Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Drive (2011) ***½

Watching this modern-day noir/heist movie is like eating popcorn. It’s delicious, but you are hungry again in an hour. Still, for a popcorn movie it has a lot going for it.

Ryan Gosling plays the nameless main character, whom we’ll call The Driver. This quiet, perhaps semi-autistic loner spends his time working as a mechanic, stunt-driving for Hollywood movies, and driving get-away cars for heists. He is very good at all three jobs, but he doesn’t seem to have anyone in his life except his employer Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who sets up all his legal and illegal driving gigs. The Driver moves through the world quietly, observing, taking few risks, and operating like a precision machine when he is behind the wheel.

One day The Driver makes the acquaintance of Irene (Carey Mulligan), the cute girl down the hall. Irene is almost as into long, intense silences as The Driver, so they get along great. Spending time with Irene and her son starts to bring The Driver out of his shell, but the interlude ends when Irene’s husband Standard returns home from prison. It turns out Standard is a fairly decent human being who wants to turn his life around, but criminals from his past pressure him to commit another robbery for them, threatening his family. Concerned for Irene, The Driver signs on to help Standard pull off the job. Everything goes to hell, and suddenly The Driver finds himself on the wrong side of the wrong side of the law.

Know right now that “Drive” is extremely violent and bloody. The sheer level of brutality is clearly gratuitous, but in a sense the gore is a metaphor for the changes in The Driver’s life. When he is isolated within himself, his life is clean and neat. Then he gets involved with people, and things suddenly get very messy. We also suddenly get to see what a badass The Driver really is, making me wonder, “Who the hell is this guy?” Unfortunately, that question is never answered. Instead, we get treated to heart-pounding ass-kicking and car chases as The Driver tries to protect his adopted family from rogue gangsters (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman).

Everything about this film is done with style. The camera-work should set a new standard for noir films. Albert Brooks is affably chilling, and I wish there had been more of him. Likewise, the car chases are superb, as befits the film’s title, but there aren’t enough of them.

In a movie full of restrained performances, Ryan Gosling is so restrained he is practically in a straight-jacket. His part is well-played, but the best scenes are the ones where his self-contained intensity is balanced by someone with a lot of personality. I get that The Driver and Irene are kindred spirits, but the scenes between them tend to drag. I think the solution to that would have been more scenes with Albert Brooks, who absolutely owns the screen every time he appears.

Ultimately, “Drive” is a bit heavier on style than substance, and I was ever so slightly disappointed by it. The action is intense (too intense for some), but I wanted a little more explication of the character of The Driver. Another car chase or two wouldn’t have hurt, either. Still, “Drive” is a nice addition to the modern-day heist genre, fitting in well with movies like “Heat” and “The Town.”

3.5 stars

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Moneyball (2011) ***

“Moneyball” is a different kind of sports movie. The theme is familiar: Someone takes a ragtag bunch of misfits that no one else wants and turns them into a successful team. The execution, however, is something new. Most sports movies introduce the inept players, then feature a montage of inspired coaching and practice that turns those losers into champions. “Moneyball” focuses on Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his geeky assistant Peter Brand (A fictional name given to actual A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta, played by Jonah Hill), and the montages are of these two going over statistics and mapping probabilities. It can be dry stuff, but it’s a fascinating movie nonetheless, and it‘s based on real life.

The setup begins with the A’s losing their division to the New York Yankees in 2001. It was actually an accomplishment for a small club like the A’s to get as far as they did, considering that they were outspent 4 to 1 by the Yankees. That didn’t really ease the pain, though, when, after the season, the A’s three star players were lured away by richer teams. Left to rebuild with a limited budget, Beane becomes disgusted by the subjective criteria employed by his recruiting scouts. These guys base their recommendations on things like the quality of the sound of the ball hitting a player’s bat, the shape of a player’s jaw, or even how his girlfriend looks. (“An ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”) Beane knows there is something basically wrong with their system, and he has an inkling of how to fix it, but it all gels when he meets Brand, a Yale-educated economics major. Brand has a mathematical model that he believes can identify under-valued players, winning players who can be recruited cheaply, which is just what Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s need.

The two put together an unlikely team, butting heads with everyone else in baseball. They even recruit a washed-up catcher to play first base. Things are rocky at first, and they lose a lot of games, but they stick to their guns, and gradually things turn around. Brand applies his computer models to everything about each player’s game, helping them figure out when to let pitches go, how to get walked more, and ultimately how to get more runs.

Beane and Brand take the A’s farther than they should have gotten, for the poorest team in the league, but they don’t turn the A’s into champions. They do, however, turn baseball on its head, revolutionizing the way teams evaluate talent. I’m no baseball expert, but I’m told that today everybody does it Beane’s way.

Meanwhile, director Bennett Miller has made a rather quiet, interestingly different sports movie. Brad Pitt deserves a lot of the credit for his naturalistic portrayal of Beane. My only complaint is that the film is perhaps a little too subtle. The connection between the statistical analyses and what happens on the field isn’t drawn compellingly enough, leaving the movie feeling a little dry. It’s a good movie, and I think baseball fans will be smitten, but in the end I don’t think “Moneyball” will be a classic sports movie.

3 stars

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Beginners (2011) ***1/2

Imagine that after your mother’s death, your elderly father came out of the closet as a gay man. Imagine that he gets a boyfriend, becomes involved with gay activism, then dies of cancer three years later. Imagine that you yourself are an introverted artist with intimacy issues, desperately trying to learn how to finally make a long-term relationship work. This is the situation inhabited by Ewan McGregor’s character Oliver in this wonderful film. We find Oliver looking back on a series of broken relationships and trying to prevent history from repeating itself with his new love interest, Anna (Melanie Laurent).

Jumping back and forth in time, the film reveals Oliver’s and his dad’s stories at a thoughtful, intimate pace. The film is chock full of food for thought. I was struck by how Oliver’s poor tolerance for intimacy was probably influenced by growing up with his parents’ passionless marriage. It’s interesting how Oliver and his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) only really get to know each other after Hal comes out. Then too, it’s sad that Hal is so accustomed to keeping secrets in his life that he hides the seriousness of his illness from his lover.

Anna fits right into this little collections of misfits. Like Oliver, she craves intimacy, but has a poor tolerance for day to day closeness with another person. It will be a miracle if these two can make it work, but they are both mature enough to recognize the importance of trying to overcome their own personal failings.

Between all of this adult psychological stuff, the cancer, and the reflections on the struggles of a gay man in our society, “Beginners” could easily feel dark and depressing, yet somehow the movie maintains a lightness. Powered by an Oscar-nominated performance from Christopher Plummer, Hal’s charming sense of humor about himself overflows into the rest of the story. Plus, there is a really cute dog in the movie, and Ewan McGregor‘s interactions with the little terrier are the best I have seen since Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets.”

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Help (2011) ***½

It’s movie awards season, which is nice, because instead of hearing about the latest “Transformers” movie, everyone is talking about movies that are actually good. The movies that are designed to compete for these awards tend to be edgy, intellectual, or independent, in various combinations. There’s always at least one for each year, though, that is very traditional, straightforward, and made for the masses. Films like “Forrest Gump,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Blind Side” represent simplicity and earnestness in a genre known for complexity and irony. This season that movie is “The Help,” the funny, heartwarming story of black maids and white socialites in segregated, 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi.

Emma Stone plays Skeeter, a headstrong debutante who returns to Jackson from college to find that Constantine, the black woman who basically raised her, is gone, with no explanation. Of course, it’s obvious to the heartbroken Skeeter that her parents have, for some reason, fired Constantine. Meanwhile, Skeeter gets back into her lifelong social circle, dominated by sorority types who dropped out of college once they found a husband. While Skeeter, who wants to be a writer, gets a job at the local paper, her friends raise babies and keep house, except they don’t really do those things; their maids do. Skeeter gets a good look at how rudely her friends treat their maids, some of whom actually raised these girls, and she gets the idea of writing a book about what life and work is like for these maids.

This is no easy task in the early ‘60’s. The maids fear for their jobs and their freedom. In addition to the usual Jim Crow laws against interracial marriage and such, Mississippi apparently also had a law making it a crime to write anything advocating racial equality. It was also illegal for an unescorted white woman to enter the black part of town. Skeeter overcomes these obstacles, convincing several maids to share their stories for a book that will shake Jackson society to its core.

I resisted seeing “The Help” for a while, figuring that I knew exactly what I was going to see, and for the most part I was right. There was one character I did not see coming, however, the lonely misfit Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). From a poor family, she marries a successful man from Jackson high society, but the rich bitches won’t accept her as one of their own. She is a poignant, but often hilarious character, and her relationship with her maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is very sweet. Otherwise, there are no huge surprises. The rich women are terrible, while the maids are noble. The movie’s tears are well-balanced by laughter. All the acting is superb. Viola Davis (who plays the main maid character), Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain all have well-earned Oscar nominations, but the whole cast deserves kudos.

It’s possible, I suppose, that some people’s attitudes about race might change as a result of seeing “The Help,” but I don’t know how likely that is at this point in the game. For most folks, the movie will simply serve as funny, heartwarming entertainment. This is an un-nuanced story about a certain aspect of the civil rights struggle, with plenty of happy endings to go around. Nothing life-changing here, but if you get a chance to see it, it’s a good time.

3.5 stars out of 5