Monthly Archives: April 2013

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

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A boxer in the ring, dice rolling, a Holy Bible, a ship setting sail to nowhere, “Heart throb” encircling the neck like a collar, a single tear escaping from an eye. The tattoos of Ryan Gosling’s Luke show scars of bad decisions, impulses and regret. Life left its mark on this man just like Gosling haunts “The Place Beyond the Pines” even when he’s not in it.

Luke is a carnival motorcycle rider, doomed to a Sisyphean life of stunt riding circles in a metal cage. He’s a drifter who breaks hearts in every town he pulls up in, until one woman Romina (Eva Mendes) tells him he has son, Jason, from their earlier dalliance. Schenectady, New York (the Mohawk word for the film’s title) becomes Luke’s home as he tries to provide for Jason as a bank robber. He’s good at it, too, until he meets do-gooder cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), and the two mens’ lives become entwined forever. The story splits into three forks at this point: Luke’s, Avery’s and their two sons.

Director Derek Cianfrance is a master of character studies, but some work better than others. Gosling, with a cigarette perpetually hanging out of his mouth like an extra appendage, smolders with an intensity when he is on screen. Like a version of Driver (the hero of Gosling’s “Drive”) who’s lost his composure, Luke is always spinning out of control and watching Gosling try to contain the situation is gripping.

Luke’s chapter is like a raw indie film, similar to Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” and it’s clearly where he’s most comfortable as a director. Yet when Cianfrance focuses on hero-cop-turned-outcast Avery, the film becomes a sprawling epic of fathers and sons and their legacies. Cianfrance has lofty ideas about the ambiguities between good and evil but not the subtlety to execute them. By the time the long third chapter of the two sons comes, the film bottoms out to melodrama. Mike Patton’s simple effective score of a few eerie piano notes almost seems to play an ironic joke in contrast to the rest of the film’s overwrought plot and moralizing tone.

“When you ride like lightning, you’ll crash like thunder,” a friend tells Luke. Unfortunately, Cianfrance should’ve taken his own advice. Gosling sparks the beginning of the film and leaves everyone else in the dark.

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Review: Trance

I reviewed “Trance” for Vox Magazine. You can read my review on their website or below:

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Director Danny Boyle hypnotizes viewers and puts them under a dark and violent trance. The question is do you want to remember what he shows you or not? The answer is yes, if you can keep up.

In “Trance” James McAvoy plays Simon, an art auctioneer who gets tangled up with a group of criminals led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) and helps them steal a famous painting by Goya. During the heist, however, Simon gets hit on the head and can’t remember where he stashed the canvas.

Frustrated, Franck resorts to finding a sexy hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to help Simon recover his memories and the painting. The conventional plot stops there as we enter Simon’s memories and become unsure of what’s real or not.
Mind-bending movies like this can be convoluted, but the three main actors have a chemistry that keeps us invested. McAvoy, one twitch away from a nervous breakdown throughout the movie and seemingly cool and confident Cassel have a cat and mouse dynamic, but we aren’t sure who is more dangerous.

It’s Elizabeth, though, who has the real power over the men and plot, and Dawson plays her with a grace that contrasts well with the tension of the film. Consequently, it’s hard to tell who to trust.

“Trance” blurs genres as much as it blurs memories. It’s part heist film and part psychological thriller, as if “The Thomas Crown Affair” met “Inception.”

The frenetic filming style is uniquely the work of Boyle. The throbbing music and anxiety-inducing electric color scheme warp reality. Sometimes the plot is too purposely confusing, but under Boyle’s direction, we know it will have a worthwhile payoff.

“Trance” has its audience constantly questioning reality, even though we know only Boyle knows the truth. If you don’t mind being manipulated, it’s a solid couple hours of twisted entertainment.

Review: On the Road

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“On the Road” is a bumpy ride that never hits a comfortable speed limit. This isn’t a shock considering Kerouac’s sprawling opus to the Beat Generation was originally written on one long scroll haphazardly taped together; it’s almost unfilmable, and this adaptation sometimes struggles but gets saved by its actors.

We first meet Sal Paradise (Sim Riley) in New York City in 1947 as he’s struggling to write his novel and desperately in search of a muse. Enter Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) a hedonistic charismatic con man who encapsulates the mythical West to Sal. The two hit the road along with Dean’s jail bait wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) in a series of road trips. They stop for kicks, chicks (Dean has another mistress-turned-wife Camille, played by a raw Kirsten Dunst) and old friends along the way. But this life style can’t last, and Dean burns out as roman candles are apt to do.

The film is as unstructured as the book; although, we can appreciate director Walter Salles faith to the original scroll, it only works in the novel. Kerouac’s prose makes up for plot, but on film, it grows as dull as driving through corn fields.

What Salles’ aimless direction weakens is made up for by the gorgeous flowing cinematography. The camera speeds along with the cars, effectively imitating the rhythm of Kerouac’s stream of consciousness prose. The wide-open negative spaces and polarized color scheme make the road life style look glamorous, but the actors help to bring it back down to the earth.

It’s the “mad ones” that really keep the film on course and capture some of the vivacity of the novel. When she’s not an undersexed watered-down girlfriend to an abusive vampire boyfriend, Stewart is real live wire who oozes sensuality and tenderness. Hedlund captures the tragic passion that makes Dean the Holy Goof he is, and don’t be surprised if he ends up being one of the best actors of his generation and not just because he looks like a young Brad Pitt. The two actors have great chemistry with everyone else they meet on the road from philosophical heroin junkie Old Bull Lee aka William S. Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen) and his madcap wife (Amy Adams) to the ebullient Carlo Marx aka Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge.)  Riley’s Sal is the weak link, reminding us why wallflower writers should usually stay off screen.

Just like the road’s final destination is ever elusive, “On the Road” never quite finds what it’s searching for. Nevertheless, Salles has directed a noble adaptation that stays true to the book’s themes of friendship, the search for the real America and the inevitable disappointment of both.

Review: The Host

I reviewed “The Host” for Vox. You can read my review on their website or below.
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Alien parasites take over the human race in “The Host,” but the real parasite is Stephenie Meyer. Eating away our time with dull romances and watered-down science fiction, she has taken things to a new level of boredom in the film adaptation of her novel.

Saoirse Ronan plays Melanie, one of the few remaining humans left on Earth after an invasion by aliens. Melanie takes care of her brother and boyfriend (who’s only attracted to her because they’re both human — how romantic), until an alien seeker (Diane Kruger) catches her.

After her capture, Melanie becomes host to alien Wanda, but Melanie is still alive inside Wanda’s mind. She convinces Wanda to escape to a human colony run by her sage Uncle Jeb (played by William Hurt, the only charming character in this film.) Despite its absurd plot, director Andrew Niccol keeps the film serious throughout, which makes it unintentionally hilarious.

The two minds war against each other in humorously bad voiceovers that say things like, “No, you can’t kiss him!” Melanie and Wanda are in love with two different humans, though; both men are so interchangeably insipid that it never feels like a real conflict. There are some passionless make out sessions, but mostly “The Host” is a few hours of half-baked musings on the nature of freewill.

One wonders if anyone involved in the film signed up for “The Host out of his or her own freewill. Ronan is too good to portray Wanda, whose outfits change more than her facial expressions. Niccol attempts to distract the audience from the underdeveloped script with flashy futuristic visuals as if he’s trying to remind us he once directed better dystopic films such as “Gattaca.”

Inevitably, Meyer manages to hollow out even the most talented in the film industry.

Review: Admission

Admission“Admission” isn’t a good romantic comedy, but that’s okay because it’s not meant to be. It has all the trappings of one: the so-relatable-we-laugh-until-our-stomachs-hurt Tina Fey, the eternally affable and youthful Paul Rudd (seriously though, he never ages. Where is his Dorian Gray portrait hiding?) and a so-convoluted-it’s clever plot of the college admissions process. Yet “Admission” is rarely laugh-out-loud funny and the romance is perfunctory, instead it’s better than that- a dramedy about expectations, regrets and parenthood.

Fey plays neurotic Portia Nathan, who has one of the most sadistic careers ever- Princeton admissions officer. The job requires spending days deciding how inadequate most high school students are, but it’s clear Portia’s life wouldn’t pass the test either: her bumbling boyfriend (Michael Sheen) leaves her for a Virginia Woolf scholar, her overbearing feminist mother (a vivacious Lily Tomlin) believes Portia hasn’t lived up to her potential and she’s being dogged by the principal of an alternative high school, John Pressman (Rudd), to admit one of his weirdest and smartest students, Jeremiah. Oh, and he believes Jeremiah might be the son Portia secretly gave up for adoption as an undergrad.

It sounds like a disaster, but Fey and Rudd make it work and keep it light with their quick wit and flirty rapport. That’s not to discredit Fey’s dramatic chops because she makes Portia’s anxiety winsome and subtly explores what matters more to Portia- her job or her maybe son. In a rare flip flop for this genre, John is actually the underdeveloped character; he’s a manic pixie dream boy who can’t settle down, but we’re given no explanation as to why he’s so flighty.

Given the director of “Admission,” it isn’t a surprise that the film is more than what you see in the trailer.  Paul Weitz is known for breaking comedic actors out of their shells like he did for Hugh Grant in “About a Boy,”  Topher Grace in “In Good Company” and Fey here. He also respects his audience to push genre conventions. We know Portia and John will get together, so he doesn’t waste time on it but examines the more interesting and  controversial debate of career vs. motherhood instead. What we get is a refreshing version of Fey and this hackneyed genre.

Just like Jeremiah isn’t the typical student that gets admitted to Princeton, “Admission” isn’t the typical romantic comedy. If you’re willing to see past its overwrought plot, though, you’ll find a tender film about family. It gets my acceptance.