Ryan Gosling stars in the Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive.”
This isn’t Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s first foray into English language filmmaking, but it is his first film made for wide release with an A-list star. It’s impressive how much of his distinctive visual stylization survives the trip to Hollywood. It might be easy to characterize the striking look of his past films—the Danish Pusher crime trilogy; the British inmate biopic Bronson; the surreal, practically non-verbal Viking picture Valhalla Rising—as uncompromising. But it’s a surprise to be able to apply the same label to a simply-plotted neo-noir starring Ryan Gosling as a stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights behind the wheel of getaway cars.
Gosling’s unnamed driver is an enigmatic figure, wholly detached from the world until he befriends the woman down the hall ( Carey Mulligan), who is caring for her young son alone until her husband gets out of jail. He gets mixed up with the wrong people, and things begin to start crashing down around him. This is standard crime-movie fare, but Refn takes familiar ingredients and creates a movie unlike any other you’re likely to see this year, like a moody ’70s existential crime film soundtracked with ’80s synthesizers. If your stomach is steely enough for the shocking bursts of violence for which Refn is also famous (and which he keeps intact and untempered), you may find this to be one of the most bracing and thrilling movie experiences you’ll have all year as well.
Documentarian Steve James, director of one of the most critically acclaimed docs in history with Hoop Dreams, returns to the rough streets of Chicago for another immersive documentary that is garnering high praise. The film follows a year in the life of three “Violence Interrupters,” former gang members and criminals who now assist in trying to stop the spread of violence. James looks at their histories, the situations that made them who they are, and the struggles they have trying to stop the cycles that they got caught up in when they were younger.
Tonight, National Geographic kicks off its annual All Roads Film Festival, a collection of films that “showcases compelling films and photography exhibits from indigenous artists.” This year’s slate includes 15 features from an impressively diverse array of cultures, often from countries that most of us rarely—if ever—get to see on film. Tonight’s kickoff is Benda Bilili!, from the Congo; tomorrow’s features include films about Navajo, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblo native American tribes, as well as Matariki (pictured), a Maori drama (one of two in the festival) from the other side of the world in New Zealand. The rest of the list includes films from South Africa, Iran, and about the Inuits and the nomadic Turkana people of Kenya, among others. There will also be also a collection of family-suitable short films screening on Saturday afternoon.
Begins tonight and runs through Sunday at National Geographic’s DC headquarters. Some programs are free, others are $10. Check the schedule for complete listings and information.
In another film from a country not often seen on film in the US, the Freer is screening The Light Thief, a feature from Kyrgyzstan that was that country’s submission for consideration for Best Foreign Language Film in last year’s Academy awards. Writer-director Aktan Arym Kubat also stars as an electrician trying to help the troubled people living around him; not just to get electricity, which they often can’t afford, but also with their personal problems. The film is presented as part of the Global Lens series, a showcase of international cinema that shows at museums across the US and Canada.
John Huston’s final film as a director may also have been one of his most ambitious challenges. Not least of those challenges was the basic difficulty of handling the rigors of making a film while in failing health: He had to direct from a wheelchair, connected at all times to portable oxygen that helped him with his emphysema. The other challenge was in bringing the densely layered prose of James Joyce to the screen in this adaptation of a short story from his Dubliners collection. The film stars Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy, an awkward and insecure Dublin academic who discovers secrets about the past of his wife, Gretta (played by Huston’s daughter, Anjelica).
A masterpiece of minimalism, independent director Kelly Reichardt’s fourth feature maintains the quietly observational tone of her previous work in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, but leaves behind their modern settings in favor of a historical period piece about the 19th century west. Based loosely on real events, the film centers on a small wagon train headed for the coast, led by an irascible, potentially incompetent guide who takes the group off the main Oregon trail and onto the titular shortcut. Hopelessly lost and without water, the settlers take prisoner an Indian who they believe to be stalking them with ill intent. The social structures dictated by religion and culture of the day begin to break down, nowhere more apparent than in the ever more dominant role taken by Michelle Williams’s Emily, who begins to refuse to stand back and let the men make the decisions.
The film will be slow for some tastes, but there is method to Reichardt’s long, static takes, which reflect the numbing boredom of the trail, and highlight the anxious desperation when things get dire. The director uses sound inventively and even the aspect ratio of the frame to reflect the experiences of the women in the group, making the film the rare western to focus on westward expansion from a female perspective. You can read my complete review here of a film that is easily one of the best of the year.
Special Features: The home video release includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and the film’s trailer, as well as a printed essay about the film by Richard Hell. That’s not a lot, but Meek’s Cutoff is a film that thrives on the imaginative powers it stokes with its unanswered questions; to answer too many of those in supplemental materials would destroy the point.
View the trailer: