(On Cable TV, September 2017) Had I seen Half Nelson back in 2006, I may have snapped out of my unfortunate “Ryan Gosling has a punchable face” phase (largely driven by Murder by Numbers) well before 2007’s Fracture. While I’m no big fan of Half Nelson’s gritty naturalistic drama, Gosling is quite good as a competent history teacher by day who turns into a crackhead by night. Half Nelson does grapple with a number of issues about class, race and power relationships, but its biggest asset is Gosling’s ability to be charming or pathetic at will. Shareeka Epps is also quite good as a student who discovers her teacher’s biggest failings, while Anthony Mackie has an early turn as a neighborhood drug dealer. Half Nelson is as far removed from glossy entertainment as you can imagine, and while this obviously has some appeal, it can make the viewing experience draining, especially as it drags on and there is only the barest hint of a redemption at the end, following a demoralizing rock bottom. The film does get better once you compare it to the heroic-teacher subgenre in which white people teach lessons to black students from the ghetto—the clichés are completely upended here, and the film delights in refusing a redemptive arc. Most notably, a subplot with Monique Gabriela Curnen is positively infuriating in refusing an upbeat closure. If Half Nelson doesn’t feel like your cup of tea, that’s OK—it’s not meant for everyone, but it certainly remains a must-see for anyone digging into Gosling’s filmography.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) I will always be receptive to a good old-school Hollywood musical, and La La Land does get started with a terrific freeway dance number that clearly sets the tone for what follows—a classic musical paying homage to Hollywood dreams without being bound to strict realism. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as star-crossed artists who struggle to achieve their personal vision. Charming and likable like golden-era Hollywood stars, Gosling and Stone couldn’t be more suited for their roles as eager upstarts. Still, the real star here is writer/director Damien Chazelle, orchestrating a big musical with enough modern sensibilities to feel both timeless and contemporary. The dusk musical number (the film’s second-best highlight following the freeway opening number) is spectacular enough that I could have sworn it had been shot in-studio and heavily post-processed, but it turns out it was actually captured on location in few takes. More daringly, the film not only goes for a bittersweet ending in which our characters don’t necessarily end up together—but also shows us an alternate montage depicting what would have happened otherwise. I’m impressed but not entirely satisfied by that choice, something that is also true for the rest of the film: for all the crowd-pleasing moments, there are also odd choices and obsessions elsewhere. I’m getting too old and jaded to be swayed much by idealistic appeals to artistic purity, so a chunk of La La Land’s thematic appeal feels a bit jejune. But it is a film about ideals, and musicals don’t do well with pure realism (hence my ambivalence about the ending), so let’s enjoy the colours and the bounciness and the Hollywood satire and the idea that we’ve got such a film to tide us over in dour bleak 2017.
(On TV, August 2017) From the very first disorienting moments of Stay, what with its first-person sequences, a psychiatrist protagonist and hints of something stranger going on, it’s obvious that this is going to be a twisty thriller. Ewan MacGregor stars as a therapist trying to help a troubled young man not to commit suicide, but his probing only reveals more confusion. Meanwhile, Naomi Watts is troubled as his girlfriend and Ryan Gosling, back in his punchable-face pre-Notebook early career, is suitably abrasive as the suicidal student. As the movie goes on, it makes less and less sense and experienced viewers may choose to disembark from the emotional train at this point, suspecting that it’s headed for a crash. The resolution of the film would prove them right, as it conjures up a weak explanation for the film that nonetheless manages to make a mockery out of it, merely one step removed from “it was all a dream.” What a disappointment, coming from director Marc Foster (Stranger than Fiction, World War Z, etc.) and screenwriter David Benioff (Game of Thrones). But what saves the film from complete failure is Foster’s intense stylistic touch, infusing to the film a style that keeps it interesting even as we begin to suspect that it’s narratively hollow. I’d use “Lynchian” carefully, and not as a term of endearment. Small interesting segments do not amount to a satisfying whole, especially when it’s the film meta-narrative conceit that it’s a whole assembled out of fragments. I went into Stay completely cold (as in; unaware of its content) and can’t recommend the experience—like many movies who keep a self-conscious punch for the end, it may best be seen as warm as possible: Read the rather good Wikipedia plot summary first, and then see the film for yourself fully expecting the twist. Maybe it’ll be more satisfying like that.
(Video on Demand, September 2016) Hollywood circa 2016 is not a good place for film such as The Nice Guys. Hollywood demands spectacles, special effects, media tie-ins and easily digestible entertainment—it’s not so fond of R-rated 1970s-set semi-realist crime/comedy hybrids with a snarky tone, expensive lead actors, and unconventional narrative beats. So it’s a bit amazing that The Nice Guys managed to get made and got good reviews … but not so amazing that it did poorly at the box office, making it unlikely that such movies will come back on Hollywood’s radar any time soon. Still, let’s appreciate what we’ve got: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in fine form, forming an unlikely pair of investigators untangling a complex disappearance case against a backdrop of adult movies and industrial corruption. Writer/director Shane Black makes a great follow up to his previous Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, combining wit and narrative polish in the service of an enjoyable crime/comedy mix. It’s not necessarily conventional (by the end of the film, it’s an open question as to whether the two protagonists have actually accomplished anything) but it is enjoyable and off-beat enough. The atmosphere of 1977 is credibly re-created and Black’s typical wit shines through the snappy dialogue, absurd situations and off-beat story choices. The Nice Guys is worth tracking down, if only as a peek at what movies we could have had Hollywood not completely sold out to the megaplex paradigm.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) I was willing to give Ryan Gosling plenty of chances for his debut feature film, but as it turns out there are limits to the amount of Lynchian surrealism that I can take, and he easily exceeded them during the course of Lost River. I do think that there’s something interesting in the film’s blend of quasi-magical realism, its transposition of a fantasy quest in a contemporary setting and the way some of the imagery resonates. It’s hard to watch the film and remain unmoved by the decay that it exhibits, or not wonder a bit about street lamps leading down to a lake. But strange imagery is best when it supports a solid story, and Lost River seems to lose itself in digressions, daydreaming and mean-spirited violence. I mean: If you ever want to see Christina Hendricks graphically cut off the flesh off her face, then this is the film for you. As for me: Ew. Taking place on a metaphorical level but not feeling like anything more substantial than a nightmare, Lost River ends up being moderately obnoxious even when it seems to be leading up to something. I gather that fans of cinematic surrealism will like this one better than I did.
(On TV, March 2015) I’m actually paying a compliment to Blue Valentine when I say that I don’t ever want to see that movie again. As a romantic drama describing the beginning and the end of a relationship in excruciating detail, it more than fulfills its objectives. That it’s successful and heart-wrenching, however, doesn’t mean that it’s in any way pleasant or entertaining to watch. As a big montage jumping back in forth between the best and the worst moments of a relationship, Blue Valentine doesn’t miss an occasion to push and pull at the viewer, juxtaposing songs and dialogue lines to ironic effect and wallowing in massive emotional whiplash. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance clearly know what he’s doing, and the result is a raw and troubling film without heroes or winners. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are both exceptional in roles far removed from many of their other glossy performances (Gosling, especially, gets far from his idealised character in The Notebook, or his glossy-cool portrayal in Drive.) Alas, Blue Valentine revels in the kind of art-house aesthetics that reliably exasperate me: shaky-cam images (even when there are no reasons to shake the camera), too-close shots, gritty unpolished images, improvised dialogue… it’s a painful film to watch in more ways that the obvious subject matter. While Blue Valentine’s achievement is undeniable, so is a powerful drive to never have to go through it again.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) If I was in a better mood, I would probably have something nicer to say about The Place Beyond the Pines, its savvy use of Ryan Gosling, its unusual generation-hopping timeline, the quality of its images, the profound exploration of the meaning of fatherhood, the unexpectedly dramatic performances by Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper, and a number of other meaningful factors. It’s a quality film, one that has a lot on its mind, and one that takes time to invest in its characters. But if writer/director Derek Cianfrance seems to be directly inspired by the artistic moviemaking of the seventies, he isn’t particularly interested in snappy storytelling or even base entertainment: The Place beyond the Pines tests everyone’s patience at 140 minutes, wallows in a somber tone and never again reaches the heights of its first act. I may not be in the mood for moody films these days, and that’s not the film’s problem. But it becomes my problem in trying to report on it, as the dominant impression I keep from it is having lost quite a bit of time watching something underwhelming. Not recommended for people with only the patience for light entertainment.
(On TV, December 2014) I’m not a big fan of big romantic dramas, but in the decade since it was released, The Notebook has become a modern classic-of-sorts in its genre, as essential viewing for romance fans as, say, the contemporary Shaun of the Dead can be for zombie fans. And despite the cynicism that one can bring to it, The Notebook remains curiously effective in large part due to great performances and a killer hook of an ending that wraps it as definitely as any romance can. This is, obviously, the film that has made Ryan Gosling famous as a sex-symbol, and solidified a Hollywood career for Rachel McAdams – their onscreen performance is compelling (although by now nearly everyone knows that they weren’t getting along at the time) and their much-lauded poster-making rainstorm kiss scene can impress even the curmudgeons in the audience. Director Nick Cassavetes goes old-school in the way he helms the film, and that earnestness helps sell the old-fashioned story being told. The last few minutes are exceptionally effective, and cement the film’s high-drama romance. While The Notebook may not target me, there’s no denying how well it works at its intended goals, and deserves its place as a film whose reputation has grown in the years since its release.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) I wasn’t a big fan of Drive, so the idea of a reunion between star Ryan Gosling and writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn wasn’t the draw that it was for other reviewers. Much to my dismay, it turns out the Only God Forgives (great title, right?) takes the worst aspects of Drive and magnifies them: The plotlessness, the tepid tempo, the garish color scheme, the brutal gore, the expressionless characters… it just goes on and on without much of a point, even though Vithaya Pansringarm is a force of nature as the vengeful policeman righting the wrongs made by Gosling’s family. It’s an unpleasant film in tone, approach and material, made worse by a lack of point and the bare skeleton of a plot stretched over 90 minutes. While the visual polish of the film is undeniable, the directorial flourishes of Only God Forgives can’t save it from pointlessness.
(Video on-Demand, April 2013) There’s a fine line between parody, homage and unimaginative filmmaking, and it’s unfortunate that Gangster Squad seems to straddle all three at various times. I’m certainly not objecting to the idea of a muscular crime thriller set in post-war Los Angeles: cops-versus-mob movies are the bread-and-butter of the crime-thriller genre, and a director as gifted as Ruben Fleischer should have done wonders with the concept, especially given a an ensemble cast of talented actors. At times, Gangster Squad is exactly what it should be: a broad straight-up action movie where brash cops slap down the burgeoning L.A. mob scene. Car chases, fist-fights, explosions and gunfights: No problem. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad ends up feeling a bit too naive even for its intended goal: the tone isn’t controlled, the plot strands are both tired and used without refinements, the dialogues are weak and even the capable actors can’t do much with what they’re given. The worst example of this is probably the romantic sub-plot between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling: both are good actors with great chemistry, but they’re not given anything interesting to do together. Historically inaccurate to a degree that can be divined even by the most unobservant of viewers, Gangster Squad should be an old-fashioned thriller à la L.A. Confidential, but ends up a barely-competent photocopy of better works. The historical re-creation, decent actors and overall potential can’t make up for the wasted opportunities.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the strength of their cast, so it’s a relief to see that nearly everyone headlining Crazy, Stupid, Love is at the top of their game. Steve Carell anchors the cast as a recently-separated middle-aged man seeking lifestyle counsel from a capable womanizer, but he’s surrounded by more great performances by a variety of known names in a variety of large-and-small roles, from Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon and Ryan Gosling, alongside newer names such as Jonah Bobo and Analeigh Tipton. Veterans Tomei and Bacon are hilarious to watch in small but effective roles, but Gosling is particularly noteworthy, charming his way through a character that could have been immensely repellent in less-capable hands. After focusing on the protagonist’s attempt to recapture some of his male seductive powers, Crazy, Stupid, Love soon expands into a mosaic of romantic subplots, occasionally palming a few cards in order to deliver a few almost-cheap twists along the way. No matter, though: it leads to a relatively pleasant conclusion despite the overused (but subverted) graduation-speech plot device. Such genre-awareness is a crucial component of Crazy, Stupid, Love’s moment-to-moment interest: Beyond the well-used soundtrack (including a striking usage of Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La”), the sharp dialogue and the snappy direction, Crazy, Stupid, Love is just a joy to watch: so much so that even the tangled subplots and tortured twists seem cute rather than annoying. And that, one could argue, is a measure of the film’s success.
(In theaters, October 2011) As with many backroom political thrillers, The Ides of March tells the story of how a young political wunderkind loses his illusions while working for a star candidate. If you’ve read Joe Klein/Anonymous’s Primary Colors or seen 1996’s City Hall, you have a rough idea of how this works. But familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as the similitudes taper off toward the end, and the result is a convincing look at the way American politics can work. Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of a genius-level political operative makes for a sympathetic hero, and he more than holds his own against such notables as George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. (It’s one of the film’s interesting choices to use a star Clooney as a superstar candidate, character-actor darlings Hoffman and Giamatti as seasoned professionals and Gosling as an up-and-comer –a good example of Hollywood typecasting working as casting.) Perhaps the best thing about The Ides of March is its pitch-perfect portrayal of the political process at the primary stage –the ground-level organizing, the dirty tricks, the high-level negotiations in dismal settings. Director Clooney does a fine job as portraying the grey nature of mid-March winter in Cincinnati, and the film quickly becomes a must-see for American political junkies, who won’t cringe too much at the film’s faithfulness to reality as we know it. It almost goes without saying that, despite being loosely based on a play loosely based on the Howard Dean campaign, The Ides of March is best interpreted as a what-if rather than an allegory of anything that really happened recently: despite the political in-jokes, if best to appreciate the actors working as character rather than caricatures. It’s unclear whether the film will have much of a wide appeal beyond left-leaning politicos: like many political thrillers, it ends at a funeral, but unlike many it doesn’t feature a single raised gun, conspiracy or assassination attempt. It’s this nominal adherence to a plausible version of reality (with a side-order of capable performances) that makes The Ides of March works well despite familiar ideas and a low-key presentation. Sometimes, you don’t need car chases and explosions to have a thrilling time.
(In theaters, September 2011) Every so often, genre thriller fans are asked to confront moody art-house versions of familiar crime stories. Here we have a stunt driver / mechanic moonlighting as a getaway driver. He meets a single mother and her son; gets embroiled in a heist when her husband gets out of prison; is forced to defend himself once the heist turns bad and he ends up with a lot of money that other people have acquired in ways that would get everyone killed. Having read (and re-read) James Sallis’ thin novel on which the film is based, I can say that the adaptation is both loose and faithful: The plot is there, the motivations are entirely different but the mood is just as laconic and borderline pretentious. There are fewer details in the film about the protagonist’s life as a stuntman, but the details surrounding the main plot are far better developed (in particular “Irene”, much more fully rounded from the novel’s “Irena”). Still, the film itself feels stuck in-between genre conventions and dramatic pretention: The languid pacing alone is a tough sell to thriller audiences: Drive often feels like lengthy silences loosely connected together and the editing seems happy to linger on characters as they stare wordlessly into space to the sound of eighties-inspired music. Ryan Gosling’s nameless character is either a straightforward revenge-driven hero, or an enigma without dialogue; I had certainly imagined a scrappier protagonist from the novel. Meanwhile, art-house audiences may not feel entirely with the Grand Theft Auto-inspired subject matter, or with the unnecessary flashes of extreme gore. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is far more interested in dramatic beats than action sequences, which gives a particular off-beat flavour to the film’s more intense moments: they likely won’t satisfy action junkies, but they do bring something unusual to the table in terms of visual presentation. (The opening pre-credit sequence is remarkable.) Los Angeles itself gets to shine either through glorious night-time helicopter shots, or through the presentation of seedy run-down apartments in which the characters live. This kind of in-between location comes to define the rest of the picture as well, and if there’s enough interesting material in Drive to warrant a look for those who enjoy style clashes, the film itself may be a bit too self-involved to be fully successful. Cut fifteen minutes of the film, and we’ll see again.