Thursday, May 16, 2013

Double Feature: 'The Place Beyond the Pines' and 'Mud'

Today's double feature films actually share common themes! Usually, I just lump two movies together no matter their content in order to rush along and catch up on my backlog of film-going exploits. But today's features carry two very universal and very emotional themes that should be appreciated by all viewers: Love and Family.

The first of these releases, The Place Beyond the Pines, is director Derek Cianfrance's dramatic followup to his excellent (and under-appreciated) 2010 indie Blue Valentine. It's three tales of fathers and sons, the first focusing on traveling stuntman Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) returning home to Schenectady, New York (from where the film gets its name) and discovering that an old girlfriend has given birth to a baby boy. His baby boy. Giving up his stunt gig, he struggles to find a living wage while trying to be there for the son he didn't know he had, eventually robbing banks to try and support his estranged family. That leads him into conflict with police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who is also balancing his love of being a police officer with his disdain for the rampant corruption in the department. Each man tries to provide for the futures of their infant sons, and their decisions will have dramatic repercussions in their childrens' lives.
Besides a full, enthralling story that keeps you glued to your seat, the big showstoppers here are definitely Gosling and Cooper. For those of you who failed to witness his worthy performance in Valentine, Gosling once again thrives under Cianfrance's direction, flawlessly walking that fine line between his good man persona and a dark, desperate edge driven by his desire to provide for his family. If anything, it's a harder role than that of Valentine, which had him play two sides of a coin but in two different times. Here he's doing it all at once, an amazing effort that ought to be applauded. And for those who thought Bradley Cooper's performance in Silver Linings Playbook was impressive, he completely blows that showing out of the water here. In a performance worthy of the nomination he got for last year's decent romantic comedy, Cooper really commands the camera. Whether that's due to his natural talent coming to a head or his working under an actor's director like Cianfrance is unknown, but he's definitely puts in one of the better performances this year. Backing them up are solid showings from veteran actors Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn and Rose Byrne, each adding just enough to make their roles memorable.
The film does have a few surprises, most notably the curious final act featuring Glanton and Cross' grown children, but for the most part the surprises work better than you might have expected. It's not too often that you get a movie that is tailor-made for fathers and sons (in fact, it's surprising that this wasn't released closer to Father's Day), but The Place Beyond the Pines is a brilliant piece of artistic filmmaking that caters to that specific demographic. If you're a fan of Cianfrance's previous works or either of the film's principal actors, this is definitely a film you shouldn't miss.

Mud isn't far behind it, though the pedigree of writer/director Jeff Nichols certainly isn't as renowned as that of Cianfrance. Fans at least will point to 2011's apocalyptic thriller Take Shelter as proof of his talent, though I admit I have yet to see that particular film. But if Nichols' talent is anything close to what he displays here, that film may be due for a rental. Mud is the story of two Arkansas youths (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who investigate an empty island looking for a small boat that supposedly washed up in the last flood. What they find instead is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a man on the run from the law and awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Running low on food and supplies, Mud asks the boys for assistance in getting things he cannot go into town to get and to reconnect with Juniper. Meanwhile, both the law and a gang of vigilantes hunting Mud are moving in, and the two boys might be getting in way over their heads.

Nichols does a great job crafting his story, and the main reason this coming-of-age tale works so well is because the director doesn't treat it like it's any old reworked classic. Nichols' story is deliberately paced, parceling out morsels of information in easily digestible pieces. Though Mud's background isn't as deep or mysterious (or unpredictable) as similar characters throughout cinema history, Nichols' effortless ability to keep the story suspenseful is a major asset in keeping his audience focused on the task at hand. Mud if nothing else is exceedingly well-told, presenting the rural south in a way not seen since Mark Twain was at his literary height. This isn't a surprise; the director has claimed Twain as an influence on his work, and that type of narration definitely helps his movie achieve greatness.
The acting corps also doesn't have many lightweights, as everybody here is a seriously-talented performer vying for recognition. The cast is filled with the likes of Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard, putting on strong performances in small roles. Witherspoon shows what she can do outside of her romcom element, reminding everybody of just how good she can be in dramatic stories. And McConaughey is definitely looking for Best Actor awards, his smoothly demure fugitive one of the absolute best performances he's made to date. But surprisingly the movie actually belongs to Sheridan and Lofland. Lofland, a newcomer with no prior film experience, works well in the sidekick role, playing a sounding board for Sheridan and providing a bit of comic relief as well. Sheridan is both a surprising and excellent lead, however, adopting those Tom Sawyer-esque mannerisms of the character while feeling still unique and individual. His ability to narrate a film without saying much is something to be celebrated in a Hollywood where too many filmmakers believe that audiences need things spelled out for them.
What we have here in The Place Beyond the Pines and Mud are two excellent independent films. If they're playing anywhere near you (both were playing at over 600 US theaters this past weekend), then you should do yourself a favor and check them out. One is a fantastic drama which adult fathers ought to attend with their adult sons, the other a mystical and yet utterly modern romance that ultimately manages to feel wholly unlike anything you've seen before. Both ought to be worthwhile whether seen on the big or small screens, but I definitely encourage the theatrical route, as while there's been the occasional great reason to go the movies lately, these are the types of films smart film-goers should be fully supporting.

No comments: