Thursday, April 25, 2013

OBLIVION Is An Imagination-Packed Trip to the Twilight Zone


- I went into Oblivion having read some mixed and negative reviews. After having seen the film, I can say that it's probably not for everyone, but I can also say that I really enjoyed it. In fact, I'd call Oblivion one of the best real sci-fi movies in quite some time. Of course, I came into the film with certain predispositions. For one, I'm a sucker for any and all Twilight Zone-esque "nothing is as it seems" sci-fi. I love stories that play out like puzzles. And I love movies that can throw a unique, high-concept premise at me that actually makes me think. So many of the big sci-fi blockbusters these days give plot the short shrift in favor of big action and cool moments. Oblivion has both, but it's also got some real thought and discussion-provoking concepts at its core. For another thing, I count myself as a big fan of director Joseph Kosinski. Sure, some still claim that his first feature, Tron Legacy, was underwhelming. Maybe, perhaps ... I could see where the movie had some script issues. But visually? Stylistically? To me, Tron was 100% awesomesauce in that regard. Bottom line: I don't get Kosinski's detractors. The guy has a knack for crafting incredible visuals and eye-popping sci-fi worlds.

The less known about the plot specifics of Oblivion going in, the better. The very basic framework is this: Tom Cruise plays Jack, one of the last men on a now-desolate planet earth. Following an alien attack by a mysterious race known as the Scavs, humanity used a last-ditch nuclear countermeasure to destroy their enemies - but doing so left the earth largely irradiated and uninhabitable. The surviving humans have left earth and have migrated to a massive space station called The Tet, with the goal of eventually relocating to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. To accomplish their goal, the humans have sent an army of drones to earth, to convert the oceans' water into energy and fuel for their journey. At various outpost towers around earth, the last remaining humans on the planet oversee the mission and the drones. In Tower 49, Jack and his partner/lover Victoria take orders via satellite feed from their commander, Sally. They are an efficient team, and they mostly do as they're told without question. But Jack - restless, nostalgic for the planet he's soon to leave behind, and plagued by visions of pre-war times - begins to sense that something is not quite as it seems.

Say what you want about Tom Cruise, but this is the sort of part he was born to play. Cruise is the kind of actor who gives off so much intensity and restless energy that it's not hard to buy him as a guy who can't simply accept his orders and not question the truth behind his assigned tasks. Cruise puts his all into this role, and never seems to be phoning it in for a second. At this point in his career (or at any point, really) Cruise probably couldn't get away with playing an ordinary Joe. But Cruise does pull off the part of the man of destiny - the exceptional Chosen One seemingly guided by fate towards the role of hero. There's almost a film noir-like aspect to the film, and to Jack. A man trapped by circumstances beyond his control, a pawn in larger game. To this end, I found myself fully onboard as we - alongside Jack - begin to question what's really going on.

The rest of the cast is uniformly quite good. I wasn't familiar with Andrea Riseborough before this film, but I thought she was excellent as Victoria. The entire film is colored by a creeping sense of dread, a sense that something is off - that beneath a character like Victoria's facade of preternatural calm, there lay some sort of deep existential torment. Riseborough really conveys that and sells it. She's a by-the-book company woman on one hand, but there is also something about her that's slightly unhinged. And as more is revealed about her, we see why, exactly, that is.

A little more problematic is Olga Kurylenko's character, Julia. Julia's identity is a quasi-mystery for much of the film, but I felt Kurylenko plays things a little too sedately and soberly. Her character's entire world has been turned on its head, but that isn't 100% conveyed in the script or through her performance. I really like Kurylenko overall though - she has an old-school beauty and screen presence that most other actresses of her generation do not. I just think there is something slightly off about Julia as portrayed in the film. Otherwise, Morgan Freeman has a brief but important role in the film, and it's one of those roles that may not have been all that memorable if not played by the titan that is Freeman. We have such a built-in attachment to the actor that the movie can use a lot of shorthand with his character. It might have been interesting to get a little more backstory on his character, but Freeman gets some nice moments nonetheless. I'll also give a special shoutout to Melissa Leo, who plays Jack's commander, Sally, and who only appears via grainy video transmissions. Leo does a bang-up job here - striking the perfect tone of so-friendly-she's-actually-creepy menace.

Now, visually, OBLIVION is pure eye-candy. For one thing, this is an incredibly-realized sci-fi world. You can see the effort that went into designing the movie's buildings, vehicles, drones, and costumes. You see a little of stuff like Star Wars and Mass Effect in the designs, sure. And yes, the overall aesthetic has a lot of homages to 70's and 80's sci-fi in general (a lot of white, a lot of stuff that wouldn't have felt out of place in Tomorrowland at DisneyWorld circa 1987). But I still think that the movie feels unique, and just meticulously thought-out from a design perspective - and how often can one say that about sci-fi these days? But what makes Kosinski stand out for me is not just his world-building, but how he captures these really amazing images from inside those worlds. He doesn't just zoom around, he hovers and idylls and lets you absorb certain scenes in a very old-school fashion. Today, some might call this slow-pacing. But to me, the more measured and methodical pacing is perfect for this sort of movie - in the same way that classics like Blade Runner let you linger in the world and soak in the atmosphere. Kosinski's style also helps emphasize the size and scope of the film - there's a sense of awe and wonder here that you just don't get from the likes of a Michael Bay. With all that said, Oblivion still delivers a couple of fairly breathtaking action scenes, including a rip-roaring aerial chase scene that is a major highlight. In any case, I'm now even more a fan of Kosinski's capabilities, and I'm excited to see what he tackles next.

And by the way, I've got to mention the soundtrack from French techno outfit M.8.3. It's awesome. Moody digital beats and ominous synthetic grooves create perhaps the most memorable sci-fi soundtrack since Daft Punk amped up Kosinski's last film, Tron Legacy, with their future-shock sounds.

Where Oblivion falters just a bit is in the way the story is paced. The movie's major revelations are all back-loaded in its final act. This makes for a pretty riveting final act, but it also means that the middle can get pretty draggy. What's more, because the movie keeps so many of its plot points close to the vest for so long, that means that, in the end, characters like the one played by Freeman feel slightly undercooked. On the flipside, I think in retrospect that a few of the major twists were perhaps telegraphed a little *too* early. For example, very early on in the film, we find out that the memories of Jack and Victoria have been majorly messed with. If we hadn't known that right off the bat, later revelations might have been a bit more shocking.

This is also a movie that people are going to pick apart, plot-wise, until the end of time. I don't think the unanswered questions are that big of a deal though, for the most part. The movie paints in broad strokes, and doesn't get into a lot of uber-specifics. A lot is left to the imagination or individual interpretation, and I'm okay with that. Again, I see it as a bit of a throwback to the days of Blade Runner - where part of the appeal is that we get to fill in many of the blanks as we see fit.

Overall, I felt like the film did a commendable job of keeping up that Twilight Zone-ish "what the hell is going on here?" sort of tension for most of its running time. And I also felt like the final-act payoff was well worth the wait - a thrilling and epic climax that I found to be fairly jaw-dropping. That climax is ever so slightly undermined by a coda that's a little bit "meh" in comparison. But man, the movie's last twenty minutes or so had me on the edge of my seat.

For those who enjoy classic, mind-bending science fiction, Oblivion is a unique and welcome throwback of sorts to 70's and 80's genre films that were as much about igniting your imagination as they were about getting your adrenaline pumping. Oblivion has its share of fun action scenes, but I really admire the way it presented us with this strange, gorgeously-realized future world scenario, and slowly but surely peeled back its layers to get at the terrible truth at its core. I want more movies like this one.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

EVIL DEAD Hails to the Kings of Horror, But Must Also Live In Their Shadows


- Way back when, Sam Raimi made THE EVIL DEAD - on a shoestring budget and with a cast of unknowns - and it was pretty awesome. The film won a cult following for its visual imagination, over-the-top gore, and harrowing cinematography. At the same time, there was a do-it-yourself quality to the film that inspired horror fans. If Raimi could do so much with so little, then maybe they, too, could create low-budget scares with a little ingenuity and imagination. Still, the low-budget cult classic seemed ripe for a remake. And it got one - EVIL DEAD 2. This second installment essentially re-told the story of the original, but in a way that heightened everything that made the original so cool. The second film took advantage of star Bruce Campbell's natural charisma and made his character, Ash, into a bonafide monster-slaying, one-liner-spouting, chainsaw-wielding action hero. Evil Dead 2 birthed the modern-day cult of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell - it took the gore of the first film to Looney Tunes extremes, and pitted a crazy-eyed Ash against all manner of nightmarish undead creatures (including an army of evil miniature Ash clones). Eventually, Raimi and Campbell made a third film - ARMY OF DARKNESS - that shifted from horror/comedy to action/comedy - making the time-displaced Ash an epic hero, leading an army of medieval warriors against an army of skeletal demons.

As I said, the original EVIL DEAD was, really, already remade by its own director and star. But now, with the film series' fandom at an all-time high - cultivated over multiple generations of fanboys and fangirls - and a new generation of Evil Dead n00bs poised to discover the franchise a-fresh, the original is once again being mined for a remake. I don't know all the backstage politics behind the remake, but ultimately, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell signed on as producers (along with original producer Robert Taipi), hired newcomer Fede Alvarez to direct, and here we are - a new Evil Dead that yes, is a reboot of sorts - but also a film with definite creative ties to the original cult classics.

Before I go further, let me just say that in and of itself, it's sort of mind-blowing that an EVIL DEAD film was #1 at the box office this past weekend. While I had slightly mixed feelings about the movie, and mixed feelings about its existence in general, if the end result is a true booster shot for the franchise that helps shine the spotlight on the originals (and maybe even lead to a true fourth film, or a crossover with this version) - then, hey - awesome!

But even just based on its own merits, I am happy for this film's box office success. After seeing the film, I can say it was deserved. While I don't think it has the same spark of holy-crap awesomeness that the originals (and for me, EVIL DEAD II, in particular) possessed, there is enough coolness, enough ingenuity, enough fun to place this new Evil Dead above most of its horror competition.

I saw Fede Alvarez speak at WonderCon in Anaheim a few weeks ago, and he made a great point. What separates Evil Dead from other horror franchises is this: Evil Dead films have a hero. This is why Army of Darkness was a natural extension of Evil Dead 2 ... Evil Dead 2 wasn't just a movie about monsters preying on people. It took the next step, and eventually became about those people - one in particular (Ash) - fighting back. The same is true of this new Evil Dead, and in that respect, it honors the spirit of the originals, and leads to a scenario in which the monsters do their damage, but then, well, they get theirs.

I have mixed feelings about Alvarez's direction. On one hand, the guy is clearly uber-talented. He does some great stuff here - and the film is positively stacked with horror-movie money shots. The guy knows how to do the sorts of big, jaw-dropping, can-you-believe-this-is-happening moments that are a trademark of the franchise. He also never fails to pay homage to Sam Raimi, utilizing Raimi's (and the series') trademark "unseen evil force zooming through the woods" shot at key moments - marking this instantly as an heir to the Evil Dead empire. To his credit, he also insists on using practical f/x for most of the film, and it really pays off - giving the gore a visceral, tangible quality that is a nice call-back to the original's home-made aesthetic. What is lacking in Alvarez's direction is a little harder to quantify. I guess I'd say it's "atmosphere." Sam Raimi is the master of creating fantastic, left-of-center worlds that have a quirky, fantastical, surreal quality to them - whether you're talking the fog-filled nightmare-scape of Evil Dead or the Marvel Comics-verse of Spiderman. This new Evil Dead ... it feels too generic, too slick, too same-y as compared to other modern horror flicks. The gore and action is there, but where was the mood, the imagination? It's funny, because during the end credits of the film, the spooky narration from the original plays, describing the Necronomicon and the mythology of the series ... and it was one of the few times when the movie felt a little less in-your-face and self-consciously gritty, and a little more creepy and atmospheric.

To that end, the other place where this movie lacks is in the imagination department. Now, it's clear the film is going more for an Evil Dead 1 vibe and less Evil Dead 2. It's not trying to be quite so cartoonish. Or is it? The movie is a bit schizo in that department. Because really, the big applause-worthy moments are all either a.) call-backs to the original, or else b.) super over-the-top moments that veer towards the comedic. But the movie *also* seems to want to be sort of gritty, sort of serious. More serious, certainly, than Evil Dead II or Army of Darkness. You get the sense though, that there's a bit of an internal battle there. After all, none other than Diablo Cody was brought in to do script punch-ups. But back to the imagination thing ... when I think of Evil Dead as a franchise, for better or worse, I think of mini-Bruce Campbell's, horrifying demons, armies of skeletons. The monsters here are never all that engaging - just your usual undead-types. It goes back to that lack of Raimi's eye for characters and creature design.

Who knows though - maybe that's what this is, in some ways - a mirror of the original franchise. Maybe this film is supposed to be mostly dark, mostly played-straight, but hint at the humorous, cartoonish possibilities that could color a second or third entry in the series. The movie's post-credits tag certainly hints at a more fun direction to come. As it stands though, I think many will debate just how "funny" this movie is supposed to be. I detected an undercurrent of dark humor throughout. But I think some might label this as a mostly "serious" take on Evil Dead. Alvarez tries to have it both ways. It works, mostly. But it also feels like a movie that - even over the course of its own running time - is struggling a bit to figure out what kind of movie it is. Even many of the film's big, gory moments are walking a very fine line between hardcore/gritty and over-the-top/funny. At times, it's almost hard to know how the movie wants us to react.

Alvarez does add a very clever twist to the story though, making it about Jane Levy's Mia, and her struggle to recover from drug addiction. In the original movies - hell, in many of these kinds of movies - the characters end up going to the proverbial cabin in the woods ... just because (a cliche that was brilliantly satirized in last year's Cabin in the Woods). But Alvarez mostly avoids making "Cabin in the Woods: The Serious Version" by using Mia's story as a metaphor and framing device. In order to overcome the demons in her head, she's got to literally battle through an army of honest-to-god demons.

Luckily, Jane Levy kills it in the film. I was already a fan from Suburgatory, but man, this film demonstrates she's got the chops to be a new horror movie icon. Levy has no easy task - she's got to play drug-addicted Mia, demon-possessed Evil Mia, and then badass horror hero in the Ash mold Mia. And she does all three with aplomb. In particular, I loved Levy's evil demon-possessed stuff - seeing the sweet-faced TV star say horrible and filthy things as she taunts and torments her friends is a lot of fun.

The other actors in the film? Much more "meh." Lou Taylor Pucci is decent as the geeky English teacher who reads "the words" from the Necronomicon and accidentally dooms his friends, but post-Cabin in the Woods, he does feel a bit like a wannabe Fran Kranz. The rest of the cast is okay, but there are no real standouts. Luckily though, MVP Jane Levy is there to carry the film. During the segments where she's out of the picture though ... there is a lot of lost momentum.

What really upped my opinion of the movie though was its balls-to-the-wall third act. Once Levy gets to let loose and kick ass, I sat up in my seat and began to smile. Alvarez said it, Evil Dead is about a hero taking on the armies of darkness. And while this new one takes its sweet time establishing its hero, the payoff is pretty damn entertaining. The film finds its gory groove towards the end, and with Levy at the helm, really takes off. I'm not saying that I don't appreciate a good slow build. Only that the middle section of the film feels a little too "dumb characters making dumb decisions," and I began to lose interest.

There is a lot to like in this new Evil Dead. It pays a ton of homage to the originals, while delivering to us a new horror hero - a damaged-but-determined girl named Mia - who makes an interesting counterpoint to the square-jawed S-Mart employee Ash. Will we get to see their universes collide one day? We can hope. And it's to this film's credit that, despite its flaws, it still left me eager for more Evil Dead, and excited about the directions that the franchise could go from here.

My Grade: B

Friday, April 05, 2013



- The first G.I. Joe movie was, to me, a pleasant surprise. Instead of an overly grim and "edgy" reimagining of a beloved kids' property from the 80's, we got a fun, over-the-top action film that embraced the show's cartoon and comic-book roots. Stephen Sommers is an underrated director who makes the most of any film he works on - visually, few can match him for sheer spectacle. Now, it's director Jon Chu's turn to try his hand at building G.I. Joe into a legitimate action franchise. Based on box office numbers, he's done his job. But is this sequel enough to get nostalgic fanboy's blood pumping? Or is this a weaksauce cash-in, whose troubled production schedule is indicative of a disaster-in-the-making? The fact is, the movie is fun and harmless - with some nice moments and some fist-pump worthy action scenes. But, it also lacks the madcap comic-book fun of the first film, giving the film a greyed-out feel, with only scattered moments of color and vibrancy.

Here's what *is* sort of awesome about the move:

1.) Jonathan Pryce playing the shape-shifting Zartan inhabiting the body of Jonathan Pryce/The President of the United States. Look, Pryce is a phenomenal actor, one who can do more with a subtle head nod or half-smile than most can do with an entire monologue. He does a fantastic job of making Evil President truly and entertainingly evil. And in fact, Pryce emerges as the movie's unlikely MVP. He spouts all kinds of gleefully menacing lines. When a terrified diplomat asks him what he wants, he flashes a sinister grin and hisses "I want it all." Awesome. Plus, Pryce even plays opposite himself - as the actual, not-evil President - and manages to do a bang-up job of it. G.I. Joe is lucky to have him as such a big part of the cast.

2.) There is something crazy going on in this movie with fan-favorite ninja-Joe, Snake Eyes. While most of the movie is a little more reigned-in, a lot less cartoonish and crazy than the first film - Snake Eyes and eternal nemesis Storm Shadow are in their own mini ninja epic that seems to be playing out in parallel to the rest of the film. In this quasi film-within-the-film, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan plays a bushy-browed sensei, Elodie Young plays a badass warrior woman named Jinx, and there are all kinds of insane ninja fights. In fact, midway through the movie, there is an action sequence so badass and so breathtaking that it literally seems like it's excerpted from a different movie altogether. In this scene - which has been previewed in most of the trailers - Snake Eyes and Jinx engage in a jaw-dropping battle with an army of Cobra ninjas while suspended from the side of a rocky, snow-covered mountain. And it is one of the coolest action scenes I've seen in some time. And yet, nothing else in the film even comes close to it - or even feels like it came from the same director. Seriously, what is going on here? It's like someone ran up to John Chu and pumped him up with a nitro boost before he went to direct that scene. Or else Stephen Sommers was brought in to inject some Mummy-style awesome on the sly. I don't know. But damn, what a scene. Overall though, the tone of the Snake Eyes segments is pretty crazy - aping old kung-fu flicks and possessed of a reckless abandon that the rest of the movie lacks. It creates some pretty jarring tonal inconsistency, but still, I dug all the Snake Eyes stuff.

3.) Walton Goggins plays a badass prison warden. No, he doesn't use his cool accent from Justified, but he still sort of rules it, and gets in a moment or two where he gets to go toe to toe with Storm Shadow. No, this is not a part anywhere near worthy of Walton Goggins, but still, a nice surprise.

Here's what is a mixed bag in the movie:

1.) The Rock. I always come away from watching The Rock in an action movie thinking that he is a pretty solid actor. But at the same time, he rarely wows me. He's a hard worker - you can tell he's not just going through the motions. And yet, he sort of is. He's playing "The Rock" - not the charismatic and hilarious prima donna WWE character, but the toned-down, generic blue-collar badass-with-a-soft-side version that crops up in most movies starring Dwayne Johnson. Which is to say that his turn here as Roadblock is pretty bland. The Rock is watchable, he's entertaining, but I also don't know if he'll ever be as entertaining as he is when he's the WWE version of "The Rock." Roadblock is basically a generic tough guy bruiser type. Nothing special, not a memorable character in any way shape or form.

2.) Cobra Commander. There's actually a huge upside to Joseph Gordon-Levitt not returning to this film as Cobra Commander: we actually get to see the character with his mask on the whole movie, looking straight out of the cartoons, using a modulated voice that sounds awesomely evil. Great, right? Not so much, because Cobra Commander - aside from looking cool - does jack squat the whole movie. Zartan is really the one with the screentime (along with Ray Stevenson's Firefly, who's sort of the hired thug of Cobra), but it's a mistake to leave CC on the sidelines for so much of the film. We never really get a sense of the cult of Cobra, of his hold on his followers, of him as an uber-villain. He's mostly just there.

3.) Adrianne Palicki. She's pretty good as Lady Jay. She looks the part. She believably kicks ass. She does solid work here. Too bad she's stuck in a lame, chemistry-less romance with personality-less Flint.

Speaking of which, here's what sort of sucks about G.I. JOE:

1.) Flint. This dude sucks. He does parkour stuff and, well, that's about it. Not worthy of main-player status. And as played by DJ Cotrona, he's bland as hell.

2.) Destro. He makes a cameo, but then isn't in the movie, with no real explanation except Cobra Commander saying something about how he's "not in the band anymore." Um, what? Maybe this is all set up for G.I. Joe 3: Destro's Revenge? I don't know. Lame.

3.) Bruce Willis as "Joe," the original G.I. Joe. Yep, his name is freakin' Joe, and *that's* why they are called Joes. Really? Yes, really. Anyways, Willis pretty much sleepwalks through this one, and does nothing that cool or interesting. And his character adds nothing to the Joe mythology and feels tacked-on. Couldn't we have gotten Sgt. Slaughter or something for this role? I'm not saying Willis doesn't have some fun moments, but they're all based on "look, it's Bruce Willis as a world-weary grizzled badass who's too old for this $#%&." In other words, 90% of all Bruce Willis roles.

4.) The pacing of the plot is broken. Basically, the end of this movie should have been the middle. The film is way too concerned with giving extra screentime to Channing Tatum's ill-fated Duke in the first act, and not nearly concerned enough with raising the stakes and positioning Cobra as a serious threat. Zartan and co. take over the White House and replace the American Flag with the Cobra flag - awesome ... if it happened in the middle of the movie, setting up a Cobra-controlled government that only the now-rogue Joes could topple. But withing the span of minutes, the Cobra flag is flown, the Joes burst on the scene, and the day is saved before Old Glory has even touched the ground. Basically, it makes the movie's third act feel rushed and fairly anticlimactic.

5.) Cobra's plot is pretty uninspired. We can infer that they want to use Zartan-as-Prez to arrange a forced disarmament of the world's nuclear powers, but then secretly have the newly-installed Cobra world order control the last remaining nukes. I'm not saying it's not a good plan, from a practical perspective. I'm just saying from a story perspective, it's so cut and dried as to be, well, boring. I mean, this is Cobra we're talking about. They must have some master plan beyond just controlling the nukes? Perhaps if we were allowed to glimpse what the world would look like under Cobra's iron fist (see above), their plan would have a bit more oomph. But as it stands, it feels too much like we're watching the plot of a "24" movie play out, except with guys named Roadblock and Firefly instead of Jack Bauer.

Overall, I found G.I. JOE: RETALIATION to be a pretty enjoyable - if not sort-of-stupid - popcorn flick. The Snake Eyes segments showed glimpses of the type of visual imagination and flair I would have liked to have seen throughout the rest of the film. But mostly, I was a bit surprised at how, well, ordinary everything felt. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that this G.I. Joe feels in some ways less like the colorful cartoons of the 80's and more like the brown-hued worlds of Halo and Gears of War (they even replicate those games' fire-and-seek-cover mechanics in the action scenes) - more about big guns and bad attitudes than over-the-top costumes and personalities. This G.I. Joe is, certainly, more XBOX 360, less Saturday morning cartoon.

My Grade: B-

Monday, April 01, 2013

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES Is An Ambitious Genre-Mashup


- The Place Beyond the Pines is one of those films that I'd easily recommend that any real film fan check out asap, but also one that I had some reservations with. It's frustrating, because the movie is admirably ambitious, features some incredible performances, and has certain sequences that are truly memorable. But it's also a movie that feels like it's overreaching a bit, halting its own momentum with a clunky structure and a number of plot points and twists that feel contrived. There is greatness in this film, but it's weighted down by a number of elements that just don't quite work. Still, it's easily worth watching as an interesting and discussion-provoking film - an example of a movie that has a lot on its mind, but can't quite articulate it all in a cohesive and fluid fashion.

This is a film, primarily, about fathers and sons. From Derek Cianfrance, the guy behind Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines has a similar moody darkness that permeates throughout. It's also a hard movie to talk about without giving away major spoilers, so bear with me as I try to talk around any major plot points. I will say this though: in my opinion, the first third of this film is incredible. If the film had simply stuck to its initial narrative, expanded it, filled in some of the gaps, and called it a day, I think we'd be looking at a possible Oscar contender. But Cianfrance isn't necessarily interested in telling that sort of story. Instead, he divides the film into three distinct but interconnected segments, with each segment completely shifting its focus to a different set of characters. And unfortunately, the film seems to lose momentum each time a new segment begins.

To back up though, the first segment is an amazing piece of filmmaking. It features Ryan Gosling as Luke, a down-on-his-luck drifter circa 1990 or so. Luke, perpetually sporting a tattered Metallica t-shirt, feels like a slightly de-mystified version of Gosling's character from Drive. He's a loner, a vagabond who makes end's meat by working as a motorcycle stuntman in a travelling carnival. One day, however, while at a show in upstate NY, Luke runs into a woman, Romina (Eva Mendes) who he'd had a brief fling with a year prior. Luke discovers that Romina has a son - it's his - and Luke becomes determined to force his way into Romina and their child's life (despite Romina shacking up with another man and wanting little to do with him). But Luke is persistent. He quits the carnival and gets a job working for a burnout mechanic named Robin (an amazing Ben Mendelsohn). Eventually, Robin convinces Luke to partner with him to rob banks. Luke goes along with it, and becomes quite good at it to boot. And so a classic sort of story begins to unfold - the kind that will be familiar to fans of Breaking Bad. Even as Luke finds something he's good at, his life of crime creates two problems for every problem it solves, and even as he enjoys success, it's only a matter of time until the other shoe drops.

Man ... this initial segment with Gosling is so well done - it had me captivated. From a visual perspective, the entire first third is incredibly shot. The heist sequences are gritty, visceral, ultra-intense. Other scenes have a moody, foreboding, neon-lit film noir atmosphere. And Gosling, Mendes, and Mendelsohn are absolutely at the top of their games. Gosling brings the same sort of quiet intensity that he brought to Drive, and delivers a powerful, magnetic performance. Mendes is at her best, world-weary yet ever so slightly curious about the mystery man who's come back into her life. And Mendelsohn is wonderful - funny, charismatic, and memorable as a ne'er do well small-time hood who sees Luke as his ticket back to the bigtime. The absorbing characters, the top-flight performances, and the visually-stunning direction make this first segment positively electric. As the segment culminated in a shocking chase scene (as we are introduced, on the fly, to Bradley Cooper as the driven cop Avery Cross), I was on the edge of my seat, and my jaw was on the floor as the screen faded to black.

But that is only the first of three segments. In the second segment, the focus switches to Cooper's character, who we learn is also the father of a young son. The tone of the film switches - no longer a neo-noir, the look and feel of the movie takes on the stylings of a procedural cop drama. The film adopts a more drab, more dull look. And the story, while compelling, lacks the all-or-nothing drama of Luke's tale. As it turns out, Cooper seems to be one of the few good cops in his precinct - hailed as a hero cop following an on-patrol injury, Cross seems to be a sort of white knight figure - especially in contrast to the corrupt, racist lawman played by Ray Liotta. But as the story progresses, we begin to see that Cross is partly motivated by altruism, but also partly by an aggressively political streak. Cross may not be as inherently corrupt as his colleagues, but he's got a survivalist instinct that makes him dangerous. Similar to Luke, we see how Cross makes a series of decisions that come, initially, from a pure place, but that end up becoming corrosive and corrupting.

The movie's middle section is carried by a great performance from Bradley Cooper - right up there with his work in Silver Linings Playbook. It's nice to see Cooper continue his streak of fantastic performances - and even more impressive, he's very much playing against type here - Cross is quiet, measured, carefully masking his motives with a mild-mannered demeanor. Liotta is also characteristically excellent - scary and imposing. But while the story works well in and of itself, it unravels a bit as it becomes apparent how Cianfrance wants it to connect thematically with the first segment. The ways that Cross' story mirrors Luke's - they don't quite hold up to scrutiny. And there starts to be a contrivance to the way that Cross keeps running into characters from Luke's story. Cianfrance is going for a "we're all connected" vibe, but as that increasingly becomes what the movie is about, it comes off less as profound and more as stretching.

And it feels like stretching to the breaking point when the film gets into its third and final segment. I won't spoil what this segment is about, but it continues Luke and Cross' story in an interesting, but ultimately forced-feeling manner. The highlight is, easily, Dane DeHaan (who was great in last year's CHRONICLE), playing Jason - a high school outcast. DeHaan does some fantastic work here, but it's offset a bit by the extremely over-the-top performance of Emory Cohen as AJ, a friend/rival of Jason's. This may be one of those love-it-or-hate-it things, but Cohen's performance in the film - where he seems to be trying to channel the ghost of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire - really took me out of the film. It was just too much - too cartoonish, too weird. And the backstory of his character - which has some major gaps and makes little sense - is also an issue. And so this third segment - which is essentially a mini high school coming-of-age drama - is easily the film's weakest. As Cianfrance attempts to tie up his ambitious saga in a bow, it collapses a bit under its own weight. There's two much we as an audience must blindly accept for it all to work, and the jumpiness of the narrative ends up hurting rather than helping the film.

And yet ... the last ten minutes or so of the film are quite strong, and function as a moving, memorable, and iconic epilogue to the first segment. It really made me wish that the movie had focused on Gosling's Luke, kept Cooper's Cross as a side character/rival, and perhaps featured a short epilogue with DeHaan's Jason. The ambitious structure, ultimately, makes the movie feel less fluid and much more clunky than it might have been otherwise. Like I said, it's frustrating, because I feel like the movie has all the ingredients to be a masterpiece. And for the first forty minutes or so, I was convinced I was watching a classic unfold. It's a great cautionary tale about how to tell (or perhaps not to tell) this sort of generation-spanning saga (and who knows, perhaps the story would have been better served as a TV miniseries). As is, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is a movie overflowing with incredible scenes and moments and performances. This is in many ways a must-see, because the film's best moments will likely be, at the end of the day, some of the best of any movie this year. It just, sadly, doesn't quite come together as it should. But ... what is there is well worth taking in, flaws and all.

My Grade: B+



- It's strange how the economics of showbiz work sometimes. From my standpoint, for example, Dreamworks Animation has been on quite the roll these last few years. Where I once considered them a weaksauce would-be Pixar, I now find many of their films to be right up there in the same upper-echelon of awesome as the Disney-owned 500 pound animation gorilla. Kung-Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, Megamind ... these are some of my absolute favorite animated films of the last several years. And yet, it seems as though an underperforming film or two reportedly caused some major financial issues at the company, and suddenly, a lot was riding on their latest film, THE CROODS. Well, luckily for Dreamworks, The Croods was a box office success - hopefully, it keeps them afloat and making movies for a long time to come. But fortunately for fans of great animated movies, The Croods is also a major creative success. It's a visually-dazzling movie with a lot of heart, fun characters, fun humor, and a sensibility that will entertain kids and adults alike. The movie isn't sensory-overload like Wreck-It-Ralph, or as thematically complex as a Wall-E or Toy Story 3, but it's uber-enjoyable and well worth checking out.

THE CROODS tells the story of a caveman named Grug and his family, who live alone in rocky prehistoric terrain. They live alone because - as is explained in an amusing prologue - all of the other nearby families have met fairly horrible fates ... devoured by wild beasts, etc. Grug is convinced that the reason that his family has persevered is because of his super-paranoid, super-cautious, uber-overprotective ways. His family motto is "Never don't be scared." And he keeps his family sheltered in their cave - their only excursions are to go out hunting/gathering - adventures which unfold with the timed precision of a carefully-executed football play. Grug takes no chances, and leaves little room for improvisation or going off-script. This, of course, annoys his teenage cave-daughter, Eep. Eep wants to go out and explore and see the world. And she gets her chance, but not in the way she anticipated. Her world, and that of her whole family's, is turned upside down when Eep encounters Guy, an evolved human who is convinced that the world is headed for disaster of apocalyptic proportions, and that the only chance for survival is to hightail it to high ground, and head for the towering mountains that lie in the distant horizon. In fact, Guy is right - the continents are shifting, land masses are colliding, and major stuff is goin' down. And so even though it's very much against Grug's nature to leave his cave and venture out into the unknown, he reluctantly takes his family - along with the cavalier, inventive, and very un-Grug-like Guy.

The first act or so of The Croods can feel a little slow at times - there's a lot of slow-build in order to establish Grug's stubbornness and the father-daughter tension between him and Eep. But once the film gets a head of steam - as The Croods venture out into the brave new world and encounter all sorts of strange flora and fauna - it becomes very engrossing and quite the roller coaster ride. There are all sorts of captivating visuals - and a lot of imagination on display. Sure, some might take issue with the fact that the movie takes huge liberties with history (and reality), in that most of the primordial beasts that the Croods come across are pure fantasy. But it does allow for some dynamo sequences and some eye-popping encounters. In any case, all of that initial character work does eventually pay off. The third act - which puts the Croods (and Grug in particular) in some surprisingly harrowing situations - is very effective and quite emotional. While the movie is set in a heightened, oversaturated, prehistoric cartoon world - the family dynamics in the film really ring true. Anyone that's ever dealt with an overprotective dad - or been one themselves - will find a lot to relate to in the relationship between Grug and Eep. Point being: despite the cartoonish and over-the-top nature of the film, there's a real relatability and humanity to these characters.

Part of that is in the script, part of it is in the outstanding voice work in the film. Nicholas Cage, for one ... well, he just may have been born to voice a cartoon caveman. He does a great job as Grug - infusing him with his trademark manic energy, but also giving him a fatherly sense of nervousness mixed with determination to protect his family. Rarely has Nic Cage been in the sort of movie that you would call "heartfelt," but he does a great job of bringing the heart to The Croods. Same goes for Emma Stone as Eep - she's really, really good - a mix of teenage rebellion and cavegirl goofiness, she's a thickly-built brickhouse of a girl who can be both a badass huntress and a wide-eyed teen smitten with the mysterious Guy. Ryan Reynolds is also quite good as Guy - making him both a know-it-all and a dude who has to overcompensate a bit given his semi-tragic backstory. Similarly good are Catherine Keener as supportive cave-mom Ugga, Cloris Leachman as the wily grandma, and Clark Duke as well-intentioned son Thunk. It's an excellent cast, though I'd definitely call Cage and Stone the MVP's.

As far as the animation goes - the art style itself didn't wow me, but many of the action sequences were very, very impressive, and everything looked great in 3D. There are also some more serene sequences of the new world that are pretty gorgeously animated. Honestly, I've always been a sucker for stories that take place in prehistoric times, so I loved exploring the world here alongside the Croods.

And like I said, while the overall story is fairly simple, it works really well and is propelled by the character dynamics. The movie probably has one too many montages that conveniently help the film condense a lot of plot and character stuff into a couple of quick music-video-style sequences. But this is at it's core a fairly straightforward movie with a straightforward message. But that message - about *not* being afraid of new and different things, of new ideas and of new adventures - is delivered in a fun, entertaining, and sincere manner.

THE CROODS was a surprisingly fun and sweet adventure. I'd recommend it to any and all animation fans, and I would also suggest that the bar has now been raised pretty high for other animated films in 2013.

My Grade: B+