THE LAST PICTURE BLOG

OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM

Posts tagged ‘Ryan Gosling’

Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a fairly derivative take on Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables: in this 2013 film 1940s Los Angeles takes the place of 1920s Chicago, and there are similarities between the two stories, both based on real life events, both involving honest cops tasked with taking down a well-connected and ruthless mobster with the help of a team of spirited misfits. I suppose one can hardly blame the younger, more inexperienced director for sticking rigidly to the same formula successfully employed by de Palma in the 1980s, but sadly, in almost every area in which the two films can be compared, Fleischer’s effort comes off as second best. To begin with, Sean Penn’s one-note crime boss Mickey Cohen is as boring as villains come, and the actor struggles to make anything like the same kind of impact that Robert de Niro delivered with his over-the-top and hugely enjoyable turn as Al Capone, though Cohen does at least exhibit some of Capone’s flair for inventing elaborate or unusual deaths for his underworld enemies. Josh Brolin, meanwhile, is this film’s noble Eliot Ness-alike, John O’Mara; a family man looking to do good, he narrows his eyes and stares off into the middle distance a lot while considering all the moral implications thrown up by his work, which involves disrupting Cohen’s empire by any means necessary. The team of incorruptibles working under O’Mara (played by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Peña) have been given precisely one skill or personality trait each, and they wander round dutifully in the shadow of their leader, each waiting to step out into the limelight for his own brief heroic moment. Gosling’s the only supporting actor who gets an ample amount of screen time, but he’s unwilling to break out of his quiet, cool enigma thing here, and as a result you know as much about his character at the end of the film as you do when he first appears.

Will Beall’s script, meanwhile, is full of clichéd, self-important cop phrases about ‘the honour of men who carry the badge’ and the like, and it contains a dispiriting emphasis on male barking and growling; at one point Brolin sets out the stakes by gruffly telling his men ‘you lose everything and you win the war – you’re a hero. You lose everything and you lose the war – you’re just a fool’ and, rather weirdly, no-one either laughs in his face or calls him a preposterous, overblown c*** afterwards. In fact there is a huge amount of macho, guttural man rumbling in this film. Both Brolin and Penn sound as if they’ve been getting through three packs of Marlboros before their daily morning muesli and yoga sessions, though they are like high-pitched choirboys next to the mighty Nick Nolte, who appears here in a supporting role as a man who has apparently lived a thousand lives with just the one set of vocal chords. Still, despite a lack of originality and all of the assembled masculine posturing Gangster Squad isn’t dreadful, and there’s some impressive noirish production design and costume design to enjoy. Unfortunately there are several dull patches, and Fleischer seemingly can’t break free of them; the action here – which ought to lift the film and make it more entertaining – lacks the flair and imagination that made the set pieces in De Palma’s earlier film so watchable and so enjoyable. Poor old Emma Stone tries to make the best of one of the film’s two token and completely under-written female roles (she’s Cohen’s squeeze, later shacking up with Gosling’s charmer Jerry Wooters), but the director seems to give up on her after a while to concentrate on the throaty man growls. These continue all the way through the film and into its risible epilogue, in which there’s even more self-important talk of honour and cops and cop honour and honourable cops and the honour of cops and how cops are honourable. Meh.

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer.
Written by: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless.
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Mireille Enos, Sullivan Stapleton.
Cinematography: Dion Beebe.
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert.
Music:
Steve Jablonsky.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
113 minutes.
Year:
2013.

4 Comments

Though there have been some dips in his career, Shane Black has a stronger claim than most to the title of Master of the Hollywood Buddy Comedy, with a number of his wisecrack-heavy screenplays giving birth to some memorable double acts who just manage to remain on the right side of the law: Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey, Jr and Val Kilmer, to name but a few. His latest crime drama – irreverent, often funny, set in late 1970’s Los Angeles and based on a screenplay originally written 15 years ago – features Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a duo tasked with locating a missing woman who has entered the porn industry in order to subversively spread a message about corruption and air pollution (as you do). Initially Black pits Gosling’s down-on-his-luck, booze-addled, inept and widowed PI Holland March and Crowe’s enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy against one another, and there are quite a few laughs raised as the two characters are established, partly thanks to their violent and mistrustful interactions with one another. March is a morally-bankrupt investigator who has no problem taking payments off old ladies he cannot possibly help, and he’s an irresponsible father, too, which means that his young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) has to step up and act like an adult to keep the household running. Healy, meanwhile, has even fewer scruples, given that he accepts payments to beat up strangers, and although the moral issues concerned do appear to be eating away at the character Black employs fairly transparent plot devices to get the audience on-side (look, everyone, rough justice dished out to a potential paedophile! Hooray!).

As with Black’s hugely entertaining debut as a director, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the fun largely comes from seeing the two characters interact with one another and the various residents of LA their investigation leads them to, ranging from kids on the street to hardened criminals to those attending Boogie Nights-style adult film industry-sponsored parties (several actresses are required to go topless; the film is written, directed and produced by nine men). Like Black’s earlier film there are nods to LA’s long history as a setting for noir, neo-noir and crime thrillers more generally: here we have another pair of soft-boiled/hard-boiled mismatched PIs attempting to get their heads around a complex, sprawling case while being sidetracked by various temptations, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen that play out. Just last year Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice did the same, using LA’s fog as a symbol for its protagonist’s confusion, as opposed to smog, and I suppose there are some similarities between Joaquin Phoenix’s stoned Doc Sportello and Gosling’s drunk March. I suppose you could make a case that Black’s films do pay heed to writers like Cain, Chandler, Pynchon and Leonard as much as they obviously reference filmmakers as diverse as P.T. Anderson, Roman Polanski and Robert Altman, but he’s barely interested in the nuts and bolts of detective work or the way that crime in LA operates, and clearly too reliant on the dynamics of investigating duos, and the way in which these oddball pairings can be mined for comedy.

Of the two stars Gosling gets the greater share of the comic moments, largely because of his character’s utter incompetence, although while Crowe’s role is ostensibly as a hard/straight man the Australian actor regularly amuses too. So, in summary: you’ve seen this film before – and possibly many times over – albeit under different guises and with slightly tweaked scenarios and characters; there are no marks for originality, although Black’s screenplay is one of the more witty, knowing ones, at least. Watching another crime story develop in which a young, wise-beyond-their-years child ends up having a strong influence over events may cause your eyes to roll, too, as it did mine, and it’s obvious that Holly is only there to deflect away accusations of sexism and misogyny. However, that all said, Black’s writing is generally sharp and for the most part The Nice Guys is entertaining Saturday night fayre. It doesn’t really matter that the plot rambles along, incorporating corruption within the Justice Department and the motor industry as well as the porn and air pollution material; really it’s all just background nonsense to enable Gosling and Crowe to do and say funny things. Which they manage, repeatedly.

Directed by: Shane Black.
Written by: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Beau Knapp, Murielle Telio, Keith David.
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot.
Editing: Joel Negron.
Music: David Buclkey, John Ottman, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 116 minutes.
Year: 2016.

8 Comments

The idea of a writer/director leaving stoopid Ferrellian comedy behind for a foray into serious filmmaker territory, as Adam McKay has done, is certainly intriguing. I’m impressed that McKay decided to take on a project like The Big Short, a semi-serious film about a serious issue, and I hope he continues to branch out in such a manner in the future. (I’m sure he’ll be more inclined to continue steering his career in this direction in the wake of the various Oscar nominations he and his latest work have received, rather than because of my patronage, but whatever.) The film is a busy, energetic and occasionally insightful study of the men who shorted – i.e. bet huge sums of money against – the American housing market prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, and the narrative flits between three separate groups of characters, the real life equivalents of which spotted that the market was unstable and would eventually collapse while everyone else maintained unshakable faith in it. The first skeptic in the movie is Christian Bale’s hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who bets huge amounts of his clients’ money and must subsequently placate a number of angry men – this is a man-heavy film – as he hopes and waits for the crash to happen. The film also makes plenty of time for young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who enlist the help of Brad Pitt’s retired banker as they seek to make their fortune. Then there’s a hedge fund team led by Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, who fortuitously learn of Burry’s actions via slick trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). The three storylines never quite meet, even though plenty of common ground is shared between them, though there is one scene at a financial conference in which it looks like McKay is about to unite several characters; thankfully he doesn’t.

McKay has stretched himself with this film, though I’m not sure that The Big Short is anything more than a solid platform for further endeavour. Not that I’m implying it’s a dud, or anything: clearly it’s an enjoyable, knockabout couple of hours that has played well with audiences, featuring good-looking famous people in cameos, brief asides, conspiratorial narration, kinetic cultural montages, Schoonmaker-style editing and the kind of deliberate, jerky camera movement that seems designed to create bogus indie or lower-budget credibility. On this camera movement, briefly: I liked some of it, when it served a clear purpose; a scene in which Baum thinks about his brother’s suicidal leap off a skyscraper, which is followed by a series of quick downward pans across a number of different images, for example. Otherwise it got on my fucking nerves. Visually there is so much going on here that the film is clearly the work of someone trying too hard to be taken seriously, with McKay regularly falling back on the default position of aping Scorsese at his loosest (there are, of course, worse people you could copy). The Big Short is so packed with stylistic tics and metronomic quirk that it never quite settles down, as if the director doesn’t fully trust that the material is interesting enough in its own right, though the style is at least reflective of the film’s hyper, fast-talking workaholic characters.

I was entertained for the duration, and McKay’s screenplay – based on the novel by Michael Lewis – certainly makes most of the financial wrangling interesting and accessible for those with little or no prior knowledge of the subject. That said, the explanatory cutaways featuring Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez discussing collateralized debt obligations and the like are unnecessary. At one point Vennett explains the housing market using a set of Jenga bricks; that kind of illuminating simplicity may be ridiculous but it does just about work within the scene in question … whereas the distracting cameos are a gimmick and completely destroy any momentum that had previously been building. At least the asides – another fourth wall-breaking device, mostly delivered by Gosling – manage to create a modicum of sympathy for the single most unsympathetic character here, and deliver a couple of laughs to boot.

bigShort4

Christian Bale as Michael Burry in The Big Short

Bale’s scenes are initially worrying. Burry has a glass eye and a penchant for eccentric behaviour (listening to heavy metal on his headphones in the middle of a face-to-face meeting, playing with drum sticks, sending mass emails that understandably cause concern for anyone who has to deal with him professionally), and at first it looks like it’s going to be a very hammy performance, but it settles down and Burry’s part of the story is engrossing. This in itself is quite an achievement, when you consider that it mostly involves a man sitting behind a desk, alone in his office, staring at a computer screen (by contrast all of the other characters jet off to exotic locations like Florida, Nevada and, er, the south of England). Elsewhere Pitt plays a typically confident individual in a typically-confident fashion, though that does make for an interesting dynamic between his conscientious banker Ben Rickert and the two chancing investors he hooks up with; McKay has Rickert deliver one of the film’s more memorable speeches when he admonishes Geller and Shipley for their enthusiasm as the market begins to collapse, pointing out that millions of people are going to lose their jobs and their homes as a result. Carell’s Baum is the only other character who acknowledges this, and he seems driven by a desire to stick it to the banks, which is odd when you consider that his hedge fund firm is propped up by one of them. In many respects Baum is the most interesting character here, and arguably the heart of the movie; tortured by his brother’s death but unable to open up to anyone about it, he arrives at therapy meetings late and proceeds to interrupt other people, while outside of the sessions he seems permanently angry. He’s also the only character we get to see with someone whose life lies outside of the financial industry: his wife, played by Marisa Tomei, who is given a paltry amount of screen time.

The three separate investor strands are roughly afforded the same amount of time in the screenplay, and the adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller by McKay and Charles Randolph is well-structured in this sense, moving from one to another fairly smoothly. It’s a shame that the writers get too bogged down with all the explanation, though, some of which is certainly necessary and some of which isn’t. A film like Moneyball, which I have picked for comparison because it was written by Lewis, keeps the story moving constantly while also dealing with terminology and the business of baseball in a more straightforward way; sadly The Big Short repeatedly grinds to a halt when McKay and Randolph attempt to make things clearer for the audience — a nice gesture, sure, but one that ends up making this film stutter. I also left the cinema wondering whether McKay has tried too hard to make viewers like his characters. I think it’s a clever move to get you to root for these people, and therefore enlisting stars like Pitt, Gosling and Bale, who have broad appeal, was a no-brainer. Yet there are times in which the film could have been tougher on these men, and perhaps a stronger opinion about their actions would have been welcome. The Big Short is a fun couple of hours but you’ll learn more about capitalism, greed and the sub-prime mortgage crisis from Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes. Now that’s a film made by a director who has confidence in his own story, his own ability as a filmmaker, and the ability of his actors to connect with the audience. I’m on the fence with regard to this one: plenty to enjoy, for sure, but a little overrated.

Directed by: Adam McKay.
Written by: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph. Based on The Big Short by Michael Lewis.
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt, Hamish Linklater, Ralph Spall, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye.
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd.
Editing: Hank Corwin.
Music: Nicholas Britell.
Certificate: 
15.
Running Time: 
130 minutes.
Year:
2016.

17 Comments

Films that polarise opinion are always worth watching. When it was screened in competition at Cannes in 2013, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives was attacked with boos and defended with cheers by some audience members, both reactions indicative of the kind of puerile, extreme silliness that regularly threatens to undermine the credibility of this oh-so-serious film festival. However when the great unwashed outside of the French Riviera got to see it the reaction was – generally speaking – similarly divided: some praised Refn’s follow-up to Drive, another hyper-violent Refn film starring Ryan Gosling, suggesting that the visuals (bright colours and fashionable interior design abound) lifted it above and beyond the norm, while others complained that the minimal dialogue, plot and character development has resulted in a shallow tale that regularly seems in grave danger of disappearing up its own arse.

The truth, as per usual, probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes. I don’t like sitting on the fence, but that’s unfortunately where I find myself, as I can see why both sides of the argument were put forward and continue to be made. It’s easy to be impressed by Refn’s stylish approach, and this is quite clearly the work of an intelligent and literate filmmaker, but equally it’s hard to disagree with those who believe the film’s deliberate coldness – not to mention its inherent nastiness – makes it difficult to like.

Gosling plays Julian, an American ex-pat living in Bangkok who uses a muay thai gym/arena – I’ve sat ringside at the venue used in the film, as it happens – as a front for drug-dealing in partnership with older brother Billy (Tom Burke). When Billy rapes and kills an under-age prostitute the story quickly turns into a bitter, twisted tale of revenge, which rapidly and predictably spirals out of control; Billy is beaten to death by the girl’s father, Choi Yan Lee (Kovit Wattanakul), while Julian’s decision to ignore the requests of his bloodthirsty mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) and spare Lee’s life leads to further complications and a violent tit-for-tat war with the city’s police force, headed up by the corrupt Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

The slow, blank Chang is nominally ‘The Angel Of Vengeance’, but he’s really the story’s ‘God’ figure, dispensing acts of justice that indicate Refn has no intention of tempering his obsession with gruesome violence (and indeed the director managed to make me feel extremely uncomfortable on a number of occasions, especially during a drawn-out torture sequence). Chang mainly dishes out his punishment using a sword, which he produces from behind his back, even though the weapon isn’t actually visible during most of his scenes; this sense of the supernatural works well, and Chang’s slicing n’ dicing is tied cleverly to Julian through the latter’s disturbing sex-related visions, which betray the American’s castration anxieties.

If Chang is God in this story, then the Devil must surely be Crystal, a mean, ruthless individual who directs affairs from the comfort of her luxurious hotel suite. A dream-like showdown between Chang and Julian has none of the weight or the importance of a later showdown between Chang and Crystal, after which the film stutters to a conclusion. Refn pairs his portentous biblical moments – Bangkok here is clearly designed to resemble hell, with Julian regularly bathed in red light – with Greek mythology, and the main character’s Oedipus complex is subtly established before the writer-director clumsily spells it out during the final act (though elements of this were actually suggested by Gosling).

Throughout there’s a contrast between the street life of Bangkok – filmed conventionally and presented realistically – and the interiors of the city, with the camera panning slowly along labyrinthine corridors and around starkly-lit rooms; there is movement but it feels still, and airless, and Julian is mainly a silent presence (Gosling has 17 lines in 90 minutes and spends most of the time staring enigmatically off-camera, as per usual). Yes, it looks great, and the meticulous cinematography by Larry Smith ensures a consistent nightmarish feel that often brings to mind the outer limits of Korean cinema, but unfortunately this pastiche feels too reverent. David Lynch and Wong Kar-wai have also both been mentioned as possible influences, but stylistically Refn’s latest exercise in formalism owes a bigger debt to Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps even a contemporary Kubrick disciple like Gaspar Noé.

My instinct is to attempt to stick up for the film, and Refn, simply because a lot of people reacted so vehemently against Only God Forgives when it was released; I generally subscribe to the school of thought that if a movie is rubbing some folks up the wrong way then that’s got to be more interesting – at the very least – than the bland, beige, inoffensive output rolled out in multiplexes most weeks. The complete lack of sympathetic major characters suggests that the Danish director is actually challenging audiences to like this film, or is perhaps trying as hard as possible to shed some of the fans (and therefore expectation) that he has carried since Drive became a hit. But try as I might to like Only God Forgives I’m put off by the violence and I don’t think Refn’s film is half as clever as it thinks it is. There are ideas here, and style in abundance, and that’s enough for some, though in arthouse cinema the long takes of not-a-lot happening is as tired a cliche as anything you’ll find routinely criticised in the mainstream. I wouldn’t personally consider any of it groundbreaking, and the unpleasant misogynistic streak ultimately meant I couldn’t relax, regardless of its themes, production design, vivid colouring and well-conjured ambiguity.

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringam, Ratha Phongam, Gordon Brown.
Cinematography: Larry Smith.
Editing: Matthew Newman.
Music: Cliff Martinez.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Year: 2013.
Rating: 4.8

16 Comments

It’s easy to underestimate Ryan Gosling’s influence on Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly-stylized 2011 adaptation of James Sallis’s novel. Most obviously, Gosling plays the lead part of an unnamed stunt driver, but he was also responsible for choosing the film’s director after attaching himself to the project at an early stage and recommended Beth Mickle as production designer after the two had worked together on the film Half Nelson. Mickle supervised a crew of 40 people that worked 16-18 hours per day on the movie, and along with Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel she helped to create one of the most visually-striking films of the decade so far.

Dane Refn had built up a reputation as a director of tough thrillers with his Pusher series, starring Mads Mikkelsen, before the opportunity to direct Drive came his way. He also directed the excellent Bronson, starring Tom Hardy as the infamous violent UK prisoner Charles Bronson. Gosling feared that Refn would have reservations about the script, given that it was different to anything he had made before, but the director committed straight away.

The quiet, enigmatic Driver is a Los Angeles-based movie stuntman and mechanic by day, and is managed in both jobs by the twitchy Shannon (Bryan Cranston). By night, however, he acts as a getaway driver for hire, giving criminals five minutes of service as he helps them evade police pursuits. When he moves into a new apartment in Echo Park the Driver develops a relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos), but this is complicated by the return of Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) after a spell in prison.

Shannon persuades mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) to purchase a stock car for the Driver to race competitively. Meanwhile Standard is beaten up and forced to rob a pawn shop in order to pay back $40,000 of protection money owed from his time in jail. The Driver agrees to help Standard carry out the robbery, but both are unaware that the job is far larger, and much more dangerous as a result, than they were originally led to believe.

Drive is a neo-noir, packaged in bright neon pink and shot beautifully. Refn does not waste a single frame, and his use of colour and chiaroscuro make for a sumptuous visual experience throughout, as does the use of a wide-angle lens and fixed cameras. Great care has gone into each shot; you could pause the movie at any given point and spend minutes examining the way the scene has been set up; background, colour, position of actors, camera angle…it appears to be a tightly-constructed movie.

Drive‘s popularity has already resulted in much online discussion of many of its iconic moments, but those seemingly innocuous points in-between are equally impressive to view. Take, for example, the conversation between Irene and the Driver in the diner in which Irene works; it doesn’t stand out on first viewing, as it sits among scenes of violence and car chases, but it is filmed beautifully, with the colour red echoing Irene’s overalls across the screen. As the two converse Irene is filmed against a calm background, but the shots of the Driver incorporate the busy traffic outside, behind his head; this references his work, of course, and also suggests a busy mind at work behind the deadpan eyes.

Refn is clearly happy to wear his many influences on his sleeve, and does not try and disguise them. The film borrows heavily from the 1980s; at times Drive heavily resembles a serious version of the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which itself was a rollicking mash up of 1980s action films, Floridian sunshine, 1980s music and other facets of American culture. (Indeed the comparison with videogames doesn’t end there. The popular late 90s videogame series Driver, based around the exploits of an ex-racing car driver turned detective (while borrowing heavily itself from 70s car chase movies like Bullitt), also appears to have influenced Refn’s film. Though live action adaptations of popular gaming series like Tomb RaiderPrince Of Persia and Resident Evil were already common by the time Refn made Drive, the film arguably represents the first truly credible work that has been influenced by the games industry. For many years the games industry took its cues from Hollywood; arguably Drive signals the beginning of the reversal of that relationship.) Drive‘s synthesizer-heavy electro-pop soundtrack (mainly by Cliff Martinez) sounds as though it could have been lifted from any number of films from that decade. The striking title credits were influenced by the 1983 Tom Cruise movie Risky Business, and they have more than just a suggestion of the classic TV series Miami Vice about them too.

Michael Mann, who produced episodes of Miami Vice for several years and directed the slicker film version, is another apparent influence; Refn’s shots of LA at night from the air could easily be lifted from two of Mann’s LA-based films, Heat and Collateral. However, aside from these, Drive actually shows off a different side to LA than that which cinemagoers are used to seeing. Newer office blocks are generally shot from a distance, and the emphasis is firmly on the city’s more ordinary-looking streets and buildings. Refn was particular about the locations and compositions used in order to keep modern skyscrapers out of his movie as much as possible, which adds to the retro 80s vibe.

Refn’s movie is also influenced by films such as Two Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point and even William Friedkin’s colourful To Live And Die In LA. However the strong look of Drive – along with its distinctive soundtrack and excellent performances – ensures that there is enough distance from all these influences for it to rise above any accusations of it being a mere magpie’s nest. Yet perhaps the most obvious influence of all is with regard to the character of the Driver. To all intents and purposes he is a modern version of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s famous Man With No Name: a lone, nameless gun for hire, a man of few words, both blessed and cursed by his strong sense of moral decency.

Refn sees the Driver as a superhero, of sorts, even down to his (almost) ever-present uniform of jacket with scorpion emblem, which recalls Spider-Man’s famous chest spider. Following the famous scene where the Driver shares a kiss with Irene before violently stomping a hitman to death in a lift, the camera focuses closely on the Driver’s scorpion, which looks as though it is alive even though it is clearly due to the deep breaths the Driver is taking. In a neat scene later on, the Driver alludes on the fable of the scorpion and the frog while on the phone to Bernie, warning that violence and retribution are in his nature. Up to a certain point in the film the Driver keeps this side of himself hidden, and Irene is shocked when she first encounters one of these infrequent bursts of violence, yet there is still a strong sense of empathy in the character which clearly attracts her.

The camera loves Gosling, and Gosling loves the camera. There is a coolness about his performance as the Driver that recalls Jack Nicholson’s 70s heydey, albeit without the frantic and often unpredictable mania that Nicholson invested in some of his most celebrated roles. It appears to be effortless on Gosling’s part, but is no doubt studied and deliberate; on set the actor and director constantly tried to reduce the number of lines required for the part, making the Driver appear cooler than everyone else on screen and enhancing the atmosphere of the film as a result, but there’s something about the character’s permanent toothpick in mouth that feels a little too calculated. Still, at work in the garage, at home or driving on city streets, the brooding Driver oozes zen calm, and it’s certainly one of the better antihero performances you will find; he may not necessarily say much, but the actor reveals a lot with facial gestures, glances and body language.

Mulligan plays Irene with tenderness, and she has excellent chemistry with the Driver, sharing those glances and half-smiles as the two flirt prior to Standard’s return from prison. The supporting cast does well, too: Cranston and Isaac are fine, and Christina Hendricks makes the best of her small role as Blanche, a woman who accompanies the Driver and Standard on their pawnshop heist. However it is Brooks and Perlman who almost steal the show as the two ruthless old-time gangsters: they shine when trading lines with each other and add true menace when barking out threats to others.

There is a nagging sense when watching Drive that this is a classic case of style over substance, that it is all surface and no feeling. The lack of dialogue doesn’t help the film with regards to that accusation, but it works extremely well as a pulp LA thriller, and it certainly looks superb (Refn eschewed the use of CGI, incidentally). It’s not a particularly taxing movie, and this type of story has been told many a time, but its visual excellence does temporarily dazzle and thankfully the film does not rely on its car chases (although there is a superb one half way through). Refn and co have made a striking film that pays homage to a whole era as well as specific films that have gone before, and Drive‘s world is a pleasing one to immerse yourself in. The production design is unashamedly retro but it is a fresh, punchy hour-and-a-half.

The Basics:

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini, James Sallis
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Year: 2011
Rating: 8.8

19 Comments

Three years ago Derek Cianfrance earned a great deal of praise from critics for his second film, Blue Valentine, a moody and mature romantic drama that traced a married couple’s break-up with an irregular, choppy narrative. It contained excellent performances from the superb Michelle Williams and everyone’s favourite blue-eyed boy of few words, Ryan Gosling.

Gosling and Cianfrance recently teamed up again with The Place Beyond The Pines, a long, weighty drama set in upstate New York that is split into three distinct parts. In the first, Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman who drifts from town to town as part of a travelling fair, enjoying a modicum of celebrity as well as a plethora of one night stands. One of these was in the town of Schenectady (the name is derived from a Mohawk word meaning “place beyond the pine plains”.) with a waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes); after she appears unannounced outside one of his shows, Luke discovers that their previous encounter resulted in pregnancy, and that she has given birth to a young son.

Despite the fact Romina is in a steady relationship with another man named Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), Luke decides to try and do the noble thing, and quits his job with the travelling fair so that he can stay in Schenectady. His intention is to provide for his son and to be around as he grows up, but despite some irregular work with a rural mechanic named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), Luke needs more money to make ends meet and (in his opinion) to make more of an impression on Romina. Robin, who has been involved in robberies in the past, decides to go into partnership with Luke, and the pair begin to rob local banks, with Luke making quick getaways on his motorbike.

Luke eventually crosses paths with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a young but ambitious beat cop from a much wealthier background. Avery’s father, a District Attorney played by Harris Yulin, wants him to follow in his footsteps rather than waste his time toiling away in a small town police force, but partly to spite his father Avery continues with his chosen career, even if it means taking a desk job in the evidence room. While there, though, Avery becomes embroiled in a corruption scandal involving several colleagues, most notably the intimidating DeLuca, played with real menace by Ray Liotta.

The third part of the film jumps forward fifteen years, and without wishing to give anything away, it concentrates on Luke and Avery’s two sons, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen). In this long, final act the film’s lofty themes of pre-destiny, class and father-son relationships are explored to a fuller extent, and The Place Beyond The Pines both takes on the air of and directly references Greek tragedy (several character names and a casual reference to the town of Troy, New York give it away).

This is one of the best films I have seen this year, but it is not without its flaws. First of all though I was really impressed with its epic scope. This is exactly the kind of cinema I want to see more of – a clear but involving story that engages you with its well-rounded, interesting characters. Cianfrance has made a movie that is almost biblical in terms of the story’s ambition, with its exploration of generations of two different families who are linked together by blood and circumstance. Despite the running length necessary to let a tale like this breathe and slowly build I was hooked throughout and more than a little disappointed when it ended.

I’ve enjoyed many of Gosling’s performances over the past few years, but when I read a few months ago he was again playing a getaway driver of few words, I was fully expecting a re-hash of his role in Drive. However I needn’t have worried: there are certainly similarities, but he is brilliant here as the petty criminal who is trying, ultimately, to do the right thing. He has an intensity and a vulnerability that means comparisons with James Dean are not wide of the mark. “The New James Dean” has been thrown at many a young actor – Christian Slater and River Phoenix among them – but it carries considerable weight in Gosling’s case, even if he is clearly good enough to transcend comparison with other actors.

Gosling’s character, despite only appearing in the first third of the film, is the one that really encapsulates Cianfrance’s film; though he commits acts of violence and makes bad choices of his own free will, there is a sadness around him that gains the sympathy of the audience, and his own tragic failure to successfully fulfill the father-son role echoes through the rest of the film.

In the second section, which concentrates on Cooper’s Avery, the film sheds a little of its sulky brooding, though again the story is engaging. The main father-son relationship here is between Avery and his father, a man whom you suspect feels plenty of disappointment about his son’s choice of career, but ultimately is still fulfilling a supportive role, even in his 70s.

Cooper is decent here as an ambitious cop who is forced to deal with a few important ethical issues, though his is perhaps the least interesting of the main roles in the film; his character is not a coward by any means, but Cooper is commendably restrained in a variety of scenes which require him to be threatened or intimidated by other policemen – notably DeLuca and the old-school Chief Weirzbowski (Robert Clohessy). As such the eyes are drawn to the supporting actors in Cooper’s scenes, rather than the man near the top of the bill.

The obvious comparison here would be Frank Serpico, but Cianfrance’s story doesn’t really hang around long enough to fully explore the fallout of the corruption, using the old trick of showing a news summary on TV. It did remind me at times, however, of James Mangold’s 1997 film Cop Land (which coincidentally – although perhaps not so coincidentally – also featured Liotta).

The third story has been criticised by some as being overly long and slow, but I enjoyed it just as much as the others, and didn’t think any of it sagged. There is an unlikely coincidence in the plot that necessitates some forgiveness, but if you can get over that you are left with a gripping final third that continues with the themes of privilege and father-son relationships. It begins with the funeral of Avery’s father and ends with a glimpse of the respective futures of the two younger main characters, AJ and Jason.

AJ and Jason are played very well by Cohen and DeHaan, one affecting a tougher street image and accent in order to hide his decent upbringing and the other a wiry, desperate type that has perhaps inherited his biological father’s self-destructive tendencies.

This is firmly a story of sons and fathers, though the grounded Romina links all three segments (and Mendes is very good); that said, it feels like she is not used enough in the second and third parts, especially considering she is so important to the film’s first third. More jarring, though, is the way the character of Avery’s wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) is just left by the wayside when the film leaps forward 15 years. I would happily have watched another 10-15 minutes if it explored the reasons for the breakdown in their marriage. While she isn’t a central character, I don’t think the film would have suffered from a lack of focus had it found a little more screen time for the female characters.

The short stories contained in each of three parts are slightly different from each other in look and feel, but there is a constancy of pace that helps to make it all fit together seamlessly. (The talented cinematographer Sean Bobbitt has worked with Steve McQueen and Michael Winterbottom extensively, and can be very proud of his contribution to The Place Beyond The Pines. At times the pairing of Bobbitt and Cianfrance reminds me of the work of Scorsese and the cinematographer he collaborated with on many films from GoodFellas onwards, Michael Ballhaus. The film’s stunning, long opening tracking shot of Gosling walking through the fair is one example, and a sequence on a winding road shot from above looked so good I had to stop and rewind twice. The fair, the town and – in particular – the surrounding countryside are all filmed beautifully.) As well as the themes, there are little echoes that smartly link family members and generations: Avery adopts a “one of the boys” persona with his fellow cops, but it is the calculated act of a future politician; similarly his son adopts a tough image at school, and is revealed by the end of the film to be a very different character. Luke robs banks and escapes on his motorbike, while his son Jason steals prescription drugs from a pharmacy and escapes on his BMX. I am certain a second viewing of this film will reveal much subtlety that I missed first time round.

The chase scenes, incidentally, are tense and handled superbly, especially a long pursuit through the town after Luke has blown one of his bike’s tyres. The adrenalin rush of the robbery and the getaway is captured perfectly and Cianfrance never loses a chance to show the action, or the aftermath, in a realistic fashion; Gosling’s Luke has a cool hand for the most part, but understandably is seen throwing up after the first heist.

I should mention too the film’s score, by Faith No More’s Mike Patton, which is haunting and fits the images superbly, seemingly swaying with the pine trees on more than one occasion. Certain songs are also used in an excellent and timely fashion, and particular mention must go to the great use of The Cryin’ Shames’ “Please Stay”.

I’ll just reiterate an earlier point: I’d love to see more of these types of film being made. The Place Beyond The Pines harks back to the (yada yada) glory days of the freewheeling pre-blockbuster early 1970s, and if he makes the right choices there’s no reason why we shouldn’t one day be talking about the talented Cianfrance in the same breath as some of the great 20th Century directors of American cinema like Coppola or Scorsese. While Blue Valentine suggested a promising young filmmaker had arrived, with his third feature he has truly excelled, and I am looking forward to his next film, the low-key sounding indie Metalhead, immensely.

Despite some flaws, I haven’t seen many new films recently that match the quality of this one. Got a feeling that this is a stepping stone to Cianfrance’s first masterpiece, and really hope that turns out to be the case.

The Basics:

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ryan Gosling, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 
8.8

20 Comments