Something is very wrong in the Marvel cinematic universe. Everything you thought you knew about S.H.I.E.L.D. and Steve Rogers’, aka Captain America’s, role in America has changed. A suspicious mission saving a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from French pirates leads to Nick Fury being questioned by his international superiors about the true nature of his actions. Stranger still, a mysterious assassin known as The Winter Soldier has appeared, turning Captain America and Black Widow into fugitives with three shots.
Anthony and Joe Russo, taking over directorial duties from Joe Johnston, have taken an entirely different approach to world of Marvel. They have created a spy thriller using superheroes. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most shocking and action-filled Marvel film yet. This combination of characters allows for a far more grounded approach than any of the other solo superhero properties so far.
This week for Horror Thursday, I watched The Ninth Gate. It’s one of those horror films that people told me I’d like since it came out and no one could explain why. Turns out it’s because it’s a satanic (not religious, mind you) horror about books. Sure, the concept is in the ballpark for my tastes. But the execution? That’s a different question entirely.
Nicholas Winding Refn has a mission. As a writer and director, he wants to take the subject matter of action films and raise it to high art. It’s a really interesting cinematic philosophy so far removed from anything else happening in mainstream or arthouse filmmaking that it’s going to be totally hit or miss in its impact. The flaws are perhaps the most endearing parts of films like Bronson and Drive.
Only God Forgives does not have much of a story. It’s a spiraling revenge fantasy where every action has a more extreme reaction. Billy and Julian are American brothers living in Thailand. They run a kickboxing gym as a front for a drug smuggling operation. One night, Billy decides he wants to find an underage prostitute and winds up murdering her. Chang, a high ranking police officer, decides to let the girl’s father have his way with Billy before punishing the father for letting his daughters enter the sex trade. Billy and Julian’s mother arrives from America to claim Julian’s body and revenge for his murder.
There are no real levels in Only God Forgives. It’s a visual experiment in slowing down a typical (if a bit darker) action/thriller and telling the story solely through mood and physical business. The nuance of the story is lost to the overwhelming visual and audio design. It’s like Refn is playing with the alienation effect, forcing the audience to realize they are watching a totally manufactured story in every frame and refusing any semblance of emotional connection to the characters onscreen.
Sometimes, a film is one scene away from being great. In the case of The Call, the last scene is so out of sync with the rest of the story that the film suffers.
Jordan is a 911 operative at the top of her career. One simple mistake during a high stakes call shakes her so hard she asks to be removed from the actual call table. While training a new group of operatives, Jordan is put back at the desk for a second attempt to save a young teen from a kidnapping.
The Call builds a large amount of tension out of a very odd conceit. The film jumps back and forth between the control room with all the 911 operatives and the teenage girl calling for help. Everything is told in tightly framed close-ups that focus the eye on important details for the story. The presentation is slick and the quick cuts between the different players really elevate the story into something special.
The East is a thoughtful thriller about a former secret agent (Brit Marling, stunning as usual) taking a job in the private sector to infiltrate an anarchist collective called The East. The group attacks large corporations for their crimes against the people of the world by literally giving them a taste of their own medicine. Right before Sarah infiltrates the group, they filled all the air vents and water pipes in an oil tycoon’s house with oil because his company caused a catastrophic oil spill in the middle of the ocean. Sarah has to find a way in without losing track of who she really is.
Screenwriter/star Brit Marling and director/screenwriter Zal Batmanglij team up again for another sharp film about perception. Their last film, Sound of My Voice, focused on the culture surrounding a cult led by a charismatic but clearly unhinged “time traveler.” The East focuses on the relationship between a spy and an anarchist cult leader. The two films are riffing on the same genre but do it in vastly different ways.
The East is all about responsibility. Sarah knows that her job is to infiltrate The East at all costs. She fought hard for the opportunity and is willing to sacrifice everything she knows to succeed in her new job. She abandons everything to follow the profile of the group: freegans, romantic modern-day hobos with trust funds, and squatters. She’s only able to make a break on the mission when she abandons all creature comforts like hotel rooms and hot meals to earn the trust of a fellow traveler.
The tone of the film is pervasive and intimidating. This is not a light viewing experience. Batmanglij and Marling share a clear vision and push everyone in the cast to follow it with the screenplay and the direction. You’ve never seen Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgard, Patricia Clarkson, or Julia Ormand perform like this before. Even if they’re not playing against type, their approach to the material comes totally out of left field. Batmanglij and Marling have crafted an alternate reality that is just far enough removed from the current system of laws and corporate-driven culture to allow for a broader expression of emotions.
There were a few moments that pulled me from The East. The romantic undertones bubbling in The East didn’t feel authentic. The big group stuff with free love and helping each other felt real, but the one on one interactions and petty jealousy felt contrived just to set up a shocking moment going into the final act. A film this inventive and authentic would have been all the better for avoiding Hollywood cliches.
I’m no stranger to watching strange films. Horror has always been my favorite genre. I’ve seen my fair share of shocking imagery and twisted concepts. The East is one of the more disturbing films I’ve seen in a long time. It rocked me to my core. I went to bed with thoughts racing through my mind and woke up still thinking about what happened.
The East is so unsettling as a thriller because it is so believable in the moment. Where Marling has previously allowed a big sci-fi conceit to create a buffer for difficult concepts, The East is firmly grounded in reality. The companies attacked by The East have done things clearly inspired by major headlines of corporate scandal. The whole thing is a wild and unpredictable ride that refuses to allow for an easy ending or any real answers to the questions raised.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a linear anthology film telling three distinct chapters in a much looser story about fathers, sons, and personal responsibility. In the first story, professional motorcycle stuntman Luke discovers he has an infant son with one time fling Romina. He will do anything to be involved in his son’s life, even rob a bank to provide for him. In the second story, rookie police officer Avery discovers a deep strain of corruption in his department and sets out to clean up the crime unit. This brings him in direct contact with Romina’s family, intertwining the fates of their two infant sons. In the third story, it’s fifteen years later and Luke’s son Jason meets Avery’s son AJ for the first time. They’ve both been lied to about their parents’ circumstances and unravel their shared fate together.
Writer/director Derek Cianfrance and screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder take a huge risk in The Place Beyond the Pines. It really is three separate films loosely linked by the chronology of core characters’ lives. The style of Luke’s story is different from the styles of Avery and the sons’ stories. Everything from the cinematography to the scoring changes to reflect a new direction in the film.
The big question is whether or not the anthology works to create a cohesive whole. It does in a very loose way that can hardly be called successful. The film clocks in at 140 minutes and each story is weighted evenly. 47 minutes is hardly enough time to tell Luke’s story and more than enough time to tell the story of the sons, yet each segment is the same length.
Cianfrance is playing with the influence of fathers on sons and personal responsibility. From that concept, the equitable running time makes sense. You learn about Luke, you learn about Avery, and then you learn how their stories define their sons’ lives. The logic is sound.
From an artistic standpoint, the film loses steam in each successive segment. Luke’s story is a high action heist thriller with big bold character strokes and modern noir lighting. It’s jam-packed with a whole lot of engaging content and wild cinematography. Then the film jumps to a much quieter, dare I say tired, corruption drama with very predictable twists and turns. A huge novelty turns into something all too familiar but very well-executed. Then the sons take over and their story is less their own than a way to bridge the gap between the two wildly different styles.
The final few minutes almost make you forget all the cliched high school drama the characters are put through to artificially raise the stakes at the end of the film. For the first time since Luke’s story, the characters behave in realistic ways. Genuine suspense builds as you don’t know how far the next generation will take the unresolved conflict 15 years in the making. It’s shockingly good considering the hour of pablum and well-worn tropes shoved in after Luke’s story.
The Place Beyond the Pines is technically well-executed. The acting is strong, with Eva Mendes as Romana, Ryan Gosling as Luke, and Dane DeHaan as teenage Jason doing the heavy lifting. The film looks good. It just doesn’t come together like it should. It’s a bit too loose and flexible in its style and focus to really sell the message Derek Cianfrance is pushing.
Thoughts on The Place Beyond the Pines? Share them below.
Trance is the intimate, quiet, and reality-driven companion film to 2010′s Inception. An art auctioneer in London gets pulled into organized crime when he helps steal Goya’s Witches in the Air. He loses all memory of the theft after being knocked unconscious by the crime boss. Now, the boss wants the painting and the only way to get back the memory is hypnotherapy.
Danny Boyle knows how to make a crime thriller. This isn’t a surprise at this point. What is always a pleasant surprise is seeing how much style and energy he can bring to even the wildest of premises. There is not a moment in Trance that is not stunningly beautiful. Everything that happens onscreen happens for a very good reason and there is not one ounce of extra fat in the final cut.
The only flaw is the electronic score by Rick Smith. While it works well later in the film during the more fanciful hypnosis scenes, it stands out way too much at the start. A quiet scene in an art auction filled with 100-plus year old paintings, business suits, and proper etiquette is overwhelmed by pulsing synth beats. The film needed a more naturalistic approach–not necessarily acoustic, but more orchestral–to balance the location, characters, and subject matter. The underground crime and aggressive hypnosis can handle the trance/electronica vibe but the more proper exposition scenes.
Other than the score, Trance is solid. The acting is remarkable, especially Rosario Dawson as hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb. Everything about her character–including her American accent in an otherwise British film–is perfectly aligned with the screenplay and all the twists and turns to come.
Elizabeth is the type of strong female character we need more of onscreen. She has been victimized but she is no victim and no one will stop her from living her life how she chooses. One key scene later on, a montage of hypnotherapy patients, sees her take an entirely different approach to her calm and brutally efficient demeanor in her office. A domestic violence victim wants to leave her abuser. Dr. Lamb preaches to the rafters the hypnotic suggestions this woman needs to begin picking up the pieces and live her life again. Elizabeth’s experience with domestic abuse is handled delicately and actually enhances the overall narrative of high crime and psychology.
Trance swings for the outfields in every scene and the layering of plot twists and character reveals will probably force you outside of the film at some point. It’s a whole lot of exposition that is weighted to favor no story detail over any other. A monologue delivered in the first act has the same pace as a monologue in the final 10 minutes. Trance does not baby you and explain everything as it happens. It expects you to put the pieces together yourself even when the characters shift their focus to the final piece of the puzzle. These are not plot holes because everything is explained. You just have to tie it all up yourself.
Trance is a bizarre film because of its approach to layering narrative through hypnotherapy sessions and the creation of false memories. It won’t appeal to everyone and I fully understand that. I bought into it hook, line, and sinker and almost started to applaud when the film threw me out of the narrative and caught me just a few moments later with a new exciting lure. Danny Boyle is choosing not to rest on his previous success. He is pursuing adventurous new projects and that suits his style well.