There's no question that writer/director Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines" is an ambitious film, the sort of work that serious filmgoers long to see as it tackles profound themes in an intelligent and artful way. He sets out to make a masterpiece with this modern Greek tragedy, and he nearly succeeds, as this tale about the sins of two fathers that are visited upon their sons is an engrossing and compelling film that steadily earns the emotional investment that many viewers will gladly give over.
Unfortunately, the movie stumbles badly during its third act, wrapping up its emotionally tangled narrative effectively enough but failing to deliver the knockout punch it promises early on.
The film is divided into three stories, the first focusing on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman who earns his living with a traveling carnival. While passing through Schenectady, N.Y., he's reunited with Romina (Eva Mendes), a one-night stand from a year before, only to find out that their brief affair has led to the birth of his son Jason.
With little education and few opportunities, Luke resorts to robbing banks in an effort to support his newfound family and win Romina away from her boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali).
However, one of his heists goes horribly wrong, and he crosses paths with rookie police Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an event that irreparably changes both of their lives. The film's second story deals with the cop's recovery from this incident, while the third jumps ahead 15 years where we meet Cross' troubled teenage son A.J. (Emory Cohen) and the grown Jason (Dane DeHaan) who become quick friends, unaware of the nature of their fathers' past.
On paper, this seems more than a bit contrived, but Cianfrance weaves a sense of inevitability about the story that makes these events seem ordained rather than manufactured.
Credit must be given to Mike Patton, whose haunting music effectively underscores the sense of dread that steadily festers from the very beginning. Even more important is the pace Cianfrance adapts to tell his story. Relentless but unhurried, the film effortlessly unspools, never rushing any of its key moments yet propelled by a sense of inevitability that's far more effective than the ponderous pace he used in his overrated 2010 feature "Blue Valentine."
Gosling continues to be one of film's most intriguing actors as he seemingly goes out of his way here to sully his sex symbol image. He has no problem embracing less-than-likable characters, and his Luke proves to be one of his more effective turns, as the ignorance that hobbles him and the desperation that propels him make for an ugly man the actor brings to life with great skill.
Cooper is his equal and is perhaps the most intriguing young actor working in films today. He has been slowly and effectively distancing himself from the comic persona that made him a star in "The Hangover," and he continues to stretch himself, subtly uncovering the emotional turmoil Cross is wrestling with.
These two are so good that once they leave the spotlight, you can feel some of the wind go out of the film's sails. This is one of the problems that haunts the third act. But what makes it a less-than satisfying conclusion is that in the end, Cianfrance lacks the nerve to usher the story to its appropriate conclusion.
Instead of delivering an emotional gut punch, he lets his characters and the viewers off the hook, settling instead for delivering a cautionary tale about how split-second acts and seemingly innocuous actions can have a profound effect on the future, rather than a tragedy that would resonate long after the end credits roll.
'The Place Beyond the Pines'
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance; produced by Lynette Howell, Sidney Kimmel and Jamie Patricof; screenplay by Ben Coccio, Darius Marder and Cianfrance.
A Focus Features release. 140 minutes. Rated R (language, some violence, teenage drug and alcohol use). At the Art Theater and Savoy 16.
Narrative deja vu haunts 'Oblivion.' (2 1/2 stars) There's no question that Joseph Kosinski's "Oblivion" is a well-crafted film, sporting a unique vision of a dystopian future that delivers on the promise the director showed with his first movie "Tron: Legacy."
The visuals he employs are imaginative and crisply rendered as is the flair with which he presents them. Too bad the same can't be said for the screenplay he has fashioned along with Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek, as the plot is nothing more than a pastiche of elements borrowed from a myriad of well-known science-fiction films. This is a shame as he might have delivered a classic had the story been as innovative as it is visually.
Tom Cruise, solid as usual, is Jack, a survivor of an alien invasion that has left the Earth as little more than a ravaged wasteland. Seems a race known as the Scavengers destroyed the moon years before, which led to meteorological turmoil.
Jack has been charged with looking out for any remaining Scavs and keeping an army of drones in working order, as their purpose is to illuminate any of these aliens. He's assisted by his partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough), and they have only two weeks left on their mission before they're to be whisked away to the satellite outpost where other survivors now live.
But Jack witnesses the crash-landing of an ancient spacecraft that contains a crew of hibernating humans. Upon investigation, he finds that the only survivor is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who just happens to be his wife, the memory of whom has been almost completely wiped from his mind.
While the large leap of narrative faith required to swallow this grand coincidence broke the film's spell for me, Kosinski and his crew ultimately provide an adequate explanation of these events, made even more palatable because of the science-fiction tropes they use.
However, what became more and more troubling as the film progressed were the far too numerous allusions or outright bits of thievery from other movies that kept rearing their ugly heads. Along the way, my mind turned to "Wall-E," "Moon," "Independence Day," and even "An Affair to Remember," to name only a few of the many other works Kosinski borrows from. (An annotated version of the film when it appears on DVD would be an intriguing exercise.)
While I am well aware there is a dearth of original ideas, and I have no problem with a filmmaker putting a fresh spin on an old story, the number of references becomes a distraction and ultimately undercuts the film's power.
I have purposely left out many of the twists and surprises the film unveils in its third act, where it seriously stumbles, as that would be a disservice to anyone wishing to see it. Suffice it to say, the movie does, to its credit, adhere to its own logic and for those who have not seen the many other films "Oblivion" steals from (or is it, pays homage to?), it might prove entertaining.
However, for those who have been around the cinematic block a time or two, you're likely to leave with a sense of "been there, done that," that no amount of flashy visuals will be able to obscure.
Twists and turns in 'Trance' reward the patient. (3 stars) How much you enjoy Danny Boyle's "Trance" depends entirely on how much you like to be manipulated while watching a movie. And while it might be distracting to other viewers, they may end up thanking you if you were to bring pencil, paper and a penlight in order to make notes and keep track of the various twists and turns that the script from Joe Ahearne and John Hodge unleash on the viewer.
Yes, there are moments when you won't really know what's going on or where things are headed, but for me, that's what kept me intrigued. In an age in which so many films adhere to standard plotlines, and any surprises are given away in the movie's trailers, it was refreshing not to know exactly where things were headed.
A high-end auction house is the site of a heist gone wrong that occurs at the beginning of the film as an inside job spearheaded by Simon (James McAvoy) goes horribly wrong. He and a band of outlaws he's indebted to, led by the mercurial Franck (Vincent Cassel), have their sights set on a masterpiece by Goya that they plan on stealing while it's on the block.
All seems to go as planned as Simon grabs the painting — since his duties include securing the most valuable items if a robbery is to occur — puts it in a secure case and hands it over to Franck, who doesn't give away that he's in cahoots with the thief by giving him a solid clunk on the head. Problem is, Simon hid the painting before handing over the case, and afterward, he can't remember what he did with it.
The whole amnesia plot device is flimsy, but it does provide the opportunity for Ahearne and Hodge to tell their intriguing story. Ultimately, Franck takes Simon to Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a therapist who specializes in hypnosis in the hopes she'll be able to unlock his repressed memories. She soon deduces just what they're up to, and the fun begins as the doctor insists on being treated as an equal partner in the heist and gains the upper hand by manipulating Simon's mind as well as those of his cohorts.
Boyle boldly traverses this journey into Alfred Hitchcock territory, and he has great fun doing so, leading us down one blind alley after another until we're not sure which of the characters should be trusted or even which memories Simon is recalling are true. The intentions of the characters turn on a dime here, and while it might seem overtly manipulative, in the end it all reaches a logical, if improbable conclusion.
To be sure, this is a movie that's not for everyone, as each viewer's tolerance for these sorts of shenanigans varies. However, for those willing to give themselves over to a master filmmaker and his misleading narrative machinations, the end result is a wholly satisfying one.