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By Michael Calleri

Moviegoers love car chases, and when they are done well, they can definitely be exhilarating. There have been vehicle chases since motion pictures began, but American directors have long taken special interest in depicting fast-moving cars and trucks, more often than not relishing mayhem over common sense. The best chases by many accounts are found in "Bullitt," "The French Connection" and "Ronin."

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has a worldwide cult following for his utterly insane prison picture "Bronson," has clearly learned from the past. His new movie, "Drive," is a tribute to many genres (1980s Los Angeles noir, spaghetti Westerns, even dime novels of the pulp fiction variety), but it is especially an ode to the automobile and the ability of the filmmaker to hold audiences rapt by manipulating speeding cars and pitting drivers against each other. "Drive" has two outstanding car chases that occur in the first half of the movie. They are engineered so breathlessly that the second part of the film seems calm.

In "Drive," Ryan Gosling plays a movie stunt driver by day and at night he gets his real kicks being a getaway driver for criminal acts. The tough-guy character has no name, not unlike Ryan O'Neal's man behind the wheel in the aptly named "The Driver" from 1978, directed by Walter Hill. O'Neal is also a getaway driver for bank robbers.

Gosling becomes interested in a neighbor played by Carey Mulligan, but his inner reserve prevents real enchantment. She has a dangerous ex-husband and a young child. He also becomes involved with two crime bosses, acted by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. Bryan Cranston is Gosling's wise mechanic pal. After certain plans for the big score are made and certain plays fall apart, Gosling finds himself on the run.

The movie is slick and a little bit cold, not unlike the driver himself. Action-wise, it's exciting and you really do learn a few things about the skills involved in being a getaway driver. Visually, the picture is outstanding -- it uses eye-catching scenes of Los Angeles to enhance its thrills. Chris Martinez's cool musical score pays tribute to 1980s pop. The acting by all is believable and satisfying. There's sparse dialogue in Hossein Amini's tight screenplay, which is based on a novel by James Sallis.

You go to "Drive" to experience what a talented director does to re-imagine a movie genre mainstay. In addition to staging exciting scenes with supercharged automobiles, Refn also has no qualms about ramping up the violence. He loves the great sweep of cars racing on city streets or on a highway, but he also relishes scenes of manic carnage. It may surprise you to learn that Refn won the Director's Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

That is just how good his movie is.

What can you pack into 84 very taut minutes? How about one of the best movie thrillers I've seen in a long time. Not to belabor the point, but again, there's something going on in Europe that finds its filmmakers taking what was once a quintessentially American genre and running with it. The French have always loved gangsters and thrillers, and in "Point Blank" ("A bout Portant"), director Fred Cavaye gets it absolutely right.

Unlike "Drive," this movie has emotion to spare. There is no let-up in what happens on screen. People are in danger. Director Cavaye co-wrote the taut screenplay with Guilliame Lemans. He understands that once he has his audience rooting for the nice-guy hero and his pregnant heroine wife that he has complete license to ratchet up the tension, which he does in what amounts to an astonishing tour de force of breathless action.

Gilles Lellouche plays the classic Hitchcockian hero, an average guy caught up in circumstances beyond his control. He's Samuel, a registered nurse. His wife (Elena Anaya) is seized by the movie's villains, who believe that because Samuel works in a hospital, he can assist with the escape of a hospitalized prisoner who is connected to the bad guys. The wife's life is threatened.

That's the situation, but what Cavaye does with it is cinematic excitement that grabs you and never lets up. With his cinematographer Alain Duplantier and editor Benjamin Weill, the director knows exactly where to focus the well-acted picture's energy.

"Point Blank" is dazzling.

"I Don't Know How She Does It" is based on a peculiarly British novel by Allison Pearce, filled with English quirks and characters. The decision to transport its setting to the United States wrings the local color right out of the book. Thus, without the delights that make us enjoy the oddly endearing Brits, we're stuck with a dull and dreary American family and a hopelessly out-of-date story about working mothers and stay-at-home moms.

I guess that director Douglas McGrath and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (both of them Americans through and through) decided that it'd be better to bore audiences with bits and pieces from hundreds of other movies rather than tickle their funny bones with amusing dialogue.

In 2011, are we still to believe that characters in a movie can't multi-task and that people really care what others think about how they raise their family in the privacy of their own home? The film primarily offers two female choices. One is a busy and successful financial adviser with kids. The other is a harebrained gym bunny who has never had an original thought in her pretty little head. Stereotypes abound in this truly unfunny movie.

Sarah Jessica Parker is a happily married business executive who's always frazzled. Greg Kinnear is her architect husband. Parker has to be frazzled because McGrath and McKenna still think they're living in the 1960s, and they've got Doris Day and James Garner sparing over household duties and breadwinning.

The director and screenwriter desperately try to milk laughs from animosity between two different kinds of motherhood. They fail miserably. I really want to know what decade they think they are in, let alone what planet they are on. In their sad little world, nothing and no one has evolved.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 20, 2011