3 Films I (Almost) Missed

As awards season approaches, I always feel a substantial amount of pressure to see anything that could possibly get recognition, as well as those great films that are too “cool” for Oscar attention. Therefore, considering I’m home from school and on winter break, it’s basically time for my film buff friends and me to binge on all the movies we missed throughout the year. I wish I could write full-length reviews for every one, but time constrains me to simply writing capsules for the ones that aren’t currently in theaters. Plus, that keeps the site looking timely, considering I’m eager to check out The Artist, The Descendents, and War Horse in theaters very soon. Those will certainly earn lengthy reviews. But in the meantime, here’s a few films I recently caught on video.

 

1. The Help (December 6, 2011)     4/5

Written & Directed by Tate Taylor (Touchstone Pictures)

Though perhaps a little softer on the issues than it should be, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the 2009 novel by author Kathryn Stockett is an undeniably good film, funny and moving, heartbreaking and uplifting – all within a 146-minute running time that never feels a minute too long. Give credit to sensational actress Emma Stone for playing the brave character of “Skeeter” Phelan, an ambitious, young woman who decides to write a book of true tales from the point-of-view of the “the help,” the black women who serve the ungrateful whites of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. And despite the urge of Hollywood to relentlessly stereotype, we never get into that dumbed down, Blind Side state of mind. Instead, we witness a terrifically staged triumph over adversity, via the written word. And with a cast also consisting of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, and Mary Steenburgen, this is one of the best-acted, female-driven films in a long time. The Help has quite a big heart, an aspect the Oscars surely have no problem with.

 

2. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (December 13, 2011)     3.5/5

    Directed by Tsui Hark (Huayi Brothers)

This is what a Chinese blockbuster looks like, and no, that does not mean the CGI isn’t average. But despite the not-on-the-American-level special effects in Detective Dee, this is quite a fun movie, one that many critics argue is far better than our equivalent – the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and Sherlock Holmes. The basic story here involves that infamous detective (played by Andy Lau) being brought out of prison to help future Empress Wu Zetian, a woman of questionable intent whose inauguration may soon be delayed. Why? Well, a few semi-important men have recently burst into flame. And yes, I do mean spontaneous combustion. No one said Detective Dee wasn’t ridiculous, and for that, I respect how true it is to its own nature. In addition, we get a cool detective story, spectacular action scenes, and tragic romance. Themes of loyalty, political corruption, and honor also abound. This is not on par with the Chinese masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nor Japan’s Seven Samurai homage of this year, 13 Assassins, but it is humorous, entertaining, and even touching. The setting, circa China in 690 AD, is also subject to amazing production design, so intricate that you cannot help but buy into the escapism Detective Dee has to offer.

 

3. Drive (January 31, 2011*)     5/5

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (FilmDistrict)

In 2011, there is no other film that I have wanted to see a second time more than Drive, other than The Tree of Life, perhaps. The fact is, Nicolas Winding Refn’s adaptation of the 2005 James Sallis novel is so damn awesome, that it basically defies everything we know about what makes for a great film. The story is miraculously simple – a guy played by Ryan Gosling works in an LA garage by day (and does some movie stuntwork) and at night, serves the criminal underworld as a getaway driver. His rules for employment are cold and calculated, much like his personality. Even when he begins to fall for a pretty neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan, he still rarely says a word. And that’s about as much as I want to say about the plot of Drive, considering any further detail will completely ruin the film, as does the unspeakably misleading trailer. This is not Fast Five, but a slow, brooding character study that erupts in a frenzy of graphic violence.

The unnamed Driver rarely says much. And despite the fact that he’s Ryan Gosling, he’s barely even likeable. But that doesn’t matter. The screenplay by Iranian writer Hossein Amini ignores the Tarantino-esque dialogue that so often plagues indie crime movies, and instead settles for a sort of dream-like, poetic silence. The Driver, although his thoughts are not always clear, becomes sort of a Travis Bickle-like hero in this stylish, neo-noir action masterpiece. It’s arthouse fare unlike any you will see in a long time, set to the chilling electronic score of frequent Soderbergh-collaborator Cliff Martinez. Albert Brooks even plays a villain! But most importantly, Drive teaches us that the story isn’t always as important as how you tell it. In a sad movie about violence, loneliness, and an almost strange quest to become humane, we never cease to cheer for Gosling as he chews up and spits out the bad guys. In Refn’s film, driving may or may not be presented as a metaphor for life itself, and we know we’re getting the real deal. Because as The Driver sure as hell drives, we surely wonder with glee – what exactly does it all mean?

*Unfortunately, Drive is not yet available on DVD and Blu-ray. Luckily, I was able to see the film online from an unnamed source 🙂

   

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