uday's favorite tune?

The violence isn't as pervasive as I'd been led to believe, but when it does come, it's shocking and effective. In one scene, Uday, furious at being called "queer" by one of his father's friends, dispatches the man in a way that would do Tony Montana proud. And when he rapes a young bride on the afternoon of her wedding, she jumps to her death, landing in the middle of the wedding party. Artistic license? Well, yes. But it also makes for compelling drama.

It's puzzling that Lionsgate would put The Devil's Double into such a limited release. There have been far inferior films hogging theater screens this past summer. And Cooper's performance is a real knockout.

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