Skip to main content

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.


The Place Beyond the Pines
(2012)

(SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines. When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world.


But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished.


The inspiration for the movie ought to have dampened expectations. Director Derek Cianfrance, who teamed with Ryan Gosling on Valentine, took his cue from Gosling’s reported wish to rob a bank (as something in life he hadn’t done but wanted to do; this from one of the most feted actors of his generation). Gosling proceeded to explain how he’d go about it (so he’d obviously given the matter some thought) and his plan is what you end up seeing.


Which might have been well and good if Gosling had proposed the idea to another of his collaborators, Nicolas Winding Refn. After all, Drive turned on a not so dissimilar premise; Hollywood stuntman moonlights as a getaway driver (do we sense a running theme of muscle-brained machismo in Gosling’s choices?)


But Refn’s movie is consciously mythic and stylistically extravagant. You couldn’t mistake it for complex, except in a textural sense. That’s part of its pleasure. Cianfrance has stylish visuals on his side (courtesy of Steve McQueen’s regular cinematographer Sean Bobbit; his Valentine DP Andrij Parekh turned the project down after a premonitory dream in which he died during the opening fairground stunt sequence). And there is a haunting, evocative score from Mike Patton. But the production values are leagues ahead of the screenplay (by the director with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder).


What impact it has comes from its structure., I’d expected this to be a Gosling movie with Bradley Cooper in a supporting turn, but in the tradition of Psycho it takes some surprising detours. Cooper’s cop (Avery Cross) doesn’t actually show up until the end of the first act when he puts an end to Gosling’s robbery spree. It couldn’t happen a moment too soon, as I was wondering how I’d endure a 140-minute movie all about dim-watt sociopath Luke Glanton. This isn’t a character you can feel for, or who betrays any insights. He’s a caricature, as exterior as his blonde rinse and ridiculous tattoos, and any empathy we might have is forfeited long before we witness his explosive violence.


Cianfrance ensures that the heists themselves are enervating; there is a real sense of danger and immediacy to the chases. But they can’t make up for the deficiencies in the plot. Eva Mendes (as the mother of Glanton’s child) and Mahershala Ali (as her other half; Ali has recently been seen to scheming effect in House of Cards) are sympathetic in the face of Luke’s primal cartoon force, but the scenario is never for a moment believable. This another vehicle for Gosling to pose as an earthy, blue-collar type (even with the ludicrous character notes), to banish the ghost of The Mickey Mouse Club and show us how much he is informed by all those gritty, provocative ‘70s movies that stars made back then. Except that this time he’s shot him in the foot. His efforts prove faintly ridiculous, all posturing and no content. Glanton is as empty as Gosling’s thousand-yard stare. Cianfrance might argue that the point is that Glanton is completely lacking in self-awareness, but he omits to present a good reason for us to be involved with his story or an effective bridge between his elaborate criminality and the theme he wishes to explore. He’s using Timmy Mallet’s hammer to crack a nut.


The title of the movie sounds like something David Lynch might come up with, and Cianfrance frequently manufactures a dreamlike ambience that wouldn’t seem out of place in Lynch’s fare. But it feels like an inappropriate choice, foisted on subject matter that ultimately reveals itself to be so lacking in substance. He sets out to tackle an inter-generational theme (the sins of the father, and the need for forgiveness), but the canvas is too broad for him to pay any aspect of it justice. If the first sequence lacks credibility, the second is humdrum and over-familiar. Perhaps if Cianfrance had come up with something really Lynchian (Glanton and Cross are the same person!) it might have redeemed the stodgy aspects and rendered the dish more palatable.


Cooper is nearly as unbelievable playing a cop as Gosling is as a macho stunt rider. You’re never in any doubt that this is just an actor larking about at cops and politicians. The tentative attempts to explore the undeserved heroic status foisted in Cross, and his resultant guilt, have potential. But Cianfrance squanders this with ham-fisted exposition (Cross goes to see the police shrink who works out in seconds that he has problems being around his infant son because of his guilt over leaving Glanton’s son fatherless; her deductive powers are astounding!) It also quickly becomes obvious that the director has nowhere to take Mendes’ character for the rest of the story. She’s purely reactive, there to illustrate the parallels and differences between the two men who mess up her life (Cianfrance makes this particularly plain in scenes where each attempts to force her to take a gift as she escapes into the safety of her car).


The police corruption plotline isn’t just sub-The Shield, it makes the so-so cop dramas of James Gray and Gavin O’Connor look profound and insightful. A raft of great actors pop up for a few scenes (Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta) and there are good ideas sprinkled in, but none of it really hangs together. Maybe Cianfrance could have done his ideas justice with a mini-series (although that stunt riding bank robber shit would never fly), but the second act in particular suffers from rushing over the ground it needs to cover to reach the third.


Because, despite the focus being away from the star leads, the final act is where Cianfrance actually gets a grip on the story he wants to tell. The first two were needed to realise the third, but they weren’t the point. That doesn’t mean he is able to carry off the essential-interconnectedness-of-things contrivance by which the paths of the sons of Glanton (Dane DeHaan as Jason) and Cross (Emory Cohen as AJ) entwine. Cianfrance is pushing for the gravitas of grand Shakespearean tragedy and, if these two were star-crossed lovers rather than friends-come-enemies (albeit, there is a hint of homoerotic subtext at times, as there is between Luke and Ben Mendelsohn’s Robin in the first act), he might have succeeded. But he can’t disguise the wheels of convenience dictating the plot. DeHaan and Cohen are very good, although I haven’t seen the latter before to judge if his range. The character of AJ seems to suggest the idea that you’re better off not knowing your natural father than having one who neglects you, in which case you’ll most likely turn out to be a right little shit. DeHaan brings a commanding intensity to all his roles, and occasionally puts me in mind of a young Brad Dourif.


Cianfrance does little to sell the 15-year leap in terms of the holdover actors. Jason’s visit to Robin is well done though, and there is a strong flavour of the way memory adjusts the past to his reminiscences (that, and his need to avoid telling Jason the unvarnished truth). Bradley has slicked back his hair and donned a suit, but we only believe he’s the District Attorney because we are told it is so. Nevertheless, the scene where he confronts his son in the police cell, instructing him to stay away from Jason is powerful (“You leave that kid alone!”), and has a depth to it missing elsewhere. Cianfrance attempts to explore the idea of the inability to escape one’s past, but he ends up dealing with it rather crudely. Jason forces Cross to drive to the Miller’s Crossing-esque titular locale, the same spot where Ray Liotta was set to whack him over a decade earlier. There’s a sense that he should have died then, and that he has been a walking dead man ever since; it is only when he issues a heartfelt admission of sorrow for what he did that he finds peace. It’s a strong scene, and well-played, but it acts as a climax to a much better movie than the one the preceding two hours gave us.


I’ve yet to be convinced by Cianfrance. He’s a talented director, but his writing is neither as profound nor resonant as he clearly thinks it is. The intimacy of the performances in Blue Valentine (and, as here, the camerawork) papered over many of the deficiencies in the storytelling. He’s also clearly fascinated by the device of ellipses; there he used it reasonably well, but here the conceit has caught up with him. He may need to set his sights a little lower next time. Or better still, work from someone else’s script.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

That living fossil ate my best friend!

The Meg (2018)
(SPOILERS) There’s a good chance that, unless you go in armed with ludicrously high expectations for the degree to which it's going to take the piss out of its premise, you'll have a good time with The Meg. This is unabashedly B-moviemaking, and if a finger of fault can be pointed, it's that director Jon Turteltaub, besides being a strictly functional filmmaker, does nothing to give it any personality beyond employing the services of the Stath. Obviously, though, the mere presence of the gravelly-larynxed one goes a long way to plugging the holes in any leaky vessel.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

In my day, those even endeavouring to fly were accused of witchery.

Warlock (1989)
(SPOILERS) Hero REG? Scottish hero REG? This could only have happened before anyone knew any better. As Richard E Grant himself commented of a role Sean Connery allegedly turned down ("Can you do a SKUTTISH accent for us?"), "How could they have cast a skinny Englishman to play this macho warlock-hunter?" And yet, that incongruity entirely works in Warlock's favour, singling it out from the crowd as the kind of deliciously-offbeat straight-to-video fare (all but) you could only have encountered during that decade.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …