2011 Movies

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

When it comes to words, I’ll admit that I have a flair for the dramatic.  When I love something, the superlatives flow. Not too long ago I watched a movie on Netflix streaming and proclaimed it one of the best movies I’d ever seen in my life.  That’s that flair for the dramatic I was talking about.  But this time I meant it.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was a slice of noveau noir that any Hitchcock fan would love.  Even the Swedish dialogue and English subtitles didn’t bother me, and that’s saying a lot.

Based on the popular Millennium series’ book of the same name by author Steig Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was the harrowing tale of Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker with a disturbing psychological and criminal history.  Out on some sort of parole, she augments her legit income by moonlighting as a free-lance hacker.  In this capacity she encounters journalist Mikael Blomkvist, while performing a background check on behalf of a wealthy financier named Henrik Vanger.  Vanger wants the journalist to find his long lost niece but must ensure that Blomkvist is fit for the job, given some recent legal troubles.  Lisbeth is hacking Blomkvist, so when he begins to investigate the Vanger disappearance, she does too.  Eventually they team up for what proves to be a mysterious journey into the depths of human depravity.  Lisbeth is dark and brooding on the surface, but her exterior belies a compassion and fortitude that most of the world doesn’t see.  Fiercely resilient and protective, she is a survivor in every sense of the word.  Her physical appearance is a study in contrasts: a thin seemingly fragile frame juxtaposed with harsh piercings and a jagged Mohawk.  Jet-black hair and alabaster skin complete the shocking picture.  In turn, Blomkvist becomes an ally, friend, lover and protector.  His warmth and her initial icy disposition eventually meld together in a natural way, and their chemistry is palpable.

I apologize for rambling on like that, but I needed to convey all of these things about the original version so you’d understand why the updated version from David Fincher (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) just doesn’t measure up.  The Swedish version was released in 2009.  Are we really remaking 2 year old movies now?  Why, because arrogant Americans can’t bear to read subtitles?  The Swedish version was amazing, and I can understand a phenomenal filmmaker like Fincher wanting to introduce the story to new audiences.  However, when something is fantastic, you have to stay true to it because it’s inherently difficult to improve something that’s already great.  There is source material to work with here.  I have not read the books in the Millennium series, but everyone says that they are fantastic.  Great literary material and a great original cinematic interpretation.  Yet I feel that Fincher found a way to come up short, by comparison.  I saw the movie with two friends who had both read the books but not seen the Swedish version.  One really liked Fincher’s take (I think b/c she had nothing to compare it to) and the other didn’t think it stayed true to the books.  That, my friends spells disappointment.

Despite my dissatisfaction with the movie itself, I want to be clear that I thought the casting and the performances were excellent.  Rooney Mara (The Social Network) and Daniel Craig (Dream House) were great in their roles.  I attribute any lack of chemistry between the two to Fincher, not to their acting.  The original movie did a better job of fleshing out each character’s background and motivation.  We understood why they were drawn to each other and why Lisbeth was so broken after all that she’d endured.  She was a tormented character, and that was not conveyed as ably in the remake.

Perhaps if I hadn’t seen the original version I could let this one stand on its own merits, but I just can’t.  Some things are better left untouched.  When I watched the original I felt like I was watching something special; it was enthralling.  This 2011 version was just another day at the movies: good, but not great.  Try to see the Swedish version first, if you haven’t read the book.  2009 version: A+ 2011 version: B

Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol

Tom Cruise (most recently of Knight and Day) used to be one of my favorite actors.  Then, his public perception began to decline after marrying Katie Holmes.  An unfortunate appearance on Oprah and some ill-advised comments about Brooke Shields’ post partum depression didn’t help matters.  It seemed like people were no longer focusing on the movies; they were focused on the Scientology and the wacky behavior.  Cruise has been a certified hit machine since Risky Business.  He’s given us classics like Top Gun and Rain Man.  It would take the passage of time and several enjoyable movies for people to move past the punch lines of a few years ago.  With the latest edition to his blockbuster Mission: Impossible franchise, maybe Cruise has finally returned to being the likable star he once was.

The Mission: Impossible franchise has always been a good one, with the first movie in the series opening in 1996.  It’s the only Mission: Impossible that I own on DVD and it remains the most suspenseful of the four movies.   Ghost Protocol finds Ethan Hunt being busted out of a Russian prison by fellow IMF agents Jane (Paula Patton, Precious) and Benji (Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz).  They need Ethan’s help to find the assassin who recently killed another agent.  Furthermore, Ethan’s official mission is to prevent the same assassin from delivering nuclear launch codes to a Russian madman.  When the team botches a plan to break into the Kremlin, the entire agency is disavowed in the wake of a perceived potential return to the Cold War era.  ‘Ghost Protocol’ is initiated, and the agents are on their own. They must clear themselves of the Kremlin incident and still prevent the Russian lunatic from getting the launch codes.  After Hunt’s contact tells him about the Ghost Protocol, they add government analyst and former agent Jeremy Renner (The Town, The Hurt Locker) to the mix.

Ok, let’s talk about what worked and what did not work.  First of all, the plot was very simplified this time around.  I’ve seen a million action movies, and sometimes the plot gets really intricate, almost to the point of being unnecessary.  Here, things are pretty straightforward.  Nuclear weapons are bad. Russian man wants to launch one.  That would be bad; he must be stopped.  If you’ve seen more than one Mission: Impossible movie, you know there will be lots of action and some great stunt work.  I tip my hat to Cruise for always being up for the challenge.  His scenes on the side of a skyscraper in Dubai were heart stopping.  The gadgets can’t compare to those in the 007 movies, but the cars and high-speed chases make up for that.  Cruise is still in great shape after all these years, and I laughed at an extended foot chase scene similar to one featured in Mission: Impossible 3.  He’s still got ‘it.’  You can count on him and Will Smith to run their asses off in a movie.  Tom Cruise was even running like the wind all over town in The Firm, briefcase flopping everywhere – remember that movie? I digress.

Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol was an entertaining movie, but it was good – not great.  A few really great scenes, including a suspenseful opening sequence, and the aforementioned foot chase through a blinding sandstorm, held the movie together.  Cruise can play Ethan Hunt in his sleep.  Jeremy Renner continues to show his versatility, and Simon Pegg provided great comedic timing and comic relief.  Which brings me to Paula Patton.  She turned down a recurring role on Law & Order: SVU to take this role, and at first I thought that was a mistake.   There’s an obvious upside to appearing alongside Tom Cruise, but I thought the stability of a television series with a strong following would have been better for her career.  Is Thandie Newton (For Colored Girls) a big star because she was in Mission: Impossible 2? I don’t think so.  But, after further consideration – I think I was wrong.  Ghost Protocol was a good look for Ms. Patton.  She showed that she could hold her own in an action movie and look beautiful while doing it.  However, there were some awkward moments that could have been left on the cutting room floor.  I picked up on some unintentional comedy in the way she delivered a few of her lines, and I think she should continue to improve as an actress.

You know what you’re getting with Mission: Impossible, but I thought it made for an enjoyable day at the movies.  It wasn’t the best installment in the franchise, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Sitter

Sometimes you just want a movie to do what it’s supposed to do.  It doesn’t have to be the greatest movie ever made; it just needs to do its job.  If it’s a horror flick –  just make me jump a few times and be at least mildly frightening.  If it’s a love story – just make me shed a tear or two, and we’re good.  That being said, The Sitter was a movie that did its job.

I’m an 80’s baby so when I saw commercials for The Sitter I immediately thought of Adventures in Babysitting, the 80′s movie about a babysitter’s wild night out with the kiddies.  In The Sitter our reluctant hero and sitter is Noah Griffith, played by Jonah Hill (Get Him to the Greek).  Hill looks rather slim nowadays, but very recently looked like this.  Not that it matters one way or another, it’s just weird to see such a drastic difference in his appearance.  Noah is a lovable loser type of guy who is living with his mother after flunking out of school.  He has a “girlfriend,” Marisa, exceptt instead of a life partner she’s more like a selfish boss who allows Noah the privilege of answering her every beck and call.  Their relationship is one-sided in every respect, and Noah is essentially a doormat.  His parents are divorced, and his dad hasn’t paid alimony or child support in years, despite owning a thriving jewelry store.  Noah loves his mother and wants to see her happy, so he volunteers to babysit for his neighbors so they can take her out for a blind date with a friend.  Little does he know this routine act of kindness will end up being a life-changing experience.

When Noah meets the kids for the first time we can tell that this will be an interesting experience.  The eldest boy Slater (Max Records) is about 13, followed by the adopted Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) who is roughly 11, followed by Blithe (Landry Bender), an adorable girl of about 8.  Slater is melancholy and anxious, dependent upon pills to get through the day.  Rodrigo has pyromaniac tendencies and is equipped with a GPS device to prevent him from running away too far.  Blithe is obsessed with the ‘celebutante’ world of reality TV and acts like she’s 8 going on 21.

Noah has a DUI on his record, so he is prohibited from using the family car while babysitting.  That goes out the window almost immediately when he gets a call from Marisa asking him to bring her some coke to a party in the City.  It’s an absurd request, and she asks as if coke the cocaine was as easy to get as coke the cola.  She promises that she’ll give him some nookie if he brings it to the party, so he foolishly agrees.  He has to get the yayo from a dealer named Karl (Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2), so he takes the three kids and rolls out in the minivan.  Predictably, Slater is anxious about their outing, Blithe is excited, and Rodrigo is just menacing.  It should be no surprise that a night of babysitting would go downhill shortly after taking the kids to a drug den – and that’s exactly what happens.

This precocious bunch doesn’t exactly follow directions, so when Noah instructs them to wait in the car, their obedience is short-lived.  Rodrigo ends up swiping some drugs from Karl, and before Noah can return the package it gets destroyed.  When Karl notices that the drugs are gone, he tells Noah that he has a couple of hours to return it or give him $10,000.  Meanwhile, Marisa still expects him at the party, and the kids need to be tucked in their beds by the time their parents get home.  Making matters worse is the fact that Rodrigo likes to run off from time to time.

The movie largely follows Noah and the kids as they try to get the money to pay Karl while seeming to get in one scrape after another.  Noah runs into a former classmate who finally opens his eyes to the fact that he’s a good guy who deserves better than Marisa, who only seems to care about getting the coke that Noah promised he’d bring.  Through all of the mishaps, Noah manages to bond with the kids and realizes that they are more than just little pains in the rear.  Slater suffers from anxiety because he’s pretending to be someone that he’s not.  Rodrigo misbehaves because he’s never had structure and stability and is afraid to trust his new family.  Blithe idolizes celebrities because she hasn’t learned to be herself and love who she is on the inside.  So, at the end of the day what began as the night from hell ended up being a learning experience that changed several lives for the better.

The Sitter worked because it had the right mix of humor and heart.  It wasn’t corny or overly sentimental, and the laughs were timed perfectly.  Jonah Hill has shown time and again they he’s a great comedic actor.  The R rating lets you know that just because there are kids in this movie doesn’t make it a ‘kid’ movie; it’s not.  The kids use and hear foul language, and obviously cocaine is an essential plot element.  That being said, leave the kids at home with the sitter and go check out The Sitter, a comedy that did what just what it was supposed to do: make you laugh.

This article first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2011/12/the-sitter-review-it-just-works/ and was reprinted with permission.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Let me begin with the disclaimer that we over here at The Fast Lane do not advocate drug use.  That being said, it’s very clear that A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas was meant to be viewed under the influence.  If you’re sober when watching (as I was), chances are you’ll be more exasperated than amused.  That’s not to say that there weren’t a few laughs, but it was about as stupid as I expected it to be.  This movie is for stoners and 13 year old boys.  Everyone else – watch at your own risk.

This was one of those movies that didn’t really need to be in 3D – but hey, whatever.  When we pick up with the cannabis-loving compadres, it’s obvious that Harold (John Cho, Flash Forward) and Kumar’s (Kal Penn) bromance has tapered off.  Harold is married and Kumar is…well, getting high every waking moment.  His girlfriend has recently dumped him, and he’s been wallowing for months.  When she tells him that she’s pregnant, he’s too high to respond like an adult.  Harold is the exact opposite.  He’s very stable and settled, and his life is quiet and simple, at least until his father-in-law shows up for Christmas.  Humorously portrayed by that menacing dude from the Tarantino movies, this guy is incredibly hard to please.  Upon his arrival he trashes Harold’s Christmas tree because it’s fake.  He brought his own fir tree that he’d grown for 8 years to decorate instead.  While Harold’s wife and father-in-law attend Midnight Mass he promises to decorate the tree.  The fact that his father-in-law grew the tree for 8 years should let you know how crazy he is about Christmas; so decorating the tree is a really big deal.  Harold hopes that if he does this successfully he can finally win the guy over.

Harold and Kumar have been estranged, because Harold thinks that whenever Kumar and weed are around things go tragically wrong.  This is borne out when Kumar shows up on Harold’s doorstep with a Christmas package for Harold that was delivered to his apartment.  They open it and see it contains a jumbo-sized joint.  Harold wants no parts of it, but Kumar sparks the spliff before he can stop him.  In the first of a series of truly ridiculous mishaps, the joint ends up setting the Christmas tree on fire.  Now Harold is tasked with replacing the tree before his wife and father-in-law return at 2:00 AM.  As soon as Kumar reappears, things start to go wrong – which confirms Harold’s recent exclusion of his old friend.

While they’ve lost touch they have each made new friends, though these new buddies aren’t the same.  Harold’s pal is Todd, played by the always hilarious Tom Lemmon (I Love You Man, Reno 911).  Kumar’s buddy is Adrian, who has convinced Kumar to tag along at a party in the city where he hopes to smang a girl he met online who claims to be a virgin.  Exactly. How much more juvenile can we get?  Harold realizes he could get another Christmas tree from the house party, while Adrian tries to score.  What transpires for the movie’s duration is a hodgepodge of misadventure as Harold and Kumar end up fighting off mobsters and dancing onstage with the strangely omnipresent Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), among other things.  All in a mad quest to get a perfect tree on Christmas Eve.

I can’t be mad, and I can’t say that I wasted an hour and forty minutes of my life.  The movie was exactly what I thought it would be.  It never took itself seriously, and shame on me for expecting it to.  Gratuitous, pointless 3D effects were peppered throughout, as well as obvious 3D references in the dialogue.  There were lots of boobs and drugs.  Neil Patrick Harris was funny as always, poking fun at his sexual orientation and generally looking like he was having a good time.  I didn’t have high expectations (no pun intended) to begin with, but I still found the movie a little disappointing.  Just because it’s a stoner movie doesn’t mean that you can just throw anything against the wall and hope it sticks.  Smarter, funnier stoner movies have been done, such as Pineapple Express and the Friday movies.  Just wait for this one to come out on DVD.  That way it’s cheaper, and when you get the munchies – it’s a short walk to the kitchen.

This article first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2011/11/a-very-harold-kumar-3d-christmas-review-stoners-retreat/ and was reprinted with permission.

The Rum Diary

I didn’t know what to think of The Rum Diary when I first saw the trailer, but I was intrigued.  It’s based on the semi-autobiographical (but fictional) novel of the same name by famed author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  Thompson is a pop culture icon, known for his ardent rejection of conformity and for pioneering “gonzo” journalism.

Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland) is always a potential draw for me, though I don’t usually find his quirkiness appealing.  In The Rum Diary he portrays journalist Paul Kemp with a relatable quality not found in most of his roles.  Kemp is in 1960’s Puerto Rico to write for a fledgling newspaper.  He wants to comment on the political turmoil in San Juan, but his editor wants fluff pieces to appease their readership.  Kemp decides to take what he can get, and initially he’s hired for the mundane task of writing horoscopes.

The Rum Diary was patterned after Hunter S. Thompson’s brief time in Puerto Rico when he applied (and was rejected) for a job at a newspaper, but still made friends and acclimated himself to the local area.  Puerto Rico plays like a town where the rum runs freely and following the rules is optional. When Kemp meets a former newspaper employee turned hotshot named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight), he gets a chance to line his pockets and keep his editor at bay.  Sanderson and some other influential but corrupt locals want to develop untouched Puerto Rican soil and need Kemp to insert certain viewpoints in his articles to soften up the public when they hear about the increased taxes they will have to pay to fund the project.  In addition to trying to bridge the gap between his personal and professional spheres, Kemp’s life is complicated by his attraction to Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard, Drive Angry), a fetching blonde he meets by chance only to find out later that she belongs to another.

Again, Paul Kemp is loosely patterned after Hunter S. Thompson.  To that end, he’s a raging alcoholic, but quite an endearing chap. Depp is very good as the hapless but earnest journalist trying to do relevant work without selling out.  His time in Puerto Rico is one misadventure after another, as his friendship and arrangement with Sanderson begins to unravel when his affinity for Chenault leads to trouble.  Everyone needs a trusty sidekick, and Kemp’s is a fellow journalist named Sala.  Together they drink and stumble their way through the streets of San Juan, and it doesn’t seem like these reporters ever do much writing.

I don’t really know what to make of The Rum Diary.  I enjoyed it because it was entertaining, and Puerto Rico was an inviting setting tailor made for debauchery.  It was a fun and interesting movie, as I wondered what would become of Chenault and Kemp and whether the newspaper would eventually fold.  However, there was an unmistakable lull in the film, where the viewer wondered just what the hell was going on.  One scene in particular was very trippy, as Kemp and Sala endure a drug-induced stupor.

It’s hard to encapsulate just what this film was all about.  It played like a very interesting “day in the life” of so-and-so type of movie, but I’m not sure if there was a larger point to be made.  I haven’t read the book, but I’ll bet it was a page-turner, if the movie was any indication.  I’m just not sure everyone will like it or “get” it.  From a visual standpoint I thought it was cool and funny at times, but it wasn’t too deep or meaningful.  Fans of the late Thompson may appreciate the manic, boozy feel of Kemp’s tale – but everyone else may be a little ho hum about it.  If you’re a fan of Depp or Thompson or you just want to leer at Amber Heard, check it out.  Otherwise, this will make a nice little flick to catch on HBO in a few months.

This article first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2011/11/the-rum-diary-review-a-boozy-joyride/ and was reprinted with permission.

The Ides of March

“Beware the ides of March…”  I’ve always liked the Shakespeare quote from Caesar, an ominous warning of betrayal.  It’s appropriate that the George Clooney (The American) directed Ides of March is named for the quote, as the movie is similarly characterized by the betrayal and cold ambition found in Shakespeare’s play.

Ryan Gosling (Drive), Philip Seymour Hoffman (currently in Moneyball), Marisa Tomei (The Lincoln Lawyer), and Paul Giamatti (most recently of The Hangover II) comprise a highly-acclaimed cast that is the best collection of actors I’ve seen in a while.  Clooney is Democratic governor Mike Morris, an ambitious contender for the White House, especially if he can win the Ohio primary that looms ahead.  An integral part of Morris’ campaign is his campaign manager and aide, Stephen Meyers (Gosling).  Meyers is a sharp young gun with political savvy beyond his years.  He is calculating and shrewd, and will tell you that he’s done more at his age than most of his older counterparts.  However, it is Meyers’ strong ego that leaves him susceptible to overtures from the opposition.  Morris’ opponent is a more seasoned Democrat, a representative of the status quo, while Morris (much like President Obama) has been anointed as the symbol of hope and change.   Stephen has truly bought into Morris’ image and thinks he is backing a winner.  As he tells another character, he is “drinking the kool-aid.”  The campaign is moving in the right direction until Stephen gets a call from Tom Duffy, campaign manager for Morris’ opponent.  Duffy tells Stephen that he’d like him to switch sides and that he should attach himself to a winner and look at the big picture.  Stephen ultimately declines, but let the whole thing linger on longer than it should have.  Instead of maintaining an impenetrable silence, he allowed for the possibility of uncertainty and cast Morris in a vulnerable light at a critical hour of the campaign.

While managing the campaign, Stephen crosses paths with a young volunteer named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood, True Blood) whose father happens to be the head of the Democratic National Convention.  They begin an intimate relationship that leads Stephen to discover that he and the governor share more than a similar ideology.  Meanwhile, Stephen tells Morris’ senior campaign manager Paul (Hoffman) about his exchange with Tom Duffy.  His admission is met with an impassioned diatribe on the virtue of loyalty, after which he is quickly dismissed from the campaign.  At first blush it seems that Stephen will be a victim of his own ego, but he still has an ace up his sleeve with Molly – who is carrying a secret that could derail the entire campaign.  It’s ironic that while Paul was reminding Stephen of the importance of loyalty, he had no idea that Stephen had been displaying great loyalty to the governor by cleaning his dirty laundry even while his own position within the campaign grew more and more tenuous.

After Stephen is fired he behaves vengefully and emotionally, almost validating the overture.  But you don’t get to where Stephen has gotten without having a fighter’s mentality.  He goes into survival mode and begins to play the game from within, angling to revive his role in the campaign and to leverage what info he has against the man he once believed in.

Ides of March was a pretty good political drama.  I’ve seen better, but it was a solid movie and an impressive directorial effort from Clooney.  I really feel that he captured the idealistic buzz that hums in a Democratic campaign, the enthusiasm and liberalism.  I chuckled at the Shepard Fairey-inspired prints modeled after Obama’s iconic ‘Hope’ poster, but otherwise I thought the campaign depiction was realistic.  Ryan Gosling continues to prove that he’s one of the best young actors around.  He is earnest and real in everything I’ve ever seen him in, and I am always endeared to his characters, whether he’s a criminal in Drive, a drug addict in Half Nelson, or a lovesick suitor in The Notebook.  Clooney was effective as the duplicitous Morris and of course it’s no difficult task for him to be the charming candidate.  The supporting cast was very good, and I should mention that Jeffrey Wright (Source Code, Cadillac Records) also made an appearance.  Another great actor in a pretty good movie.  I didn’t like the very last scene of the movie, but I enjoyed it overall. 8 out 10.


I see you Ryan Gosling.  And I am not mad at all.  2011 is shaping up to be quite the year for Gosling.  He was in the heartfelt Crazy, Stupid, Love earlier this year alongside Steve Carell.  Next month he will star with George Clooney in the political thriller The Ides of March.  But it’s his current feature Drive that’s got me so intrigued.  What a unique, cool movie.  It might not satisfy everyone’s cinematic tastebuds, but I thought it was so nice I had to see it twice.

I never heard of director Nicolas Winding Refn (what a name) before this movie, but the cinematography was amazing. L.A. was shot beautifully, the night sky slick, cool and foreboding while the daylight shots were warm and sun-drenched. Certain cities add a distinct feel to a movie, if filmed with a deft hand.  Drive reminded me of other dark tales woven in the City of Angels, like Collateral and Heat (both directed by Michael Mann).  Of course I’m not saying this guy is as good as Mann, but he made L.A. look cool and sexy. And isn’t it? Anyway, Drive is appropriately titled.  The movie opens with Gosling’s character pulling a job for some unknown boss. He is a getaway driver, a Wheel Man.  He’s not involved in the heist/murder/random illegal act that requires flight, but he is the man who will make sure you get away cleanly.  If you follow his guidelines.  There’s a five minute window. He won’t be armed and he won’t participate – but he’ll drive.  Once those 5 minutes are up – you’re on your own.  We’re introduced to Gosling as a methodical, deliberate, solitary figure. Clearly adept at his trade, he doesn’t say much and casts a mysterious shadow.  We learn that he’s managed to also make a legit career of his driving skills, as he is a stunt driver in movies.  If Our Driver’s professional life seems dangerous and exciting – his personal life is decidedly more tranquil.

Again, Gosling is a solitary figure.  He doesn’t have much in the way of companionship, other than his boss on the movie set, Shannon.  That changes when he befriends his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) and her young son Benicio.  Irene sort of looks like Tinkerbell with her baby face, pixie haircut, and sweet disposition.  She and Gosling have a timid chemistry, and there are a lot of scenes where they just sort of stare at each other and blush quietly.  These scenes didn’t bother me, but I know some other viewers found it plodding.  Things get more interesting when Shannon approaches Gosling with the opportunity to race on a professional circuit, in a stock car.  By the way, I keep calling him Gosling because his name is never revealed. When the credits rolled he was listed simply as ‘Driver.’  Anyway, Shannon secured financial backing for the stock car from Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman, Hellboy), two underworld figures who probably have their hands in all kinds of chit.  Meanwhile, although Irene and Gosling have become fast friends and he is becoming a pseudo big brother/father figure for Benicio, she makes it clear early on that his father (her husband!), a dude named Standard, is in prison.  When she finds out that he’s getting released soon, we can only wonder what this will mean for her burgeoning relationship with Gosling.  Surprisingly, Standard just seems grateful that Gosling was a friend to Irene in his absence. He wants to atone for his misdeeds and just live a normal life with his family.  Unfortunately, it never works out that way, does it?  Some gangsters to whom he owes protection money want him to pull a job to satisfy his debt.  When he refuses, they beat him to a pulp and threaten to return for Irene and Benicio if he doesn’t comply.  It is here that our reluctant hero emerges.  Our Driver feels a kinship with Standard and a certain affinity for Irene and Benicio.  He agrees to be Standard’s Wheel Man for the job, on the condition that the job satisfies any remaining debt and that Irene and Benicio can live in peace.  That’s the plot for you, in a nutshell.

Drive had the emotional weight of a character study, but there wasn’t enough dialogue for me to call it that.  The entire movie felt stripped down, much like the main character. It was slick and atmospheric; thanks to the 80’s sounding score that permeated most of the movie and the way Gosling filled every frame he was in.  I don’t find him to be attractive in the most traditional sense, but my goodness the camera really loved him in this movie.  The word swag is dead, but I have to say that his was on a hundred, thousand, trillion in this movie.  His demeanor was even-keeled initially, with just the hint of rage lying beneath the surface.  He’s a criminal, but he’s only the getaway driver. Initially we have to wonder if this is an indication that he’s soft in some way, but those doubts are quickly put to rest as Gosling begins to stomp and thrash his way through the movie.  I thought the plot and script were interesting, though not entirely unique.  Very slick and stylized, with the violence of Tarantino minus all the dialogue. If you don’t mind letting your movies simmer a while before they come to a fantastic boil – this is one to see.

Straw Dogs *spoiler alert*

I looked forward to Straw Dogs for a few reasons.  First off, it looks like my kind of movie: dark, unsettling, and potentially delving into some real human emotion and touching on some  intriguing psychological themes.  Secondly, it features a nice piece of man candy in Alexander Skarsgard, better known as vampire Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood.  I like Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush) and James Marsden (X-Men: The Last Stand) too.  So it stands to reason I would have enjoyed Straw Dogs, a remake of the 1971 thriller of the same name which featured Dustin Hoffman.  Well, I didn’t dislike it but I can’t say I really enjoyed it either.

David and Amy Summer have relocated temporarily to Amy’s hometown in Mississippi for a reprieve from Hollywood.  David is a screenwriter and Amy is a modest television star.  Her father has recently died and they need to settle some things with his home.  At the local bar they meet Amy’s old high school flame Charlie, a tall handsome former football star that time has forgotten.  He and his cronies remember Amy well, and they haven’t changed much.  David is clearly out of his element, surrounded by hyper-masculine drunken good old boys who admire his Jaguar and wonder why his shoes have no laces.  Amy is every bit as lovely as she was in high school, and her fancy Hollywood lifestyle and husband stand in stark contrast to her humble beginnings.  It’s almost as if her selection of David as a mate is a rejection of Charlie and his way of life.  It sounds like a bit of a stretch, but Charlie makes it clear that he still has a thing for Amy.  His lascivious stare and inappropriate gestures are obvious, though David does nothing to discourage it.  In fact, he hires Charlie and his gang to patch up the roof of the barn next to their remote property.  His reasoning is that Charlie is an old friend of Amy’s, so why not give him some work.  This proves to be a decision that has devastating consequences.

Tensions rise out at the house, as Charlie and company start working.  They are already drooling over Amy, lamenting missed opportunity with her while inwardly snickering at her choice of man.  There is no excuse for their leering, but she doesn’t help matters by jogging around in barely-there shorts without a bra.  She complains to David, who tells her to dress more appropriately.  This scene is a bit of foreshadowing David’s inability to protect and defend his wife.  When the family cat is found hanging by its neck in the closet, Amy demands that David take action.  He seems reluctant to point the finger at Charlie and his gang, though it’s unlikely that anyone else could be responsible. Instead of confronting the men, David seems as if he is still looking for acceptance from them.  Instead of proving his manhood by sticking up for his wife and making her feel safe; he seeks to prove it by showing this group of goons that he’s one of them.  When they invite him to go hunting, he accepts.  Unbeknownst to David, the hunting excursion is really a ruse to get David to leave Amy unattended at the house.  While David roams about in the woods, Charlie and another crony invade the Sumner home and victimize his wife.  These are men that went to high school with Amy, they are not strangers.  They view her as an unattainable object, one that has transcended their current station in life.  I think it is just as much about David as it is Amy.  They don’t view him as a man.  They don’t respect his relationship with his wife and they question his ability to protect her.  Violating Amy is a twisted assertion of their manhood, and a cruel thing to witness.  Even more unsettling than Amy’s rape was the aftermath.  Amy doesn’t tell him what has happened, and he has no idea that his wife was violated by the same men he has refused to confront.  Now that David was duped into hunting and embarrassed, he is ready to fire Charlie and his men.  Amy calls him a coward, and we as viewers know why.  She can’t expect him to know intuitively that she was raped, but he’s done nothing to inspire confidence up until this point.

When David fires Charlie the next day, the stage is set for everything to come to a violent head.  When the local town hothead (James Woods) and former high school football coach comes looking for his daughter’s mentally-challenged would-be boyfriend on the Sumner property – things turn nasty when David refuses to give him up.   This was the final act of the movie, the big payoff.  I enjoyed seeing Charlie and his fellow brutes get their comeuppance, but the final scene did not undo my previous frustration.  Why is David more protective of a stranger he barely knows than he was of his own wife?  Straw Dogs had the potential, but something fell short.  I do think it captured the almost imperceptible delineation between football and religion in the South, and the simplistic but happy way of life found beyond the bustling metropolis.  Something was missing though. Perhaps the original is more rewarding.  I think I’ll cue up the Netflix…

Apollo 18

Historical fiction has an artificial authenticity that has the potential for excellent storytelling.  It makes the audience wonder, could this really have happened?  Where does fact end and fiction begin?  Apollo 18 had all the potential to be a provocative, conspiracy-driven movie, but instead it failed to deliver.  There were many more yawns than thrills.

The movie begins by telling us that the last officialU.S.mission to the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972, but that two years later a covert lunar mission took place, the details of which have been secret until now.  Footage was recovered from the landing, and that footage is the basis for the movie.  The movie is shot “home video” style, adding a supposed air of realism.  This usually works, except that the actor portraying Pilot Ben Anderson is so incredibly handsome that he looks more like a leading man than a real American astronaut.  Anderson and two other astronauts make a trip to the moon, purpose somewhat unknown.  The men can’t tell their families about the mission, and there will be no heroic widespread welcome for them upon their return.  They seem content with anonymity, secure in the belief that they are serving their country.  Two pilots will actually traverse the moon, while the third pilot remains aboard another vessel.  It takes a long time for anything remotely interesting to happen in this movie.  Sorry, just the sight of them walking on the moon was not cool enough for me.  There was a constant sense of foreboding, but that wasn’t enough to stave off my boredom.  Things finally got interesting when the two astronauts’ exploration of the moon revealed a set of foreign human footprints that do not much their space boots.  Next they discover a crashed Russian space vehicle.  They had no knowledge of Russian lunar activity, so they instantly are on high alert.  Fearing the Russians may be prowling the moon at that very moment, they continue investigating.  Deep inside a crater they find the corpse of a Russian cosmonaut.  The whole time that they’ve been on the moon they have been hearing an odd screeching noise, some sort of feedback over the radio waves.  They wonder if the strange noise could be related to the cosmonaut’s demise.  They discover that a moon rock collected the day before seems to have a life of its own, and later one of them is seemingly attacked by one of the rocks, as it turns into an extra-terrestrial spider and imbeds itself in the astronaut’s body.  When they re-board their vessel, Anderson attempts to extract the foreign object from his compatriot’s body.  It appears to have turned back into a rock, similar to the one that they collected before.  While all this is going on, Houston has reassured them that the feedback noise is not much cause for concern, and they aren’t sure what to make of Russian presence on the moon.

I’m going to end the re-cap there, because those are the highlights.  To sum it all up, the Department of Defense sent the three astronauts to the moon as sacrificial lambs on an ill-fated recon mission.  When they become infected by the extra-terrestrial spidery moon rock thingies, they are prohibited from returning to Earth and are left to die in space.  Ok, what did we learn here? Not much. The astronauts were able to confirm that the Russians were there and that there is something on the moon that doesn’t take kindly to visitors.  Was that worth sacrificing three American lives?  It doesn’t seem like it.  The payoff was weak, and it took an eternity to get there.  I was dumb enough to think that The Blair Witch Project was real at first, and fortunately I didn’t make that mistake here.  Apollo 18 had a great concept that could have made for a thought-provoking, eerie and unsettling movie.  Instead, it was a boring, tedious affair resulting in a disappointing conclusion.  I knew that I was supposed to feel sorry for the characters…but I just didn’t care.  And the arachnid moon rocks?  Lame! Save your money!

This article first appeared at www.poptimal.com and was reprinted with permission.

The Change-Up

I’m a huge hip hop fan. The once great rapper Nas once said, “No idea’s original, there’s nothing new under the sun.”  He wasn’t the first to express that sentiment, but it’s one with which I agree.  That’s what I thought of when I saw the trailer for The Change-Up, the latest in a long line of “switcheroo” comedies.  Oh, you know the formula.  There was a spate of such movies in the 80s with offerings like Vice Versa and 18 Again!  We’ve even seen this formula just couple of years ago with 17 Again, starring Zac Efron.  It’s hard to come up with something completely original, that’s why when I see innovative movies like Inception, I lose my mind.  But I digress.  Lots not talk about what The Change-Up isn’t; let’s talk about what it is.

Best buddies Mitch (Ryan Reynolds, Green Lantern) and Dave (Justin Bateman, Horrible Bosses) couldn’t be more different.  Mitch is a single Ladies’ Man with very few responsibilities.  He’s an on again/off again actor whose days consist largely of jerking off and smoking weed.  That might be fun for a 20 year old, but a grown adult male should have higher aspirations.  In contrast, Dave is a settled family man.  He’s married with three children and is completely devoted and responsible.  While hanging out one drunken night, they each lament their lifestyles.  Dave didn’t goof on his 20s like Mitch.  He was working his way through school and stepping up to the plate after having his first child.  He envies Mitch’s swinging single lifestyle and the endless parade of women.  Mitch is content with his life, but he admits that it would be nice to come home and be surrounded by people who genuinely care about you.  While relieving themselves in a fountain, they verbalize their wishes.  In a moment of movie magic, their lives are swapped.

When Dave awakes the next morning, it is Mitch that dwells within him.  Similarly, Dave’s spirit inhabits Mitch’s body.  With an important acting audition approaching for Mitch, and a big deal looming at the firm for Dave, the switch couldn’t have happened at a worse time.  Luckily Mitch makes it through the meeting and Dave survives the audition.  Swapping lives is full of potential pitfalls for each guy, from a tempting young associate at the firm for Dave to indiscriminate sexual encounters for Mitch.  Of course things aren’t all bad.  Mitch infuses Dave’s life with a carefree attitude, and Dave brings a degree of levity to Mitch’s haphazard lifestyle.  The problem is that Dave has to make sure his marriage is in a better place than he left it.  The trappings of success have taken the love and passion out of their relationship, and he’ll have to figure out how to get it back before it’s too late.

The Change-Up is what it is.  What is original? Hell no. Was it funny? Yes, for the most part it was.  It had the appropriate balance of humor and heart to make for a passable day at the movies.  The lead actors are likeable and charismatic and there were enough laughs to keep you satisfied.  I’m sure married men can relate to the partial surrender that comes along with marriage and kids, and what good is suffering if you can’t play it for laughs?  I heard plenty of chuckles in the theater.  You may have to temper your expectations a bit, but I thought The Change-Up was pretty funny and worth checking out.

This article first appeared at www.poptimal.com and was reprinted with permission.