Saturday, September 24, 2011

Add This to Your Guilty Pleasure List

by Mark Dispenza

     Drive is the kind of film you get when you put an A-list cast and crew on a B-movie story.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn channels Sergio Leone by taking the "Man with No Name" (Clint Eastwood in Leone's films) and putting him in a noirish crime drama instead of a western. 
     In this case the Man is Ryan Gosling as the Driver.  He doesn't say much at all during the film, but when he does, people listen.  Gosling never disappoints, and he is brilliant here in his ability to convey the thoughts and emotions of his character by means of subtle facial expression instead of dialogue. 
     Refn, Danish by birth and New Yorker by upbringing, brings a European flare to the stylistic treatment of his subjects and scenes of explosive violence.  Like Leone, his attention to the subtle nuances of even the most minor of characters will keep you intrigued every moment of the film. 
     The story really isn't much, and you've seen it all before.  The Driver is a young man who works in a garage and part-time as a stunt driver for the movies.  He's also a driver in shady side jobs arranged by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), owner of the garage.  The Driver is a stoic, cold person who doesn't talk about his past, but he does have absolute confidence in his ability to drive, and there is nobody better behind the wheel of a car.  He doesn't laugh.  He doesn't love.  He drives. 
     That changes when he meets his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), currently living as a single mom because her husband is in prison.  The Driver falls for Irene and will do anything to protect her and her young son, with whom he develops a powerful bond. We can only speculate as to how they somehow penetrate his tough emotional armor, as we are never told anything about the Driver's past, but somehow, without being told, we know. 
Carey Mulligan as Irene

     We know that the Driver had a hard childhood, raised by his mother, and that his father was absent from his life for reasons unknown, and we somehow know that he wanted his father to be there for him in a very bad way. Shannon, the only other person that the Driver cares about, has become the father he never had. He knows that Shannon is less than perfect, but he doesn't care about the man's weaknesses. He's always there and he's always got the Driver's back.
      But I digress. This is pure speculation on my part. None of it is in the script, but nonetheless we get it.  That's the beauty of what the best actors can convey for us, and this film is rich in great actors. Even the villains, headed by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, are fascinating.  It's easy to forget that Brooks is a comedian when he makes such a cool, calculating gangster. 
      The Driver's brief moment of happiness ends when Irene's husband is released from prison and returns to his family.  Some shady prison connections have their hooks in him, and unless he plays ball and commits a robbery for them, they will harm his wife and child.  The Driver finds out about it and agrees to help to protect Irene.  Unfortunately they've been set up and the job goes badly.  Everything goes to hell quickly after that, and no one the Driver cares about will escape the consequences. 
     Drive is the kind of film you really don't want to like.  The storyline is simplistic and its internal logic has more holes than a pound of swiss cheese, but the characters are so compelling that we are more than willing to extend that old suspension of disbelief.  We know that the Driver is a bad guy, and that becomes clear in moments where he loses his temper and lashes out at his tormenters.  By the way, those moments of violence are not for the squeamish.  You've been warned.  But we want him to prevail in spite of all that, because we want to believe that there's good even in the worst of us, and protecting Irene and her son is a good thing. 
     Drive is going to have legs long after its theatrical run is over.  It's the type of film you'll run into on late night cable, and you'll watch it again and again. 


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Silent Bob Grows Up

Red State                                                                                  
by Zac Sanford

      After creating his own cult following of stoners and slackers, Kevin Smith grows as a storyteller and filmmaker with his latest low-budget film, Red State.
     I must start this post with a bit of an advanced warning. When I was young I was a fan of Kevin Smith. I was enamored with Clerks when I rented it on VHS, laughed many times at Mallrats with my friends and then fell in love with Chasing Amy. Amy still holds up as one of the films that I'll throw on and watch at least once a year. There's something about the honesty there, and it spoke to me as an eighteen year-old with a broken heart.
      After Chasing Amy I still thought there was some merit to Dogma, but I fell out of touch with Kevin as a screenwriter and filmmaker. My guess? I grew up. I got over the juvenile humor that is peppered through a typical Kevin Smith film. Also he didn't really grow to the next level as a filmmaker. The camera just held steady as his characters talked--characters that I could no longer relate to or care about their journey. But that has all changed with Kevin's return to the writer/director chair after his short stint in the studio system.
     Red State begins in typical Smith territory. There's three teens (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun) who have scored the opportunity for a threesome with an older lady. Once at her trailer, the film finally ramps up and moves out of the stereotypical Smith comedy. Sara (Melissa Leo) offers the trio some beers, which have been laced, causing them to all pass out.
     Jarod (Gallner) comes to and finds himself in a cage that is covered and being rolled out to a destination unknown. In the background a sermon from Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) starts.  He spews out all that is wrong in this world, not only to him, but to God. His words are full of hate of any view that doesn't fit with his own. Parks knows when to add a pause, when to add emphasis and where to add an extra bit of punctuation in what would normally be an overly long monologue just short of 15 minutes.
     About halfway through the film, the ATF is called onto the scene, as there is suspicion something sinister is going on behind closed doors. Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) is ordered by an unseen superior to go against his better judgement while handling the Cooper situation. The film explodes into a mix of gunfire and action that goes on a little too long. In the end no character is safe, nor is any character redeemable enough where you want to root for them to survive.

      The film hits the final point home in an epilogue that isn't entirely necessary. It gives the viewer some closure, but I feel it is Smith talking down to his typical fan, answering any questions they may have had about the resolution.
     Tonally Red State is all over the place, but for some reason it works for me. It jumps from a teen comedy to a horror film with a monster that could exist within the real world. Once the film gets to the halfway point it, jumps to an action film until it ramps down to a bit of social commentary in the end. Kevin doesn't only point the finger at the Cooper Family (inspired by the Westboro Baptist Church), but at the government and politics today. For those reasons, along with the strong performances of Michael Parks, John Goodman and Melissa Leo, I must give this a passing grade.
     Kevin Smith is currently self-releasing the film for one night only on September 25th in movie theaters through his Smodcast Pictures banner. The film is currently available by Video on Demand through the website

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Events of 9/11 Inspired Guerilla Filmmakers

September Tapes                                                                    
by Mark Dispenza

     As Americans engage in solemn remembrance this weekend, I'm reminded of the incredibly gutsy journey the events of 9/11 inspired in a group of young indie filmmakers. 
     Within months of the fateful date, filmmaker Christian Johnston, previously a director of commercials, his co-writer, Christian Van Gregg, and actors George Calil and Wali Razagi, sneaked across the border into Afghanistan on faked credentials after being expressly warned not to do so by US Government officials. 
     Without diplomatic protection or bodyguards, the four young men roamed locations in and around Taliban-held Afghanistan and shot a faux-documentary in true indie guerilla style, utilizing Afghan locals in scenes that were often improvised on the spot.  In retrospect the project was incredibly naive and foolish, and the four were lucky they survived to edit and produce the finished film. 
     The result was September Tapes, a feature film inspired in part by the success of The Blair Witch Project. The plan was to create a documentary-style web site ala Blair Witch to build a strong fan base prior to release of the film.  Although the project fell short of Blair Witch success, it did manage to gross over $2,200,000 worldwide on a declared budget of $30,000--not a bad take for a low-budget indie feature.  Following its 2004 Sundance premiere, September Tapes became an audience favorite at film festivals around the world before going into worldwide theatrical release. 
     The story is a journey, reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, by American journalist Don Larsen (Calil) to locate Osama bin Laden and find the answers that have obsessed him since his girlfriend was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center.  With his Afghan-American friend, Wali Zalif (Razagi), to interpret for him, he seeks out the warlords of the Northern Alliance to gain intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts.  Larsen and his team get arrested for taking photographs, and while incarcerated, they learn about a bounty hunter named Babak Ali (played by himself), who may be able to locate bin Laden for them. 

Local actors
     Viewers of the film have called it "more realistic than network news," and it's easy to see why.  Outside of the small group Johnston took with him into the country, the film used all Afghan locals in principle roles and as extras.  Most of them had no professional training, which added to the documentary effect.  However, it also meant that live ammunition was shot around and over the heads of the actors during gun battles, and the locals often got carried away.  During the tense scene in which Larsen is arrested, the real local cops, acting as themselves, got a little rough when pulling the actors from their vehicle. 
     Tragically,writer Van Gregg did not live to see the audience response to his work.  He took his own life in 2003 at age 29. 
     September Tapes is available for download on Netflix or Amazon

Friday, September 2, 2011

There's One in Every Family

Our Idiot Brother                                                                     
by Zac Sanford

     The black sheep of the family teaches his siblings a thing or two about life in Our Idiot Brother, a family drama with a comedic edge. 
     Everyone has someone in their family they try to avoid for one reason or another.  To his family, Ned (Paul Rudd) falls into that category, and even if he isn’t the brightest, everything he does is meant with the best intentions. 
     Ned is the type of modern day hippy who sells his own homegrown produce at a small town farmers market in upstate New York.  Everything is going smoothly until Ned is approached by a local policeman, in uniform no less, who has fallen on hard times and would like to buy some marijuana.  Since he’s such an upstanding person, Ned offers the policeman a bag of weed free of charge, but the officer insists on paying for it.  Once Ned obliges he’s hauled off to jail.
     Now you may be saying that any attorney could set Ned free based on entrapment, but this movie doesn’t go there.  Ned spends time in the slammer and is released early after winning “best inmate” four months in a row.  He stumbles back to his farm to find that his girlfriend, Janet (Kathryn Hahn), has moved on to Billy (T.J. Miller), another happy-go-lucky stoner, and she refuses to return his beloved dog, Willie Nelson.
     This leaves Ned with no choice but to seek refuge and comfort within the homes of his three sisters until he can save enough money to move back to the farm.  Once there he plans to accept Billy's offer to rent the goat barn and be reunited with Willie.
     Once Ned lands in the home of his oldest sister, Liz (Emily Mortimer), and her director husband, Dylan (Steve Coogan), he is offered a gig helping Dylan on his latest shoot.  After catching Dylan shooting a portion of the documentary with his subject in the nude, Ned thinks nothing of it as he’s told “being naked helps one get to their true emotions.”  This doesn’t even sit on Ned’s consciousness until he lets the memory slip to his sister, Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), who realizes Dylan is having an affair. 

Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd & Emily Mortimer

     From this point on, Ned is bounced from home to home, creating a ripple effect with each of his family members.  Things come to a head when one sister, fed up with the situation she believes is caused by Ned, gives him the money he needs to move into the goat barn.  No one is able to see their faults until Ned comes into their world and unearths the unlikable characteristics that each harbor.
     Is this a perfect film?  No.  But is it enjoyable?  Yes, in large part due to Paul Rudd's portrayal of Ned.  The sisters all come across as unlikeable and downright mean to their beloved brother, who just wants to feel like he belongs.  Everything he does and says is to live a life of truth and honesty, a life that his sisters don't relate to.
     This film has been mis-advertised across the board.  While the ads point to a good time led by Ned, Our Idiot Brother delves deeper into the family dynamic and ends up being more of a drama with slight bits of comedy thrown in.  Had Ned been a straight man in the script, this would have been billed as a drama, but his character gives the formula a fun new twist.
     As the summer comes to a close and the studios start to dump the duds on the multiplexes, I would recommend you catch this light-hearted romp.  Even if Ned gets on your nerves at times, and you just want to yell at him to grow up, maybe there’s something deeper down that needs to be explored.  Hopefully you have your own idiot brother to help you.
     The film was acquired from The Weinstein Company at this year’s Sundance Film Festival after it played to sold out crowds.