Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

Fathers and Sons                                 
by Zac Ryan

A triptych yarn of epic proportions, 's latest film explores how an individual's choices, right or wrong, affect their own lives and the lives of those around them, even over a decade later.

"Handsome Luke" (Ryan Gosling), the brash persona of  a daredevil cyclist, isn't the most sane of gentlemen. He travels around with a carnival from town-to-town,, his body covered in tattoos, riding around in a steal circular cage with two other cyclists. He's a daredevil, but it isn't until the carnival makes its return to Synecdoche, New York, that his life is thrown into a tailspin. There he finds that Romina (Eva Mendes), the woman with whom he shared a tryst during his last time through, has birthed his kid.  It is time to hang up the high-octane lifestyle for something a little more mundane.

He quits the traveling carnival and tries to find his place within the small town and to weasel his way back into the life of Romina and his child. But Romina has moved onto greener pastures. She now lives with Kofi (), who has stepped in to be the child's father, offering them his home and a stable future. It isn't until Luke meets up with the garage owner, Robin (), that his life is truly turned upside down. Working in the garage provides a comfortable living, but Robin wants to use Luke's skills behind the wheel of his bike for some high-speed bank robberies. Luke complies, feeling this is the only way to get into the good graces of his baby's mama.

Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes

Luke is good at what he does, but the law won't be too far behind him, led by the lawyer turned rookie cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper). Together, their lives will intersect, spinning the film to shift focus away from Luke's story, and turning it over to Avery and his battles with a corrupt police force, led by Deputy Deluca (Ray Liotta). Avery only wants to do what's right, and after a near death experience, and his own questions of morality, he must do what's right to turn the city around and set the right example for his own son.

The battles that these two must face, fighting their own demons, their own responsibilities of being a father and setting their own kin on the right path, takes up the first two-thirds of the movie. Cianfrance melds the perfect balance between the two stories.  Even if completely linear, unlike his previous film, Blue Valentine, this story still has plenty of twists and turns and is always one step ahead of the audience... that is until the third act, where the film jumps ahead more than a decade.  Avery is now a politician, but the story centers around the offspring of the two leads, showing the true repercussions of the past.

Bradley Cooper

 Avery's son, Jason (Dane DeHaan), crosses paths with Luke's son, AJ (Emory Cohen), while in school. Jason is a little more clean cut, but he isn't as clean and as wholesome as he appears on the surface. As AJ befriends him, the differences between the two socioeconomic classes collide. Truths are revealed about the past, bringing the film to its conclusion.  By this time the viewer may finally be a little ahead of the film. During the stories of the fathers, the story keeps the viewer always guessing what the characters will do next, but based on their father's prior actions, the story of the sons becomes a slight bit predictable.

I don't say that to turn you off, as the first two thirds of the film are superb. Gosling and Cooper both cement themselves into leading man territory and justify their prior acting award nominations. I'm not saying that the young actors in the third act are weak (they're not), but the script seems to leave them a little less well-rounded than their fathers. Maybe that's the point that the director and the screenwriters were trying to convey in the battle of nature vs. nurture. The actions of the past cannot be ignored or escaped.

Besides the great performances, the film is beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt, including one of the greatest opening tracking shots in some time. Cianfrance also knows when to pull back and let the characters and their actions play out, cutting at the right moment to build tension, and leaving the viewer to question every character's decisions. While the run time is just short of two and a half hours, the film moves along at a steady clip, aided by a superb soundtrack from Mike Patton.

While the film had early buzz out of the Toronto Film Fest, the early release date lessens the chances that either of the two leads will garner any of the award attention they justly deserve.

Currently The Place Beyond the Pines is playing in New York and Los Angeles, with release planned in further cities over the next couple of weeks. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Spring Breakers

Spring Break, Spring Break Forever         
by Zac Ryan

Indie provocateur Harmony Korine makes a splash with his fifth feature film, as he trades in the grumpy old men from Trash Humpers for the almost equally depraved setting of Fort Lauderdale during spring break.

As viewers are aware, thanks to MTV Spring Break weekends in the 90s, and the seedier side promoted by the Girls Gone Wild video series, spring break is a time for the highest form of debauchery. Young co-eds can let loose in the small remaining window of time before they must finally grow up, take responsibility and join the real world. The opening of Spring Breakers shows us the hedonistic nature of the yearly ritual - alcohol, drugs, awesome music and men degrading half-naked women on the beach or in the streets. To a twenty-something stuck in a small college town, this is the ultimate dream of escape and exploration.

And that's exactly where we meet the heroines of Spring Breakers. Everyone else has left the desolate town, but these four girls are strapped for cash. Three of them are wild and one-dimensional in their characterizations, the polar opposite of Faith (Selena Gomez), who half-heartedly sings or prays along with her church group. While she may not be as wild as her friends, the dull life has slowly been nagging at her, begging for her escape from the ho-hum life she leads. The problem is that the girls can't get away because of a lack of funds. So what bright idea do they have?  Rob a local chicken shack to get the money they so desperately need.

The robbery is the first glimpse of many that show the girls are way out of their league. They have not grown up enough to make such life decisions, and each new choice sends them deeper into the abyss. Even before the robbery, they must pump themselves up, stating "it's just like a video game." The girls try to keep a distance between reality and fantasy, a line that the movie narrowly balances throughout the entire 93 minute run time.

Once our girls are in Fort Lauderdale, it is the picture-perfect escape they've all been needing. This is the life they want - parties, alcohol, boys, and not a worry in the world. Korine and his editor, Douglas Crise, juxtapose images of the good times among the girls with the first signs of warning from Faith, as she talks with her grandmother on the phone. The images blend into a high octane mix, supported by the soundtrack by Cliff Martinez (Drive) and Skrillex, and it all comes to a head as the girls are arrested and thrown in jail, only to be bailed out by local rapper (and drug lord) Alien (James Franco).

Once free, Alien shows our girls the other side of spring break. In case you think the regular images of drunken degradation are bad enough, there is a whole different and darker side. The girls are taken to party after party, meeting new people, but Faith feels uncomfortable in her new surroundings. She senses something bad is coming and must leave her girls behind. She is a bit of a warning shot to the audience, but her friends are too dense to hear it.

While Spring Breakers is darker than what the trailers indicate, it is Korine's most accessible film to-date. He has loaded his cast with former Disney and ABC Family alumni who would love to do anything to break the mold.  It's just a shame that Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens aren't given deeper characters to play.  Some of the performances come across as flat. It is Gomez who shines among the ladies, starting out as a meek girl, escaping her shell for a bit, then realizing the worst is about to happen, and making the grown-up decision to leave it all behind. Hers is the only true character arc, so it's a shame to see her so underutilized.

James Franco really steals the show. His dirty-south rapper, with grungy cornrows, tacky tattoos and a grill, might make some in the audience giggle, but like the girls, he needs to grow up and stop living a facade. Franco so easily disappears into this role, a woman behind me asked her fellow patron "who is that?" It's great to finally see Franco back at the top of his game, and honestly, I'd love to see him get some awards love for this mesmerizing performance.

Spring Breakers won't be for everyone. It's sold as a straight forward thriller in the trailers, with some recognizable cast members for the tween and early-twenties female set, but this is truly an art film getting a nice sizable release in its second weekend. It moves with the haunting looping of dialogue and warnings playing over beautiful imagery, the constant shuffling and repeat of scenes and footage, only from different points of view, and then, when you think it can't get any more bizarre, it turns into a music video for a moment, contrasting the beautiful Everyday by Britney Spears with some of the most horrific images in the movie.

For me, the film has set the bar really high for the top films of 2013. Sure it's early in the year, but right now there isn't anything close, and it could have easily cracked my top 5 in 2012. Some on Twitter have the opposite reaction. Countless tweets exclaim, "WORST MOVIE EVER!!" Many want their money back. But there's a few of us shouting that the film needs to be seen. It needs to be experienced, and it probably needs to be seen more than once, which is why I'm signing off now, and heading for a second viewing.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Sleight of Hand                               
by Mark Dispenza

No matter what you think you know, Stoker will mess with your head in ways you cannot yet imagine.

I admit that I went into this film with the lowest of expectations, despite Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park's impressive filmography, including the cult classic, Oldboy.  But I made the mistake of reading a couple of reviews this past week, and the critics are not being kind.  Coupled with the fact that I had not been able to catch it at a pre-screening, and therefore, missed the opportunity to see it from a completely fresh perspective like the audiences at Sundance, and I was admittedly reluctant.  Yet I wanted to take a look, because despite the critics, audience conglomerated reviews are running heavy on the positive side.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the story, because frankly, a 15-minute short film can be made off this plot, but I'm sure it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.  It's a noir thriller that begins with the funeral of young India's father.  India is played with just the right amount of girlish innocence with a smattering of dark undertone by Mia Wasikowska.  After her father's death in an unfortunate accident, she's left alone in the world with her unstable mother (Nicole Kidman), not a warm and fuzzy situation.

Suddenly Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears to comfort the two women and help them through this difficult time.  What's really odd is that India didn't know her father had a brother, and she is encountering this man for the first time.  He's a nice guy and makes himself as useful to them as possible, but he has a strong and rather creepy interest in India, and relatives and housekeepers who get too suspicious of him have a way of disappearing.

That's all you need to know, because the fun of this movie is not the story, but the way that Park manages to keep you mesmerized by what you see on the screen, all the while messing with your head and fooling you every step of the way.

Mia Wasikowska

Recall, if you will, the last time you saw a master magician perform.  You knew going into the theater that he really wasn't going to make doves appear out of thin air or cause his lovely assistant to levitate, so you kept looking for the wires and the trap doors.  He wasn't going to fool you.

But unlike the cheap magicians who are just there to get a paycheck, the master obviously loves his craft and loves entertaining the audience.  He has mastered his art so completely that no matter how hard you look, you just can't see those wires and those trap doors.  By the end of the performance, you know you've been fooled by a real master and you delight in the fact that you can't figure out just how he did it.

After all, you watched him like a hawk every step of the way.  Even better, the master magician loved confounding and entertaining you, and even as the final curtain falls, he can't resist leaving you with the one last trick he has up his sleeve.  You respond with enthusiastic applause.

Watching Stoker is a lot like that experience.

Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode

Park was inspired to become a filmmaker after he saw Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, and he pays homage to the master of suspense by using the same kind of camera and lighting techniques to maximize the tension felt by the audience.  But like any apprentice of real talent, Park has mastered the craft on his own and now goes beyond anything Hitchcock ever did.  There are shots of the actors showing too much headroom in the frame, or too little.  You're forced to look past objects that dominate the foreground in order to see what's going on with the actors in the background.

It goes on and on.  I marvel at just how much time Park must have spent with his cinematography crew to get those effects.  It's obvious that a lot of effort and pre-production time went into every frame of film.  Every shot is a work of art.

Just like the master magician with one last trick up his sleeve, as the final scene concludes, Park delights the audience with a tongue-in-cheek bow to his craft by - SPOILER ALERT - rolling the end credits in reverse.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


A World Torn Apart                         
by Mark Dispenza

A young girl suffers a devastating loss of innocence during the collapse of Nazi Germany in Lore

14-year-old Lore, played by Saskia Rosendahl, lives a sheltered life in a fine home in the German countryside.  It is a privilege afforded by her father's rank as an officer in the Nazi SS.  But now the Fuhrer is dead and American troops are occupying the land.  In a rush to escape judgement, Lore's parents abandon her and her four siblings, including her infant brother.

Lore is forced to lead her younger brothers and sister on a trek by foot for miles across occupied Germany to her grandmother's home in Hamburg, their only hope of safety.  With no money and few things to trade, Lore has to adapt to the hardship of the journey and survive by her wits, all while scrounging for food for her little brothers and sister.

Saskia Rosendahl

They encounter a young man named Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), and a symbiotic relationship begins as they cling to each other for mutual sustenance.  However, the relationship is an uneasy one because Thomas carries papers identifying him as a Jew, the very people Lore's parents taught her to hate.  As the days unfold Lore is forced to come face-to-face with her parent's complicity in genocide, and the world she grew up in is exposed as a terrible fabrication.

Lore is directed by Australian Cate Shortland from a screenplay she adapted with Robin Mukherjee from the Dark Room, a novel by Rachel Seiffert.   It is a German-Australian co-production and was Australia's official entry to this year's Oscars in the category of Best Foreign Language Film.

Shortland succeeds in telling an individual story - a young girl coming-of-age, discovering her sexuality, letting go of childhood fantasy and unconditional belief in the face of harsh adult reality - while at the same time using her protagonist as a metaphor for Germany at the close of the second world war.  After her illusions are shattered, Lore is desperate to survive as she faces previously unimaginable hardship.  At the same time the new reality of a divided Germany is settling in.  Thomas is much like the war's victors.  He is attracted to her and truly cares about Lore and her siblings, but he is ready to abandon them if it better serves his purpose.

Kai-Peter Malina

Rosendahl barely leaves the frame for the entire duration of the film, a lot of pressure for a teen actress in both her first feature and first leading role.  Like her character she rises to the challenge and excels.  Much of her emotion is conveyed by facial expression rather than words, and we can clearly see Lore's evolution from beginning to end.  Rosendahl's performance earned her the Shooting Stars Award at the Berlin Film Festival, Best Actress at the Stockholm International Film Festival and the Australian Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress.  She will soon begin work on another feature film.  

Lore is currently in release in the USA. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

New on DVD

FIRE UP THE BIG SCREEN                
by Mark Dispenza

Awards season is over and now it's time to play catch-up in the privacy of your home or a friend's living room.  For your enjoyment, here is a compilation of some of our favorite foreign and American indie films currently in DVD release:...

Celeste and Jesse Forever - This is a film that breaks the mold of traditional romantic comedy.  Celeste and Jesse are the perfect couple, until six years into their marriage, they find that they have grown apart and value different things.  They decide to call it quits. The problem is they're still best friends at heart and can't stay away from each other.  

Holy Motors - It's a cinematic thrill ride that's sometimes hard to follow, but Holy Motors is surely one of the most inspired works of artistic vision to hit the world of film in a very long time.  Director Leos Carax painted a mesmerizing canvas around actor Denis Lavant in one of the most electrifying performances to be ignored at the Oscars this year. Sometimes it takes a while for people to appreciate sheer genius.

The Master - Yet another work that is so far out of the mainstream that it will take a while to win the appreciation it's due, The Master tackles life's big question on a human scale.  Joaquin Phoenix delivers a career-best performance as Freddie, a lost soul who finds his way via the unlikely path espoused by a charismatic cult leader.  It may be hard to understand Paul Thomas Anderson's work, but you're always sure to see great performances.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - This is a film that captures the wonder of the teen years, without shying away from the hard truths.  Logan Lerman and Emma Watson play new friends who discover their attraction to one another arises as much from tragedy as from the bonds of love and friendship.  This is a break-out role for Watson.  She's not Hermione anymore.

Robot and Frank - Frank Langella again proves that age is not slowing him down, as he delivers one of the year's best performances as a former criminal who struggles to cope with declines in health and mental acuity during his twilight years.  The robot that Frank's son provides as a servant turns out to be more of an aid than anyone imagined.

The Sessions - Based on an auto-biographical article by Mark O'Brien, a 30-year-old, polio-stricken writer decides to have sex for the first time and seeks out the services of a sexual surrogate to provide him with the experience.  It's a life-affirming story about sex that mines the depths of purest love, with yet another outstanding performance by John Hawkes.

...And Releasing this Week: 

The Intouchables - In one of the most internationally popular films of the year and France's official Oscar submission, Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy star as a quadriplegic man and his caregiver.  They come from entirely different worlds, but together form a bond that transcends ethnicity, culture and class.  It's a beautiful film with a beautiful story that continues to resonate around the world.