By Carl Kozlowski
Indie filmmakers Derek Cianfrance and Harmony Korine blast past prior limits in The Place Beyond the Pines and Spring Breakers
It’s rare to see a filmmaker grow so much in a two-year stretch between the release of a film and its follow-up. But writer-director Derek Cianfrance has undergone an impressive artistic growth spurt with his new release, the intimate yet epic The Place Beyond the Pines.
Meanwhile, Cianfrance’s fellow indie-movie auteur Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo) has attempted a different kind of stylistic leap with his own new film, Spring Breakers. After nearly two decades of attempting to shock rather than entertain critics and audiences, Korine has made an oddball run for a mainstream hit by casting three former Disney Channel starlets as slutty coeds lured into a spring-break crime spree by a deranged thug played by James Franco.
Both films deal with the lure criminal thrills present to young people with limited life options. Yet Pines deserves an Oscar nomination, while Breakers will likely be as forgettable as an evening of playing violent video games mixed with watching porn.
Pines stars Ryan Gosling as Luke, an uneducated traveling motorcycle stuntman who runs into Romina, a former one-night stand who had a child by him without his knowledge. He wants to drop his career and help raise his son, Jason, but doesn’t have the skills to make a normal living.
It is then that a friend convinces Luke to be the getaway driver in a series of bank robberies. His super driving skills will help the gang easily elude cops. But when his partner decides to stop robbing, Luke makes one more ill-advised holdup and is shot dead while trying to escape.
The policeman who shoots him is Avery (Bradley Cooper), who accidentally shot first when he saw Luke’s gun and now has to live with the guilt of killing a man improperly and leaving his son fatherless. His supervisors help Avery cover up his error and he grows into a charismatic district attorney. All seems right in the world until the day years later when his teenage son AJ and his best friend, who happens to be Luke’s now-teenage son, learn the secrets of their fathers’ interaction. How will the sons handle the sins of their fathers?
All the actors involved offer outstanding performances, rising to the quality of the film’s excellent screenplay, which uses an utterly unique structure. While the movie’s ads and posters make Place look like an ongoing showdown between Gosling and Cooper, they only share the screen for seconds as the film’s focus transitions with that one stunning gunshot from Luke’s story to becoming Avery’s tale. And then it dares to shift focus again, leaping forward into the teen years of their sons.
Pines has a strong shot at being one of the year’s Best Picture nominees, deserving of awards recognition in nearly every category. Here’s hoping for another quantum leap in artistry from Cianfrance with his next film, in the hopes that he can continue shining light on the kinds of stories that all too often revel in darkness.
Speaking of darkness, Spring Breakers has been causing a sensation among critics and moviegoers alike with the stylishly violent tale of four seemingly nice college coeds who get dragged into a nightmare of sex, drugs and gun battles while on spring break.
The movie’s cast is drawing the most attention, with teen starlets Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens playing three of its four lead naughty girls. These actresses are clearly trying to shed their innocent images and get taken seriously as adults, though they seem to be ignoring the fact that most actresses with any maturity don’t wallow in such staggering levels of amoral onscreen behavior.
But it is Franco who’s really gone off the deep end here, playing a thoroughly deranged thug named Alien. He bails the girls out of jail when they get arrested for minor offenses, only to seduce them into far more dangerous behavior as their crime spree leads to a turf battle with far more sinister criminals.
Most people will find plenty to be outraged about here. However, Korine and his cast throw themselves so wholeheartedly into the enterprise that the hypnotic charm of Franco’s Alien, combined with a lush score, great cinematography, a non-stop candy shop display of human flesh and wild behavior, make this hard to ignore and sick fun for those who can put aside all sense of morality.