What’s in the Darkness (Hei chu you shen me)


Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

(2016) Drama (HH Pictures) Su Xiaotong, Guo Xiao, Liu Dan, Lu Qiwei, Zhou Kui, Jiang Xueming, Li Shiru, Wu Juejin, Ren Long, Liu Jieyi, Gu Qilin, Li Mei, Jia Zhigang, Deng Gang, Wang Zhengping, Jiu Qi, Han Yuye, Tian Feng, Luo Wei, Shi Ying, Yan Jia, Ma Chenxiang, Yu Zhengnan, Huang Xiaoya, Wu Yue, Du Gangqiang, Liu Kaiming, Huang Yan, Xia Hongxia. Directed by Yichun Wang

NYAFF

Growing up is a dangerous, frightening thing. It’s a struggle, dealing with all the hormones coursing through your body, trying to understand the world around you as best you can without much help from your parents and other adult figures in your life, although they often mean well; they just don’t get what you’re going through and in any case, they never have anything good to say about you – it’s all just complain, complain, complain and nothing you do is ever right. Lucky for you, they don’t have time for anyone but themselves and frankly, you want to keep it that way.

Qu Jing (Xiaotong) feels exactly that way. She’s a pre-pubescent girl in a Chinese mainland technical high school in the Hubei province in 1991. In the late spring, the nude body of a woman is found in the local lake. She’d been raped and murdered, and a crude cross carved into her thigh. Qu Jing’s dad, Qu Zhicheng (Xiao) is a police officer, one who happens to have been trained in forensic medicine. He’s the butt of jokes to his peers and a source for exasperation to his commanding officer, Chief Cao (Shiru). He prefers to use deductive reasoning and follow clues while his fellows prefer choosing suspects pretty much at random and beating confessions out of them. It keeps the rate of conviction impressively high.

When a second victim is found, pressure is put on the cops to solve the case and they haul in a suspect (Gang) and get him to confess to the crime. Qu Zhicheng is skeptical about the accuracy of their investigation; the discovery of another victim, killed while the suspect is in police custody, proves him right.

Qu Jing is having problems of her own. Her mother (Dan) is a shrill shrew, unhappy in her marriage and her life and taking out all her issues on her family. Zhang Xue (Qiwei) is Jing’s best friend but Xue’s not the nicest person ever; she is condescending to the point of arrogance, knowing that her beauty and sexuality will take her far – far out of town, which is what she wants to be (as far as the more tropical Hanmei resorts if she has her way). Xue is sexually active and has attracted the attention of Zhao Fei (Xueming), a local tough guy and petty criminal.

Qu Jing is beginning to have hormonal shifts that are causing her to think about sex. She asks questions like ‘”Does giving birth hurt?” and reads clinical manuals, trying to find out everything she can. She goes to romance movies and watches the love scenes with great interest. When Xue disappears after being thrown out of class for falling asleep, the murders begin to come frighteningly close to home.

I originally listed this as a suspense film but changed my mind; it’s not a mystery. It’s more of a drama. This isn’t a police procedural. The crimes here hang on the periphery, coloring the proceedings but never dominating them. Yichun wrote this as largely autobiographical. Part of that is why this is set in the era that it is, and the era this takes place in is critical to why this movie exists.

China was on the verge of changing its economic structure from pure communism to a blend of communism and capitalism which it employs today. While the rural areas, such as the one this was set in, still carried over many of the same restrictive policies that existed for the past decades, change was in the air.

The performances here are interesting. Xiaotong is a real find; 17 years old when she made this, she shows a great deal of emotional depth, from playful to petulant, sullen to joyful.  She epitomizes the confusion and pain of growing up, particularly in a household where she’s largely reminded at how much it cost the family to even bring her in to this world. She was the second child in an era when families that had more than one child suffered heavy economic penalties for it; her older brother, away at university, doesn’t appear other than as a reference in the film.

Guo Xiao also does an outstanding job as the somewhat nebbish police officer, adrift in a sea of incompetent goons. He lashes out at his daughter, henpecked by his wife and laughed at by his fellow officers. Deep down however he loves his daughter as only a devoted father can. He shows it in between bouts of screaming at her for her transgressions, real or imagined.

The dynamic here is a lot different than what we’re used to from Western films. The police are not only as fallible as all get out, they’re also clods who do little constructive to protect or serve. Fathers and mothers aren’t supportive and wise; they have their own hang-ups and issues and don’t necessarily have their children’s best interests at heart at all times.

The society they live in is repressive and prudish but something darker lurks beneath the surface at all time. All around Qu Jing and Xu there are men leering lecherously; an old man in a senior home makes a pass at young Qu Jing in a particularly loathsome manner. The message here seems to be that while some things can be repressed on a societal level, that doesn’t mean those urges aren’t still there.

The senior home sequence and others like it might be off-putting for some who may be a little queasy at the sexualizing of prepubescent and pubescent girls, who are often made to wear make-up for choir performances and school functions.

This doesn’t have the kind of pace you’d find in a typical mystery. There are no gun battles, no car chases, no fistfights. The ending is abrupt and disconcerting. We don’t get much detail on what the police are doing to solve the crime (other than picking up the wrong people and forcing them to confess). We get a sense that after the film ends, things aren’t going to change much.

When all is said and done, this is more of a slice of life type of film; this particular slice happens to have a serial killer in it. It’s like getting a slice of mincemeat pie and biting into a clove. It’s just the luck of the draw. However, this is a tasty slice of pie from someone you can tell is going to only get better at baking pies. I can’t wait to see what comes next from Yichun’s oven.

REASONS TO GO: Unsettling atmosphere keeps viewers from getting too comfortable. Interesting portrait of a period in China less familiar to the West.
REASONS TO STAY: Sexualizing of young girls is a bit off-putting. Too slow-paced for most American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content, some foul language and a disturbing image or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Qu Jing is the same age as director Yichun would have been in 1991.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diary of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buddymoon

Midnight Special


Abracadabra!

Abracadabra!

(2016) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, Sean Bridgers, Lucy Paust, James Moses Black, Yvonne Landry, Maureen Brennan, Ann Mahoney, Garrett Hines, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Jeff Nichols

It goes without saying that a father will do just about anything to protect his son. But what if protecting your son means the world dies? Would you trade your son’s life to save the world?

In a dingy Texas hotel room, a news broadcast tersely announces an amber alert for a young boy named Alton (Lieberher). Watching intently are Roy (Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Edgerton) – and Alton. In the dead of night, the two men grimly leave, taking their young charge with them.

A Texas ranch is raided by the FBI and the leader of the cult that lives there, Calvin Meyer (Shepard) reiterates that Alton, the boy kidnapped from their ranch, isn’t just some ordinary kid. The vision he has may be the key to Armageddon – and saving those who listen from being destroyed in the fire of the end of days.

As it turns out, Roy is Alton’s dad and he took him away from the cult, which has sent a couple of true believers to bring Alton back. Also on Roy’s tail is the NSA in the person of Sevier (Driver) who has more than a passing interest in the case – apparently the lists of numbers that Alton has been having visions about contain sensitive NSA data.

But where Roy, Lucas and Alton are headed is to see Alton’s mom Sarah (Dunst). You see, they know that what Alton’s visions are telling him is that he has to be at a certain place by a certain time. And it’s literally a matter of life and death – the death of everyone on the planet.

Jeff Nichols has only four films to his credit (a fifth, Loving, is in the can and should be out in late 2016 or early 2017) but they have all received heaps of critical praise and as you can see by the scores in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so has this one. Nichols, who also co-wrote the film, makes subtly thoughtful films, movies that on the surface look pretty straightforward but the more you think about them, the more there is to think about.

He’s also a very visual director and some of the visuals here are thrilling, from the flaming wreckage coming down from the sky like meteorites to the expansive denouement which is largely computer generated. The big graphics seem a bit out of his style, but then Nichols has largely worked indie films – this is his first studio-made film. And it’s a good one.

Shannon has appeared in three of his four films, and he is his usual intense self. I have become a big Michael Shannon film in recent years and for the life of me I can’t recall a truly unsatisfactory performance that he’s given in a long, long time. He’s as versatile as they come and here, he plays the desperate loving dad with the same force of will as he plays, say, the psychotic dirty cop, or the amoral collection agency owner. Every role he takes on he makes his own and the amazing thing about Shannon is that no two characters that he portrays ever feel alike.

A lot of this movie is spent riding around in cars. There are some car chases in it (a good one during the climactic scenes) but mostly the main characters are just trying to get from point A to point B. I don’t mind some travelling scenes but I found the movie could have used fewer of those in this case. Also, the climax includes some very striking visuals but in a sense they almost felt like they come from a different movie.

There is a bit of a Spielberg vibe here, particularly in the relationship between father and son. But in a lot of ways, Nichols is the anti-Spielberg; he’s not dealing with kids in suburban homes but in kids from rural environments. Like Spielberg, growing up is a central theme in his movies but while adults can be more white noise in his movies, the adults in Nichols’ movies are often flawed and a central part of the story.

There are a lot of good elements here; I actually like it more than the rating I’m giving it, but I think most moviegoers will find this less rewarding than I did. More discerning movie buffs however might find much more here to offer than just a road movie with science fiction overtones in a family atmosphere. It’s a lot more than the sum of its parts in that aspect.

REASONS TO GO: An intense yet subtle performance by Shannon. Thought-provoking material.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a little bit over the top. A little too much riding around in cars.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a modicum of violence and sci-fi action, as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adam Driver found out that he had been cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the first day of filming for this project.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Everybody Wants Some!!

Zootopia


Only someone crazy like a fox could smile at the DMV.

Only someone crazy like a fox could smile at the DMV.

(2016) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Jason Bateman, Ginnifer Goodwin, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, J.K. Simmons, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira, Raymond S. Persi, Della Saba, Maurice LaMarche, Phil Johnston, Tiny Lister, Fuschia!, John DiMaggio, Katie Lowes, Kath Soucie. Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush

In the animal kingdom, there are different, distinct roles; some are predators, others are prey. The law of the jungle has existed for as long as there’s been in jungle. Predators and prey generally don’t become friends.

That’s not how it is in Zootopia, a metropolis in which anthropomorphic animals live in peace and harmony. “Anyone can become anything” is the motto, and for Judy Hoppe (Goodwin), a perky rabbit living on a carrot farm in the sticks (sorry, couldn’t resist) “anything” means a police officer, something no rabbit has ever achieved.

So despite the deep misgivings of her Mom (Hunt) and Dad (Lake), she heads for the big city and against all odds, graduates the academy and becomes part of a new initiative from Mayor Lionheart (Simmons) to integrate more mammals into the police force much to the disgust of Chief Bogo (Elba), she joins the central city force. Except that Bogo, having little regard for what skills she might possess, assigns her to meter maid duties.

With the encouragement of Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Slate), an overworked sheep, she perseveres and when an opportunity to take a missing persons…,er, animals case, she plunges in with both paws. With the only clue leading to smug con-fox Nick Wilde (Bateman), the two traditional enemies become partners, and eventually learn to respect and care for each other. However, their investigation turns up a massive plot whose origins lead deep into the corridors of power in Zootopia.

Disney has hit another one out of the ballpark from a box office standpoint and it’s easy to see why. For one thing, kids love their animals and what’s not to love about cuddly rabbits and smug foxes, even if the main fox here looks identical to the title character of Robin Hood – Ooo de lally. Not a problem for the younger set, but for veteran Disneyphiles, it can be distracting.

The movie tackles some pretty complex and timely subjects; the division of people into categories (left and right) is not dissimilar as to what you see in Zootopia. While the movie was written before the advent of Trump as a viable presidential candidate, much of the issues being brought up around that candidacy make up the subtext here. No doubt the bean counters at the Mouse House are quite thankful for The Donald’s controversial campaign right about now.

The voices are cast almost perfectly; Goodwin, who portrays a plucky warrior princess in the hit TV show Once Upon a Time transmits the inner core of that character to the animated feature without making the characters too similar. Bateman, a natural wiseass, also inhabits Nick to a “T” carrying the smug smooth-talking con artist off much as he did in Bad Words. The interaction between the two is genuine and warm, and makes it easy to root for the both of them.

There are a ton of in-jokes, from references to other Disney and Pixar movies (including a hell of a lot that are not but make sense in any case) and to gags based on the theme parks and Disney merch. It’s a little bit Shrek­-like in the rapid fire cultural touchstones but that doesn’t mean it won’t delight adults as well as kids. However, the storyline is a bit derivative even if the subject matter is pretty high on the food chain for a kid’s movie. I suspect there will be a little bit of discussion about this movie long after it’s passed from it’s theatrical run. It probably could have used some judicious trimming, about ten minutes worth I’d say.

Disney’s designers and animators also deserve kudos for the overall environment of Zootopia. Divided into a number of zones – rain forest, sub-Saharan desert, rural farmland, savanna, and even a miniature city for the mice and other smaller creatures, each one is imaginative and believable. Zootopia is a place you’d want to visit – even if you have just the two paws.

REASONS TO GO: Complex story concept. Nice interplay between Nick and Judy.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit derivative. It’s also a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of rude humor, some mild thematic elements and animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original concept had the story revolving around Nick Wilde but when early test audiences didn’t identify strongly with the character, the decision was made to make Judy Hoppe the focus and the film was re-edited.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Brainwashing of My Dad

The Last Rites of Joe May


Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Altman, Gary Cole, Meredith Droeger, Ian Barford, Matt DeCaro, Mike Barcella, Chelcie Ross, Rich Komenich, Brian Boland, Kyle Gibson, Peter Defaria, Billy Dec, Jack Bronis, Nydia Rodriguez, Phil Ridarelli, Dennis Sepanik, Ernest Perry Jr., Craig Bailey, Hans Fleischmann, Maureen Steindler, Andrzej Krukowski, Marla Seidell. Directed by Joe Maggio

There are people who hang out on the fringes of society, people who never get a break in life but live as if they make their own breaks. They are the kings of their own domain, so wrapped up in their own fantasies of greatness that they never truly realize how pitiful they are. Joe May is a lot like that.

Joe May (Farina) has just checked out of a Chicago hospital after a bout of pneumonia. He takes a city bus to a local bar where the bartender exclaims “I thought you was dead!” in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really care if he was or wasn’t as long as his tab gets paid. After having a few drinks, Joe heads back to his apartment.

Only it’s not his apartment anymore. The landlord, falsely believing Joe had passed away, had rented it out to a single mom named Jenny (Altman) and her daughter Angelina (Droeger). Joe’s not particularly fond of kids but after sleeping out in the cold streets of Chicago on one winter night is enough to convince him he needs a place to crash in a hurry. Jenny, needing help making ends meet, gives him the spare room in exchange for help with the rent. Bad idea.

There’s nothing sexual about their relationship but Joe slowly becomes involved with the lives of Jenny and Angelina, striking an unexpected bond with the little girl who is street tough beyond her years. Joe is getting dregs jobs from his old boss (Cole), schlepping a side of lamb around to restaurants trying to get them to buy the meat at a cut rate price. Yeah, I wouldn’t bite either if I owned a restaurant.

To make matters worse, Jenny’s boyfriend (Barford) is a cop who once in a while likes to give his girlfriend a beating. For an old school man like Joe, this simply cannot stand. With all the burdens finding their way to his shoulders, Joe decides to take one last shot at redemption.

The late Dennis Farina was one of the great tough guys in cinema for the last 30 years. This was one of his finest roles – many have thought it was THE finest performance of his career. I’m one of those; Farina was never really a leading man during his distinguished career, but he showed here that he could carry a movie on his own. Joe May is a bit self-deluded and more than a bit cynical, but he wasn’t a bad guy really. He just has the kind of fashion sensibilities that Popeye Doyle would have admired, and maybe he was stuck in the 70s a little bit. But beneath the swagger, there was a man who was world-weary and maybe the nagging doubts that he was in fact a loser were beginning to ring that doorbell to his psyche a lot more insistently.

Filmed mostly on the West Side of Chicago, this is the less glamorous side of the Windy City. There are no skyscrapers, no great museum and little of the awe-inspiring architecture of the Loop and the downtown area, nor does it have the unique charm of the South Side. This is a working class neighborhood with squat buildings low against the freezing cold. This is a place you survive, not live in.

The script is pretty well-written with believable dialogue and the supporting cast, while not well-known for the most part, does a surprisingly strong job. If the action is a little bit predictable (hey, the title gives the denouement away) it is still intriguing and having Farina at his best certainly elevates what might have been a pedestrian tale of an old villain looking to redeem himself before he dies. His performance is certainly worth its weight in gold here and even if the movie isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, you’ll rarely see it better.

WHY RENT THIS: Farina delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Shot with an uncompromising eye.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farina was a Chicago cop for 18 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with director Maggio and an outtakes reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sling Blade
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jack of the Red Hearts

The Shameless (Mu-roe-han)


He's a Seoul man.

He’s a Seoul man.

(2015) Crime Drama (CJ Entertainment) Do-yeon Jeon, Nam-gil Kim, Sung-Woong Park, Do-won Gwok. Directed by Seung-uk Oh

We are victims of our own circumstances, whatever they might be. Whether we are trapped in our jobs, or trapped by our bad (or even good) decisions, wherever we are in life, that’s where we are. We can break out of our circumstances if we choose to, and if we’re willing to step out into the unknown but it requires a kind of courage that as we get older, we find that we no longer possess.

Detective Jae-gon Jung (Kim) is a lonely man. He is divorced and is hopelessly corrupt; in fact, his entire squad is essentially on the take from organized crime. He gets an assignment and not from his superiors in the police but from members of a criminal organization; Joon-gil Park (Park), a mid-level mobster with a gambling problem, has committed the ultimate sin; he’s murdered one of his own.

By their own rules, the mob can’t kill him, but they can let the cops have him…and if he gets crippled or killed during the arrest, so much the better. Park is on the run, but his weak point is his girlfriend, Hye-kyung Kim (Jeon). She is a madam in what is called a hospitality room but is essentially a brothel. Jung goes undercover, taking over as her head of security under the guise of Park’s cellmate in prison.

Although she’s initially suspicious and antagonistic with him, the two begin to warm up towards each other, finding out that they are kindred spirits. Kim is desperately lonely, her boyfriend on the run and the sexual encounters with her clients meaningless and almost perfunctory. She has accumulated a huge debt, mostly because Park has been gambling away her money and loan sharks have begun to make threatening noises against her.

Although Jung is using her to get to Park, he begins to fall for her and soon the two end up as lovers. Meanwhile, the forces that turned Jung loose to find Park are growing impatient and Park is broke, needing money to get out of the country and Kim is ready to give it to him. With everything stacked up against them, can Jung and Kim actually break away from the life they find each other in and make something better…together?

There is a heavy noir element running through the movie. Initially we see it as a bit of a wink, particularly in the jaunty jazzy score and the references that crop up early. Jung is the kind of role the late Robert Mitchum would have filled admirably and the movie would have benefitted very much by the presence of someone like him – although there really isn’t anyone like him and likely never will be.

While the crime story is really the reason for the film, it is the love story that drives it. The feeling is dark, that it is inevitable that nothing good can happen for the lovers. Regardless of whether Park is arrested or escapes, you realize quickly that it is going to be bad for Jung and Kim. Kim often disappears into the embrace of alcohol, while Jung…well, Jung is a complicated character who leaves maddening glimpses of the guy inside but the script rarely allows Nam-gil Kim to really give us much in terms of who Jung really is. He remains maddeningly enigmatic, a tortured soul who seems at every turn to choose remaining that way.

This is definitely the seedy side of Seoul, where business is crooked and crooked business is business as usual. The corruption is so integrated into every aspect of life that it is almost expected. Everybody is using everybody else to get ahead; the cynicism is palpable and pervasive. In other words, just like any really good noir.

When Jung and Kim have sex is the only time they seem to be truly alive. They both have a kind of dead-eyed demeanor throughout but when passion takes them over, the juxtaposition is really compelling. In that sense, these are masterful performances as the actors seem to be holding their passions in check throughout, waiting for just the right moment to reveal them.

The movie is a bit overly long though and adds a coda which is not only unnecessary but actually hurts the movie. There are some things about the fate of Kim and Jung that really should have been left to the imagination of the audience rather than spelling it out as precisely as it was. That last ten minutes could have been lopped off and the movie would have been better for it.

As noir thrillers go, this isn’t half-bad but the movie could have been made a bit more concise. There are enough elements to recommend it, particularly for fans of the genre and of Korean cinema in general, but it is not an enthusiastic recommendation I’m afraid. Still, that is appropriate for characters like Jung and Kim who have learned to take what they can get – and not to expect much more than that.

REASONS TO GO: Stylish but fatalistic. Sexy in all the right places.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Somewhat convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: Sex, violence, nudity, drug/alcohol use and a ton of smoking, along with a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Oh’s second feature; his first was 2000’s Kilimanjaro but he has been active as one of Korea’s most sought-after screenwriters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Key Largo
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Goosebumps

I Melt With You


Never drink alone, Jeremy  Piven.

Never drink alone, Jeremy Piven.

(2011) Drama (Magnolia) Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven, Christian McKay, Carla Gugino, Sasha Grey, Zander Eckhouse, Abhi Sinha, Arielle Kebbel, Tom Bower, Joe Reegan, August Emerson, Rebecca Creskoff, Melora Hardin, Anthony Newfield, Tom Donald, Emma Friedman, David Lowe, Natalia Nogulich. Directed by Mark Pellington

Regret is a powerful drug, more addictive than cocaine and more destructive than heroin. As we reach middle age it becomes a drug we are less and less able to resist.

Four friends from college have reached that plateau. They meet every year for a weekend to party like rock stars and remember the good old days. All of them seem successful on the surface  but are living lives of quiet desperation. Ron (Piven) is a Wall Street hotshot who is under SEC investigation and will doubtlessly be arrested when he returns home. Jonathan (Lowe) is a physician whose practice consists mostly of prescribing drugs to Beverly Hills housewives who don’t need them and whose daughter identifies more with her mom’s new husband than with her dad.

Then there’s Richard (Jane), a published author who did get his book published but has been unable to write anything since and is teaching high school English to make ends meet. Finally there’s Tim (McKay), openly bisexual whose relationship with a couple turned tragic when the other two people in the relationship died in a car accident.

All of these men are at crisis points in their lives and are turning to self-medication, self-loathing and self-examination to try and figure out what went wrong, or better still to numb the pain. They also turn to sex, bringing home a waitress and her friends. During the debauchery, one of the four friends abruptly commits suicide, leaving as a note a suicide pact the four of them made in college to the effect of if they were disappointed by life when they reached middle age, they would agree to kill themselves and thus avoid further disappointments in old age.

After burying their friend, the survivors decide to hide the evidence of his deed just in case the police assigned them responsibility for his action after reading his note. However, his act and the justification for it is weighing heavily on each of their minds.

This is one of those movies that is made with the best of intentions but doesn’t quite make the grade. Pellington and writer Glenn Porter intended this to be a journey into the male psyche, but as a male I can tell you this wasn’t a journey into MY psyche. These guys mistake taking lots of drugs, drinking lots of alcohol and having lots of sex as a trip down memory lane reclaiming their lost youth. While I’ve known guys like that, I’ve never seen anyone with this degree of denial.

Part of the problem is that the dialogue is so bloody pretentious. Real people don’t speak like this. I can have deep conversations with my buddies about the meaning of life and manhood and all that without sounding like Diablo Cody on Quaaludes. The pacing is leaden and the dramatic tension is nil. By the time all the excrement goes down you’re not much caring what happens to who.

I will say that the actors give this thing the old college try. Piven in particular is meritorious, doing some of his best work with his sad, trapped animal eyes. He has a tendency to play characters who are just this side of being a jerk, but who are nonetheless compelling for all that.

The soundtrack, mainly made up of 80s college rock standards, rocks the house. Adam Sandler would get a chubby listening to it. Seriously, if you like the ’80s you’re going to find one or two songs that you’re going to go “Oh yeah, I really need to download that to my iPhone.”

I really wish this had been written a bit better. Pellington spoke in the press notes of wanting to provoke a polarization and I suppose that there is some value in that, in the initiating a conversation sense. After seeing this though, I really didn’t want to talk about any of it; I just wanted to forget it and move on.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive soundtrack. The four main leads are solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cringe-worthy, pretentious dialogue. Ponderous pacing and lacks any sort of reason for the audience to get involved.

FAMILY VALUES: The drug use here is pretty pervasive as is the foul language. There is also some sexual content and a little bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot chronologically in order for the actors to see and feel the consequences of their character’s actions.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are close to six hours of extra features and not a one of ’em rises up beyond the usual, although a couple of guerilla promotional pieces from Piven and Jane nearly do.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,361 on an unknown production budget; probably didn’t make back the catering costs, let alone the production costs..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bachelor Party

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Back to the Future II

The Place Beyond the Pines


Ryan Gosling wonders why he's always cast as a great driver.

Ryan Gosling wonders why he’s always cast as a great driver.

(2012) Drama (Focus) Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn, Harris Yulin, Bruce Greenwood, Olga Merediz, Robert Clohessy, Kayla Smalls, Jennifer Sober, Luca Pierucci, Gabe Fazio, Brian Smyj, Greta Seacat, Ephraim Benton, Vanessa Thorpe, Sabrina Lott. Directed by Derek Cianfrance   

As the saying goes, the sins of the father are visited upon the sons. This is, I suppose, a way of tying together the behaviors of a son that ape those of his father, often to the detriment of the son.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a story told in three parts. The first concerns Luke Glanton (Gosling), a skilled motorcycle stunt driver who as part of a travelling carnival moves from town to town. The buff, bleach blonde Glanton doesn’t seem to have a problem finding women to sleep in much as a sailor has a girl in every port. In Schenectady, that girl is Romina (Mendes), a waitress who doesn’t appear to have much more to look forward to than sore feet and occasional liaisons with men she probably shouldn’t have them with. A baby results from this union and Luke impulsively decides to quit the wandering life to settle down and help raise the baby.

However, Romina has moved on somewhat since her fling with Luke and has found a steady boyfriend in Kofi (Ali),  who is willing to help raise baby Jason as his own. Romina though has a soft spot for her bad boy who wants to do the right thing. Unfortunately Luke has fallen in with Robin (Mendelsohn), a small-time criminal who runs an auto body shop. It is he who puts the idea in Luke’s head that the easiest way to support his kid properly is to rob banks. Luke, barely able to make ends meet on his own, slowly finds it to be a good idea. Thing like this, however, rarely remain good for long.

The second part of the story belongs to Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop whose father (Yulin) – a judge and a local power broker – doesn’t approve of his son’s career choice and is perfectly willing to express his opinions. Avery and his wife Jennifer (Byrne) are busy raising a one-year-old son on their own when Avery is shot on the job. He is at home rehabilitating but is anxious to get back to work. Jennifer is torn – she wants space at home to raise her kid, but is terrified Avery’s next encounter with violence won’t end so fortunately.

Avery gets wind of some corrupt cops, led by Detective Deluca (Liotta), Avery’s partner and friend Scott (Fazio) and Doc (Pierucci). At first Avery kind of lets things go but when he realizes that with every act of compromise he’s getting in deeper with these guys, he decides to blow the whistle. This won’t be easy particularly since he doesn’t know how high the corruption goes. Is Chief Wierzbowsky (Clohessy) clean? Can he trust District Attorney Killcullen (Greenwood)?

The final part of the story takes place 15 years afterwards as Avery’s troubled son AJ (Cohen) moves from a more urban school to Schenectady where his father grew up. Avery, whose ambitions as a cop have blossomed into a run for State Attorney General , doesn’t really have time for his rap-spewing drug-addled boy. At the new school he meets Jason (DeHaan), a kind of quiet smart kid who hits it off with AJ based on both boys love of getting high.

AJ is definitely trouble but Jason isn’t exactly turning down time with the boisterous and braggadocios boy. However, he will discover that AJ’s dad and his own have a connection, one which binds the two boys together in a dark and serious way. As Jason investigates that connection, the lives of the two boys and everyone around them will undergo a profound change.

Cianfrance, who helmed the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine which in many ways has some of the same attributes as this – great intensity, top notch acting, a storyline which doesn’t shrink from real life issues and ultimately not always easy to watch. Cianfrance is highly skilled at his craft and is most certainly a talent to keep an eye out for; this is a movie that shows a great deal of confidence from the opening extended tracking shot that follows Luke through the carnival to the final shot of Jason riding away from Schenectady, seemingly on the same road as his father with the same inevitable consequences. Yes, it is a shot of a young man embracing his freedom but there are troubled undertones – to my mind it’s brilliant.

Gosling and Cooper shine here. Both Oscar-nominated actors, I truly believe that over the next 20 years these are both going to be regular honorees at awards shows (including the Oscars) and Cooper in particular is likely to be a force to be reckoned with at the box office. Gosling seems less interested in that sort of thing, preferring to take roles that challenge him but who knows; maybe somewhere down the line he gets a plum franchise to make his own.

The two actors share but one scene and that for only moments, which further cements Cianfrance as a director unafraid to take chances. In the third act, Cooper is relegated to essentially a supporting role while Cohen and DeHaan take center stage. DeHaan has enormous potential with some big roles in his immediate future (he’ll be Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 next summer)  and here he shows that he has the kind of searing presence that can mesmerize audiences.

What doesn’t work here are a couple of things. First, the damn shaky cam. I get that directors like to create a kind of kinetic cinematography that brings the audience into the film, creating additional dramatic tension but let me send a note to every director out there – it doesn’t work. What it really does is quite the opposite – I’ve watched people get motion sickness at films with the kind of hand held shenanigans you find here and when an audience is looking  away from the screen because the images are making their stomachs do flip flops, there’s a director who has a problem.

The character of AJ was a bit too trying for me as well. I have no doubt that there are a lot of kids out there who fit this bill – spoiled, hedonistic, lost souls whose only goal is to escape the lives that they have, which when they come from middle class or even upper class families can strain one’s sympathies. However the character was all wrong for this situation; when Jason has his confrontation with AJ the audience begins to root for some serious damage to be done to AJ and that doesn’t serve the film well. The story deserves better than that; if AJ had at least a few redeeming characteristics it would add a great deal more power to the story. As it is, the audience’s rooting interest becomes all too easy. While the story really is about the changes that come to Jason, it adds a little more something to the film if AJ also transforms and you don’t get the sense that he does, despite the twinkle in his eye near the end of the film.

This is a movie I respected more than liked. The story felt very real, and the economic pressures on both Luke and Avery that drive some of their moral decisions are those felt by millions of families each and every day. While I would be a little surprised if either Gosling, Cooper or DeHaan received awards season recognition – not that they don’t deserve it but more because of when the movie came out and how little publicity it’s received – I have to say that this is a movie that will push you into looking around you more than entertaining you. The late Gene Siskel made it plain that slice of life movies were among his favorites and mine too as well. However, some slices are more bitter than others.

REASONS TO GO: Really tremendous acting, particularly from Gosling and Cooper. An interesting story.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much shaky cam. You just want to punch AJ in the face.

FAMILY VALUES:  Swearing throughout, a bit of violence, some teen drug use and drinking and a couple of sexual references..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in and around Schenectady, NY whose name translates from the Mohawk for “beyond the pine plains.” Also, the banks seen being robbed here are all real working banks in the Schenectady area.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; all in all the reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Conviction

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Broken