Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn) – Hailed by many as the rebirth of the American crime drama and derided by a vocal contingent as a soulless exercise in style over substance, Drive arrives on DVD and gorgeous looking Blu-ray as a sleek, sparse, entertaining, and assuredly overrated genre exercise. This package isn’t going to win any new converts or make its supporters suddenly think it wasn’t robbed of some Oscar nominations, but the film itself is fun enough.
Winding Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini spin this mid-80s styled brooder about a nameless stunt driver of few words (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver. When he gets sweet on a young mother who lives in his building (Carey Mulligan), he gets caught up in a rapidly escalating “job gone wrong” involving the woman’s fresh out of prison husband (Oscar Issac) and two mob heavies (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks) with ties to his primary employer (Bryan Cranston).
My opinion of the film hasn’t changed much since I viewed it at TIFF last year. Drive gets most of its entertainment value from Refn’s clever direction and solid performances from Gosling, Cranston, and Brooks. The main problem with the film lies in Amini and Refn’s conceit that their film is somehow operatic and meaningful when really it’s a slight movie that would probably be forgotten even if William Friedkin had made it. It’s a greasy spoon hamburger served on $2,000 china. I could care less about Drive’s far too artsy aesthetic, but it gave me what I wanted.
The disc will also really only appeals to the film’s hardcore fans as the four behind the scenes featurettes are woefully repetitive, devoid of any interesting insight, and none of which have any input at all from Gosling. In each one someone uses phrases like “Biblically simple” or “cooked down to bare essentials” at least three times, which is enough to give detractors all the ammunition they need against the film’s alleged pretensions. There’s also a painfully dull 25 minute sit down with Refn that says nothing, goes nowhere, and he sounds oddly out of it. Granted this slight packaging might be due to the Criterion release of the film that’s allegedly in the works, but it’s hard to imagine there’s really anything else to be said about a film this “Biblically simple.”
The Double (2011, Michael Brandt) – Foregoing a Canadian theatrical release after a brief run in the states last fall, the directorial debut of Wanted and 3:10 to Yuma co-scribe Brandt lands with an illogical thud on DVD. While it’s infamy from last year as “that movie that gives away the big twist in the trailer” is unfounded, this thriller tells the story of a retired CIA operative (Richard Gere) brought back to tracking down a long dormant Russian assassin believed to be behind the killing of a Senator. The veteran is teamed with a keener FBI analyst (Topher Grace, woefully miscast) that wrote his thesis paper on the newly resurfaced killer.
The film’s trailer gives away a twist that comes 30 minutes into the film, so not too much is lost in that respect, but Brandt and co-writer Derek Haas’ screenplay holds zero logical weight and the characters are as wooden as can be. It’s almost worth a look for a few fleeting scenes at the beginning with Gere and Martin Sheen as the CIA director, and the ending does pick up in terms of watchability (despite a ludicrous final twist), but it’s easy to see why this one didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
The Blu-ray includes a DVD copy of the film, interviews with Gere, Grace, Sheen, the writers, and Stephen Moyer (who shows up briefly as an imprisoned former protégé of the assassin), and a humble, self-effacing audio commentary from Brandt and Haas. Don’t watch the interviews before watching the movie, as it includes clips and discussion about the big twist ending.
Dream House (2011, Jim Sheridan) – Everything that I said about The Double’s trailer holds almost equally true for Dream House, except the big twist here happens 45 minutes in. While that’s marginally better (or possibly worse) in terms of timing, it’s still a fairly decent but poorly assembled movie.
Daniel Craig stars as Will, a writer who quits his copy editing job to spend more time with his wife (Rachel Weisz) and kids as they move into a fixer upper in a small New England town. As often happens in such movies, a horrific homicide involving the past tenants has local residents skeptical of the new owners.
While it would be all too easy to say that such a film is beneath the once great Sheridan, who started his career with My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father before eventually slumming it all the way down to making Get Rich or Die Trying, its comforting to say that Sheridan and his cast of real pros (including Naomi Watts as a sympathetic neighbour) all put in great work, but the film really reeks of studio recutting to a great degree. When the big twist comes to light, the film becomes vastly more satisfying to watch, but those opening 45 minutes are so protracted. It’s like someone in the editing room wanted to speed through and get to the “good stuff”.
It’s pretty obvious that Sheridan had very little say in the editing of the film, and that’s a shame because he was really onto something pretty interesting here. While there aren’t a heck of a lot of extras on the Blu-ray or DVD, the cast interviews and featurettes hint at a movie that was not only a tough sell from the start (just watch Craig struggle valiantly to not give away too much), but something that was also set up to be more of a domestic drama/mystery/romance than the horror film the studio probably demanded.
Grand Canyon (1991, Lawrence Kasdan) – Now available on a featureless, but nicely converted Blu-Ray, director Kasdan’s peudo-follow up to The Big Chill, focusing on the interconnected lives of mostly well-to-do Los Angeles residents instead of Southerners, serves as more of a well acted historical document than it does as a well made film.
The film primarily deals with the relationship between the white, married and wealthy Mack (Kevin Kline) and black, divorced tow truck driver Simon (Danny Glover) and how their unlikely friendship affects other people in their lives without them fully realizing it at first. It’s pretty much the same template that Paul Haggis would use for Crash almost fifteen years later only without the same “gritty” approach, and with more narrative focus and better characters (including Steve Martin in one of his first real dramatic performance as a movie producer).
While Kasdan might be one of the least subtle filmmakers aside from, well, Paul Haggis, in terms of directing ability, his writing skills are generally pretty flawless, and the fact that the film was crafted only one year before Los Angeles would become torn apart by the verdicts in the Rodney King trial, Grand Canyon actually serves as a sort of historical document of a city about to give in to long brewing racial tensions. Parts of the film will still come across as dated and cheesy, and Kasdan doesn’t do his material any favours with his hamfisted approach to shooting a film, but it’s still a must watch for people interested in how films act as a product of their time.
Monkeybone (2001, Henry Selick) – Finally, I feel I would be somewhat remiss if I didn’t include a word about the bare bones Blu-ray release of one of the strangest Hollywood studio projects of all time. The live action debut of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline director Henry Selick cost 20th Century Fox a reported $85 million dollars, spent an eternity on the shelf, and was released to a piddling $5 million take over its entire run. Maybe audiences just weren’t ready for a pitch black comedy about a cartoon monkey sent from purgatory to give nightmares to people.
Brendan Fraser stars as absurdist cartoonist Stu Miley, creator of a double entendre loving character named Monkeybone (voice by John Turturo, seemingly doing his best Scorsese impression) that’s poised to become the next big thing in animated television. After lapsing into a coma following a bizarre car accident, Stu is sent to the limbo land of nightmares known as Down Town, where his own creation is a living entity and a star attraction. Stu becomes part of a plot designed to send Monkeybone to Earth in Stu’s body to create more nightmares for the amusement of the sleep God Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito). And yes, this is that film where Chris Kattan (in honestly his best performance) shows up as a rotting corpse that literally can’t keep his head on straight.
While the tone of the film isn’t exactly consistent (probably due to the combination of a first time live action feature director and a panicked studio), Monkeybone is a dazzling and shockingly literate movie for a film whose main plotline hinges on “nightmare juice” being farted out of plush dolls. Deeply rooted in classical mythology and modern artwork (especially the works of Mark Ryden), Selick creates a unique vision of that space where art and commerce sometimes clash. Entire thesis papers can be written on everything going on within the film, but critical interpretation and audience reevaluation depends on how much the viewer is willing to buy into the film’s erratic tonal shifts. It might not be perfect, but at least it’s actually about something instead of being just a bunch of elaborately constructed set pieces strung together.
Also out this week: Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried star in Gattaca director Andrew Niccol’s mostly laughable sci-fi “time is money” parable In Time. Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin all go head to head in the cut throat world of competitive bird watching in the slight, but not awful time waster The Big Year. Nick Stahl follows Trailer Park Boys creator Mike Clattenburg to the poppy fields in the wonky journalist comedy Afghan Luke. And Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton go head-to-whatever with The Thing in the decent, but wholly unnecessary prequel to the John Carpenter classic.