You got to hand it to Derek Cianfrance; the guy has ambition. The latest film from Cianfrance, after helming the uncompromising, MPAA-challenging relationship drama Blue Valentine, certainly isn’t afraid to take chances, especially when it comes to narrative structure. While Blue Valentine kept its focus almost entirely on the ups and downs of one relationship, The Place Beyond The Pines tackles several characters and the cross-generational problems that tie them together. And yet, even with this narrative ambition, Cianfrance’s attention to character always remains the most important element. The opening shot is a perfect introduction to his approach, a lengthy tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling’s Luke Glanton as he moves across a fairground before entering a tent and performing a dangerous motorcycle stunt in front of a cheering audience. It’s an attention-grabbing opening, serving as both a striking feat of directorial showmanship and a primer on almost everything you need to know about Gosling’s character, who dominates the film’s first third. He’s a man with really only one talent, a loser who spends most of his time on his bike, and yet in his narrow fairground world, he’s a superstar and he loves the attention. By the time Gosling finds himself robbing banks, you understand that he’s doing it not only as part of a misguided urge to support his child despite the wishes of just about everyone around him but also because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.
Gosling’s story arc is compelling by itself, but Cianfrance isn’t content to spend all of his time focusing on just one character. Instead, the film is separated into three distinct parts, each revolving around a different character. Bradley Cooper dominates the film’s second third with what may be the best performance in the film, as a cop who, among other things that will go unmentioned, confronts corruption in the police department. His character is also being constantly pressured by his father to consider politics, and it’s here that one of main themes of the film comes into focus: the influence of parents upon children, and how even seemingly inconsequential actions by fathers can have significant ramifications on future generations. This idea becomes even more crucial in the film’s final third, when the focus moves away from Gosling and Cooper and towards two other characters, played by Emery Cohen and Dane DeHaan.
The film slips up ever so slightly in this final third, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the focus is on two actors/characters who don’t command the screen as adeptly as Gosling and Cooper. Cohen’s performance in particular stands out in incredibly irritating fashion, combining sub-Brando mumbling and Ezra Miller We Need To Talk About Kevin artifice (DeHaan is much better, and at times has a young Leonardo DiCaprio vibe to him). The second reason is that, once this particular section of the film starts, the unpredictability of the first two-thirds disappears, and you realize where the story is heading and that there are really only two ways it can end. This inevitability results in a slightly sluggish finale, as you have to wait for all the gears to line up to get to the end you already have a good feeling is coming, which isn’t really that much of a big deal but stands out because of the incredible strength of what has come before. It is a long film, and I started to feel it just a little bit in the last third, although to be fair to the film the final climactic moment and the closing scenes hit all the right notes. Still, a slightly overlong denouement does not do much to diminish what Cianfrance has accomplished here. His film is up there with the best so far this year. 8/10.
This 1944 film from director Howard Hawks is above all else best known for its pairing of star Humphrey Bogart and newcomer Lauren Bacall (who was 19 at the time of filming), and what was going on between them off the screen. The two began a romance during production, which eventually led to Bogart divorcing his wife to marry Bacall. Not that that has much relevance to the actual content of the film itself; I really only mention it because it’s almost the only thing worth mentioning in relation to To Have And Have Not. The action is loosely based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway, but to be honest the film bears more resemblance to Casablanca than anything else. It doesn’t take long into the film before you start to realize that the film is not much more than a transparent attempt to replicate the success of Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic, with numerous similarities between the two productions. Bogart plays a man looking out for himself in a foreign country during wartime, but over the course of the story he finds himself tangled up in political intrigue, helping resistance leaders escape the country while fending off the local law enforcement. He also falls in love with a beautiful but mysterious woman with a past, and he spends a lot of time hanging around in a club that employs the services of a cheerful piano player. Sound a little too familiar?
All this is tolerable to a certain extent, but after a little while it starts to get obnoxious. There’s really no attempt by the filmmakers to disguise their obvious intentions. The film hits all of the Casablanca notes beat for beat, but it captures none of that film’s passion and soul. The only thing really different here is the lovers get to walk off together. Because the story makes no attempt to hide its derivative nature, you end up pinning all your hopes on the famed chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, but even that’s not all it’s cracked up to be (Ingrid Bergman felt like a better match for Bogart, at least onscreen; Bacall looks, acts, and is too young for the aging Bogie). Chemistry between Bogart and Bacall be damned, why would I want to watch an obvious rip-off of Casablanca when the original did it better in every possible way? 5/10.