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Posts Tagged ‘road movie’

I expect I have spoken in the past of the way in which film trailers tend to get shown before movies with which they have a certain something in common, mainly because this is where they are most likely to find a receptive audience and actually do their job of making people go to see the film they’re advertising. So in a weird way I can sometimes get a sense of how much I’m going to enjoy a film from the trailers that run before it – if they all look pretty appetising, I can be more sure I’ve made a good choice. Ones that provoke a mutter of ‘Not even if you paid me…’ set alarm bells ringing. So, when I was treated in one session to the promotional material for Instant Family, Fisherman’s Friends, On the Basis of Sex and If Beale Street Could Talk, all of which look likely to be either glutinously sentimental or tediously earnest, my wariness about Peter Farrelly’s Green Book was only increased. (We also got the trailer for Alita: Battle Angel, but this doesn’t count as the Alita trailer is being shown before literally everything possible – I sense panic is setting in and the studio suspects they have a bomb on their hands, but I guess that’s what happens when you base a $200 million-plus movie on an relatively obscure manga and then release it in February.)

green_book

Green Book is supposedly one of those marginally-true stories, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The film is set in the early 1960s and Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a slightly shady New York wise guy who – as the film opens – is working as a brutally efficient nightclub bouncer. (You have to hand it to Viggo when it comes to landing roles he doesn’t initially sound quite right for. The man is Danish, after all, and would not be, you’d think, anyone’s first choice to play Italian-American. But we should bear in mind Mortensen’s track record in performing roles of wildly varied ethnic backgrounds with great aplomb: Spanish, native American, Amish, Dunedain – this man can do them all.)

Anyway, when the club briefly closes, Tony is obliged to find a new source of income, and after a short stint participating in eating contests for money, he lands a job as driver, fixer, and general factotum for the concert pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Obviously there is the potential for a personality clash here – Tony is a streetwise, amoral, crude, profane, somewhat racist family man, while Don is cultured, restrained, fastidious, African-American and a confirmed bachelor. However, tensions between the two are secondary to those they may encounter on the road – for Tony is to accompany Dr Shirley on a tour of the deep south of the United States, where segregation is still a fact of everyday life and bigotry is openly on display. Before departing, Tony is handed a copy of the ‘Green Book’ – a list of the hotels and restaurants which African-Americans are allowed to use…

I should say that Green Book went on my list of films to look out for the first time I saw the trailer last year, but as the release got closer I must confess I grew increasingly cynical about it and moderated my expectations quite significantly. I realised that I already had a pretty good idea of the way this one was going to play out, down to some of the specific beats of the story: the two men would initially fail to connect with each other, but slowly, over the course of the film, a bond would develop in the face of the racism they encountered every day. Tony would become a better, more open-minded and tolerant man as a result of Don’s influence; Don, meanwhile, would be revealed to have some personal issues of his own, which Tony would help him begin to deal with. In the end there would be an uplifting message of friendship and acceptance of difference.

And, do you know what? I was entirely correct in this. (I shouldn’t take too much credit for this predictive feat, as most of the story is implicit in the trailer.) I feel I should also point at that the quote, prominently featured in the publicity, ‘Like no other movie’, presumably came from someone wholly unfamiliar with any of the numerous odd-couple buddy road movies of years gone by. But, and this is more important, the thing is that this actually really doesn’t matter at all.

Before going any further, it’s probably worth mentioning that many commentators have criticised Green Book on the same kind of grounds that I was thinking along: it is really just sanitised comfort-food for liberals and progressives, it skates over just how ugly and oppressive life under the Jim Crow laws was, it is even another example of the White Saviour narrative trope (according to some people, anyway). I am not in a position to say that any of this is definitely untrue.

But what does seem to me to be the case is that this is a charming, solidly-made film that never overtly seems to be preaching to the audience, never feels like it’s shying away from uncomfortable historical truths, and – most importantly – is driven along by two genuinely terrific performances from charismatic actors.

Viggo Mortensen holds the unique distinction of being the only actor that I know of to get his picture put up on my mother’s bedroom wall. This happened rather late in life for both of them, around the time that Mortensen enjoyed his highest profile due to his role in The Lord of the Rings (a film for which he was a piece of last-minute replacement casting). His rather chequered career before visiting Middle-Earth, and the fact he hasn’t been that prominent in big movies since then, might lead you to assume that this was a fluke, but even a brief look at the man makes it clear that simply being a Hollywood movie star is not something that really interests him very much – he is also a poet, musician, photographer, artist and author (in addition to speaking about seven languages, not counting Sindarin). It looks like he only makes the movies that really interest him.

This is great for Mortensen, I expect, but a bit of a shame for the rest of us, because what Green Book really underlines is that he is a genuinely great and compelling actor, entirely capable of carrying a substantial mainstream movie (I suppose his multiple Oscar, Bafta and SAG nominations might also tip one off to this). There is, as I say, the fact that Mortensen doesn’t really look especially Italian-American, but apart from this he is effortlessly convincing, and not afraid to be unsympathetic at the start of the film. One can only hope that we see more of him in future (it would make my mum happy too), but I suppose that depends on people sending him decent scripts. Fingers crossed.

Mahershala Ali is one of those actors who seems to have popped up almost from nowhere in recent years, having built a career on a series of smartly-chosen, well-executed performances. His place in history was secured when he became the first Muslim American actor to win an Oscar (for his early-exit role in Moonlight), and he now shows every sign of becoming the go-to guy for dignity, poise, and self-respect (he’s also in Alita, but a guy’s got to eat). The joy of this film is the chemistry between Tony and Don, and it really does feel like the focus is firmly on the two of them as individuals, although inevitably issues of race and culture do get raised as the story progresses.

So, in the end, yes, Green Book is a very predictable movie – but the story was such an engaging and well-crafted one that I really didn’t care, I was having such a good time with these two characters on their journey. This isn’t a particularly radical film, or an obviously angry one, but it’s a hopeful one with a positive message. It may well just be comfort food for white liberals, but it’s comfort food for white liberals that has come from a very classy kitchen.

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As you may have noticed, I am quite lucky, or at least determined, when it comes to actually getting to see the films that I want to see. Since the back end of 2010 it has been quite unusual for a mainstream film to come out and my not to be able to catch it on the big screen in some form, the main exceptions being a particular style of mainstream thriller which the Oxford city centre multiplexes don’t seem to like very much.

Nevertheless exceptions do occur and I am lucky enough to have a colleague who not only enjoys movies as much as me, but also still buys DVDs. Apropos of I-don’t-remember-what, he asked me a while back if I’d seen A Field in England, and when I admitted I hadn’t and that this was a source of some regret, he was kind enough to put it in my direction. Also included, and which I was (of course) much too polite to demur about, was Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.

nebraska

Now this was a movie which did get a release at the Oxford Phoenix and which I could quite probably have gone to see on the big screen, but I must confess that something about it didn’t really appeal: a black and white road movie comedy-drama about a dysfunctional American family? I don’t know, I thought I had much too strong an idea of what this film was going to be. (And I must confess to having gotten Alexander Payne jumbled up in my head with Alexandre Rockwell, despite having seen and enjoyed The Descendants and About Schmidt, though I doubt that’s a hanging offence.) It took me a while to actually getting around to watching the DVD, in rather the same way it’s taking me a while to actually start writing about Nebraska – I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to find enough things to say about it now beyond simply restating the obvious.

The core of Payne’s film is the relationship between Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly man in small-town Montana, and his son David (Will Forte). Woody is, not to put too fine a point on it, a contrary old git, a borderline alcoholic who appears not to give a damn about anyone but himself, and when he is discovered one day seemingly wandering at random on the edge of town, there is a sort of communal sigh of dismay from everyone connected to him.

But Woody insists he is not senile: he is in possession of a letter assuring him that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstake. It looks like an obvious scam, but Woody refuses to accept this and tries again and again to leave town, heading for Lincoln, Nebraska where he can collect his winnings. Short of having his father put away, David realises there is no way he can convince him to stop: and it’s with a certain sense of resignation that he realises he has no really pressing business to prevent him driving his father to Lincoln himself.

Various complications inevitably ensue, and David and Woody find themselves taking an extended break from their journey in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne. Staying with the family brings all the usual little problems, and provides several reminders of Woody’s chequered past: but there is a more serious concern as well. Word of Woody’s supposed good fortune gets around, with the result that various interested parties and longstanding debtors come out of the woodwork, all making their claim on the apparently-nonexistent fortune, and making not-so-subtle threats as to what may happen if they don’t get it…

So, Nebraska is a black-and-white film from an indy-ish director whose biggest star – internationally speaking, at least – is probably best known for films he made back in the 1970s (I’m thinking of Silent Running and things like that). The opening shot is of an urban landscape, with a tiny human figure stumbling through the snow towards the viewer for what feels like a very long time. A violin is playing soulfully on the soundtrack. Is this simply just the kind of film that it appears to be?

You know what I mean: Arty and Significant and probably just a bit Slow and Depressing. It has to be said that Nebraska does go on for over two hours, and a lot of it consists of various characters driving back and forth between the same handful of places. The plot contains no great reversals or stunning twists.

The fact that Payne chooses to film it in black and white is, I think, a significant artistic choice, rather than the result of budgetary constraints. The results have a sort of pristine clarity which is is quite beautiful; the cinematography is quite beautiful. The thing is that much of the film is actually taking place in locations and concerns people which you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as being remotely pleasant to look at: hospital and motel rooms, scuzzy taverns, the backs of cars, filled with large men in baseball caps and dungarees or slightly decaying older people. This is a very blue-collar world, in places almost a redneck one, and it seems to me that by filming it in such an elevated style Payne is trying to summon up the magic of the everyday and commonplace and invite viewers to look again at the world around them. I suppose this does tie in to the theme of the film somewhat, which is that of David Grant reappraising his father and their relationship, and to some degree himself.

On the other hand, if Payne really is trying to suggest that beauty is all around us, filling his movie with so many small-town grotesques and cantankerous elderly curmudgeons is a strange way to go about it. Nearly everyone in this film is either mildly weird and/or objectionable on some level, or very weird and/or objectionable. The exception is, naturally, David himself, because as the viewpoint character he has to be someone the audience identifies with – but it’s never really explained why he should be the only normal one in the family.

It sounds like I had a terrible time watching Nebraska, doesn’t it? And, to be fair, the early part of the film does have an air of quiet desperation about it which could bring a person’s mood down, as David realises nobody’s life seems to be going anywhere, and Woody’s quest to collect his million is really no more absurd or quixotic than any of the concerns held by the other characters in the film.

But it was never actually a chore to watch, and as the film went on I found myself warming to it quite considerably: I do like me a slice of low-key comedy-drama once in a while, after all, and it would be absolutely unfair to suggest that Nebraska is anything other than extremely well written, directed, and performed. Dern gets the showy role, obviously, but Forte is extremely good as the straight man of the film: his is a performance of considerable subtlety, and the transformation in attitude he goes through by the conclusion of the film is convincing without feeling heavy-handed. The final sequence of the film is, to be honest, quite charming and lovely, without going into details too much.

So there you go, proof that a really good film can win you over even if you do (figuratively speaking) turn up to it with serious reservations. In narrative terms it’s a small, low-key story, but one about universal themes of family and respect and coming to terms with the disappointments of life. I’m not saying I’m in a hurry to watch it again soon (which is a shame, as I should probably give the DVD back), but somewhere down the line I would definitely like to look at it again.

 

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Probably due to my (ahem) international lifestyle over the last five or six years and the resulting bevy of friends scattered across continents, I am an inveterate user of a prominent social networking site. You know, the one invented by the guy who was in the thing a couple of years ago? The one that had the thing about the other thing when it thinged recently?

Well, as you can probably imagine, this means I am much accustomed to ridiculous and vaguely offensive adverts popping up in the fringes of my eyeline, mostly offering to sell me things I don’t feel I need, expand parts of my body the proportions of which I am currently quite happy with, or fix me up with people who are, quite obviously, not only way out of my league but probably playing a different sport entirely. Recently one of these appeared – or so I thought – announcing that ‘Keira is seeking a friend for the end of the world’, accompanied by a sombre headshot of Miss Knightley of that ilk. Was this another dodgy dating site or something to do with Mayan calendar 2012 nonsense? My bemusement only increased when the distaff version started popping up, featuring Steve Carell.

It turned out none of my ideas was remotely accurate as this was in fact a rather underwhelming advertising campaign in support of Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which stars Carell and Knightley. This is one of those self-consciously indie-ish movies which wanders across genre borders – mainly it’s a comedy-drama, or possibly a dramedy, but almost certainly not a coma.

The tone is set by the opening scene, in which a car radio announces that the last-ditch space mission to deflect an incoming asteroid has totally failed and that all human life and civilisation will be utterly annihilated in only three weeks, the announcer then seamlessly going on to introduce The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’.

The wife of middle-aged everyman Dodge (Carell) takes this opportunity to leave him, leaving him in something of a quandary as to what to do: as he’s a life insurance salesman, it’s all gone very quiet on the work front, and as he only actually got married in order to avoid dying alone, he’s understandably disgruntled at being dumped this way.

Unimpressed by the wild behaviour displayed by his friends as the end draws closer and society starts to break down, he becomes much closer to his neighbour, Penny (Knightley). Then Penny (who is a Kooky Free Spirit From England) reveals that she received a letter meant for Dodge some time earlier. The letter is from the love of Dodge’s life, who reveals she still has feelings for him. Dodge is appalled that he didn’t discover this sooner and the duo strike a deal – if Penny helps him find his true love, he will put her in touch with someone with a private plane who can get her back to England to be with her family at the end.

Well, it’s about an odd couple on a road trip, what do you think happens? It’s probably fair to say that Steve Carell and Keira Knightley would not be high on most peoples’ lists of sizzling screen couples – probably ranking about the same as a celluloid hook-up between Andy Serkis and Dame Judi Dench – but, to be fair to them, there are hardly any moments in this film which actually make you go ‘Ewww’.

However, this is really a rather strange film, not least because – and this does seem oddly absurd – completely blowing up the world and everyone on it is not that original an idea. It’s become a well-enough-established concept to have its own set of cinematic tropes and conventions, most notably the final flare to a completely white screen which signifies the arrival of the apocalypse. Seeking a Friend for the End  of the World adheres to these quite cheerfully, which inevitably invites comparisons with other films along similar lines.

The set-up and the presence of mainstream stars like Carell and Knightley leads one to expect a black-comedy alternate-ending version of Armageddon, but the movie is much quirkier than this, as well as being a lot less comic. It’s not that it fails to be funny, it just doesn’t try most of the time.

I’m not sure whether this was a good idea or not. While the concept of the movie is an inherently serious one – the looming catastrophe naturally provokes a lot of introspection and breast-beating from characters about their lives and priorities up to this point – I think it might have been better to play the film against the natural tone one would expect. When the film tries to be comic, it’s usually very funny, and these points are not without a certain insight into human nature.

The more serious tone the film adopts as it progresses is reasonably well-handled, with a very good performance from Carell, and a typically brilliant cameo from Martin Sheen (I know, I know: you wait five years for a Martin Sheen movie to be reviewed and then two come along in consecutive weeks), but I got no real sense of the film having anything profound or surprising to say. It’s not boring to watch, nor is it completely unbelieveable, but at the same time I didn’t really care about the fact that all of the characters were shortly about to die.

Nor did I much care about the burgeoning central romance, which really didn’t ring true for me. Knightley’s performance is, if we’re totally honest, variable – she’s okay doing the light comedy and offhand stuff, but when she’s required to become deeply emotional – as she is at a couple of key points – she starts staring off into the distance, doing weird things with her nose and eyebrows, and generally gets caught acting just a bit too often. Maybe this contributed to the fact I felt no sense of sadness or loss that the main relationship was to be so rapidly terminated.

Hey ho. It’s a nicely made film with some good visuals and interesting ideas, but I couldn’t help thinking that all the best parts of this film were comprised of material I’d seen handled better and more intelligently elsewhere: not just the basic concept, but the strained social milieu, the breakdown of traditional morality, and the last-minute romance (even down to its fixation with old records) – all of these seemed to me to be terribly similar to Don McKellar’s 1998 movie Last Night, which I remember being more accomplished.

Still, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an interesting film, even if the tone and focus are a bit messed up, and I certainly didn’t find it objectionable on any level. Nevertheless, I have seen the complete and utter destruction of the world depicted better than this on several occasions in the past, and I suspect I will again in future.

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Sometimes I’m not sure that my habit of routinely referring to the local Picturehouse cinema as ‘the arthouse’ is wholly justified – quite often it does end up showing the same films as the coffeeshop and other multiplexes. For example, The Iron Lady, The Artist, The Best Exotic Whatever and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (no thanks) have all played at both, while Marley starts at the Picturehouse this weekend. (Usually, given the choice, I follow the wise advice of Dr K and support the smaller cinema, so cue guilt from me for having already seen the reggae biopic at a larger venue.) And the so-called arthouse cinema’s latest classic revival of a film by a noted European auteur is not Orpheus or Bande a Part, but a blood-drenched and wildly excessive piece of heavy-metal SF satire that spawned a relatively major franchise (needless to say I have already bought my ticket).

Then again, it does often show movies I can’t imagine the coffeeshop giving any kind of a chance, big names and quality or not. Actually, I’m not sure if Sean Penn still counts as a big name or not – he’s still a well-known figure, but I’m not sure whether that’s due to his acting or his penchant for shooting his mouth off about the various political causes he’s taken up. But he’s still making movies, such as Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place. To describe this film as off-beat is a major understatement.

Penn plays Cheyenne, a fifty-year-old Goth rock star living a life of aimless bafflement in suburban Dublin, for reasons the film does not address directly (but which may have something to do with the fact this film was part-funded by the Irish Film Board). He and his wife (Frances McDormand) seem happy enough, his weekly visits to a local graveyard notwithstanding. But then news arrives from America: Cheyenne’s father is dying.

Cheyenne and his father have had a distant relationship for many years, but something still moves Cheyenne to take up the obsession that has dominated his father’s later years – incarcerated in Auschwitz as a youth, the old man was fixated on finding the man he considered the greatest of his tormentors amongst the camp guards. Pausing only to consult with veteran Nazi-hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), and – for somewhat less obvious reasons – art-rock legend David Byrne (David Byrne, duh), Cheyenne sets out to complete his father’s quest…

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: not another middle-aged Goth hunting a Nazi war criminal comedy drama road movie! ‘Fraid so, folks – but it’s not as straightforward as that sounds. Seeing this film, the over-riding impression I took away with me was of Sean Penn’s performance, which is extraordinary. I’m not saying it’s necessarily extraordinarily good, but it’s very, very striking. Penn really goes for the Goth look, with fright-wig hair and full make-up practically throughout the movie. He looks ostentatiously ridiculous even when not dressed to play sport (as he is in a couple of scenes), but Penn ups the ante even further with an effete, almost wheedling vocal performance and a whole array of mannered facial tics. He doesn’t so much just grab your attention, as wrest it away from you and run off howling.

The wild over-the-topness of this is particularly strange, as there’s a lot more drama than there is comedy in the course of this film. I suppose this isn’t that surprising, given the focus of the plot, but there’s a constant tension between the look-at-me strangeness of what Penn is doing and the genuine emotions at the heart of a lot of the script. Cheyenne is surrounded by people living their lives and coping with their own emotional problems – unrequited love, trouble with their parents, bereavement – and these are, on the whole, sincerely written and convincing played by the large supporting cast. The film is much more about these people and their effect on Cheyenne than it is his search for the war criminal.

That said, the film isn’t completely po-faced and does contain some very funny scenes, but the memorable ones are more serious in tone – most striking is a discussion between Penn and Byrne in which, for the first time, Penn’s emotional detachment crumbles and we get a glimpse of the man within for the first time. This is when we start to understand why he still maintains the same outrageously affected appearance he had when he was a teenager – it is a mechanism for hiding from the world, from time, and from himself, and the rest of the film is about how he slowly reconnects with all these things.

This is a visually brilliant film, with impeccably composed shots and lustrous cinematography throughout – the southern USA looks gorgeous on the screen, suburban Dublin perhaps less so. For a while I wondered if this wasn’t just another showy-offy film like (possibly) There Will Be Blood, with Penn going into method overload and the cameraman and director running amuck in their own departments too. But in the end I’m not sure if that’s the case. The road-movie element is a little bit hackneyed, and the quest plotline also far from original, but the character studies and scenes along the way add up to create a quietly moving composite portrait of human emotional frailty.

Even so, I’m not sure This Must Be The Place isn’t a bit less than the sum of its parts, for all that it’s more about the journey than the denouement. And perhaps the filmmakers felt the same thing – the very end of the film feels like an attempt to be enigmatic and provoke discussion amongst the audience. I’m not sure what it means; the obvious answer has the drawback of seeming wildly implausible, but the film doesn’t point towards any others.

Nevertheless, this is an engaging and entertaining film, even if it never quite completely comes together as a coherent whole. Anyone going solely by appearances is probably not going to take it seriously – which is a shame, because I think it deserves at least that much.

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When you write something for public consumption, one of the more important decisions you have to make is what to call it – it’s all too easy to get this wrong and end up with something unengaging or downright silly (a brief scan back through previous posts to this blog should provide you with more than enough evidence of this). There’s nothing quite like a good title, but even bearing this in mind there doesn’t seem to have been much history of writers and film-makers recycling in this area. Probably for good reason: you want a good title, but you also want to be distinctive.

There’s a bit of an exception when you come to one-word titles, however. Let the person who orders the DVD of Twilight make very sure they are indeed requesting Robert Benton’s 1998 thriller starring Paul Newman and Gene Hackman, and not some fluff about hormonal vampires. It’s just about possible someone might sit down expecting to partake of Steve Zahn’s undemanding 2001 youth-horror Road Kill only to find themselves watching Bruce McDonald’s considerably weirder 1989 production, Roadkill. And God help anyone who gets Paul Haggis’ meditation on modern-day urban prejudice mixed up with David Cronenberg’s examination of technophiliac sexual fetishes.

I doubt many people are going to get Nicolas Winding Refn’s version of Drive from last year mixed up with Steve Wang’s version of Drive from 1998, but this is mainly because Wang’s film is not well known outside of the DTV martial arts ghetto. I think this is a shame, as this is a superior example of this kind of film, for reasons I will elucidate.

It all kicks off on the docks of San Francisco, some time in the near future, where black-clad stranger Toby Wong (Mark Dacascos) is hiding on board a recently-arrived ship. He is a renegade assassin from Hong Kong who’s come to the US to do a deal: courtesy of a corporation working with the Chinese government (hmm, there’s no stopping these public/private partnerships, is there?) he has been surgically fitted with a ‘bio-engine’ which enhances his speed and reaction time, and he’s here to sell the device to a rival American corporation. But in order to do that he has to evade the agents of his disgruntled former employers.

After some initial tone-settin’ ass-whuppin’, Toby finds his way to a bar which is the favourite hang-out of unemployed songwriter Malik Brody (Kadeem Hardison). Pursued by both the bad guys and the police, Toby reluctantly takes Malik hostage in order to secure his escape. Needing to reach his contact in Los Angeles in  a hurry, Toby offers Malik half the money if he’ll help him get there. There’s only one thing to do: drive!

So, yeah, another one of those cyborg-former-assassin-teams-up-with-unemployed-songwriter-for-a-kung-fu-road-trip movies… Drive seems to me to occupy an interesting place in the history of the action genre. On the one hand, it’s clearly part of a whole slew of culture-clash buddy martial arts movies and TV shows that were briefly popular in the late 90s (see also Rush Hour and Martial Law, both of which Drive actually preceded), albeit with a rather harder edge to it than most of those.

But it also rather reminds me of the kind of low budget SF exploitation movies that were coming out of California in the 80s – films like Trancers, Cherry 2000 and Teenage Comet Zombies, all notable for inventive scripts, offbeat humour and better-than-you’d-expect performances, which Drive also possesses. Is Drive, then, also a proper SF movie? Well – it depends on which version of the film you see. There are a number of different ones knocking about – the shorter, TV version has had most of the futuristic material snipped. Even in the director’s cut the SF elements aren’t much more than plot devices, but not objectionable ones.

Drive‘s influences are, of course, secondary to whether or not it works as an action movie. And it does – there are plenty of fights, and they’re inventively and wittily choreographed. Some of these are, let’s face it, new takes on old chestnuts of the genre – hero fights a bunch of people in a garage, hero fights people on motorbikes, hero has to fight while handcuffed to useless sidekick – but even so they are well performed and sensibly photographed. Dacasco’s final acrobatic duel with Masaya Kato is as good as any ‘final boss’ fight that I’ve seen.

I was sitting in one of Oxford’s more characterful pubs the other day, enjoying a beer, some crisps, and a fiercely-fought game of Carcassonne, when much to my surprise I noticed the TV appeared to be showing The Crow at five o’clock in the afternoon. It turned out to be the Crow TV show, but my surprise was not yet complete, as starring in the show was Mark Dacascos (I had forgotten he was in it). I like Mark Dacascos a lot, and I’m a bit perplexed that he hasn’t had a higher-profile career. As a martial arts performer he moves well and convincingly – he has the same kind of speed and precision as  Jet Li, but a certain gracefulness as well. On top of that he has considerably more range as an actor than most other people in this field – as a scene in Drive demonstrates, he can also sing and dance reasonably well. And yet he seems to have spent his career playing the lead in little-seen movies or supporting roles in bigger ones. Possibly his highest-profile performance in the genre came when he played the villain in Cradle 2 The Grave, a valiant effort in an undistinguished movie.

Needless to say, he’s very good in Drive, but then most of the performances here are well-pitched. This is quite impressive, as Drive opts for a rather light-footed, tongue-in-cheek tone outside of the actual fight sequences. Much of it is genuinely funny, without the whole thing toppling over into being a comedy or spoof. Possibly the most distinguished member of the supporting cast is Brittany Murphy, who pops up as an unhinged teenager the guys encounter en route (though Sanaa Lathan is in there in a tiny part as well).

I would be the first to admit that one is generally on a hiding to nothing looking for profundity or insight in the martial arts genre – these are fun movies, not great works of art. But, as a fun movie, with good jokes and inventive fights throughout, Drive is virtually flawless. Not the highest-profile production, but well worth tracking down if you like that sort of thing.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 17th 2002:

I’ve been reflecting on low-budget film-making this week (some of you may be able to work out why [my memoirs of my time as a low-budget film-maker were appearing at the time – A]). I’d like this column to be a haven for films of all genres and all vintages, all origins and all ambitions, and it occurs to me that we haven’t examined a really lo-fi piece of work yet. And so, I’d like to share with you the 24 LAS I-Spy guide to low-budget cinema, taking as a case in point the most obscure and blatantly cheap film in my video collection, Bruce McDonald’s 1989 debut Roadkill.

I’ve condensed my wisdom on this matter down to seven key points, and here they are:

1) It shall be made in black and white. Well, this gets done for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being that B/W film stock is cheaper (and less obviously grainy, in the case of 16mm) than its colour equivalent. It also makes the film a lot quicker and easier to light. There is also the important artistic point that B/W gives a film instant atmosphere and credibility and stops it from being mistaken for a home movie most of the time. People often shoot in B/W even when they don’t have to because they think Pretension is a Friend to the Under-funded.

Roadkill is in B/W, though to my untrained eye it looks like a 32mm production. And, yes, it is pretentious in places, but the director manages to create some really nice compositions and doesn’t worry too much about flashy camera moves.

2) There shall not be much of a coherent plot. Mainly because you’re highly restricted in terms of what resources you can use, and your screenwriter’s probably a rookie who thinks he’s Quentin Tarantino. Roadkill‘s is as follows: psychotic musical impressario Roy Seth (Gerry Quigley) sends work experience trainee Ramona (Valerie Buhagiar, the Julia Roberts of low-budget Canadian cinema) to search for his errant band, the Children of Paradise, who’ve gone AWOL while on tour in the Canadian wilderness. Ramona wanders around for about an hour’s running time meeting various weirdos and progressing from timid pedestrian to confident driver. The climax is deeply stupid and destroys what little credibility the film has built up. The late Joey Ramone makes a cameo at the end.

3) The Director shall misguidedly attempt to demonstrate his versatility. Someone like Jonathan Demme can make a comedy-romance-thriller all in the space of two hours; the first time film-maker probably can’t but often insists on trying anyway. This stems from a belief that the first film is a calling-card/showreel and it’s a good idea to demonstrate all the strings to your bow at once. Thus a film which could have done one thing impressively well usually ends up doing about three suckily.

Once again, Roadkill is on the money here. The road-movie plot leads to an episodic structure, and while some of these interludes are very, very good (Ramona’s brief liaison with a 15-year-old boy (Mark Tarantino) in a quiet backwater town is weirdly touching, while her encounter with serial-killer wannabe Russell Skelly (Don McKellar) is witty), most of the important ones stink.

4) Some of the acting shall be very ropey indeed. Obviously: you won’t be able to afford many proper actors, if indeed any, and it may well come down to casting whoever’s available, suitable or not. And there are many dud performances in our featured text, some of them in quite major roles.

But there are some good ones too. Valerie Buhagiar is hugely watchable as Ramona and never less than convincing in a tricky and crucial role. She’s gone on to be a minor star in Canadian TV and theatre. Don McKellar has been even more successful, starring in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and David Cronenberg’s eXistenz since Roadkill was made.

5) There shall be much doubling up of personnel behind and in front of the camera. Once again, for reasons of cost. McKellar wrote the script (which explains why his character has all the best lines – he wants to be famous, he says: for a Canadian there are two ways to achieve that, ice-hockey or serial-killing, and he has weak ankles), while McDonald himself has a fairly significant role as the head of a film crew trying to make a documentary about Ramona. The rest of the crew pop up playing the film crew, while the film’s musical director, a Mr Nash the Slash, plays himself in one scene. Ramona’s parents are played by Buhagiar’s mum and dad. It’s shameless, but it keeps costs down.

6) Try to be ingenious, not clever. Profound messages and intellectualism are not your friends. Stick to telling a simple story as well as you can with the available resources. There’s clearly a Driving = Sex = Death moral trapped somewhere inside Roadkill, but it’s never really made clear – nor is the significance of Ramona’s bad habit of running over animals as she progresses along her way. Similarly, the gimmick of the film-within-the-film isn’t as innovative and challenging as McDonald thinks it is, it just comes across as a bit obvious and cheap.

The most successful parts of the film are the more conventional ones, making use of simple props or close-ups, or simply concentrating on two characters having a conversation. Nothing beats an interesting story, well told, no matter how simply that may be.

7) Making any kind of film at all is an achievement worthy of reward. Having said all this, most short film projects never see the light of day at all and no matter how wretched the finished result may be it is still a testament to uncommon reserves of grit, resolve and ingenuity.

And for all its many flaws there are many good things about Roadkill, truthful performances, nice lines, and impressive shots. Unsurprisingly the makers got their reward in the form of 1991’s superior Highway 61, another quirky road-movie directed by McDonald and starring Buhagiar and McKellar (and, if you’re very good, I may review that for you one day too). So, should this have moved you to attempt your own meisterwork for the silver screen, stick to it – and I expect an executive producer credit at the very least.

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