Rating: The Bad – 20 Genre: Crime Duration: 90 mins Director: Nicolas Winding Refn Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas
A Thai based drug smuggler (Ryan Gosling) is co-opted by his disturbingly affectionate mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) into a bizarre revenge scenario when his brother is killed. Oh dear! It’s impossible to properly describe how embarrassing this entire affair is for writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn. After pulling the wool over many fans’ and indeed critics’ eyes and convincing them that Drive’s directorial pretensions were in fact art, the emboldened Refn threw off whatever shackles his modicum of common sense placed upon him and went full tilt into a project of pure self delusion. The result is pretentiousness of genuinely hysterically proportions. How a director can be so clueless as to mistake adolescent-like ramblings as profound cinematic statement is just plain mystifying but to go one step further and not realise that even moderately discerning cinema lovers are laughing at him boggles the mind. From his main character’s metaphorical fiddling within the stomach wound of his enemy to the hack reinterpretation of Freud’s Oedipus Complex, this one just ploughs blindly forward with a smug smile and oblivious arrogance. However, the most unfortunate aspect to all this is that the truly talented Ryan Gosling seems to have bought the knock off Kool-Aid lock, stock, and rancid barrel. One was tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt in Drive because everything good about that movie’s intentions seemed exclusively a product of his contributions. But to not stop at any point during the shooting of this mess and echo the words of Harrison Ford to George Lucas “You can write this shit George but you sure as hell cant say it!”, is truly mystifying. Gosling is an intelligent actor but he has been worryingly slipstreamed into the perversely stupid world of Refn on this one. Any marks this movie gets is for Larry Smith’s rather nice cinematography but as far as the rest is concerned, Only God could forgive it!
Rating: The Good -69.5 Genre: Thriller Duration: 113mins Director: Gregory Hoblit Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, David Strathairn
An unconventional thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a brash young prosecutor whose last case before he changes sides becomes more than he bargained for when the defendant, a highly intelligent engineer (Anthony Hopkins) accused of attempting to kill his wife, begins dismantling Gosling’s case. Gosling’s fresh approach to his role makes for an interesting film in its own right but it’s the unpredictability of the story’s progression that raises it above more orthodox thrillers. Hopkins is only fine as the clever bad guy but like David Strathairn he’s not given much to do. There is a seriously unconvincing romantic relationship crow-barred into the story between Gosling’s character and his new boss (no doubt to appease the inane box-ticking movie executives) but thanks to the aforementioned qualities and Hoblit’s typically polished touch, Fracture is certainly worth the watch.
Rating: The Good – 78.4 Genre: Drama Duration: 102 mins Director: Henry Bean Stars: Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix, Peter Meadows
An articulate neo-Nazi is recruited from his gang of inane thugs and groomed for stardom within far right social circles as they flirt with a vague political agenda. The first problem is that he is too intelligent for them and the second is that, unbeknownst to everyone, he is a Jew.
For those who’ve admired Ryan Gosling’s more recent performances, check out this tour de force turn (from the then 21 year old!) as the Jewish neo-Nazi, who is caught between his loathing for what he perceives as his people’s weakness and his deep compassion for their traditions of spirit and intellect. The Believer is a powerful and deeply insightful film that captures the essence of religious faith and belief like few films before it. Writer/director Henry Bean’s writing and dialogue are provocative but always remain real regardless of whether it’s the monosyllabic horseplay of the neo-Nazis, the insidious pretensions of the right-wing upper class, or the friendly and sometimes unfriendly argumentativeness of the various Jewish characters he bumps into when he retreats back to his home turf. His direction is adroit and complements the steep intellectualism of the script in tone and pace. Combined, his script and overall helming are more powerful than anything even the likes of Spike Lee has served up. Less flare but far more punch.
Ultimately, however, this film is driven by Gosling’s incendiary powerhouse performance that is as good as anything that De Niro or Pacino were doing at a similar age. It’s a piece of acting that is driven by a burning intelligence and controlled magnetism. It’s intimidating, heart-breaking, thought provoking, and brave. Given that Gosling has really made his name off more basic roles like the one he played in Drive, those who claim to be fans of the charismatic star need to see the likes of this and Half Nelson to understand why exactly he is respected so much. As you’ll learn fairly rapidly, it ain’t because of Drive.
George Clooney’s adaptation of Beau Willimon’s Farragut North is an intricate examination of motivation, morality, and ambition that unfolds into a depressing picture of politics and human nature and of the inescapable corruptive influence one has on the other. Ryan Gosling fronts the picture as the ambitious yet idealistic campaign manager who believes his candidate is both morally and practically the right man for the democratic presidential nomination. Clooney is that man, a suave and erudite governor whose relative youth and energy resemble that of a real life 2008 democratic nominee. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the campaign head as well as Gosling’s boss and together they set their strategies against their rival campaign manager Paul Giamatti. Evan Rachel Wood is the intern who accidentally gets caught up in the middle of their cut throat dynamics and Marisa Tomei’s reporter is only too happy to throw fuel on the fire so long as she gets a couple of comments on the record about how hot it’s getting.
The Ides of March is slow burner heaven for those with a taste for the best political thrillers. It teases out the potential crises of character that exists at the seat of all our personal ideologies through a mature and levelled examination of the modern politician and the machinery s/he uses to get her/himself elected. Clooney’s initial ideal of a political saviour is pulled at and then scratched at, so that the audience, through the eyes of our lead character, are given the same cold chills (followed closely by just plain coldness) which Gosling’s idealist experiences. The script is more than happy to let the players move the story forward in the initial stages so that the emergence of the plot feels organic and it’s development coalesces with the personalities of those players. The dialogue is both sharp and witty and nearly always resists the temptation to become bigger than the drama. But it’s the character writing that gives the story so much substance. The people in this film feel real, their ambitions are brazen, their motives petty, and they are all prone to error. Yes, it’s a depressing picture of humanity but in the context of this type of story, it’s probably pretty accurate. The writing isn’t perfect as the final act culminates in a relatively clunky manner but the lead up and indeed remainder of the film is so sophisticated from a slow burning dramatic point of view, that this one misstep matters little.
Naturally, the actors respond to this clarity and so they become the principal reason as to why a film with no traditional forms of suspense remains enthralling throughout. Though always entertaining and usually better than good, it’s nonetheless great to see Clooney take on a genuinely complicated role even if his character must necessarily loom large in the background for most of the film. Gosling takes a break from the more somber/comatose kick he’s prone to these days and gives us a young go-getter full of personality and energy. It’s a reminder of how good a performer he is because at the end of the day, it’s the ability to be real yet distinctive that is the mark of a great actor and that’s exactly what Gosling does here. Of course, he is surrounded by a wealth of talent from the heavy weight division of the acting world. Regardless of the gold statuettes sitting on their respective mantles (because they too seldom reflect genuine acting talent), these are the cream of the current crop of Hollywood’s A-list and they seem to relish the opportunity to play with such meaty roles and not have to do anymore than 7-10 days of acting in the process. No one actor stands above the other as all are outstanding. OK, at a push, one could point out that Seymour Hoffman’s vengeful and paranoid turn is particularly nice to watch.
Clooney’s direction has always been impressive and while more low key than his previous Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck, it’s also a more quietly confident shift of work. His ability to key in on the exact tone of a scene stands out here as everything from the set design to the lighting seems right at all times. Through his patience and Alexandre Desplat’s gripping score, a low thud of inevitability beats through the second half of the film rising imperceptibly to create an engaging tension. This is a difficult craft to master and critical to a drama such as this one.
The Ides of March may have all sorts of commentaries running through it that speak to the current political climate in the US and indeed Clooney’s own sentiments but as a straight-up drama, it stands head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries. If it does little more than tell an engaging story, it at least acts as a reminder of the class that defined the genre in its heyday.
Rating: The Good – 76.5 Genre: Drama Duration: 106 mins Director: Ryan Fleck Stars: Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Shareeka Epps
Half Nelson is a lesson in the fundamentals of film making where the complexity lies only in the subtext. Ryan Gosling stars as an inner-city high school teacher who is steadily failing his battle with drug addiction. His natural charm and unorthodox teaching methods help him engage with his 7th grade students but as his inability to break free of his own rut bleeds through into his lessons he connects with one of those students (played by Shareeka Epps) who herself feels trapped in a cycle.
There is no shying away from drug addiction here but nor does it attempt to hit you over the head with it. Instead, the complexity of personhood and the troubled inertia of both characters (as the different sides to their personalities break through) dominates the tone and pace of this film. The charm of both Gosling and Epps, both individually but particularly when they play off each other, is what makes this otherwise gloomy film so endearing and despite or because of its realness, the film seduces you into their worlds. Though Epps’ character does at some point interpret her feelings towards Gosling as romantic, this is by no means a Lolita story as ultimately it becomes a tale of friendship and the support that one offers the other. Gosling is magnificent as the hip but hugely depressed teacher and though films like The Believer had already shown us the depth of this man’s talent, this is the film that cemented his reputation as one of the (if not the) standout actor of his generation. Epps is just as good and for the film to have worked it was important that was the case. She too belies her even younger years to show a level of maturity and intelligence not seen in many more seasoned actors. And as if two tremendous performances wasn’t enough, Anthony Mackie weighs in with an equally layered performance as a competing influence on Epps’s character.
Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s screenplay is wonderfully incisive and together with Fleck’s fly-on-the-wall type direction, full of soft focus close ups and hand held pan shots, they are as responsible for the subtle power of this film as the searing performances are. A final word should go to Boden’s editing and that resonating soundtrack which is seamlessly incorporated into the on-screen drama.
Rating: The Good – 72.4 Genre: Crime Duration: 100mins Director: Nicolas Winding Refn Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
An ice-cool getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) living the life of a loner strikes up a relationship with his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her son but when they fall foul of some violent gangsters, his savage attempts to protect her threaten that very relationship while also escalating his problems with the worst of those gangsters (Al Brooks).The first thing that needs to be said about this film is that the premise was completely lifted from Walter Hill’s 1978 unsung classic The Driver (this has been shamefully under-acknowledged by the director who claims to have not even seen Hill’s film prior to making Drive – the opening sequences are identical). As that film was, Drive is also about a supreme getaway driver for hire who shows up on the night of the job to ferry his criminal clients through LA by avoiding the cops, getting them to safety, and then disappearing never to be seen again. In both films, the main protagonist is referred to only as “The Driver” (played in that film by Ryan O’Neill) and in both films, he is defined by an austere personality (though in the 1978 film, this is explained through an implied intolerance the driver bears for the fools he has to work with). Although Drive’s premise is identical to the earlier film, the story differs substantially as it substitutes the fascinating game of cat and mouse between O’Neill’s Driver and an obsessed cop for a plodding romance/revenge drama between Gosling’s and Mulligan’s characters.
Drive is a terribly frustrating film. From a technical point of view, it is a cool and interesting film going experience. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s vision is as audacious as it is slick. The nighttime cityscapes accompanied by Cliff Martinez’ serene score and the complementary retro soundtrack are sumptuously shot while Matthew Newman’s editing particularly in the driving scenes is flawless. Refn was clearly inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral in his depiction of LA but it’s from Mann’s earlier 1980’s films, namely Manhunter and in particular Thief, Drive takes its lead (in fact, while it takes its premise from The Driver, it takes its story from Thief). The action is quite restrained in that crafty driving is favoured over brute force and daring and although we would like to give credit to the director for seeing the strength in that decision, he has claimed it was simply because they didn’t have enough money to shoot any large scale car chases. Regardless of the reason, however, it does indeed heighten the power of the action sequences as well as giving them an original feel. In front of the camera, Gosling does the best he can with a limited script as he succeeds in breathing life into his character in a manner of subtle ways. His walk, his stare, his smile, even the methodical way he puts on his gloves all combine to give this man with no name a fascinating yet serious disposition. The supporting cast are also very good if a bit underused. Mulligan plays a decent emotional counter-point to Gosling but as with Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman, we did not really see enough of her to warrant further comment.
There’s no doubt that these strengths add up to an interesting and unique film which the audience becomes desperate to like. However, there is equally no denying that Drive is marred by hamfisted villainy and a central love story which is painfully flat and insubstantial. As the gangsters, Ron Perlman and Al Brook’s dialogue is just plain laughable at times as are the inconsistencies in their characters’ actions. Perlman is a walking cliche and his motivations for getting involved in the central heist are manically conceived and revealed in a ridiculously trite moment of exposition. On Drive’s release, it became quite fashionable to point out how good Brooks was and while he is enjoyable in the role, his character is a mess (this is elaborated on below). But all this is nothing compared to the central dynamic between Gosling and Mulligan. The dialogue here is nearly non-existent and the chemistry is, not surprisingly, awkward and clumsy. When Mulligan’s character asks Gosling’s Driver a question, he stares at her vacantly, and after a long pause mumbles an answer. This may tie into one interpretation of his character (see below) but it makes for excruciating cinema.
Another major weakness pertains to a continued lack of discipline and maturity in the career of Winding Refn’s. Refn has been accused of being gratuitous in his use of violence in previous films and this criticism can be fairly levelled at him again in both his depiction of the Driver’s actions and those of Brooks’ character. Though Brooks is charismatic in his playing of the Jewish gangster, there are a few obvious moments towards the end where his more violent actions feel forced and extremely artificial. The question is, would those scenes have worked without the violence? In the case of at least two of them, the answer is not only “yes” (because Brooks’ delivery of his lines is more menacing than any action could ever be) but they might have actually worked better as the depth of Brooks’ mean streak would have been unseen and thus, in the imagination of the audience, it would have been potentially limitless. Unfortunately, Refn showed no such understanding and so these scenes ultimately come off looking ridiculous.
However, the most frustrating aspect to Drive is that there is the glimpse of a fascinating notion underlying the Driver’s motivations courtesy of what Gosling brought to the role (the scorpion jacket and featureless stunt mask were his ideas) and what writers Hossein Amini (screenplay) and James Sallis (book) intended. However, the director seems completely oblivious to it and constantly pulls the film in contradictory directions. In interviews and Q & A’s, Refn states that he sees the Driver as the modern day hero and so his ridiculously violent behaviour have no bearing on his mental stability as far as the director is concerned. Not only is his obtuse notion of heroism nonsensical but in his rambling explanations as to how he chose “A Real Hero” for the soundtrack (because he thought it sounded “cool” only to later realised it might explain his protagonist’s behaviour), one gets the distinct impression he had no idea what this film was about, made it up as he went along, and rationalised everything around the simplest explanation. However when we look at Gosling’s contribution to the film, such as the jacket with the scorpion on the back (and, by implication, on The Driver’s back) and the featureless stunt mask he wears during the movie’s most potent scene, we realise that he may in fact have an entirely different interpretation in mind. Gosling’s notion of the Driver seems more akin to Travis Bickle than Refn’s childish and even confused notion of a modern day John McClane. A man struggling to live a normal life but hampered by an emotional coldness which peaks in moments of savage brutality. In other words, a sociopath. (And for those who balk at such a suggestion, ask yourselves, does any other explanation account for the elevator sequence?). It’s a brave idea and it worked well in Taxi Driver but it seems it was too deep for Refn to appreciate.
Which interpretation which we decide is correct is crucial because Refn’s interpretation is not only nonsensical but it means the Driver’s lack of dialogue, long mono-expressional staring, and extreme levels of violence are only explainable as indulgent, pretentious gratuitousness with no bearing on the story. On the other hand, Gosling’s (and we must assume the writers’) interpretation gives Drive a profound subtlety. Unfortunately, because the principals are pulling in opposite directions, the latter isn’t allowed to flourish in the way we assume Gosling had in mind and we are left filling in many of the blanks which Refn’s confused direction leaves in its wake. That said, if one chooses Gosling over Refn, the story can still be enjoyed on that level.