Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes in The Place Beyond the PinesTHE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

You may not remember this if you're 25 or younger, but between the mid-'70s and mid-'90s, we were sometimes treated to Very Special Episodes of long-running sitcoms. These episodes, which were usually twice as long as their shows' 22-minute standard, found beloved characters momentarily wrestling with Weighty Themes and tackling Important Issues, and were frequently showered with critical praise and awards despite, or maybe because of, their general self-consciousness and bloat. (Michael J. Fox and Helen Hunt surely owe several of their Emmys to VSEs.) They're mocked now, and they were kind of mocked then, and so it might seem like a particularly condescending insult to say that director Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines feels like nothing so much as a Very Special Episode of a gritty, edgy indie drama.

I don't really mean it as one. This very serious-minded, even grave movie may strain for significance and an overall emotional response it can't quite pull off, and at 140 minutes, it's certainly too long. But Cianfrance's film is also strong and sincere and ambitious as hell, and it's filled with legitimately wrenching moments; if The Place Beyond the Pines can be equated to a somewhat pompous Very Special Episode, it's at least one from an especially superb series.

Set amidst the heavily wooded landscape of Schenectady, New York, the novelistic movie is bound together by three individual, albeit connected, narrative arcs. In the first, Ryan Gosling plays a traveling circus stuntman who runs into a one-night-stand (Eva Mendes) from a year prior, learns that he's the father of her three-month-old, and decides to support the child and his mother by robbing local banks. In the second, Bradley Cooper plays a beat cop whose act of heroism makes him an instant media star and embroils him in a tangled web of corruption. In the third, which takes place 15 years after the film's previous events, Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen play Gosling's and Cooper's now-teenage sons who form a tentative, dangerous bond, and whose personalities and actions echo their fathers'. And echoes, to the movie's great credit and occasional hindrance, are, in the end, what The Place Beyond the Pines is all about.

Working from a script he co-wrote with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, Cianfrance, in this intimate yet expansive drama, obviously has a lot he wants to say - about masculinity and responsibility, and fathers and sons, and sins propagated from one generation to the next. And every once in a while, the connections he makes between events in the film's separate storylines are presented with wit and elegance; a particularly amusing one lands when Gosling and partner-in-crime Ben Mendelsohn compare themselves to Hall & Oates, and Cooper and potential-partner-in-crime Ray Liotta, later in the film, listen to "Maneater" on a car radio. Yet the movie's deliberately repetitive imagery (there are a lot of swooning tracking shots over winding roads and acres of pine) and music cues call too much attention to Cianfrance's yin/yang design, and the dips into melodrama grow increasingly forced; slowly but surely, Cianfrance's initially subtle parallels begin revealing themselves in big block letters. Plus, in one crucial instance, the casting here seems all wrong: Cohen portrays Cooper's son yet looks so much like Gosling (or rather, the love child of Gosling and Tom Hardy) that you don't quite buy his relation to Cooper, and consequently can't quite buy the thematic revelations of the film's final third.

Still, on a moment-by-moment basis, The Place Beyond the Pines is never less than gripping, even when you're overly conscious of Cianfrance's artistry. There are excellent, painful scenes between Gosling and Mendes, and between Cooper and Bruce Greenwood (the actors take part in a thrillingly uncomfortable police interrogation), and Rose Byrne, given little dialogue, wholly suggests the brittle discomfort and sadness of a life spent with a husband who's not the saint he appears. As in the director's previous feature, 2010's Blue Valentine, enormous heartache is frequently rendered through exquisite silence and the most seemingly throwaway of gestures; one man's personal anguish, here, is expressed solely, and thoroughly, through one perfectly timed turn away from the camera during a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

And while Cooper gives a deeply committed, at times unsettling performance, and DeHaan and Cohen (despite the latter's miscasting) acquit themselves with grace, every minute of Gosling's screen time is a minute worth savoring. Alternately innocent and threatening, selfless and thoughtless, Gosling embraces his character's contradictions with spectacular soulfulness and utter honesty, and only in rare instances, such as Drive, has the star's trademark cool proven quite so intoxicating; Ryan Gosling, in Cianfrance's movie, could almost be the reason cigarettes were invented. The Place Beyond the Pines isn't quite the glorious, far-reaching Americana epic it's clearly striving to be, but even with all that carbon monoxide being exhaled, it's definitely a breath of fresh air.


Tom Cruise in OblivionOBLIVION

About 40 minutes into the mind-numbing sci-fi bore that is Oblivion (a title I accidentally misspelled just now as the more appropriate Oblivious), I felt an urge to yell at the screen, "Start the damned movie already!" I kind of felt like yelling that when the end credits rolled, too. A ridiculously slow-moving, derivative offering that casts Tom Cruise as a human WALL·E fighting for the survival of post-apocalyptic Earth, director Joseph Kosinski's follow-up to his similarly enervated Tron Legacy is a visually impressive but beyond-tedious mishmash of genre tropes lacking even a whiff of individuality, and the inert action scenes are only active in the sense that images move in them. While waiting, eternally in vain, for something interesting to happen in this sluggish endeavor - and wondering if there's any paycheck that Morgan Freeman won't pick up for playing a dulcet-voiced sage - there's little to do but giggle at the inane dialogue and Cruise's sweetly misguided earnestness ... at least until the theft-prone Oblivion begins stealing from Duncan Jones' Moon, and gives us the priceless, high-comedy sight of one Tom Cruise beating up on another. Which is all well and good, I guess. Some of us were getting tired of doing it.

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