Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

The long opening tracking shot marks the intro of an enrapturing performance by Ryan Gosling as he repeatedly flips a switch knife, breathing steadily as he paces back and forth in dim lighting with tattoos covering his body. He then strides past the bustling crowds and revolving carousels of the carnival, their colorful lights flashing in the night. Slipping on a worn red leather jacket, he steps through the narrow entrance of a tent and is met with a large chorus of electrified screams. Luke Glanton mounts his motorcycle within a spherical cage followed by two others, their engines roaring. The three stunt riders race in rapid orbits, blurred figures shooting past each other, escaping collision just by a hair’s breadth. The audience takes a glimpse into the drifter-lifestyle of this quiet, intense character through his perspective - a motorcyclist performing the same life threatening stunts each night to a crowd of strangers.

I typically have no problem with the use of shaky cam as long as it is not overused. Thankfully, director Derek Cianfrance, who previously worked with Ryan Gosling on Blue Valentine in 2010, altered the style of camera work or editing at pivotal moments. For instance, when Luke rides through the thick forest, his motorcycle shoots forth over fallen branches and ledges, the thundering rumble of the engines drowning out everything else. Suddenly, when he realizes he is not alone in the woods, there’s a motion blur effect as time seems to slow and the two exchange glances with trees whipping past them. All we could see is the red streak of his leather jacket surrounded by a sea of green. Furthermore, one of the most stunning scenes involves the camera soaring through the woods, feeling as light as air, as it follows the motorcyclist bolting down the curving road with the chords of Mike Patton’s poignant soundtrack, “The Snow Angel,” reverberating in my mind long after the film has ended. The song choices were brilliant, perfectly accompanying the images and emotions on screen. At this inspirational, transient moment, the camera is smooth and swooping high above the ground, in contrast with the handheld camera work used throughout the rest of the film.

Upon laying eyes on his infant son for the first time, Luke goes through a dramatic transformation. He instantly regrets abandoning “his family” and takes drastic, impulsive actions to provide for Romina (Eva Mendes) and Jason by robbing banks. A fantastic line by Ben Mendelsohn, his partner in crime, “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder,” perfectly foreshadows Luke’s fate. In the second act, we are introduced to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop regarded as a hero who values justice despite the fact that a discreet act of injustice ironically brought him to fame in the first place. Meanwhile, Ray Liotta acquaints him with the corrupt ways of the police force, as Avery struggles with the morality of the situation. Nevertheless, he makes the difficult choice of living with this secret and even exposing the corruption of the Police Department through blackmail.

What makes The Place Beyond the Pines unique is the fact that Derek Cianfrance ties together three distinctive stories through thematic conflicts in an epic tale of generations. The legend and rivalry of Luke Glanton and Avery Cross are passed on to their sons, Jason and AJ. There’s an irony in the characteristics of these two friends turned enemies. Avery Cross has worked his way up the ranks to become an ambitious politician, exhibiting further hypocrisy of his principles regarding justice later in life similar to his early days. Yet, by neglecting his family, his son AJ matures into an arrogant troublemaker headed in the direction of Luke Glanton’s criminal activities. Meanwhile, Jason grows up in a loving home with a normal personality, but is drawn into trouble by befriending AJ, who happens to influence a chain of events that leads to Jason’s discovery of his father’s identity.

This epic drama is having a great run at the box office considering it's in limited release, only being shown in two theaters in New York and Los Angeles. I happened to get the last ticket (seat E13, my favorite number) for a screening in LA, and I consider The Place Beyond the Pines as the best film of 2013 so far and can't wait to see it again in wider release!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby is a faithful adaptation of one of America’s legendary literary works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, taking place in the prosperous 1920’s era. Staggering wealth, towering stock markets, and the grand lifestyle resembled the American Dream that was bound to end with the imminent stock market crash.

But in the meantime, the ambitious James Gatz made a name out of himself, building a reputation and owning a luxurious mansion just on the edge of West Egg, Long Island. To the public, he became known as Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio). However, his stature is shrouded in mystery, as speculation arose as to how he acquired such an abundance of wealth. Rumors spread like rapid fire: he once killed a man...he was a spy...a war hero... But no one truly knew or understood the man, until Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moved in next door in a forgotten gardener's shack to pursue a career in Wall Street selling bonds, unaccustomed to the bustling vigor of New York. 

As a self-made millionaire, Gatsby represents "new money" with his over-the-top "circus" parties and eclectic palace design, while the Buchanan's from East Egg represent "old money," residing in colonial type homes and displaying an immense boredom with their lavish lives. Gatsby's tragic flaw is his resolute belief that it is indeed possible to "repeat the past," resulting in his inevitable demise. In addition, Gatsby's tragic flaw is falling in love with Daisy (Carrey Mulligan), who at the same time built him and destroyed him. After claiming that they would run away together and start over, Daisy is callous enough to retreat back to her wealth and accept no responsibility for the damage she has inflicted. Daisy's puzzling remark, "I hope she'll be a fool - that's the best thing a girl could be in this world, a beautiful little fool," conveys the affluent, shallow life she herself lives with Tom (Joel Edgerton) and wishes for her daughter.

Throughout the first thirty minutes, Gatsby is only revealed through partial action, his hands pushing the curtains aside or offering a drink with his iconic ring always visible. I love the moment when Nick finally sees the party's host with his own eyes for the first time and how he describes Gatsby's rare smile "with a quality of eternal reassurance" that "understood you just as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself." After extensive shots of the wild parties and crazed celebrations, Gatsby is singled out in this spectacular shot and the audio is muted as Nick is fully absorbed in his observation of this revered figure who gives him a smile that "you may come across four or five times in life."

Baz Luhrmann detailed direction brings the same energetic and hectic atmosphere that he created in Moulin Rouge to the extravagant parties of The Great Gatsby. The vast parties are well choreographed, immersing the audience in the scene, and the grand cinematography illustrates the magnificence of the period. In addition, he did an excellent job of portraying the eyes of TJ Eckelburg watching over the Valley of Ashes and the tragedy that transpires the night Daisy takes the wheel of the Duesenberg and implicates Gatsby in a hit-and-run.

The green light across the bay represents the ideal future that eludes Gatsby as if receding before him, as he "beats on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." He tries to fight the "current," pursuing a future with Daisy, but is held back by his desire to recreate the past.