Tag: Albert Brooks

Drive (2011)

Drive (2011)

Neon, darkness and shades of grey fills the screen in a film that’s practically the definition of cult

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Cast Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene Gabriel), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard Gabriel), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino Paolozzi), Kaden Leos (Benicio Gabriel)

Impassive and supernaturally calm, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) sits with the car engine purring. In this five-minute window he is the get-away driver who will go to any length. Outside of that, criminals are on their own. Its one of the simple rules he lives by. He never compromises. Until, of course, he finds something worth compromising for. That would be his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), trying to make ends meet while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The Driver helps them – and feels compelled to go on helping them when newly released Standard (trying to go straight) does one more job to get out from under the thumb of his criminal friends. That last job is always the worst one isn’t it? Particularly when crime lords as ruthless as Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) are involved.

Drive won Refn the best director award at Cannes (after a huge standing ovation). It’s not hard to see why. This film is so overflowing with style, uncompromising cool and unreadable enigma it was practically a cult classic before it was even released. Layered in a mix of 70s and 80s chic – with its electric pink titles, John Carpenter-ish Los Angeles visuals and counter-culture smarts – it echoes cutting-edge crime drama from the punk years of Hollywood (it’s practically a remake of The Driver for starters!), by way of touches of Melville crime drama and Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Scored to a mix of ambient beats and electronic rock, it’s the dictionary definition of style.

It keeps you on your toes from the start. Its opening not only explores the Driver’s incredible skills (speed, manoeuvring, ingenious evasions and knowing when to go slow, he can do it all) it also sets us up for the whole film. Shot largely alongside the Driver in the car, we zip through streets and understand the determination (and hints of danger) under his impassive surface. That prologue is the whole movie in capsule – a careful wait, a sense of a fuse being list, touches of humour to distract us (the Driver’s precision with his gloves) and brilliant misdirection when his focused  attention to listening to a football game on the radio pays off in spades when we see his plans revealed.

Much of the first 40 minutes carefully develops the Driver’s surprisingly contented life: his happy acquiescence in the racing dreams of his fixer and mechanic boss Shannon (an ingratiating Bryan Cranston), who the Driver likes so much he doesn’t care that Shannon regularly swindles him; a soft, unspoken half-romance with Irene (Carey Mulligan, truthful and with a strength beneath the vulnerability); and a big-brother bond with her son Benecio. In another world this could have been a film where a loner learns to make a connection and finds love.

But it ain’t that film. The troubles start with Standard’s release from prison. Skilfully played by Oscar Isaac as well-meaning but essentially hopeless, Standard’s problems become Irene and Benecio’s problems. That one last job goes south – as they always do – in an orgy of cross, double cross and increasingly graphic violence. And the burning propulsive energy that lies under Drive, just like that purring engine in the films opening, is let rip.

What we get in the second half is dark, nihilistic and violent. Oh, good Lord, is it violent. Bone crunchingly, skull shatteringly, blood spurtingly violent. Because when gangsters get pissed off, they play for real. And it turns out, when the Driver finds something to care about, he plays for real as well. Refn’s eye for violence is extremely well-judged. We see just enough for it to be horrifying, but the worst is done via sound and editing (the Driver’s almost unwatchable assault on a goon in a lift puts almost nothing on screen, but the squelches and crunches on the soundtrack leave nothing to the imagination).

Refn’s trick is to combine lashings of indie cool and ultra-violence with a deceptively simple story that allows plenty of scope for interpretation. Drive has a sort of mythic, Arthurian quest to it, with the Driver as a sort of knight errant, defending a damsel in distress. But it’s also a grim crime drama, with a man at its centre who brutally kills without a second thought. This all depends on the enigmatic Driver at its heart. No other actor alive can do unreadable impassivity like Ryan Gosling – this could almost be his signature role. He’s ice-cool and professional, but also rather child-like and gentle.

Is he a guy dragged down by his own worst impulses? His jacket has a large scorpion on its back, echoing the old fable of the frog and the scorpion. Rather than one or the other, the Driver feels like both in one. A frog who wants to carry everyone over the river, but whose poor instincts and capacity for violence acts as the scorpion that destroys him. Where does he come from? What is his past? The film ends with a series of enigmatic shots that, to my eyes, suggest a supernatural quality to him. I sometimes toy with the idea he’s a sort of fallen angel, constantly protecting the wrong people like he has a scorpion curse on him. Refn’s gift is to craft pulp with psychological intrigue.

Drive is a very cool film – and Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling’s careful playing gives it a lot of heart, just as Albert Brooks’ marvellously dangerous gangster gives it a sharp, unpredictable edge. It rips its eye through the screen, with pace, speed and iconic imagery, all splashed with a pop art cool. But it’s not just a celebration of style: it’s also a dark romance, a tragedy and an exploration of a character who may be his own devil or may not even be human at all. Either way, its intriguing and exciting. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News header
Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter and William Hurt struggle with the news and love in James L Brooks not very funny or insightful romantic media satire

Director: James L Brooks

Cast: William Hurt (Tom Grunick), Holly Hunter (Jane Craig), Albert Brooks (Aaron Altman), Robert Prosky (Ernie Merriman), Lois Chiles (Jennifer Mack), Joan Cusack (Blair Litton), Peter Hackes (Paul Moore), Christian Clemenson (Bobby), Jack Nicholson (Bill Rorish)

TV news – what is it for? To inform or entertain? It’s a debate James L Brooks tries to explore in his inconsistently toned hybrid rom-com and satire. At the end you very much intended to come out with the view that it should be about one, but is more about the other.

In the Washington branch of an unnamed network, Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a rising star producer, prone to daily emotional breakdowns. Her best friend is brilliant, committed reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), who longs to be the anchorman but lacks social skills. Arriving in their branch is Tom Grunick (William Hurt), handsome and full of TV savvy, set to become an anchor but lacking any real knowledge of either journalism or current affairs. Naturally a romantic triangle develops between these three, along with all sorts of debate about the purpose of TV news.

The film stacks the deck firmly in favour of the view that news should be a comment-free recitation of facts. Brooks’ film bemoans – often in heavy-handed ways – the intrusion of human interest, soft stories and puff pieces in place of hard-hitting questions and challenging coverage. Tom Grunick is the embodiment of this: charming, friendly, reassuring – and totally uninformed, interested in “selling” a story rather than telling it. Meanwhile, to the film’s disgust, the higher-ups at the network frequently value appearances and popularity over tough analysis, and looking good on TV counts for more than journalistic skills. Pity the film: if it feels this network is bad, imagine how it’d feel about Fox News today.

Of course what the film isn’t interested in is acknowledging a certain level of showmanship is an important tool in making the news accessible, engaging and interesting for the audience – making them more likely to pick up the important things in the content. It also overlooks that purists Aaron and Jane may avoid stage-manging their stories as overtly as others – but they’re more than happy to fill them with heart-string-tugging references and shots to get the audience reactions they want. In fact, you can see Tom’s point – what’s really wrong with him interjecting a shot of his own teary face while interviewing a rape victim (a moment he recreates)? Isn’t that basically the same?

Broadcast News tries to outline the difference, but I’m not sure it goes the full distance – or makes the debate accessible or interesting. That might be partly because the film can’t decide whether to give more attention to the satire or the romance – Jane is attracted to Tom (who returns her feelings), but is extremely close with Aaron, who carries a not-even-concealed passion for her. Both plots sit awkwardly side-by-side, getting in each other’s way and not adding insight to each other.

But then the film is fairly shrill. That partly stems from the two characters we are meant to relate to being tough to like. Holly Hunter is dynamic as the forceful, passionate Jane, but she’s also a rather tiresome character. Her purist demands are slightly holier-than-thou and while there are nice touches of humanity (on a date with Tom, she doesn’t want her handbag opened at a security check because she’s put a pack of condoms in it)  the film doesn’t manage to warm this control freak (so domineering she can’t get in a taxi without dictating the route). Jane also has a tendency to burst into tears – a suggestion of some underlying emotional problems the film instead treats as a joke.

That’s nothing compared to Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman. This is exactly the sort of character beloved by film-makers, but who if you met in real life would come across an an unbearable creep. Like Jane, he’s an uncompromising idealist whose pious self-importance quickly grates. The film doesn’t appreciate the irony that its champion of professional reporting yearns to be the pretty-boy face of the network and resents that he’s neverbeen the popular kid.

His tantrums and rudeness are meant to be signs of his genuineness and the film leaves no doubt that his love for Jane should be requited because he knows what’s best for her. He’s the Nice Guy who doesn’t get the girls even though he really deserves them.  A scene where he furiously berates Jane when she confesses her feelings for Tom, then demands she leaves, then demands she stays so he can lecture her on his pain and why her feelings are wrong smacks of a thousand male script writers who didn’t get the girl they wanted and it was so unfair.

The film’s view of women is often questionable. Today, Aaron looks more like a Proto-Incel, one emotional snap away from strangling Jane because she won’t love him when she SHOULD. The film sees him as a relatable, principled hero. Jane may be smart and principled, but she’s hysterically over-emotional for no given reason (Women! They’re so crazy!), domineering and controlling. The film’s only other female character is Joan Cusack’s production assistant who spends her time either shrieking in shrill panic or talking with nervous incoherence.

So, it might be a fault of the film that the character I related to most was the one we were meant to condemn. William Hurt’s Tom is nice-but-dim, superficial but polite, supportive, hard-working and honest, self-aware enough to feel guilty that he’s not really qualified to do the job. He tolerates being mucked around by Jane far more than many others would and despite being constantly abused by Aaron, offers him no end of support. If Tom is the nightmare shape of TV news, you end up thinking “well heck, is it really that bad?”

Broadcast News overall is an underwhelming experience, not funny or romantic enough to be a comedy, or insightful enough about journalism to be thought-provoking. Brooks directs with his usual televisual lack of flair, but there are some decent comedic set pieces: Cusack has a mad-cap dash through a TV studio to deliver a taped report for a deadline that is a masterclass in physical comedy, while the film’s best set-piece is Aaron’s sweat-laden anchor appearance on a weekend news bulletin. But the film gives too many characters a pass and avoids asking itself the tough questions. It ends up a bit of a slog that probably has more appeal to insiders than audiences.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro embodies dangerous loners everywhere in Taxi Driver

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Travis Bickle), Jodie Foster (Iris), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Albert Brooks (Tom), Harvey Keitel (Sport/Matthew), Leonard Harris (Charles Palantine), Peter Boyle (Wizard), Harry Northup (Doughboy), Steven Prince (Easy Andy), Martin Scorsese (Passenger)

A grungy taxi ploughs through the neon-lit back alleys of New York, the glow of stop signs and tail lights washing the car in a hellish red glare. Inside that taxi, the interior monologue of its driver tips ever closer towards paranoia and fantasy. It’s no surprise that something is going to give. Martin Scorsese’s influential Taxi Driver is the definitive exploration of fractured psyches, the key text in film for exploring how isolation, loneliness and an inability to connect with people can tip someone into being a danger to others.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is our taxi driver, an honourably discharged Vietnam vet who can’t sleep so works the night shifts. He’s seemingly quiet, shy, self-contained but this hides a desperation to connect with the world, a horror at what he sees around him that he can’t understand, a paranoid disgust at the crime and dirt he feels infect the street and a desire to be someone or do something. His failure to understand to or relate to the world on any level will eventually lead to a gradual collapse as Bickle determines that he must lash out at something, must attack something, to make himself a place in the world.

Taxi Driver is such a brilliant analysis of disaffection and confusion at the world, such an insightful understanding of how feeling separate and locked out from events around them can make a person feel they must act to make their mark, that it profoundly influenced the motivations of Ronald Reagan’s would-be-assassin John Hinckley Jnr in 1981. The film was even screened for the jury as part of Hinckley’s (successful) defence that he acted due to insanity (Hinckley claimed he was trying to impress Jodie Foster). Tragic as that is, it speaks something to the power of the film and its acute understanding (but not excuse) for lonely, fractured, potentially violent souls like Hinckley.

Scorsese’s direction is pitch-perfect. The film uses a series of tightly held shots – and some go on for a very long time, staring at trivial events (such as the shot of an empty corridor while we hear Bickle being rejected on the phone by his stalking target Betsy) – or stately intercutting between actors that brilliantly serve to establish both Bickle’s isolation and his lack of connection. This is intermixed with tighter editing that captures Bickle’s undirected fury and paranoia towards the real world, presented as he drives as a concussive collection of sounds and images that seem to hammer down on the taxi, combined with Bernard Herrmann’s superb classically tense score, lyrical but haunting. 

Every scene Scorsese constructs is designed to show Bickle’s isolation, his weakness and continual succumbing to fantasy and false perspectives. His internal monologue has a monotone fluency to it, but talking to people he’s tongue tied, clumsy or prone to tip into the rantings of a crazy man. Slow motion camera tracks show Bickle moving through crowds like an alien, unable to comprehend or understand what he is seeing, later prowling the frame like a misguided hunter. New York is a hellish underworld – although you are certain we are seeing it largely as Bickle sees it, every scene filtered through his disturbed POV (Michael Chapman’s photography by the way is faultless). 

It works so well because De Niro himself is so restrained, and at first feels rather sweet, even handsome, like someone who you want to look after or feel sorry for – a million miles from the mohawked gun totter he will become by the film’s end. He’s quiet, shy and desperate for friends. He can manage bursts of seeming like a compelling person – his fooling of Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy into a date is a tribute to his ability in short bursts to appear charmingly eccentric. The date of course flounders on his inability to understand human norms (buys her a record she says she has, takes her to a porn film, points out he has a taxi when she tries to get into one to leave), and his response to it is of course to get angry and make a scene, to blame the other person for his own failings.

De Niro immersed himself in the dark psyche of this man, and never loses touch of the gentleness and vulnerability that underpin his violent actions. Bickle talks the talk often of a crazy person, but by his own lights he’s a well-meaning man. It’s just that his well-meaning actions involve multiple murders, and it’s only by a twist of fate that he guns down a house full of pimps and gangsters rather than putting a bullet through a Presidential candidate.

And that’s the scary thing about the film: Bickle is strangely sympathetic, for all his obvious psychosis. Who hasn’t felt alone and lost in the world? Who hasn’t felt scared by events around them or dangers unknown? Who hasn’t wondered “why don’t people like me”? We just deal with it a lot better than Bickle and his messianic sense of mission that he develops.

Bickle channels what human emotions he can muster or understand into ciphers he barely knows. These people become totems, or stalking targets, who he becomes persuaded must be “saved”. With Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy, the delusion is clear: here is a confident, career woman, independent and smart, for whom Bickle can feel an attraction but clearly no understanding at all beyond her being an object he cannot have. The awkwardness and later stunningly poor judgement and reactions he shows when around her mark him immediately as a weirdo and danger to others.

But the film’s smarts – and it has a terrific script by Paul Schrader, whose understanding of dark psyches was never better captured than here – is that these fixations have a totally different impact when targeted on a child prostitute. Suddenly, Bickle’s unwanted attentions have the air of righteousness, even though intellectually he makes no distinction between either Betsy or Jodie Foster’s Iris (a performance of staggering emotional maturity from an actress barely 12 at the time). For all Iris is clearly a victim of society and abuse (in a way Betsy isn’t), for Bickle she’s pretty much the same, someone he must ‘rescue’ – and from her pimp Sport (a disturbingly fey and incestuous turn from Harvey Keitel).

So Bickle takes up the guns, and eventually does what we all wish we could do sometimes. Because who hasn’t stood in front of the mirror and dreamed about saying “you talkin’ to me” to our enemies – the difference being most of us don’t fantasise about blowing them away, let alone actually go on to do it. De Niro’s brilliance is the chilling emptiness behind the exterior, the way he captures universal fears and doubts but shows us a character who has no personality of his own but only collects titbits from those around him (like his would-be murderous passenger – played by Scorsese himself – who eagerly talks about how he wishes he could murder his cheating wife).

So the violence comes – and it is horrific – as Bickle shoots up a lowlife prostitute den with sickening graphicness (nothing this violent had really been seen before). But it’s only fate that has turned him away from his real target, Senator Palatine (George Lucas must have had this film in the back of his mind when naming his Evil Emperor!), reverting to his secondary target and killing a group of people far more acceptable to Joe Public to be wasted.

Scorsese’s genius final epilogue asks us questions about truth but also perceptions. The camera takes on a “God’s view” POV overhead shot as Bickle’s slaughter ends (and De Niro’s jerky, terminator like physicality here is stupendous), tracking back through the house. Is this his soul leaving a dying body? But then we flash forward and there is Bickle in the taxi again, hailed as a hero by society for rescuing the girl – the same society that would have condemned him as psychopath if he had taken his first target. He even gets a sympathetic conversation with Betsy.

But he hasn’t changed. And the world hasn’t changed. And Bickle may be a hero now but the same dark impulses still ride within him – and they will, the film suggests, lead him to kill again. Scorsese’s film is a masterpiece of alienation and disaffection, a brilliant analysis of what makes a killer kill – and how vagaries of fate can see us miss the signs – with a wonderful script and a superb performance from De Niro, a landmark turn that manages to tap into such existential fears we all have on our place in the world that we completely miss we are starting to relate to a psychopath. Dark and brilliant, a landmark.

Concussion (2015)

Will Smith takes on the NFL in solid but uninspired true-life story Concussion

Director: Peter Landesman

Cast: Will Smith (Dr Bennet Omalu), Alec Baldwin (Dr Julian Bailes), Albert Brooks (Dr Cyril Wecht), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Prema Mutiso), David Morse (Mike Webster), Arliss Howard (Dr Joseph Maroon), Mike O’Malley (Daniel Sullivan), Eddie Marsan (Dr Steven T DeKosky), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Dave Duerson), Stephen Moyer (Dr Ron Hamilton), Richard T Jones (Andre Waters), Paul Reiser (Elliot Pellman), Luke Wilson (Roger Goodell)

In 2002, Pittsburgh pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) carried out an autopsy on deceased former Pittsburgh Steelers centre (and American Football legend) Mike Webster (David Morse). What he discovered – that the high speed impacts of American football massively increased the chances of players suffering serious brain damage and debilitating mental conditions – was to change his life, and lead to a six-year battle to get his research acknowledged by the NFL. This film dramatizes this story – with the obligatory inventions and dramatic changes (Landesman describes the film as “emotionally true” if not “factually true”).

Concussion is a fairly straight-forward, rather uninspired “one man’s struggle” kind of film. There isn’t much in it, to be honest, that is particularly unique or different from films of this type we’ve seen before. We’ve pretty much all seen the trope of a man pushing to get himself heard against the scorn, disbelief and anger of those who need to hear him the most. Does Concussionadd anything new to that? No not really.

Peter Landesman shoots the film with a methodical, workmanship that hits all the expected beats. The whole film plays like Michael Mann’s The Insider-lite: with the difference that the NFL never really convinces as an actual threat in the way Big Tobacco does in that film. The film falls over itself to repeatedly tell us how powerful the NFL is but never really shows us in the film how that power might work. When the FBI drum up charges against Omalu’s mentor, you never get the sense that this is being directed by the NFL themselves. They are simply never that dangerous an opponent.

Maybe because this is a film that doesn’t want to run the risk of saying America’s beloved sport is dangerous. It wants to blame bad eggs rather than an institutional failure – hence the repurposing of former player Dave Duerson as a sort of braggart bully. The characters playing the NFL heads are relegated to TV screens in the corner. It never wants to really look at the risks of this institution wilfully burying evidence their sport is dangerous, or question whether this sport is even a good idea. Throughout the world of sport, there are ungoing debates about the health risks of sport, from the danger of heart conditions to early onset dementia in football players from heading the ball. This film fails to really tap into any of this.

As such, there isn’t really any dramatic force behind the film: it doesn’t manage to suggest Omalu is in danger and it doesn’t want to turn the NFL into actual antagonists. It treads a weary middle ground. If the NFL was really positioned as a threat, then the pervasive presence of its stadium in Pittsburgh would be sinister. It isn’t for all Landesman tries to shoot it in that way.

Despite this though, Will Smith is very good as Omalu. The film’s version of the doctor seems a little different from the quirky, socially awkward real-life Omalu. But Smith nails the home-run scenes of Omalu raging at his research being disregarded. (In real life it was easy for the NFL to dismiss Omalu by using his Nigerian heritage (his ‘otherness’) quietly against him. The film doesn’t touch upon this by the way.) Smith has all the charisma the role needs and brings it a certain James-Stewartish moral decency.

The rest of the cast don’t get much else to play with. Alec Baldwin is pretty good as a former NFL doctor trying to ease his conscience (although his accent got some criticism). Gugu Mbatha-Raw has a fairly thankless role as the supportive wife, but does it well. Albert Brooks might be a bit too much at times as Cyril Wecht, but David Morse plays Mike Webster with sensitivity.

The film is not always that subtle. Shots of Webster haunting Omalu are a bit much. Omalu’s unhappiness and frustration are telegraphed using familiar clichés, from raging impotently at stony faced law officers, to trashing a room in his still-under-construction dream home in Pittsburgh (having read the source book it’s hard to believe the real Omalu ever did something like this). The timeline of the film isn’t always clear. There is a little too much lingering on funerals and tear-stained relatives for easy emotional hits.

The main issue is that Concussiondoes nothing special and doesn’t manage to make its familiar structure feel particularly fresh. It’s just a very, very familiar type of story told with no real unique imagination. Although Smith is very good, it’s not quite enough.