Film review – The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

9 May 2013
The Place Beyond the Pines: Luke (Ryan Gosling) and Romina (Eva Mendes)

Luke (Ryan Gosling) and Romina (Eva Mendes)

Cinema is often at its best when it presents characters and stories that teeter on the edge of civilisation and morality. More interesting is when a film itself walks a tightrope between conventional narrative cinema and something that challenges audience expectations about film form. The Place Beyond the Pines derives its title from a loose English translation of the Native American word Schenectady, the name of the New York State city where the film is set. This title also evokes the sense of an otherworldly space beyond the recognisable world, in a way not too dissimilar to the mysterious forest in the television series Twin Peaks (created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, 1990-1991). While The Place Beyond the Pines is a far less abstract work than something like Twin Peaks, it still possesses a mysterious examination of morality and fate through characters who mirror each other throughout the film’s unexpected shifts.

Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance previously demonstrated his skill in handling interlinking narratives from different time periods in the tragic love story Blue Valentine. What he is doing in The Place Beyond the Pines is less obvious, but more ambitious even if it ultimately is not as satisfying as his previous film. Nevertheless, The Place Beyond the Pines contains a commendable attempt to experiment with film narrative in a way that emphasises the themes of the film.

Cianfrance has teamed up again with actor Ryan Gosling who as the character Luke Glanton is introduced breathing in darkness before a continuous long shot shows us his tattooed body as he plays with a knife and then walks through a carnival where he will take part in a motorbike stunt display. He is a transgressive character from the fringe of society who later leaves the transient space of the carnival in an attempt to create a ‘normal’ life upon learning that he has had a son with Romina (Eva Mendes), an ex lover who lives locally. At the climax of the impressive introductory long shot, Luke rides his motorbike into a large circular metal cage with two unseen co-riders as the performance begins. The structure of The Place Beyond the Pines is reflected symbolically by the cage as an enclosed narrative containing interlinking riders whose destiny is in the hands of each other.

As the film develops it becomes a study of the sliding scale of morality. It is established that prospects for Luke are limited so he makes decisions that challenge the audience’s perception of him as an underdog who is trying to better himself. Cianfrance and Gosling display considerable talent in making Luke a character who is in one moment likeable and in another compromising good will and common sense. Later in the film he is paralleled with Bradley Cooper’s policeman character Avery Cross, who exists on the opposite side of the law, but is also challenged with difficult moral decisions and as a result makes compromises and struggles to emerge unscathed.

As well as narrative and relationship similarities, both characters are presented through similar stylistic techniques, filmed by tracking shots from behind accompanied by the same ‘heavenly’ choral music to emphasise their fall from grace. With his blond hair and torn white t-shirt Luke in particular resembles something of a fallen angel. Considering the themes of fate and fatherhood that loom large over the film, the symbolism of a sinning angel who is cast out of heaven by its creator is fitting.

The thematic duality between Luke and Avery evokes the police procedural melodramas by directors such as John Woo and Michael Mann where class and social order puts two men who could have been best friends on opposite sides of the law. Also, like a less literal version of the split personalities of many of the characters in Twin Peaks and some of David Lynch’s later films, Luke and Avery could arguably be considered as light and dark versions of the same characters, although with each containing several shades of grey. Their duality in narrative terms is even more interesting and in the film’s most exhilarating scene, one character is seen from the point-of-view of the other, as if this character is seeing a projection – or an echo from the past – of his symbolic other self. It is like Special Agent Dale Cooper encountering his dark doppelgänger in Twin Peaks or perhaps David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) encountering aged versions of himself before becoming what he sees. The use of narrative structure in The Place Beyond the Pines lends itself to considering the characters in a way that goes beyond what literally happens to them onscreen.

Perhaps the reason the film concludes in a way that does not fulfil earlier expectations is because it breaks free from its contained and interwoven structure, encapsulated by the circular metal cage containing the three stunt riders performing for the audience. The symbolic dual-sided identity evolves into something else that does not feel as sophisticated as what has come before it. The morality themes remain, but the film ultimately focuses more on the role of the father and the question of fate. It is a good ending, but it does not live up to the expectation set up by the film’s earlier ambition.

Despite the film’s focus on male identity, at the centre of The Place Beyond the Pines is Eva Mendes’s Romina character who goes through continual hardship while the male characters wrestle with their conscience, desires and drives. A reoccurring image throughout the film is a photo of her, Luke and their son. Luke has his hand over her eyes as an act that can be read as both him protecting her from the fact that the illusion of their happy family life is temporary, or as an act that suggests how much he is hiding from her. Like the nightclub singer who is blinded by the shootout in John Woo’s The Killer (1989), Romina suffers as a result of the men around her and this suffering includes being kept figuratively in the dark.

On the surface a crime narrative with social realism characteristics, The Place Beyond the Pines delivers an unexpected narrative structure where the viewer is invited to link together various characters, motifs and narrative threads beyond the obvious connections. While it is still a rewarding film on face value, The Place Beyond the Pines offers additional pleasures for viewers keen to delve further. The final segment of the film does disappoint when it moves away from morality and identity to instead focus on the role of the father and fate, but it is nevertheless an overall bold and intriguing film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013
Advertisements

Film review – Gangster Squad (2013)

13 January 2013
Gangster Squad: Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling)

Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling)

Director Ruben Fleischer is behind at least two films that gently parody while simultaneously pay tribute to popular genres. His 2009 film Zombieland is a conventionally self-aware film. It utilised a genre that audiences are accustomed to seeing endearingly made fun of while remaining respectful. The tone of the film was light, signalling to the audience that it was not to be taken too seriously. Fleischer’s gangster film Gangster Squad is an unconventionally self-aware film, which like the 2012 faux-historical film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov) does not utilise generic conventions that audiences are used to seeing explicitly parodied. Most radical of all, Gangster Squad plays it completely deadpan. Not that it could be mistaken for anything other than a hyperactive exaggeration of every single trope and archetype from the gangster genre, but it never overtly winks at the audience. For casual viewers it may seem to be playing it absurdly straight, when it is doing completely the opposite and with audacious relish.

Set in Los Angeles in 1949 Gangster Squad embraces the pulpy crime films and hardboiled fiction of the era. Post World War II disillusionment met early paranoia about the dawning nuclear era, and the cultural landscape was grim and bitter. Film noir was always a cynical and dark (thematically and literally) genre, but 1949 saw the end of the first wave of classic noir films being replaced by the far rawer and more violent wave of B-grade noirs by the likes of directors such as Joseph H Lewis, Robert Aldrich and Samuel Fuller. Not only does Gangster Squad pay cartoonish tribute to these films in style and content, but it also tips its fedora at classic films from the era, such as Billy Wilder’s non-B-grade masterpiece Sunset Blvd. (1950), with direct visual references. Furthermore, Gangster Squad is aware of the legacy of crime, gangster and action films to have come since so there are also moments that seem to be direct references to films such as Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983) The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987) and Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987).

The film is a gangster version of Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), with a group of city cops forming an unclassified squad to obliterate a powerful crime syndicate ruled by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Cohen is more like an ultra-violent version of one of the super villains from Dick Tracey (Warren Beatty, 1990) than the historical figure he is based on. The head of the squad is Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who is similarly more like an indestructible super hero. As the married and noble ex-army man who wants to clean up the city he loves, O’Mara possesses many of the characteristics of the more reputable type of crime film hero. Unusually Gangster Squad has two heroic masculine protagonists, with the other being the far more conventional down-and-out cop Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who is initially completely disillusioned and far too susceptible to temptation, which includes falling for Cohen’s girlfriend, femme fatale Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

It is a shame that the second half of Gangster Squad does not consistently deliver the same over-the-top-comic-book style of the first half. Nevertheless, it is a fun ride that signposts right from the beginning that it is working on a very stylised level in a similar yet far less apparent way to Sin City (Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, 2005). There is nothing clever about predicting what is going to happen in Gangster Squad because the film is so determined to fulfil every classic narrative development associated with the genre. And still there are elements of the story that do surprise. A lot of the humour in the film comes from scenarios that occur due to the squad being anything but a slick and effective operation. Lovingly pulpy yet honest and sincere about its intent, there is plenty in Gangster Squad for fans of the gangster genre to enjoy.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Drive (2011)

26 October 2011
Drive - Driver (Ryan Gosling)

Driver (Ryan Gosling)

In this unofficial prequel to Blade Runner Ryan Gosling plays an early replicant model who yearns to be human. He’s a machine programmed as part stunt man, part mechanic and part getaway driver – a being who is at one with the cars he is almost indistinguishable from. When he wears a prosthetic mask he may as well be exchanging one blank face for another. Known simply as Driver, his programming is threatened when he begins to develop empathy after meeting Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. After years of observing humanity, the feelings of love that have been awakened within Driver have lead him to compute that he can join the human race by becoming part of a family as a husband and father. Despite receiving support from his friend and manager Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who is Geppetto to his Pinocchio, Driver soon gets in the way of far more powerful forces who prefer their machines to remain subservient. While not yet a fully formed person, Driver responds violently, the only way his programming allows him to.

That’s one way to read Drive. The far more conventional way is to see it as a slick neo noir film about a loner who gets on the wrong side of local mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) while trying to help a woman he has fallen in love with. He’s a combination of one of Paul Schrader’s lonely men and the Man With No Name, with a few tendencies borrowed from the pixelated protagonists of the Grand Theft Auto gaming franchise. After Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009), Drive is the third film in a row by director Nicolas Winding Refn that explores violent lone men. While the previous two films featured lead characters who embraced their capacity for violence, Driver wants something more.

Drive - Irene (Carey Mulligan)

Irene (Carey Mulligan)

While the title Drive obviously reflects Driver’s extraordinary prowess behind the wheel, it also indicates that the film is about what drives him. Prior to meeting Irene he merely exists, but afterwards his life has purpose leading him to put everything at risk. So in classic film noir style Irene is the cause of his undoing, but only in the sense that she awakens the humanity within him that for whatever reason was long dormant. He becomes driven by the need to see that Irene is protected and provided for. She doesn’t seduce him nor is he driven by sexual desire. The film explicitly depicts the attraction between them as being played out through him adopting the domestic role of father and husband, often with the lyrics ‘And you have proved to be a real human being and a real hero’ playing on the soundtrack.

Stylistically Drive is a triumph of minimalist cool, reflecting the focus and precision Driver brings to everything he does. The major ‘fault’ with the film is that the opening sequence, depicting Driver at work as a getaway driver, is such a brilliant piece of intense and visceral cinema that there is no way for the rest of the film to live up to it. However, it comes pretty close with the first part of the film evoking 1980s crimes thrillers by Michael Mann and William Friedkin, before the graphic and almost dreamlike violence in the second half of the film brings to mind some of Sam Peckinpah’s later films. The result is a gorgeous fusion of pulp genre cinema with an almost abstract approach to characterisation. The 1980s inspired synthesiser heavy dream-pop soundtrack is just an added bonus.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Bookmark and Share


MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 15

7 August 2011
Drive

Drive

How do you transform a B-grade action/thriller into an ultra stylish neo noir? Give it to director Nicolas Winding Refn to direct apparently. This year’s Closing Night film Drive was an inspired choice, which I’d love to describe as a homage to 1980s action cinema with a distinctively European edge, but I can’t since there is a self-referential joke in the film about a critic who wrote exactly that. Ryan Gosling plays a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver, and his steely and cool performance sets the tone for the film. For at least the first half of Drive it feels like something Paul Schrader may have made. The second half of the film revels more in its generic characteristics with the very graphic and pulpy violence recalling Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I did find Drive ultimately a little anti-climatic and was a bit disappointed that more wasn’t made of the Driver’s skills behind the wheel. But don’t get me wrong, this is still a finely crafted piece of cinema and a highlight of the festival.

[EDIT 26/10/2011: Read a full review of Drive]

The Mill and the Cross functions as a living painting and an imagining of how that painting was created. Fusing art, cinema and history, filmmaker Lech Majewski dramatically brings Pieter Brueghel’s 1564 The Procession to Calvary to life with a degree of ambition the rivals the more esoteric work of Peter Greenaway. Most interesting is the web-like structure of the painting that is initially replicated in the film with a web-like narrative structure, with Rutger Hauer as Breughel in the centre and differenet strands of interlocking stories stretching out from him. This is unfortunately somewhat lost when the film ends up focusing on the religious iconography in The Procession to Calvary, with a lengthy re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion. As The Mill and the Cross was originally designed to be exhibited in a gallery context, I couldn’t help but think it may have worked better as a multi-screen installation to further liberate the concept from the lineal restrictions of cinema.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Leave it to the innovative maverick Werner Herzog to be one of the few directors to use 3D in a way that not only enhances the film, but is also essential for that film. Herzog hasn’t created a new world in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but he does take us into one that very few humans will ever get to experience. It is the world of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, which contains both a delicate natural beauty and fragile cave paintings that are now considered the oldest known examples of primitive art. Part nature documentary and part art documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an astonishing privilege to experience. Various scientific experts help to bring the artwork to life and create a vivid picture of how the caves where used by early humans and animals such as the extinct cave bear. Herzog’s narration contains no self censorship as he muses about the profound nature of what these caves hold.

[EDIT 7/10/2011: Read a full review of Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

MIFFhaps

I attempted to meet David Stratton last night and completely bollocksed it up. Standing by himself before the Closing Night film, I approached him for a chat, suddenly got a bit overwhelmed and said something like, ‘Hello Mr Stratton, I’m a film critic and hi and you’re a big inspiration and hi and so are you here for the ACMI event that’s coming up?’

His reply was, ‘ No, I’m coming back to Melbourne a bit later for the ACMI event. I’m here tonight for MIFF.’

I then just stood there nodding like an idiot, went completely blank, muttered ‘thank you’ and then literally ran off. One of the people I know from Triple R walked past me and whispered, ‘Next time just pee on him.’

Show us your MIFF

Having previously worked for MIFF,  Beatrix Coles is enjoying this year’s festival as a punter, with Another Earth and Life in Movement to look forward to today. Although they are both very different films her anticipation levels for both are equally high. She loved seeing Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard with an audience largely composed of people who knew Howard, which was a really special experience. Over the years she’s also enjoyed seeing the Forum in full swing: ‘It’s my ultimate Friday night after work spot, and I wish it was open all year round.’ Beatrix is currently working on Authentic In All Caps,  a playful web-driven comedy-drama about a gambling philosopher. Beatrix’s all-time favourite film is A Hard Day’s Night, a film she can always watch.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Bookmark and Share


Film review – Blue Valentine (2010)

23 December 2010
Blue Valentine: Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling)

Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling)

Blue Valentine is a film about the beginning and end of a relationship. Told in a parallel narrative structure, it’s present day scenes depict the breakdown of a marriage while the beginnings of the relationship from six years earlier are revealed in flashback. Co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, who has a background in making documentaries, Blue Valentine takes a non-judgemental and observant approach to the dynamics of the relationship that it explores. While there are multiple small reasons for why the relationship sours there is no singled fixed explanation for why it ultimately stops working. Nor is there any attempt to allocate blame to either person and similarly to other marriage-in-crisis films such as Eyes Wide Shut and Revolutionary Road, attempting to argue who was more at fault is futile and misses the point of the film, which is that sometimes love just doesn’t work and that’s a tragedy.

While Cianfrance’s approach may be objective and non-judgemental that doesn’t mean it is not intimate and emotional. A lot of Blue Valentine is shot in a series of close-ups and medium close-ups to pull us into the world of the two characters Dean and Cindy, beautifully played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The tightly framed cinematography captures their every reaction, gesture and fleeting expression to communicate a wealth of information about what they are feeling. Both Gosling and Williams have been steadily establishing themselves as two of the finest contemporary actors when it comes to delivering nuanced, convincing and honest performances and their work in Blue Valentine cements this. The combination of restraint and raw emotion displayed by the pair is extraordinary.

Blue Valentine:  Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)

Part of the authenticity of Blue Valentine is its open depiction of the sexual dynamic between Dean and Cindy and how their physical intimacy reflects their emotional health. Sex in cinema is so often portrayed as either a titillating transgression, the ultimate symbol of a romantic union or the first moment of true commitment. All of these representations ignore how common sex is in everyday life for a lot of people, whether they are romantically involved or not. Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs was an attempt to demystify sex by depicting a short affair through sexual encounters, but the overtly graphic nature of the unsimulated sex distracted from the film’s intent. The sex scenes in Blue Valentine, on the other hand, do succeed in conveying the status of the relationship. During the sections of the film before Cindy begins going out with Dean, we see her having sex with her previous boyfriend and the act is cold and impersonal. The contrast to Cindy’s first sexual encounter with Dean is dramatic as it displays his affection for her in a way that the eroticism of the act is also incredibly romantic. However, between these two flashbacks we see a present day scene where they are staying overnight in a gaudy themed hotel room and Dean is desperately trying to connect with Cindy by having sex with her. The frustrations, anger and resentment that both characters display at this failed encounter is incredibly painful to witness and made all the more bitter by the tender flashback scenes we see later.

Blue Valentine:  Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)

The core moment in Blue Valentine is indeed one of the flashbacks where Dean and Cindy do connect and fall in love. It is not a sex scene nor is it a melodramatic outburst of emotion. Instead, it is a spontaneous moment where Dean and Cindy muck around on the street with the warm glow of a shop window providing a welcome juxtaposition to the gloomy blue light of the horrible hotel that we see them staying in six years later. In front of the shop window Dean sings and Cindy dances and the whole situation is goofy, messy and twee. It is also incredibly sweet and the continuous long shot effectively captures this moment of two people falling in love.

The final powerful moment of Blue Valentine is actually the end credits. With the final shot lingering in your mind, and the ramifications of what it means, the effect of the burst of music and having still photographs from the early days of the relationship behind the credits is absolutely devastating. Every once in a while a film arrives that is so honest, so expertly crafted and so sincere that the powerful emotional response it elicits is profound. Blue Valentine is one of those rare films. See it with somebody you are breaking up with.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Bookmark and Share

Read more reviews at MRQE