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Bob Grimm

Director Derek Cianfrance, who helmed the devastatingly brilliant Blue Valentine, raises his ambitions for The Place Beyond the Pines, a gripping film experiment that works on every level.

Cianfrance makes a lot of unconventional moves this time out. There are many stories in this movie, with a strong emphasis on many characters. Cianfrance finds a way to focus on these characters in an efficient way that doesn’t have viewers jumping from one story to another from scene to scene. The stories progress chronologically over a period of about 16 years, with some characters fading away as others take over. The result is long, but never boring.

The film starts with a lengthy tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling’s Luke, a stunt-motorcycle driver, as he leaves his trailer and heads for his evening gig. The shot establishes that although Luke is a semi-celebrity on the carnival circuit, he’s undeniably lonely and isolated.

Luke gets some surprising news from ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes), and his life trajectory takes a drastic shift. He moves from doing stunts to robbing banks, a decision that will bring him face to face with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a terrible haircut. Avery finds himself thrust into upstate New York law enforcement with the big boys, which includes being around a lot of corruption. (Ray Liotta is one of the cops, so there you go. Bad stuff always goes down when Liotta is in the mix.)

Both Luke and Avery have 1-year-old sons, and the film ultimately deals with their stories when the kids hit the age of 17. AJ (Emory Cohen) is Avery’s son, a neglected product of divorce who has a marble-mouth, a taste for drugs and a violent temper. Jason (Dane DeHaan) is Luke’s son, a mild-mannered loner who knows little about his father and who gets high a lot. The two sons cross paths and become friends, and the film becomes a startling look at the results of bad fathering.

The movie is always good, but it is perhaps at its best when Gosling occupies the story. Gosling got off to bad start this year with his turn in the lousy Gangster Squad, but his performance here puts him back on track. Luke has similarities to the dark, brooding Driver from Drive (and like Driver, Luke is prone to violent outbursts). Gosling brings out sensitivity in Luke that makes him all the more tragic when his crime spree spirals out of control.

Cooper, recently Oscar-nominated for Silver Linings Playbook, is Gosling’s equal in this film, making Avery virtuous at first, but prone to devious leanings. Avery’s ambitions lead to broken marriages and a miserable kid, canceling out any heroic deeds from years before. His work here is just as strong as his work in Playbook.

As for Cohen and DeHaan, they provide Pines with an absorbing final act. It’s usually a good thing when you get a movie with a couple of memorable characters in it. Well, this film has a whole cast’s worth of memorable characters, and all of the actors get the screen time they deserve.

Mendes heads the supporting cast with an authority that she has never shown before. She’s nothing short of terrific, and it’s a performance that should open some new doors for the veteran actress. The ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn (so good in Killing Them Softly) gives a wonderfully quirky performance as Robin, Luke’s only true friend and confidant. Liotta, Mahershala Ali, Rose Byrne and Bruce Greenwood round out the cast with powerful work.

Cianfrance has made a beautiful movie, from the lush camerawork by Sean Bobbitt, to the haunting, excellent piano based soundtrack by Mike Patton (yes, THAT Mike Patton, from Faith No More). The film has something beautiful to boast in every frame. It’s a true work of art.

It’s also good for a few doses of adrenaline, something that was absent from the somber Blue Valentine. The bank robberies and subsequent chases are uncomfortable, fast and tense. Luke’s showdown with Avery after a memorable foot chase is a great movie moment.

Anybody thinking The Place Beyond the Pines is just a movie about a dude on a motorcycle robbing banks (as commercials have implied) will be in for a big surprise. It’s a sprawling work about the sins of the father—and it’s one of the year’s best films so far.

The Place Beyond the Pines is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6588; www.camelottheatres.com); and the Cinemas Palme d'Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730; www.thepalme.com).

In the cult classic Repo Man, Emilio Estevez plays Otto, a punk kid in Los Angeles who is fired from his supermarket job and thrown into the life of repossessing cars by the absolutely strange Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). They pursue a Chevy Malibu with a big bounty on its fender—unaware of the extraterrestrial cargo in the trunk.

This is a very funny movie. (I especially love Otto’s response to his girl when asked about their relationship at film’s end.) This is the best thing Estevez has ever done, and Stanton was perfect casting. Director Alex Cox made Sid and Nancy after this one, but has not regained his form since. Still, when you have those two films on your directorial resume, that’s a pretty good career.

Special Features: On this Criterion release (hitting stores on Tuesday, April 16) is a commentary with Cox and executive producer Michael Nesmith (!); the TV version of the movie with extra scenes and censored language; deleted scenes; a weird segment with Stanton; and a new interview with Iggy Pop and members of the cast. You also get, as always, an awesome Criterion booklet.

Django Unchained, out today (Tuesday, April 16) on Blu-Ray, is still my least-favorite Tarantino movie—but it’s growing on me. I liked it the first time I saw it, but I wanted to love it. When watching it on Blu-ray, I was more relaxed, and it went up a notch in my book.

This is the first Tarantino film not to be edited by the great Sally Menke, who recently passed away. The first time I watched it, I really felt her absence in the beat of the film. However, on the second go-round, I allowed myself to take in the movie on its own terms. It’s a little clunky in spots, and a little long, but with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson propelling the story, some lags are forgivable.

Waltz got an Oscar for his portrayal of the bounty hunter with a heart of gold. His performance was great work, but if anybody in this movie deserved an Oscar, it was DiCaprio, as he went well beyond his safety zone, playing one of last year’s greatest scumbags. Tarantino got a screenplay Oscar; he won the same award for Pulp Fiction.

The plot involving a revisionist history/fantasy of pre-Civil War America has a similar vibe to the revisionist history of Inglourious Basterds. It feels a little bit like Tarantino is repeating himself. But Tarantino makes good movies, repeating himself or not. Still, I’m hoping his next film is a change of pace like Kill Bill was.

Tarantino has never made a movie I haven’t liked; he’s a master. Django is his weakest, but it’s still good.

I would love it if somebody gave him a superhero franchise. He would do some amazing things with something like the Fantastic Four.

Special Features: A few short behind-the-scenes docs. Tarantino doesn’t do commentaries (although I do remember that he did one for From Dusk Till Dawn with Robert Rodriguez). The supplements are underwhelming. 

Co-written by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and directed by relative newcomer Goro Miyazaki, this is a surprisingly straightforward piece of Japanese animation that doesn’t involve fantasy elements.

The story is about kids in Yokohama, circa 1963, who are trying to find their way and fight for a few causes. The central character is Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger in the English-dubbed version), a young girl who lost her dad in the war and finds herself liking a boy who may or may not be a good choice.

The movie looks great (as films from Studio Ghibli often do), and it tells a sweet story. Other English-dubbed vocal-cast members include Anton Yelchin, Jamie Lee Curtis and Ron Howard. 

From Up on Poppy Hill opens Friday, April 12, at the Century Theatres at the River, 71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, 760-836-1940.

Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur fantasy is still one of the best adventure films ever made, but the new 3-D retrofit winds up muting the presentation rather than expanding it. 

While James Cameron’s Titanic looked and felt like it was meant to be shot in 3-D, the presentation here feels forced. The color is diminished, and the scope seems “squished.” It’s not awful, and I have seen worse 3-D, but it fails to enhance the film all that much.

Theaters are also offering the movie in its original 2-D presentation, and I would recommend revisiting it in that format. The combination of practical and computer effects to create the dinosaurs has easily stood the test of time; the effects continue to look amazing.

While watching the 3-D version, I noticed that Jeff Goldblum sticks his tongue out a lot when he speaks. It’s creepy.

Jurassic Park is playing in regular and 3-D formats across the valley, and in IMAX 3-D at the UltraStar Desert IMAX Theatre, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City, 760-324-7333.

Thursday, 11 April 2013 15:00

Relax, 'Evil Dead' Fans: The Remake's OK

I’m disappointed that I didn’t see any 2 percent milk or creamed corn shooting out of zombie faces in the new Evil Dead. Sam Raimi, who directed the original schlock-fest, famously used those two foods in some of his gorier sequences—and it was gloriously disgusting.

The Evil Dead remake is a totally different animal from Raimi’s deranged original and its beloved sequels Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. It’s a far-more-polished movie that’s prettier than any of those films, with pretty people and pretty makeup.

That said, I wasn’t completely crazy about this new take on this old story, but as a fan of the original Evil Dead, I felt this was a worthy entry, and a nice jumping-off point for a new Evil Dead series of movies. It’s the best of the Evil Dead films when considering sheer quality—but it’s the worst regarding the fun factor.

I didn’t have the kind of sick fun I had while watching Evil Dead 2, nor did I have that sense of total doom I suffered while forcing the original The Evil Dead into my eyes. Director Fede Alvarez, making his feature debut, has made a humorless film, for the most part. He also pusses out in a few key moments toward the end, which left me feeling a sense of relief … which is something I don’t want to be feeling when watching a serious Evil Dead movie.

There’s no Ash (Bruce Campbell) along for the main story this time out. The central character is Mia (Jane Levy), a heroin addict taken to a remote cabin by friends and family to detox. The group eventually finds their way into the basement, where they discover the infamous book that one shouldn’t read aloud. Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) does just that; the forest does bad, invasive things to Mia; and things go downhill fast.

I liked Eric and Mia, but wasn’t too crazy about David (Shiloh Fernandez), Mia’s brother. He’s a poorly written character, a mopey guy who failed to get me to root for him. This is where Alvarez (who co-wrote the script with a couple of folks, most notably Diablo Cody) could’ve given us just a little Ash-circa-Evil Dead II-attitude.

The other actresses (Elizabeth Blackmore and Jessica Lucas) are just there to have bad things happen to them. Blackmore has an especially harrowing sequence with an electric carving knife, while Lucas takes shaving a little too far with a broken mirror shard.

I will say this for the new Evil Dead: Its gore effects are spectacular. There are a lot of old-school, practical makeup effects, and some true freak-out moments. When CGI is employed, it’s done well, but the stuff that will stick with you is plain-old-fashioned gooey stuff.

Levy and Pucci put this one over the top. They are very good, and their characters work in the Evil Dead universe. Fernandez is the film’s biggest flaw; somebody with more charisma or likeability would’ve served the film better.

Hey … it’s rare we get a good horror film these days. I’m putting the new Evil Dead just below Mama and Sinister as mildly recommended. Like the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, this remake doesn’t necessarily damage the legacy of the original (which happened with Rob Zombie’s terrible Halloween films).

So, Evil Dead fans: Breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not great, but it’s not a disaster. And make sure to stay through the credits for a nice little treat.

Evil Dead is playing in theaters across the valley.

Killing Them Softly, now out on Blu-ray, contains one of last year’s most-underrated performances. Brad Pitt is captivating as a hit man hired to make things right after a mob card game goes wrong. Teamed with director Andrew Dominik (his partner in crime for the excellent The AssassinSaveation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Pitt delivers a funny, frightening and incredibly controlled performance.

The movie tanked at the box office, even with the Pitt/Dominik pedigree. That’s too bad. Perhaps it will find its due on home video, where viewers might have a little more patience with its deliberate pacing. Give it a shot, and see why Pitt remains one of our best and most-underappreciated actors.

Special Features: You only get a few deleted scenes and a short making-of doc; you’re buying this one for the movie.

Director Charles Chaplin had some big balls, no doubt about it. He followed up his silent-film career as a lovable tramp by playing the lovable tramp as a stand-in for Hitler (The Great Dictator). Then he abandoned the Tramp altogether to play a bigamist wife-killer in this deranged film, Monsieur Verdoux, now out on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. It’s as if the world’s most-beloved movie star was constantly taunting his audience to not like him.

Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, a likable enough chap who loses his job as a bank clerk—and then starts killing older women for their money. Chaplin, quite controversially, portrays Verdoux as a sympathetic victim, with his murders and attempted murders being darkly humorous. It’s a film that confounded audiences upon its initial release, but has gone on to stand proudly alongside other classic films in Chaplin’s canon.

The film was originally set to be directed by Orson Welles and to star Chaplin, but Chaplin pulled out and bought the story rights from Welles. He then wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay, and directed and starred in the picture, giving Welles a small credit.

There are some genuinely chilling moments, but the murders are mostly played for comedy. Chaplin deliberately made the victims and potential victims far uglier than he was, including a cranked-up Martha Raye. At his core, Verdoux is a cold-blooded killer, but that doesn’t stop Chaplin from throwing in some of his trademark physical slapstick comedy. (There’s a backflip out a window that is quite amazing.)

Chaplin was into grand political statements, and this film was no exception. It came at a time when he was under fire from the U.S. government for his alleged communist leanings (for which he was eventually exiled). Making Verdoux sympathetic—and even virtuous at times—was in bad taste, but Chaplin had a tendency to be able to pull off things like this.

Watch this knowing that you are seeing one of the most-uneven films from one of cinema’s greatest and smartest directors. That said, it is still a great movie, and a testament to just how good of a filmmaker Chaplin was.

Special Features: This is not as rich and full as past Chaplin discs from Criterion, but it still has a couple of decent documentaries about him. You also get a nice collector’s booklet, including an essay from Chaplin himself. 

In Ginger and Rosa, Elle Fanning delivers a stellar performance (with an excellent British accent!) as Ginger in this film about two teenagers in Cold War England in the 1960s.

Fanning runs the gamut, showing all of the joy, anguish and fears of a girl living in an age when the world seems to be falling apart. Alice Englert is also terrific as Rosa, Ginger’s more-depressed best friend, while Alessandro Nivola and Christina Hendricks are excellent as Ginger’s parents.

The film goes a little off the rails in its final scenes, but it’s solid and steady for most of its running time, with Fanning showing the world that she is an actress with whom to be reckoned. Written and directed by Sally Potter, Ginger and Rosa is a showcase for Fanning that should propel her into great future roles.

Ginger and Rosa opens Friday, April 5, at the Cinemas Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111 in Palm Desert; 779-0730; www.thepalme.com.

Yes, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is an improvement over the original, but don’t get your hopes too high.

Dwayne Johnson joins something like his 18th franchise, as does Bruce Willis, in this confusing yet sometimes entertaining follow-up to G.I. Joe: The Sucky First Movie. There are some good action sequences, including a snowy-cliff sword battle and the destruction of London. There’s also a lot of clatter about Cobra Commanders and Snake Eyes and a bunch of other toy names.

Channing Tatum and Johnson have a great rapport, and a whole movie with them together could’ve been fun. Unfortunately, Tatum makes an early exit, making way for The Smirk. Willis is OK, but he doesn’t add all that much. Jonathan Pryce is fairly menacing as two characters: the president of the United States, and his evil impostor.

I’d tell you some plot details, but that would be a waste of space. Just know that if you plunk down for this, you will see a couple of good action sequences and a whole lot of mindless crap.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is playing at theaters across the valley.