Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

I really should get around to writing about a movie I loathe. I'm sure all four of you kindhearted readers have had it with my gushing, and are ready for some EXTREME FILM OBLITERATION-TION-tion-tion-tion-tion. I must ask that you stay strong and power through one more compliment-filled review, however, for today is not the day I whip out my most delicately-worded criticisms. Today is the day I raise my glass of chocolate milk and toast to the smoldering beauty that is Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines.  

This synopsis is taken from Rotten Tomatoes because I didn't have the mental strength to sum up this three-part epic in a few sentences: The Place Beyond the Pines explores the consequences of motorcycle rider Luke's (Ryan Gosling) fateful decision to commit a crime to support his child. The incident renders him targeted by policeman Avery (Bradley Cooper), and the two men become locked on a tense collision course which will have a devastating impact on both of their families in the years following. 

FIRST OFF: THE MUSIC. Painfully beautiful. My stomach hurts just thinking about The Snow Angel, a recurring theme that features a deep, ringing piano and thunderous booms of disorienting chords. Mike Patton composed the majority of the score, and contributions were made by Ennio Morricone and Bon Iver. That's right. The film ends with Bon Iver's song, "The Wolves (Act I and II)." It's emotional torture. I was trying to figure out why that tune was given such a monumental place in the film, and apart from its fantastically relevant opening lyrics—(Someday my pain/ Someday my pain will mark you)—I think the instrumentals made it a perfect song with which to end the film. It's filled with a mixture of synthesized melodies and haunting vocals, which reflect the fundamental themes of the movie: circumstance and choice.

Derek Cianfrance describes Luke as a marked man. After he tells Romina (Eva Mendes), "I never had my father and look at the way I turned out," it's clear that negative events in his life set him on the twisted path that led him to where he is today: scarred, alone, and ashamed. That's the synthesizerthe controlling push that certain events in our lives seem to have, leading us to and influencing the choices we must make like an overpowering machine. And then the song's natural harmonies return. Bon Iver's voice reverberates with each harmonized chord, acting as a powerful representation of how our own choices can echo across generations, just as Luke's and Avery's do.
On top of the fantastic story and agonizingly wonderful music were enough incredible performances to fill up at least 40 Oscar ballots.  How did the film's cast and crew survive being so close to such fiery talent on a daily basis?! This is...*whispers*...one of the few movies in which I've been genuinely, over-the-moon impressed with Ryan Gosling. He had such a palpable presence on screen, and communicated the most complex emotions with just a quick jaw clench or flinch of his eyebrow. And BCoops! Spectacular! It was so interesting to see how his character changed and matured as the film went on, going from a nervous officer, to a hot-shot political figure, to a struggling father, and finally, to a cowering man expressing the guilt that's weighed on him for more than 15 years. Ben Mendelsohn played his part flawlessly, as well, providing a fresh breath of vigor and comic relief to the intense storyline. (Quick sidenote: I loved reading about how Derek Cianfrance cast Mendelsohn for the role. Why go through the nerve-wracking pain of auditioning for a movie when you can rip out your teeth instead?!)

Out of all of the film's talented actors and actresses, however, I was most in awe of Dane DeHaan. (And no, it's not just because he's a sleepy-boy-look-alike of Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio. Although it certainly makes him all the more fun to stare at.) He kept the film's momentum running strong throughout the poetic third act, and that's no easy feat, considering the edge-of-your-seat action that proceeded it. 'Nother sidenote: in order to mirror the close relationship of Luke and his motorcycle, DeHaan opted to build his character's BMX bike, which strengthened their bond and made the bike a best friend of sorts. I can't get enough of these little behind-the-scenes tidbits, especially when they illustrate just how dedicated some actors and actresses can be.

Summin' it up, The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious, gorgeously-shot epic that combines the suspense of a crime drama with the emotional depth of intimate character studies, all while exposing the generation-spanning consequences of the choices we make. If you haven't gotten around to seeing it yet, DO SO. Right now. Right this very second. It's one hell of a ride.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho tells the story of two male hustlers, Mike Waters and Scott Favor, who live on the streets, sell themselves to men and women, and eventually embark on a transcontinental quest to find Mike's mother. Scott (Keanu Reeves) is the rebellious son of a high-ranking family, who lives this life mostly to embarrass his dad, and Mike (River Phoenix) suffers from narcolepsya condition characterized by brief attacks of deep sleep, brought on by a chemical change in the brain that occurs during times of stress.

I read a quick run-down of the film's plot before pressing play, and learned that elements from Shakespeare's "Henry IV Part 1," "Henry IV Part 2," and "Henry V" were woven within Van Sant's screenplay. "Ah yes, 'to be...or not to be?'" I thought to myself before promptly realizing I knew diddly-squat about Shakespeare. Turns out that famous quote is from Hamlet. Who knew!!?!1!? Despite my pitiful knowledge of 16th-century plays, I was still able to fall in love with My Own Private Idaho. Mike is in a perpetual state of detachment. Constantly toeing the line between being cognizant and unconscious, he's never fully awake, and while it may not have been Van Sant's intention, the frequent lapses into Shakespearean dialect only heightened the dreamlike feel of the story.
 Another awesomely surreal element: talking magazine covers. And the title, "Homo On the Range?" Golden.
The twice recurring image of salmon swimming upstream was another beautiful touch. In fact, I felt it made clear the ending of the movie, which apparently has been deemed too ambiguous in the past. After living their adult lives in the ocean, salmon must migrate upstream toward the river gravel beds in which they were born—a harrowing voyage that requires them to fight against the current for thousands of miles. Surviving salmon, after miraculously finding their way back to their birthplace, lay eggs of their own and die, which enables the salmon life cycle to begin anew. Mike embarks on his own strenuous journey when he sets out to find his mother: traveling from Oregon to Italy and back again, he seems to have just missed her at every step of the way. Even when deserted and left with no additional clues, however, his journey continues, for his birthplace, Idaho, continues to pull him like a lure. We're left with the final shot of a sleeping Mike being loaded into the truck of a passing highway traveler. Despite this cryptic ending, we know his journey must endure. Like Pacific salmon, Mike will try to fight the current until he's home, and if he doesn't make it, there will be another floundering wanderer like him in search of the same elusive destination. What could better attest to this story's perpetuation than Mike's last words?
"I'm a connoisseur of roads. I've been tasting roads my whole life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world."
Even better than the film's dialogue and imagery was River Phoenix's performance. I had a marathon of his filmography last week, and this, as it does for many others, stands out as one of his greatest works. James Franco (who endearingly gushes about celebrities as much as I do in his Huffington Post Blog) once commented on River's performance in My Own Private Idaho, describing it as "funny and heartbreaking, [like] Charlie Chaplin and James Dean all rolled into one." I'd say that's a pretty spot-on observation. River incorporated physical comedy into his performance by twitching like an adorable puppy in his sleep, and then managed to portray some of the most genuine, understated emotion I've ever seen in the iconic campfire scene, which was written by River himself(!). Honest to sweet baby Jesus, if you're iffy about watching My Own Private Idaho in its entirety, just try the campfire scene.  He displays raw vulnerability and emotional strength at the same time, and Keanu Reeves does a fantastic job of playing off both sentiments while also adding to the scene's intimacy. And the hug. God, that hug is so sweet.

So, while the movie's plot revolves around two prostitutes, sex is one of the least important elements of the story. It's a gorgeous cinematic Bildungsroman (I may not be an expert on Shakespeare, but I remember this word from high school English class!) that focuses on the lives of troubled outsiders, the poetry of life on the streets, and the universal pursuit of love. Thanks for reading. I'mma steal one of my favorite lines from Keanu's character as a send-off: Wherever. Whatever. Have a nice day.