Ryan Gosling in DriveDRIVE

Drive is the first action thriller I've seen in ages in which the chases and threats and killings actually matter. Yet it's also the first movie I've seen in ages, in any genre, in which a kiss actually matters, which is a far greater surprise. Directed by Danish helmer Nicolas Winding Refn, whose work here earned him Best Director laurels at this past spring's Cannes Film Festival, the film is a sleek, exciting, and unexpectedly affecting tour de force of mood, like what you'd get if the Michael Mann of Manhunter and the David Lynch of Blue Velvet collaborated on a scrappy, grubby B-picture for drive-in audiences. I couldn't possibly mean that as a higher compliment.

Despite its formal and technical brilliance, though, Refn's outing wouldn't be half the achievement it is without the hypnotic presence of lead Ryan Gosling, who expresses a host of churning emotions beneath his frequent mask of Zen-like calm. Playing an exceptionally talented Hollywood stunt driver (one whose name isn't revealed in the film) who moonlights as a getaway chauffeur for low-rent thieves, Gosling is a mass of contradictions here. With his thoughtful silence and obvious intelligence, Driver seems worlds removed from the brash, sleazy opportunists and thugs he associates with, and his light, tender voice and sweetheart smile feel wildly incongruous with the nightmarish acts of violence the character commits. For all of Gosling's considerable, natural charm and charisma, he keeps you on edge throughout Drive, because his unnamed anti-hero appears capable of anything, at any time; consequently, he's a perfect protagonist for a film that shifts, on a dime, between sequences of nerve-jangling suspense and almost aching romanticism.

The former scenes involve Driver with a pair of SoCal gangsters played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, while the latter find him the new protector of Carey Mulligan's Irene, a waitress raising a young son (the wonderfully naturalistic Kaden Leos) while her husband finishes a prison sentence. Happily, you're never eager for any of these scenes to end. Offering exchanges of fervent hostility and bursts of shocking bloodletting, Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini ratchet up the tension while the actors go to town; a master at comic desperation, Brooks - in a stunningly vicious, change-of-pace turn - is particularly breathtaking. (In his one-on-one with Bryan Cranston's mechanic, Brooks effectively pulls off what can only be described as The Full Pesci.) Yet I was no less caught up in the soulful chemistry between Gosling and Mulligan, both of whom suggest a life-altering connection through the subtlest of gestures and wordless glances. With Cliff Martinez's haunting indie-pop score urging them on, the performers convince you that something is truly at stake in a movie that, without their contributions, could easily have been a mere exercise in style.

Not that Drive's style is anything to sniff at. Between its exhilarating opening chase (in which Driver successfully evades police capture in his revved-up Chevy Impala) and its near-climactic image of Gosling staring into space (one that finds us waiting, and waiting, for the man's eyes to blink), Refn's film is spectacularly well-shot and composed. And with Gosling in the literal and figurative driver's seat, Drive is a marvelously humane action thriller, a pulse-pounding entertainment with a leading figure who - in a welcome rarity for its genre - actually seems to possess a pulse.


Alexander Skarsgard in Straw DogsSTRAW DOGS

I'm not sure there was any pressing need to remake Sam Peckinpah's seminal revenge thriller Straw Dogs, but as needless remakes go, writer/director Rod Lurie's stab at the material is pretty damned effective. Whether it's enjoyable is another matter entirely. In the film, James Marsden's milquetoast screenwriter and Kate Bosworth's Mississippi-born actress are slowly and horrifically terrorized by the woman's insinuating ex-boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) and his cronies, and the movie is as viscerally and emotionally brutal as can be. Hardly one for subtlety, Lurie allows the threat of violence to seep out of Straw Dogs' every pore - hell, the mere presence of James Woods here is like the living personification of "the threat of violence" - and that's nothing compared to his staging of the actual violence, with handguns, shotguns, nail guns, and even a bear trap employed for maximum cruelty.

Yet for a release that isn't a whole lot of "fun," per se, it's marvelously performed, and boasts a rather dazzling amount of psychological and thematic complexity. To be sure, the movie climaxes in exactly the explosive, vengeful, logic-defying free-for-all that you expect it will. But in the hour-plus beforehand, Lurie nicks at your insides with so many prickly, resonant observations and dramatizations of class warfare, cultural divides, sexual politics, male aggression, and other knotty issues that you could easily compose seven or eight thesis papers using Straw Dogs as your only footnoted source. My friend and I left our screening feeling a bit like we needed to shower off the experience, yet it made for great conversation regardless; I don't necessarily want to see it again, but I'm grateful to Lurie for at least delivering a 21st Century scare-flick remake that I was glad to have seen once.


Sarah Jessica Parker and Greg Kinnear in I Don't Know How She Does ItI DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT

In I Don't Know How She Does It, a comedy in which Sarah Jessica Parker's character attempts to successfully juggle her professional and maternal duties, Greg Kinnear is cast as her well-meaning, affable husband. Is there anything I could possibly write that could give you a better idea of the movie's blandness? Sure, he's likable as all get-out, but Kinnear's geniality (in comedies, at least) is also somewhat toxic - he shows up, and you're practically guaranteed that the movie won't have a single surprising or even interesting bone in its body. That's certainly the case with director Douglas McGrath's offering here, an innocuous, tedious, immediately forgettable time-waster that could be described as "sitcom-y" if that weren't such an insult to sitcoms.

Structurally, the movie is a mess, with Parker providing voice-over narration (and, at one point, breaking the fourth wall to speak to us directly) and a rash of supporting cartoons offering commentary of their own through faux-documentary interview footage. But in the end, I actually preferred the messiness to the homogenized, stereotypical, vaguely insulting predictability of the rest of the film, with McGrath and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna endlessly vacillating between maudlin sentiment and tired slapstick. (Parker's dialogue is trying enough; did the poor woman really have to be subjected to a "hysterical" bout with head lice?) With talents such as Seth Meyers, Olivia Munn, Busy Philipps, Jane Curtin, and Kelsey Grammer uniformly wasted, the only true spark in I Don't Know How She Does It comes from that radiant redhead Christina Hendricks, who's stuck with the movie's most strident moralizing, yet whose freshness and effervescent appeal make her every moment here a delight. The Mad Men actress also appears in a small role in Drive, where she's cast as a trashy criminal who gets slapped around by Ryan Gosling and doesn't make it to the end credits. I'd argue that Hendricks' fate in McGrath's movie is even more grim than the one that's sealed for her in Nicolas Winding Refn's, but if you have a higher tolerance for Pierce Brosnan than I do, you might very well disagree.

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