Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)


Is life dictated by fate, free will, or a combination of both somewhere in the middle?  The Place Beyond the Pines pushes the audience towards the fate end of the spectrum at the expense of more logical conclusions.  Just because your father makes certain choices does not make it inevitable the son will confront the same situations.  Fathers definitely define the situation and circumstances the child is born into, but they do not automatically dictate future decisions.  Horrible children are products of supportive and balanced homes while saints may be born and bred from the roughest and most downtrodden of beginnings.

Director Derek Cianfrance creates three loosely connected films sewn into one overarching narrative about fathers and sons, the choices they make, and the consequences borne from those decisions.  Precisely what conclusions the audience is supposed to walk away with concerning generational angst is unclear.  Recurrent themes that pop up amongst each section include the idea and actions associated with fatherhood, class status and placement on the social and economic ladder, and the more melodramatic theme of the son paying for and reenacting the sins of the father.

Where are the women and the mothers?  They show up in supporting roles but are shoved aside for the paterfamilias.  “Pines” chronicles the Y chromosome with no room for maternal meddling from the ladies.  The film’s first shot is a long tracking shot following Ryan Gosling’s shirtless torso as he walks from his trailer to an enclosed metal sphere to race a motorcycle upside down with two other riders.  There are not too many other scenes out there that establish masculinity better than this set up.

Luke (Gosling) is more than rough around the edges; he is rough to the core.  Tattoos drape his body including a small dagger dripping blood next to his eyeball.  These symbols are not there to invite folks in.  Travelling with a circus, he returns to Schenectady, New York and stumbles upon an old one-night stand, Romina (Eva Mendes), who gave birth to his son while he was away.  The idea of fatherhood knocks Luke to the floor; his instincts kick in and he has a sudden urge to provide for a family he didn’t even know he had the day before.  

No minimum wage job is good enough to provide for his son and try and win back his old fling from her new man played by Mahershala Ali; Luke is going to rob banks using his only talent, motorcycle racing.  This abruptly leads us into the film’s second act where we follow Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop, who intersects with Luke.  Avery also has a little boy at home and is about to enter into a world of his own fatherhood dilemmas.  Avery does not have to deal with the problems of providing for his son and bank robbing; he gets police corruption and feelings of alienation.  He is branded a hero yet feels completely empty on the inside.

The film’s third act follows Luke and Avery’s sons played by Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) and Emory Cohen respectively.  By astronomical coincidence, these two get to know one another and unbeknownst to them, they act out the not so inevitable conclusions started by their fathers’ choices.  In the real world, the kids have free will to chart their own courses in life; however, in Cianfrance’s Schenectady world, fate guides the boys and chooses for them.

Neither Luke nor Avery is a candidate for father of the year.  The film’s best father is actually Ali who acts as a competent and loving stepfather to Luke’s kid, a fact completely lost on the child.  Also, the character of Avery’s teenaged son does not work at all.  This street tough 17 year old with a thick Long Island accented sneer would only spawn from Bradley Cooper and Rose Byrne on the movie screen.  He is not believable for one second.  Luke’s kid, Jason (DeHaan), is spot on though.  He is aloof and curious, just like a boy who never knew his father.    

The Place Beyond the Pines is a long film (around two and a half hours) with intertwined yet mostly simple story lines.  Gosling’s leadoff segment is the strongest of the trio and could have be its own film if Cianfrance did not have such grander designs.  Cianfrance reaches for an epic but the film lacks that overall dramatic punch in the gut it yearns for.  It jumps forward in time but not back and forth like his earlier film Blue Valentine (2010).  “Pines” is linear storytelling that may test the patience of a more attention-challenged audience, but is worth the effort. 

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn, Harris Yulin

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Trance (2013)


Trance will deceive you.  At first, it is a straight up and familiar heist film as a Goya painting just sold at auction for 27 million pounds is stolen.  That is just sleight of hand though; Trance’s true raison d’etre is as a psychological thriller.  The thief does not remember what he did with the painting and his gang somewhat implausibly tries to cure the short-term amnesia with hypnosis.

When a film mixes together amnesia, hypnotherapy, and strange deja vu memories, there will be an unreliable narrator.  Simon (James McAvoy) works at an upscale art auction house (think Sotheby’s or Christie’s) and knows the ins and outs of its entire security apparatus.  The reason why one would not want to employ Simon in such a capacity is that he has a severe case of gambling addiction.  Hit on the head during his part of the robbery, Simon forgets where he stashed the loot.

The gang’s incredulous boss, Franck (Vincent Cassel), sends Simon to a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), who specializes in well, curing whatever problem her clients have.  She hypnotizes obese people to implant the idea that hey only eat out of stress and sadness, she convinces folks with a fear of flying that they are safe, and she can even improve a golfer’s swing.  Now, she is going to help a felonious and seedy gang find the missing Goya.

Elizabeth appears very adept at her profession.  She can get Simon hypnotized and talking in no time at all.  She also has a blatant American accent in the middle of London.  The script never takes the time to address her past and answer why an American hypnotherapist set up her practice in another country; are the British better consumers of this type of treatment?  

A majority of the time in Trance, someone is hypnotized at any given moment and delving into the past.  Frequently, scenes are spliced together and jump back and forth between the past and present producing a very confusing few minutes for the audience.  Not trusting your central character to tell you the truth is one thing, but not trusting the film’s editor will truly frustrate you every now and then.

Trance is an odd follow-up to 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire for director Danny Boyle.  It is an obvious step down in achievement.  The atmosphere and pacing are far more manic and jumpy like his earlier work in Trainspotting and The Beach.  This is the fifth time Boyle directed a script written by John Hodge, who co-authored Trance with Joe Ahearne, so maybe he just wanted to direct another one.

Boyle keeps a heightened level of tension and suspense throughout the entire movie all the way until the final enlightening scene.  McAvoy sweats his way through wondering what is true or false in his mind and Dawson plays more of a puppet master who may know more than she lets on.  Cassel’s character, Franck, is a bit harder to nail down.  He is the boss man and has no moral issues with ordering a bit of torture here and there, but the script shifts tracks on him and I left the theater wondering if he was a true villain or just underwritten.  

Guessing what is or is not true because someone may or may not be manipulated by their own memories makes for a complex film.  There was many a time I wished Trance was just about a stolen painting because there are so many layers upon layers and half-truths and lies that it all becomes too much after awhile.  The characters remain mostly one-dimensional because the script does not allow itself any time to get to know anybody.  It always must make room for another hypnotizing session or double cross.

Tance’s script is not good enough for Danny Boyle.  He directs the film with way more style and flash than the material can handle.  Perhaps Trance is an example of over-direction.  In the end, the direction does not match the substance and Trance suffers for it.  If dreams within dreams are your thing but you still have a mind for substance and heart, go watch Inception again.

Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge
Starring: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson, Danny Sapani, Matt Cross, Wahab Sheikh

Friday, April 19, 2013

Oblivion (2013)


Oblivion is a rare creature.  It is a member of the summer blockbuster movie category and it is not a sequel.  Here is a title without the number 2, II, or The Return latched on after it.  This sets it apart from the majority of summer big budget films nowadays.  However, is this original screenplay completely new?  If you have seen Wall-E, it may feel strangely familiar.

Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) works a monotonous job zooming around in his bubble ship repairing heavily armed drones and fighting off the Scavs, aliens from another world who invaded Earth but lost the war; a war which unfortunately destroyed most of the planet from habitation.  He makes time to scour Earth for its cultural artifacts though.  While Wall-E collected knickknacks and watched Hello, Dolly!, Jack listens to Led Zeppelin and reads about everything from ancient Rome to old Superbowls.  

Unlike Disney’s Earth-cleaning robot, Jack is not alone.  Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), his partner, acts as both his girlfriend and command and control back at their Jetsons-like house built on extremely tall stilts.  She is in contact with a mother-ship orbiting Earth and is not so quietly counting down the days when she and Jack can finally leave desolate and radiation-ridden Earth and join the rest of humanity on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and new home for all those who survived the war.

 Jack is a curious guy though.  He likes Earth; there is just something so familiar about it all.  The best part of his day is not at home with Victoria, but when he secretly breaks away from his daily tasks to collect more memorabilia and hang out in a little Garden of Eden he found amongst the nothingness.  Jack is also not alone during his fieldwork either.  Something is attacking the drones, which is why Jack must repair them in the first place.  These are the Scavs, the alien remnants.

No more plot descriptions from me now.  You will enjoy Oblivion less if you learn any more information; a big chunk of the fun comes with unraveling the mystery right along with Jack.  There are areas and backstories that I wish were explained in much greater detail, but we are glued to Jack’s shoulder.  If he is not there to witness it or talk about it with someone, we will not learn it either.  He is in every single scene.  

Oblivion’s greatest strength is the scenery.  I watched the movie on an IMAX screen and the extra bucks are worth it.  It is crystal-clear gorgeous.  Flying around in the bubble ship, trying to guess which skyscrapers are remnants of what destroyed city, and even watching Jack and Victoria swim around in their Olympic-sized, glass encased swimming pool are visual treats.   M83's score also stands out.  Standard scenes are elevated to loftier cinematic tiers because of the accompanying music.  

Writer/director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) created an original story and extremely eye-appealing aesthetics but generously helped himself to ideas from Wall-E, Planet of the Apes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There is even a ship named The Odyssey; however, that film reference is geared more towards the will and autonomy of artificial intelligence.  Oblivion is so visually appealing we may begin to forgive Kosinski for his TRON: Legacy debacle, but I wish the story was not sacrificed so much at the expense of soaring through the clouds.  

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Written by: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt
Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo, Zoe Bell

Sunday, April 14, 2013

LUV (2013)


I never thought a filmmaker would use the neighborhoods from The Wire to stage an inner city version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  There are the row houses, the corners, and the back lots that anyone familiar with the HBO series will recognize.    Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams) even shows up as a cop this time.  Throw in a dash of the ‘just out of prison and trying to make good’ plot device and then you have LUV.

Vincent (Common) is fresh out of prison only doing 8 years on what should have been 20.  This makes people nervous, especially his old boss and crew, but the film skips over the hows and whys Vincent was let loose so early.  LUV is not a legal or police procedural.  Vincent is not innocent either.  He most likely got off with a slap on the wrist if even a few of the crimes that are mentioned throughout the movie are true.

Vincent’s nephew, Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.), appears to be around 11 or 12 years old and lives with his grandma.  Mom is absent and never calls; Woody usually hears she is ‘down south’ but she is always thinking about him.  It looks like Vincent is the first man Woody spends any significant amount of time with and Vincent eagerly volunteers as role model.

Unfortunately, Vincent is the absolute last man who should raise his hand to teach Woody life lessons.  Inexplicably driving a very nice Mercedes and sporting a nice suit, just out of prison and all, Vincent has Woody skip school to hang out with him today, not only to conduct business, but also to teach him about the ‘real’ world.  Vincent’s real world includes firearms, narcotics, gangland trouble, and even murder. 

Before Vincent came along, Woody looked like he was on the straight and narrow.  He is shy around girls, likes to draw his own comic books, and dreams about his absent mother at night.  Vincent can’t have his nephew being nervous around girls; he appears visibly upset when young Woody fails to “holla at them shortys over there.”  

Throughout the day’s business, Vincent and Woody interact with multiple characters around town that are a “who’s-who” in famous African American actors.  There are Dennis Haysbert and Danny Glover as Vincent’s old boss and his brother and Charles S. Dutton as an old reliable informant.  Our man Vincent really is trying to stay on the good side of the law but he is no saint.  There is a run-in with his old girlfriend and multiple shady situations where breaking some laws are just a means to get to his forthright end.

Common, rapper and sometimes actor, as Vincent is effective and believable and it’s good to see him break out of his usual sidekick roles (Date Night, Terminator Salvation, etc…).  Michael Rainey Jr. is a breakout star though.  This kid steals the whole show even when he is in the same room as Glover and Haysbert.  I really hope we see more him in the future.  

Woody knows the different between right and wrong; Vincent most likely knew the difference at one time but chose to take a more criminal path.  Will Woody be smart enough to see through Vincent’s flashy exterior and platitudes about family bonds?  A stronger screenplay would have set that choice up a bit stronger, but this independent film is strong enough to make the audience think about it.  

Directed by:  Sheldon Candis
Written by:  Sheldon Candis, Justin Wilson
Starring:  Common, Michael Rainey Jr., Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Meagan Good, Lonette McKee, Michael Kenneth Williams, Russell Hornsby, Hayward Armstrong

Friday, April 5, 2013

Evil Dead (2013)


There is no use anymore complaining about horror remakes.  By now, you must accept any halfway decent horror film from the ‘70s or ‘80s has already been remade or is in the pipeline.  There was Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Crazies, Last House on the Left, and even more but listing them all will not make anybody feel better.  Now, a studio turns its attention to Evil Dead, a commercial flop in 1981, but a certified cult classic now.

Five early 20-somethings trek to an isolated cabin in the woods.  There is a reason for it but that would fall under plot.  Evil Dead and plot do not work very well together.  Plot is just something to slog through to get to the reason they are trying to reanimate the franchise, blood, detached limbs, found objects used to impale your body, and even more blood.

The violence and gore far exceed the original but there is a key element missing.  The original Evil Dead movies are known for being campy.  The characters do not take themselves too seriously; it is as if they are all in on the same joke.  Not in 2013.  Nobody smirks, chuckles, looks askance, or offers up a bad pun.  It is all confusion, stupidity, and screaming. 

Just what is the Evil Dead?  There is an ominous book that looks like it is bound in skin and has blood splatters on most pages.  When mystical words are spoken aloud, the exact same camera shots are employed as in the original of ‘something’ hurtling through the woods.  There is a whooshing sound through the trees as the camera, acting as the eyes of ‘something’, charges its way towards the cabin.  We have no idea where it came from or what it looks like, but it uses an eye-opening method to literally enter the drug-addled and annoying Mia (Jane Levy).

Mia is at the cabin to, once again, wean herself off of hard narcotics.  Her friends, her brother, and his girlfriend go with her for moral and, if required, physical support.  Mia’s brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), wins the award for worst actor amongst the other four well-qualified candidates.  Fernandez is technically in Bruce Campbell’s role from 1981, which was always going to be a tough sell, but no matter, he is not believable for one second. 

Another hard to swallow fact is there are four writers with screenplay credits.  One of them is Sam Raimi, the original writer/director, because he created the story.  Another one is Diablo Cody, the wit behind Juno and Young Adult.  First, what is Cody’s name doing billed behind people named Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayaguez who have no other feature film credits on their resumes?  Second, and more importantly, where in the script is Cody’s influence?  There are no snarky observations or pithy retorts.  A writer known almost solely for her biting style and unique voice has zero impact on Evil Dead’s drudgery.

Maybe I just miss Bruce Campbell.  I suppose when they eventually get around to remaking Jaws I will miss Roy Scheider.  Having the real Ash show up with a wink, a grin, and hopefully an off color quip would at least have reminded the audience of more entertaining movies from the past.  But no, Campbell was smart enough to stay behind the scenes as a co-producer in this obligatory, and remarkably tired, remake.

Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Written by: Fede Alvarez, Diablo Cody, Sam Raimi, Rodo Sayaguez
Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore