Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

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“I will never ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” says Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose manic energy makes this statement less than comforting. Louis is the ambitious sociopath at the center of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, a truly nasty film that uses the context of local T.V. news to mount an American Psycho-esque satire of The American Dream. Louis is meant to represent today’s “self-made” man, completely self-educated via the Internet, and therefore devoid of people skills. From the opening sequence – in which he murders a security guard and steals his watch – his detachment from humanity is clear: he’s like Patrick Bateman without the job. But where American Psycho blurs the lines between reality and fantasy (it could all be a dream), Nightcrawler instead places its anti-hero firmly in the real world, and as Louis resorts to increasingly reprehensible behavior, the film’s representation of the “real world” goes from biting cynicism to suffocating misanthropy.

After he fails at obtaining a job at a scrapyard, Louis stumbles onto a highway accident. Like the calloused creep that he is, he pulls over and walks right up to the flaming car, at which point a van pulls up and two guys with video cameras jump out. These are stringers – people who troll accident or crime scenes gathering footage to sell to the morning news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” the crew’s leader (Bill Paxton, perfectly cast) says to the curious Louis, who immediately resolves to get in on the action. Jake Gyllenhaal – apparently exclusively playing weirdoes now – interprets the petty thief turned amateur videographer with a bug-eyed energy that truly leaves an impression. Losing 20 pounds for the role, he embodies the slim, emaciated figure of someone who surely doesn’t indulge himself. In fact, Louis is never shown eating, sleeping, or making love; when he’s not working, he sits alone on his computer. In effect, he is portrayed as someone other than human, like a superhero. Lou is never weak, vulnerable, or merciful; he is the ideal of self-sufficiency and self-improvement, doing whatever it takes to get ahead.

Dan Gilroy makes his directorial debut with Nightcrawler, and the craftsmanship on display is undeniably impressive. Enlisting the help of cinematographer Robert Elswit (who also shot Inherent Vice, which is the year’s best looking film by far), Gilroy shoots his characters from low-angle close-ups that exaggerate their menacing presence. The climactic car chase is an exhilarating sequence that places the audience firmly in the position of Lou’s in-over-his-head assistant. Together with Rene Russo’s convincing portrayal of a despicably desperate news anchor, all the pieces of Nightcrawler point to it being a masterpiece. The problem is that Dan Gilroy seems to not only hate his characters, but also hate his audience. Since we’re not meant to question Lou’s likability, we’re encouraged instead to watch with sadistic amusement. When looked at in this way, the film becomes like a test: How sick are we? Are we like Lou, completely detached from the misfortune of others? Or are we like the faceless L.A.ers who keep him in business by sadistically watching the trashy news reports? Unless we stop watching the movie, we’re implicated as one or the other.

While on his way to another crime scene, Louis hears a call over his police radio citing an armed home invasion. Immediately changing course, he and his nervous assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) arrive at the scene before the cops. After secretly getting footage of the assailants leaving the scene, Louis boldly enters the scene of the triple murder with his camera rolling. As he coldly films the victims – effectively assisting the murder of one who is still breathing – the movie makes the leap from provocation to heavy-handed manipulation. The sequence builds to a moment in which Louis enters the home’s nursery, and we’re made to hold our breath as he fearlessly aims the lens into the crib. But the reveal is saved for later, as the footage is being shown on T.V. with the phony news anchors narrating. When it gets to the nursery, Russo’s Nina Romina shouts commands into an earpiece, “Build it! Build it!” As the broadcast shamelessly sensationalizes the brutal scene, it also describes our sadistic experience of watching it the first time; not only does the film play us like an instrument, it mocks us for being so easy to play.

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Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry, 2014)

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Listen Up Philip’s pre-title sequence shows arrogant novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) huffily reject three people (counting the faceless slow-walker in the opening shot) who, to him, are deadweight on his journey to success. Philip bases his whole identity around this success, leaving little room for much else; as one frustrated love interest deduces “you only want to be thought of as a talented writer, not as a real person.” Alex Ross Perry, the director of Listen Up Philip who’s similarly experiencing his first tastes of success, likely relates to the ease with which artistic ambition can negatively affect the people around him, and the film gives careful consideration to those people.

Although Listen Up Philip contains some of the biggest laughs of any movie I’ve seen this year, the film could hardly be called pleasant. Schwartzman’s Philip tests the limits of the actor’s innate charm to the point where we are defied to like the guy. This is quickly becoming the director’s thing following 2011’s The Color Wheel about a brother and sister so abrasive David Edelstein called it “the most entertaining unpleasant film I’ve seen all year.” This begs the question of whether we really need to like him, and one’s opinion of Listen Up Philip might, in fact, depend on the answer to this question.

Thankfully, Philip is about more than the eponymous character at its center. Elizabeth Moss plays Philip’s photographer girlfriend whose tolerance of his selfishness reaches its breaking point when he ditches her for a solo writing retreat; “I hope this will be good for us, but especially for me,” he says with mic-drop confidence that settles any remaining questions of his likability. Philip accepts an invitation to stay at his idol’s writing cabin in the countryside. Ike Zimmerman (an obvious nod to Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman) is a gray-haired intellectual who’s on the other side of Philip’s ambition; he’s had great success, but he’s no less bitter. With his angsty daughter, played by the amazing Kristen Ritter, the pattern of strained relationships becomes clear.

Apparently inspired by William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, Alex Ross Perry allows the film’s perspective to leave Philip for a good chunk of it. These scenes follow Moss’ Ashley as she struggles to reassemble her life after Philip walks out of it. The always great Elizabeth Moss is perhaps the true star of Philip, and this is a testament to her abilities as well as the director’s clear affection for her. Perry’s camera loves Moss’ face, sometimes holding on it for unprecedented lengths of time. A key scene involves Philip’s unwelcome return to their apartment. Ashley remains cold until she’s able to kick him out, at which point her face registers a wide range of emotions – anger, sadness, relief – in an unbroken close-up lasting about forty seconds. This moment is a synecdoche for the film’s main idea, in which the director means to focus on the people shut out by Philip’s narcissism.

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Alex Ross Perry’s aesthetic is one that – like Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, and Noah Baumbach – is rich with cinephilic reference. Listen Up Philip recalls John Cassavettes – shot on grainy 16mm film and composed of shaky handheld close-ups – but, like the aforementioned directors, he uses the reference only as a starting point to ultimately create his own world. Likewise shared with the Allen-Anderson-Baumbach camp is a literary approach that doesn’t water down its pseudo-high-brow approach to make it more palatable for a broader audience. In this case, Perry’s apparent Philip Roth obsession produces what feels like an unofficial adaptation of that author’s acidic and cynical tone.

Perry’s immense talents as a writer mostly come out in clever and deadpan dialogue (“Hang on while I put my head in this sweater;” “Here’s a piece of paper with some staples in it”), but it occasionally becomes overly self-conscious. After Philip accepts a job profiling a fellow novelist for a magazine, the cool-guy subject gets into a limo saying, “I’m a nice guy, read an article about me, I’m [air quotes] “self-deprecating.” Surreal moments like this disrupt the tone of Philip and, at the screening I attended, were met with that particular I don’t get it but I’ll laugh so people think I do chuckle. These har-har flourishes make it difficult to get too emotionally involved in the film; the effect is a keeping of the audience at arms length. Keeping us at arms length is surely the intention (at least partially): we, like everyone else in Philip’s life, aren’t allowed to get too close to him, and after seeing the deep hole of loneliness that he keeps digging for himself, we’re left pitying him, which is very close to sympathizing, which is very close to liking the guy. But this technique is most effective when it feels like an extension of the character’s cynicism, not the director’s cleverness.

The most obvious cause of the film’s distancing effect is the third-person narrator. Voiced by Eric Bogosian, the narrator impersonally comments on the events with a plainness that serves to undermine the characters’ self-importance. In the final scene, Philip aimlessly walks the streets of Brooklyn and the narrator sums up his life in just a few sentences. This moment is like a punch to the gut as it drives home the implications of Philip’s self-centered ambition. In effect, Philip got what he wished for – with no one close to him, he’s only known “as a talented writer, not as a real person” – and the result is tragic. Philip now shares the detached perspective of the narrator, no longer experiencing his own life in the first-person.

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Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, 2013)

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The life of a “pure artist” is an endlessly fascinating subject. For most, the prospect of a life committed to authentic expression, a life separate from the practical needs of the ordinary working adult, is a dream that was crushed by the first student loan payment. In the 1970’s, New York City’s lower east side was a hotbed for bohemian artist bums; they lived in abandoned lofts, wore leather jackets, and said, “Fuck the man, I just wanna make art, man.” This moment in history, of which Ushio Shinohara (the Boxer) was a part of, remains the ideal that brings many young creative types to New York. But times have changed. New York, for one thing, is very expensive now. As one character says in Frances Ha, “the only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.” Furthermore, the lofts that once made perfect live/work spaces for industrious artists are now occupied by silk shirt-wearing stockbrokers. Cutie and the Boxer is a charming and poignant portrait of two holdouts from a different time.

Since the 1970’s, Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko (Cutie) have lived as starving artists. Their loft is overflowing with paintings, sculptures, art supplies and books, but they are poor. Early in the film an archival documentary tells us that historically Ushio’s works are widely admired but rarely bought; collectors often say, “That’s a wonderful image, but not my taste.” Ushio’s art is grotesque and bizarre, ranging from giant sculptures made from discarded cardboard to intense “action” paintings made using paint-soaked boxing gloves. He’s most famous for the latter, and it’s easy to see why, as the frenetic energy with which they’re made is a thrill to watch.

Ushio’s wife, Noriko (Cutie) is a brilliant artist herself, but she has been persistently stuck in Ushio’s shadow. To make matters worse, her husband’s reckless and adolescent lifestyle has made disaster management her primary responsibility. Noriko has been Ushio’s “assistant” for too long and her effort to emerge from his shadow makes up the film’s major arc. In an early scene, Ushio has an opening at a swanky SoHo gallery. While Ushio hams it up with the event’s attendees, Noriko watches pensively from a distance. This adequately sums up their relationship: Noriko fully supports and encourages Ushio, but years of financial and emotional struggle have made her less enthusiastic. This scene also demonstrates the film’s go-for-the-gut aesthetic, which consistently portrays Noriko as a tragic hero. The title may signal both of them, but the film’s perspective is clearly hers.

Cutie and the Boxer works so well because of director Zachary Heinzerling’s clear affection for his subjects. Heinzerling shot it himself, and through the absence of a proper crew the film attains the feeling of a home movie without looking like one. Noriko and Ushio are a documentarian’s dream – they’re eccentric, and theatrical – but Heinzerling looks past Ushio’s showmanship to Noriko’s quiet melancholy. The film, then, becomes about the harsh reality behind the bohemian ideal. While Ushio entertained artist friends with drunken aphorisms about the “artist’s burden,” Noriko was in the other room, feeding the baby or washing the dishes.

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There’s a powerful scene towards the end of Cutie and the Boxer in which Ushio is preparing for an upcoming show. The forthcoming opening will also feature Noriko, which prods the tension that runs underneath their marriage (When Ushio sees Noriko’s area in the exhibition he’s forced to admit how impressive it is, and he’s not skilled at hiding his jealousy). For Ushio, this threat sparks a frantic effort to create new work in time for the opening. He goes to work on a giant abstract painting in which layers and layers of colors overlap each other. Heinzerling brilliantly captures the intense energy Ushio puts into this work; at one point he appears to be on the brink of tears. Noriko comes home to find her husband analyzing what he’s done. “Hard to say what this is,” he says, “if it’s good or bad or finished or unfinished.” After a beat, Noriko bluntly concludes, “I don’t think it’s good.” Ushio is visibly disappointed, but he immediately goes back to work. Their relationship is competitive but constructive; Ushio wants nothing more than to please his wife.

Visually, Cutie and the Boxer’s vibrant color pallet deftly translates Ushio’s striking action paintings (which perfectly fit inside the film’s widescreen frame) as well as the muted melancholy of Noriko’s work. The real revelation is Heinzerling’s narrative use of Noriko’s drawings, which are bluntly autobiographical and thus offer the film a profoundly personal visualization of the couple’s rocky past. These drawings (which the film illuminates through animation) portray a bitter perspective on Ushio’s alcoholism, perpetual financial stresses, and poor parenting. Her bitterness often feels like hatred, which Ushio addresses by timidly asking, “Cutie hate Bully?” To this, Noriko laughs and assures him, “Cutie loves Bully so much.” It’s a sweet moment, and somehow we believe her.

Their life has not been easy, and Ushio has not always been the best husband or father. But such is the life of the pure artist, for whom art comes first. Noriko knew this going in, and their subsequent struggles haven’t affected her love and dedication to her husband. I’m no marriage counselor, but I would venture to say that resentment is fairly common in marriages lasting several decades. The difference is that Noriko – unafraid to speak her mind – expresses her resentment directly through her art. For this openness, Ushio and Noriko represent a somewhat ideal marriage. Noriko’s art is essentially a public indictment of Ushio’s reckless behavior, to which Ushio’s only response is, “Cutie hate Bully?” “Cutie loves Bully so much.”

8 out of 10

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P.T. Anderson’s Love Letter to the Waterboy

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Near the climax of Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan takes a trip. With seven sisters who apparently can’t stop calling him “Gay Boy,” it’s clear that Barry’s life is neither peaceful nor private, and a last minute trip to Hawaii is a welcome retreat. Barry’s everyday world is oppressively claustrophobic and, from the film’s first frame, it’s clear that director Paul Thomas Anderson has a profound affection for his plight. Anderson has admitted to wanting to make an “Arthouse Adam Sandler Movie” and, in this noble effort, he was successful. Anderson’s branding of his film suggests an affection that extends beyond the character to the actor who plays him. Punch-Drunk Love is many things – a comedy, a romance, a genre exercise – but it’s ultimately a fan letter from its director to its star.

In Happy Gilmore, Adam Sandler plays a hockey player turned golfer who attacks Bob Barker in response to a slight remark; in The Waterboy, Sandler plays a twenty-something momma’s boy with intense social anxiety who harnesses his long-repressed rage to become a star tackler. Neither of these characters are far removed from Barry Egan, who cries without reason and spontaneously shatters glass doors. Paul Thomas Anderson, however, examines the Sandler persona in extreme close-up – both literally and metaphorically – where the aforementioned films stop at an arm’s length. Anderson employs a surreal and bold style that often threatens to overtake the film completely with sudden bursts of sound and color. This overwhelming style serves as a mirror for Barry’s existence and the resulting sensory overload is effectively immersive. By immersing us into Barry’s psyche, Anderson gives the whole psychological package – sadness, confusion, anger – and it becomes harder to simply point and laugh.

Some of the most memorable moments in Punch-Drunk Love involve characters screaming at each other. Whether it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hot-headed Dean Trumbell, one of Barry’s teasing sisters, or Barry himself, Anderson has a clear affection for watching his characters lose their shit. Unlike similar scenes in Happy Gilmore, where the payoff is purely comic, the meltdowns in Punch-Drunk Love often walk a fine line between comedy and tragedy. After Barry finally escapes to Hawaii – explicitly telling his coworker not to tell his sisters – he’s forced to call his sister Elizabeth upon realizing he doesn’t know where Lena is staying. This already precarious situation escalates rapidly when Elizabeth innocently questions Barry’s intentions. As if a lifetime of being called “Gay Boy” suddenly boils over, Barry loses it amid a crowd of people shouting “There’s no reason for you to treat me this way, just give me the fucking number…” This outburst elicits a response that lies somewhere between shock and comic release. On one hand, it’s empowering to hear Barry speak out against his oppression; on the other hand, when his tirade escalates to “I’ll fucking kill you,” the effect is startling. This scene could easily exist in the the universe of one of Sandler’s mainstream comedies but, in this film, we’re thrust into Barry’s point of view and sympathize deeply with his struggle.

Punch-Drunk Love takes a decidedly first-person approach to its story. The film opens with a super wide shot of Barry alone in his office. He’s wearing a bright blue suit that matches the rich blue of the walls behind him. During Barry’s phone call, there’s an odd ping offscreen and we wonder for a second whether we imagined it. But then Barry suspiciously looks up and proceeds to investigate it. This sound is never explained in any logical sense, it exists purely for the purposes of getting Barry’s (and our) attention. When he walks out to the street, there’s a pause as he looks up and down the empty street. The sound fades. The industrial neighborhood is shown in wide angles to highlight the negative space around him. Suddenly a car flips and barrel rolls past him. The sound, which had previously settled to near silence, suddenly bangs and screeches at an ear-piercing volume. This incident, like the ping from earlier, has no logical explanation, the plot quickly glosses over it. These surreal moments, however, have a profound psychological effect on our immersion into Barry’s mind – we feel appropriately anxious.

Anderson chooses to immerse his audience into Barry’s mind so that we sympathize with his bizarre behaviour. The man-child that Adam Sandler has made such a bankable persona is put under a microscope and the effect is an exposure to the darkness underneath. Punch-Drunk Love remains a romantic comedy, however, because of Anderson’s profound affection for this character. A romance on multiple levels, the infatuation Barry has for Lena is a clear reflection of Anderson’s affection for Sandler.

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Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

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Boyhood begins with a moment of profound peace. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lies alone on fresh-cut grass staring at the sky. The shot doubles as the film’s poster and it’s probable that director Richard Linklater had this use in mind from the beginning. It’s a singular image almost anyone can identify with – literally or metaphorically – as a perfect symbol of adolescent curiosity. Mason, at only six years old, knows very little about the world around him, and with this naivety comes an endearing sense of wonder. When his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), rudely interrupts his introspection so they can go home, the point-counterpoint of Boyhood is firmly established. Mason’s wide-eyed optimism is put to the test in Boyhood as he comes of age under the guidance of adults with their own set of problems. Boyhood is as much a meditation on time as it is on the ripple effect of our existence.

Made over a 12-year period, Boyhood offers a profoundly moving experience not far removed from this viral time-lapse video. Linklater – whose Before trilogy told a complicated love story spanning 18 years – condenses 12 years of middle American coming-of-age into 166 minutes. Arquette is arguably the movie’s biggest revelation but, as the title suggests, the star is Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who grows from an introspective pre-teen to a creative college freshmen (from Harry Potter to Kurt Vonnegut) within the three hour running time. Mason is a quiet kid, who wordlessly takes unsolicited advice from virtually every potential mentor he comes in contact with. His adolescence is – at a glance – a series of troubled men trying to tell him who to be. One particularly disturbing incident finds Olivia’s (first) alcoholic husband drunkenly shaving Mason’s head because he doesn’t like the longhaired skater persona he’s beginning to adopt. Mason’s coming of age is constantly hijacked by the identity crises of the men around him.

Richard Linklater’s films demonstrate an intuitive understanding of universally shared experience. His sensitivity to small moments of humanity coupled with a collaborative working style creates an uncanny realism. When Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) gives one of many banal lectures (“life doesn’t give you bumpers”), the perception is of a real person saying a real thing, not of a moral message being pushed by the film or its author. This authenticity is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement, as it makes Mason Jr.’s coming-of-age a profound documentary-like experience, where the effect is unfettered by the usual contrivances of plot. In the context of the Bildungsroman, or growth narrative, Boyhood is the ultimate example as it lets nature handle the growth part, leaving the narrative to be a process of selection rather than invention.

Because Boyhood is effectively built from the director’s own memories of adolescence, the reality on display is decidedly white, middle-class, and Texan. In this way, it has much in common with Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which similarly follows a narrative trajectory governed by small moments rather than an overarching plot. In Malick’s film, the “plot” is in service of an exploration of the director’s own metaphysical questions; Linklater, on the other hand, seems to use his own subjective experience merely as a jumping off point for displaying moments of universal experience with little philosophical bias. The film is as much a meditation on memory as it is time. It is composed of seemingly non-functional details rather than turning points – the images you actually remember rather than the ones your mother puts in a scrapbook. To this effect, Mason’s high-school graduation is represented by the moment he and his friend are driving home, rather than by the ceremony itself.

In an era when even the most highly respected film artists have a hard time getting things made, Boyhood is a logistical miracle.  The project depended on a 12-year commitment from its four principle actors, two of which were pre-teens at the beginning of production, and on top of that Linklater had to convince IFC Films to provide funding for the dubious undertaking. Its success is a product of Linklater’s unpretentious curiosity about what it means to grow up in 21st century America. We can sense Linklater’s affection for Mason’s idealism, from the contemplative wallflower of the opening shot to the curious photographer of the ending, and the arc of his coming-of-age is depicted with a realism that never approaches cynicism. If there was any doubt that Richard Linklater is one of the most important directors of our time, Boyhood will surely settle the argument.

10 out of 10 

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The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance; 2013)

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I love epics. Some of my favorite films fall into this category, which I would split into two sub-groups – the messy epic and the icy epic. Wonderfully over-achieving films like Magnolia and The Tree of Life would fall into the former category while borderline unapproachable masterworks like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stalker fall into the latter. The Place Beyond the Pines is a messy epic. With his follow up to Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance swings for the fences and hits a high-flying foul. Even though Pines ultimately falls out of bounds, its reckless ambition makes up for some (emphasis on some) of its many missteps.

Pines opens with a long tracking shot following Luke (Ryan Gosling) through a crowded carnival. With his knife tricks, elaborately tattooed biceps, and dangling cigarette (doesn’t he know it’s rude to smoke around children??), Luke is framed as the ultimate badass. This brazen opening, an obvious nod to Scorsese, immediately announces huge ambitions. Luke is obsessed with his own coolness and the film seems to have a similar infatuation. It’s as if the Ryan Gosling from Drive walked straight into this film without changing a thing except his hair color.  Both films are stylized explorations of masculinity but where Gosling’s wordless non-acting complemented the heightened reality of Drive, his presence in the gritty middle America of Pines creates an awkward disparity with the realism of the rest of the film. He ultimately undermines the believability of the first act in which his authenticity is so crucial. Instead of a fascinating enigma, Luke is a blank canvas, and his storyline suffers from a lack of dramatic tension as a result. Luke isn’t a real person, he’s just a cog in the heavy-handed machine designed by the film’s screenwriters.

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The Place Beyond the Pines is essentially three movies in one. About an hour in, the focus shifts completely away from Gosling’s Luke to Avery, a rookie cop played by Bradley Cooper. Cooper is at his best here and his understated performance is especially noteworthy in lieu of the overstatement displayed in David O. Russell’s recent films. Avery is a guy desperate for self-preservation to erase the guilt that haunts him. He’s desperate for the assurance that he is a good person, and the film places him in a world where this kind of moral purity is non-existent. Avery’s ultimate solution is to exploit the people around him in so that he can achieve the respect and power he believes will solidify his moral superiority. His actions, which are constantly misinterpreted as righteous, are cowardly, and make his similarity to the sociopathic Luke clear.

Most things in Pines are made pretty clear (read: obvious) and many of the narrative leaps taken in service of lofty ideas are far-fetched. The third part of the film jumps forward 15 years and concerns the sons of Luke and Avery. In contrast to its narrative loftiness, this section fully settles into the realism that was awkward in the first act. The teens are played by Emory Cohen and Dane Dehaan and their mumbling “sup, bro” banter realistically displays the cool-guy angst of AJ and Jason. Their serendipitous meeting in the high-school cafeteria is a stretch, sure, but it’s also the kind of “Woah!” moment that makes Pines thrilling. This final section of the film is a wild card and it will lose many but, for me, it upped the stakes to an exciting level. This kind of ambition should be encouraged! Early on, the film establishes a willingness to veer left at any point, which creates an exciting unpredictability. The third act effectively doubles down on this previously established ambition and the effect is amusing even if it is unbelievable.

The Place Beyond the Pines reaches straight for the top shelf with its music. Poaching selections from Ennio Morricone and Arvo Pärt, the soundtrack is a case study in the abuse of great music. Pärt’s Fratres was also featured in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, where its lilting arpeggios blend so well that no one would ever suspect it to be different from Jonny Greenwood’s score. Blood’s score asserts an uneasy dissonance over the film, and Pärt’s piece offers a gravitas that underscores an appropriately important moment. In Pines, however, the piece’s aching melancholy – used as a repeating motif throughout the film – makes the action on screen seem desperate to be taken seriously. There are many flaws in this film, but this aural heavy-handedness is actually offensive. Music is a powerful manipulator that should be used carefully, or at least intentionally. The music in Pines makes a forceful case for the film’s intended seriousness and it ultimately distracts more than it helps.

Derek Cianfrance’s obsessions – time, family, relationships, responsibility – are clear. With his two features, Cianfrance explores these themes with the kind of confidence that recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work. In the case of Anderson, his fourth film (Punch-Drunk Love) saw him toning down the overblown maximalism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia for a more focused approach. It’s my guess that we will see a similar development with Cianfrance. The Place Beyond the Pines feels like the result of a director still figuring out what he’s good at, and there’s enough there to predict greatness in the future.

6.5 out of 10 

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All is Lost (J.C. Chandor, 2013)

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When observing Robert Redford’s unnamed, mostly mute character in J.C Chandor’s brilliant All is Lost, I thought a lot about solitude. When one is completely alone, one acts differently than if they were around others (obviously). As dumb as that sounds, in the context of All is Lost – a film consisting of only one actor – the idea poses a unique challenge for Redford and Chandor. Redford presents realism in its purist form – since his character is alone, he isn’t acting for anyone, he doesn’t need to tell anyone how he feels. When he faces his first challenge – a sizable hole in the side of his boat – he doesn’t seem too worried, but how could we know? He doesn’t mutter curse words to himself, he doesn’t nervously pace around or throw things in frustration. Yet we know how he feels. This understanding is a projection, of course, and therein lies the key to the film’s success. We are given zero backstory and very little specific information about “our man” (as the credits call him), so he quickly becomes a vessel for our own experience. This is the important difference between All is Lost and Gravity – the former boldly tells us nothing while the latter awkwardly tells us too much.*

All is Lost is not formally unconventional. The movie follows the familiar trajectory of what I’ll call the “survival film.” Like J.C. Chandor’s previous film Margin Call, All is Lost demonstrates the writer/director’s strength for harnessing familiar forms to produce story-centric films. All is Lost shows this strength in its purist form. The film is bizarrely simple (again: there’s zero backstory)This narrative simplicity makes it allegorical, like a short story; Redford’s enigmatic screen presence makes it cinematic, like a movie.

If this whole one-guy-on-a-boat-for-two-hours thing sounds pretty boring, rest assured that, although this is a film about isolation, it won’t make you feel isolated. Chandor cares deeply for his audience and his film offers an experience that is as thrilling as it is thought-provoking. Like Gravity, the experience of watching All is Lost is, first and foremost, immersive and physical. The sound design is crucial to this effect and acts almost as another character, as does the beautiful score from Alex Ebert. These two elements play off each other brilliantly as the moaning and creaking of the boat’s deterioration meshes with the lush horn textures of Ebert’s music.

It can be guessed from the poster that this is a movie about the struggle to survive, but it is also a movie about the choice to survive. Throughout All is Lost, our man is constantly having to make the fundamental human choice to fight or to submit. The film’s conclusion [don’t worry, no spoilers] handles this choice with a subtlety that effectively elevates the film to greatness. Just as “our man” is aptly named, I could call the ending “our ending” as it offers a conclusion whose meaning is largely dependent on our subjective experience. To me, it is a brilliantly rewarding ending to a film that is damn-near perfect.

*I don’t mean to hate on Gravity, which was one of the most thrilling movie-going experiences I’ve had this year. The script has it’s clunky moments, sure, but they are largely forgivable in the context of the movie.  I bring it up only as a means of comparison.

9 out of 10 

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