Friday, May 10, 2013
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Thursday, April 11, 2013
By Pamela Zoslov
The surprise of Derek Cianfrance's second feature, The Place Beyond the Pines, is that it is three films in one. The first section of the triptych, shot in the moody, azure-tinted style of Blue Valentine, centers on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a drifter and stunt motorcyclist who adopts a life of crime to support his baby son. The second, shot in a more traditional style, is a police drama focusing on Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie patrolman who has a fateful encounter with Luke. The third, and least successful section, set 15 years later, focuses on the now adolescent sons of the criminal and the cop. Cianfrance, who also co-write the script, has attempted a multi-generational saga, with linked sections reminiscent of Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic (or, less flatteringly, the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas). Ambitious in its sweep and running just under two and a half hours, the film promises greater significance than it delivers. But it is not without stylistic flair and thematic interest.
In the first section, Gosling is a laconic antihero, a man with no background, copious tattoos and cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips. Cianfrance, who also directed Gosling in Blue Valentine , is evidently enamored of Gosling's bleached-blond outlaw image, framing him against a blurred night background of carnival neon. Luke, a stunt cyclist of legendary reputation, is performing in a carnival in upstate New York, where a beautiful ex-girlfriend, Romina (Eva Mendes) approaches him. Luke visits Romina's house and learns,from her mom that he is the father of Romina's baby son. Father-son relationships are a central theme of the film; one of the few things we learn about Luke is that his old man wasn't there for him (there's an original theme), so he wants to be there for his kid. Toward that end, he lets a low-life pal talk him into a new career: robbing banks.
Luke ignores his friend's advice to commit the robberies without violence. Instead, he robs banks maniacally, like Batman's Joker, wearing a Darth Vader helmet and leaping atop the tellers' windows, shouting and threatening employees and customers before making a fast motorcycle getaway. Not surprisingly, his criminal career hits a dead end, happy news for the viewer weary of Sean Bobbitt's mannered cinematography, the heavy, ominous score, and dialogue mixed too low to be intelligible. The poignancy of Luke's fate is muted by the fact that apart from his love for his newly discovered son, Luke is kind of a dick.
In section two, not only is the dialogue more audible, the story is also more interesting. Patrolman Avery is a law-school educated cop, new on the beat, who ends Luke's crime spree in the line of duty. Hailed as a hero, Avery has lingering guilt feelings about Luke's year-old son, the same age as his own boy. The father-son issue folds in as Avery, who has political ambitions, tries to live up to the expectations of his dad, a retired judge. A straight arrow with a conscience and a Medal of Freedom, Avery becomes privy to police corruption and makes dangerous enemies on the force (one of them played with suitable scariness by Ray Liotta). Shedding the first section's mannered, mumblecore style, Cianfrance displays a sure hand with the police thriller genre; too bad the entire film isn't as solid as this section. Part three introduces Avery's son AJ (Emory Cohen) as Avery is campaigning for state attorney general. The kid is a muttering suburban “wigga” whose chief interests are getting high and scoring Ecstasy and Oxy. He preys on classmate Jason (the excellent Dane DeHaan), son of hapless "Moto Bandit" Luke. Would-be thug AJ enlists innocent Jason in his criminal adventures, setting in motion a chain of retributive violence.
The tripartate film doesn't quite cohere, but it does contain strong scenes. It also enables comparisons between Gosling and Cooper, two popular, good-looking leading men, In this cage match, Cooper is the victor. He continues to demonstrate impressive range and sensitivity, and in emotional scenes, he's the cinema's best crier since another Cooper, the famous 1930s child actor Jackie Cooper.
Monday, January 7, 2013
Review by Pamela Zoslov
I believe “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly is the best song title in rock and roll. It's also the name of Sopranos creator David Chase's feature film debut, which refreshingly isn't a gangster story but a paean to 1960s rock and roll. That sounds promising, but the movie is a disappointingly patchy piece of work, entertaining in places but strangely lacking overall coherence. The movie does feature some great vintage TV footage (The Rolling Stones on “Dean Martin's Hollywood Palace”!), a first-class soundtrack curated by “Little Steven” Van Zandt (who played Silvio on The Sopranos), and a handful of arresting scenes.
Chase's affection for rock music was amply displayed in The Sopranos, woven into the series' ominous landscape, the haunting mood set by Tony Soprano driving on the New Jersey Turnpike to the sounds of Alabama 3's “Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One).” And Not Fade Away is at its best when portraying the electrifying effect of the early rock bands on ordinary suburban teens, with images of teens sitting transfixed by images of a swaggering Mick Jagger singing “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” on TV, or discovering Bo Diddley and Leadbelly and Robert Johnson through the British rock musicians who popularized them. “How is it the English knew all about the blues and we didn't, even though it was right under our noses?” wonders Douglas (John Magaro), the curly-haired young lead singer of an aspiring rock band in suburban New Jersey. If only Not Fade Away focused more on the transformational nature of music in the '60s, rather than trying to tell a desultory story about some sulky teenagers, it might really have been something.
The movie, which spans a period from 1963 to the late '60s, is anchored by Douglas' family, headed by gruff paterfamilias Pat (James Gandolfini, in a role that's hardly a stretch), who disapproves of most things, including “The Twilight Zone” (“Send that one back to the Indians!”) and the rock and roll that has captivated his son Douglas, who plays drums in a band with his friends. Douglas' mom is basically a cartoon, ironing clothes in curlers like Hairpray's Edna Turnbull and occasionally crying out in exasperation, “I'm going to kill myself!” and its equally unfunny alternate, “I'm going to slit my wrists!” A neighboring family is similarly lampoonish, but wealthier: the Dietzes, headed by Jack (Christopher McDonald), who loudly expresses racist and pro-war attitudes common to the era — not much shading or complexity in this screenplay. The Dietz daughters are pretty, doe-eyed Grace (Bella Heathcote), who becomes Douglas' fickle girlfriend, and her older sister Joy (Dominique McElligott), a budding hippie and conceptual artist who's branded a lunatic by her parents.
Chase manages to address so many issues that affected Americans in the '60s – civil rights, Vietnam, long hair, free love – but the film is defeated by its focus on something relatively boring, the desultory ambitions of a skillful but directionless garage band. In this way it's reminiscent of the inferior Sopranos episodes focusing on Meadow and her college friends rather than Tony and his entertaining mob cohorts. Only two scenes really capture the viewer's attention, and they seem like sketches for other movies: in one, Joy is hauled off on a gurney to an asylum, and little sister Grace runs tearfully down the corridor. In the other, Gandolfini's Pat, who's dying of lymphoma, has dinner with his son in a restaurant and reveals some hidden truths about his life.
Entertaining movies have been made about rock bands pursuing fame and fortune, but Not Fade Away doesn't seem to find much of a story in that experience. There's an interesting drama lurking in the band's typical rock-band clashes — conflicting egos, styles and ambitions – but they are barely explored. Early on, Wells (Will Brill) decides that Douglas, the drummer, should replace Eugene (Jack Huston, handsome grandson of John) as lead singer; Douglas' vocals are “more soulful,” and Wells, while a fine guitarist, is flamboyant and a bit of an embarrassment. (In my view, they should have kept the tall, good-looking guy rather than the short curly-haired nerd as lead singer, but no one asked me.) Later, Wells is betrayed by his ambitious bandmates, and is especially hurt by Wells, who's his best friend from childhood. There are missed opportunities aplenty here. Nothing that happens over the film's span of years has much consequence — not the demo record the band makes, or its chance to sign a record contract, or even the serious motorcycle accident suffered by one of the band members.
All of this —not to mention Pat's cancer and Joy's commitment — amounts to no more than a shrug, and certainly much less than the testament to the “enormous power of rock and roll” spoken of in the curious narrated afterword that closes the movie, just before Douglas' little sister dances weirdly down a Los Angeles boulevard to the Sex Pistols' cover of “Road Runner.”
Friday, August 17, 2012
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Review by Pamela Zoslov
Vanessa Taylor was battling a case of writer's block when she penned the script for the feature film Hope Springs. Taylor, a writer and producer of HBO shows including Game of Thrones and Everwood, wrote a story about a middle-aged couple who seek counseling to revive their faltering marriage. Taylor imagined it as “a tiny indie movie” until someone showed the script to Meryl Streep, who jumped aboard and enlisted The Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel. With Sony's backing, the tiny movie became a major release starring Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell as the therapist who helps the couple rekindle their love.
That the movie got inflated into a star vehicle means that viewers are treated to a virtuoso duet by two seasoned actors. It also makes for a top-heavy film, with A-list acting receiving tenuous support from a C-list script.
Streep and Jones play Kay and Arnold, a fiftyish couple married for 31 years. Their last child having left home, their relationship is distant, almost wordless. Arnold has moved permanently into the guest bedroom, ostensibly because of a bad back and sleep apnea. Kay, mousy and bespectacled, makes some sad attempts to revive their sex life, but even her new blue negligee (do people still wear negligees?) fails to lure Arnold back to the marital bed. When their children ask what presents they exchanged for their 31st anniversary, Kay responds with embarrassment. “We got each other the new cable subscription!” Kay, who works at a clothing store, asks her friend Eileen (played by Jean Smart, who I would have liked to see in a bigger part) if she thinks marriages can be renewed. “You married who you married, you are who you are” is Eileen's no-nonsense reply.
But Kay is determined: “I want to have a marriage again.” She picks up a book by Dr. Feld (Carell), whose kindly therapeutic face reassures her from the cover of his book, “You Can Have the Marriage You Want.” Kay signs up for Dr. Feld's intensive counseling retreat at Hope Springs, spending her own $4,000 to enroll. Arnold, an accountant, objects strenuously, but eventually agrees to make the trip.
Arnold is a piece of work, a nasty, cynical S.O.B., but we can't help but agree a little with him that Dr. Feld's program seems like a bit of a racket. Every other visitor to the quaint seaside town of inns and lobster restaurants seems to be there for the same purpose. “The 10:30 with Bernie?” a diner waitress inquires knowingly. Sitting across from her grumbling husband, Kay looks enviously at a couple holding hands, who tell her they come back for frequent “tune-ups.” But the film's attitude toward expensive therapy retreats is not at all satirical. It's a straight-faced narrative about how Arnold and Kay get their groove back, with the help of the wise Dr. Feld. The lone moment of genuine comedy occurs when Arnold, at dinner with Kay, makes fun of Dr. Feld's sober, measured tones, imagining the doctor speaking that way while having sex with his wife.
I get a little tired of Meryl Streep's ubiquitous acclaim, but it can't be denied that she can really disappear into a role. She invests Kay with little gestures and vocal mannerisms that are unexpected and delightful. Because the movie's characters are from Nebraska, or the writer's idea of Nebraska, Streep gives Kay a soft, subtle Midwestern twang. “When was the last time you touched me that wasn't just for a picture?” Kay asks her husband during a counseling session, her pronunciation hovering between “picture” and “pitcher.” When Dr. Feld asks about her sexual fantasies – a subject on which he dwells to the point of prurience – Kay reflexively fastens the buttons on her demure flower-print cardigan.
Jones, in a role that was initially offered to Jeff Bridges, has the challenge of humanizing the curmudgeonly Arnold. Jones is always interesting to watch (especially the topographical map that is his heavily lined face), but the character is so rigid and irritable it's a wonder anyone, let alone the sweet Kay, could love him. Dr. Feld's prescriptions focus almost entirely on sex, but the narrative suggests that the couple's problems go beyond insufficient blow jobs (Kay at one time buys a bunch of bananas for practice) into the realm of emotional abuse. Consider Arnold's estimation of Kay's intellect. When they first met in college, Arnold recounts, he was a teaching assistant in accounting, and she was a student. What did he notice about her? “She was pretty, and she probably shouldn't be majoring in accounting.” Evidently that's why all she can do now is cook eggs and fold sweaters at the mall.
Taylor's ideas about what happens in an older marriage seem to derive from television. Arnold gives Kay “practical” gifts rather than jewelry. She talks about boring things. He watches too much golf on TV. Oddly, the couple seem to be not just from Nebraska, but from Nebraska in the 1950s. She's scandalized by talk about sex, but they have cable, laptops and high-speed Internet, and presumably are of the Baby Boomer generation. Apparently the sexual revolution entirely missed the Cornhusker State. Do people who live on the coasts imagine Middle Americans still posing for American Gothic?
It is refreshing, however, to see a film that celebrates people of mature years. As the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel demonstrated, there is a market for these kinds of films. A quiet chamber piece like Hope Springs is a good counterweight to the summer's dark and violent movie cacophony, as well as a chance to see two veteran actors deploy their considerable talents.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Review by Pamela Zoslov
Woody Allen, who has just released his 43rd film, To Rome With Love, has become like that elderly uncle you remember from your childhood for his brilliant sense of humor, but whose increasingly feeble jokes you now laugh at out of polite nostalgia. He remains a formidable filmmaker — last year's Midnight in Paris was a thoroughgoing success — but his insistence on making a film every year means that lately there are more misses than hits, and the misses are all the more disappointing.
To Rome With Love, set in the colorful Italian capital because backers put up the money for it to be shot there, is based on a collection of half-developed ideas Allen had tucked away in his desk drawer. The randomness and mustiness of the stories is evident.
Allen toyed with several ideas for the movie's title, including The Bop Decameron, a nod to The Decameron, a 14th-century Italian novel consisting of 100 tales, and Nero Fiddled, before settling on the one that evokes the late-'60s TV series starring John Forsythe.
To Rome With Love features a handful of unrelated stories about tourists and residents of Rome. One story involves an ordinary businessman, Leopoldo (Roberto Begnini) who suddenly becomes a celebrity for no reason — “famous for being famous.” Paparazzi follow him everywhere, beautiful women throw themselves into his bed, and he's ushered onto a TV talk show to talk about what he had for breakfast. The point of this minor vignette, presumably, is to comment on the shallowness of modern celebrity culture, something Allen explored in more depth 32 years ago in Stardust Memories.
Another story involves a Roman mortician (played by Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) who can sing opera sublimely, but only in the shower. Allen plays a retired opera director whose daughter is engaged to Giancarlo's son. When he hears Giancarlo's shower aria, he devises an unconventional way to bring him to the stage, a visual punchline that's not particularly funny, but is nonetheless repeated twice.
A clumsy bedroom farce has a pair of Italian newlyweds, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) have their honeymoon interrupted by a gorgeous prostitute, Anna (Penelope Cruz), who shows up at Antonio's hotel room by mistake, just ahead of the arrival of his very conservative family. Both Antonio and Milly, who is meanwhile wandering the streets of Rome, having lost her way in search of a beauty salon, experience unexpected erotic awakenings.
The most successful of the stories has Alec Baldwin as John, a successful architect revisiting the city where he spent part of his early career. He is recognized at a street corner by Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect who idolizes him. Jack takes John to the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig). The street corner is analogous to the metaphysical Paris alley where Owen Wilson was whisked into the 1920s; John becomes a kind of ghostly presence in Jack's life, a mentor-advisor who comments on the action and warns Jack about the danger to his relationship posed by the impending arrival of Sally's supposedly sexy, irresistible friend Monica, an actress. “Can't you see that the situation is fraught with peril?” John warns his young, naïve protege. (John functions like Humphrey Bogart in Allen's Play It Again Sam).
Monica is one of those patented pseudo-intellectual Allen heroines, mouthing sophomoric pronouncements and quotations from Kierkegaard, Pound, Yeats and The Fountainhead. As embodied by Page, her vaunted sexiness is overstated, but her manipulative seductiveness works on Jack, challenging his loyalty to the level-headed Sally. (A younger, precocious brunette often tempts an Allen hero away from his sensible blond mate — art imitating life imitating art, I suppose, in Allen's case.) Baldwin, the funniest presence in this not very funny movie, comments sardonically on Monica's pretensions as she speaks (“Oh, God, here comes the bullshit”), a conceit not unlike Marshall McLuhan's walk-on in Annie Hall. This story also goes nowhere special, but there's a certain amount of fun in getting there.
To Rome With Love is Allen's seventh European-made film, something he calls a “happy accident, because I couldn't raise money any other way.” The 77-year-old filmmaker spoke to the New York Times about his lifelong affection for Italian cinema, citing four films that influenced him: Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine, Antonioni's Blow Up and Fellini's Amarcord. Even before his European cycle began, he was channeling Bergman (Interiors) and Fellini (Stardust Memories). Allen's latest film is a pretty anemic tribute to the films he admires; worse, it even fails to recapture the magic of his own best work.