“Drive”—/Drive It Home (from Redbox, etc.)/

“Drive,” one of my favorites of 2011, has just been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. Here is my review, originally posted back in September. Sadly, “Drive” received ZERO Oscar acting nominations and its director was NOT nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. I think the movie has the elements of a classic. I know I look forward to seeing it again. I recommend it. Read on…

The movies I like best are the ones that feature three things. First, a good story. Second, compelling characters. Third, an interesting way of presenting that story.

“Drive” has all three elements. Ryan Gosling plays a guy who loves to drive. He’s a garage mechanic/movie stunt driver by day and a getaway car driver by night. He befriends his neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan and, later, does a favor for her husband.

The favor? Driving for a simple stickup. But things go bad, people get shot and Gosling’s driver gets involved with some very mean people who want to kill him.

Among the movie’s compelling characters is Bryan Cranston as Gosling’s boss at the garage. Cranston deserves a supporting actor nomination for his grizzled, limping, tragic, chronic victim type.

Albert Brooks is likely to be considered for a best supporting nom as well for his sleazy ex-movie producer turned hood.

Is Gosling Oscar-worthy in “Drive?”  Yes, but buzz is stronger for his work in “Ides of March” coming in three weeks.

The main reason this movie soars is its direction. Beautifully shot, gracefully paced. With a soundtrack that constantly surprises and entertains.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at Cannes this spring. He’s certain to be nominated for all the directing awards in the US this winter. His direction is stylish. There are tinges of Tarantino, but without the smirk.

Is “Drive” a classic? Maybe. It’s a movie that will, I believe, achieve cult status and will still be relevant decades from now. Rated “R.”

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“Albert Nobbs” ~Glenn Not Even Close~

The best cross-dressing movies are comedies. For a cross-dressing drama to work, we have to believe—at least a little bit—that the character really could pass for the gender she/he has chosen.

Glenn Close has, to my mind, a masculine shape to her face. However, she does not look at all like a man in “Albert Nobbs.” Janet McTeer, another woman who passes as a man in this movie, also looks like a woman dressed as a man. McTeer comes closer than Close because of her 6’1” stature.

If you can convince yourself that these two women could actually pass for males, you might be able to enjoy the story. Both women are talented actors. The Academy just gave Oscar nominations to both. Apparently somebody in Hollywood thinks these women make good men.

I do not. The reality, believability and overall quality of this movie is compromised by these two portrayals.

If you are a person who tries to see all of the major Oscar nominated performances, “Albert Nobbs” offers two for the price of one. If you want to see a movie with a story that could have been taken from real life, choose again.

“Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close” [And Slightly Manipulative]

ELADC engages in trickery. First off, we are tricked into expecting a Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock movie—wrong! Yes, they are in the movie, but just a bit. It’s not really their movie; ELADC is really about the kid.

The kid is Oskar, played by the precocious Thomas Horn. Horn is one of the best kid actors since Haley Joel Osment amazed us in “The Sixth Sense.” His character is charming, articulate, intelligent, sweet and likeable. He’d better have all those qualities, because he’s in practically every scene.

The movie is manipulative in that Oskar’s dad (Tom Hanks) is killed in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. We hear his voicemail messages. We see images of the burning WTC buildings. Having seen replays of the event—and revisited some of the emotions of that fateful day—on the recent 10th anniversary of the attacks, we are primed to have a stronger emotional empathy for Oskar and his quest. I blame the novelist (on whose book the script is based) for tying this story to 9/11.

Oskar finds a key that had been apparently hidden away by his late father. He then begins a quest to find out who the key belongs to and its significance. The story of the quest would’ve been just as compelling without the 9/11 connection. (But maybe not so marketable. I call “cheap manipulation.”)

When the story is finally resolved, cue the tear ducts.

Oskar is a kid you want to hug and maybe even tousle his hair. Thomas Horn’s performance is excellent. But the story, to my sensibilities, falls short. (My wife, on the other hand, loved this movie.)

Also in the movie are Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s mom, Max Van Sydow as his “grandfather” and John Goodman as his building’s doorman.

“Haywire” =Gina WHO???=

In “Haywire,” a star is born. The film’s female lead Gina Carano is unknown to most moviegoers. She has achieved a level of fame as an MMA fighter and an “American Gladiator.” Her good looks, her adequate acting skills and her abilities as a fighter guarantee her a future in movies.

The convoluted plot is almost secondary to the constant action that surrounds the character Mallory Kane, played by Carano. Chase scenes in cars and on foot, kidnappings, shootings and hand-to-hand battles are the movie’s key elements. Director Steven Soderbergh shoots the film stylishly with a number of clever subjective camera angles. Carano/Kane’s fight scenes are the best since the last Jason Bourne movie—realistically staged and intense.

Several well-known male actors play Mallory Kane’s various allies and foes. They are Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Bill Paxton.

The action kicks off with a violent face-off between Carano and Tatum in a roadside café in upstate New York. The plot unfolds with scenes in Barcelona, Dublin, rural New Mexico and along the Pacific coastline.

A highlight of the film is the cool soundtrack by David Holmes who scored much of the music for Soderbergh’s three “Ocean’s” movies. He provides rhythmic, up tempo music that is just right for this film.

Go for the action. Go for this new female fighter. Go for the strong male cast. Go for the music. Go to unravel the plot.

“Haywire” delivers 93 minutes of solid movie entertainment. Casting an unknown as the female lead was not a haywire decision—the result makes perfect sense to me.

“Red Tails” (It Made the Tide Fly High!)

The Tuskegee Airmen deserve better. Those brave black men who flew in WWII get a major motion picture and it’s not nearly as good as it should have been.

This is the movie that the Alabama Crimson Tide football team saw the night before they crushed LSU. The story of dealing with adversity and performing well in a high-pressure situation delivers an upbeat, feel-good ending. The air battles provide thrills. The message is clear: working as a team is the road to victory. Roll Tide!

Sadly, “Red Tails” is plagued with hokey war movie dialogue and plot clichés. Since the movie is inspired by true events, the script (co-written by Aaron “Boondocks” MacGruder) should have been more realistic. My guess is that producers felt the film may have needed some of those familiar Hollywood elements to overcome inherent marketing problems.

The acting is generally good. I felt that Terrence Howard was miscast; a more Denzel-like player would’ve given more strength and credibility to the role of unit leader Colonel Bullard.

Will “Red Tails” with a primarily black cast cross over to attract white audiences? As they say at the end of TV news reports, “only time will tell.” “Red Tails” is an entertaining movie. You will feel a patriotic rush at the movie’s climax. It’s just unfortunate that the movie is not better than it is.

“Contraband”—*Legal Entertainment*

“Contraband” is a caper flick, just not so lighthearted as most.

The players: Mark Wahlberg is a reformed smuggler living in New Orleans. Kate Beckinsale is his wife. Ben Foster is Wahlberg’s friend. Giovanni Ribisi is a drug dealer.

When Wahlberg’s brother-in-law dumps a smuggled load of blow into the river—just before the feds board the boat—Ribisi, to whom the cocaine was to be delivered, demands compensation. Wahlberg, now living the straight life, decides to make one last run. He’ll work on a cargo ship and bring a huge amount of funny money back from Panama. When it’s delivered, he’ll get the real money to pay off his relative’s debt.

Well, that was the plan. The caper involves causing the ship to have mechanical problems in Panama. Repairs take time enough for Wahlberg to pick up the counterfeit dollars. The idiot brother-in-law, who comes along for the ride, also picks up a load of blow, much to Wahlberg’s dismay.

Meanwhile, Beckinsale is back in New Orleans with her and Marky Mark’s two sons. Ribisi stops by to intimidate her, so she and the kids crash with Foster.

Bad things happen, as they often do in such movies. Most involve guns and violence. Eventually we get satisfactory resolution.

Good to see character actor J.K. Simmons in the movie as the ship’s captain. He appears WITH his distinctive mustache, which is absent in his Farmer’s Insurance TV spots. He is aware of Wahlberg’s smuggler past and regards him suspiciously throughout the ship’s trip north.

Giovanni Ribisi gets a special nod for being such a slimy bad guy. His strange voice is big part of that portrayal. He may have a big future as a film weasel.

“Contraband” has a decent plot, good characters and a generous helping of violence. It’s not flawless, but it’s a darn good action movie. See it at your local movie house, not on a DVD smuggled in from Taiwan.

“The Iron Lady”—{Meryl Does Maggie}

“The Iron Lady” asks one big question: Will Meryl Streep win yet another Best Actress Oscar?

She will receive a nomination, without a doubt, for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. Meryl is amazing, but this performance has a “been there, done that” feeling to it. Meryl gets a makeover (including some perfect stunt teeth), nails the accent and brings her normal spectacular work. (There are other actresses, though, whose 2011 performances are, in my mind, more Oscar-worthy.)

The movie has a familiar structure. We see an aged, shuffling Maggie Thatcher, who has delusions that her late husband (played by Jim Broadbent) is still with her. Flashbacks take us through the major moments of her life and career.

Unlike “The Queen” and “The King’s Speech,” which keyed on one major crisis in the title character’s life, “The Iron Lady,” takes us through several crises faced during her time as British Prime Minister. Also, those other two movies (which led to Oscars for lead actors) dealt with royals, whereas “Iron Lady” is the story of an elected official. Still, the British thing lends a certain quality that enchants Oscar voters. So don’t count Meryl out.

Margaret Thatcher was a great ally for the US during her eleven years as PM. She certainly broke down gender barriers and provided decisive leadership during a critical time in world history. But—is her biopic a “must see?” Not really.

If you are a Meryl Streep fan, you will want to see this film and you will admire her work in it. If you are a movie fan who likes to check out all the Oscar nominees, get there. Otherwise, I have difficulty finding a compelling reason to suggest you see “The Iron Lady.”

 

 

 

“Carnage”—[No Bodily Harm, Just Bruised Egos]

When a stage play is brought to the screen, especially a play with just one basic setting and only four characters, making it work as a movie can be tricky. “Carnage” works.

The most important credit goes to the writer, Yasmina Reza, whose play “God of Carnage” won the ’09 Tony for best play. With tweaks from director Roman Polanski, her movie script brings us relatable situations and characters direct from our modern day lives.

Next, let’s credit Polanski for taking this one long continuous scene and making it visually interesting. Set in a New York apartment living room (with side trips to the kitchen, bathroom and hallway), the story benefits from good shot selection. The direction gives us varied angles, close ups and wide shots, without calling attention to itself.

Of course, the actors are ones who bring the script to life. Kate Winslet and Christopher Waltz are one couple. Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly are the other. All four deliver excellent performances.

The two couples visit together after their sons have been involved in a playground incident. One couple wants the other to apologize for their child’s aggression. As the discussion continues, other subjects are addressed. Food is shared and later, booze. The couples engage in verbal warfare, first with the opposite couple and then with their own spouses.

Many of us who are married with children have been in similar situations. You want to be nice, but sometimes tensions build. In “Carnage,” there are moments that will make you uncomfortable and there are moments that will make you laugh out loud. You may shift your allegiance and identification from one character to another (and maybe back again).

I like “Carnage.” Despite its being one 80-minute long conversation, it is not boring. Does “Carnage” have a message or two? Maybe. That’s for you and your spouse to discuss on the drive home from the theatre.

“Joyful Noise”—(Will Take You Higher!)

“Joyful Noise” is simply fun. The music is incredible. There are big laughs and chuckles. The cast is likeable. The story is mostly predictable, but that’s okay.

“Joyful Noise” is set in a small town in Georgia where black folks and white folks go to church together, sing in the choir together, generally get along together. It’s refreshing to see such racial harmony in the Deep South, realistic or not. There is friction between lead characters played by Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, but that’s all about their respective stubborn personalities and Latifah’s resentment of Dolly’s wealth.

Both are members of a church choir that works hard each year to win their regional competition, but always comes in second. This time, the winning choir gets bounced for using ringers, including gospel megastar Kirk Franklin in a killer performance. So Dolly, Latifah and company get to go to LA for the nationals.

The movie has romances, hookups, a catfight (Dolly and Latifah), a fistfight, mother/daughter angst, a runaway and a tearful reunion. The plot, though, is almost incidental. The star of this movie is the music.

Performances of pop tunes “Man in the Mirror,” “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “I Want To Take You Higher” are highlights. Keke Taylor and Jeremy Jordan (as Latifah’s daughter and Dolly’s grandson) bring strong singing talent to the show. They also have a romance in the movie, which is frowned on by Latifah, but okay with Dolly.

Should you take a church group to see this feel-good movie about a church choir? Well, it is rated PG-13 for a few impolite words and “a sexual reference.” But you will be entertained and you will have your spirits lifted.

Book Review: Life Itself, a Memoir by Roger Ebert

A book review on a movie website? Well, yes. Roger Ebert is arguably the best-known film critic in America and he has written a book about his life, itself.

If you’re looking for a trip through Ebert’s long list of movies and movie stars, grab one of his previous books. In Life Itself, he mentions a few moviemakers he’s fond of, such as Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen and Werner Herzog. He shares thoughts about a handful of stars like Robert Mitchum (his favorite), John Wayne and Lee Marvin.

But the main content of the book is his life’s high points and the challenges he has faced. High points have included being named film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times at an early age, teaming with Gene Siskel to review movies on TV and meeting and marrying his wife Chaz. He writes lovingly of visits to London, Venice and Boulder (Colorado). He devotes one chapter to praise for Steak’n’Shake.

Ebert’s challenges have included his alcoholism and his cancer that has left him unable to eat, drink or speak. He also had issues with his mother—her late-in-life alcoholism and her efforts to control his life into adulthood.

The loss of his speaking voice has caused Roger Ebert to focus on writing as a way to communicate. His natural writing talents combine with his lengthy writing experience to deliver remembrances and observations that reveal much about the man.

To write a memoir or autobiography requires a healthy ego. Ebert revels in the triumphs that have occurred throughout his life, but maintains enough humility in this book to remain human and likeable. Read and enjoy.