★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Christopher Smith takes elements of classic noir pictures and modernizes it in his clever, sometimes exciting, thriller “Detour,” about a law student named Harper (Tye Sheridan) who finds himself embroiled in a murder after becoming convinced that his stepfather (Stephen Moyer) has planned his mother’s car accident which resulted to her ending up in a coma. Although the film might have improved by undergoing more polishing, it remains consistently entertaining as it gives way for us to reevaluate its characters just when we are convinced we completely understand the archetypes they embody.
One of its more intelligent choices involves the story being split into two. While out drowning his sorrows in booze, Harper meets Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), a thug who does certain… favors—for a fee. Our protagonist shares his thoughts of wanting to teach his stepfather a lesson. Notice how the camera inches closer to the characters’ faces as the decision on whether or not to kill the husband under suspicion grows ever closer between the two young men. The next morning, Johnny Ray shows up on Harper’s front door. We then follow two strands: 1) Harper joining Johnny Ray as they head to Vegas to carry out their plans and 2) Harper turning down Johnny Ray’s offer and deciding to stay home.
The dialogue almost always commands a sharpness to it. It can be described as Tarantino-lite in that attitude slowly bubbles to a boil from underneath the surface. Even when a character shifts on his seat while saying nothing actually says something. An observation I have about movies aimed toward modern audiences is that its characters tend to lack ways of communicating other than through words. Here, silence and body language are utilized to get the audience to consider that perhaps a character, or characters, is planning a course of action outside of what has been decided already.
Although its look is nothing special, there are instances where bright colors are employed to make certain objects stand out. For instance, Harper’s yellow-cream jacket, the flowery red designs on Cherry’s shorts (Bel Powley), the sudden patch of yellow hair after Paul (Jared Abrahamson), Harper’s best friend, spends the weekend dropping acid. It would have added a layer of detail if each character sported a certain color, a way for us to cull information about these characters or what role they may end up playing in the story. Providing deep substance is not the screenplay’s strong suit.
Neo-noir “Detour” is stylish, energetic, and it moves like lightning. Although the writing could have done a better job in smoothing out details once certain story aspects are unveiled, nearly every performance is highly watchable and the control from behind the camera creates a level of engaging tension despite the picture’s sunny desert look.
Place Beyond the Pines, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Though Romina (Eva Mendes) wishes to hide the fact that she and Luke (Ryan Gosling) conceived a child from their one night stand a year ago, the truth has a way of being discovered eventually. Luke wants to be a good father to his son and so he decides to quit his job as a traveling state fair stuntman. However, since his current source of income is not enough for him to live on as well as to give lavishly to his son, he and a friend (Ben Mendelsohn) decide to rob banks.
“The Place Beyond the Pines,” directed by Derek Cianfrance, is a mood piece, placing emphasis on delayed responses and meaningful looks, and it is entertaining to a degree because it is able to focus on the importance of fatherhood. The story is divided into three arcs, beginning with the stuntman’s storyline, and it is not short on ambition. Having said that, the middle section, especially important because it is the connective tissue between past and present, is consistently problematic and underwhelming.
The middle portion focuses on the guilt experienced by Avery (Bradley Cooper), a cop on his first year on the job, as well as the corruption within the police force. While the director is able to communicate the rookie cop’s anguish, there is not enough attention paid on Avery’s relationship with his father. The latter thinks that his son can and should be doing more with his life considering that Avery has a law degree and passed the bar. Having that relationship serve a side dish is a significant miscalculation. As a result, it diminishes the power of the first and third arcs, Luke’s love for his baby boy and Avery’s son befriending Luke’s, respectively, with both teenage boys (Emory Cohen, Dane DeHaan) not having constant father figures in their lives.
It is a shame because the film is well-acted. Though Gosling’s taciturn performance does not break new ground, he allows his character to be accessible to us by not always acting so glum. Appropriately, Gosling’s best scenes are of Luke interacting with his son. Cooper, like Gosling, radiates a charm but a darkness just underneath it. I believed his character to be someone so ambitious, he would be willing to throw anyone under the bus. Both men want to achieve a status: Luke being a good dad and Avery being in power. Luke may be the one robbing banks but Avery, arguably, is the hungrier animal.
The picture recoups some of its intrigue during the third arc. There is a good level of tension because we know the boys’ connection but they do not. It is only a matter of time until one or both of them uncovers what binds them.
Based on the screenplay by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is disappointing not because it is incapable of being great. On the contrary, it so close to telling a dramatic yet entertaining story but it falls short because the bridge between the setup and the payoff is not fully defined.
Beneath the Harvest Sky (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
High school seniors Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) and Casper (Emory Cohen) made a pact to leave Van Buren, Maine and live in Boston, Massachusetts upon graduation. Although best of friends, the two have different approaches when it comes to earning money prior to their departure: the former chooses to work in a potato farm while the latter collects prescription pills and gives them to his father (Aidan Gillen) to be illegally transported across international borders.
Written and directed by Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, “Beneath the Harvest Sky” has its feet planted on realism but often falls short from becoming truly compelling because its subplot involving law enforcements trying to capture Casper’s father takes precedence over the relationship between the two young men. Although the subplot works as a peek into where Casper’s future might be heading if he continues to make bad decisions, it does not offer much in terms of what Dominic and Casper might be thinking or feeling toward a future inching closer by the day.
Cohen and McAuliffe create characters who are believable—as individuals and as partners. Despite their elementary differences, the screenplay is aware that it is necessary to communicate, in a subtle manner, that they share enough similarities—elements that keep them together. Thus, we reach an understanding of the characters’ friendship. For instance, when someone speaks with Dominic and makes a judgement about his best friend, we know exactly why he is hurt and feeling the need to defend Casper. To him, making a quick assessment of Casper is like attacking a family member.
Scenes that revolve around Casper and Dominic’s boredom and alienation of their small town are sandwiched by the business involving drug trade. Although Gillen makes a convincing criminal who knows how to separate business from pleasure, the subplot does not offer any emotional gravity that makes it a worthy parallel storyline alongside the boys’ uncertain future. So when the picture makes a switch from central plot to subplot, the intrigue is set aside for a couple of minutes and the pacing drags. Also, I found the subplot to have very little payoff, especially given the amount of time it gets.
I enjoyed the look of the film. There seems to be a fog of gray that hovers the town. I liked looking at the ordinary faces of high school students, some bored and others interested in what the teacher has to say. Certain images like rocks being picked up from the dirt and potatoes being processed are memorable because, ironically, these are details that are a part of every day life. The film gives the impression that these little things define a community. It may not be much but it is their life nonetheless.
“Beneath the Harvest Sky” has the potential to make a real statement about this generation, but it is too long and feels like two different movies at times. It is at its best when Dominic, in his own way, challenges or reminds his best friend that he can do so much more with his life. We wait for Casper to become defensive. Maybe, deep down, he knows that this is true.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Brooklyn,” based on the screenplay by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley, is able to capture a specific immigrant experience so successfully, just about every moment is honest, yearning, and earned. The story will connect strongest with those who, like myself, have gone through the need to adapt to another place, another land, another way of life.
It could have been just another story of a young, naive girl who moved to America from Ireland and encountered individuals who looked down on her because she seemed provincial. Instead, the material is full of life, dimension, colors, feelings, and thoughts exactly because the writing takes on a humanist approach. It treats the characters like the complex humans that they are. The picture inspires the viewer to read Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name because the details are so rich, we want to know more about everybody on screen.
Notice the screenplay’s fresh choices in terms of drawing the characters. The two girls we meet at a boarding house is an excellent example. The moment we meet them, we are meant to judge them rather harshly. Their clothes are flashy. They giggle a lot. They put on a lot of makeup and the every strand of hair is perfectly groomed. Their chosen topics of conversations point to the idea that maybe they are not particularly intelligent. We make the assumption that these girls are vapid, shallow, and mean—we are certain they will give Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), our protagonist, a difficult time during her already challenging transition.
Sometimes first impressions are most misleading. I loved that the two girls look and act like they do yet they are capable of kindness and are able to laugh at themselves. Over time, even though these are two tertiary characters, we realize something potentially important about them: perhaps they remember not being completely comfortable in a new world—which does not have to be a new country necessarily—where at times you are only as good as how others choose to perceive you, which is usually through the way you look.
The film excels in showing the details of a most heartfelt romantic connection. Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, the latter playing an Italian who likes Irish girls, share chemistry that is so potent, so magnetic, I was reminded of the very first time I met Celine and Jesse in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset.” Each moment that Eilis and Tony share is one to be relished. Together, they have a way of communicating a sensual feeling by simply conversing, whether it be during an intimate dinner or walking down the street where life, noise, and hustle and bustle create a dance.
It is rare when a film shows human characters simply being human. We are complex creatures and yet today’s mainstream pictures have a way of reducing us to caricatures. Not here. It understands what makes people interesting and so we can see ourselves, if we look closely enough, in just about every single character, not just one. And that is one of the goals of moviemaking: To allow audiences across the globe to try on different shoes, to become more aware of different cultures, lifestyles, and experiences, to open our eyes and realize that sometimes we are more connected than we and others have allowed ourselves to believe.