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From the DVD Shelf: Drive (2011)

I missed Drive when it was released in 2011, but I was intrigued by everything I read about it and it’s a film that I’ve been hoping for some time to catch up to.

Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic driver at the center of the film.  (His character is never named in the movie, something that is done so subtly that I never even realized we didn’t know his character’s name until I was sitting down to write this piece.)  In the film’s dynamic opening sequence, we learn that he is a highly-skilled getaway driver, with incredible abilities behind the wheel and a tight set of rules over what he is willing to do and not do when getting involved with various other criminals and their plans.

The driver has apparently led a very solitary life, focused on his work (both legal — as a mechanic and stunt-car driver for the movies — and illegal), but all that changes when sparks fly with his new neighbor, a pretty, wounded mother (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison.  The driver forms a nice bond with this woman, Irene, and her son Benicio.  Then Irene’s husband comes home from prison, and the driver gets involved in a criminal deal that goes from bad to worse.  None of the characters emerge unscathed (physically/emotionally) from the downward spiral of events that follows.

Drive is a movie that you will watch with a tight knot in your stomach.  Right from the beginning, it was quite clear to me that this wasn’t going to be a movie with a happy ending.  I found myself liking both the driver and Irene, and it was torture watching the events unfold, knowing, just knowing, that none of this was going to end well.  That’s a mark of what a skillfully made film this is.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn is masterful at slowly, ever-so-slowly, ratcheting up the tension and tightening the noose.  It’s also fair warning that this is not a film for everyone.  Drive is tough to watch at times.

The film has a sexy/sleezy/cool vibe that I found very intriguing.  It felt reminiscent to me of the tone of some eighties thrillers, particularly the work of Brian De Palma.  Mr. Refn doesn’t utilize any of the Hitchcockian stylistic devices that Mr. De Palma is so well-known for.  No, what I’m talking about is more a matter of tone.  Drive presents us with a world (and a main character) that is at once very cool, and very ugly.  So many of the films of Mr. De Palma walked that same line.  Take the opening credits of Drive — with that throaty ballad playing loud on the soundtrack, and the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Pacific Rim!

The first feature film adaptation of Hellboy back in 2004 was my introduction to Guillermo del Toro.  I have subsequently watched all of his films (except Blade 2 — I just have absolutely no interest in those Wesley Snipes Blade films) and pretty much loved every one of them.  Through the magic of DVDs/blu-rays, it has been great fun to track Mr. del Toro’s progression from his smaller-scale Spanish films, Cronos (click here for my review) and The Devil’s Backbone (click here for my review) to a slightly larger budget and canvas with Hellboy, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (click here for my review), and the magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, which right now stands tall as my very favorite of Mr. del Toro’s films.

But it’s been quite a while since Mr. Del Toro has helmed a new film.  He spent years developing The Hobbit films with Peter Jackson, only to withdraw from being their director when it seems that the films would never emerge from legal limbo.  He then turned to the development of what he described as a dream project, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, but after about another year pursuing that project, it too fell through.  Ironically, the Peter Jackson-directed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made it to theaters before Mr. del Toro’s new film.

That new film is Pacific Rim.  It is a movie that comes tantalizingly close to greatest, but unfortunately falls short.

Pacific Rim is a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots.  If that premise excites you, then despite the film’s flaws, you are going to enjoy this movie — particularly if you see it on the largest movie theater screen possible.  If that premise sounds boring to you, then this is a movie you should skip.

Pacific Rim brings to big-budget life the Japanese genre of Kaiju — big monsters.  Godzilla would be the most famous Kailua, but there are many many Kaiju films featuring many many different Kaiju.  Clearly Guillermo del Toro was a fan, because what he  has done is create a love letter to this type of film, taking the b-movie “man in suit” concepts and translating them to big-budget action spectacle.  I have read a few breathless internet reviews of Pacific Rim that compare the scale of the world-building in the film to that of Star Wars.  I like Pacific Rim, but I think that’s way over the top.  However, Pacific Rim does remind me of Star Wars in the way that both films have taken old-fashioned, b-movie concepts, re-mixed them, and brought them to life using cutting-edge special effects.

In the world of Pacific Rim, a mysterious … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Cronos (1993)

I really enjoyed the two Hellboy movies directed by Guillermo del Toro, and the exquisite Pan’s Labyrinth made me a fan of his for life.  Last year I tracked down his 2001 Spanish-language horror film The Devil’s Backbone, which I really enjoyed (you can read my review here), and I was delighted when, a few months ago, the fine folks at the Criterion Collection released a beautiful new edition of Mr. del Toro’s 1993 debut film, Cronos.

Jesus Gris is an elderly antiques dealer.  One day in his shop with his granddaughter Aurora, he discovers an ancient, scarab-shaped amulet hidden in an old relic.  The amulet turns out to be a powerful device that offers its user the promise of immortality — but at a great cost.  When Jesus inadvertently allows the scarab to prick him, he quickly finds himself drawn into a nightmare in which his humanity seems to rapidly spiral out of his reach.

Cronos is an impressive achievement for a first-time writer and director.  (Mr. del Toro wrote the script in addition to directing the film.)  While it’s clear that many of the ideas and stylistic techniques that Mr. del Toro would hone in his future films are, as yet, unpolished, Cronos is still a very competently made horror film.  There are some genuine scares in the film, and some suitably gross makeup effects.  But Cronos isn’t just a film designed to make you jump or squirm.  As with much of Mr. del Toro’s work, there’s a fascinating, original story that drives the film.  The kindly Jesus’ descent into, well, into events that I won’t spoil for you here, is tragic because of Mr. del Toro’s skill at establishing characters who you really care about.  I’m also continually impressed by the originality of Mr. del Toro’s stories and designs.  The scarab device and the other creatures and effects in the film are all singularly unique creations that aren’t in any way derivative of other films or other stories.  I was totally surprised when, late in the film, it becomes apparent that this story is actually Mr. del Toro’s take on a familiar genre of horror.  But because his approach to that genre was so new and clever, I wasn’t able to predict where the film was going at all.  Even in his first film, it’s clear that Guillermo del Toro possesses an unparalleled imagination, and the skill to bring his unique imaginings to the screen.

As with The Devil’s Backbone, I wasn’t at all bothered by having to watch this Spanish-lamguage film using the subtitles.  The story and imagery are so strong that the subtitles weren’t an impediment at all to my engagement … [continued]

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Golden Sequel

July 15th, 2008
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I always like my super-hero/fantasy flicks to have a touch of melancholy. (Probably why I enjoy Superman Returns so much, as I’ve written about previously on this site.) One of the things I really appreciated about the Lord of the Rings movies, and the original books, was that touch of sadness in how, even in victory, magic was slowly leaving the world.

That’s a theme explored, also to great effect, in Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. The idea of a monster who hunts down and kills other monsters is a not just a great “hook” — it’s also a notion with a great deal of inherent drama and conflict for the story-teller interested in exploring that. Thankfully, director Guillermo del Toro certainly is.

Hellboy 2 tells the story of the fairy-tail Prince Nuada, furious at the way all of the magical creatures have lost their stewardship of the world to mankind, and our pollution and our strip malls and our parking lots. As in the best of adventure tails, this villain isn’t a bwa-ha-ha moustache-twirling bad-guy — he’s a compelling character with a legitimate point of view. This captures the audience’s interest in the story, and also provokes some tough “am I really on the right side?” questions for our hero Hellboy.

As in the first film, the title character is magnificently embodied by Ron Perlman. I really have never seen a comic book character so perfectly captured on the screen as Perlman’s Hellboy. His big red demon-punching, cigar-chomping, cat-loving paranormal investigator is truly a unique creation. Mike Mignola, the creator and writer-illustrator of the Hellboy comics gets a huge amount of credit for that, but it is Perlman who brings the lovable guy to big-screen life.

What else is good about the movie? The fish-man Abe Sapien gets a lot more screen-time than in the first flick, which is great. Selma Blair is terrific as the pyroteknic Liz Sherman — tough and extremely adorable. One of the mainstays of the comic who was absent from the first flick, the gaseous medium Johann Krauss, is introduced here. Of all the characters, his is the most changed from his comic-book counterpart — or, at least, the way I always pictured the character. He’s a lot more aggressive and by-the-book here (in contrast to the impulsive Hellboy). But, despite those changes, I really loved the character in the film. The “clickety-clack” constant motion of his costume (a sort of hazmat-looking containment suit for his ghostly form) really brings the character to life, as does the bizarre voice given him by Seth MacFarlane (whose vocal stylings you might recognize from almost every character on Family Guy).

And the creature effects — WOW. … [continued]

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With Great Power…

I love comic books. And that means that I grew up with a great love of super-hero stories. These days its true that many of my favorite comic books have little to do with super-heroes (looking through my “to-read” pile I see titles like David Lapham’s Young Liars, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower adaptation, Jeff Smith’s new boot RASL, Mike Mignola’s BPRD and Abe Sapien, Ed Brubaker’s Criminal, Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets, to name just a few.) But there is still something about a great super-hero yarn that really excites me. (For instance, I’ve been reading and throughly enjoying Ed Brubaker’s run on Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis’ work on Avengers and Secret Invasion, and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men.)

That love of a good super-hero tale extends to movies. While working on these new Iron Man cartoons, and thinking about the movies still ahead this summer (Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, and The Incredible Hulk), I’ve been thinking about what makes a great super-hero movie.

Here are my five favorite super-hero movies of all time:

5. Unbreakable — Back when I loved M. Night Shyamalan, he made this fantastic little tale about a man (Bruce Willis) who discovers that he cannot be injured. There are no costumes, no witticisms, none of the silly trappings that have come to be associated with super-heroes and super-hero movies. Just a compelling story with some terrific under-played acting from a great cast (Bruce Willis has never been better than he is here as the sad, empty man who discovers that he is different), and some really interesting scene composition, shot set-ups, and editing choices from director Shyamalan.

4. Hellboy — Adapted from a series of mini-series written and gorgeously illustrated by Mike Mignola, Hellboy follows the adventures of a paranormal investigator who is actually a demon from Hell himself. Who loves pancakes. The comic is a wonderfully bizarre, textured mix of fairy tales, folklore and some good old-fashioned monster-fighting action. The film, directed by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, and the man tapped to direct the upcoming two films based on The Hobbit) is a remarkable realization of Mignola’s comic. The splendid, consistently under-rated Ron Perlman is brilliant as Hellboy, bringing enormous depth and warmth to the character despite all the red rubber makeup.

3. Spider-Man 2 — Like Hellboy, Spider-Man 2 is another film whose greatest strength is the way it is able to distill the essence of a beloved (albeit much more widely-known) comic book character into a compelling film all its own. Tobey Maguire was born to play the stiff, dorky Peter Parker who one day discovers that with great power comes great responsibility. … [continued]