Review: The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

Director: Derek Cianfrance

***

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

In Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance started with a married couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams at their heartbreaking best) about to break up and, like them, wistfully looked back on the past at the love that once was and the headlong way these young lovers went into the future together. With The Place Beyond The Pines, Cianfrance starts in the here and now and races into the future with little concern for who gets left behind. We’re the ones left holding the bag, as Cianfrance makes the big leap from emotional intimacy to epic drama, with mixed results.

At the very least, Cianfrance knows how to use his actors. Gosling and Cooper are at the peak of their popularity now, and The Place Beyond The Pines gets all their female fans on board right from the get-go, opening with a shot of Gosling’s bare tattooed abs. Then comes a bravura Steadicam shot following Gosling’s Luke as he crosses the fairground he works at to the stunt show where he performs on his motorcycle. Is this Gosling’s attempt to cast himself as a counter-culture bad boy, a la Brando in The Wild One? If so, could someone please remind him he already made Drive? Dude, you’re already cool, calm down!

Comparisons to Drive are inevitable, but they do TPBTP few favours. When he finds out that his old flame Romina (Eva Mendes in an excellent turn, shorn of glamour) gave birth to his child months before, he decides to take responsibility and provide for his offspring. Will he get a respectable job? Of course not; he has tattoos! Therefore, he must engage in criminal activity. With the assistance of Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, who seems doomed to forever play varying degrees of slimeball), Luke finds a lucrative sideline in bank robbery. Stuntman sidelining in criminal deeds? It’s not a big stretch for Gosling; he’s solid here, but he has played this role before.

The flipside of Luke is Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), one of the best cops in Schenectady, NY. With a loving wife (Rose Byrne) and supportive colleagues (including Bruce Greenwood and Ray Liotta), Cross’ world gets shaken up when he finds himself in pursuit of Luke after a botched robbery. The chase ends with an encounter that will shape both men’s futures. We’d probably care more if we hadn’t seen this scenario many times before.

However, the biggest problem with The Place Beyond The Pines is its three-act structure. Cianfrance and his co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder focus the first act solely on Luke and the second act entirely on Cross. Both Gosling and Cooper can command the screen, but when one story lapses into another, it feels like an entirely different film has begun. Worse still is the third act, which lolls into view with the dreaded words ‘Fifteen Years Later’. After eons of critics and audiences complaining that this structural gambit doesn’t work, screenwriters and directors haven’t got the message. It’s a leap of faith too far, especially when characters from the first two acts don’t appear to have aged in that time.

The ambitious filmmaking in The Place Beyond The Pines (a rough translation of the Mohawk word from which the name ‘Schenectady’ is derived) is not quite enough to save it from its own pretensions, nor are the solid performances enough to provide escape from a clumsy and overstretched final act. It looks the part, but next to Drive’s pedal-to-the-metal, The Place Beyond The Pines is coasting in a much lower gear.

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Review: Holy Motors (2012)

Director: Leos Carax

*****

(This review was originally published on Ramp.ie)

Holy heck! It’s Holy Motors! The Cannes favourite must be holy, because it feels heaven-sent. Like a bolt from the blue, Leos Carax’s film arrives to inject a healthy dose of idiosyncrasy into your multiplex viewing options. After all, where else can you expect to see a leprechaun-derelict hybrid kidnap Eva Mendes from a cemetery? Or Kylie Minogue channelling Jean Seberg by speaking French with a healthy side order of malaise? It may seem an unlikely candidate for the title of best film of the year but, with just three months to go, Holy Motorsis the film to beat.

Acclaimed French actor Denis Lavant plays monsieur Oscar, but then monsieur Oscar goes on to play many more roles. Oscar is an actor brought from job to job in a stretch limo by his chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob). However, these are acting jobs in the broadest metaphysical sense. He plays a beggar woman, a thuggish hitman, a gangster, a dying man and a caring father, all across the course of a day. He’ll die in one scenario, only to resurrect himself to continue on to the next job, changing make-up and costume in the limo. Initially, you may be left feeling like the boy in the YouTube video on his way home from the dentist, asking ‘Is this real life?!’. Who is Oscar doing this for, and why? Is it for a paying client? For a higher deity (the limo company is called Holy Motors, after all)? Or for himself? The fun is in the ambiguity.

At one point, Oscar is asked why he does what he does, and he replies ‘For the beauty of the act’. There is a beauty to the dexterity of Lavant’s acts, and it may well go unrecognized. The decision by France to submit something perceived as safer than Holy Motors for Academy Award consideration shows how irreverent and different Holy Motors can be. In a wonderful parallel universe, monsieur Oscar would be chasing his namesake, such is Lavant’s dedication as he bares himself both literally and emotionally via his distinct mini-roles. Each is different from the next, and he pulls them all off with aplomb aplenty.

So, what is Leos Carax up to here? Holy Motors looks and sounds like esoteric arthouse, but this is not an oddity just for the sake of it. With each change of character for monsieur Oscar, Holy Motors jumps from genre to genre. After a round of odd tantric sex on a motion capture stage (Can we please give Lavant a role in Avatar 2?), Oscar becomes the cemetery-bothering leprechaun in a wonderfully surrealist segment. Dramas, musicals and gangsters all get their due, but it’s never flippant. Holy Motors is highly reverential. Scorsese and Godard get due nods, but then so do the more contemporary likes of Audiard and Kassovitz. Yet Holy Motors isn’t just enthusiastic about cinema; it’s a big bonkers slice of life in all its forms. People go to work, have sex, eat, die, resurrect. All shapes and sizes make both the world and Holy Motors spin on its lopsided axis. Carax’s clear and giddy enthusiasm is infectious, from odd beginning to glorious entr’acte (Big shout out to all the RL Burnside fans!) to delightful end.

For all its references, Holy Motors is utterly and bafflingly unique. As a celebration of the craft of the actor, it’s unparalleled. As an eccentric mind-bender, it’s a delight. As a sensory cinematic experience, it’s majestic. Carax has said he wants Holy Motors to capture the feeling of being alive. Holy Motors is alive and kicking, singing, dancing, shooting, loving and moving. Forget Cosmopolis; for prime limo-based storytelling, Holy Motors is the model of choice.

Review: Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Director: Werner Herzog

****

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a strange beast. It takes its name from Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), and both feature a police lieutenant (Harvey Keitel in the original, Nicolas Cage now) whose behaviour on-and-off-duty is morally and legally questionable. However, that is where the comparisons have to end; Keitel and Cage aren’t even playing the same character. This is not a sequel, nor a remake (or a ‘reimagining’ as the studios like to say. Idiots.). The only thing the two films have in common is the name; BL:POCNO director Werner Herzog claims never to have seen Ferrara’s film, and Ferrara denounced Herzog’s film before it even began shooting. This can’t end well, surely?

The plot centres on Cage’s Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, working in a post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s good at his job, despite suffering from severe back pain and addictions to cocaine and gambling. His beat is a city ravaged by Mother Nature and crime (Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography and Toby Corbett’s design and sets create a city that is struggling to rebuild, bereft of the traditional picturesque nature of the South). Against this colourful gallery of ailments, McDonagh is investigating the murder of five Senegalese immigrants whilst trying to hold his life and his relationship with his drug-dealer girlfriend (Eva Mendes) together.

BL:POCNO sounds like insanity. Strike that; it is insanity! It shouldn’t work. This is the kind of schlocky material that leads to the likes of Showgirls and 8MM. Yet, it does work. Somehow, through all the chaos, the drugs and the violence, a surprisingly entertaining romp emerges. Of course, it helps to have two experts in capturing insanity onscreen. Firstly, Cage is mesmerising; he goes from endearing hero to cackling hophead in the blink of an eye/sniff of a line. No-one does this kind of controlled mania like Cage, and it’s his best performance since Lord of War (not difficult when your CV since then includes Knowing and [shudder] The Wicker Man.) Herzog, meanwhile, brings his uncanny knack for the brilliantly absurd to the fore. As far as this critic knows, this is the only film to shoot a scene from the point of view of an iguana that is actually the figment of a character’s drug-addled imagination (That sentence will make a lot more sense once you see the film). Any man who could simultaneously get a ship hauled over a mountain and control Klaus Kinski could extricate some sense from this mess, and Herzog does. He keeps just enough of the barmy brilliance of William M. Finkelstein’s script intact to allow the plot to come through, and then craziness ensues. When you go to the box office and are about to enter the theatre, just take a deep breath and then let yourself go. It’s often easier to go with the flow than resist the mania.