Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Nicholas Winding Refn's latest film, "Drive" puts a modern spin on some once beloved and often overlooked Hollywood genres. While car chases haven't really gone anywhere, we haven't seen a good Driver movie in some time. The Nameless "Driver" (Ryan Gosling) recalls Steve McQueen's Bullitt and Kowalski in "The Vanishing Point" and more recently Stunt Man Mike in Tarantino's Grindhouse send up, "Death Proof" The Driver comes from a long but neglected tradition and he carries it on with his competency and his scorpion racing jacket as an emblem. Driver doesn't have much of a social life (or skills) and divides his time between stunt driving for the movies, working for his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) at his garage, and doing sidejobs as a driver for criminals. He has a strict code for his moonlighting activities and we first meet him conducting a side job. Driver sells the criminals a "five minute window." He'll pull up to whatever place they plan to hold up and give them five minutes. Should anything occur within that five minutes, he's "with them all the way." but before or after they're "on their own." On his first job in the film, we see him easily outwit the police while escorting his customers away from a robbery. He's ready for anything including the police chopper. He doesn't use guns or get involved in any way however, other than driving.

Shannon seems to serve as Driver's employer/manager, and assistant, giving Driver legitimate employment at the garage and setting up stunt driving gigs. He also outfits the cars that Driver needs for his side jobs. Shannon however, has ties to a local crime figures Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) We see him asking Bernie for $400,000.00 which Shannon needs to buy a car to get Driver into professional racing. Bernie is skeptical, reminding Shannon that there are plenty of good race cars and crews already out there. Shannon explains that it isn't the car so much as it is the Driver that matters. After seeing Driver do a test run around a track, they come to an agreement. Bernie stretches out his hand to Driver for a handshake, but Driver says "My hands are a little dirty." Bernie counters "That's Ok. Mine are too."

At the garage Bernie explains to Driver how he and Shannon got acquainted. Apparently Shannon set up cars for B movies that Bernie produced. He also overcharged, which Bernie says he didn't mind. Shannon then tried the same thing on Nino, Bernie's associate, and found that Nino did mind, which cost Shannon a broken hip. Driver doesn't seem moved by the uderlying urgency in this story, When Bernie asks if he's ready to win some races, Driver says "I hope so."

Driver soon meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) Soon after meeting, he happens to be shopping at the same grocery store as they are, and feels obliged to help when he learns their car has broken down. He quickly becomes taken with the two of them, the son more than the mother. His stoicism bends a bit and we see him actually enjoying himself spending time with them. While he has an easy rapport with Benicio, his attraction for Irene takes a little more time, and just as it seems things are going his way, she recalls that her incarcerated husband, Standard, is about to come home. Driver gets back to his work, although his thoughts are now a bit distracted. He has an awkward meeting with Standard (Oscar Isaac) the night of his homecoming party. Benecio has mentioned Driver coming around and "helping out." which Standard clearly has mixed feelings about, obviously suspecting motives other than altruism.

Standard appears sincere in his repentance, grateful for a second chance. However, he is soon badly beaten by thugs in front of Benecio. Driver happens on the scene finding Standard bloodied, and learns that he owes protection money from his prison term, which is getting raised every day. He's being pressured to rob a pawnshop, to even things up, which he doesn't want to do. They have also promised to come after his family next. Driver agrees to help and goes with Standard to meet Cook (James Biberi) the man behind the beatings and threats to Standard's family.  Cook has another person, Blanche (Christina Hendricks) picked out to help with the job. Of course the job goes badly, and Driver ends up with a million dollars in a duffel bag, forced to sort things out. We find he is as good at hurting and killing as he is at driving.

Driver is of course the classic loner, his rituals and spartan needs, giving him a lot in common with Jef Costello in "Le Samourai" and many other hitmen such as George Clooney's character in "The American." For all we know, Driver once was a hitman. Shannon tells us that five years ago, he just appeared out of nowhere and asked for a job. Driver's awkward social skills certainly suggest some isolation from the rest of the world, and he can stomp a man's face under his boot until there's no head left, without missing a beat. But we don't know for sure, and in this movie, he is not a hit man simply the Driver. We learn that his brief interactions with Irene and Benecio meant more to him than we might have imagined. We don't know where Driver came from, or even what he wants. Money seems trivial to him. Where a hitman has a set objective driver does not, at least until Irene and Benecio's safety is in question. He attempts to solve things the easiest way possible, by simply returning the money, but this is of course not possible, and he knows it and arranges accordingly.

Gosling does a great job portraying Driver as a blank slate. He says very few words, letting his expressions do most of the performing and even that is minimal. It's notable when Driver smiles, because it's a virtual torrent of expression for him. Bryan Cranston is terrific as the well meaning but terribly unlucky Shannon, probably the most sympathetic character, as we really get the sense that he's never had a minute that wasn't behind the eight ball. He wants to do right by Driver, but he can't see the big picture. Ron Perlman is perfectly cast as Nino, the strong arming, overcompensating gangster who kicks things into high gear. Albert Brooks is the most surprising casting choice. His Bernie is about as far away from Brooks' comedy persona as you could get. This character is all the more evil for appearing to be a nice and personable guy. The ease with which he can pull out a razor and cut an old friend is nothing short of chilling.

Nicholas Winding Refn borrows from the car and driver movies, and noir movies, mixed with the style of Asian action films, but this always feels like his own film. His awareness of the genres he's working with is obvious, and he clearly loves where his film comes from. The Driver is an impossible character, the guy who comes from nowhere with exactly the right skills to take care of a certain situation. He has no name, no motives, he's just a force waiting to be set loose. He acts like a hitman but he isn't a hit man. He doesn't seem intent on standing outside of humanity, he just doesn't know how to relate to it. Given the chance, he seems overjoyed at the prospect.

He isn't surprised however, when it proves to be transitory. He's the Driver after all. He's all about passing through, the journey not the destination. With his methodical nature and rituals, it's clearly important that he passes through the right way though, as winning and losing seem to mean very little to him. The Driver who begins the film as little more than a personified function learns a little about being a human being (as is heavily reinforced by the soundtrack) on the way. He's not out to live or die, he just drives, but that doesn't keep him from caring enough to get attached, although it isn't in his nature to stop for very long. That doesn't mean he can't look out the window and wonder, what if he could?

Driver clearly has some concerns about his own nature. Watching a television show with Benecio, he points out a shark in a cartoon, asking Benecio if the shark is a good guy. When Benecio tells him no, Driver asks "Are there any good guy sharks?" Benecio patiently tells him "Look at him. Does he look like a good guy to you?" Later, when calling Bernie to inform him that Nino has expired. He asks Bernie, "Do you remember the story about the frog and the scorpion? Nino didn't make it across the river." His strict rules and stoic restraint, point to a man keeping himself on a short leash. his comfortability with extreme violence also suggest something of his past. Yet Driver knows what he is, and he realizes he must use that to save the only people he cares about, Irene and Benecio. This is perfectly illustrated in a scene where Driver and Irene get on an elevator with a hitman coming for one of them. Driver quickly makes the hitman but doesn't let on. He kisses Irene passionately, throwing the hitman off guard, and then takes advantage of the situation by stomping the man to death while Irene watches horrified, unable to process that he's doing something so horrific, so naturally, for her. The kiss is also perhaps Driver's only passionate moment in the whole film. We wonder if perhaps he knew it was the only time he'd get the chance, but still he makes use of it in a practical sense, as that's his nature. We know it's goodbye.

We don't know however, how things will turn out for the Driver. He's the mysterious right man in the right place at the right time, but he comes across as human enough, in a similar way to Charles Bronson's Bishop character in the Mechanic. We know he's the best, but we don't think he's invulnerable. We're not even sure if he wants to live. When he has a job he has to see it concluded. The money is a very small part of that. Perhaps it's enough that for a moment he got to see his own humanity before driving away.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Long Goodbye

What About it?

The Long Goodbye is a Philip Marlowe story, different from any other. Rather than continue in the mold set up by older works such as "The Big Sleep," "The Maltese Falcon," and "Farewell, My Lovely" Altman chose to use the established character, Philip Marlowe in another way altogether.  Elliot Gould is about as far removed as it gets from Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. Rather than tough and stoic, his Marlowe typically comes across more as out of step and isolated. He's a 40's character living in the 70's, as was alluded to by Robert Altman's description of the film as "Rip Van Marlowe." This is a character that may as well have slept through 30 years. Like other Marlowe movies this was adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel. Altman had Leigh Brackett,one of the screenwriter's for "The Big Sleep"  adapt it to screenplay, which shows in the smart writing and dialogue, but certainly liberties were taken, and Altman used Marlowe to serve his own vision.

Rather than exist in a dark office, with his name etched on the door this Marlowe is based out of his shabby apartment where he lives with his cat. He also lives directly across from a group of attractive exhibitionist women, yet he never seems tempted to be more than neighborly with them. In an exchange with a store employee, Marlowe observes, "I've got a cat, he's got a girl." Marlowe typically conducts himself as a gentleman. His 40's values at work, the main one being his great loyalty. When his friend Terry shows up with scratches on his face, wanting to get to Mexico right away, Marlowe doesn't give him a hard time, just gives him a ride. When questioned mercilessly by the cops and held for three days, Marlowe doesn't give up anything but smart assed answers. THis fact is so notable that it makes the news. Marlowe is not entirely clueless, he knows the rumors about his friend, but they go way back nd he trusts their friendship, mainly because of his own understanding of what friendship means.

This Marlowe has the sharp tongue that Marlowe always has although it sometimes plays differently. Gould's Marlowe as often as not, mutters wisecracks to himself, more than to his audience. As a 40's man in the 70's he's used to keeping himself entertained. THis Marlowe gets pushed around endlessly and endures it. He doesn't seem much good in a fistfight or quick to pull his gun. He compensates for his severe alienation by keeping to himself, and not trying to understand too much what isn't on the same wavelength as he is. His catchphrase here, "That's OK with me." shows us a man walking through a strange world almost totally detached from it, as if he knows he's from another time and is trying not to be bothered by it. He tells Harry. a goon tailing him, who asks about the girls next door "It's yoga, I don't know what yoga is, but it's yoga." Trends are outside his realm of interest.  Marlowe is the only person smoking cigarettes in the film, which is all the more notable in that he smokes them constantly. He insists on wearing his suit al the time, even refusing to take off his tie to drink with Roger Wade and giving Harry the goon tips on straightening his tie. To Marlowe, even "first rate hoods" should look a certain way which is now largely a thing of the past.

It would be easy to dismiss this Marlowe as bumbling and inept, due to the awkwardness always present around him, but this isn't really the case. He shows many times that he is very competent and for the most part unflappable. He just doesn't fit. He endures the police interrogation without a problem not being cowed by the cops whatsoever. When Marty Augustine insists on making violent spectacles, Marlowe doesn't panic, even facing the prospect of having his penis cut off. The only time he really loses his cool is just after Roger Wade's suicide, when a bit drunk, he gets new information from Sylvia that the cops have no use for. For Marlowe, there's a code, black and white, right and wrong. There is some grey area there, like overlooking the character defects of a shady friend, but to Marlowe, if Terry didn't kill his wife, the guy who did must be found. The disinterest on the cops behalf really bothers him. Sadly Marlowe is working from bad information which is built up by his own values, his loyalty to a friend clouding his deductions. He's also clearly bothered witnessing Dr, Veringer coercing Roger Wade to sign papers while not in possession of his faculties. He can't sit back and watch, waiting for Veringer to leave, he must speak up immediately.
 Gould handles the difficult role perfectly, not relying on the roles of Bogart and Mitchum at all to inform his character, instead rebuilding Marlowe from the ground up, as if he existed today. This Marlowe has no understanding with the cops, can't carry a gun around, or start fights at will. These things are not tolerated from a 70's PI. This Marlowe is a citizen like anyone else, at the mercy of the system as much as anyone. A P.I. is no longer a glamorous occupation, as Roger Wade points out when he says "I don't know, Marlboro. If I was your age, I think I'd bust my ass to get into something a little more dignified form of endeavor." This Marlowe gets no respect from anyone.

Gould gives us a distinct character that doesn't quite fit in any mold. His mannerisms, his muttering, and his delivery during confrontations give us a Marlowe that is clearly limited, but much more than he appears. Although Altman encourages our perception of his cluelessness, we are given a hint of that depth in the end. During his last talk with Terry, Terry says "I guess if anybody was gonna track me down it would be you." Terry of course doesn't understand what he's really done, which is betraying the code Marlowe lives by, You don't kill your wife. You don't use your friends. Not in the world according to Marlowe. Terry echoes the shallow ties of the times when he says "That's what friends are for." calling Marlowe a loser for adhering to his outdated sense of loyalty and morals.  "Nobody cares." Terry tells him. The cops have closed the case, Augustine has his money, and Eileen is free to be with him. He presents it as a victimless crime, except Marlowe knows that Sylvia is still dead, and their friendship was used like a toy. Marlowe's answer, "Yeah, nobody cares but me." tells us what we need to know, that Marlowe is not stupid or helpless, simply uncompromising in his code, although the world around him isn't. He shoots Terry dead because he's the only one that would, and it had to be done.

Altman gives Marlowe an interesting world, bright but dull, only sharpening up when danger arises, particularly the presence of Marty Augustine, a hood a it removed from the 40's mold, but sharing more with Marlowe than anyone else.  In a way, Augustine makes sense to Marlowe more than anyone else. His motivations are simple, if not shared, and what's a private eye without shady hoods around? The colors and the world around Marlowe get sharper, the closer he gets to the truth, the ending is crisp and clear and beautifully lit as if his vision has finally arrived. Marlowe mutters to himself against a world of busty background noise, but he can get involved if he must. The music in the movie is another interesting facet, being the same song, John William's and Johnny Mercer's theme "The Long Goodbye" over and over in different versions, yet never noticed by the characters (except for Hurray for Hollywood" at the end.) The acting in the film is all top notch. The writing is sharp and the dialogue is clever. As with many Chandler based stories, you could find many plot holes if you desired, but the plot isn't really the point.

Sterling Hayden's Roger Wade is fantastic to watch, also feeling like a relic from another time, a Hemingwayesque figure who easily towers over everyone around him. The larger than life presence of the man, however exists alongside a great fragility, perhaps enhanced by his severe drinking problem and his betrayal by his wife, which he can't divulge to anyone without damaging his ego beyond repair. When talking with Sylvia, he reminds her of the glories of the past, showing another connection to Marlowe. His journey between highs and lows is compelling and tragic. Nina Van Pallandt is also terrific as Eileen Wade, a character who seems simple but has complex plans and motivations. Handling Marlowe, Roger and Terry all at the same time she gives nothing away, even using her shock at Roger's suicide to try and keep Marlowe on the wrong track. Mark Rydell's portrayal of Marty Augustine is also great, giving us a gangster out of the old book, but with a more modern confusion and psychopathic bent. His scene's with Marlowe make him unpredictable and chilling, particularly the coke bottle scene. Jim Bouton's parts as Terry, while small gives us a convincing man of the times, with enough charm to make he and Marlowe's friendship believable.
Ultimately "The Long Goodbye" gives us a world where values have changed and we're shedding some of our old trappings, the laconic P.I., the mythic manly writer, even the hood as a mastermind. The deep bonds of friendship and loyalty, the idea of right and wrong as having absolutes, they've all been compromised and Marlowe exists on his own, after even his cat can't stand by him. Marlowe's address to Terry "Yeah, nobody cares but me." sums up his character very well. His values and decisions are not uninformed, or naive, only alien to the world around him. The ending of the film is remarkably powerful as we've just watched Marlowe get pushed around and alienated, with seemingly little protest. We are tempted to take his "It's ok with me." as a sign of meekness, but with the final gunshot we see that we were very very wrong. He'll shoot you dead, but he needs to be right about it. Terry can't comprehend why Marlowe is so bothered, and basically asks "Isn't that just how people are?" Maybe, but not this time, Marlowe says with the bullet. It's just a shame he had to come from the 40's to say so.

What Happens?

Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) sleeps in his clothes, on a mattress on the floor in his small apartment until awakened by his cat jumping on him. The cat keeps calling and Marlowe, knowing it's hungry gets up to feed it, only to find he's out of cat food. He tries to pacify the cat with food from the fridge but the cat isn't happy. He mumbles to himself on the way out the door. "Going out to get special cat food. I must be out of my fucking mind..." On the way out he passes his neighbors, a group of attractive young women who appear to be having a party. One of them asks him to pick up some brownie mix while he's out.  She tells him he's the nicest neighbor they've ever had and he mumbles, smoking a cigarette, walking away "I've got to be the nicest neighbor. I'm a private eye. It's ok with me."

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Mechanic (2011)

It's no surprise to anyone that every possible property seems to have a remake in the works. I try to stay open minded, as there are certainly some stories that ask to be "modernized" Obviously for studios it's a dollars problem, easier and safer to market a name that's already known and possibly loved than risking a lot of time, money and effort familiarizing us with a product that we may just choose to reject for whatever reason. It is a business after all, so that makes sense. So, I watched the recent remake of "The Mechanic" with as open a mind as possible, considering I loved the 1972 Michael Winner original starring Mr. Charles Bronson. I did a full look at that one in a past entry here:

The Mechanic

I don't think the 2011 movie is a bad film necessarily. Jason Statham is a reasonable action hero, and it's a reasonable action movie. Most of the main plot elements of the original are brought over to the remake, Jason Statham is Arthur Bishop just like Charles Bronson was. However, the two Arthur Bishops have very little in common, aside from the fact that they are both renowned hit men. Statham's Bishop is not a man trying to assert his independence and comfortable with the idea of his own death. He actually comes across as a pretty lighthearted guy that just happens to kill people. The meticulous planning ritual that Bronson's Bishop underwent for every job are lightened up, save for the knowledge that Statham's does have a planning board and a record player. Where Bronson gives us a heavy thinker, swimming in existential angst, who doesn't miss a detail, Statham is a man of action who tries to be careful. Bronson is a skilled technician. Statham is a competent professional. THere's a big difference. The difference in the opening scenes tells us all about it. In the original, Bronson set up an elaborate hit with many moving parts and executes it skillfully and precisely. In the remake, Statham waits for a guy in his swimming pool and drowns him. It works but is hardly artistic.

Another element missing in the remake is the sense of "ties" between everyone. Like Bronson, Statham is required to kill an old friend/mentor figure. In the original we were shown the deep bond between the two characters, just by the way they interacted, and the shared anecdotes, the comfortable space you see in lifelong acquaintances. In the 2011 version, we're told of a longtime relationship, and Donald Sutherland lends his considerable gravity to the scenes, but all the same, we don't get the depth of two people who know each other's lives, and way of life intimately. In the original, both Bishop and his mentor (and Bishop's father before him) have lived in the shadow of "the Organization" an affiliation which has clearly taken a toll on both of them. In the update "the Organization" has no more weight than any major company.

The difference in the presence of "the Organization" is huge considering the differences between the two films. In the original, the Organization is shadowy and immensely powerful. Their figurehead (Frank DeKova) is surrounded by foreboding, and has no trouble telling Bishop what he has to do, threatening him with ease and certainty. Bronson's Bishop has no chance to take down the Organization, they are quite simply too big for him to tackle. That oppression greatly informs his lifestyle and adds to his angst. In the remake, the Organization may as well be staffed by middle managers at any given corporation. When they cross Bishop, it's a very simple problem, he has to go after them and kill them first. There's little angst involved, and the outcome is never in doubt, Statham of course, will get his payback.

The relationship between Bishop and his new protege is also very different. In the original "Steve" (Jan Michael Vincent) is a truly distant and sadistic sort, who revels in almost letting his girlfriend bleed to death to impress Bishop. While he doesn't have nearly the depth of Bishop's character, they do share a certain coldness and a commitment to "making their own rules" The 2011 Steve (Ben Foster) is much less clearly defined, rather than cold, he's portrayed as unpredictable, sloppy, and daring. (qualities which Bishop shouldn't find impressive, but does)   Contrasted with the original Steve watching his girlfriend bleed to death, the remake Steve impresses Bishop by trying to kill a carjacker because (supposedly) a carjacker killed his father. Of course in both versions, Steve's father was Bishop's mentor figure who he killed, setting up possible vendettas. The original Steve, however, didn't seem emotionally bothered by his father's death at all, the lack of emotion part of what made Bishop interested in taking him under his wing. Ben Foster's Steve is just unlikeable, short tempered, and incompetent.

Of course one of the most famous parts of the 1972 Mechanic was it's ending, the dead Bishop leaving a note for Steve, letting him know that he saw his death coming and that he would be dead in a moment himself. This type of planning was Arthur Bishop all over. In the remake there's a note, but the set up seems a bit contrived. The note is also from a Bishop who just improbably escaped the clumsily attempted hit. The fact that Bishop is still alive takes most of the punch out of the note and the ending.

The original Mechanic was a hit man movie loaded with existential questions, deep characters, and unsolvable dilemmas. No one would expect a happy ending from it as the world presented, would never support it. It asked if anyone can really play by their own rules and an interesting answer. The remake gives us a solid action film, with no existential turmoil, only unlikeable and incompetent people.  Bishop's relative competence puts him one up on everyone and he dismantles his employer with little trouble at all, kills his faithless protege and lives happily ever after. For two movies with the same plot the differences are remarkable and a tremendously ponderous film loses all it's gravity to become just another action film. Any questions about "living by your own rules" are dismissed because we're reminded that you just can't kill the main character. The relationships all come across as forced.

That's not to say it's a "bad" movie. Simon West does make a good action flick, the explosions and assassinations and action sequences are impressive. The remake certainly comes across as a better looking product, as the original relied much more on story and character than budget. The actors are all solid enough. Statham is a likable enough action lead that you can enjoy watching, just don't expect philosophy or masterful tension. You could still have a good time watching it on it's own terms. Whether it's telling about the times, the studios, or the directors, is tough to say, but personally, I think you couldn't pick a worse movie to tack with a happy ending.