Friday, March 29, 2013

Review: "The Place Beyond the Pines"

Director: Derek Cianfrance
Runtime: 140 minutes

Bold, intimate, and raw. These three adjectives, among many others, were thrown at Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine when it opened to rave reviews in 2010. That film was a split look at the rise and fall of a romance and marriage, confined entirely to characters navigating the ups and downs of every day life. As such, when Blue Valentine worked, it delivered tremendously powerful, and often unsettling, moments that burst from the screen. The same three above-mentioned adjectives can also be used to describe Cianfrance's follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, with one new addition: ambitious. Unfortunately, it's that new adjective that leaves Pines falling short of its lofty goals. For all of its merits, Pines is ultimately more admirable for its ambition, rather than its execution. 

Split into three stories (each of which could, in a sense, be their own full-fledged films) linked by time, the film ultimately comes down to the relationships between fathers and sons. There's Luke (Ryan Gosling), a heavily tattooed, volatile motorcycle stuntman who learns that a former fling (Eva Mendes), has had his child. Meanwhile, fresh-faced cop Avery (Bradley Cooper) is doing his best to fight against corruption in the local police force, while also dealing with his own newborn son. Detailing how the story threads cross paths, and ultimately play out, would require quite of bit of plot spoiling. Suffice it to say that as time passes, and the film's scope widens, the plot becomes more and more dire for all involved. 

In fact, the evolution between and among stories (one of which involves a 15 year jump forward) is the most compelling aspect of the script, written by Cianfrance, along with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder. The ways in which actions, and the way we see them, echo across stories and time periods is often subtle, but lends the film a nice connective thread. Gosling is first introduced to us in a long tracking shot that follows him with his back turned to the camera. In the third part of the film, one of the first times we meet his high school-aged son Jason (Dane Dehaan), we also follow him as he keeps his back turned to us. It's a simple, but telling, bit of camera work that reinforces the idea that Luke (and therefore, any of his offspring) are outsiders, always moving forward and unable to sit still and settle down. Less clear is the titular place beyond the pines, which seems to be a vague manifestation of the place where bad decisions begin and/or play out. 

Cianfrance's ability to link the stories is critical, as the film runs for nearly two and a half hours. Though the first hour or so is more energetic (Luke gets into the bank-robbing business) than the remaining screen time, the energy never really flags. If anything, Cooper carries more of the film than Gosling does, despite both presences looming over the entire film. His story at first seems more mundane, but it actually has equally (perhaps more?) interesting emotional territory to mine. 

But as the film progresses, Cianfrance lets the widening scope of the material overwhelm him. Despite the nicely handled plot mechanics, Pines never achieves the emotional resonance that it clearly strives for. The most immediate comparison is last year's Cloud Atlas, a film which had to put so much effort into churning out its six stories coherently than it wasn't able to stick the landing on the emotional front. Even though all three sections of Pines are clearly linked on multiple levels, there's still the feeling that certain relationships aren't fully explored. A potentially gripping subplot involving Avery ratting out some dirty cops is glossed over (albeit elegantly) in order to get things moving forward.  

Emotional developments suffer from this approach as well. Part three introduces us to Avery's troubled son AJ (Emory Cohen), yet the film never attempts to even hint at how the son of an upstanding cop became such a boor. Cohen's performance in the role doesn't help matters, and often feels overwrought. He's not merely troubled or volatile. He's a straight-up bully who we have no reason to empathize with. Faring much better is Dehaan, who actually has an interesting emotional conflict (struggling to connect to a very distant father).

Even this arc, however, is undermined by the overblown conclusion that the film leads towards. When the film reaches what should be its emotional high point, it ends with more of a whimper than a bang. The energy of the storytelling can only paper the lack of true character development for so long, and by the time the ending rolls around, the film's facade comes crumbling down. The ingredients, however, are all in place for a unique, mesmerizing character drama. Performances are solid across the board, with Gosling, Cooper, Dehaan, and Mendes all getting at least one brief moment to shine with some excellent silent emoting. And cinematographer Sean Bobbitt lends the film a richly colored, gritty look, while composer Mike Patton's unconventional score creates a unique atmosphere out of ghostly choirs and piano chords. 

But the film has more energy than honest emotion. It's telling that the film's most compelling moment is a chase sequence (brilliantly shot in long takes from within a police car), and not the moments of emotional desperation in the final act. A side character played by Ben Mendelsohn (criminally underused) tells Luke that, "if you keep on riding like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder." Like Luke, The Place Beyond the Pines rides like lightning. When it crashes, however, it often sounds more like a hollow thud. 

Grade: C

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: "Phil Spector"

Director: David Mamet
Runtime: 92 minutes

Only a few months ago, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty was kicking up controversy in regards to its depiction of torture, as well as its alleged accuracy. Despite having access to top-level information and testimonials about the hunt for bin Laden and the raid on his compound, the film was still subjected to scrutiny (some appropriate, and some overblown). This was, after all, a film trying to be faithful to history...or at least to the history that was put forth to Bigelow and Mark Boal from their sources. Yet despite this controversy, Zero Dark Thirty's overall artistic integrity has (deservedly) remained intact. Whatever mistakes there were, the film captures, if not factually, then at least thematically and emotionally, a complicated slice of modern American history. 

Yet what happens when a film takes a similarly well-known (and much more intimate) piece of history, and decides to throw out any pretense of accuracy? You end up with something like Phil Spector, the latest movie/prestige project from HBO. Despite depicting some very real events, the film declares outright that it is a work of fiction about real people and real events (in this case, the first trial of Phil Spector, which ended in a mistrial). 

It's a bold creative choice on behalf of writer/director David Mamet, and it allows him to toy with reality without the scrutiny that often comes with projects based on real people and events.  But for some it will also prove slightly troubling, as Mamet's film plays with the facts to make a point about a man who, guilty or not, has been cemented in the minds of millions as something of a grotesque weirdo. Above all else, that seems to be the point of Mamet's creative decisions: this Phil Spector (and possibly the real one), was ultimately convicted because of who he was, regardless of what he did

But even though Spector (Al Pacino) is the title character of the film, he's not exactly Mamet's protagonist. That would be attorney Linda Baden (Helen Mirren), who guided Spector through his first trial. For nearly 20 minutes, Mamet introduces us to Baden, who is initially desperate to leave her office and boss (Jeffrey Tambor) behind so that she can take a vacation. Yet after some persuasion, Baden takes on Spector's case, even as her health begins to suffer (she eventually winds up with pneumonia).

Appropriately, Baden truly becomes invested in the case once she (and we as the audience) first meet Spector in his mansion, complete with some wonderfully eccentric decor. In large part, this is because Pacino, though playing a bit towards the surface, grabs the role by the reins and never lets go. Initially casual and dismissive of the charges, as time passes he begins to crumble under the pressure of the accusations, media scrutiny, and protests. 

As easy as it is for Pacino to venture into histrionics, he largely keeps the fire beautifully under control, and only unleashes his fury when necessary. In the film's most on-point sequence, Spector loses his cool not in the actual court room, but in a staged mock trial designed to prepare him for testifying. Said mock trial takes place in a fully dressed stage, with lights and props, yet also gaps that allow us to see into the dark corners of the sound stage. It's the film's and Pacino's best moment, and it only makes sense that one of the film's most passionate sequences is also one of its most clearly artificial, given the opening disclaimer. 

Mirren, on the other hand, is much more grounded as the increasingly weary (and sick) Baden. For much of the film, which runs a brisk 90 minutes, Mirren is the straight man to Pacino's slowly-unravelling eccentric. Her presence is certainly welcome, but Mamet's screenplay favors Pacino when it comes to interesting dialogue and engaging moments. Only in the final act does Baden really start to come to life as a character, and Mirren captures her mix of exhaustion and don't-screw-with-me attitude with understated elegance. 

Where Phil Spector falls short comes down to its willingness (or lack thereof)  to probe the psyches of its characters. Mamet knows how to write lively, sharp dialogue, and he guides his performers well, while also displaying a level-headed control of tone and pacing. Yet beneath the words on the page, there isn't much more. The film is strictly a slice of the moment for Spector, Baden, and the rest. While the script does make nice tie-ins to its idea that Spector was really found guilty of being a creep, as a character he's not much more than a creep (albeit one with a huge god complex). 

Mamet captures the fascinating and eccentric surface of Spector, but doesn't go far beyond that. If anything, it's Pacino's performance that elevates the material, and makes this problem less noticeable until after the credits roll. Unlike the aforementioned Zero Dark Thirty, Phil Spector's scope is much less expansive, which leaves the film feeling less well-rounded than Bigelow's film. Zero Dark Thirty captured both one woman's journey, as well as a wide-reaching, decade-spanning moral grey zone of American history. All that Phil Spector has is one eccentric, one attorney, and a trial that we never even see. Mamet may make his point concisely, but he does so at the expense of creating a film with more substantive and meaningful results. 

Grade: B/B-

Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: "Spring Breakers"

Director: Harmony Korine
Runtime: 94 minutes

James Franco seemed to be hitting another unfortunate low in his career earlier this month.  His work in Sam Raimi's CGI-drenched Oz The Great and Powerful recalled his lifeless work as Oscar co-host in 2011. Yet only a week later, Franco has achieved redemption via a gonzo turn in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. Part exploitation flick and part art film, the film traces the misadventures of four young college students gone rogue in southern Florida. Yet despite the presence of a scantily clad quartet of heroines, it's Franco who impresses the most, and whose work is enough to save Korine's latest from drowning in repetition. 

When Spring Breakers begins, we're flooded with all of the images we've come to expect from the modern spring break experience: drinking, partying, bared breasts, etc... Only moments later we're thrown from the beach to the classroom. After various repeated lines and scenes of wondering about how they'll pay for tickets to St. Petersburg, Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob a local restaurant and grab their Jesus-loving friend Faith (Selena Gomez). Everything is booze and neon-soaked fun until the group is caught in possession of cocaine. It's then that they meet rapper Alien (Franco), who bails them out and takes them under his seedy wing. 

What follows is a veritable orgy of sights and sounds, as Korine and cinematographer Benoit Debie (who DP'd the similarly glow-y Enter the Void) plunge us into a world that gradually becomes grittier and grimier. Some of the girls are cut out to hang with Alien. Some aren't. As the group whittles down, Spring Breakers starts to inch toward a narrative with some semblance of direction. The further we're led down the rabbit hole, the more mesmerizing the film becomes, even as some of its imagery repulses. 

Franco's involvement in the plot is part of what allows the film to cohere more as it goes along. The actor feels fully committed here, equal parts captivating and unnerving. This isn't a figure who seems like he could explode at any minute at another person. Instead, he's the sort of man who seems to attract said explosions.  Franco is the embodiment of the sort of "gangsta" life that the girls (well, at least two of them) are drawn towards. To a point. As much as Korine may indulge in nudity, montages, and violence, the film still ends as something of a cautionary tale. The spring break starts as the ultimate escape from reality, but it ends up exposing the girls to more unpleasantness than they ever dreamed of encountering. 

Yet with Franco getting the most 'character' to work with, there isn't much left for the rest of the cast. That may be partially intentional, but at times one wishes the central quartet were more than just party girl ciphers learning about their own limits. They spend so much time living the gangsta bimbo life that there isn't much about them that's compelling. Gomez's Faith comes closest, as she's the first to feel uncomfortable about the group's shenanigans, but it's all rather surface-oriented. 

Thankfully the film has Korine, Debie, and a driving score by Cliff Martinez and dubstep poster child Skrillex to lend the film an arty, modern mystique amid the depravity. As others have said, there are moments here that, due to the score, photography, and editing, feel like a Girls Gone Wild video as imagined by Terrence Malick (or a super horny, college-aged cinephile equivalent). The soundtrack is also quite stacked, and a sequence featuring a lesser-known Britney Spears ballad, though oddly hilarious, is easily the film's biggest triumph. From the technical side, Spring Breakers has a smooth aesthetic that helps offset the limited dialogue and somewhat slow plot (it takes far too long for the girls to finally get to their spring break locale).

The film's final stretches are also among its finest, yet they still ring hollow. There are moments when Korine seems a little too devoted to indulging in the seedy side of spring break, to the point where he saps the film of its bite. And, with the film's teeth whittled down, Korine's point really can't be more than a thin one, that is just barely propped up by the atmosphere generated by Debie's stunning lensing and the score. Korine tries to accomplish the always-tricky task of having his thematic cake and eating it too. In some ways, he gets away with it, but not without making a bit of a mess along the way, one that is sometimes a little too big to ignore. 

Grade: B/B-

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: "Oz: The Great and Powerful"

Director: Sam Raimi
Runtime: 130 minutes

It's been nearly three quarters of a century since Dorothy landed in Oz. For decades, the classic MGM fantasy-musical has been a cornerstone of growing up. It boasts some of the most memorable characters in all of cinema and pop-culture history. And though it's been years since the 1939 film's visual effects have been thought of as state of the art, they possess a timeless charm, as evidenced by the film's enduring status. Bigger and newer aren't always better, and that's certainly the case with Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful. Though beautifully rendered, the latest cinematic venture into Oz is lacking in heart, brains, or courage, and has only fleeting moments of genuine entertainment. 

Opening in 1905 in both black and white and the old 4:3 aspect ratio, Raimi's film introduces us to Oscar (James Franco), a wily magician at a traveling circus in (where else?) Kansas. In addition to conning folks out of their money, Oscar also has a penchant for charming women out of their clothes, and it doesn't take long for that to catch up with him. While running from a jealous husband, Oscar boards a hot air balloon, which soon gets sucks up into a tornado. And, as it was in the 1939, so it is in 2013: violent storms are the means of entering the wonderful world of Oz and its widescreen aspect ratio. Yet Oscar doesn't have much time to soak up the CGI masses around him. He quickly runs into Theodora the good witch (Mila Kunis), who believes that Oscar is here to fulfill a prophecy and save Oz. 

Yet for all of the money thrown at the screen, Raimi's Oz is disappointingly lacking. The environments themselves are beautiful, but any time the film shows live action actors walking among them, they begin to feel more flat and artificial than the matte paintings of yesteryear. Thankfully, there are marvels amid the digital excess. The flying monkeys look fantastic, and are effectively menacing (at least as menacing as they can be in a PG film). But the real star is China Doll (voiced by Joey King), a beautiful digital creation who comes closest to giving the film a beating heart. 

Sadly, China Doll's live action counterparts don't fare so well. Particularly egregious is James Franco's Oscar. Part of the fun of this role, on paper, is that Oscar is a con artist who spends considerable time bluffing his way through a foreign land. It requires a certain charm and swagger that Franco never once brings to the screen. Instead, he's left straining to reach those show-off moments, and the result is a black hole of charisma. Then there's Mila Kunis, who's faced with the opposite problem: she seems engaged with the material, but has only thin writing and poor motivation to work with. Rachel Weisz has what fun she can with a boring role that's largely shoved to the background and never fleshed out. The only flesh and blood figure on screen who remotely works in Michelle Williams' Glinda. It may not be much, but the actress brings a charm and warmth to the character that helps offset Franco's problematic performance.

But, at the end of the day, the story is Oscar's, and because Franco's performance is such a misfire, the rest of the enterprise sinks with him. Raimi manages a few good jumps here and there, and the visuals are quite nice (I desperately wanted more looks at the vaguely art deco-style Emerald City), but it's all too much. Oz isn't engaging, moving, or funny enough (though Zach Braff does his best) to ever become consistently entertaining. Instead, much like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, it often sinks under the weight of its super-saturated CGI vistas that are large in scale, but lack any sense of awe or wonder. A shame really, when the matte paintings would have probably been so much cheaper.

Grade: C-

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Review: "Stoker"

Director: Chan-wook Park
Runtime: 98 minutes

If Jee-woon Kim's The Last Stand was an example of a foreign director succumbing to the Hollywood machine, then consider Chan-wook Park's Stoker a delightfully mad case wherein a director smoothly transplants his style to an English-language feature. The South Korean auteur, best known for his wince-inducing Vengeance Trilogy (specifically Oldboy) reportedly didn't speak much English on the film's set. In some cases, it shows, as the dialogue from Wentworth Miller's script can sometimes feel like a first draft. Yet where Mr. Park can't quite overcome the wobbly dialogue, he compensates by creating some exquisite visual story-telling. Stoker's script may be problematic in certain areas, and it doesn't quite get to the same level of humanity of some of Park's earlier films. At the same time, this is perhaps the director's best executed film in terms of story pacing and (brilliantly over-the-top) atmosphere. 

As much as Stoker has been marketed as a near-horror film, it actually stakes out much more interesting territory in which to play its wicked games. Said territory is that of a psycho-sexual thriller. Stoker's set-up is efficient and introduces the major players, before segueing into a beautifully amorphous narrative of sexual awakening, manifested in flashes of dark violence. On her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) learns that her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) has died in a car crash. On the day of Richard's funeral, India's mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) slips into the Stoker family, and quickly charms India's desperate housewife of a mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). From there on, the film is less interested in simple answers or entirely believable actions as it is in the way Charlie upsets the recently traumatized Stoker household.

For Kidman's Evie, Charlie represents a romantic interest in light of her husband's passing. For India, Charlie is a mysterious stranger determined to draw her out of her sullen state of unsexed adolescence. In the film's most arresting sequence, Charlie joins India at the piano for a duet, and the escalating music, coupled with the silent body movements (a carefully placed hand, an ankle twisted in anxiety) make it clear that Park's gifts as a director have lost nothing in the big leap from Asia to North America. The film is heavily stylized, perhaps more than any of the director's previous work. The camera movements, which often swoop over to indicate a character's point of view, certainly aren't aiming for subtlety, nor is the sound design or Clint Mansell's score. For as deeply as emotions (and secrets) remain opaque, the film charges ahead full throttle on the aesthetic front. One could argue that this choice nearly smothers whatever substance there is, but the aesthetics are consistent from the start. You'll likely either find them enthralling or hugely off-putting. 

Yet even as Stoker throws its surface in the audience's face, there remains a heart - albeit a very chilly one - underneath that surface. The in-your-face sights and sounds - coupled with some really beautiful editing - are beautifully in-sync with Wasikowska's slowly awakening India. The character remains rather stoic for the most part, yet the flashy style creates a wonderful fever-dream atmosphere that perfectly taps into the film's sinister vision of burgeoning female sexuality. Yet as stone-faced as India remains, Wasikowska never lets the role trap her. In fact, Stoker is perhaps the best use of the actress' wan features and reserved persona to date. There are little touches of perverse enjoyment and sardonic wit that permeate the performance, and Park gives them room to breathe, even amidst the heavy style. 

The adults in India's world aren't slouches either. Kidman, though not given too much to do throughout, handles her flighty, flustered trophy wife role with aplomb. Many of her scenes simply require her for sheer star power and presence, but when the actress finally gets the chance to deliver, she knocks it out of the park in a spectacularly concise monologue.  And Goode, who really ought to be a bigger star (at least on the indie level) by now, is a perfectly unsettling stranger. The actor's angular features (his face and eyes often carry a vaguely reptilian look), and silky, steady voice create an interesting puzzle of a man who, to be frank, really doesn't have much in the way of development across the film. But the film's ultimately Wasikowska's (and also Park's), and she carries it on her slender frame with an effortlessness that has eluded many of her previous performances. 

Where Stoker runs into some level of trouble is in its third act. Now, from a purely narrative standpoint, I'll admit that I enjoyed it, even if it was somewhat on the banal side. It's a classic case of a tired trope that works due to the specifics and the execution. Yet one key revelation between acts two and three has the unfortunate potential of making earlier scenes not add up, or at least become less convincing. Mr. Park seems more concerned with the three-way relationship in the Stoker house more than anything, which requires the audience to suspend our disbelief more than we might expect. In this sense, Stoker can easily be compared to the work of Hitchcock, whose films often contained plot elements that seemed flimsy only after one left the darkness of the theater. The same is certainly the case here. How much you enjoy Stoker, during or after the film, may very well depend on how much you think the execution smooths out the screenplay. There's a reason the film has proven divisive on multiple levels. 

Yet even as I found quibbles with the narrative's twist and the way I was forced to reconsider early scenes, I still found myself firmly under Park's spell. More than any of the director's other films, which have a tendency to sag in the middle, Stoker moves with a sinister elegance all the way through its somewhat predictable conclusion. The effective performances and truly exquisite level of craftsmanship created a deliciously dark experience that often left me mesmerized and/or violently clutching my arm rests. No matter what I can think of about Stoker's plot or its occasionally stiff dialogue, I can't deny that the film displays Park's directorial powers at their absolute height in more than one instance. Flaws and all, Stoker sent a surge through my body that has left me unable to get the film out of my head. Call the film style-over-substance if you want, but it's one hell of a style. 

Grade: B/B+