Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek's Cianfrance's debut, Blue Valentine, blew my freaking mind. A searing, uncommonly intimate portrait of a young marriage alternately blossoming to life and crumbling away that performed beautifully on every level. It was a heart-, nay gut-wrenching powerhouse indie. To stop me going on about it any longer, you can go here to read my Blue Valentine Review.

Cianfrance's second film as writer and director, The Place Beyond the Pines, is a slower, more measured exercise; a great sophomore effort that shows Cianfrance is not interested in repeating himself, but in letting his stories guide him through the maze of human relationships.

In Pines, Cianfrance and his two co-writers Ben Coccio & Darius Marder, are interested in father-son relationships and the defining presence they have on the lives of men; how deeply the fact of being a father, or a son, fulfillingly or not, impacts how we shape our identities.

Pines is not as intense or swooning a film as Valentine. It's a more ambiguously contemplative slow-burner, boldly presented in three divergent but narratively & thematically connected chapters. On the surface a crime thriller (or three crime thrillers), but really a multi-generational, multi-protagonist (always a difficult trick to pull off) character study.

Chapter 1:

The strongest of the three and the one that feels most likely to succeed as its own full-length film. It's almost a pity when Pines moves on from it, but everything that follows gives it a different resonance & weight of context. In a way, it lingers far longer in the memory precisely because Cianfrance abandons it so soon.

This chapter follows Luke (Ryan Gosling), a heavily tattooed hipster/stuntman who seems to exist purely to smoke broodily on the edges of society & look ridiculously cool doing dangerous stuff on a motorcycle. A spark is awakened, though, when he learns that a former fling Romina (Eva Mendes) has given birth to his son & he sets out to be an involved father & breadwinner - even if it means robbing banks (spectacularly, with motorbike getaways) & luring Romina away from her stable family life with a new boyfriend. 

You can't deny the guy his passion and dedication to being a present father, even if his presence is destabilizing. When Luke says that that he wants his son to know him - because he didn't know his father & look how he turned out - it comes off massively poignant rather than trite. Surely Fatherly love of such conviction counts for something, even if the father in question is less than stable? Well, that's the question. 

This segment of the film has everything going for it. Cianfrance writes a great character for Gosling and Gosling, when given great characters, is naturally dynamite. He plays Luke all coiled rage and beautiful intentions. He doesn't say much but he has a helluva lot more to do than look cool (there's a lesson here for Nicolas Winding Refn). This is a great character with a great trajectory, and Cianfrance gives him some great scenes - from 
crying in a church to racking up the tension as he passive aggresively puts together a baby cot in Romina & Kofi's house (uninvited) to his final moments on screen, he is electric. Gosling & Mendes also have great onscreen chemistry - Mendes, with this and last year's Holy Motors, is starting to make a legitimate case for being taken seriously. Starting.

DOP Sean Bobbitt also does some of his best lensing here, milking some gorgeous shots from both Luke's theme park workplace & his time spent on motorcycles. He also creates a gentle, melancholy intimacy for Gosling & Mendes' sad-awkward-beautiful family portrait. I should also mention that Ben Mendelsohn is fantastic as Luke's odd/unpredictable/white trash employer/friend/crime mentor.

Chapter 2:

The story moves on to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a nervous-seeming cop who becomes a hero, and alienates his family as he wrestles with his conscience, after he kills a perp in the line of duty, in less-than-ideal circumstances. It's all less angsty than it sounds because a) Bradley Cooper is good, but not yet as good at inner turmoil as he is at loud, cutesy bi-polarism and b) Avery is kind of a passive character who seems to feel bad about a lot of things but not do much about them. When he does take action, you can't help but question his motives.

Which brings us to the next part of the story, which introduces Ray Liotta as Deluca, a tough, sinister corrupt cop leading a band of similarly tough, corrupt cops who tries to draw Avery into his circle of extortion. Moral dilemmas ensue. Ray Liotta is great, of course. Rose Byrne is also around, as Avery's longsuffering wife but, while she has some good moments, her presence feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

This part of the film is odd, but not in a bad way, simply because it takes the narrative in such a different direction and seems to change the tone so sharply. As a character, Avery is hard to read or warm up to and, though there is a clear sense of chaos brewing, it is hard to tell quite how it is going and how it will all tie together.

Chapter 3
AJ (Emory Cohen) is a teenager sent to live with his father in Schenectady to help him stabilise after he gets in trouble over drugs. His father, however, is distracted by his campaign to be elected New York City General and a son with drug-related misdemeanors is less than convenient. The father in question is Avery Cross.

At his new school, AJ befriends broody loner Jason (Dane Dehaan) and, sensing a shared void, the two strike up a tentative friendship. Jason is a sensitive kid, ready to boil over under the surface, while AJ is a jock of sorts, hiding his frailty under a layer of douchiness. What neither boy knows is that Luke is Jason's father and their stories are inextricably linked.   

Both young actors are excellent (although Dehaan is the broody standout) and the writers must be commended for writing such vivid teenagers: complex beasts negotiating posturing and insecurities they don't yet fully understand. Far from the jocks and nerds trope usually presented as high school standards, they are authentic, unsure adolescents trying to find their way into adulthood and sensing that they may be looking for the same things.

This part of the film works and really drives things home because Cianfrance takes it slow and gives it plenty of time to breathe. Things rise to a slow, broody conclusion that simmers out into the film's thematic inclinations. 

In the end it all comes together as a slow burner that was always intended to be an enigmatic thinkpiece rather than a straight drama or thriller. Cianfrance is more interested in the legacy of fathers and sons, the choices - even bad ones - that produce life and belonging, and the ones that leave a void.

Each of the characters is somehow marked by the choices of those who went before them; Luke never knew his father while Avery is always living in the shadow of his. Both AJ and Jason, in turn, continue to live out shadows of the secret crimes, compromises & sacrifices of their fathers, without even knowing it. It is simply imprinted on their spiritual DNA.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review: Gravity

With a Metacritic score as high as 96 and talk of Best Picture gongs, it's best to go into Gravity with normalised expectations.

This is not an arthouse sci-fi extravaganza in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is also not an unspeakable horror film detailing a slow suffocating death in outer space (both a pity and a huge relief).

It is, however, breathtaking visual filmmaking and a marvel to behold. Director Alfonso Cuaron beautifully marries fancy (CGI) camera work (read long, slow, complex shots) with perfectly rendered special effects, a romping spacey score, deathly silence, where needed, and sharp pacing to put us right out in space with Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowlaski (Clooney), he taking in the beauty of space while she focuses on fixing whatever it is she is out there to be fixing.

(As a side note, it's weird that Cuaron fought to have a woman in the lead and then gave her a man's name, for no apparent reason. Not important, just odd.)

Disaster ensues, of course, in the shape of Russian space debris of some sort and the next 90 minutes are a breathless survival adventure, during which Dr Stone will learn life-affirming adventures. It's great stuff. It's just not the artistic masterpiece we may have been led to expect. Make no mistake - it's a great, gripping, expertly made film. You'll probably want to see it twice because, visally, it will blow you away. You just have to set your expectations at standard, script wise.
It's kind of like Cast Away, in space, with a woman, but much leaner and far more exciting. Like Cast Away, it puts one of the most likeable people in Hollywood in extreme, isolating circumstances where they must learn to let go and stop trying to control life. Unlike Cast Away, the action in Gravity is confined to what must be just a few intense hours in the life of Dr Stone. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks cries over a basketball. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock howl's with a dog. But I digress.

The other important thing about Gravity is that it centers almost entirely on a 50+ woman all alone in space. And still made tons of money at the box office. Take that 14-year-old-boy-demographic. More importantly, it is also the moment that Sandra Bullock finally approaches enough credibility as a character actress to start justifying her Blind Side Oscar as a career Oscar (this will all change for the worse if she manages to steal Cate Blanchett's Oscar). For the most part, her performance as Ryan is understated, heartfelt and appropriately subtle. It's just a pity the script didn't allow the second half of the film - and by extension Dr Stone's journey - to be as understated as the first. It may have tipped a gripping adventure yarn into haunting, devastating masterpiece territory. Or maybe not.

Gravity does have philosophical ambitions beyond the great visuals, but they're closer to Richard Curtis' In Time positivity vibes than Kubrick's abstract ruminations on consciousness in 2001. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Simple contentment may be the smartest thing of all.

All in all, you really have to see Gravity, but just expect a good night at the movies, not your world to be changed. Then you should be fairly blown away.

Another side note: this movie has amazing sets. For real.

And on a final note, Emmanuel Lubezki. Seeing as the whole ship on digital cinematography has clearly sailed (was there ever even a debate), we can accept that the way-overdue Director of Photography (the man behind the camera for Tree of Life, Children of Men, The New World, Lemony Snickets etc) will finally be bagging his first Oscar. 3D seems to do the trick lately, but he is well and truly deserving. For this and everything else he has shot. Huzzah.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

2013: The year black history took center stage

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in July this year (for the shooting of Trayvon Martin in February 2012) made it tragically clear that racism, fueled by ignorance, fear and rote assumptions, is alive and well in America (as, sadly, it is all over the world).

Not that everyone didn't know about it before, but the Zimmerman / Martin saga got everyone talking, and angry, about it again. It couldn't be timed better, then, that three emerging black directors managed to sneak three powerful dramas (okay, two plus The Butler), telling the real-life stories of black Americans across the ages, past the Hollywood powers that be.

12 Years a Slave, The Butler and Fruitvale Station feature exceptional black (and white) ensembles, are directed by black directors with strong, unique vision and written by exceptional black writers (okay, The Butler was written by a white guy). Considering it's also the year that gave us Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and some legit African bros playing some of the most complex terrorists a mainstream director has dared to put on screen, 2013 is truly an embarassment of black American riches.

None of these films are made by, or feature, Tyler Perry (proof that there is a God), nor have they been been confined to the Tyler Perry target demographic. Helped along in no small part by the presence of Madame Oprah, The Butler crossed the $100 million box office threshold in America (not bad for a film that tells four decades of American history from a black perspective), while 12 Years a Slave is working its way up with $8.7 million so far from selected cinemas. Its epic aggregate score of 97 on Metacritic so far - based on 45 critics' reviews - should help boost word of mouth and, oh, its chances of actually winning all those Oscar races it already, inevitably, leads (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress & Supporting Actor). Fruitvale Station, by comparison is more of an independent affair, but one that's made quite an impact thanks to its Sundance victories and the presence of Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as Producer and actor. $16 million in Box Office and an 85-er on Metacritic is not bad for a film about an ordinary black guy that got killed. 

Last year kind of set the stage for this, with both Lincoln and Django Unchained priming the conversation on slavery (in wildly different ways). But both films revolved around the white men fighting the good fight against slavery on behalf of their black brothers. And both were told by white writers and white directors. Nothing wrong with that, but in a world where black people were systematically oppressed by white folk in far too many countries, there is something very significant about black artists telling black history in their own voice.

Also, while Lincoln was mesmerising historical cinema (for those with the patience to let it cast its spell) with great dialogue plenty of food for either thought or the soul, depending on how you're wired, I found Django cheap, offensive and even exploitative (not to mention overlong and self indulgent, but those can be forgiven) in the way it presumes an eye-for-an-eye bloodlust on the part of black slaves which belies the incredible grace and restraint with which black leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela fought for freedom. But I digress. 

So where does that leave us? With three films pondering racial inequality across American history - slavery in the mid 1800s, the fight for civil rights in the 1960s and the inherent tension, and danger, of being a black man in America today (as Trayvon Martin so tragically discovered) - entering the awards race with full force: 

  • At this stage, 12 Years a Slave makes a strong case for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. It may be too harrowing / painful / divisive to pan out in most of those, but it still enters the race as strong as any movie could hope to. 
  • The Butler's heavy sentiment and impressive Box Office make it another strong contender for that Best Picture slot reserved for the movie that made everyone cry, just a little, even if they didn't want to, even if its not really actually all that good (for recent examples, see: War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Blind Side, The Help), as well as Screenplay and even Director (box office talks)
  • The great Chiwetel Ejiofor goes head-to-head with Robert Redford for Best Actor, in 12 Years and All Is Lost, respectively, while former winner Forest Whitaker is a strong nominee contender for his complex, decade-spanning role as the nominal Butler in, well, The Butler. 
  • The Butler's Oprah Winfrey and 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o battle it out to win Best Supporting Actress (at this point, there is no-one who can touch either of them), with Fruitvale Station's Octavia Spencer in the wings with another strong performance (wildly different from her Oscar-winning role in The Help).
  • Both 
    Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) and David Oyelowo 
    (The Butler) are at the very least on the Supporting Actor radar, as a freedom-fighting son and complex maritime terrorist, respectively.
  • And don't count out Fruitvale Station which remains a contender, in the "respectable indie" slots, for Best Picture and Original Screenplay (though deserved, Best Director and Best Actor seem like extremely long shots in already-crowded fields).

But why does this matter? Who cares about Oscars anyway? They annoy everyone with their middle-of-the-road play-it-safeness and overlong, outdated, self-important ceremonies. But they can make or break both careers and profit margins. There is a reason so much energy goes into marketing movies and performances as Oscar contenders - there is a prestige to being singled out that highlights films and performances, for better or worse, and shapes the annual, and ultimately historic, cinematic narrative. 

Like it or not, the Oscars are still influential. The large majority of the population live in the middle-of-the-road and are interested in being told which films are worth stepping off the beaten box office path for, without straying too far from their comfort zone. The prestige of awards attention, warranted or not, can drastically shape the opportunities available to filmmakers. 

As a case in point, Octavia Spencer took some flack for her Oscar-winning role as sassy 1960s maid Minny Jackson in The Help; some seemed to find it demeaning that she had to lower herself to play a maid - and remind America of its way-too-recent sins - to get awards attention, while other, more legitimately, lamented Minny's more stereotypical traits as a loud, sassy, chicken-eating, church-going African American woman (although Supporting Actress is built on sassy caricatures of all racial persuasions). But the truth is that her Oscar in a very real way put her in a position to produce a film like Fruitvale Station and promote it to Sundance glory. That's how it goes. Sometimes you have to window dress to change the narrative or the perception of what is possible, what is plausible. As long as the window-dressed subjects are in any way deserving, who's complaining? And this year sees many very deserving performers getting some significant spotlight. 

So having, potentially, four to seven worthy black performances nominated in one year, with two or three "black" films by black directors filling up the Best Picture line-up, and a black man heading up the Best Director race, is, regrettably, very significant.

Let's hope 2013 marks a shift in two ways:

1) A serious evaluation of America's cruel racially divided past, and the lingering racial tensions that make fatal racial profiling seem like acceptable behaviour.

2) The first step towards a world where having multiple black nominees in any awards category is no longer newsworthy.

It is very likely that the race will shift towards "easier", less controversial films like Gravity or Nebraska, and that is fine. However it plays out, the tide has started to shift.

UPDATE: In case you needed any proof that racism is alive & well, here's Sean Hannity calling 12 Years a Slave 'black propaganda' and warning us that it will enable black youth to be lazy. He complains that white guilt is being exploited with yet another slavery movie. I'd diss the guy but really what could make him look worse than his his own words? If white guilt is still alive and well, it's because white privilege is still around. Those who prefer to pretend it doesn't exist are clearly on the winning side of it. I don't remember Schindler's List being called Jewish propaganda (although now that I say that I'm sure it was, and please don't tell me about it).