The Place Beyond the Pines
An unbalanced dual narrative plays out in Derek Cianfrance’s (“Blue Valentine”) unsteady attempt to extract universal truths about unintended legacies passed down from father to son. Schenectady, New York is the setting of the film’s Iroquois Indian-inspired title, where a cross-generational crime drama unfolds.
The ever-impressive Ryan Gosling introduces the film’s first half as the heavily tattooed “Handsome” Luke, a nomadic motorcyclist working in a travelling circus. Luke rides with two other highly skilled bikers inside the fabled Ball of Death. Fear is not in Luke’s chemical makeup. A braless visit by Romina (Eva Mendes), a conquest from the last time he passed through town, seems to offer the laconic stud a return to pleasures past. However, Romina’s objective is to let Luke know he is the father of her child. Not that Romina wants anything from Luke; she is happily living with a man who is helping raise Luke’s son. Acting on patriarchal instinct, Luke quits his job. He announces to Romina that he will remain in town to help out with the baby in any way he can. Mostly, Luke just wants to spend time with his young son. Necessity, the mother of bad luck, lands Luke in the company of Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a mechanic, successful bank robber, and hermit. Robin has much respect for Luke’s unique “skillset” on a motorcycle. Bank robberies ensue. The audience is hooked.
A jarring narrative jump places our outlaw protagonist with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a small town cop. The film’s involuntary comparison between Ryan Gosling’s and Bradley Cooper’s characters doesn't favor Cooper. The split narrative effect functions as a bait-and-switch that breaks the film into a hobbled victim. The floor falls out from the movie.
With his own personal connection to Luke, Avery battles corruption in the local police department with the advise of his ex-cop father. Avery leverages the situation to secure an Assistant District Attorney post for himself. The filmmaker’s commentary on rampant corruption in police precincts all over the country is hard to miss. Trouble brews years later when the teenage sons of Luke and Avery meet in high school.
Every town is a small town. Strangely related people have a way of coming together like magnets. Derek Cianfrance attempts a macro-micro social approach that worked well for projects such as John Sayles’s “City of Hope.” But the dice are so loaded toward building up Ryan Gosling’s character — impetuous and violent as he may be — that the social drama has no where to go when he’s taken out of the equation. Cianfrance could have mitigated some of the narrative disruption had he followed through with Robin’s bank-robber subplot in connecting it to the rest of the movie. As it is, the intriguing character only pops up one more time under unsupported conditions that raise more questions than the scene answers.
The lasting effects of the sins of the fathers are a common theme running through current feature film dramas. In an age when America’s hostile military approach is backfiring with more suicides than battle deaths for soldiers, and gun violence spiraling out of control, it seems likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of these types of dramas. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a film undone by its structure. The AB format is an untraditional story-form that needs considerably more attention than the three screenwriters here gave it.
Rated R. 140 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
Hyde Park on Hudson
If only we could see Bill Murray’s FDR hanging out with Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln, then there might be…well, another mediocre life-slice movie about dead presidents. Like Day Lewis, Murray builds his character from the ground up, making his mortal incarnation of a historical political figure thoroughly convincing. Playing FDR’s romantically attracted sixth cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, Laura Linney knows just how to harmonize with Murray’s performance, undercutting it when the scene demands. From an acting standpoint, “Hyde Park on Hudson” and “Lincoln” each provide textbook examples of incredibly polished dramatic work from some of the finest actors around. Still, if Steven Spielberg’s piece of revisionist history presents a brief essay, “Hyde Park on Hudson” is but a tastefully composed snapshot.
Where “Hyde Park on Hudson” falls short is in the script department. Richard Nelson’s screenplay version of his own stage play doesn’t know where or how to expand to fit the cinema screen. The impetus for the story comes from Daisy’s letters and diaries retrieved after her death. Nelson doesn’t make much of a splash with his debut feature script. The underinflated narrative is confined to a few days, when King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Williams) visit FDR at his upstate New York compound, which he shares with his domineering mother Sara Ann (Elizabeth Wilson) and emotionally remote wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams). Responsive movie audiences will remember King “Bertie” from Colin Firth’s characterization in Tom Hooper’s 2010 film “The King’s Speech.” However on-the-nose in might have been, it would have been a welcome touch had Firth reprised the role here since West’s portrayal of the stuttering George goes all but undetected.
Roosevelt’s crippled legs hardly prevent him from playboy behavior with the likes of Daisy, whose parked-car handjob crystalizes the romantic nature of couple’s tenuous relationship. Sadly, one rubout doesn’t provide enough of a hook to hang a movie on.
As with the miscalculated emotional emphasis of “Hitchcock,” the script places too many narrative eggs in a basket of repressed jealousy. Daisy is hardly able to act on her mild mistreatment by a powerful world leader with cavalier concern for her emotional wellbeing.
Director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) knows how to handle milieu and atmosphere. Every composition of period perfection is a sumptuous delight to the eye. You’d never guess that you were looking at an English countryside as opposed to the film’s New York State setting. When FDR takes Daisy on a pastoral escape in his big convertible, mythology and romance connect.
Some of the film’s humor borders on slapstick situational comedy that might work on the stage, but arrives at odds to the film’s remote tone. A running gag about British royalty eating hot dogs for lunch at Walden falls pancake-flat. “Hyde Park on Hudson” feels like two-thirds of a movie. There aren’t enough depths of subplot support to allow Bill Murray’s hemmed-in character to take hold. The movie is great to look at, but the story leaves you wanting so much more.
Rated R. 95 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
The Tom Stoppard-scripted "Anna Karenina" opens with a virtuosic display of orchestrated one-take linear camera movement to transport the viewer from a backstage theatrical reality to an adaptable cinematic experience. The daring bit of imaginative shape shifting goes on for an inordinately long period, thus forcing the audience to accept an element of theatrical artifice as part of the film’s due diligence to its source. Later in the first act, the result of a train accident snaps the story into reality with a gruesome example of mortality. We are firmly in the life of the movie now. A tragic death establishes the romantic story’s underlying tragic tone. The title character’s participation as the unwitting cause of the accident sends a chill that corresponds to the freezing landscape of the story’s Russian setting.
Playing with form has always been one of Tom Stoppard’s trump cards as a playwright and screenwriter. His work on “Shakespeare In Love” was a revelation. Here, Stoppard knows where to let Leo Tolstoy’s 1873 novel fly, and also where to plant its earthbound aspects. The story is after all about a passionate adulterous affair that shatters the female half of the couple — Anna Karenina (beguilingly played by Keira Knightley). It is also about the kind of social and political hypocrisy that makes such errors in judgment grounds for punishment worse than prison.
Keira Knightley is a unique actress in that her natural openhearted disposition enables her to freely identify with a wide variety of characters via complete artistic freedom. Her generosity as an actress has a way of seeping into every crevice of any story. As Anna Karenina, Knightley is regal but never condescending. It doesn’t hurt that Knightley works again with simpatico director Joe Wright, with whom she made “Atonement” (2007). Some combinations of director and actor work like a charm. Wright’s confident direction never flags. His dramatically elevated characters keep their multiple identities of human, theatrical, and archetypal forms with a refreshing transparency.
Jude Law plays Anna’s cuckolded husband Karenin with a moral outrage that skews more British than Russian. The filmmakers make no pretense about this being a British translation of a Russian play. Reference the film’s elongated opening sequence. Prince Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — a cavalry officer — is the object of Anna’s uncontrollable affection. Taylor-Johnson is ideally cast as a character who is at once sincere and yet too taken with his own youthful beauty to be loyal. The affair is so lopsided that even without previous access to the story, audiences will likely read the writing on the wall.
“Anna Karenina” is a visually lush film. As expected, the bejeweled costumes and oversized production designs are sophisticated beyond belief. Oscar nominations are certain. It is also an efficient telling of a great story. Stoppard’s deftness with handling a multitude of characters without allowing for any audience confusion is something of a wonder. Every character is thoroughly knowable. “Anna Karenina” shows all.
Rated R. 130 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
Paul Thomas Anderson Tries Too Hard and Not Hard Enough
For all of the over-exaggerated attention – read publicity ploy — given to “The Master’s” loose narrative ties regarding the Church of Scientology, Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic dog lacks any amount of storyline, arc, or likeable characters. The movie is a riddle not worth solving. As a high-budget experiment in avant-garde filmmaking, “The Master” is barely tolerable if not entirely watchable. Anderson’s ballyhooed process of shooting the film in outdated 70mm comes off as a needless gimmick. The look of the film might be pristine, but what’s being shown leaves much to be desired.
The cinematic sleeping pill features an all-in performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a rudderless PTSD-suffering World War II Navy veteran who makes Mickey Rourke’s alcoholic version of Charles Bukowski in “Barfly” seem like a lightweight. Freddie has a knack for drinking anything with alcohol, including torpedo fuel and paint thinner. The year is 1950. Freddei’s Freddie is like a character right out of Lou Reed’s iconic song “Street Hassle.” To paraphrase the song, He can never find a voice to talk with that he can call his own. So the first thing he sees that allows him the right to be; he follows it. It’s called bad luck.
In San Francisco, Freddie stumbles onto a moored yacht inhabited by L. Ron Hubbard alter ego Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The boat is headed for New York via the Panama Canal. Onboard are Dodd’s group of faceless cult followers and his loyal collaborator wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and two young adult sons — probably from another marriage. Dodd catches Freddie with a freshly made concoction of questionable hooch — Freddie poisoned some poor soul with the last batch he made while working on a farm picking cabbages. Dodd befriends the helpless scoundrel. Dodd appreciates Freddie’s animalistic nature and utter desperation. He may harbor homosexual feelings for the wacked-out stowaway. Freddie is a perfect test subject for Dodd to try out his “process,” a ritualized survey of repeated questions. “Have you ever slept with a member of your family?” Dodd asks. For Freddie, the answer is yes.
It’s evident that Anderson is evoking a time in American culture when people had limited access to information. Wartime propaganda created a strange kind of isolationist psychology that adventurous people sought to escape. An impromptu religion based in science-fiction fantasy just might do the trick.
“The Master” is all theme and no substance. A modicum of social context and gratuitous sex hardly distract from the parlor game Anderson plays with his audience. Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged character reflects his own troubled behavior over the past half-decade so much that you wonder how much of it is just Joaquin playing himself. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal seems trapped in amber. Lancaster Dodd is such a huckster and a shyster that you can’t get on either side of him as a protagonist or an antagonist.
As with Lou Reed’s notorious album of over-modulated feedback (“Metal Machine Music”), the audience is left to decide if the movie is some kind of bad joke, or an artistic project gone horribly astray. If you’re the kind of person who likes anti-narrative movies made up of barely connected scenes that defy all rules of dramaturgy, then you might get something out of “The Master.” All I got was bored, sleepy, and hungry.
Rated R. 138 mins. (D) One Star - out of five/no halves)
Disclosure: I've never been a fan of Glenn Close. I always considered her a poor man's Meryl Streep. I can't think of a single role she’s played that wouldn't have been improved upon if Streep had played it instead. However, Glenn Close's muted, carefully nuanced portrayal of Albert Nobbs is a career-defining performance that commands the deepest regard and, for what it's worth, blew me away.
Director Rodrigo García’s exquisitely crafted period drama set in 19th century Ireland is based on a short story by Irish author George Moore. "Albert Nobbs" is a socially oppressed woman so desperate to survive economically that she dresses and behaves as a man. The asexual Albert has worked as a quiet live-in waiter/butler at the elite Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin for more than 20 years. Her androgynous looks make the subterfuge possible. Lonely Albert—the only name she goes by-- pinches every penny of her wages and tips, keeping careful record of the savings she stashes under a loose floorboard inside her tiny room. Albert's tightly held secret is threatened when she is forced to allow Hubert Page, a contract painter working in the hotel, to share her bed for a night.
Spoiler alert: Hubert (Janet McTeer) is as adroit at hiding her sexuality as Albert. So much so that she has succeeded in establishing a relatively comfortable lesbian lifestyle with her partner, sufficiently obfuscated from the public eye. Albert begins to imagine how she might create her own unique arrangement with fellow hotel service worker Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska). She imagines opening a tobacco shop where the couple can live and work together. The much younger Helen—she’s barely a day over 18—is already wrapped up in a fresh romance with Joe (Aaron Johnson), her unreliable boyfriend. Joe has recently been hired to work in the hotel as a handyman. Albert unwisely ignores the obvious obstacle Joe represents to woo Helen with practical-minded dates over which she hopes to advance her idea of entering into an arrangement that necessarily involves marriage.
As such, the story hits its stride of aspirational vitality in Albert’s active daydream of putting her life’s savings to use in a place where she can enjoy economic prosperity and companionship for the first time in her life. Rodrigo García’s flawless depiction of Albert’s suddenly awakened inner emotional life is the story’s treasured seed of hope and happiness that must be transformed under the constraints of a brittle reality.
Glenn Close famously played the same role in “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” a 1982 Off Broadway production directed by Simone Bemmussa; she won an Obie. This time she is surrounded by terrific supporting efforts by Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, and Brendan Gleeson.
“Albert Nobbs” falls into the zeitgeist of female-themed survival films such as the Angelina Jolie-directed Bosnian war examination “In the Land of Blood and Honey”. Equal parts character study and social commentary, “Albert Nobbs” is a melancholy film of enormous power that could easily slip through the cracks without the aid of the Oscar nominations it deserves. The story is an original one that doesn’t pander to its audience, as Hollywood films are famous for doing. ”Albert Nobbs” is an uncompromising and rigorous movie that dismisses conventional compositional devices to the delight of audiences seeking intellectual and emotional depth in their cinematic adventures. Don’t miss “Albert Nobbs.”
Rated R. 114 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
We Bought a Zoo
Cameron Crowe casts a heart-warming cinematic spell that will milk many a tear from its widespread target audience. However calculated to meet the demands of family-friendly holiday movie fare, "We Bought a Zoo" does everything it sets out to achieve. Some supporting characters, such as Patrick Fugit's zoo-keeper Robin Jones, get short shrift but it's all in the interest of keeping the potentially overpopulated story moving toward its intended goal of family unity.
Matt Damon is likeable as ever as Benjamin Mee, a father of two attempting to reinvent his family after the recent loss of his wife. Benjamin's 13-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is acting out at school. Dylan draws disturbingly violent pictures of things like decapitations and weird monsters. He’s been caught stealing. Seven-year-old Rosie (played wonderfully by the scene-stealing Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is emotionally better equipped to deal with the shifting reality around her. It goes without saying that, against conventional wisdom, Benjamin quits his job and purchases a rundown zoo as a way to reestablish a nurturing home environment for himself and his kids.
The run-down rural facility's 40-odd endangered animals face the threat of being put to sleep unless Benjamin can make the necessary renovations for the zoo to pass inspection. John Michael Higgins adds comic appeal as Walter Ferris, a quirky zoo inspector widely disliked by the staff Benjamin inherits when he purchases the property. Scarlett Johansson coasts through her role a zookeeper Kelly Foster, a dedicated young woman whose undeniable beauty causes simmering romantic tension with Benjamin. Indeed, romantic suspense is one of the film's trump cards. The anti-social Dylan tries to avoid the noticeable chemistry he shares with the zoo's youngest assistant Lilly (Elle Fanning). His failing attempts at skirting love's arrows give the movie a youthful sense of nostalgia that runs parallel to its idyllic sense of wonder regarding wild animals.
You never believe for a moment that Thomas Haden Church's playful character Duncan could be Matt Damon’s sibling. Yet you wouldn't want it any other way. Haden Church adds just the right amount of brotherly support to give the story the essential familial lift it needs. It doesn't hurt that he delivers every line with an infectious dose of good-humored intentionality. You can't help but love Damon and Haden Church as brothers even if they don’t share a single physical trait in common.
As with all of Cameron Crowe's films music plays an important part. Although the film slips into music video sequences from time to time it's difficult to challenge the director's pitch-perfect ability for matching perfectly contrasting yet complimenting pieces of rock music to the tone of the action at hand. Aside from songs from Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, Crowe tapped Icelandic singer/songwriter Jónsi from the rock band Sigur Rós to compose original music for the score. The formula works like a charm.
Without having even seen “We Bought a Zoo,” New Yorker magazine film critic David Denby famously slagged Cameron Crowe’s movie in emails to producer Scott Rudin regarding Denby’s faceplant decision to break a film review embargo on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Such kneejerk critical reaction to solid holiday entertainment as “We Bought a Zoo” speaks volumes about corporate media’s attitudes that Hollywood is left to questionably interpret. As if there wasn’t already a dearth of G and PG-rated films, Denby’s malicious remarks reflect a damaging ideology of cultural condescension.
“We Bought a Zoo” never pays quite enough attention to the incarcerated wild animals we hear so much about throughout the story. The predictable climax comes across like so much melted peanut butter. Still, the movie wins in its ability create a glow of giddy movie pleasure that audiences crave. If that means you’ll tear up more over this movie than “War Horse,” well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Rated PG. 131 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Director Jonathan Levine ("The Wackness") has a knack for conveying unconventional drama with enough droll spice to make the medicine go down easily even if the subject is cancer. Television-producer-turned-screenwriter Will Reiser ("Da Ali G Show") fulfills his part of the bargain with a semiautobiographical script that dares to go for the throat when necessary. The big C might be the topic du jour, but "50/50" puts the pernicious disease into a manageably personal context with equal parts humor, sincerity, and cynicism.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Adam Lerner is a Portland National Public Radio sound editor with a bad-animal for a girlfriend. Bryce Dallas Howard fills her unlikable character's wandering shoes as Rachel, an artist with about as much loyalty as a tom cat in heat. Rachel promises to stay by Adam's side through thick and thin, but she's just no good with handling the messy stuff of life.
Adam is the kind of guy who waits for the stop light to change even if no cars are coming. One of the movie's most explosively humorous scenes involves Adam's best friend Kyle (Seth Rogan) falling over himself in Adam's living room to share with his unfortunate pal video proof--captured on his cell phone--of Rachel's recent infidelity at a gallery opening. Rachel’s arrival at the event avails her to deny or confirm the evidence. Kyle has reason to take special pride in outing Rachel’s true colors. Adam’s recent discovery of malignant tumors on the base of his spine means that he must endure painful chemotherapy treatments. If Kyle's self righteousness catches the audience off-guard, it's a testament to the surprise of seeing a loyal friend take such bold and decisive action.
Frequent counseling sessions with an upstart therapist named Katherine (exquisitely played by Anna Kendrick) bring out Adam's waves of conflicting emotions surrounding his illness. Katherine and Adam develop a guardedly romantic friendship that nudges along an arm-distance of hope in spite of Adam's downward spiraling health. A testy relationship between Adam and his mother Diane (Anjelica Houston) needs addressing. The film's direct but minimalist handling of the mother/son subplot proves especially effective.
Seth Rogan's portrayal as Adam's no-BS best friend is a study in nuance. Rogan pulls back on his trademark chuckling tic. The film's bromance carries the burden of comic relief, but also expedites an unexpected kind of catharsis that arrives with an air of authenticity. I'm not a fan of the split-genre term "dramedy," but "50/50"--as the title could be read--is a perfect balance of comedy and drama. In keeping with all of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's consistently solid work, the talented actor knows just where to hold back and where to let go. "50/50" is a gem.
Rated R. 99 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)