Dynamic ‘Drive,’ Unnecessary ‘Dogs,’ Dopey ‘Did It,’ Uneven ‘Ground’

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“Drive”

Ryan Gosling stars as Driver, the antihero of the film “Drive.”
Ryan Gosling stars as Driver, the antihero of the film “Drive.”

Though shot in color, “Drive” (wide release) is basically a film noir; except for its contemporary setting, it might have been a pulp novel of the 1940s – but a good one, a quiet, brooding piece that periodically explodes in violent action.

Ryan Gosling is its enigmatic antihero, a laconic, ultra-stoic (and nameless) Hollywood stuntman specializing in high-speed car crashes.  Sporting signature apparel – a white satin jacket with a red scorpion decal on the back – he moonlights as a precision getaway driver for criminals.

He has little human contact with anybody but his crippled boss at the garage where he works, until he meets the woman who lives next door, a sad-faced blonde tending to her little son while they await her husband’s release from prison.  When the man comes home, he’s forced by mobsters to rob a pawnshop for them, and the driver agrees to help.  Naturally the heist goes awry in a sea of double-crosses and killings.

Cult director Nicolas Winding Refn sustains the almost hallucinatory tone of the film scrupulously, and his choreography of the action set-pieces is spellbinding.  Gosling inhabits the role of an imperturbable mystery man flawlessly, while comic Albert Brooks plays brilliantly against type as a soft-spoken gangster capable of abrupt viciousness.  Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston add colorful supporting turns.
“Drive” is an impressive balancing act between moody menace and visceral excitement.  It’s a wild ride.

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“Straw Dogs”

A female investment banker struggling against sexist feelings in the workforce, Kate Reddy is played by Sarah Jessica Parker in “I Don’t Know How She Does It.”
A female investment banker struggling against sexist feelings in the workforce, Kate Reddy is played by Sarah Jessica Parker in “I Don’t Know How She Does It.”

When Sam Peckinpah’s original “Straw Dogs” (wide release) came out in 1971, it was a cinematic provocation, not only because of its exceptionally violent climax but because of its apparent message that to be a man, you have to stand up for yourself when provoked, matching brutality with brutality.  Some argued that the idea was intended ironically, but whatever the case, Peckinpah’s film became a love-it-or-hate-it phenomenon and one of the decade’s touchstone pictures, especially in the context of the continuing Vietnam War.

By contrast Rod Lurie’s remake, though competently made, seems like mere prose beside the earlier film’s admittedly gory poetry.  The change of locale from Cornwall to Mississippi works reasonably well, and the script follows the original quite closely.  And the director stages the last-act carnage well enough.

But James Marsden proves no match for Dustin Hoffman as the milquetoast husband who finally “mans up” when a bunch of local thugs rapes his wife and literally assault his house.  And with the exception of Alexander Skarsgard, who makes a quietly threatening rival, the supporting cast – including Kate Bosworth as Marsden’s wife – come on too strong.

It doesn’t help, either, that home-assault thrillers have become dime-a-dozen commodities these days. The result is that the new “Straw Dogs” seems just one more lurid example of the genre.  It’s effective enough in a conventional way, but for real bite, Sam’s still the man.

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“I Don’t Know How She Does It”

Sarah Jessica Parker’s new romantic comedy “I Don’t Know How She Does It” (wide release) seems at least a decade out of date in its portrait of a female investment banker who’s treated with disdain by most of her male colleagues while struggling to juggle the demands of her job with her responsibilities as wife and mother.

In an era when women have made great strides in business and politics, the movie seems a throwback to an earlier age in its depiction of the workplace.  And it stumbles badly in having Parker play the heroine as a dithering ninny of the Lucille Ball type, and in introducing as her nemesis a catty stay-at-home mom who’s too smug and selfish to be anything but a cartoon.

Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan prove oases of calm as Parker’s husband and a divorced colleague who becomes romantically interested in her, and Olivia Munn is a hoot as her verbally abrasive assistant.

But you’re likely to come out of this misguided picture saying, “I Don’t Know Why They Made It.”

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“Higher Ground”

Dagmara Dominczyk plays the protagonist’s best friend, Annika, in “Higher Ground.”
Dagmara Dominczyk, left, plays the protagonist’s best friend, Annika, in “Higher Ground.”

It’s always nice to encounter a film that takes religion seriously, but “Higher Ground” (wide release) is so muddled on the subject that you’re likely to leave it as confused as its protagonist.

Vera Farmiga, who also directed, stars as a woman who, after declaring her faith as a child, lapses until a near-fatal accident acts as a spiritual catalyst.  Joining a tight-knit fundamentalist Christian community with her husband, she struggles to meet its rigorous demands and hold fast to her belief.  But the sudden illness of her best friend, as well as her spouse’s increasingly dictatorial attitude, tests her commitment.

The sincerity of “Higher Ground” is admirable, and one wishes the script were more coherent and the execution less clumsy.  As it is, however, by trying so hard to be non-judgmental, the picture becomes rather baffling.

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