There's something to be said for an unhurried, languorously novelistic film. It shows a confidence on the part of a director and, when done right, pulls you into the world that the storytellers are deftly painting. Even when the pace is unhurried, the narrative current never dives down into the chilly depths of tedium. It's not an easy trick. It takes compelling atmosphere, strong performances, a distinct sense of tone and poetic themes; all of which are expertly juggled by director Derek Cianfrance in his latest film, A Place Beyond the Pines.
Breaking out in 2010 with Blue Valentine (a film with two of that year's best performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) Cianfrance set a bar for his brand of brutally honest drama with the story of a once-hopeful marriage, told over the course of years and how it irrevocably and irreparably breaks down. Cianfrance brought audiences, with great cinematic beauty, into a deeply intimate, immediate character exploration within a textured world.
With Pines, he ups that ante on all of those terms; mythic atmosphere and great performances cementing his mastery of his craft and again revealing a hauntingly familiar place populated by tangibly contrasted characters.
Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling, Drive) is a motorcycle stunt driver working for a travelling carnival that has just rolled into Schenectady, New York, after a year-long absence. When, after the show, he finds that his ex, Romina (Eva Mendes, Holy Motors) came to see his act, Luke gives her a ride home, and also finds that he has an infant son. Romina has moved on with a more stable guy, Kofi (Mahershala Ali, Predators) but Luke decides to stay on and try to provide for his kid -- and perhaps get Romina back.
Unemployed and out for a high-speed ride amongst the densely-spaced pines, Luke catches the attention of Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises), a down-on-his-luck chop shop owner who offers Luke a job and a place to stay for not a lot of money. When the pressure of not being able to prove his worth to Romina becomes apparent, Robin, seeing his skills, offers Luke another solution: rob a bank. A simple plan. No gun, just a note. Collect the money and get away on the bike, to be hidden in Robin's cargo van parked a few miles down the road.
Chasing Bad Guys. Bradley Cooper tells Eva Mendes what he likes about being Bradley Cooper in A Place Beyond The Pines.
When all that inevitably goes wrong, we meet Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, The Hangover) a rookie cop who has gained hero status after killing a very wanted criminal, though not in the way he said he did. Despite some questions from his chief, Bill KillCullen (Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek), Cross sticks with the hero story. After bringing down some corrupt cops, led by Ray Liotta's creepy Deluca, Cross uses his good guy image to catapult himself into the DA's office and, 15 years later, into running for State Attorney General.
If that's vague, it's supposed to be. A Place Beyond the Pines' narrative secrets should reveal themselves, unspooled by Cianfrance's patient hand from the moody, ethereal story he writes along with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder. Their collaboration renders a dense world, full of detail and interconnected themes; essentially two tales that touch on love, regret, circumstance and redemption from both sides of a macrocosmic mirror. Actions beget circumstances, choices made like a Hail Mary pass that falls back to Earth years later and despite whatever sense of control the characters fooled themselves into thinking they had. Like a haunting ripple on a dark, impassive lake, the cause and effect of their lives is played out on an enigmatically universal backdrop of life and death.
Cianfrance fills the visual canvas as artfully as the narrative one: with a gorgeously cinematic eye aided by the lush cinematography of Sean Bobbitt (Shame). The moody score by Mike Patton of Faith No More fame goes a long way to sealing the film's dusky atmosphere. But again it is Cianfrance's skill with eliciting natural and compelling performances from a cast of extremely well-chosen actors that bring all of the elements together.
Gosling is typically introverted and internal (the traits he exhibited in Drive are utilized on what seems like a similar character, but who is possessed of deeper and more genuine emotions) and delivers a simmering, sometimes explosive performance that's impossible to look away from. Mendes is revelatory as Romina, giving her a lot of depth within a supporting role that acts as a narrative fulcrum for the lives she's caught in between.
Mendelsohn is great. He's been filling out some fringe characters lately with immense skill, putting him in the John Hawkes category of awesome supporting actors. Cooper is fine, and directors like Cianfrance and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) bring the best out in him dramatically. He delivers a tense turn that feels as real as every other, in a film awash in solid performances.
With a nearly existential sense of interconnected humanity and subtly riveting drama, A Place Beyond the Pines is a gorgeously dream-like film whose ghostly tendrils won't fade with the sunrise.
The recent death of Margaret Thatcher was given a hagiographic, speak-no-ill-of-the-dead tone, thanks to the mainstream media. Which makes the 2012 Best Foreign Language Nominee, No, a well-timed, if unwitting, counterpoint to (at least) one unseemly element of the Iron Lady's foreign policy agenda.
In 1973, Augusto Pinochet assumed dictatorial power over Chile after a coup d'état of its democratically elected, socialist President Salvador Allende. A staunch anti-communist, Pinochet opened the markets to globalization, sold off state-run business to the highest bidder, privatized the social safety net, decimated labor unions and essentially ran things like any free-market, Reagan-loving, conservative would dream of in 2013.
Of course, mass income inequality became systemic with 40% in poverty even as the country modernized at an unprecedented pace. Meanwhile, Pinochet racked up an abysmal human rights record, kidnapping, torturing and sometimes murdering thousands of dissidents -- becoming a good example of the kind of asshole the U.S. in general (and Thatcher, in particular) would befriend in order to eradicate the cancer of communism.
Voting Against. Gael Garcia Bernal urges voters to oppose a dictator in No.
But in the 80s, it was all starting to look bad internationally, so the government decided to give a legal framework to the dictatorship by allowing a referendum election, so that the people of Chile might decide if they wanted Pinochet to remain at his post. Of course, it was only supposed to validate the status quo. It wasn't supposed to be a real contest.
Enter Rene (Gael García Bernal, Y Tu Mama Tambien), a Santiago ad exec who is contracted by the populist campaign against Pinochet to produce a series of 15-minute ads that make the case for voting "No" against eight more years of his autocratic rule.
Rene finds himself caught in a committee of disparate visions, with some advocating for reading a riot act of the atrocities brought by the General, while Rene believes a more light-hearted, hopeful approach based on the idea that happiness (and a good jingle) will get the popular vote. Essentially, take a chance on hope and change. Driven by his faith in a better future for his son and wayward wife, Rene becomes the architect of an advertising war between the establishment and the opposition whose stakes threaten his own future, as Pinochet doesn't take kindly to the competition. History writes the outcome.
Directed by Pablo Larraín (Post Mortem), No adopts a distinct visual style to tell its story. Shot on old Sony video cameras in order to more seamlessly blend in with the period video of '80s Chilean television, Larraín interweaves actual stock footage of the political strife and historical record within his hand-held, quasi-documentary style. It's an aesthetic that recalls the films of Christopher Guest (Best in Show) in the way it frames the events within a not-quite-documentary framework, lending No a chaotically behind-the-scenes looseness to its very true story. For better or worse, it looks like '80s Chilean TV.
Bernal leads a fine cast who all seem very concerned about the precarious outcome of their history-making endeavor. And the film is very thoughtful in terms of placing these characters and the audience firmly in to a palpable world. While the video thing is essentially a gimmick, it works for the imagination.
But No never finds an organic balance between its drama and comedy, which would be fine if it didn't feel like it were intending to be as light-hearted as the ad campaign it's about. No is indecisive about how to say what it wants, much as its protagonists are indecisive in articulating their vision of the uncertain future. It feels unmoored from a larger portrait and the results are a mildly interesting film that never really feels immediate--despite its many themes that still apply to the here and now.
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