REVIEW: The Light Between Oceans

31 08 2016

There are no battle scenes in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” but it is undoubtedly a war movie. One need not see the dispiriting, demoralizing trenches of World War I when their effects are so clearly visible in the blank expression of Michael Fassbender’s Tom Sherbourne. All vestiges of his personality must reside permanently buried in some European forest because shell shock has left a shell of a man, one so eager to extricate himself from human contact that he volunteers for a solitary position tending to a lighthouse off the Australian coast.

Tom’s isolated assignment recalls the kind of lonely confinement afforded Jack Torrance in “The Shining.” While he might not suffer a psychotic break or murderous episode, the location exacts a toll in its own, quiet way. In the wake of the Great War’s devastation, Tom attempts to maintain the mirage of a moral universe by upholding order on the smallest possible scale. “The Light Between Oceans” never uses the oft-elided interwar period to foreshadow the next looming conflict, a decision that lends weight to his inner agony.

Alone, Tom’s illusion seems faintly sustainable. The notion begins to crumble, however, when his sorrow gives way to genuine affection for Alicia Vikander’s Isabel Graysmark. Their flirtations begin with only the faintest of sparks, and they do not generate any more heat in the bedroom. That’s on purpose – for Tom, physical intimacy is something he approaches with trepidation since the last bodies he came into contact with were likely dead ones.

Isabel wants a baby, yet several failed pregnancies make the prospect seem implausible. Their thwarted attempts at birth feel quite reflective of the post-war Western world, trying to create a brighter future but stillborn efforts contribute to a growing sense of dread that life will never bloom again.

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REVIEW: The Place Beyond the Pines

25 07 2013

If ever you wanted to see the film as novel, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is there to satisfy your cinematic-cum-literary hunger.  Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the searing “Blue Valentine” moves from close-up to long shot, taking in multiple generations over the course of its two hour and 20 minute runtime.  It could even be argued that the film has not one, not two, but a whopping three protagonists.

Cianfrance’s story is peerless in terms of sheer ambition, and I give him great credit on those grounds.  I did feel, however, that he often sacrificed depth for breadth.  Rather than go fully into each of the three leading men of “The Place Beyond the Pines,” he cuts out a level too early in their development to squeeze each story into a film of bearable length.  While each have full and completely developed arcs, I could never totally get on board with the film because I didn’t feel that I knew the characters.

Even in spite of the sometimes slippery connection, something tells me I will forever be haunted by the eerie calm of the paralleled hovering shots of Ryan Gosling’s Luke Lanton, and then his son, Dane DeHaan’s Jason, riding their motorcycle down a twisting rural road.  Even from such a height, there’s a great deal of proximity and intimacy that Cianfrance manages to communicate in those brief interludes.

His film has the technical craftsmanship to match the epic scope of the story, particularly the eerie and somber photography of Sean Bobbitt (responsible for Steve McQueen’s immaculately shot “Hunger” and “Shame”).  Editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane take the chilling imagery and splice it poetically until it feels like cinematic Homeric verse.

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REVIEW: Blue Valentine

20 01 2011

Blue Valentine” is a story about a couple told in two different parts: how they come together and ultimately how they fall apart.  Like the yin and the yang, they complement each other to create a picture of broken marriage with vivid and heartbreaking color.  Writer and director Derek Cianfrance uses the broken narrative to provide the story with a harrowing sense of perspective as we observe what once sparked attraction between the two fuels repulsion six years later.

The movie opens on a scene of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) six years into their marriage, and no screaming match or fight is necessary to show that their relationship is crumbling.  With the demands of their daughter, the hassle of a lost pet, and the tension between their disparate jobs, the strain in their love is perfectly illustrated by their body language towards each other.

Cold, cruel, and distant they have grown – and Cianfrance doesn’t indulge us by telling where and when it all went south.  Is what we observe with the dog simply the straw that broke the camel’s back?  Was it having a child?  Or did their love gently erode over time?  “Blue Valentine” doesn’t offer us an easy answer, leaving it up to the audience to discuss in the theater lobby and the parking lot.

However, the question I asked wasn’t what caused them to fall out of love; I wondered if they were ever in love in the first place.  Strategically interspersed among their separation are flashbacks of Dean’s courtship of Cindy, which came as she was losing a dear relative and trying to shed an abusive father and boyfriend.  Perhaps it was just a perfect storm of circumstances that brought them together, not love.  And again, there’s no easy answer to that, which makes the heavy “Blue Valentine” land a little softer.

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Oscar Moment: “Blue Valentine”

19 11 2010

You’ve probably heard about “Blue Valentine” for all the wrong reasons, particularly because of the absurd NC-17 rating it received at the hands of the violence-loving but genophobic (that’s the fear of sex) ratings boards of the MPAA.  Harvey Weinstein lawyered up and is now going to stare down the ridiculous organization until they renege on the rating that has led all other movies to final ruin.

Why is the movie NC-17, for all those curious out there wondering?  Because it dared to give an honest portrayal of a relationship in its most devastating moments.  The movie has gained a reputation over the past year, after playing at Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto, for being a brutal watch but incredibly powerful because it dares to not fall into Hollywood schmaltz.  As Guy Lodge of In Contention put it when he first saw the movie at Cannes, the movie’s tagline should be “don’t see it with someone you love.”

The reviews so far have been fantastic, and they have been consistently rolling in as the film plays a new festival.  Kris Tapley of In Contention wrote in October that he “found it to be a delicate and truthful examination of a relationship in crisis.”  Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly raved:

“No movie I’ve seen at Sundance this year conjures the possibilities — or the current, gloom-and-doom marketplace environment — of independent film more powerfully than Blue Valentine. A lushly touching, wrenching, and beautifully told story, directed by Derek Cianfrance with a mood of entwined romantic dreams and romantic loss …”

The movie is a promising debut for writer/director Derek Cianfrance, and if the critics really show their love for the movie through their year-end awards, I think he could be rewarded with a Best Original Screenplay nomination.  Best Director this year will be packed full of some fan favorites reaching their peak (Fincher, maybe Nolan and Aronofsky), and the choice newcomer of 2010 will probably be Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech.”

But I get the sense that the reward for “Blue Valentine” will come through its actors, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.  It is their movie, and most reviews I read state that Cianfrance largely steps out of the way and lets them create the art.  According to Sasha Stone of Awards Daily, this movie is the culmination of a whole lot of work and passion from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams:

“… Director Derek Cianfrance has been meticulously working on this film for a good ten years.  He brought it to Michelle Williams back in 2003, and a few years later they brough in Ryan Gosling.  The idea was to wait until the two of them were old enough to be believable in the part.  Since the film takes place in different moments in time, the actors had to take a hiatus and change themselves physically before coming back to film the later scenes of the couple.”

Cianfrance went to great measures to get the most authentic performances possible out of his actors.  Gosling and Williams largely lived their roles during filming, and Cianfrance captured as much of it as possible.  Praise has been pouring out for the two stars, ranging from “the performances of their careers” (Stone) to “pitch-perfect” and “gold” (Tapley).  Gosling and Williams, who both recently turned 30, are tremendously respected for their ages as can be seen through their previous nominations.  Both face difficult fields, but I think they can do it simply because “Blue Valentine” appears to fly because they knock it out of the park.

And then there’s the big question of them all: what about Best Picture?  For starters, it’s already racked up one nomination on the road to glory.  The Gotham Independent Film Awards recognized “Blue Valentine” as one of the five best independent movies of the year, along with other hopefuls like “The Kids Are All Right,” “Black Swan,” and “Winter’s Bone.”  This group picked last year’s Best Picture winner, “The Hurt Locker,” as their favorite and nominated “A Serious Man,” a 2009 Best Picture nominee, as well.  The Gotham Awards are hardly a reliable indicator for Oscar tastes, though, with a Best Picture nominee popping up every once in a while.

So who knows?  The publicity from the ratings drama isn’t hurting, but with the film’s release set for December 31, it will have very little time to find an audience, making it the “obscure indie” pick that the expanded field might be phasing out.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actor, Best Actress

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director