Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010) is to divorce what Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000) is to drug abuse: not an easy film to watch, but a painfully moving work of fiction grounded in profound truths, a movie you are happier to have seen than you may be inclined to revisit again.
A genuine depiction of a doomed relationship's arc, Blue Valentine follows the first tentative sparks of attraction to the blissful heights of joy, through the agonizing decline and the ultimate heartbreaking implosion of a partnership. Cianfrance noted in this interview that as a young man of 21 years, he had sought to process his parents' divorce through his work, and the real emotion his screenplay is built on remains evident.
The movie spent nearly 13 years in gestation with something like 56 script revisions, considerable input and improvisational work from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams and a cinema verite, documentary-style camera that allows viewers to achieve fly-on-the-wall status and watch things unravel as if they are present in the room. Cianfrance's spare, unflashy movie hinges almost entirely on the magnetic chemistry and intense performances of its two stars. Though the romance genre rarely tops my must-see list, I was impressed with Blue Valentine.
Thus, I was eagerly anticipating Cianfrance's next film, The Place Beyond The Pines (2012). The trailer revealed an excellent cast in what appeared to be a gritty indie crime drama pairing Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper as two ambitious young men on opposing sides of the law, both with infant sons, money issues and problems with authority.
As an admirer of Michael Mann's cops and robbers classic Heat (1995) and awareness of Cianfrance's knack for well-developed characters, I was excited by what appeared evident by the trailer: a great rivalry played out in epic fashion between two strong leads with an effective balance of dramatic interplay, action set pieces and the compelling passions, similarities and differences that compel the two men into conflict.
But the trailer lied. Gosling is the lead for the first third of the movie, and Cooper takes over for the second, and then a couple kids become the focus of the film in a series of transitional protagonists that is at first jarring yet eventually becomes predictable and a little after-school specialish. Kudos to Cianfrance for shaking up expectations, but my hopes of Gosling and Cooper building a rivalry were squashed, as they share the screen for all of two seconds, maybe less. Not allowing these two talents to interact more leaves this viewer feeling somewhat burgled.
All actors were strong, particularly those in smaller parts, like Ben Mendelsohn as Robin, a kindly mechanic with a crooked idea for making some quick cash; Eva Mendes as a mother reaping the trouble sewn by her child's father, and Dane DeHaan as yet another troubled teen, but perhaps Cianfrance had too many ingredients for something brilliant that just couldn't be squeezed into what seemed like a brief 140 minutes.
Maybe, like World War Z, it was miniseries-worthy material that was pretty good when compressed into feature film length, but if given the time to stretch, could have been great. The Place Beyond The Pines felt shortchanged, condensed and restricted by its running time, but it remains worthy of a look.
So did the latest outing of that angry dude with sideburns and steel claws. Let's see...in the trailer...doesn't he fight a bad guy on a train? Does anyone not fight bad guys on top of speeding trains anymore? You really have to hand it to the charming, multi-talented, singing, dancing, acting man, Hugh Jackman. He called up The Rock (yes, Dwayne Johnson this time) for advice on bulking up to mantacular, Huge JackedMan size and thus commenced eating 6,000 calories a day of chicken, steak and brown rice, achieving his own exacting standard for what the Wolverine should look like.
According to IMDB, Jackman's sixth appearance as the ripped, scowling, usually invulnerable, adamantium-beskeletoned hero (James Mangold's The Wolverine, a 2013 sequel to 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, AKA X3) is the Wolvie outing in which Jackman says he finally had enough time to get into the kind of shape he felt would best showcase everybody's favorite hairy, cigar-chomping mutant. Maybe I have a problem. I liked X3. My buddy Andrew, who loves Wolverine more than anyone, thinks I'm a fool for that. Sorry Drew. I was entertained.
It's not like I don't have high standards for movies, but maybe it's just that I lower them too much for superhero fare. I am not looking for much other than a decent story, some decent acting, some grounding in the comics and some decent action. Is that so wrong? Should I have higher standards for superhero movies?
It's not like there are that many standouts. I have delved into this before, but I it seems appropriate to mention my favorite superhero movies here again. Don't worry. My list is short: Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Chris Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012) are my favorites. Of course they aren't perfect, but they're my gold standard for superhero movies.
Aside from those four, most others feel like the usual popcorn entertainment. The first Iron Man (2008) is also a favorite of mine, but as much as I have loved comics over my lifetime (and I love The Wolverine's source material, Frank Miller and Chris Claremont's 1982 series on the character), I just don't expect dizzying heights of greatness from movies about comic book heroes. I look forward to them as much as anyone else, but this way I'm disappointed less.
I almost always give these (superhero) films three of the five possible stars on the Netflix scale, as I'm pretty much guaranteed to "like" them, which doesn't mean I "really like" or "love" them (4 and 5 star criteria). I guess this is a bad time to mention that I also enjoyed the first solo Wolverine flick, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), which so many people got all bent out of shape about.
So what if I don't remember anything except that this movie was about Wolverine; he was a lumberjack; and he didn't get along with his brother Sabretooth, who was played by Liev Schreiber (who is always good)? What else is there to know? It was entertaining enough. A solid three stars. Sorry again, Drew. I know you expect more from your superhero flicks and wanted more from this one too.
So I was bummed when I heard that Darren Aronofsky, one of my favorite directors, had resigned from directing The Wolverine after considerable time in development. I thought he might bring a welcome bit of darker weirdness into Marvel's PG-13 land of MPAA appeasement and perhaps even drag Logan into deep, R-rated territory where he belongs.
And speaking of Aronofsky, Jackman and the rare romance film that sinks its claws into me, I loved The Fountain (2006), an overlooked gem of Aronofsky's, if you ask me. Mr. Jackman and Rachel Weisz, the director's ex-wife, both shine in this sci-fi-tinged modern/historical drama about the tree of life and multiple versions of doomed lovers across time and space. And so Aronofsky's weirdness was not destined to rub off on our latest installment of the slicey, dicey adventures of Adamantium Man.
That's okay. They got the guy who directed Cop Land (1997) to do it, and Mr. Mangold did a fine job. It was better than the origins tale, even though it got a little Looney Tunes toward the end, and I wasn't quite sure if Logan's new girlfriend was quite half his age or even old enough to have a boyfriend yet. Ah well. Jackman has the chops to make us believe in a compelling character, whatever is thrown at him, or whomever he throws off whatever balcony. I look forward to the Wolverine's seventh adventure, wherever his claws should lead him. Here's to ya, bub. Let's see what Aronofsky does with Noah...