POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2011:
Drive is a must see but Higher Ground may be a bit of a bore
The neon lights of Los Angeles almost become a character of their own in Drive, coldly illuminating the cobalt night, marking the towers of that oft shot urban jungle. Channeling one part Michael Mann and one part one part Alejandro Jordowosky, director Nicolas Winding Refn adopts a subdued version of Mann's glowing '80s visual sense, combining it with Jordowosky's narrative dreaminess; to craft something familiar, yet uniquely his own.
Refn defined a visual poetics with 2009's Valhalla Rising; a film as brutal in execution as it was in arty, near-experimental wonder. It's a film that finds Refn showing us what Aguirre: The Wrath of God would have been like if '70s Herzog were applied to Nordic myths. Valhalla Rising was a grippingly dark, violent and utterly atmospheric philosophical barbarian flick.
With Drive, Refn applies that sense cinematic pastiche to the rich tradition of 1980s L.A. crime noir.
Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for any would-be thief. "I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what," he says, and proceeds to prove his skills. When he's not being Batman he holds down a mechanic gig for an ex-stunt guy, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who builds stock cars for the movies and for "Drivers" jobs. Shannon dreams of getting back in the NASCAR circuit with Driver and approaches his friend but otherwise lethally dangerous Jewish mob boss, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) for some venture capital.
When the stoic Driver meets a new neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos) he begins to warm to them and the quiet sexual tension between he and Irene. That's all blown when her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes home from prison to reunite with his family.
But it turns out Standard is in debt for protection money to a low level mob guy, Cook (James Biberi). After Driver discovers him beaten-to-a-pulp he decides to help Standard to rip off a pawn shop to get the money to repay Cook. But the heist is something more than it seems, embroiling Driver ever deeper in the treacherous plans of Nino (Ron Perlman) a protégé of Bernie's with a need to cover his tracks in the robbery.
Drive drips with tangible atmosphere from the opening frames, as Gosling coolly and quietly maneuvers between the cops and helicopters searching for his car after the very first heist. Driver doesn't say much, he's a steel trap of a man, ready to spring but otherwise misleadingly calm. But the inherent decency of his character begins to leak through when he becomes wrapped up in Irene's life.
Adapted from the James Sallis novel of the same name, Refn directs everything with stylish, Euro-sensibilities. Nice long takes and quiet moments of pure, nocturnal ambience are a contrast to the occasional car chase (there are really only two chase set-pieces in Drive though they are both very well shot and edited, recalling the classics Bullit and The French Connection) and the sudden bursts of glorious violence as Refn winds his narrative threads together ever more tautly.
The cinematography of Newton Thomas Sigel (X2) is awash in neon glows and subdued interior lighting while the '80s vibe is cemented even more by the synth-laden, backbeat score by Cliff Martinez--adding a level of near nostalgia to the affair.
Performances are fun across the board. Gosling gives a finely tuned turn as Driver, reserved and to-the-point, covering for an inherently decent heart -- albeit beating in the body of a man who will cave in a skull with his boot heel when the occasion calls for it.
Bryan Cranston is fine as Shannon, a sort of annoying but likeable father figure to Driver.
Albert Brooks is amiably menacing as Bernie Rose in that way that only Albert Brooks can capture. That he doesn't seem all that dangerous is the most threatening thing about him (a scene at the end between he and Cranston nails this dynamic). As his partner, Nino, Ron Perlman chews scenery with the best of them.
Carey Mulligan is spritely and beautiful and slightly muted as Irene, turning in a good performance, and occasionally unleashing that Audrey Hepburn smile.
Drive is a wonderfully crafted noir, thriller with the skin of a slick '80s crime film over the beating heart of maturely constructed, atmospheric action flick. Not to be missed.
I've been a fan of the lovely and talented Vera Farmiga since her amazing, glacial-blue eyes and sanguine personality made their appearance in the Adrien Brody-starring, indie treat, Dummy. Since then her star has somewhat ascended with roles in Running Scared, Martin Scorsese's The Departed and her most noteworthy recent role as Alex in Jason Reitman's fine (if overpraised) Up In the Air.
Now Farmiga has turned her sites on the director's chair and has come out with Higher Ground, the story of a woman's full circle travails that lead her to and eventually from her faith.
Adapted from the memoir, "This Dark World", by Carolyn S. Briggs (who helped do the adapting) Higher Ground tells the story of Corrine a young girl who seems indifferent to faith until her parents' marriage begins to fall apart. She falls in love with a musician, Ethan (Joshua Leonard) gets knocked up and married and as their lives begin to grow together they find more and more solace in the word of God.
But over the years things begin to fracture for Corrine, as she slowly begins to realize that she isn't necessarily feeling the touch of Christ, or some of the rules of her congregation. That whole submitting to your husband thing and the admonishment of her fellow women when she comes dangerously close to being sexy (or preaching the word to the men she's supposed to submit to) begins to chip away at Corrine's piety. As she is baptized to see the world in a new way at the beginning so in the end she is reborn to her own life when she loses what it was she thought she'd taken into her heart.
Higher Ground is a thoughtful film and Farmiga crafts a delicate work of characters at once pious to the point if caricature, but never stepping over the line into mockery. The films themes of family stretched thin over the drum of faith, to the point of breaking, provide the major conflicts to Corrine's beliefs; be it her parents' divorce or the eventual growing out of her own marriage. For the film though, it's not quite enough.
Farmiga's direction borders on perfunctory, her blocking often rudimentary and she elicits few memorable performances from her cast. Meanwhile the narrative flow is sluggish, having little impact in scene after scene where the flock minister to each other or the everyday joys and sorrows pass like footnotes. It asks some profound questions of Corrine's character, but fails to achieve profundity in answering them or in the film's execution--a crisis of faith film without a sense of crisis. Just moments of joy and disillusionment.
Farmiga turns on a decent performance, though the stand outs here are John Hawkes as Corrine's father, CW and Bill Irwin as Pastor Bud. Hawkes is typically effortless in from of a camera.
For the intended audience, Higher Ground may be a thoughtful rumination on the strength of faith. For the rest of us, it's a bit of a tepid bore.
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