Cinema Bite

genuine critiques that will quench your appetite for all things pop culture

Month: January, 2012

My Tardy List of the Best Films of 2011

So it’s a bit late to be doing a “Best of 2011” list, as it is already mid January and past the Golden Globes… but I blame my laziness on NYU’s exceedingly long winter break, which has kept me in pajamas for far longer than acceptable. But better late than never!

Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life"

Malick’s The Tree of Life is not only my top film of 2011, but one of my favorite films of all time. Besides its breathtaking special effects and sublime cinematography, it is one of the most powerful pieces of cinema made in years. The Tree of Life breaks the boundaries of contemporary filmmaking in preaching patience and conveying a story that is rarely seen in cinema today: the meaning of life and man’s constant struggle with spirituality. It is no doubt so many berated the film and walked out of the theatre, since our era of technology and expediency, who cares for such things? Malick, the cinematic poet that he is, reminds us that we should. He is the Tarkovsky of our day, a man unafraid of broaching the unspeakable or the unconventional. And if the spiritual inquiries of the film do not touch us, hopefully The Tree of Life reminds us of the power and potential of cinema, and allows us to slow down and examine the minute aspects of life that lie all around us.

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in "The Artist"

While this belongs side-by-side Tree of Life at number one film of the year, for the purposes of a list, we’ll just slip it in at number two. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is an immaculate piece of filmmaking, a miraculous work that undoubtedly deserves the Oscar for Best Picture — I doubt, sadly, Tree of Life will make the nominees and I’ve yet to see The Descendants, but sorry Clooney, you’ve got nothing on this gold. Just the audacious idea of a black and white silent film made today is enough to prove it’s worth! Hazanavicus has collected all the wonderful bits of Hollywood cinema and crafted them together into this humorous, sentimental, whimsical film that reaffirms the power of visual expression. Dujardin is not only extraordinarily charming and lovable, but his face moves in such incredible, evocative ways that you wonder how dialogue could ever again be necessary — those sure are some “independent eyebrows,”as he said in his Golden Globes Best Actor acceptance speech. With an enrapturing score, superb performances, and an inventive screenplay, there is absolutely no reason The Artist should be left out of any Greatest Cinematic Achievements list.

Ryan Gosling in "Drive"

Drive is a film I could watch over and over again and still get a thrill from the opening car chase, still jump and cringe at every brutal murder, still mumble to myself in awe “Shit, this movie is incredible.” That’s probably why I went back and saw it for a second time in the theatre two days after it opened. Nichols Winding Refn’s film is commendable for not only being one of the most innovative action films ever for is genius pacing, but also because every moment, every shot is absolutely pristine. Outstanding would be an understatement for Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography. I could watch the film on mute and my jaw would still drop in astonishment as the beauty of each shot — as Driver turns his head to the side after a quick reverse and park under the bridge and his eye is illuminated in a perfect teardrop of gold, as the elevator lights dim around Driver and Irene while they embrace in a beautiful moment, then slowly rise as Driver turns to crush the man’s skull. And Cliff Martinez’s score? Must I even mention its perfect accompaniment to each scene? The throbbing undertones, seeping with emotion, that gently slink throughout the film, then pounce on us at the violent moments, like a feisty cat hiding in the shadows. I could go on and on about my extreme love and admiration for this film, but I think you get the point.

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in "Midnight in Paris"

Now I don’t usually like Owen Wilson, he bothers the hell out of me with his cocky attitude and that stupid nose of his. But as a perfect epitome of Woody Allen, who could say no? And set against the ghastly Inez (pretty much a grown-up version Regina George) Wilson is charmingly delightful. But the real genius of Midnight in Paris is Allen’s terrific screenplay, filled with historical inside jokes and hilarious, witty dialogue that remind you of the true comedy that’s missing in today’s films. Midnight in Paris, the embodiment of every Paris-loving romantic’s dreams, is undoubtedly one of the most fun — and funniest — films of the year, and maybe one of the best of Allen’s career.

Kirsten Dunst in "Melancholia"

I feel that this tremendously impressive work of artistry deserves to be higher than number five, but honestly, numbers don’t really matter to me. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is one of the most beautifully photographed films of the year, besides Tree of Life and the best damn apocalypse film ever. Although filled with a star cast, von Trier avoids Hollywood conventions of the trite genre and instead gives us a film that reveals the terrifying power of depression and fear. Dunst definitely deserved Best Actress at Cannes this last year as this is her best performance yet.

Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter"

For some reason I cannot understand, Take Shelter received minor praise this year. Maybe we’d just had enough of apocalyptic films, or maybe it’s due to its limited released, but Jeff Nichols’ sophomore film was one of the most intense and terrifying of the year (for me at least). The pacing of the film is absolutely phenomenal as we bounce back and forth from Curtis’ (Michael Shannon) real life of calm work and family time to his horrific, violent nightmares of a coming storm. The reason Take Shelter is better than any end-of-the-world film before it is that it’s more so a heavy character study than a story about doom. Shannon’s depiction of Curtis suffering with the possibility of having a mental disease—or maybe he really is having prophetic visions—is utterly heart-wrenching. Alongside the always wonderful, always poignant Jessica Chastain, how could this film be left out of any Best of 2011 list?

Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor in "Beginners"

Everyone loves a little indie rom-com gem like this. I’m mad at myself for waiting so long to see this Beginners, but I finally did and it exceeded all expectations. The story is simple, yet its charm comes from the unique way we follow Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) thoughts through flashes of images. It’s the Garden State of 2011 where two lonely people fall in love over a short period of time, but the question still hangs of whether distance will break them apart. They nonchalantly talk about the big questions of life in their first encounters, they roller skate through a Beverly Hills hotel, and Oliver has more conversations with his dog than anyone else. Christopher Plummer brings the perfect balance to the film with his refreshing humor and real emotion. Beginners was the witty lighthearted comedy we needed this year and I film I will be watching over and over.

Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in "The Help"

I must admit, I was skeptical at first; as is usual with any big movie that gains an extraordinary amount of hype. But finally, I saw The Help this Christmas and my heart was won—yeah, I cried twice.. maybe three times.. While the screenplay is well written and funny, real power of this film lies in the performances of course. Just watching Viola Davis’ face struggle to hold a placid look while insults spill from the white women’s lips makes you choke up. With supporting roles by the versatile Jessica Chastain, who never ceases to amaze, and the hilarious, yet equally moving Octavia Spencer, The Help is one of the best acting ensembles of the year.

Daniel Radcliffe and Ralph Fiennes in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"

The final Harry Potter film was a great close to the 11-year film series. Although I was extremely disappointed in Part 1 as it dragged on at an excruciating pace, Part 2 definitely made up for it with Rickman’s best performance of Snape yet, Fienne best performance of Voldemort, and and dark intensity that never let up. There is not much left to say, as sadness is taking me over now that I realize Harry Potter is over forever…

 

As it appears, I only have 9 top films of 2011 and just can’t seem to come up with a 10th. However, I have a feeling that one of the films I have yet to see —  ShameWe Need to Talk About KevinA Separation — will fill that gap once I do. Till then, here are some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn"

Although the film was good, it was a bit too much on the BBC Movie of the Week side. However, William’s performance as Monroe was perfectly sublime and unforgettable. And what a wonderful acceptance speech she gave for her Golden Globes Best Actress win; oh so humble.

Elizabeth Olsen in "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

MMMM, as they call it, was an incredible film with genius editing and cinematography and an astounding performance from Elizabeth Olsen. It is difficult to believe that is was writer director Sean Durkin’s first feature film. I wish it had gotten more award recognition, but at least Olsen got a nod.

Antonino Banderas and Elena Anaya in "The Skin I Live In"

Pedro Almodovar never ceases to shock and appall, and he certainly did with “The Skin I Live In.” If you don’t love it for the twisted plot or for Banderas’ terrifying intensity, than love it at least for the horny man in a tiger suit. It’s just too delightfully absurd to be dismissed.

Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in "A Dangerous Method"

While I was unimpressed with A Dangerous Method overall (see review here), it is worth watching if only for the performances, and especially that of Knightley. The first 10 minutes are beyond shocking, they are physically tormenting as you watch Knightley writhe as she juts her jaw into unhuman expressions and claws at her chair, like a violently possessed child. Once its over you’ll probably notice your mouth is wide open and your hands are squeezing the fabric out of the arm rests. This alone should gain Knightley a Best Actress nomination.

 

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“The Artist:” A Silence that Evokes the Past

Dujardin and Bejo in “The Artist”

1927, Los Angeles. George Valentin (phenomenally played by Jean Dujardin) is the charming film icon of his time. He dazzles the audience with his thin mustache, his pristine coattails and bow tie, and a winsome smile that never loses its splendor—the incarnation of Rudolph Valentino. George is at the pinnacle of his fame when his agent Al Zimmer introduces him to the newest invention, or enemy: recorded sound. Enraged and baffled, George leaves the screening room protesting while Al proclaims—through title cards of course—“This is the future!”

Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist borrows technique and storyline from some of the most beloved classic American films to create an artful homage to Hollywood cinema. He cleverly manipulates sound effects and simple elements of humor in a story that follows the end of the silent era.

While a silent film may seem nonsensical with today’s technology, Hazanavicius surpasses expectations by proving that cinematic virtuosity is possible without all the modern gimmicks. Although thick with camp humor, The Artist is true to its style; it does not strive to be anything more than what it is, a silent film. George’s neglected wife expresses her resentment by defacing his pictures with cartoon mustaches; the audience roars with laughter as George fake shoots his sidekick dog who falls to the ground to fakes his death; George matches Peppy’s dance moves as she unknowingly practices behind a curtain; the dog chases a policeman to inform him of a burning building. This is the type of childlike, goofy comedy we must surrender to enjoy The Artist, since Hazanvicius uses these hyperbolic gestures to epitomize the genre.

The Artist reminds us that words do not warrant greatness as Dejardin proves himself a master of expression. Each facial movement and gesture, from the raise of his eyebrow to the twitch of his lips evokes a feeling far beyond what dialogue could depict. Hazanavicius’ flawless shots, along with Guillaume Schiffman’s gorgeous cinematography, and Ludovic Borce’s emotive, flourishing score are what give The Artist life. Halfway through we realize we haven’t heard one word, but we don’t mind as the whimsical music drives our emotions, and the grainy black and white brings us back to a long gone era.

“A Dangerous Method” Not So Dangerous

Knightley and Fassbender in "A Dangerous Method"

It’s disappointing that “A Dangerous Method” isn’t quite as dangerous as one would hope. The erotic drama starts off with paralyzing force and disturbing suspense, but director David Cronenberg only teases as the film turns surprisingly soft, embellished by gorgeous costumes and eloquent dialogue. It would be wrong to dismiss the sophisticated intelligence of “A Dangerous Method” however, since it is probably the most entertaining Carl Jung-Sigmund Freud biopic that will ever be made.

The opening of the film throws us head-on into a terrifying frenzy. We meet Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly in her best performance yet), a young woman tormented by a traumatic childhood and a sexual fixation. The frenetic Sabina writhes and screams as men drag her from a carriage into an extravagant home in the Austrian countryside. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) enters and takes a seat behind Sabina to perform Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis on a patient for the first time. Sabina reacts like a horrified child, twitching madly, contorting her face into agonizing jaw-jutting expressions, tensing her mangled fingers, breathing like an angry demon. Cronenberg’s close-ups of Knightley’s staggering performance is disturbingly frightening, to say the least. Anxiety has exploded passed the breaking point; if your face hasn’t frozen into a stupefied expression, you’re probably passed out.

Yes, Knightley’s performance is this astounding; the best of her career and the best of any actress this year thus far. She carries the film valiantly, acting as the catalyst that unites and divides Jung and Freud, as well as the catalyst for the film’s intense moments. We learn that Sabina suffered from childhood abuse, causing her to have an addiction to violence and sex. Jung decides to contact Freud, whom he has yet to meet, in order to further discuss his work and the success he’s had in using the “talking cure” on Sabina. The two develop a disciple-mentor relationship, Jung as the eager, curious student, Freud (played with refined dignity by Viggo Mortenson) as the smug, erudite expert. But as Sabina gets better and moves from Jung’s patient to mistress, so does Jung’s relationship to Freud alter. As Jung’s name becomes more well known in the psychology field as a competitor, so does word of his affair.

In a few kinky scenes Jung whips Sabina before sex, always wearing a stern detached look as she cries out in ecstasy. But are these instances enough to translate Jung’s growing love for Sabina, his need to surrender to his unconscious desires? Why are sexual moments so brief, so distant and placid in a Cronenberg film, an expert of horror and intensity? Cronenberg is too cautious, too conservative with the subject matter. Not that sex should be exploited, but Cronenberg owes us, and the story, more risk. The calm, distanced tone of the film feels like a betrayal after the riveting opening. Although interspersed with some thrilling moments, Cronenberg merely dangles the carrot above our heads. And sadly, we don’t even get a bite in the end.

The dialogue is intelligent and engrossing, but the majority of it is presented through letter writing. Although true of the period—just as the gorgeous costumes and sets are —the back-and-forth letter voice-overs become excessive. It is at first a clever technique, but through overuse it only diminishes the potency of the film’s dramatic tension.

Fassbender is spectacular with a fierce restraint throughout, but when he breaks down and yields to his emotions is not as believable as it should be. His severe reticence is so cogent and overwhelming that it triumphs his attempt to reveal his concealed weak, passionate self. There is too stark a contrast between his battling dispositions, which unfortunately contributes to a strong failure of the film’s plausibility.

It appears there are more shortcomings to “A Dangerous Method” than praises, however it should be noted that it is a fine film with commendable performances. But for the expectations set in the beginning, and the expectations for any Cronenberg film, its difficult to leave the film feeling satiated. Maybe Cronenberg was attempting a new approach, maybe the power lies in the unconscious undertones, or maybe I just wanted more hysterical Knightley outbursts.

 

Williams Brings Monroe Back to Life in “Marliyn”

Michelle Williams in "My Week with Marilyn"

We all know her name, know the famous dress reference, and have seen her image plastered over every object imaginable. Why is it then that until now a major motion picture has yet to be made about the most renowned actress in history: Marilyn Monroe? Has the task to portray the venerable life of America’s most iconic figure been too daunting, too challenging? Maybe the world was just waiting for Michelle Williams to appear. If so, it was worth the wait.

While she was and is such a prominent aspect of American culture and film, seldom depicted was the real struggling woman beneath the famous façade of Marilyn Monroe. “My Week With Marilyn,” the first feature film about the legendary actress, is surprisingly not a biopic that attempts to portray the life and trials of the woman, but instead offers a personal, brief close up. Based on the memoir of the same name by Colin Clark, the film tells the true story of the author’s interaction with Monroe during the production of her film “The Prince and the Showgirl” in England. While not one of her bests, the film marks an interesting point in the young actress’s life. During the production Monroe was attempting to prove her talent outside of Hollywood, while battling drug and alcohol addictions and constantly quarreling with director and co-star Sir Laurence Olivier. Colin Clark, a young Oxford graduate at the time worked on set and illuminated behind-the-scenes details of the production’s drama in his memoirs. Besides providing a fly-on-the-wall account of the production’s problems and the hostility between Monroe and Oliver, Clark’s memoirs give a rare and intimate glimpse of the real girl behind the winks and poses; the Marilyn he got to know over one special week.

As Simon Curtis’ feature debut, “My Week With Marilyn” modestly portrays a rarely seen side of the iconic woman. Free of the Hollywood persona, we get to know Monroe through her personal, yet platonic moments with Clark. The film does not aim to spill out a detailed biography or glamorize, but instead hints at truths through subtle instances and small moments between characters; the camera pans over pills bottles besides Monroe’s bed; Williams blushes and covers her make up-free face to hide her insecurities. It is debatable whether Curtis’ gives us enough of Marilyn since we don’t spend a whole lot of time with her outside of her and Clark’s interactions, but that is just what the film attempts to do, reveal her through common eyes.

Although it bears semblance to a BBC special as the quick pacing and lighthearted tone indistinguishably waver between charming and cheesy, the film’s performances restore its majestic quality. Kenneth Branagh is superb, as always, as Oliver, Judi Dench is divine as the British actress Dame Sybil Thorndyke, and the rest hold their own.

But the real gold of the film is William’s fantastic performance as Monroe. If nothing else, Williams was born for this part, she is Marilyn Monroe: from her seductive giggles to her soft airy voice inflections, to the slow parting of her lips paired with that sexy vacant gaze. At some points, you may almost forget you are watching Williams. She dissolves into Monroe as she reenacts the dance sequence from “The Prince and the Showgirl,” taking slow steps and hops with her hand seductively placed on her shoulder, shifting her hips as she smiles and shakes her finger at the camera, silently moving her lips to the piano notes as she alluringly steps forward and sticks her butt out. Her Oscar-worthy portrayal of Monroe is so mesmerizing as the real woman’s charm comes back to life; you could watch her bat her eyelashes and sing in the bathtub for the remainder hour and leave entirely satisfied.

One lingering thought is whether the first feature film of Monroe should have been a biopic that showed more, that revealed Monroe’s full story. It seems like such a celebrated life deserves a film dedicated to all the controversies and details, but would it have been as good? Is the bittersweet taste “My Week With Marilyn” leaves us with enough? If a film can evoke a strong sense of nostalgia and grief in an audience of all ages, as well as bring a legendary figure back to life on screen, then I say Curtis’ film is just enough and he found just the actress to do it.

A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2011 print edition of the Washington Square News.

Von Trier Colors Depression with Astounding Beauty in “Melancholia”

Kirsten Dunst in "Melancholia"

Subtle, yet profound. Terrifying, yet strikingly and strangely beautiful. What sort of mind could concoct such an interpretation of the end of mankind? None other than that of the disturbed Lars von Trier. The Danish director, known for the dark, unsettling content of his work—his last film, “Antichrist,” is an exceptional example—attempts a slightly different approach to desolate storytelling in his new work, ”Melancholia.”  It would be wrong to claim that “Melancholia” is merely a disaster movie; rather, it is a work that articulates the essence of fear, loneliness, and depression, stressing the intensity, not the cause, of human reactions.

Von Trier begins his film with his trademark slow-motion imagery—cosmic, eerie sequences evoking both awe and concern. The first shot recalls “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as a bright blue planet slowly rises from behind the earth. After this we are transported to reality to meet a giggly Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on her wedding night. She briefly notices a star in the sky, pausing for a moment as if transfixed, and then dismisses it. The film is constantly dipping into strange sci-fi sequences, coasting along the mundane with subtle hints at an underlying dark presence. For the first half of the film we follow Justine throughout the wedding reception as her lively nature diminishes over the long evening. As her charming smile becomes more forced and she finds excuses to escape the reception—for a bath, a walk—it becomes apparent that there is a deep disturbance consuming Justine.

After the wedding, Justine’s bizarre behavior turns into a terrifying depression. Dunst potently conveys Justine’s inner trauma, as she becomes engulfed in utter despair, hardly speaking, barely moving, and lying limp like a lifeless child.  Her composed sister, Claire, (Charlotte Gainsbourg) comforts Justine and attempts to nurse her back to health.

Genuine human fear and anxiety are profoundly manifested on screen through both Justine’s deep, compelling malaise and Claire’s feverish consternation. Dunst’s balance of agonizing terror and calm submission is so cogent and enthralling that her character grips you till the end. And Gainsbourg gives us the perfect antidote, playing off of Dunst excellently. But the performances in “Melancholia” are not the only powerful, poignant moments. As expected, von Trier incorporates his distinctive allegorical imagery throughout the film as well with gripping images of pure breathtaking beauty. The man indubitably has a way of transforming disturbing bizarre images into works of astounding art.

The intrigue of “Melancholia” is that explanations are not clearly defined, only faintly insinuated through imagery and tone. Von Trier creates an emotionally realistic story about depression and hope, acceptance and denial, but abstains from making any solid conclusion. The ending is a stunning moment that leaves you paralyzed with awe. Through von Trier’s dark, visceral mind we can pick out the metaphorical notions that are most effective to us, and come to our own understanding of what “Melancholia” is. A woeful story of fear? A pessimistic tale of obliteration? Or maybe an enlightening message of embracement?

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2011 print edition of the Washington Square News.

Almodovar Shocks with Freakish Twist in “Skin”

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It is challenging to categorize Almodovar’s films; they are vibrantly colorful and enjoyably melodramatic, but they ceaselessly surprise with bizarre and fascinating twists. In Almodovar’s most recent film “The Skin I Live In,” Antonio Banderas plays an esteemed plastic surgeon who becomes obsessed with inventing a new skin for his horrifically burned wife. While this sounds odd in itself, Almodovar — as expected — weaves in other peculiar characters, including a nymphomaniac dressed as a tiger and the doctor’s entrancingly beautiful test patient. For Almodovar, the shock lies deep within the convoluted storyline.

Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, who has just achieved success with his newly invented prosthetic human skin — one that is radically resistant to outside forces but also highly sensitive to touch. He lives in a fabulous Spanish mansion with an elaborate medical lab. Other residents of the mansion include Marilla (Marisa Paredes), an older servant, and Vera, a stunning girl who is seemingly held captive in a bedroom.

The relationship between Robert and Vera is unaccountably strange and uncomfortable. He comes home from work, goes into his office and turns on a full, wall-length television, broadcasting a live feed from Vera’s bedroom. He watches her as she lies naked on her bed. He brings a pipe of opium to her bedroom, then quickly and nervously slinks past her as she entices him. We aren’t told who she is or what she is doing in his home — this is the absurd nature of Almodovar films that we must come to accept — when suddenly Marilla’s lecherous, criminal son arrives, dressed in a velvet tiger costume. Only after some further complications (by which point some viewers will already have lost patience) is any backstory given at all.

Watching the first half of “The Skin I Live In” makes you feel like a lost child on the way to a candy store — you know the grand conclusion will come, but the route is unfamiliar and confusing. It’s difficult to describe the plot — the film spends a great deal of time establishing its bizarre tone. But patience is a virtue, and for this film, it’s well worth it.

In the end, Almodovar delivers. Although he drags the audience through a seemingly disjointed story, three parts enthralling, one part frustrating, he makes up for it with the most staggering, inconceivable twist imaginable. The degree of the twist’s shocking absurdity is unprecedented and yet so typical of Almodovar, the master of convoluted concealment.

The first hour of frustration is excused once Almodovar finally dunks us into the water (having teased us with small droplets throughout). Banderas remains thrillingly mysterious, emanating an almost pitiful fierceness that makes him impossible to purely love or hate. Although “The Skin I Live In” is not his best work, Almodovar fully satisfies with a shocking, unparalleled story about the lengths to which one will go for creation, vengeance and love.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2011 print edition of the Washington Square News.

A Calm Ride of Thrilling Jolts

Ryan Gosling in "Drive"

As two masked robbers jump out of a silver Chevy Impala, the Driver takes off his wristwatch and wraps it around the steering wheel. Five minutes. When they anxiously slide back in, he’s off, leisurely driving as if it’s a Sunday afternoon. As voices over the police scanner radio-in a search for the car Driver daringly follows closely behind a cop car as the robbers exchange a nervous look. He veers right and merges on to a bridge where a search helicopter shines a spotlight. Calmly, he drives, miraculously escaping capture. Then the spotlight hits the car, the scanner blares as a cop announces the car’s discovered position. With the utmost placidity, he slams on the gas, weaves in an out of traffic, takes a sharp left off the bridge, darts beneath the underpass, stops, then without the subtlest movement to look behind him, reverses the car with smooth precision, and stops. Silently they all sit immobile as the scanner reports the lost position of the car. They’ve escaped and the Driver’s facial expression hasn’t fluctuated the slightest bit.

This is the opening of Drive—not even the full opening I should mention—and it is the probably the best damn one in years. Director Nicholas Winding Refn sets the entire tone of the film in these first 10 minutes: an anomalous action movie that fluctuates between slow, even pacing and sudden intense moments of grotesque explicit violence. This superb balance is utterly refreshing and simultaneously thrilling. It is the cinematic embodiment of every Grand Theft Auto lovers’ dreams: the relaxing sensation of leisurely cruising the city streets, until duty calls and the time comes to handle serious shit—and Ryan Gosling definitely handles his shit.

“What do you do,” the innocent young mother, played by Carey Mulligan, asks.

“I drive.”

The nameless Driver, reticent and equable, a man of few words and ferociously pensive, is a Hollywood car stuntman who moonlights as a get-away Driver for, whomever. Played impeccably and with potent subtlety by Ryan Gosling, he’s precise, and strictly business. His rules are no names, no information; just five minutes on the clock to do the job, then he’s gone, with or without you. He lives alone in a bare apartment in Los Angeles. He returns home after a job one night, only to turn around again and get back in his car and, well, drive. Maybe that’s all he has; maybe that’s what keeps him going.

We never really know what’s on his mind; his phlegmatic disposition makes him so alluring and so puzzling. For the intense work he does it’s slightly shocking the first few times he speaks with his gentle, almost vacant, boyish voice. He becomes all the more engrossing when we see a completely different side of his personality that still bears the same face. When a man in a cafe recognizes him from a past job, the calm, taciturn Driver slowly turns and glares at him with austere eyes and, with an alarming repose, says, “How about this – shut your mouth or I’ll kick your teeth down your throat and I’ll shut it for you.” His terrifyingly violent, authoritative side slips out more and more throughout the film, ceaselessly shocking every time, leaving you pondering, “Who the fuck is this guy?”

But something changes inside of him when he gets to know Irene and her young son, Benicio. He grows close to them both, but shown with the utmost subtlety. For the first time, we see a smile slowly break across his reserved face. Then Irene places her hand on his as he shifts gears. This is probably the most literal image of love in the film: the car and the girl, all clasped together at once. There is an underlying joy, maybe even a budding love developing within Driver, but we never quite see it manifested in full. Once Benicio’s father, Standard, returns home from prison the happiness fades. Driver stops watching cartoons with Benicio and driving Irene to work. He returns to his former way of living: alone.

Then one night Driver comes home to find Standard bloody and beaten in the garage. When Driver discovers that Standard owes money to ex-prison mates and that Irene and Benicio are in potential danger, he nobly offers his services to Standard; he will drive while Standard robs a pawnshop. No longer just for the heck of it, Driver now engulfs himself in extreme danger for the sake of love. He, along with us, have no idea what we are getting ourselves into. Refn’s cool, reserved story is about to get crazy as shit and bloody as hell.

If you’ve never seen a Refn film and are unfamiliar with their composition, then you’re certainly in for a gruesome shock. His films are comprised of excessive violence, with gut-wrenching visuals that will widen your jaw and impel you to blurt out “WHAT THE FUCK” in the theatre—and might I add, what an excitingly fun movie theatre experience this film was, staggering exclamations, cheers, and all. Refn’s Bronson has a similar tone of quiet beautiful moments that snap into ferocious violent attacks. And his previous film Valhalla Rising—let’s just say I could hardly sit through the nauseatingly bloody trailer. But to say the violence of Drive is unnecessarily excessive is an error. The enrapturing perfection of Drive is its ability to twist and turn unexpectedly, to jerk us from tranquil moments to blood-spattered intense scenes that recalibrate our perceptions of what a film is and what it should do. Refn says no to the generic action flick, he says no to superfluous plot details that distract from the film’s journey. He gives us characters that build themselves entirely through their expressions, movements, and inflections. He tells our minds to slow down and just watch, watch real life moments as they appear on screen, absorb the beauty and realism that flourishes in silence.

In one miraculously perfect scene Driver sits on a windowsill in Irene’s apartment after getting back from a day with her and Benicio. She walks up to him and says she and Benicio had a good time. A solid 7 seconds pass as they glance at one another, then Driver adds “Me too.” They stare at each other in pure silence for another 15 seconds, and then he grabs his jacket and leaves. Those 15 seconds are some of the most important moments in the film, in which Gosling and Mulligan depict so much in doing so little. Such a long span of silence may make most moviegoers uncomfortable, bored even that “nothing is happening”—there were some annoyingly exaggerated snores in the theatre. However Refn is revealing passion through stillness. He solidifies the fact that silence is truly golden.

Each and every shot in Drive is utterly immaculate, composed with astounding finesse. Refn transform’s a walk down a grocery store aisle into a beautiful moment, and turns simple steady upward shots of Gosling driving into an immersive experience. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography is phenomenal and breathtaking—literally. He is a master of sculpting light. Besides Refn and Sigel’s brilliant artistry, Gosling’s performance is one of remembrance. He strips performing down to its bare bones as he articulates and crafts his character with such subtlety. He adopts a persona of mystifying laconicism and restraint mixed with a grave ferocity that is frightening and alluring. But the greatness of Drive would not be complete without its mesmerizing, addictive soundtrack. The shifting moods of the film are greatly attributed to the power of the music, which elevates the performances and direction to an entirely new level of visceral emotion. All of these elements combined form a thrilling masterpiece, the best film of the year thus far. While for some the violence may be a bit too penetrating—pun intended— it is well worth the ride.

“Take Shelter” is a Perfect Storm

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Over the past couple of years, the end-of-the-world theme in movies has attained great levels of prominence. However, audiences have grown tired of large-scale, vapid, computer graphic-laden disaster flicks (sorry Roland Emmerich). But what about a story in which one man’s apocalyptic visions may instead be schizophrenic hallucinations? Up-and-coming indie writer and director Jeff Nichols puts a refreshing spin on the stale genre with sophomore film, “Take Shelter,” a powerful story about the anxiety of loss and the fear of future destruction.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) lives a good life, as his best friend tells him. He has a decent job as a construction worker in a small Ohio town and a loving relationship with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and six-year-old daughter, Hannah, who is deaf. But when Curtis begins having petrifying, disturbing dreams of a coming storm, his whole life starts to fall apart. Nichols immediately transports us from Curtis’ real life into his horrific visions in which a catastrophic storm drives people, and animals, to violently attack Curtis and his family. Terrified of the impending storm and peril it may bring, Curtis beings to obsessively build and spend thousands of dollars on a storm shelter in his backyard. Once Samantha and the surrounding neighborhood take notice of Curtis’ strange behavior, tensions rise and Curtis escapes town to visit his mother, a patient of a mental hospital. The film’s perplexing mystery emerges once Curtis begins to grapple with the possibility of having paranoid schizophrenia, as his mother suffered from.

On the surface “Take Shelter” may appear to be an apocalyptic film with its ominous visuals of freakish natural phenomena and abstract bird formations—is it just me or is that a recurring trend this year: “Biutiful,” “Tree of Life”? However, at the core of Nichols film is the story of a man terrified of losing everything he loves, struggling to maintain strength and stability. Shannon, best known for his Oscar-nominated role in “Revolutionary Road,” is utterly outstanding. As Curtis shields his inner terror from his wife and trembles with the thought of having a mental illness, you can’t help but become immersed within his heart-aching distress. Jessica Chastain continues to prove herself a remarkable actress as she surges with such realism and cogent sentiment. Shannon and Chastain’s interactions carry such poignancy that “Take Shelter” cannot be dismissed as a sci-fi thriller, but rather must be acknowledged as a weighty, dramatic manifestation of real life fears.

“Take Shelter” is an exceptional film not only for its tackling of multiple genres with moving performances, but also for its ability to balance tranquil beauty and intense terror. Besides his solid screenplay, Nichols further proves himself as a substantial director with his gorgeous leisurely shots that alternate between providing a sense of calm and provoking nervous panic and sheer horror. Although the film omits graphic violence, the perturbing dream sequences are commendable for arousing frightening intensity, as well as nerve-wracking anxiety. It is without a doubt exciting and invigorating to sit through a film that throws powerful emotions, serene interludes and terrifying jolts throughout its entirety.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2011 print edition of the Washington Square News.

An Epic Look Into the Curiosities of Life

It is difficult to find the words to anatomize Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a beautifully riveting work of art that manifests the evolving stages of life, from its most basic elements to its most profound. Malick’s film defies most genres of cinema and typical methods of storytelling through use of unique symbolism and disconnected, yet harmoniously concomitant editing. Nevertheless, The Tree of Life is a film that cannot merely be described, but one that must be experienced.

The unsolvable questions of life that wrestle in our minds—questions of existence, of faith, of right and wrong, of obedience and defiance—are explored by Malick on both a macro and a micro scale. A mesmerizingly sublime repose of breathtaking imagery takes us on the journey of existence from the beginning of time while the fragmented moments of the lives of a 1950s southern family illustrate childhood development. When young Jack, the eldest son of the O’Brien family, undergoes a loss of innocence his understandings of God’s will and the ways of the universe are distorted. Jack experiences the unpredictable and unexplained act of death when a young neighborhood boy drowns in the community pool. He begins to explore a newly discovered realm of darkness and unrighteousness through acts of thievery, juvenile destruction, and disobedience. Is the picture-perfect, God-loving life he grew up knowing no longer? Why does God permit misfortune and suffering? Why does God take without explanation? Such mystifying questions infiltrate Jack’s mind and are expressed through invocatory whispers throughout the film.

We can interpret the film’s tone of infinite unification through images and symbolism, as well as through genius camerawork. The penetrating fluidity of Malick’s camera not only displays images of sheer angelic beauty, but also morphs with the characters, articulating their emotions through metaphorical shifts and movements. As a viewer you are watching Brad Pitt’s character, Mr. O’Brien, attempt to grasp the tragic news of his second son’s death on one level, but on another you feel as if the camera is his immaterial essence, levitating around him expressing his internal trauma. However, Malick’s meritorious camerawork does not detract from the performances of Pitt, Jessica Chastin, the three young boys, and Sean Penn, who plays Jack as a man, grown in age, but still grappling with the troubling questions of his youth. It is not elaborately dramatic performances that are manifested here, but facial expressions, voice inflections, and mere glances and looks that create passionate moments.

But The Tree of Life is no spoon-fed movie that permits a mental check out; it is an all-encompassing experience that asks you to stop for 2 hours and think about, well, life. You will either love or hate this film; savor every second of it, stuck to your seat until the lights come on or get up and leave after 20 minutes. Why? Why has a film caused such uproar and mixed reactions? Is it because of Malick’s message about life? No, probably not because those who dislike the film don’t seem to understand it or just simply didn’t have the patience to sit through it. This generates another problem with current audiences as well as the types of films that are being produced today. The fact is, today’s restless audiences are hungry for spoon-fed action films that allow them to leave their brain at the door and thus enabling them to appreciate the recycled trite spectacles that Hollywood cinema serves up. The Tree of Life defies almost every Hollywood convention: a prosaic plot line that follows the basic three-act structure, hackneyed lines (don’t get me started on the final battle scene of Transformers: Dark of the Moon), and the headache-inducing rapid editing of action sequences we see far too often. Malick is a different kind of filmmaker entirely, a naturalistic man that heightens subtlety so we can see, feel, and experience the small moments of life.

If that’s not your style, no problem, but that doesn’t mean I’m letting you off the hook. Challenge yourself, go sit through the entirety  of The Tree of Life, whether you’re an art house junkie or a stalwart for Hollywood blockbusters. And the trick to getting through it? Drop all expectations. Take a deep breath and let your mind slow down; try to examine the minute elements of Malick’s film that mark its spectacularity. You might regret wasting two hours of your life, but what’s the harm in opening your mind and treating your eyes and ears to a mesmerizing visual and aural feast? Absolutely none.

The Tree of Life is a visually arresting, intellectually and spiritually stimulating work of artistry that not only strives to open up our minds to the mystifying questions that plague us, but also reminds us of the beauty within each of life’s infinitesimal moments. Whether it is more loved or loathed, The Tree of Life is a significant film for not only challenging cinematic conventions, but also for mentally, emotionally, and spiritually challenging people to slow down, even if just for a moment, and allow ourselves to think about the big and the small simultaneously.

Mark Ruffalo’s Directorial Debut Lacks Believability

Courtesy of sympathyfordelicious.com

There’s no way to describe the plot of “Sympathy for Delicious” without sounding a bit ridiculous. A paralyzed, homeless, once-popular DJ discovers his God-given healing power, and after teaming up with a rock band, pursues his dreams of fame. The rock band, naturally, is fronted by a shirtless, drunken singer named The Stain, played by Orlando Bloom.

While the film achieves some cogent emotional impact and doesn’t feel quite so ludicrous in its first hour, it loses significant dramatic potential through a lack of believable character development. Overall, though, “Sympathy for Delicious” is not all bad, and Mark Ruffalo deserves some credit for his directorial debut.

The film opens with wide shots of Dean, played by Christopher Thornton, who also wrote the screenplay. Dean is a stubborn, dispirited guy in a wheelchair, rolling his way through L.A.’s skid row. We learn that Dean was once an up-and-coming DJ named Delicious D through photographs and a close-up of his hands air-DJing as he sits alone in the back of a club. By the time we meet Dean, however, he is living out of his car and is partially paralyzed. Then, one morning, Dean approaches another homeless man, deliriously chanting the same word over and over while shaking violently. As Dean puts his hands on the forehead of the seemingly crazy man to check for fever, the frenzied man’s eyes roll back and he falls over in shock. Scared, Dean leaves, only to find out later that the homeless man has been cured of his mental illness and remembers nothing. Father Joe, sincerely played by Ruffalo, recognizes Dean’s gift and genuinely wants to use it to help the homeless community that he looks after. Dean bargains with Joe, and — somewhat begrudgingly — decides to cure the homeless with the touch of his hands.

The morality of both Dean and Father Joe is questioned when a rich man offers to pay a large sum for his disabled daughter to be cured. While Father Joe is eager for the large donation that will aid the homeless shelter, Dean couldn’t care less about the sick people he effortlessly cures and just wants the money. To that end, he teams up with the aforementioned rock band. Drug addict bassist Ariel (Juliette Lewis) befriends Dean for his musical talent, while the rest of the band is rather gratuitously mad at him for cussing out their band’s manager Nina (Laura Linney). However, The Stain, an unsuccessful riff on Jack Sparrow, convinces the band that Dean’s “magical hand tricks” will bring them fame and success.

“Sympathy for Delicious” attempts to show how the transformative power of faith can lead to forgiveness — or miracles. However, the film is so concerned with its ultimate message that it fails to pay any attention to its characters. The audience never gets an opportunity to feel compassion for the avaricious Dean, who unconvincingly and suddenly loses his bitter resentment. Nevertheless, while there’s nothing outstanding about Ruffalo’s directing as such, for a first attempt “Sympathy” is visually enjoyable and free of substantial faults. The film maintains some strength through his subtle shots and his portrayal of Father Joe. While the film does have hopeful moments of powerful stimulation, it falls short in failing to provoke much sympathy for Dean.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2011 print edition of the Washington Square News.