Thursday, October 27, 2011

Movie Review Round-up

by Staci Layne Wilson

"You must see Drive!" I've been saying that everyone I know. And now, Buzzine readers, I am saying it to everyone I don't know. Drive is an unironic throwback to the slick cinematic style of the early 80s ala Michael Mann. It's an extreme departure from director Nicolas Wending Refn's previous indie, Bronson (a massively violent, extremely bizarre and meta prison thriller), starring the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling as Driver, a mechanic /slash/ film-stunt wheelman who finds himself drawn into the seamy, seditious underbelly of an evil L.A. drug cartel. Channeling neo noir strong and silent cool, ever-bathed in neon glow, his steady hand on the skinny wheel of a vintage Chevy Impala, Gosling is the lynchpin in this minimalist art-house thriller — but, stellar side performances by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman and Carey Mulligan as the object of Driver's desire also impress.

Another gorgeous yet gritty gem predicated once upon a crime is Tammi's Sutton's Isle of Dogs. Setting up the story with a sublime credits sequence (usually such a neglected part of the movies nowadays), this Brit-situated revenge romp stars Barbara Nedeljakova, Edward Hogg, and Andrew Howard as the pointy tips of a rather unloving love triangle. All three are well-cast and well-directed, but it's Howard who really zings as the spurned spouse who will stop at nothing to get even… even if it means making sure his wayward wife is cut in two. But will her lover want the scraps? Fans of arch dialogue (Howard chews the considerable scenery in a monologue about dogs, bitches, and loyalty) and those who know their giallo (there's a wonderfully voyeuristic stalk and slash scene) will not be disappointed.

While the characters in the film noted above certainly don't like to face the ugly facts, the couple in writer-director Jim Hemphill's The Trouble With the Truth tackle it head-on and do nothing but talk about it. Lea Thompson and John Shea sit down 'My Dinner With Andre' style and chew the fat about love, life, longing and letting go, in this unexpectedly poignant, often wryly humorous, drama which takes place mostly in just one room. It doesn't hurt that the cinematography and editing keep the visuals coming, changing things up with the variety a 7-course meal, but the real feeling of fullness comes from The Trouble With the Truth's amusing, ambiguous ending.

Another movie with an open-ended ending is Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sundance's then-unsold Indie darling and now a limited-release drama dripping with sodden, psychological sadness. But its conclusion is not nearly so satisfactory. Elizabeth Olsen plays the title character, a downtrodden cult-escapee with so many identity issues, she's got back-issues. The narrative switches back and forth between M's time as a sex-slave in a Manson-like commune, to her not so smooth transition back into routine life under the roof of her newly-wed sister. M meanders a lot, as does the film. Though very well-acted, the story collapses under the weight of its own disjointed melancholia (Lars Von Trier's Melancholia: now, *there's* a movie! It's out on 11/18).

Segue into still more psychological spoilage, and you've got the trifecta of troubled triangles in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. It's the chronicle of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and their beautiful, batty protégé, Sabina Spielrein — played to perfection by Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, and Keira Knightley — and how they each played mental cat-and-mouse with one another using psychiatry as the pawn. While I was somewhat let down by the fact that this movie is "just a cigar" in that it's a very point-a to point-b narrative (especially when told from the surprisingly staid perspective of a once-risky, frisky auteur), I still say A Dangerous Method is one of the best dramas I have seen all year.

I wish I could say the same for Anonymous. The subject matter is certainly intriguing — was Shakespeare a fraud? — but its presentation, sadly, is not. Directed with the usual sledgehammer hand of actioneer Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow), the purple prose of the Elizabethan poet is mauled into the blue balls of Queen Elizabeth's suitors as the not-so-virgin Queen reigns supreme in the halls of shame. I won't give away the twist, but I will tell you the story would have been better-served without all the soapy scandal sudsed into it. While it's not terribly cinematic (a release by any other name would have smelled just as sweet on HBO), Anonymous isn't half-bad when it's sticking to the facts under conjecture. Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower are both excellent as the elder / younger Shakespeare, and Vanessa Redgrave and (her-life daughter) Joely Richardson are perfect as the elder / younger QE. For those who simply can't get enough of period costume drama (and you still want to come back for more, even after The Other Boleyn Sister), then have at it. All others, don't 'beware the Ides of March' and go see that instead (more Gosling!).

Rounding out the round-up this week are two new documentary films, each by accomplished directors. Now playing on pay television is Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and soon to come, one that explores the opposite of living in the material world or any other, is the death row downer Into the Abyss, by Werner Herzog. While I enjoyed both of these quite disparate docs just about equally, I felt equally let down by them in that I wanted more from the helmers who've made some of my all-time favorite films. Neither of these movies do much to invigorate the genre, especially in the way of visuals. We get lots of standard-set talking heads intercut with concert or crime-scene footage. Still, the subjects are both interesting — Scorsese's exhaustively follows Harrison from cradle to grave, while Herzog shows several sides of a tragedy in Texas which then leads to further trauma when the convicted killer is put to death by the State.

All in all, there are some genuinely worthwhile features out right now. They run the gamut from big budget studio wide releases (Anonymous) to as-yet undistributed indies (Isle of Dogs) making the festival rounds, and from focus on men of few words (Drive) to men with nothing but words (The Trouble With The Truth). This week, there really is something for everybody.