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Review: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

By: Greg Maier
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     “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder”  is easily the best movie line of the first half of 2013 which has developed to be an unimpressive lineup of films thus far.  To it’s credit, The Place Beyond the Pines does not belong in the same discussion as the rest of the first half of this year’s dismal films because not only did this film have great potential, but it far exceeded it.  I took interest in this film based mainly on the reputation of director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, 2010) and actor Ryan Gossling (Drive, 2011) and also from the trailer which suggested a heist/thriller type of movie with a Drive-esque feel to it.  Having previously not cared for Bradley Cooper‘s work in the slightest, I was very impressed with his performance in last year’s oscar heavyweight, Silver Lining’s Playbook (2012), and was eager to see what he would bring to the table next.  Walking into the theater, I was very much expecting to see ‘Drive‘ on a motorcycle, but what I came out with was something entirely different.
The Place Beyond the Pines
     In The Place Beyond the Pines, we meet motorcycle stuntman and rolling stone Luke Glanton (Gossling) who rides his dirtbike inside the cage of death for a traveling carnival act.  When Luke learns that he has unknowingly fathered a child, he decides to stick around and be involved in his infant son’s life.  Wanting to provide for his new pseudo family, Luke soon turns to armed robbery of local banks; he uses his motorcycle skills to make his escape.  This all takes place in the first act of the story which, not to spoil anything, ends with a very profound climax.  So profound in fact, that it is at this point in the movie I realized how completely different this story really was from what I had been expecting.  The first act was mesmerizing and flashed before my eyes with the style and speed of Handsome Luke’s motorcycle.  The Place Beyond the Pines was proving to not be a heist movie at all and was instead, a film about fathers and sons.
PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
     Bradley Cooper then takes center stage from Gossling as the second act of the film develops a solid narrative that touches on questions of honor and moral principle set against a corrupt world of police officials who are the kind of cops that love making “unofficial” house calls.  Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, 1990) delivers a forceful performance as the spearheading police chief Deluca who forces Cooper’s character into compromising and downright disrespectful situations involving Luke Lanton and his family.  Cooper’s character, Avery Cross, is morally very sound and even has political aspirations (mostly driven by the enthusiasm of his own father).  He, like Handsome Luke, has a young son and a family to provide for in this corrupt world filled with corner cutting temptation.
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     The third act begins over a decade later in the story and is a modern set drama piece that stars the now teenage version’s of Luke Lanton and Avery Cross’s sons.  Though the weakest of the film’s three acts, the scenario was an ambitious undertaking which allows the two boys of the next generation to choose their course in life.  Will they follow in the footsteps of their fathers or won’t they?  Are future generations bound to repeat the mistakes of their fathers?  I won’t spoil you with director Derek Cianfrance’s answers, but I would like to mention how much I appreciated Cianfrance’s choice for the final shot of the film and if you see it too, I think you’ll agree.
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     The film’s title is referring to a clearing in the surrounding woods just beyond the fictional town the story unfolds in.  Each set of characters in each act of the film at some point, for various reasons, find themselves at the place beyond the pines for a meaningful moment.  Perhaps it can be thought of as a place of contentment or even bliss, though I’m not sure it matters.  All I can say, with extreme certainty, is how much I enjoyed going to that Place Beyond the Pines and how unforgettable an experience can be when you step into the right movie theater.
3.5 star rating

Review: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

By: Greg Maier
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     I had been looking forward to this bio/drama picture about Liberace and the relationship he had with his young gay lover Scott Thorson ever since I read an article on IMDb during its production about how Hollywood had deemed the script to be “too gay” to produce.  Naturally the always hyper-sexualized HBO network was quickly identified as the perfect homoerotic bubble bath for director Steven Soderbergh to soak his film in.  When it was announced to be shown in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival before its world wide HBO premiere, my anticipation grew to even greater heights knowing the wait would soon be over.  Behind the Candelabra does not disappoint and here is why:
     Obviously, with the world’s ever controversial gay and lesbian civil rights discussion in full force, a film like this has an added layer of emphasis to it’s content.  We, as an increasingly accepting society, are meant to identify with the film’s two leads, played fearlessly by Michael Douglass and Matt Damon.   Whether viewers are gay or straight shouldn’t matter because the feelings and emotions that love brings are universal no matter what your sexual orientation is and therefore as viewers we can understand this relationship.  Feelings of lust, infatuation, trust, jealousy and heartbreak are exemplified to extreme and often flamboyant levels of excess in the film as we watch a conventionally taboo relationship between two men develop from friendship to love and companionship.
     Yet, as a straight man with no homosexual tendencies, I did not think of this film as something to be considered taboo while I was watching it, I was instead captivated by the environment and character development that was masterfully crafted by it’s filmmakers.  This has to be a reflection on the society I was born into which I believe to be shifting very strongly towards freedom and acceptance of gay and lesbian couples.  That being said, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t focus primarily on rhetoric in favor of gay rights; the film’s intent is more subtle than that.  The film is meant to show audiences this universality of love across cultures, ages, and genders, and how powerful and meaningful those relationships are to our lives.  It fleshes out a relationship between two of the gayest characters I’ve ever seen on screen who are played, I might add, by two publicly straight, married Hollywood men.  To put it bluntly, it is less about gay sex and more about friendship and companionship.  It’s time for our society to push back previous notions about homosexuality and recognize it as something different yet perfectly normal, which it is.
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     All of that aside, Behind the Candelabra is a terrifically entertaining and comical biography piece about one of America’s original superstar celebrities, Liberace.  Along with unworldly skills as a piano player, Liberace was first and foremost, a master showman who thrived on the energy of an audience and wanted nothing more than to entertain.   I could never conceive of a better casting choice for the role than Michael Douglass who’s voice and mannerisms truly forge Liberace’s a larger than life persona while on stage and in the public eye.  While in private, Douglass’ Liberace (referred to as Lee) is as venerable and self conscious as any of us non-celebrities ever are, perhaps even more.  This duality of character is even more prominent when considering the fact that the man, though not at all ashamed to express most of his true self-identity to the world, had to remain completely in the closet about his sexuality during his lifetime.
     The film is rounded out with an exceptional supporting cast including surprising performances from Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds and most surprisingly from show stealer Rob Lowe as the Hollywood plastic surgeon for Liberace and Scott Thorson.  This, combined with flawlessly detailed set design, a wonderful original score composition by Marvin Hamlisch (his last work before his death), and master cinematography from Director/DP Steven Soderbergh, makes for an end product of a film that this reviewer will certainly look back on for future inspiration.  I can’t usually speak so highly of his work (especially these days), but nonetheless filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has proven himself as a modern master of cinema with this delightfully charming film about love and excess that Hollywood thought would be “too gay” for American audiences.  Please don’t let this be the last film you ever make Mr. Soderbergh!  I can see that you still have it in you, no pun intended.
3.5 star rating