DRIVE

Smoldering with intensity and punctuated by fits of extreme violence, DRIVE is nearly perfect. Ryan Gosling has about a page of dialogue in the whole movie, but words do not always equal acting. The way he carries himself, the way he stares people down, all tell you that underneath the seemingly mild-mannered nice guy, is a man that won't be wronged. Gosling's Driver (yes, that is the character's name) wrecks cars as a stuntman and fixes cars as a mechanic for a living. He'll also take the odd job as a getaway driver. But he and his boss Shannon (wonderfully played by Bryan Cranston) have dreams of NASCAR fame. Albert Brooks is the man with the money, but warns that Shannon is cursed. And that curse plays out in spades. Gosling tries to help the newly paroled husband of Carey Mulligan, but it all goes sideways. And that's where we see the true nature of the Driver. He is driven to see justice (or revenge, either works). The tension filled scenes are broken with almost cathartic fits of carnage and blood and brains spurting everywhere (Sam Peckinpah would be proud). Director Nicolas Winding Refn uses a gritty, yet attractive Los Angeles as his canvas for all this destruction. Gosling is perfect and Albert Brooks is simply amazing in his supporting role as financier/crime boss.. you've never seen an actor play so well against type. Get in your car and DRIVE to the theater to see one of the best films of the year. — Alan Yudman

PRIEST

The biggest sin a movie like Priest can make us to do stuff we've seen thousand times before…done better. The idea of a priest vampire killer with cool religious weapons (throwing stars shaped like crosses, rosary beads, etc) works when the movie focuses on those fresh ideas. But it falls from grace with every cliche accounted for (big bad is priest's friend presumed dead, must save his daughter, the head priest telling him to hand over his crucifix instead of badge because he's a loose cannon). There's a difference between dumb fun and a stupid waste of time. The filmmakers apparently don't know the difference.

Stormy Curry

CONTAGION

Like the victims of a virus for which there is no cure, this movie
takes sick quickly, then coughs and splutters its way to a messy
death. But unlike those victims, the movie doesn't die quickly, even
though it has flatlined long before the credits roll. It seems
difficult to make a dull picture about the race to stop a worldwide
pandemic that threatens our very civilization, but the most obvious
symptom you'll notice won't be on screen; it'll be your butt itching
as the multiple story lines play out. The acting is at best efficient
(Damon, Paltrow), at worst mailed-in (Fishburne) or miscast (Elliott
Gould). As a thriller, it lacks the necessary driving momentum toward
a big finish; as a tale of how different people react to crisis, it
has no characters about whom we are made to care. There's a laughable
kidnapping subplot that seems like both a failed attempt to humanize
the story… and to bring in the tiredest of cliches: World Government
in bed with Big Pharma. It is an unfortunate irony that the key to
this film's plot is batshit, because as entertainment, CONTAGION is
guano. — Jeff Schultz

DRIVE

The director Godard famously wrote that “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl”… as demonstrated in this brooding, robbery-gone-wrong L.A. noir, descended from BREATHLESS, but by way of the Coen brothers for its black (no, make that blood-red) humor. It’s a strange combo. On the one hand, we have Ryan Gosling, America’s Belmondo, powerfully laconic, as the perfect 2011 antihero. (Ryan does more not speaking than ten emoters) But it must be tough holding everything inside, because when he acts, people don’t just die, they are crushed, disfigured, and pulverized. Nor is Gosling the only one prone to outbursts of cartoonish (the audience was tittering) violence. A head exploded by a shotgun blast, a fork plunged into an eye, and more than one severed artery are like paint splatters thrown onto an otherwise cool canvas. It’s a tonal clash that must be deliberate, but to what end? The movie (whose plot relies on a difficult-to-accept coincidence) seems torn between existential dread and sacrifice, with a downbeat, not-so-ambiguous ending that splits the baby. At its best, it reminds us how exciting it was to go to movies in the 70’s when adults did adult things on screen, even if cars were being chased and shots being fired. Also: highest praise for both Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston who disappear into their roles completely and are missed when not on screen. — Jeff Schultz

OUR IDIOT BROTHER

Mildly clever. Some very funny scenes. A likable cast. You'd have to be an idiot to not like OUR IDIOT BROTHER. That's the thing. I liked it. I didn't love it. It's an inoffensive cute comedy about the one brother among four siblings who always tries to put out the good vibe, but invariably botches things for his three sisters. The idiot in Paul Rudd's “Ned” is obvious from the beginning. He sells pot(actually gives it away!) to a uniformed police officer. That's pretty idiotic. But everything Ned does comes from the flower-child-like place of doing good, karma being what it is. But it always seems to bite him in the ass, because the world is a much harsher place than Ned wants to accept. The cluelessness is cute and Rudd plays Ned just right. His sisters are wonderful. Zooey Deschanel (I have a huge crush), Elizabeth Banks and Emily Mortimer play each type to perfection. The lesbian stand-up comic in a committed relationship (Zooey), the high achieving career woman (Elizabeth) and the mom/wife (Emily). Special kudos to Steve Coogan who plays Mortimer's lecherous, documentary filmmaker husband. It all works very nicely. And it's good to see a comedy that doesn't rely on shock and awe. As good as all the pieces are, the script is clever, has some funny moments, but overall misses the mark by mere inches. It's not groundbreaking and doesn't have the “attitude” of a Woody Allen comedy or a genuinely hilarious movie like “Sideways”. It is a good effort from director Jesse Peretz. I look forward to more from him. — Alan Yudman

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

The biggest surprise of the summer? I went bananas over APES! A well thought out, carefully paced franchise reboot that actually gets it right. The star of the movie is not James Franco or Freida Pinto but Andy Serkis and the FX team. Caesar is one of the more memorable creations Hollywood has offered up in a long time (take note George Lucas!). You follow his story from the lab all the way to his rise as leader of the pack…and feel his pain more than any other movie character this summer. While tying together the original in almost seamless fashion with this new version (once again Lucas, pay attention!), we see the fall of mankind not at the hands of the primates but our own. A fantastic movie that sets the stage for a sequel that feels necessary and not forced.
Stormy Curry

APOLLO 18

Well, it’s no APOLLO 13. And yet this latest “found footage” thriller succeeds on its own terms with an authentic look and exceptional sound editing. Minimal acting from a trio of unknowns combined with multiple film stock choppily assembled gives the story a realistic feel. But at times the jump cuts and shifts from black and white to color and fast-motion blurs come off more like fashion photography than cinema verite.The story is simple and the movie is short. Kudos to the producers for giving us the only acceptable ending, downbeat though it be. (Although a coda caption lifts our spirits with the prospect of earthly destruction.) — Jeff Schultz

SHARK NIGHT 3D

Premiering on a weekend when, felicitously (from a marketing standpoint), an Australian bodyboarder died after his legs were bitten off by a shark, this Doomed-Teens-On-Vacation-At-The-Lake tale begins in wholly conventional fashion: rockin’ half-naked young bodies, a tense encounter with locals at the rural general store, the black guy gets it first, etc. But then SN3D surprises by veering into torture porn territory for a bit of a sick kick. Otherwise, the movie is pretty much what you expect, with some nice 3D work, especially underwater, although most of the kills disappoint because so many of them are clouded by the roiling waters. I did enjoy the shark leaping up and bifurcating Chris Zylka mid-air. Also good to see Chris (“Welcome to the O.C., bitch!”) Carmack play another villain — although his insanity backstory about how he became permanently scarred is undercut by the fact that the scar makes this former A&F model handsomer than ever. We also get Dustin Milligan (perhaps best known as the Fresh Face on an unaired pilot of Fox-11’s “That’s So Hollywood”), Donal Logue (slumming), Joel David Moore (in his second bayou horror flick: remember HATCHET?), Katherine McPhee (always good to watch an “American Idol” runner-up munched), and a truly awful Sara Paxton as the love interest. It is her monologue that reveals the events leading up to Carmack’s scar, and it is so ridiculous, I wish there had been a full audience for the inevitable derisive laughter. Sadly, there were only 4 others in the theater with me. — Jeff Schultz

THE DEBT

A debt isn't merely a financial obligation. It gnaws at the psyche and your emotional well being until it is paid or resolved in some meaningful way. Resolving THE DEBT is what drives the three main characters in John Madden's great new thriller. Based on an Israeli film, three Mossad agents are tasked with tracking and capturing a Nazi war criminal. But the capture goes sideways and the “Surgeon of Birkenau” is killed. Their story becomes legend, the stuff every young Israeli aspires to. But their story is a lie and the film flashes back and forth between 1965 and 1997 to show us what really happened and how the supposedly wiser characters deal with the revelation that the criminal may still be alive. This film belongs to two actresses, Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain playing the older and younger Rachel Singer. It also features an excellent supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Jesper Christensen and Sam Worthington (who shows some ability here that has been hidden by being blue, a gladiator or a terminator). Two issues. A unnecessarily graphic suicide scene early in the movie, and an age-defying fight scene at the end (I'm not this spry and I'm about 40-50 years younger than these characters!). Madden owes a DEBT to the original filmmakers and to Mirren and Chastain. The audience owes a DEBT to them all for an enjoyable two hours of entertainment. — Alan Yudman