REVIEW: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

The Place Beyond the Pines

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder

 

My first thought as The Place Beyond the Pines got underway was this: Ryan Gosling is smack in the middle of his “strong, silent tough guy” period. After Drive, this film, and the Refn/Gosling follow-up, Only God Forgives, it’s clear that the man formerly known best by his work in a Nicolas Sparks’ adaptation has now been typecast, but this isn’t nearly as disconcerting as it probably should be, only because Gosling makes these sorts of archetypal roles so damn magnetic. However, this film from Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance (which also starred Gosling, and which I haven’t seen), exists in its own world, richly built upon beautifully crafted characters and history. The phrase that immediately springs to mind is “wonderfully strange”. It is a challenging film, long and ambitious in its scope, resonant in the simplicity of its themes, and above all, as haunting and beautiful as anything I’ve seen in recent memory.

The Place Beyond the Pines opens with Luke, a man, who, from the word go, is presented as the anti-hero to top anti-heroes. His skin is covered from head to toe in terrible tattoos, possibly acquired while in prison. He is perpetually nursing a cigarette that dangles from his lower lip. He wears torn and tattered clothing. He makes his money as a motorcycle stunt driver in a traveling carnival, where his biggest fans are ten-year-olds. He leaves these disciples behind, however, when he spies Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress and one-night stand he remembers from some time back. Luke drives Romina home on the back of his bike, clearly angling to spend the night before he leaves town, but she declines his advances, saying she has a boyfriend. Confused, he comes back one last time before splitting, and discovers that he and Romina have a son, who she is raising with the help of her mother and Kofi(Mahershala Ali), her boyfriend and roommate. Things are about to get complicated.

Luke quits his job on a whim, determined to become a part of his son’s life, which Romina balks at. Newly unemployed, penniless, and shunned in every possible way, Luke races through the pine forest outside of town on his bike, in a near-suicidal blaze. He’s noticed by Jack (Craig Van Hook), a fellow miscreant and auto shop worker who offers him a ride back to town, and then a job. It’s sporadic work, not nearly enough to bring Romina and son over to his side, but Jack soon reveals his real reason for bringing Luke close: bank robbery. Having successfully knocked over a few banks in his time (or so he claims) Jack has a new plan that calls for someone with Luke’s unique skill set.

Anybody who has seen the trailer for The Place Beyond the Pines knows what happens next: the two men begin robbing banks, and rather easily, at that. As money flows in, Romina begins to slowly let Luke into his son Jason’s life, but a string of events leads to Luke running afoul of the cops. One of these officers, Avery (Bradley Cooper) radically alters the course of the film and the lives of its characters in ways I certainly didn’t see coming when I first sat down in the theater. It’s difficult to continue to sum up the plot without getting into major spoiler territory at this point, so I’ll only caution audiences that those expecting a classic action-heist film, or, as one critic aptly put the misrepresentation, “Drive with motorcycles”, will be sadly disappointed.

The title The Place Beyond the Pines refers to the pine forest in which each of the film’s three protagonists attempts to find redemption. It’s an apt metaphor for the theme of recurrence that the film (of course) returns to time and again. Ultimately, the movie is about three men who try in their own flawed ways to do the right thing with the scant resources available to them, and seems to suppose that maybe this is what most human beings are struggling to do as they while out their remaining hours. It’s a powerful and beautiful notion, driven home by majestic photography and a haunting score from Mike Patton. However, as with any character study, it’s the performances that really make The Place Beyond the Pines work.

Gosling’s Luke could easily have been written away as a classic anti-hero: the down-on-his-luck bad boy who we love to hate, and root for even though we know he’s wrong. Instead, Luke is presented as something of a tragic representation of a true criminal. He’s passionate in all the worst ways: quick to anger, never thinking of consequences, and lacking both the intellectual and emotional fortitude to make responsible decisions. To put it bluntly, Luke is, like most petty criminals, stupid, and it’s his stupidity that makes his eventual fall from grace more tragic than romantic. Likewise, Cooper’s Avery is also fundamentally flawed, but in the opposite fashion: his ambition eventually eclipses his innate sense of right and wrong, and as he pursues his goals, the means begin to overwhelm the ends. Both actors do superb work, but a special nod should be given to Cooper, who, having already proved himself with great comic turns in films like Wet Hot American Summer, Wedding Crashers, and The Hangover, is finally proving his dramatic mettle, as this role follows his well-deserved Oscar nod for Silver Linings Playbook.

It’s difficult to describe what makes this film so enchanting without, in my opinion, spoiling part of that magic. So much is going on here, and the film so steadfastly refuses to lead its audience by the nose, that it feels like a breath of fresh air in the age of constant franchise reboots and 3D repackagings. The marketing campaign for The Place Beyond the Pines is more than a little annoying, as I fear most people who walk in will be unprepared for the long and slow burn they are in store for. Those who stick around will be treated not only to an expertly told and superbly crafted story, but they’ll be witness to some fairly daring experimentation within the confines of traditional narrative filmmaking. This sort of risk-taking and faith in audiences’ appetite for inspection is what we need more of, and, in my opinion, what, box office results notwithstanding, the vast majority of filmgoers want. Novelty has its place, but craftsmanship and commitment to excellence will always trump slapped-together bells and whistles.

The Place Beyond the Pines is as much a story about mythology as it is a classic “Sins of Our Fathers” tale. The story spans a period of fifteen years, and characters change and move within the narrative in an undulating, wave-like fashion that seems eerily similar to the oral tradition of tall tales. As the film unfurls to its conclusion (at 140 minutes, it’s quite a tale indeed), the sons of both Luke and Avery pick up the story and present the audience with a compelling question: are we more than what we came from? It’s by no means an original sentiment, but Cianfrance has jumped into the water with both feet first, spinning a breathtakingly ambitious story that reminds us what myths are made of.

Roger Ebert and Inspiration

Roger Ebert passed away last week. Other, more qualified people have written more about what he meant to the world of film criticism and cinema at large, so I’ll only say that Ebert was so big, I had grown to take him for granted, even when I knew his health was rapidly deteriorating, and had long since accepted that his days were numbered. He was such a towering, giant of his time and place that he faded into the background in his greatness, taken for granted as something we would always have around. As I said on the day of his death, he was the last of the legends, and we are worse for having lost him.

Looking back through his old reviews, the thing that struck me the most was Ebert’s love of film that shone through in his glowing praise of films he loved, films he would often return to after the fact, because the truth we often forget is this: great art needs to be written about, not just so you can make a decision as to whether or not you should go drop twelve dollars on a theater ticket, but so the testament to your love of the work can stand for time immemorial, for others to find long after you’re gone, and even long after the work in question has slipped from the public spotlight.

That said, I’ve been inspired by Ebert’s passing to write some essays about some films that are very important to me. Some, in fact, most, are quite mainstream. You’ve probably seen them. A few you might not have seen. Others you probably saw a few times and then never thought of them again. Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts, because ever since I learned that there was a job that consisted of talking, gushing, and arguing about the movies, I wanted nothing more than to be a part of that.

Without further ado:

RUSHMORE

Directed by Wes Anderson

Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson

Wes Anderson is a filmmaker who has made a career out of being irreverent. He has an eye for anachronism, familial relationships, a love and nostalgia for things of great beauty and craftsmanship. Sadly, as of late he’s begun to slip into a bit of a pattern, and, dare I say it, bought into the myth of his own greatness. Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket is serviceable, if not a little unmemorable. The Royal Tenenbaums is a hilarious and cozy epic, the cinematic version of a dysfunctional Norman Rockwall painting. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which I originally hated, has grown on me with time, though it remains the first Anderson film I walked out of thinking the luster had come off the pearl. Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and last years reprehensibly boring and relentlessly precocious Moonrise Kingdom are all one-and-done C-minus attempts to recapture the original flavor of the Anderson/Wilson team-up.

For me, Rushmore, Anderson’s second feature, remains the standard, a film that gave me the Anderson-high I’ve been chasing ever since walking out of the theater. It’s a story of an ill-fated love triangle, or at least, that’s what its protagonist, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, at his best), would call it. More accurately, it’s a timeless story about the angst and perceived Sisyphean nature of adolescence: a long and winding road to acceptance of self, made up of equal parts whip-smart humor and semi-tragic beauty.

The story concerns Max Fischer, a teenager who, on paper, seems like he should be breezing through his work at Rushmore Academy. As it stands, Max is a little too ambitious for his own good, belonging to dozens of esoteric clubs and organizations, many of which he has founded himself. As a result, he’s in danger of being expelled. Within the first few minutes, he meets Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a self-made millionaire who gives a rather unorthodox speech at a Rushmore chapel service and inspires Max to strike up a rather unconventional friendship. Simultaneously, a young teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), catches Max’s eye, and a second student/adult relationship begins, though this one isn’t reciprocated in quite the way Max would hope. As the film progresses, all three people find that their relationships are beginning to crumble, with sometimes explosive results.

This film was Schwartzman’s first thrust into the limelight, and since then he’s made a career out of trying to find similar roles, often as an Anderson regular, but he’s never quite re-captured the oblivious man-boy charm of Max Fischer, a character so completely earnest in his ridiculously delusional aims it truly breaks your heart. Olivia Williams is sweet and understated as the object of both Max and Herman’s affections, playing Rosemary cross with a sad optimism that allows her to remain sympathetic to audiences even as she breaks our (anti)heroes’ hearts. However, it’s Bill Murray who steals the show, resurrecting his career as the flagging business titan Blume, a man so lost in depression and faded glory that he remains stoic in the face of losing everything.

This is, ultimately, the theme of Rushmore, summed up neatly in a play that unfolds near the conclusion of the film (“Sic transit Gloria..Glory fades.”) Each character is involved in their own version of moving on, and accepting and making the best of how the cards have fallen. In many ways, the story belongs more to Herman and Rosemary, who, through their trials and dealings with Max, a teenager in the thick of it, recall the lessons of fading innocence and apply them to their own lives. For Max, the lesson to be learned is recognizing that disappointment and change is a part of adulthood, and it’s imparted through his expulsion from Rushmore and his gradual acceptance that a teacher in her late twenties isn’t going to start dating a fifteen-year-old student anytime soon. Overall, Max’s journey is the transition from the cushy comforts of the plush and expensive Rushmore Academy into the harsh and unforgiving world of public school, friends who betray friends, and “true” love spurned.

NEW YORK CITY BARS

I’ve been here since August, and those who know me well know that’s more than enough time for me to establish some favorite drinking holes. I am a bar man through and through, and New York is swimming with some of the best America has to offer. I won’t bother with the newer speakeasies. I still love them, but chances are you’ve seen them mentioned here or elsewhere. Here we go:

1. Rudy’s Bar and Grill—Hell’s Kitchen

This might be my favorite place in Manhattan. It’s cash only, as a lot of the older Manhattan bars tend to be, but the prices are right, and the atmosphere is even better. Beers are generally around 3 or 4 bucks for the standards, but there’s also a special with their won brand of Blonde and a shot of whiskey for 5. Hard to beat that. The place has been around for a while, and is even mentioned in a Steely Dan song. The bartenders are friendly, especially for a joint so crowded (seating is rare, but they do have a back patio). It’s also the kind of place where you’ll meet older New Yorkers who have never left and who are more than willing to bitch and clue you in on a little history over a pint. They also have free hot dogs!

2. The Blarney Cove—East Village

This is a strange relic from a bygone era of “New York Shitty” that has somehow remained viable in a neighborhood that has more tapas bars than dives nowadays. I stopped in here because the exterior looked so amazingly shitty I had to get a drink for myself. A single neon Budweiser sign in a tiny box-sized window with a metal name plate nailed to the shutters. Inside two beers and two shots of what we thought was whiskey but turned out to be tequila ran twenty bucks. The bartender was a Chinese woman who spoke broken English and played nothing but 90s era hip hop while dancing along. The wallpaper might have been stolen from a Bennigan’s. A great little dive.

3. On the Rocks—Hell’s Kitchen

A whiskey-oriented, classy hole in the wall. This place is serious about their brown stuff, with a pages long Scotch menu, including bottles from the 60s that go for quite a pretty penny. The bartender (it’s been the same guy each time I’ve been) mixes great Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and is very attentive and quick, especially on a slow night, when he’s also good for chit-chat. Definitely more pleasing with one or two close friends when it’s not crowded, and there’s nothing but Ole Blue Eyes on the stereo.

4. Gotham City Lounge—Bushwick

Only a brief walk from my apartment, I knew I would love this place the moment I walked in. The entire bar is smaller than my living room, and stocked to the gills with comic book, star wars, and other nerd memorabilia. The story is that the guy who owns the place was a schoolteacher, and also a gigantic collectibles hound. His wife gave him an ultimatum, and rather than part with any of his stuff, he decided to open a bar on the ground floor of a building his family owned and make it his own personal repository. A shot and a PBR is 3 bucks, which might be the most absurd deal I’ve ever seen anywhere in the United States. Always a lively crowd full of locals who will talk to you about strange things when they get drunk enough. Ray and his daughter are both very nice and attentive bartenders. My neighborhood bar of choice.

5. Spritzenhaus—Greenpoint

A massive beer hall with two bars, outdoor tables, fireplaces, and bench seating? Sign me up. The beer selection has a lot of variety, as well as the usual liquors and (I think) a few signature cocktails. They also have a food menu serving up a variety of sausages, fries, and the like. Great atmosphere for weekend day drinking, small celebrations, and other extended drink-ins.

6. McSorley’s Old Ale House—East Village

One of the oldest bars in New York City, this no-frills Irish pub opened in the 1850s, and has been in the same location ever since. They serve two types of booze: light beer, and dark beer, which come two at a time for 5.50 in small mugs. There’s sawdust on the floor, all kinds of yellowing newspapers and trinkets on the walls, and the bartenders and waiters tend to be full-blooded Micks that will try to steal your women. Fun fact: this place didn’t allow women until the city forced them to in 1970.

7. Tandem—Bushwick

More and more bars are popping up around Bushwick, but I think Tandem might be the first bar I ever visited in Brooklyn. By daylight and early evening, the place operates as a quiet and laid back bar with table service and good food (they also have a decent brunch on Sundays). By weekends at around 10pm, there’s usually several clutches of 20somethings puffing on American Spirits outside, the bar is stacked seven deep, and the back room has been converted into a full on dance party, complete with lasers and a smoke machine.

8. 124 Old Rabbit Club—Greenwich Village

This tiny cave-like basement bar has a great selection of beers (mostly bottles), specializing mainly in Belgian Ales, which I have a soft spot for. It’s dark, which is just what I want from this kind of place. The beers tend towards the premium and the prices reflect that (starting at about 7 bucks), but it’s worth it if you’re going for quality over quantity. If you’re in the neighborhood (the Comedy Cellar is right across the street), this is more or less the best bar on a strip of what amounts to Manhattan’s answer to Dirty Sixth. Avoid the neon-festooned travesties nearby, with names like Off the Wagon and Three Sheets.

9. Bushwick Country Club—East Williamsburg

Spare me the comments flaming me for putting this place in the “wrong” neighborhood—I don’t care. The important things about BCC are as follows:

*Dark

*Cheap beer

*You can become a card-carrying member of the BCC

*Pickleback/beer combo specials

Picklebacks are the best and worst thing to ever happen to me. The premise is simple: you drink a shot of Jameson and then you drink a shotglass full of pickle juice. The brine immediately erases any wobbly effects of the alcohol…no burn, taste, or queasy stomach. The upside: you can drink lots of shots quickly one after another and you won’t barf.  Less obviously, it makes you feel like a depraved, salty bastard. The downside: you may drink so many shots so quickly that you will still barf, and even if you don’t, you will wake up the next morning feeling like you got run over by a truck.

The point is, BCC is the type of bar where I wind up doing tons of picklebacks and then my three friends I end up seeing how many cheeseballs we can fit inside our mouths and the other patrons laugh at us. There are also a few arcade games (no classics), a photobooth, and they will occasionally have events with free food.

10. Sing Sing—East Village

I wasn’t used to having to pay for singing songs AT THE BAR at a karaoke place when I first moved to New York, but the system in place at Sing Sing does allow you to throw down $25 to skip everybody else’s bullshit songs, which is kind of amazing in its wicked consumerism. That said, you can also skip the bar and get your name in on a back room, which has some of the better functioning equipment I’ve seen in a karaoke booth outside of Japan. The songbooks have a lot of new songs, and there is drink service to the room at no extra charge! All told, the experience runs about $30.00 per person plus drinks for a few hours. Not a bad gig at all.