Friday, February 7, 2014


The Place Beyond The Pines has just as many moments of greatness as it does moments of spottiness. Based on the talent involved (in front of & behind the camera) and the excellent trailer that was cut - this was something I thought would be a masterpiece, yet the final result ended up being a pretty uneven movie. I say uneven because the first 45 minutes are excellent while the next 90 minutes walk the line between intriguing & uninteresting (dare I say boring?). I recognize & appreciate director Derek Cianfrance's ambition but I don’t give his latest effort a complete pass. I liken this film to that of a student taking a really hard exam who doesn't necessarily know all the correct answers, but still shows their work in order to get some credit. Sure they ended up getting a B-, but at the end of the day they could have gotten an A had they studied harder.

But why should such an ambitious film like The Place Beyond The Pines be measured in terms of grades? That's a little insulting for the kind of project it was. Between the film's length, time span of the story and the actual plot; this was a bit of a risk/experimentation in a sense. Some of you might not agree with that statement, but a film can be "experimental" without delving in to the world of Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren or Kenneth Anger. Look at the cinema of Michael Mann. You wouldn't consider his work to be experimental at first, but as pointed out in the recent You Hate Everything Podcast, one could say films like Miami Vice and even Public Enemies are experimental/avant garde studio action movies. Anyone familiar with Mann's work knows how free and sometimes (intentionally) random his camera work can be when compared to other conventional action films. How many studio filmmakers besides him can you name that let the camera linger the way it does in Miami Vice or allow it to suddenly go blurry like in Collateral or Ali? The same loose interpretation of "experimental" applies to The Place Beyond The Pines as well. Besides being a layered story about the relationship between two different sets of fathers & sons that cross paths with one another in various ways over the span of 15 years, I feel like Derek Cianfrance was trying to take a page out of the book of James Gray and take it to another level by combining elements of the family melodrama with elements of realistic action & suspense. He also took a big risk by killing off the film's biggest (and most promoted) star long before we even reach the halfway mark. The length of this film is a little odd too, clocking in at 140 minutes. The Place Beyond The Pines is filled with bank robberies, murder, coming of age, police corruption, romance and more. Derek Cianfrance almost crammed a mini-series worth of content into a feature length film (seriously, if he wanted too, this story could have branched off in to so many different directions like The Wire or Twin Peaks). Part of me wanted this to be 45 minutes longer in order for it to feel more cohesive. But who wants to sit through a three hour long movie these days?

Set in upstate New York, the first part of the story follows "Luke Glanton" - a motorcycle stunt driver that's part of a traveling carnival. After a one night stand with a local townie ("Romina", played by Eva Mendas) Luke leaves town only to return a year later to discover he's the father of Romina's one year old son, although she’s now moved on and married too another man. Faced with the dilemma of wanting to support his illegitimate son with very little income, Luke turns to robbing banks in order to make money. His successful string of bank robberies is eventually put to an end by an ambitious young cop by the name of "Avery Cross" (Bradley Cooper).
How Luke went as long as he did without getting caught is a little perplexing to me. Not only does this story take place in a small town, but he uses the same loud recognizable motorcycle that he rides around town with as his getaway vehicle. Yes, he spray paints the bike a different color every time he does a bank job, but it still makes that same loud revving noise. No one in that small quiet town could make the connection between a bank robber who rides away on a motorcycle and a mysterious guy who recently rolled in to town that also happens to ride around town on a motorcycle? And without giving any more away than I already have, the only reason Luke is eventually caught is because he gets sloppy. It’s not like the police had any leads. I hate to be that guy to get all technical and pull out the rule book, but last time I checked, Derek Cianfrance is a filmmaker who goes for realism in his work. If that's your thing (which it certainly is) you open yourself up to that kind of criticism.

Like Luke, Avery Cross also has a one year old son which makes for a nice transition. Once Avery enters the story and Luke exits (which is putting it lightly), the film shifts and we focus on him and his discovery of police corruption within his department. Will he turn a blind eye to whats going on around him, or will he turn his fellow officers in to internal affairs?
The story then jumps 15 years ahead and we learn that Avery climbed his way up the ranks and is now a politician. By chance, his degenerate teenage son ("AJ") ends up going to the same high school as Luke Glanton's teenage son ("Jason") and they eventually befriend each other until the sins of both of their father's reemerge and cause a major conflict between the two boys (Jason & AJ are completely unaware that their fathers crossed paths with each other 15 years ago). 
The third act primarily focuses on Jason and the void he feels having not known his real father. I was a bit conflicted with Jason’s story. On one hand I get the angst of not knowing who your biological father is but Jason still had a positive male role model in the form his stepfather/Romina’s husband “Kofi” (The Walking Dead’s Mahershala Ali). It was brought to my attention, via my girlfriend, that once Jason eventually discovered who his father was and the things he did, that he should have appreciated his stepfather even more. Sure, there’d be some initial disappointment in learning that your biological father was a violent bank robber with a criminal past, but once those feelings eventually went away, Jason should have realized he had something that many kids in his situation don’t when their biological father isn’t around – a steady positive male figure, like his stepdad, to fill the void. 
Derek Cianfrance shows multiple father archetypes in The Place Beyond The Pines – The dysfunctional/absentee father (Luke), the good father (Kofi), The complicated father (Avery), etc. He tried his best to show multiple shades of fatherhood and didn’t simplify things like so many filmmakers often do with that subject. This is why I appreciate The Place Beyond The Pines no matter how flawed it is. Fathers in cinema are usually one-note or play the background. They deserve a spotlight too. I also appreciate that the one non-dysfunctional father in this whole film is a black male.
Kofi is just another example of someone or something that could have branched off to its own storyline that the film just  didn't have time for (again, maybe this would have been better off as a miniseries?)

Another problem for me with The Place Beyond The Pines was Bradley Cooper's presence (both the character he plays and his performance). And I don’t say "problem" like his acting was bad. To be honest, I can’t even think of another actor who could have played his role or done a better job than him. It's just that his presence is a little forgettable yet he's supposed to be carrying the last two thirds of the film. Going back to Michael Mann for a moment, when I think of Bradley Cooper in The Place Beyond The Pines I sometimes go; "Oh yeah, he was in this." the same way I think about Public Enemies and go "Oh yeah, that movie does exist.” There's something bland and/or redundant about Cooper's character and his performance is a little one-note through the whole second act. From The Prince Of The City to The Glass Shield, we've all seen the story of the young cop faced with the dilemma of having to turn on his corrupt brothers in blue. And when the story makes that 15 year jump he's suddenly a politician. I personally didn’t have an issue with the time lapse but I understand people's frustration with the sudden change in Cooper's character. 
I say all this without any extra Bradley Cooper hate. I know that the combination of the Hangover movies and him becoming an A-list actor in recent years has brought on some detractors but he doesn’t bother me. I thought he was great in both Silver Linings Playbooks & American Hustle and he also co-starred in Wet Hot American Summer so I can never fully hate him for that alone.
The Place Beyond The Pines is a bit of a paradox in that it’s already pretty long yet it still makes a 15 year jump and leaves a huge gap. But I feel like the same people who complained about the sudden 15 year jump would have complained if the film was over three hours long and had filled in all the gaps they complained about in the first place. Did we really need to see a meticulous layout of Avery Cross’ transition for being a police officer to becoming a politician? Did we really need to see both AJ & Luke grow from the babies we saw in the first act to the misguided teens they become in the third act? Personally I think Cianfrence gives enough information as to what’s transpired over the years, but I guess some viewers wanted everything spelled out.

There were also complaints about the lack of prominent female character but, without trying to be sexist, at the end of the day this is a story about men in the same way that everything from Ms. 45 & Variety to The Color Purple & The Hours are stories about women (generally speaking). The Place Beyond The Pines had been marketed as a tale about fathers & sons since 2012. What did people honestly expect? And even though Rose Byrne's role as Bradley Cooper's wife could have been filled by just about anyone, Eva Mendes honestly held her own and did her part in leaving some type of strong female presence in a film dominated by so many men. That’s not the easiest task, so props to her. Come to think of it, this might be the best acting she's ever done.
And let’s be honest here...although Bradley Cooper surprised some of us with his Academy Award nominated performance in Silver Linings Playbook, Ryan Gosling's role as a brooding stunt motorcyclist/bank robber was this film's biggest draw because it reminded some of us of Drive (although if you’ve actually seen both films, you’d know that they’re quite different). Gosling getting killed off in the first act didn’t sit too well with a lot of people. But that was honestly one of my favorite things about The Place Beyond The Pines. This was another risk/experiment Derek Cianfrance took that I really respect. I don’t know what it is, but a lot of American filmmakers seem to be afraid to kill off big stars early on in films these days and I'm sure A-list stars don't want to be eliminated so early on in big films either. This is why I love directors like Mike Leigh, Michael Haneke & Claire Denis. The same actors that star in their films come back to play very minor roles for them later on. A star like Gosling could have easily pulled an Ed Norton power move and demanded more screen time but he played his part along with a few other actors who had small but memorable roles in this like Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelshon & Bruce Greenwood.

2013 was a strange year for Ryan Gosling. You almost forgot that he was in three films last year. Between 2010-2011 it seemed like he could do no wrong. On paper you'd think 2013 was gonna be a repeat of his success from a couple of years ago. He reunited with the same directors that he shared success with in the past (Derek Cianfrance/The Place Beyond The Pines & Nicolas Winding Refn/Only God Forgives), he became a successful Internet meme and was still quite popular even though he wasn't in anything released theatrically in 2012. However in 2013, Only God Forgives' theatrical run came & went faster than the beating his character took in the very same movie and both; Gangster Squad & The Place Beyond The Pines were released in the early part of 2013 which made them pretty forgettable. Releasing Gangster Squad in January made sense. It's just one of those movies you wanna get out of the way early on in the year. But even with all of its flaws, The Place Beyond The Pines deserved the respect of getting a later release in 2013 when movies aren’t so forgettable. Think about it, how many academy award nominated films from any year (this year especially) were released prior to May? Now...I don't know how much of a difference it would have made releasing this later in the year as it would have had to compete with The Wolf Of Wall Street, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis and American Hustle (also co-starring Bradley Cooper).

The Place Beyond The Pines is about more than just the sins of fathers coming back to haunt their sons. It's also about the bad decisions we sometimes make or the lies we tell in the moment because we think they'll make things better when instead they just build up and weigh on us. In the case of the characters in this movie, things continue to build up and weigh on our characters for 15 years.
What very few critics seem to be addressing is that Luke didn't really need to rob banks in order to provide for his son. Romina had a husband & Jason a father (Kofi). Luke just had a skewed perception of what a father/provider was supposed to be because, as he mentions, his own father wasn't around so he had no model to look up to. Plus it's obvious he enjoyed the thrill of being a criminal too.
And Luke isn't the only character to make poor choices. After the fatal showdown between he & Avery at the end of the first act, Avery lies in his police report about who shot who first, and from that moment on his life becomes more & more stressful.
Perhaps if Romina just explained to Jason what his biological father Luke was really like instead of keeping it a secret (which only built up 15 years worth of curiosity) he wouldn't have felt so much angst growing up.

This is the kind of film that'll be reevaluated years down the line by those who were initially put off by certain aspects of it or didn't understand some of the choices that Derek Cianfrance made. Maybe I'll change my stance on the issues I have. I'll probably never consider The Place Beyond The Pines a prefect film, but it's definitely worthy of  some serious analysis and it won't be forgotten as the decade continues on...


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