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The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

MV5BMjc1OTEwNjU4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUzNDIwOQ@@._V1_SX214_Ambitious filmmaking is welcome, but usually ambition leads somewhere, which is the main problem with co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s unwieldy 140-minute multi-generational crime drama, The Place Beyond the Pines. First we watch Luke (Ryan Gosling) as a traveling motorcyclist enter a life of crime to support his infant son. Next the focus shifts to Avery (Bradley Cooper) as a cop with a conscience running into corruption on the force. Last, we jump ahead into the future and watch the dramatic irony unfold as the children of Avery and Luke interact, waiting for them to learn their paternal connection. I believe Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and his team was attempting to tell a meditative, searching drama about children paying for the sins of their fathers, the lingering fallout of bad decisions and moral compromises. Except that’s not this film. By the end of the movie, while some secrets have been laid bare, there really aren’t any significant consequences. The film does an excellent job of maintaining a sense of dread, but it doesn’t come to anything larger or thought provoking. The entire structure of this film is geared toward a tragic accumulation, but it just doesn’t materialize. That’s a shame because it’s got great acting through and through, though I have grown weary of Gosling’s taciturn antihero routine that seems like a rut now. Avery’s portion of the plot was the most interesting and anxiety-inducing, but I found the movie interesting at every turn. The characters are given pockets of nuance and ambiguity as they traverse similar paths of desperation and conciliation. The Place Beyond the Pines is a perfectly good movie, albeit disjointed, that cannot amount to the larger thematic impact it yearns for.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Holy Motors (2012)

I like movies that are different. I like movies that can be hard to understand. Holy Motors, a surreal French film, is both very different and very hard to understand. The movie follows a man as he goes about transforming into nine different characters, each with their own bizarre mission. Is he performing? For whom? Who is behind all this? Does he ever stop assuming false roles? Questions such as these hardly matter in movies such as this. You’re either transported by the lyrical weirdness and unpredictability, or you find it tiresome and much ado about nothing. After a while, I just gave up with this movie. I’m not a fan of weird for weird’s sake and I felt like that was all I got with Holy Motors. I’m sure you could write a doctoral-level thesis decoding this movie, but why waste valuable hours of your life? This movie is nothing but strange imagery that adds up to precious little. I thought the concept of playing roles/manufactured realities was better explored in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. When a Kaufman movie is more accessible than your film, your name better be David Lynch or you’re in trouble. I’m sure several fans of the obscure and outrageous will find amusement at the sheer randomness with Holy Motors. It’s got martial arts acrobats, Kylie Minogue breaking out into song, magical resurrection, spontaneous band performances, talking cars, and for good measure chimpanzees. I hope you get more out of it than I did. I found the enterprise to be more tedious than titillating, more frustrating than fascinating, and not worth the trouble of fashioning meaning from the discarded puzzle pieces.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Other Guys (2010)

Surprisingly consistent in its belly laughs, The Other Guys proves that Will Ferrell is at his best when he re-teams with his greatest collaborator, co-writer and director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers). The duo takes on the cop genre with a loving parody that manages to send up the genre while celebrating its excesses. Ferrell and his partner (Mark Wahlberg) stumble onto a mostly convoluted financial scam with banks, traders, and the police. The movie takes scene after scene and gives it a little twist for the self-aware characters to comment, usually to great comedic effect. There were some stretches that I was near tears from laughing so hard (the tuna vs. lion argument is an instant classic). I expected to be amused by the movie since nobody does silly smarter than Ferrell with McKay, but I was not prepared for how much I genuinely liked this movie. From scene to scene, I found something different to laugh at. There’s an undercurrent of rage from McKay concerning the economic stickup Wall Street got away with in 2008. The end credits are an animated statistics presentation on how large Wall Street firms screwed over the American public and are still profiting off of pubic misery. It’s a bit odd tonally to cover at the end of the film, like McKay wanted his legions of fans to get some morsel of education by the end of a film with goofy action and juvenile sex gags. The joke is on us all.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

This is a crazy movie. It is not weird, it is not bizarre; it is not silly. Werner Herzog’s whacked-out movie is a remake of a 1992 movie that wasn’t that good to begin with. This certifiably crazy movie mostly involves Nicolas Cage as a corrupt cop playing all sides and snorting everything that isn’t bolted down in the Big Easy up his nose. For a stretch during the middle, he starts to sound like Jimmy Stewart with lockjaw. The central murder investigation plot is pretty much an afterthought in an environment like this. You want the crazy, and with Cage and Herzog, it is in no short supply. There’s Cage threatening an elderly woman at gunpoint, crawling reptile POV shots, a man’s “soul” break-dancing after the man lies dead, and neon iguanas that may exist only in Cage’s drugged-out mind. The film has been described as a trippy parody of standard cops-and-robbers fare, or as a seriously demented anti-drug message, but I think the best description is just “crazy-ass movie.” It has moments that make you do nothing but shake your head and laugh, like when Cage is about to hit rock bottom and EVERY case/storyline gets solved in a matter of seconds to his bemused disbelief. The comedy is straight-faced but it is definitely there. Cage harnesses his eccentricities and delivers an insanely entertaining performance that reconfirms that there is indeed an actor underneath his Hollywood veneer. He is compulsively enjoyable and the movie is compulsively watchable, every crazy freaking second of it. Iguanas!

Nate’s Grade: B

The Spirit (2008)

This is the last time someone will let Frank Miller direct. Astoundingly bad, The Spirit is borderline camp for every absurd and bizarre second. It careens all over the place, never settling on a tone. So one minute it will be hard-boiled noir and the next it will break down the fourth wall and amp up the goofy slapstick to Looney Tunes levels. The story is threadbare, the characters are half-developed ideas, and each scene almost exists in its own five-minute world before Miller barrels forward. Sure the flick has some appealing visuals, but even those are derivative of the superior Sin City. As a director, Miller doesn’t cut it. He will shoot scenes with nothing but close-ups, giving no point of establishment for the audience, and he’s too prone to random diversions. Miller displays zero ability, or a complete disregard, for directing actors; they are terrible in different ways. Gabriel Macht, as the back-from-the-dead crime fighter The Spirit, sounds like Paul Rudd doing a Harrison Ford impression. Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious criminal/mad scientist/also semi-immortal The Octopus, overacts to a degree not even seen by Samuel L. Jackson. Scarlett Johansson, as an evil assistant, can’t even hide her disdain and boredom. This stuff just becomes unchecked lunacy, but it still manages to be boring through and through. The hero is a stiff, all the women are sex objects, and the conflicts are pointless when the combatants can’t be killed. The only thing worth mentioning is that Eva Mendes is still a gorgeous looking woman. Even Miller couldn’t fumble that one.

Nate?s Grade: D

Ghost Rider (2007)

Nicolas Cage’s career has been flaming out, so what better role than a burning skeleton biker who serves as a bounty hunter for the Devil, in this case Peter Fonda. A cliché-riddled script, laughable performances, cheesy effects and dull villains doom any entertainment prospects this movie might have had. Cage, as the titular rider, gets to fight a group of escaped demons who all have one connection to an element; one has the power of fire, another the power of wind, etc., it’s like a hellish Captain Planet squad. But what’s the point when Ghost Rider simply vanquishes them so easily? It’s repetitive and goes nowhere. There’s one moment Sam Elliot “turns” into an older ghost rider/bounty hunter and rides along with Cage to save the day. But then he says, “Well, I could only do that once more, so good luck.” What? You could only turn into a flaming ass kicker one more time and you wasted it on riding a horsey through the desert? Eva Mendes is awful as her role of “girlfriend from past,” and why, if she and Cage grew up as childhood sweethearts, does he look over 15 years older than her in the present? I guess working for Satan can really take a lot out of you.

Nate’s Grade: D

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