Film reviews: The Place Beyond the Pines | First Position

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ALISTAIR Harkness reviews the rest of the week’s cinema releases, including Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho’s new film Neighbouring Sounds.

The Place Beyond the Pines (15)

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendhelson

* * * *

HAVING a criminal and a cop whose fates become inextricably linked is nothing new in cinema, so all credit to co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance for managing to do something interesting with this crime drama staple in The Place Beyond the Pines. Though ostensibly about a carnival motorcycle stunt rider (Ryan Gosling) and the cop (Bradley Cooper) whose path he crosses after turning to crime to support his newborn son, the film eschews traditional genre tropes to the point where it feels more like another raw, John Cassavetes-esque relationship drama in the mould of Cianfrance’s previous film, Blue Valentine.

That movie also starred Gosling as a blue-collar guy embracing paternal responsibilities in well-meaning but destructive ways, but where it mashed up its chronology to accentuate the ways in which time fails to heal festering wounds, The Place Beyond the Pines approaches its decade-and-a-half-spanning tale in a more sequential way to surreptitiously mimic life’s myriad surprises, even while giving the impression that fate is driving events. This keeps the narrative somewhat unpredictable and it’s a testament to Cianfrance’s confidence in his own abilities that he manages to pull off some audacious switches in focus between his main characters.

Both Gosling and Cooper do sterling work as proud men hamstrung by a debilitating propensity for self-deception. As Luke, the bike-riding drifter who naively takes to bank robbery for what he thinks is a noble cause, Gosling – bleach-blond hair, heavy tattoos, enigmatic smile – is great at taking the soulful outlaw archetype and showing how quickly it crumples when confronted with the day-to-day reality of what it actually takes to raise a child. Cooper, meanwhile, carefully chips away at the hero cop role to get at the more complicated issues his character, Avery, is dealing with as both a new father himself and the son of a powerful local judge who disapproves of the career path the he’s chosen. What begins to emerge is an noir-inflected Greek tragedy in which certain choices reverberate in damaging ways through the years. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the bold storytelling choices Cianfrance makes in the first two-thirds of this epic-length film lead to an overblown final chapter that destabilises proceedings by bringing the sins-of-the-father theme to a head in such a baroque and unwieldy fashion. Still, its accomplishments and ambitions far outweigh its failings.

Neighbouring Sounds (15)

Directed by: Kleber Mendonça Filho

Starring: Sebastião Formiga, Irma Brown, Gustavo Jahn, WJ Sola

* * * *

BRAZILIAN film critic turned filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho makes an auspicious debut with Neighbouring Sounds, a subtle, artful portrait of an upwardly mobile neighbourhood and the unseen forces threatening its security. Set mostly on a single, prosperous street in the Brazilian city of Recife, the film begins with a series of still photographs depicting life in a rural community. These scenes appear to stand in marked contrast to the urban life that becomes the focal point for the film, but while the Hidden-esque significance of the photographs won’t become apparent until later on (Michael Haneke’s best film feels like a natural touchstone), the way Filho accentuates different noises as he’s introducing us to the security gate-lined houses and apartment buildings of this single neighbourhood hints at the unease that will permeate the action to follow. Indeed, just as it’s impossible to block out the day-to-day noise of an urban landscape, the film gradually lets us see how futile living in luxurious but prison-like houses is when it comes to blocking out the insecurities and psychological fears that trouble their residents. The result is an unsettling, symbolism-rich drama in which bad things seem to lurk right under the characters’ noses.

First Position (15)

Directed by: Bess Kargman

* * * *

IN ITS own way, ballet documentary First Position is as formulaic as any underdog sports movie blockbuster. Nevertheless, even while it follows the now over-familiar structure favoured by every multiple-character, competition-based, triumph-over-adversity documentary since Spellbound, the stories that emerge from director Bess Kargman’s film are hard to resist. Following a diverse group of six young ballet hopefuls as they compete for scholarships, jobs and recognition at an annual showcase in New York, the film reinforces the dedication required on the part of the dancers (and their parents) to make it, while also counter-acting some of the damaging myths perpetuated by movies such as the recent Black Swan (unlike Natalie Portman’s character in that film, everyone here eats like a horse, although it is also true that a few of the dancers conform to type by being quite highly strung).

That said, all the kids have a good story, but the most fascinating belongs to Michaela, an orphan from war-torn Sierra Leone whose pure joy at being able to dance (and dance beautifully) on stage after enduring such a horrifying start in life is an undeniable testament to the continued value of art and culture in society.

Simon Killer (18)

Directed by: Antonio Campos

Starring: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Nicholas Ronchi, Lila Salet

* * * *

THIS latest project from Borderline Films, the tight-knit New York production company behind last year’s Marcy Martha May Marlene, finds Martha star Brady Corbet on even more disturbing form than he was in that film. He plays Simon, an American student who has retreated to Paris to get over a bad break-up, but instead finds himself embarking on a transgressive downward spiral after becoming infatuated with a hostess (Mati Diop) working in Paris’s red light district. As with director Antonio Campos’s under-seen debut, Afterschool, this is another unflinching portrait of a young man giving in to some deep-rooted sociopathic tendencies, although Campos here takes care to maintain a degree of ambiguity when it comes to revealing the extent to which Simon is willing to act on his titular impulses. It helps that he deploys a rigorously formal shooting style that brings to mind the work of Clair Denis rather than the grim’n’gritty realism of similarly themed films such as Henry: Portrait of a Killer. In his hands – and Corbet’s – Simon is both a figure of fascination and someone from whom you just want to recoil, which makes this a tough, provocative watch, but one that has a lasting impact.