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Friday, October 14, 2011


The Wheelman With No Name
If you watch Drive on an exterior level, you get a badass action film. A slow burning, tightly paced one, at that. But, if you watch Drive from a critical standpoint, you'll notice more than one polite tip-of-the-hat to Taxi Driver - slight turns from Martin Scorsese's directorial playbook by director Nicolas Winding Refn. Really, Drive could be viewed as a pastiche of action movies and westerns from the glory days of Hollywood. The 70's and 80's era from Hollywood, more specifically. 

Ryan Gosling has a skill - determining the darker aspects of characters that appear to be a little blank on paper. In 2001, he played a self-hating Neo-Nazi Jew in The Believer. In 2010, he was a feigning husband in Blue Valentine (I really hope you all saw that), and here, he's the wheelman with no name. He goes by "the kid", and that's barely a term of endearment from the man who took him in. He (Ryan Gosling) has a hell of a job - he's a stunt driver for the movies, by day, and a getaway driver at night. Of course, he's freelance all the way. When a producer needs a flawless car crash, he's the guy. And when a mob king needs a flawless getaway, there's nobody better. He works with a man named Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who gave him a job years before the movie (and the kid's criminal activity) started. 

He lives on his own, like any self-preserving young criminal might. But, to search his psyche is to destroy the character. He's the ultimate anti-hero - the bad guy going good. Recall Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" trilogy. Good, Bad, Ugly, complete with a fistful of dynamite for only a few dollars. Our story comes to a slow boil about half way through the film, when his beautiful neighbor (Carey Mulligan) takes a shine to him, and let's him into her life (slowly but surely), He gets attached to her little boy. The boy's father is released from prison, and contracted for the famous "one last job" to pay off a debt. The Kid agrees to be the getaway guy and get the father out of debt so he can be the dad he needs to be.

This isn't the film you might think it would be based on the trailer. I know people who went in expecting a Gone in 60 Seconds retread, but left disappointed because they were given something a bit slower and more thoughtful. It seems that some audiences these days just want explosions and gun fights. Well, here's a tip, this film is ultra-violent, without a single explosion or gun fight. What little action there is takes place in the last 45 minutes of the film, during which it doesn't slow down at all (kind of like the driver. get it?). Once the whole thing goes to Hell, it sets up to roost there. Albert Brooks, who steals the movie with his cold as ice and steel portrayal of movie producer turned mob boss Bernie, is the only fire in the film. He's a veteran comedian, but plays this role with the assurance of a man who has something to prove. This is among the best work of his career. Oscar? I hope so.

Lovingly, I'd call this one of the biggest sleepers of the year. Hopefully it garners the cult following that director Nicolas Winding Refn deserves, as his film Bronson seemed to. Will it be a contender for the Oscars outside of Brooks? Yes, it will. I expect big things. And we're approaching that time of year already. If you haven't heard of the film yet, and if you're a filmgoer (like this blog demands) then you will by the end of the year. I don't normally go out of my way to say this in a review, but if you're a film lover, go out of your way to spend the money and see this film. I doubt there will be another one like it any time soon. 

Real Steel


Boxing movies all have one thing in common. Especially boxing movies these days, in our generation. There's that moment of pure badassery that lets you know things just got real. The hero, our hard-boiled yet soft hearted fighter is getting beaten down, physically and emotionally, and you have every reason to believe it's over. There's no getting up off the mat, no getting out of the corner or off the ropes, and no closing those wounds. But, the motion will slow, the music will stop, and the boxer will look at his opponent and do something that you should be very afraid of. 


Things just got real.

That's probably in my top five movie cliches that don't actually put me off to the whole project. Real Steel, fortunately, has a moment like that. If you've seen one boxing movie, you've seen Real Steel. But, while this isn't Rocky or Cinderella Man with robots, it has the same idea. You have your rundown fighter on his last legs, trying to make it all work, while overcoming all sorts of adversity. In Real Steel, that adversity comes in the form of gambling debts and addiction, and a kid. Of course, his kid proves to be the one thing that holds him together. 

That's not a spoiler, that's a formula. Don't yell at me. 

The movie does follow a pretty strict formula. You can guess what happens, especially if you watch sports movies these days. Once Friday Night Lights came out, the rules changed quite a bit. Underdog sports movies have always been a huge seller, but now that the rule about the ending has changed, they aren't anything special anymore. It's all about "no matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game that counts". Which is fine, and true, and tried. But, still - surprise me again, Hollywood. I get tired of figuring out who's going to win based solely on whether the film came out before or after 2004. *shrug*

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) used to box. And he did quite well for himself. His late trainer was the father of Charlie's on-again/off-again girlfriend Baily (played beautifully by Evangeline Lily). Since his retirement from the human boxing ring, he's taken up "extreme Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots". Remember that odd Comedy Central show Battle Bots? It's a little like that, but, you know, real (!). Remote controlled robots get in the ring with each other and battle it out, sometimes, to the death. Which, to a robot, means the head is knocked off and their oil blood is spilled all over the place. Had this been a real boxing movie with this premise, an NC-17 would have been unavoidable. But, because these are robots, it's fine for the whole family. That's not even sarcasm. This is a family film. Yeah, the PG-13 rating makes sense, but I'd take my kid to it.

Which is exactly what Charlie does. He finds out this his ex-girlfriend has passed away and since he's the next of kin, he's in line to take care of his estranged little boy Max (played with gusto by Dakota Goyo). I've never seen this kid before, but he's a natural, and he's full of fire. I hope his career is long and fulfilling. Max's aunt (Hope Davis) and uncle (James Rebhorn) want custody of Max so they can buy him a new life, and agree to give Charlie custody for the summer. During which they travel around the country pitting their robot against other bigger robots and find out exactly what boding truly means.

The movie has more heart than any of the trailers would lead you to believe. Most action movies don't make me tear up during their touching scenes. But, the testament here is for the actors, specifically Hugh Jackman. He has a way of tapping into even the most ridiculous characters and making them easy to connect to. Thinking back to the days when Swordfish came out, I remember people in my school thinking it was the be all-end all action movie, and that John Travolta owned the world in a way he hadn't since Pulp Fiction. But, the surprise to me, other than Halle Berry's pointless topless shot, was Jackman's tender and genuine ability. Then we got the X-Men series and he was a star; rightfully so. He won't be getting any awards for this film, which is a bit unfortunate because he deserves recognition, but he will be able to say that he made a movie about robots that took the country completely by surprise and got an unexpected critical reception. People love it. And not just because they love him. It's a genuinely lovable movie. 

The Change-Up

"I don't know why we agreed to this either, Ryan!"
At seems that at least a few times a year, movies are released that test the attention span - and maturity - of their audience. I'll be the first to spoil the big surprise here - there's a projectile poop scene. And, I swear to God, the review almost writes itself. Take Jason Bateman, who seems to be one of the busier actors this year, and put him with Ryan Reynolds, who seems to be one of the busiest actors in general, and put them in a Freaky Friday rehash, and you might expect some comic gold, right? Well, your head is in the right place, but your expectations might be too darn high. What we're given instead is one of the raunchiest - for the mere sake of being raunchy - comedies I've seen in a long time. This makes Reynolds' Van Wilder seem like Elmo in Grouchland. 

And that's being kind. 

As I mentioned before, with the need to point it out again, there's a projectile poop scene. With no build up. That's how we're told what kind of movie this is - all of the intelligence of subtle comedy is thrown out the window for the chance to have a kid drop a deuce on Jason Bateman's face from across the room. The Exorcist never seemed more watchable, right? And I've never long for a Lindsay Lohan movie more than when I was watching this. Sure, the R rating for "everything under the sun" should have given the crudeness away. But, not the lack of intelligence. Nor the lack of faith in its audience. 

Our story begins with Dave (Jason Bateman) being a good guy. He's a father of three, a dutiful husband, and an excellent lawyer on the brink of the biggest corporate merger of his career. Inexplicably, his best friend is Mitch (Ryan Reynolds). A pot smoking, lecherous, struggling actor living the life of his dreams - no life at all. Our story really only begins when Dave and Mitch go to a bar to watch a game, as they haven't hung out in a while. Which makes enough sense; they're busy. Well, Dave is busy. But, never mind. They go to the bar and get far more drunk then men of their age should and Dave falls in love with Mitch's lifestyle while he listens to Mitch go on and on about the random women that he's sleeping with, including the enigmatic Tatiana. Sounds great, right? I'm not a saint, and I certainly understand the struggle of monogamous relationships - but Dave seems a bit more unhappy than he should. He avoids couples therapy with his wife and wishes for Mitch's life. Mitch, the same, wishes for Dave's life. As they pee together. In a fountain. Drunk. In public. 

They pee together in a fountain, drunk in public. 

This is our movie. There's a rolling black out, and by the time they wake up the next morning, they got their wish. Dave wakes up in his home next to his wife (Leslie Mann) and has to take care of the three children, while having Mitch's personality drive him. And Mitch wakes up, and has to go to his first big movie role as Dave. Which is the only funny thing in the film, as it's a "lorno movie". Or, a light porno for those of us not in the business. Now, I'm only a writer, but I make a decent living doing the things I do. And as bad as I want to work in film (it's the dream, yeah), even I wouldn't take a "lorno". Still, though, the scene is damn funny, mainly because Reynolds is a talented actor and mimic. 

One more thing that drives my distate in the story and film is that this is one of the films whose trailer contained all the funny moments. Trick is, the funny moments in the trailer aren't in the film. So, the film's funny content is belied to us and therefore not as funny as the trailer. Which isn't even related to the movie, in theory. There's the obvious outcome to the film where everything is set right and all is well again, as they learn to appreciate their lives. 

And they pee together in a fountain, drunk in public.