Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Michael Mann”

Drive

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 30th October 2011

The moment  Ryan Gosling, toothpick dangling from mouth, straps on his leather driving gloves and takes off to some mysterious destination, you sense this film is going to be one hell of a ride. The bright pink 1980s-style font in the title sequence and a Vangelis-inspired soundtrack are evidence that Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn knows how to inject more than a little panache into an otherwise derivative crime caper. The fact that Drive seems to derive from the very best of its genre simply makes the comparisons thrilling.

Think Michael Mann directing Tarantino’s True Romance, starring a young Nic Cage lookalike, photographed like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The bright lights of LA pimp out the perfect backdrop for Gosling’s unnamed antihero, who works as a Hollywood stuntman by day and a getaway-driver-for-hire by night. Frustratingly taciturn, we don’t learn anything about his private world, but his shiny white bomber jacket and nonchalant gait indicate the “Driver” can handle himself. Probably if you were there next to him in real life, Gosling’s steady gaze would come off as creepy – but on celluloid, he’s enthralling.

He becomes gently embroiled in the life of the single mum next door (an unusual, but largely successful, change of scene for Carey Mulligan), whose jailbird husband is played with typical intensity by the very fine Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch, Body of Lies). Christina Hendricks dons a tracksuit and attitude, and there are great performances from the older thugs, notably Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston and movie legend Albert Brooks.

Adapted for the screen by the talented Hossein Amini, whose previous work includes excellent period pieces, Drive feels like a heady return to the best 90s’ crime movies, not afraid to discharge a shotgun, stomp on a head, or stick a fork in someone’s eye. It’s brutal, it’s gruesome and it’s a blast.

My kind of town

The Town

I like a good heist movie.  Readers will know by now that Heat features very high up my all-time-greatest-films list, and rightly or wrongly has become something of a benchmark for films of the genre.  The bank robbery scene and ensuing escape across central city LA are superb, and Michael Mann oft-applauded for his accomplishment.  As it happens, Ben Affleck’s directorial follow-up to the terrific Gone Baby Gone (which set his brother Casey up as an extremely fine acting talent to watch – don’t get me started swooning over the exquisite The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford…) evokes plenty of Heat, as well as elements of Inside Man, and even Enemy of the State.  Given Spike Lee and Tony Scott brought us the latter films, Affleck can consider himself in good company.

Afflect casts himself as the protagonist, Doug MacRay, son of an imprisoned bank robber (a brief piece of Chris Cooper) who is carrying on the family business.  Along with his best friend Jimmy (a hardened Jeremy Renner, plausibly sociopathic and alarmingly unpredictable) and a couple of other mates, they subscribe to the tradition that has rendered their native Charlestown the real-life bank robbery capital of America.  With that kind of expectation, what other lifestyle choice is a guy to make?

As in so many bad-guy movies, Doug meets a nice girl and wants out.  One last job, then a flight to Florida and (presumably) a crime-free, guilt-free life sipping cocktails with little umbrellas.  How often have we heard criminals talk wistfully of this very thing?  Robert De Niro tried to hang up his SIG P220 in Heat, and again in The Score, and we know it usually ends in tears.

Doug’s girl in this instance is the bank manager of their first job, still suffering from PTSD when he “meets” her in the laundromat and persuades her to go out for a drink.  This is where the film suffers a little in its unrealism – Doug’s charisma must be potent off screen, because Rebecca Hall’s Claire opens up to this stranger immediately, convenient since he initially just wants to know what she’s told the police, but soon he’s sharing deep, painful childhood memories with her and, uh oh, falling in love with her for real.  (Again, this is similar to Neil McCauley meeting the lonely Edie in Heat, and needless to say there are echoes of the trajectory of their doomed romance.)  Add to this Doug’s inability to simply say “I quit”, and you have a genuinely frightening dilemma at the heart of the second act.

The Town has strengths in many areas: cinematically and directorially it is a fine piece of work, with some exciting camera moves (a particular favourite being to circle the actors in the middle of the street as they have some sort of revelation) and uniformly good performances.  Blake Lively (from TV’s “Gossip Girl”) does a good job of playing the skanky ho (if you’ll forgive the parlance), which admittedly is probably an easier role to inject life into than staid bank manager, Claire.  Jon Hamm, everybody’s favourite Mad Man, plays the hunter FBI agent without a hint of parody, and Pete Postlethwaite clearly relishes his role as the head-honcho Irish criminal who sends the boys out on their jobs.

One could criticise the slightly predictable plot and dialogue, but there are clever moments and the various heist scenes are gripping and well-executed.  I do feel that if Doug and the boys had watched Heat as many times as I have, they might have avoided some fundamental errors (Plan your escape route! Don’t rob a bank in a tiny, narrow backstreet that it’ll be hard to drive away from!) – but mostly they did an excellent job.  And despite the disclaimer at the end of the credits assuring the audience that Charlestown is actually full of decent, law-abiding citizens, the film still makes Boston my kind of town.

Not worth her salt

Salt

I know, I’m sorry.  That’s a terrible, predictable cliché.  But so is this film.  Much (and really I mean EVERYTHING) has been made of the fact that Angelina Jolie’s latest offering was written for a male lead, but that  she took on the role, just as is, and *gasp* played it as a woman.

Perhaps that would be impressive if Evelyn Salt was played by Emma Thompson or Emily Watson (oh please! imagine!).  But since the whole world knows Ms. Jolie-Pitt as Lara Croft anyway, I couldn’t find anything in this film to write home about.

It’s a shame – in this current terrorism-obsessed age, it’s almost refreshing to return nostalgically to the good old Cold War days, and have a decent stab at an assassination.  Everyone loves a sleeper agent (particularly one who may or may not realise she is/isn’t one) and the Bourne films have set the bar high for exciting chase scenes atop moving vehicles in exotic locations.  Unfortunately, Phillip Noyce (big ups for Rabbit Proof Fence and the Patriot Games films, which were excellent in their day) has pieced together a pretty mediocre action flick, which doesn’t deliver anything new, and then has the gall to rehash a whole lot of clichés, badly.  Hey, maybe if we put Angelina in a really unconvincing blonde wig, she’ll look kinda Russian!  Need a good guy who’s actually bad? – Liev Schrieber’s free!  Apparently Michael Mann and Peter Berg were in line to direct, and MM being one of my favourite directors, I’m glad he dodged that bullet.  I’m not sure even he could have produced something stylistic, clever and exciting here.

Imagine my disappointment as the titles finally rolled, leaving it distinctly open-ended in a “she’ll be back” Bourne-like way… Well, I can tell you now: I won’t be.

The Criminal Family – an enthralling species

Animal Kingdom

This debut feature film by Australian filmmaker David Michôd is pure, unadulterated, exhilarating brilliance. With hints of Scorsese (to my mind Goodfellas and Casino) and Michael Mann (evoking Heat and The Insider), he had me at Hello.  Well, in this instance, the understated opening scene of a suburban heroin overdose in front of “Deal or No Deal”.

A crime drama which centres around a dysfunctionally engaging (or should that be engagingly dysfunctional?) family, we are swiftly brought into the cocoon of a matriarch and her three sons (to different, absent fathers) and orphaned grandson, Josh (J).  As he moves in with his doting grandmother, he is instantly sucked into the vortex of a family constantly on the run from the Armed Robbery Division of Melbourne’s police force.  As the police draw in, tensions are heightened and loyalties are tested.  (Gosh, with those clichés I could have written the press notes.)

Except that the film is anything but clichéd, and the rewards are manifold.  Every character is well-rounded (if a little, ahem,  morally stunted) and there is great pleasure to be had from watching the four brothers’ very different personalities.  The acting is universally superb, nuanced and naturalistic – from timid, silent Darren, to warm charismatic family-man Barry, to agitated tattooed Craig who cries in his mother’s arms when one of his brothers is shot.  However, Ben Mendelsohn steals the show as the multi-layered Uncle Andrew, known as “Pope”, who is introduced as a furtive, somewhat weasly character, and whose slight speech impediment and nerdy checked shirts belie a sociopath who will do anything it takes to stay out of jail.  Similarly, newcomer James Frecheville deserves special praise for his incredibly subtle performance, managing to convey the teenager’s conflicting feelings with scarcely the raise of an eyebrow.  Add to this Jacki Weaver as “Mama Smurf” and a gaunt Guy Pearce as the gentle but determined cop, and you have everything you need for a superb gangster flick.

As director and writer,  Michôd has tackled a major genre, the complexities of representing true crime stories as drama, and handled the realism of a contemporary setting with aplomb.  But it’s the style of his film that has you sitting on the edge of your seat – fantastic photography, a perfectly pitched soundtrack (echoing Lisa Gerrard’s work on The Insider, herself Michôd’s original choice for composer), and extraordinarily gripping dramatic tension marks every single scene, right from the opening titles.  I was particularly thrilled with a Goodfellas-esque sequence blasting Air Supply’s ’80s hit “I’m All Out of Love” while the camera circles to finally focus on Pope, setting up perfectly the sense of just what this man is capable of.  I could watch this scene again and again, but nothing will be like the first time.

The phrase “white-knuckle ride” comes to mind, and in fact few films actually manage to keep the tension going for two hours.  But Animal Kingdom leads us like the best of dance partners, not allowing us to tire but keeping us riveted and on our toes the whole time, before ending with the ultimate lift.  I won’t fall out of love with this film for a long time.

Some Must-Sees – movies boys will like, and girls ought to

Some excellent choices for a Saturday Night In

Heat – absolutely Top 10.  De Niro and Pacino play cat and mouse/cop and robber, with a brilliant supporting cast including Val Kilmer (the only thing I’ve ever liked him in), Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Natalie Portman et al. It’s simply exhilarating – Michael Mann brings us the greatest bank robbery scene since Dog Day Afternoon, but not until he’s laid out a story so engaging and characters so multi-dimensional that I never wanted the film to end. So he made it 3 hours long! I’ve never been so ecstatic in all my movie-going life.

Goodfellas – one of Scorsese’s best. A gangster flick with the perfect voiceover; star turns from Ray Liotta, Robert De  Niro and a frightening Joe Pesci; the wonderful Lorraine Bracco (later playing the ultimate in-joke as Dr Melfi in The Sopranos) and cameos from Scorsese’s own mamma and papa. Also one of the longest and most accomplished tracking shots in film history. Right from the opening scene, it has you by the throat and you don’t even want it to let you go.

Children of Men – from a filmmaker’s point of view, this is just incredible. The photography is notable for its ability to drag you into the action and carry you along, and to elicit a “how the heck did they do that??” response on several occasions. Clive Owen carries the story of a dystopian future where no children have been born for several years, and the planet is clearly in a crisis of gradual extinction. Amazing, exciting, wonderful stuff.

The Insider – more Michael Mann. This time it’s Russell Crowe who stacks on the weight and goes grey to deliver a superlative performance as a tobacco scientist who turns whistleblower.  Al Pacino spars with him as the journalist who takes up his story.  It’s beautifully shot, scripted, acted and completely gripping to the end.

Casino – another Scorsese masterpiece, more De Niro and Pesci. But this time they share the screen with a luminous Sharon Stone, giving the performance of her career as the manipulative, drug-addled wife of a casino boss (De Niro) who’s trying to go straight, but can’t leave the gangster life behind. Another amazing soundtrack, too.

Carlito’s Way – Brian De Palma follows up Scarface with Pacino playing a different character with similar leanings. Sean Penn and Penelope Ann Miller provide excellent support to Pacino’s Carlito Brigante, an ex-con trying to go good, who gets entangled in the dubious business of his lawyer, friend and ex-colleagues. It’s violent and exciting, and romantic too.

Infernal Affairs – the original Hong Kong police thriller that Scorsese made into the Oscar-winning The Departed.  The original is better though – and stars the stunning Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a cop undercover in a criminal gang, and a gangster who has infiltrated the police. Let the games begin.

(Needless to say this list could go on and on, but this will do for now.)

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