Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines

I went to see "The Place Beyond The Pines" with high hopes, since I was so impressed with "Blue Valentine," the previous effort from Derek Cianfrance. "Valentine" was a film that felt as if it had was personally addressing me in many respects. The eerie thing about it is that "The Place Beyond the Pines" did it again, even though the subject matter is very different. In "Blue Valentine" we looked at a doomed relationship and after the fact, we know it couldn't have gone any other way. We also know why, because a lot of times people fall in love and have no idea who is joining them on that journey. The best of intentions make little difference when it comes to keeping a relationship composed of the incompatible together.

"Pines" touches on romance but doesn't live there. Mothers and daughters are essential to the story, but it isn't really about them. You could fault it, I suppose, for not giving the female characters equal screen time, but they're not slighted. They're part of a broken whole. They're in the background of this one trying to make things work, and ending up as mystified as anyone when they don't. There's nothing wrong with a story knowing what it's about. You can't pick a sharp focus and also tell everyone's story. This isn't a story about the "whole," but a story about one of the big pieces. I know that I appreciate a story about the unseen but powerful connections between fathers and sons. I appreciate the thematic focus of the film, and given the amount of ground it has to cover, it does a wonderful job.

We're ushered into this world by meeting "Handsome Luke Glanton" (Ryan Gosling) a loner who travels around with the carnival doing motorcycle stunt shows. He has no interest in settling down in one place or building a stable relationship. He's never seen these things except perhaps in other families, as an observer. These things have never been expected of him because he didn't have a father to base his perception of manhood around. As a result he throws together all the information he's gleaned from outside sources to create his own persona. He has too many bad tattoos, he rides a motorcycle, he tries to be decent but he's too easily prone to violence. His idea of what a man is, is more of a caricature of manhood, based on movies more than any reality. The only thing he knows for sure, is that a man doesn't typically stick around long.

Hi reality changes quickly though, when he finds that he now has a son, the result of a quick fling in Schenectady a year ago. The mother, Romina (Eva Mendes) didn't tell him, because she bought his representation. He's the guy that doesn't stick around. He didn't call so she didn't tell him. She found a good relationship with a more stable man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali) who sees manhood as honoring your responsibilities and taking care of your family. Romina lives in Kofi's house, along with her son, and her mother.

Luke responds immediately to the fact that he has a son. He has a glimpse at the idea that he can be something different, someone more like Kofi. The problem is he doesn't have any experience to tell him how, just the decision he makes based on no real experience. He quits the carnival, and decides to settle down and provide for his son. He runs into a man named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who throws him some mechanic work, but not enough to make a huge financial difference. Robin also lets Luke stay in a trailer on his property. Robin becomes a friend and sort of father figure in a limited way. Luke hears what he wants from Robin, mostly that his "unique set of skills" is best suited to making money by robbing banks. Robin's done it before, years ago, and stopped before they could catch him. They come up with a routine involving Luke's motorcycle skills and they make some quick money. Luke feels like he's living up to his decision and shows up with money and gifts for his son. He lets himself in to Kofi's house to set up a crib he bought. It never occurs to him that he wasn't invited, and when Kofi tells him to leave, he responds with violence and ends up arrested.

He gets out of jail more determined to provide for his son and Romina, although he can't legally see them now. He decides to ramp up the bank robberies, and Robin declines to join him, knowing where this leads. He goes ahead anyway and unsurprisingly it doesn't go well for him. The police are ready for him this time. And he ends up another absent father, by trying to do the opposite, because he didn't have anywhere near the skill set he needed for what he was trying to do. His story is only the beginning of "The Place Beyond the Pines." and interestingly, while his screen time is abbreviated, his absence hangs over the rest of the film, just as the absence of Luke's father is an integral part of his ow identity.

The second part of the triptych, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) has little in common with Luke. His father is not only present, but overshadowing.  His struggle is not to figure out what a man really is, but to become a different and successful one in his own way and make a favorable comparison. Since his father is a highly  esteemed judge, Avery decides to be a cop, perhaps reasoning that he can pursue justice in a more hands on and active role. Unlike Luke's situation, Avery's father is anything but nebulous as he can actively disapprove of Avery's choices. Avery knows at least partially from his father's example that he desires a happy home with a wife and kids.The fact that he comes from privilege, also opens many doors that would be unthinkable to Luke. In fact, his wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) doesn't understand why he doesn't embrace that idea and follow his father's footsteps. Being a cop doesn't make sense to anyone but Avery himself.

We first meet Avery during Luke's story, as he's a rookie cop confronting Luke. Avery's reaction to Luke having a gun is perhaps understandable. He's not used to real danger from violence, and shoots before he really considers the action. He ends up with a gunshot injury himself and has to deal with questions about the incident. In the official version of the story, Avery shot second and is regarded as a hero. He's troubled on finding out that Luke had a baby son. He tells a psychologist that he's hardly able to look at his own son anymore, as he can't help thinking of how his actions took away a child's father.

His recovery is the perfect chance for his wife and father to question the wisdom of his line of work. He endures their questioning but can't wait to get back. When Officer Deluca (Ray Liotta) show up at his house for dinner with some other officers, he's pulled back into the police world. Deluca suspects that Luke left some of his robbery money with Romina. He brings Avery to the house where they find the money stashed under the crib that Luke had left there. Avery hates the idea but knows he can't protest under the circumstances. They give him most of the take, which leaves him on the hook for favors in the future. When Avery declines to return to the field, he's assigned to the evidence room. Deluca and his friends see an opportunity there and bring him into it. Avery doesn't approve however, and his guilt over the shooting is only exacerbated by the idea of being complicit in police corruption. He reports it, but his chief doesn't want to hear it. He refuses to take action other than to tell Deluca. This leaves Avery in a dangerous situation and he turns to the only person who can help him, his father. "You can fix this." his father says, "but you won't like it." He follows his father's advice and it works, getting him out of danger, and beginning his political career.

Years pass and we catch up with Avery giving a loving eulogy at his father's funeral. We learn that he and his wife divorced. His son, AJ has been mostly ignored, but wants to stay with his father for awhile. We find that his son his become an affected wannabe gangster. At school, he crosses paths with Jason, Luke's son who sits by himself in the cafeteria. He asks Jason to get him some drugs and he complies, although the two of them get arrested immediately afterwards. Avery pulls some strings to get them both released once he realizes who Jason is. He warns his son not to touch Jason, but AJ isn't much for listening. Jason ends up with a lot of questions about his father, and we learn that Romina has told him very little about Luke. He finally gets his father's name from Kofi, who has raised him and assures him that he's his father regardless. A Google search quickly gives him some more information and even more questions and he soon realizes who AJ's father is, since the shooting was all over the news.

After settling scores with AJ, and Avery, Jason looks up Robin, who tells him that Luke was "the best I've ever seen." on a motorcycle. They chat awhile, Robin only telling Jason the good things about his father. Jason buys hs own motorcycle and sets off, while we see that AJ is playing the role of supportive son to help his father's image as the newly elected Attorney General.

The third part of the film, while necessary is the least satisfying part, mostly due to the convenient crossing paths of the two sons. That being said, once we arrive there it makes sense and the tight connection between the two bloodlines is full of interesting contradictions and parallels. We're shown how each son has picked up elements from his father, while each performs his variation. AJ seems to completely lack his father's moral code, yet he certainly feels overshadowed by his father's success. While this is similar to Avery's relationship with his own father, the two don't have the closeness of that relationship. Rather than help find solutions, Avery uses his power to sweep problems under the rug, leaving AJ no better for his bad experiences. AJ believes his actions have no consequences, and it took a traumatic experience to change his behavior at all.

While blood certainly plays a part in what happens to these people, changes are made along the way. Luke's son, Jason, for example benefits greatly from having Kofi in his life, and while he isn't his biological father, he at least has a solid and decent father figure to weigh himself against. This leaves him better equipped than Luke ever was, and also presents what I found the biggest hole in the film, Jason's reaction to finding out Avery's role in Luke's fate. While his violence against AJ is understandable and retaliation, his confrontation of Avery is a little less so. Jason knew nothing about his father before a Google search set him off, and the amount of rage at Avery seemed a bit much. His father, after all is little more than a concept to him, and the fact that his father is dead is little surprise. Disappointment would ring truer I think. It's AJ's presence as an accelerant which makes the confrontation almost acceptable, but I think a conversation with Avery would've been more effective. Still, I see why this element was needed and it ties the piece together nicely.

"The Place Beyond The Pines" is a big movie, tackling an immense subject. It does this remarkably well, and while I wouldn't call it perfect, I did feel it personally, which is the most I can expect from a film. What happens to us is largely set in motion before we're even born. Boys will always look to their fathers whether they exist or not. Fathers hope they pass on the best to their sons rather than the worst, but they usually pass on both. There is some choice and some circumstance at work, but it requires both luck and determination to get over the legacy you're working with. It can take a lot to learn a little bit and the things that help you are the things you may not even realize you have. Jason, for example is far better equipped than he could have been, just for Kofi being around. While he's the character with no biological investment in the film, he's easily the best father, looking out for Jason because that's what a man should do. Luke attempts to break the legacy that was given to him. He tells Robin, "My father wasn't around and look how I turned out." While his plan doesn't work, it's a step towards progress, and maybe Jason better equipped than his old man can take it a step further.

AJ, I think, has a longer way to go. It's hard for someone missing a sense of decency to ever come around, but perhaps Avery has learned a few things from things being shaken up, and perhaps they'll both put in the work. If he could become as tough and as fair as his father was, ho knows what could happen? At the very least, their privileged cruise control has been set back to manually pressing the gas.  And again, all we can hope is that they're lucky enough to inch a step forward. It's not coincidental that the family name is "Cross" as they'll never get rid of the family weight, but could perhaps become better at carrying it.

"A Place Beyond the Pines" is full of bleak and beautiful scenes, lots of space and shadows in between the trees. It also has a terrific score which augments the journey while promising consequences. The actors here are all in top form and the deep attention to character is what makes it exceptional. These are people who make their best efforts with disastrous consequence, as easily as they're rewarded for mistakes. Nobody sees the whole picture, and seeing more doesn't always help. We're born with potential and we learn a few things along the way, but to step out of your lineage is nearly impossible. Yet Cianfrance doesn't present this as a hopeless fact. His characters are not saved by epiphanies, but through slow and difficult work at connecting with what they are even when they don't know that's what they're doing. When Jason visits his father's friend Robin, he's fortunate that Robin has an idea what he's looking for. While he could tell him a great many things, he focuses on the good part. He was the "best I'd ever seen" at riding a motorcycle, he says and where there was only shame and mystery, Jason now has something to be proud of in his blood. He already knows about the bad parts, the good stuff requires the searching. We see Jason riding off on a motorcycle and while we don't know what will happen, at least he's on a better road than Luke was. They all have a long way to go, but luckily these stories can stretch a long way. Maybe there's time to get it a little more right than your father did.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Rockford Files

As a kid I loved "The Rockford Files." Although at the time some of it may have been over my head, it really showed me that every Private Eye doesn't need to be Sam Spade. And Spade, another of my favorite characters, could never be Jim Rockford. It started out as a modernized version of "Maverick" the witty western con man, whose conscience always got in the way of his big scores. Jim Rockford certainly had Brett Maverick's traits, but in the Rockford Files his character and relationships were deeper.

Unlike most TV P.I.s Jim Rockford would do his best to stay out of fights. He had no interest in antagonizing the Police Department, insisting on only working closed cases, to minimize the chance of ruffling feathers. He tried to present himself as something of a mercenary, always making sure his pay was addressed up front, but his pay day would often get disrupted by his soft spot for people in trouble. While generally a law abiding citizen, Jim spent five years in San Quentin prison for a crime he didn't commit. Although, eventually pardoned, he's still seen as an "ex-con" by many, including the police department, and even himself. This experience gave him many connections in the criminal community, most of which turned into friendships.

While he has a strong sense of right and wrong, he doesn't judge people bending the rules, except in cases where the risk is a foolish one likely to bring trouble (see Angel Martin) Rockford also served in Korea, coming home with a silver star. He seems quite content being a bachelor, although his attention is easily taken by pretty girls. He has no trouble meeting women, but never manages a long term relationship.

Jim Rockford isn't preoccupied with status or appearances, using his beach side trailer as both home and office. Aside from phone book ads, he's typically found there by his clients who often catch him in the middle of whatever he's doing, whether washing fish or watching television.

He does enjoy driving, and his car, a Pontiac Firebird Esprit. His driving skills often play a big part in episodes as chase scenes always come up. He so often used his trademark move the J-Turn (a shift into reverse, speeding up backwards in a straight line and sharply turning his wheels, spinning the car 180 degrees before shifting back into drive) that the maneuver has become known as a "Rockford"

Jim would much rather solve cases with trickery and conversation than by busting heads. He often resorts to disguises to get past gate keepers to reach those he needs to talk to. His disguises are helped along by a portable printing press he keeps in his car along with blank business cards to suit whatever alias he creates. On rare occasions he has a gun which he'll bring along for protection, but does everything he can to avoid it. While he's eager to stay out of physical confrontations, when pushed too far he can certainly take or throw a good punch.

We learn the most about Jim Rockford from his relationships. His father, Rocky (Noah Beery, Jr.) was a regular fixture on the show. He always disapproved of Jim's choice of profession, but regardless they were very close, as much best friends as father and son. Anytime Jim got into a bad situation, Rocky would be there to urge him to get a different kind of job, hopefully as a truck driver. Of course Jim wasn't interested in hearing that, but that didn't keep him from looking out for Rocky, or spending the day out fishing with him.  One thing they don't talk about is Jim's mother, who we assume passed away some time ago. But, as much as Rocky doesn't like Jim's profession, he's willing to help when Jim needs it, and when he or someone he knows is in trouble, he doesn't hesitate to turn to Jim and his talents for help.

His friend Det. Dennis Becker (Joe Santos) also made frequent appearances. When Jim couldn't find some information on his own Dennis was his go to guy.  Their relationship was antagonistic at times since Becker's superiors didn't like PI's in general, and Jim (the ex con) specifically. Despite the fact that it slowed his career down, Becker could always be counted on in a pinch. although he insisted on going "by the book" even if that Jim's situation more difficult. 

Jim also had a close relationship with Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett,) his lawyer and sometime girlfriend. She had a habit of bringing him into cases which classified as good deeds perhaps, but didn't pay. Despite their on and off romantic relationship, they remained close friends and she got him out of jail a good number of times.

And then there was Angel Martin (Stuart Margolin) Jim's former cellmate. Angel always appeared with a new scheme that Jim saw immediately as a bad idea and Angel needed help getting out of. Angel was a natural coward and couldn't stand up to pressure of any kind, even implicating Jim in events he had nothing to do with, if it meant escaping punishment himself. Rockford knew that Angel was more trouble than he was worth, yet always helped him out of trouble. They would argue endlessly and although Angel never listened to reason, there was never any doubt about their friendship.

Jim Rockford became one of the most memorable TV characters, thanks to Garner's unmistakable presence, and Stephen Cannell's writing. Cannell kept Rockford a P.I., but changed all the expected trappings. Rockford didn't care about having his name etched in a glass door, and his answering machine was his secretary. He didn't need a fancy suit, he'd just throw on a jacket to look presentable. While he crossed paths with the shady underworld just like every detective before him, he'd likely leave his gun at home to avoid the chance of using it. He didn't look for fights, but when he couldn't avoid one, he could handle himself. It was fairly likely though, that he'd hurt his own hand as much as someone else's jaw.

He'd often have second thoughts about cases especially when they put him or others in danger, but he'd still see them through to the end. It just wasn't in Rockford's character to abandon anyone who need him. While Rockford was smart and had some serious skill, he wasn't a genius detective, and very often cracking the case was just a matter of knocking on the right doors, usually the ones that were off limits. He was the most relatable detective there was, and the most human. I enjoyed watching his relationships with others as much as his crime solving skills.

Despite his attempts to appear like he was all about getting paid, Rockford genuinely cared what happened to people. And while it would have been easy to portray him brooding over the injustice of his life, including five years in prison for something he didn't do, he  instead chose a sense of humor and a very real optimism. Rockford seemed to think that if you took the right case, and did the work, it would all work out, and for him it usually did. It probably helped that the things he wanted were simple, like fishing, a date, or hanging out on the beach.

As with "Maverick," "The Rockford Files" was all about James Garner. Watching him play Rockford, it's difficult to separate the two, since he did such a wonderful job, making Rockford a real person, bolstered by an amazing supporting cast. There may be better detectives on Television, but none of them make me smile like Rockford did. The second I hear the theme song, I'm already firmly invested a world where a guy like Jim Rockford can manage every complication that life and his cases throw at him and still keep his decency while getting the job done, where people can argue and disagree all day without questioning their importance to each other. Garner, Cannell, and everyone involved did something truly magical here, combining just the right amounts of humor, excitement and character to make a one of a kind show that I enjoy know every bit as much as when I first discovered it.