Tag Archives: Drive

Song to Song (2017)

Continuing his rapid pace of releasing movies, Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) sets his newest film in the music scene. It features a star-studded cast with Michael Fassbender (Shame) as a music producer, Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Rooney Mara (Lion) as performers, and Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) as other women who get wrapped up in their series of short-lived affairs.

The film’s “plot” is barely present and the few discernable aspects are disappointing. Supposedly, Song to Song is a romance, but there is nothing remotely romantic shown. Malick is known for not using traditional scripts. He relies on actors to improvise scenes based on only the setup and never have the pitfalls of this approach been more apparent than the scenes of what I can only assume was intended to be romantic chemistry. The actors have big smiles on their faces as they attempt to have authentic, playful interactions. Instead, they come off as annoying or severely cringe-inducing, best exemplified in a scene where Fassbender hops around a beach screeching and scratching like a monkey. As painful as these scenes are to watch, I can only feel sorry for the actors that had to perform them.

There is also a worrying trend regarding the treatment of women. Malick has been known for infantilizing his female characters. They are often young, innocent girls or adult women who display a pure naivete, but this previously appeared to come from a good place. It seemed like a celebration of innocence rather than a restriction on what women could do, but his new films have revealed some disturbing ideas. As in his last film, the women here are treated as sexual objects to be used, cast off, then reused when needed. They may have their own motivations but Malick’s portrayal shows them as little more than ways for his hedonistic male characters to satisfy their own desires.

The upscale parties and general opulence offer little reason to feel for the characters.

Visuals have always been Malick’s strong suit, but even that seems to be deteriorating. Using his regular cinematographer, the incredibly talented Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), he is again able to create some stunning natural-light footage. Yet, there are a few confusing choices that mar his normally perfect images. Several scenes were shot on location at the music festival Austin City Limits and some use GoPro-like cameras. This was likely done to get closer to the action of the mosh pits, but the lower-resolution fish-eye shots do not mesh with the rest of the film. Their low-quality is a glaring fault. There is also a strange overuse of oblique angles. Many scenes are off-kilter close-ups of an actor’s face. Perhaps this was done to convey the subjectivity of the character’s thoughts, but instead it is only distracting. These unfortunate choices detract what would otherwise be the film’s greatest strength.

One of the few changes to Malick’s style is his use of music. His usual ethereal, orchestral score is still present, but, due to the setting, more modern music is also included. These songs offer some desperately needed energy to the film. Their use helps add variety to the soundtrack and breaks up the overused strings. It was perhaps the only modernizing of Malick’s approach throughout the film.

Song to Song is almost a repeat of Knight of Cups but set in the music world instead of the film industry. Like that movie, there are people living in exorbitant wealth while pursuing their dreams that are inexplicably mopey. Characters go after their desires in selfish ways and, when the obvious consequences occur, Malick expects the audience to sympathize with them. But, why would we? He, like his characters, appears to be living in a bubble. There are no sympathetic or relatable characters here, only sketches of vague emotions. The frequent voiceovers are filled with pretentious, pseudo-philosophical thoughts that are often unrelated to anything onscreen and read like midnight scrawlings from the director’s bedside notebook. His narrative films after the flawed, but magnificent The Tree of Life, if you can call them narrative films, have been a continual letdown. Malick’s work has sunk further into incessant navel-gazing and his visual style is no longer enough to make up for it. Song to Song is another exercise in Malick’s recent string of insufferable self-indulgence.

1/5 stars.

Hell or High Water (2016)

While most heist films tend to increase tension by involving several moving parts like in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels or by adding a new dimension like in Inception, Hell or High Water eschews these additional layers in favor of a stripped down look at a series of small-scale robberies. David Mackenzie (Starred Up) deftly executes on the familiar premise. Two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine; Star Trek) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster; Warcraft), plan a series of bank robberies on a local chain to gather enough money to cover their late mother’s reverse mortgage. Jeff Bridges (True Grit) plays the almost retired Texas Ranger tasked with catching the two.

The morality of the crimes is deliberately kept ambiguous. The brothers stealing from a bank is clearly wrong, but the story takes place shortly after the 2008 financial crisis. Graffiti lines the walls of banks with phrases like “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”. The screenplay almost places as much blame on the insatiable greed of banks as it does on Toby and Tanner. Many of the citizens seem to share the same sentiment and feel little compassion for the robbed branches. Furthermore, Toby’s reasons behind the crimes, trying to preserve the family house so he can have something to pass down to his sons, is relatable and the film takes a sympathetic stance towards him. While not a political film by any means, placing equal emphasis on this populist stance allows the audience the make their own judgements on the actions of the characters.

The film is steeped in the honeycomb yellow of the scorching Texas sun.

Mackenzie is able to draw uniformly strong performances from his cast. Jeff Bridges is great as usual. His seen-it-all Ranger displays the logic of a seasoned professional and the sharp jabs at his longtime partner add light humor while establishing the depth of their bond. As he pursues the brothers, his commitment overwhelms him and Bridges is able to convey the subtle instability. Foster is cast as the reckless brother. He takes some stupid risks that could easily have made him irritating, but through the clear affection he has for his younger sibling, Foster is able to make the character acceptable. Even Chris Pine, a serial offender in wooden acting, is able to hold his own against Bridges. This is easily Pine’s finest role to date and it shows what he is capable of when working with a talented director and a character that aligns with his innate stoicism.

While the plot is simple and recognizable, the realization of the film sets it apart. The director wraps its story in the trappings of a western. The cinematography highlights the beautiful but harsh landscape of small town Texas. Like in a western, characters are slow talking and terse. Their subtle motions carry as much weight as the few words the say. The screenplay is without filler and Mackenzie’s solid staging turns small interactions into big moments. A distant cousin would be the movie Drive. Both films feature straightforward stories, but deliver by committing to their personal style. While this film can’t match Drive’s arthouse action, it is able to succeed in its own right. Hell or High Water is an effective crime drama boosted by laconic writing and strong direction.

4/5 stars.

La La Land (2016)

The musical genre has been in decline for decades. There have been a few exceptions like Into the Woods and The Last Five Years, but the majority of music-heavy films have shifted towards movies like Pitch Perfect that feature music, but not as a means of narrative progression. Following up his successful Whiplash, Damien Chazelle seeks to curb this trend with La La Land, a modern day musical. Based partly on his time as a struggling artist, the film stars Emma Stone (The Help) as Mia, a part-time barista trying to become an actress, and Ryan Gosling (Drive) as Sebastian, a jazz pianist who wants to open his own club. The two have their own meet cute on a crowded LA highway and quickly enter a relationship. The film follows them as they pursue their passions with, or without, each other’s support.

Where Chazelle succeeds is balancing the tone of the regular and musical parts of the film. The musical numbers, while larger than life, seem slightly more grounded than a classic musical. Stone and Gosling are not professional dancers and their well-practiced but noticeably imperfect steps add a touch of realism. To contrast this, the non-musical scenes are heightened to a state of near-fantasy. The film blends retro stylings in the form of outfits and props with the modern setting and uses saturated cinematography (purple is a common color of the night sky here) to accentuate a dreamlike quality. Combining this with the long takes used in the songs, the film is able to move back and forth between its show tunes and dialog smoothly without creating a jarring disconnect. Both the music and the characters seem like they can exist in the same world.

The film surprises with its unexpectedly gorgeous backdrops.
The film surprises with its unexpectedly gorgeous backdrops.

There are many more technical marvels. The dance numbers can be epic in scale with dozens of performers each and the kinetic camera movements add a frenetic energy. Lighting will change at a moment’s notice, pushing a character from one of many to the sole focus of the viewer. Instead of just dancing in the streets, Chazelle adds welcome variety by shooting his characters ascending into the sky or in silhouette. His command of the screen and ingenuity during these sections is laudable and the inventive visuals are often mesmerizing.

The obvious influences here are the works of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Chazelle is going for the same memorable routines that burst out of any emotional peak. The ending sequence in particular is reminiscent of the finale of An American in Paris. Of course, expecting Stone and Gosling to rival the grace and charisma of Astaire and Kelly is unreasonable, but the unfortunate reality is that none of the numbers in La La Land have the staying power of its predecessors. Despite the panache on display, the biggest tunes are forgotten as quickly as they arrived. The only standout song is an aching ballad sung by Stone during an audition. The rest of the tracks are loud, but without feeling. The best comparison of the musical scenes isn’t their counterparts in a Vincente Minelli movie, but rather the explosions in a modern action flick. They are flashy, look expensive, and take a tremendous amount of coordination to pull off, but like in a Michael Bay film, they lack impact. La La Land is a well-intentioned throwback that showcases expertly staged but emotionally hollow musical numbers, bound to quickly fade from memory.

3/5 stars.

The Neon Demon (2016)

Coming off the less than stellar reaction to Only God Forgives, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) returns with The Neon Demon, a film about a young woman, Jesse (Elle Fanning; Super 8), who moves to Los Angeles to become a model. She says she isn’t smart, has no real skills, but knows she’s pretty and she can make money off of pretty. The topic makes an interesting change of pace for Refn who has centered most of his films around hard men and criminal underworlds. What is fascinating is how little his portrayal of these seemingly disparate settings varies. He shoots the hyper-competitive field of modeling in the same way he normally frames opposing gangsters. The players are as vicious as they are unscrupulous and when Jesse quickly becomes the “it” girl leaping over established models who have been working towards the same goals for years, we see that these two environments are more similar than we had imagined.

Regular composer, Cliff Martinez, returns with another stellar soundtrack. He again uses a variety of electronic music to set the tone of the film. His pulsing beats provide an effective contrast to Refn’s slow camera movements. They add much needed energy and tension to what could otherwise become a lethargic film. Martinez has also expanded the emotional range of his music. His rhythms immediately create atmospheres of dread, adrenaline, or heightened reality, depending on the scene. Tracks like “Are We Having A Party” quickly set the tone of events to come. His score combined with Refn’s images make the film an audiovisual treat.

The setting is ripe for Refn's stunning imagery.
The setting is ripe for Refn’s stunning imagery.

Refn exploits the world of high fashion for his own visual sensibilities. The signature cinematography from Only God Forgives is further intensified here. The images look ripped out of an avant-garde art gallery with stark backgrounds and characters drenched in high contrast lighting. He adds depth to these images by examining the potentially abusive nature of their creation. These young women, Jesse is underage but is told by her agent to say she is older, are at the whim of older men who Refn rightfully indicts as predatory. Other models repeat that the quickest way to get ahead is often to give in to the sexual desires of these gatekeepers. The only flaw to the director’s analysis of these men is that he doesn’t acknowledge that he too may be in a similar relationship with his actresses. Fortunately, none of the sumptuous imagery, even when it becomes explicit, feels like it is shot with a leery eye.

The threat of violence and its attachment to beauty is present throughout the film. The opening shot tracks in slowly on a motionless Jesse, made-up and wearing a shining dress, with a stream of blood dripping from her neck setting an ominous tone for the story that follows. Characters rarely use dialogue with a natural back and forth. Instead, they spout sentences with long pauses between responses, creating a dream-like quality. This serves to make otherwise standard interactions appear foreign and forces critical analysis of what we accept as normal and why, similar to the way David Lynch often directs his actors.

The unintended effect of this delayed cadence is that it also distances the viewer from the story. While the plot is much simpler than his previous film, the characters again aren’t empathetic because they don’t seem human. Jesse begins the film with some understandable naivete but then quickly assumes the same cold demeanor of her peers, making even the audience vessel unrelatable. This reduces the impact of the film’s climax. While the images are still unsettling, it’s the literal actions that shock more than their implications. Without developing strong investment in the characters, The Neon Demon is a series of visually arresting, but emotionally lacking, images with a superb electronic score.

3/5 stars.

The Nice Guys (2016)

Director Shane Black has now made a name for himself as a creator of buddy action comedies, starting with writing Lethal Weapon and later directing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and more recently Iron Man 3. Here we have Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), a bruiser for hire, teaming up with Ryan Gosling (Drive), a private detective, he hired to find a missing girl who is in danger. After being contracted to “send a message” to Gosling, Crowe decides to go back in order to hire him to help find one of his previous clients. The two make a deliberately odd couple with Crowe playing the efficient pragmatist and Gosling as the inept screw-up.

Above all else, Black’s goal here is comedy, but he is mostly unsuccessful. There were a few good laughs but the jokes miss more often than they hit. The humor can be divided into two broad categories: dialogue-based and physical. The dialogue-based humor, which is where the majority of jokes come from, mostly fails. Gosling’s delivery is often overconfident and dismissive, making his character slightly repulsive. Crowe’s jokes are based on his practicality, but instead of appearing curt, his rarely changing facial expressions just make him seem bored in the situation. Black’s strength is clearly with physical comedy. The best laughs involve Gosling falling and the gag only gets funnier with each tumble. It’s too bad that the director was not able to emphasize his slapstick skills as it would have created a much better film.

niceguys2
Crowe and Gosling’s first encounter is not amicable.

Part of the problem is that neither of the leads is likable. Crowe comes off as cold and, due to his profession, cruel. Gosling on the other hand is shown as somewhat incompetent and sleazy. He systematically extorts additional money from each job and takes advantage of confused elderly clients. We’re supposed to care about Gosling because he is a single dad, but the father-daughter connection is never established. The majority of the film has him sending his daughter (Angourie Rice; These Final Hours) to stay overnight at a friends house because he has to work. Her presence, or her mother’s absence, alone is not enough to create sympathy for an otherwise low-level, unscrupulous investigator.

Additionally, the attempts to create moral dilemmas are never fully fleshed out. The is a recurring motif where Gosling and Crow are asked if they are bad people. Gosling’s daughter easily answers yes for him, whereas Crowe isn’t sure what he is. During his violent encounters, he tries to stop before delivering a killing blow, especially when Rice is nearby. Yet, to the audience, the answer is obvious. He beats people up for money so there is no doubt that he is a bad person, which makes the central plot of the movie less believable. Why would Crow care about a former client enough to look out for her? He has never cared about his clients or victims before which makes this character turn unconvincing.

While plausibility or even sympathetic characters have never been requirements for a successful comedy, the humor needs to overcome these details. With The Nice Guys, Shane Black has been unable to beat these obstacles. There are just too many jokes that don’t produce any amusement. The physical humor does have its moments, but the frequency of laughs isn’t enough to sustain the runtime.

2/5 stars.