Sometimes movies slip through the cracks and, for better or worse, I catch up with them. Here’s a handful, all directed by a range of men, from an Italian visionary to some dude named Robert Redford.
The Place Beyond the Pines, directed by Derek Cianfrance
A slow-burning drama told in three connected movements, all featuring an unusually haggard, unusually good Eva Mendes. The first has Ryan Gosling doing a version of his Drive persona, a bank-robbing, tattooed stunt biker living in Schenectady (a Mohawk word that gives the movie its title). The second miscasts Bradley Cooper as a lawyer turned cop in the same town. The last has two fantastic performances from Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, whose relationship to each other and the rest of the movie is basically from the people who brought you Romeo and Juliet.
What Cianfrance has written has scraps of surprise and a fine chase sequence, but it doesn’t reach for the stars or the emotional cosmos — or, at least, it doesn’t know how to get there. He’s given us plot points and episodes in search of thriller and tragedy. But no suspense. His previous movie with Gosling, 2010’s martial-disaster drama Blue Valentine, was similarly unsure about how to build into something greater than shouts and murmurs. This time, you wonder whether Cianfrance reached the film’s final third and realized that this was his movie, two high school burnouts who fascinate each other. But he had Gosling and Cooper and probably couldn’t turn back. Once Ray Liotta shows up as his umpteenth crook, it’s tempting to believe that a piece of software made the whole movie happen.
The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford
This is the most depressing movie ever made about radicalism. Not only because it makes no sense, but because it confirms that there’s so much pressure to make serious movies whose seriousness doesn’t scare off anybody that the resulting movies are just seriously dull. This one stars Redford, who has aged into a liberal of excruciating earnestness, and aspires to be an important political thriller. There’s one problem: There are no politics. Lem Dobbs is the credited screenwriter, and you can see what Redford might have sensed in the script — a bratty reporter from the “Albany Sun Times” (Shia LaBeouf) elbows his way into a series of stories about some former Weather Underground guerrillas who gradually come out of hiding when one is arrested after 30 years. The movie also stars Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Anna Kendrick, Richard Jenkins, Terrence Howard, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, and Brit Marling, as LaBeouf’s Daryl Hannah distraction. At some point, they’re not acting in a movie. They’re signing a petition. But for what? The whole thing builds to an encounter with Redford, Christie, and their respective lighting. Hearing them talk about their bygone radical days is absurd, like listening to two glasses of Chardonnay reminisce about how they wrote “Fight the Power.”
Gimme the Loot, directed by Adam Leon
There’s a kind of first movie that leaves you exhilarated by the minty-freshness of its firstness. Amid all the copycatting and pricey bombast and genericness, here’s a movie that looks like it hails from a real place; whose characters sound like they come from somewhere; whose stakes are stresslessly low. Some of the happiness in watching Leon’s first movie is a matter of timing: It’s seasonal. Set all over New York during the sweaty apex of baseball season, the comedy splits up two teenage taggers — Sofia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) — and has each try to scrape together enough money to gain them illegal entry to Citi Field, where they hope to graffiti-bomb the Mets’ home-run apple.
Malcolm scams himself some weed and winds up fooling around with his first house call, a dopey debutante (Zoe Lescaze). He’s so high on her that when he has to make a emergency exit, he barely notices that he’s left behind his sneakers. The image of a sweet-natured black guy walking around New York in his stocking feet is a great cultural sight gag. Sofia’s the harder of the two and has a much tougher day. She’s roughed up, robbed, and ripped off, but it doesn’t faze her. When she catches up with a kid who helped steal her bike, she slaps the shit out of him.
The movie has a lot of amateur scruff. But Leon’s talent is all in his touch. He insists on a lightness that doesn’t cheapen anybody or sugarcoat all the cursing and crime. This is life in New York City, and sometimes even the bad news is funny. He understands the socioeconomic discrepancies without inflicting them upon anybody. Inequality is circumstance. It doesn’t have to be a state of mind. Another, older director (Leon’s 31) would have drummed up some guilty drama. But Leon, who trained with Woody Allen, keeps finding more comedy. There’s a kid on a basketball court who comes on to Sofia with some filthy talk about certain smells of summer. She’s there for business, but as she talks to another guy you can still see the other kid in the background humping the fence like a dirty puppy. The whole film is funny and true that way.
You used to be able to find a movie like this at Sundance. But young, so-called independent American filmmaking is currently oily with slickness and money, and under so many influences that you can’t tell where a new voice begins and some secondhand vision ends. (The movie showed up at other festivals, including Cannes last year, and is playing on fewer than a dozen screens at the moment.) Leon’s time with Allen has helped give him a tone (damn if Hickson doesn’t have some of Allen’s nervous shiftiness) and a taste for a sideways soundtrack (the title comes from the Notorious B.I.G., but the music here is all subway gospel and picnic funk). Nonetheless, Leon appears to have seen Allen’s sanitized New York and wondered where the rest of the city went. He’s restored the grit, color, vernacular, and vulgarity. Leon hasn’t copied Allen. He’s tagged him.
Reality, directed by Matteo Garrone
In 2008, Garrone’s Gomorrah was as panoramic a mob-bound crime opus as you could hope to see. It had the sweep of a tragedy, the force of a wrecking ball, and the craftsmanship of a pointillist. This new movie is set, like its predecessor, amid the decay of Naples but lacks that film’s hell-on-Earth tonnage. For one thing, Garrone doesn’t have the galvanic journalistic source material, Roberto Saviano’s nonfiction book, that gave Gomorrah its force. But he does employ the same dreamed-up documentary tone to observe a grifting Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano (Aniello Arena) as he falls into an obsession with becoming a cast member on Big Brother. The camera often seems to float and hover like some alien presence. That detachment creates a kind of transparency even as Garrone conjures low-key Fellini gaudiness — physical corpulence, decadent air, weddings, malls, nightclubs, and an empty water park.
By the time Luciano enters the storied Cinecittà production complex, where Fellini once made his masterpieces and the Big Brother lair lives, it’s clear that Garrone is lamenting the death of culture. But the movie is more compassionate than screed-y. It’s a portrait of the preoccupation with fame in an age in which in fame is cheap. Luciano doesn’t want to be a Marcello Mastroianni. He wants to be an oversexed clown on a reality show. Still, his lust for celebrity is real and destructive. He convinces himself that television producers have dispatched spies to watch him. That paranoia starts to fray his psyche and marriage (Loredana Simioli plays his ferocious wife, and she’s great).
Arena was once a gangster, and his muscles and tattoos belie his guilelessness. The youth in his haircut and dye job are betrayed by the little gray tufts at the back of his neck. He’s a middle-aged man who hasn’t grown up — Italian movies know that character well. But Garrone doesn’t back away. He affixes all his style to Luciano’s obsession and entertains the corrosive lunacy of his pathetic dream. This movie opened a month ago. See it in a theater while you can.
Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, directed by take a wild guess
Perry has an address in Atlanta, but he no longer lives on this planet. His movies have Kim Kardashian yet have nothing to do with glamour. They remain churchy but have nothing to do with God. If he ever caught the spirit, he caught it like a cold. Perry is rich, famous, successful, and obviously at some kind of commercial crossroads. What does he want to mean to us? What does he want to mean to himself? We’ve gotten 14 movies in eight years, and this new one leaves you with the very real impression that’s he running out of interest and ideas.
He gives us a two-hour flashback, in which an aspiring D.C. marriage counselor named Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) gets hooked on a rich, severely fit psychopath (Robbie Jones) who’s only slightly less severely fit than her husband (Lance Gross). Oh, the symbolism: The psycho drives a satanically red sports car; the husband drives rickety, salt-of-the-earth pickup. Brandy spends a lot of her scenes with her guard and hoodie up. Kardashian has put-downs for Judith at the same workplace where Vanessa Williams’s “French” “accent” sucks up all the air. And Ella Joyce arrives for what could have been an amazing exorcism, but all that praying goes nowhere but the Kleenex box.
Perry’s movies have become so thematically grandiose, visually incoherent, and self-defensively bourgeois that the only way to receive them lately is as a cynic. Four years ago, when Dwayne Johnson picked up Janet Jackson at the end of Why Did I Get Married, Too?, you felt like Perry was ready to give us the easy black romance the movies have suppressed. But no one has it easy in a Perry movie. Now he’s pushing moral redundancy. HIV returns as some kind of divine guarantee that a woman will never love again. Perry’s become a cynic, too. Temptation opened two weeks ago and is a hit, but, at this point, Tyler Perry’s Colonoscopy would make $60 million. There’s no care here, no sign that he expects an audience to want more than sucked teeth, rolled eyes, and powdered drama. In fact, he’s so powerful and so necessary that you worry no one can talk him out of anything. When Jones and Smollett-Bell make love in the psycho’s bathtub, Perry doesn’t even bother to clear the steam. We’re looking at nothing but brown spots and vapor. You hate to say it, but that’s symbolism.
Blancanieves, directed by Pablo Berger
When people were going nuts for The Artist a couple of years ago, all I could think was: “There’s got to be a better way.” The Artist was a silent movie about silent movies. It encouraged nostalgia for bygone Hollywood moviemaking. That was fine, but I wanted something crazier than cute romance, something kinkier than stage kisses, something that knows there’s nothing sacred about intertitles and iris-eyes, that you can do everything with them. I wanted profanity. I wanted exuberance. I wanted a movie that, say, relocated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 1920’s Spain, the world of bullfighting, and the realm of S&M. I wanted Blancanieves, which is as silent and black-and-white as The Artist.
A famous matador (Daniel Gímenez Cacho), his comically evil wife (Maribel Verdú), her charming stepdaughter (first Sofia Oria; then, as an adult, Macarena García), dancing camerawork, dreamy editing, storybook art direction: This is what Pedro Almodóvar would do if he weren’t burdened with the creative headache of being Pedro Almodóvar. What Berger does with the actors, the sight gags, the close-ups, the music, the photography is close to perfection. The movie’s energy might wipe you out. But the lightness of Berger’s touch and the modernness of his style is the antidote to The Artist‘s labor and reverential antiquity. He knows silent movies can do more than collect museum dust. They can get down and dirty.
Upstream Color, directed by Shane Carruth
For about an hour, Shane Carruth’s second movie in nine years (his first was Primer) rewards the work required to watch it. We don’t know why a scientist who’s harvesting butterflies and inspiring kids to do elaborate hand choreography is also hypnotizing an office drone (Amy Seimetz) to empty her bank accounts for him. Why has he turned her body into a worm-infested science project? Why does the crisp-looking film noir shed its skin and scramble itself into a stunted romance between the drone and a man she meets on a train? Why does that lead to a closing chapter featuring sound fields, flowers, and someplace called Quinoa Valley? Why ask why when, ultimately, the question with Carruth is what: What now, what next, what the fuck?
It’s not enough to suppose, as people have been doing, that this movie is about identity. Lots of movies are. Identity Thief is a movie about identity. It’s as if Carruth — who, in addition to writing, directing, editing, scoring, and starring in this movie, is also distributing it on his own — wants to communicate with us but keeps getting in his own way. He wants us to feel his movie: He appropriates recognizable genres and casts attractive people, including himself. But he seems terrified not of being misunderstood but of being comprehended. Is success too conventional an outcome for him? Accurate though the science here might be, it’s also impenetrable. What the movie points to is worth following until you’re left with an enormous map that you spend the rest of the drive trying to refold. There are ellipses and earnestness right out of Terrence Malick; and as with Malick, we have to talk about Carruth with utmost care, lest the truth about the frustrations of his obvious talent send him further into reclusion, lest we bruise him. This movie will really speak to a lot of people. Some will see an arcane feat of genius. Some will see it for what it is: a work of cultural autism.