Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Though the man has been making films for more than fifteen years now, it was in 2011 that Nicolas Winding Refn truly arrived with Drive; a cool distillation of 1980s Hollywood action and thriller tropes remixed by a cultural outsider.  Many have already pointed out how Drive pulls from works associated with that decade by Michael Mann, Paul SchraderWalter Hill and Brian De Palma and, yes, there's absolutely something valid about those observations.  But it's a bit of a stretch to describe the film as just an homage to films like Thief, HardcoreThe Driver and Dressed to Kill.  

Refn may be pulling from identifiable sources here but he cuts those materials with a post-modern detachment that's truly unique in its assemblage; Ryan Gosling's nameless character (as well as most of the characters in the film) is less an individual than he is a representation of codified behaviors and attitudes in the type of films being cited here.

The significant difference between the characters in Drive and those in, say, the most recent flick from someone like McG is that Refn peels back any pretense that his characters are anything but signifiers...of impenetrable cool, violence; whatever.

Note the way in which Gosling's "The Driver" and Irene (Carey Mulligan) interact in the film.  There's more repressed sizzle between these characters than in any other film I've seen since The Remains of the Day (okay, scratch that, since In the Mood for Love).  And still, Irene is, akin to all the female characters in the cinema of Michael Mann, a barely fleshed-out, wafer-thin excuse for what constitutes a person.  In Mann's films, the way he represents women is an insurmountable barrier to some viewers (count me among them), making his films difficult to fully enjoy. 

But, in Drive, Gosling's protagonist is every bit as underdeveloped emotionally and in his back story as the woman to whom he is attracted, striking an odd balance of sorts that heightens the viewer's projections of desire for their coupling, delivering a vicarious thrill based in proximity and distance.  This excitement springs from our understanding of how relationships like these in films like this are supposed to unfold; an expectation that Refn fully exploits while simultaneously denying the viewer a resolution to the tension that he orchestrates in the scenes between Gosling and Mulligan.

The result: an atmosphere of intensely-felt longing motivates almost every action in the film, from the crimes at the heart of the plot to the extreme acts of violence that have stuck with all who have seen it.  Drive functions less as a proper thriller than as an immersive cinematic experience based in projection.  Its success is located in the fact that, even when Refn's manipulations are made transparent, the film continues to vibrate with a curiously slippery energy that shocks every bit as much as it teases.

Drive will screen at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) on March 17th & 18th at 7pm.  The film is part of the retrospective series, Driven: The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn.

Related links:
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Pusher
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands 
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death
The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Fear X

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Okay, folks...it looks like Cinema 21's upcoming triple feature (written about here) has been cut down to a double feature, as What Ever Happend to Baby Jane? has been postponed until fall.

Thanks to Jeff Vanvickle (who writes the Through Taped Lenses blog) for pointing this out to me.

Here's the updated schedule for Cinema 21's classic double feature:

To Kill a Mockingbird (@4:15pm & 9:15) and The Manchurian Candidate (@7pm) runs March 16th thru 22nd at Cinema 21.  Admission for each film is $5.  A double feature will only set you back $8.  Don't miss out!

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UPDATE: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has been postponed until fall.  More info here.

 Hot on the heels of Cinema 21's Double Indemnity/Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed double feature,  Tom Ranieri and his staff have lined up yet another cinematic treat for Portland film fans.  This time around, it's a triple feature of films from 1962.  To Kill a Mockingbird, The Manchurian Candidate and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? are all turning 50 this year and Cinema 21's throwing them a week-long birthday party.

A still from To Kill a Mockingbird

Nominated for 7 Academy awards (and the winner of 3, for best actor, screenplay and art direction), To Kill a Mockingbird is the most lauded of the films.  Robert Mulligan's adaptation of Harper Lee's novel used to be compulsory viewing back when I was in elementary school (is it still?).  If there's a kid-friendly film among the trio being celebrated this week, this is it.  Featuring a stellar debut performance by a very young Robert Duvall as the iconic Boo Radley.

A still from The Manchurian Candidate

Remade in 2004 by Jonathan Demme as a Denzel Washington vehicle, the original 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate holds up remarkably well today, rejecting any notions that this tense thriller needed updating.  Boasting a stellar cast (Angela Landsbury's name may not be featured on the poster but her menacing, Oscar-nominated performance is the best in the film), tight direction by John Frankenheimer and tension-infused cinematography by Lionel Lindon, the film transforms noir tropes from the prior generation, repurposing them to potent effect, and is arguably the template for many of the best paranoia-induced thrillers of the 70s (think: The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor).

A still from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is by far the creepiest (and, perhaps, the most fun) of the bunch.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford play aging sisters who have always been at odds due to a jealousy stemming from childhood.  Both stars milk their roles for all they're worth here; Davis was nominated for best actress for her portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson, a character that is one of Hollywood's most sinister explorations of the psychologically damaging effects of child stardom.

If I could only make it to one of these films, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would be the one.

To Kill a Mockingbird (@4:15pm), The Manchurian Candidate (@7pm) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (@9:15) runs March 16th thru 22nd at Cinema 21.  Admission for each film is $5.  A double feature will only set you back $8.  Don't miss out!

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