The needles and the damage done

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I hope you are able to see The Place Beyond The Pines without finding out too much in advance about how the story plays out. I innocently read the review by the seasoned and should-know-better David Denby in the New Yorker and found out exactly what happens in it. (I’ve read long-form reviews in UK publications, such as Philip French’s in the Observer, where the writer has expertly skirted around one key issue, so it can be done with discretion.) To be honest, it’s still a fine film, in my opinion. But the less you know the better.

It’s a melodrama, and that’s not anything like a criticism. I would argue that the definitive films noirs are melodramas, and this third feature from writer-director Derek Cianfrance (I never saw his first, but my review of Blue Valentine is here) certainly fits into that approximate genre. It’s also a grand family saga. It has the feel of an old-fashioned American miniseries, something like Rich Man, Poor Man, which older readers may remember fondly.

Because it’s showing at the Curzon, which is a small arthouse chain of which I am an enthusiastic member, I have to put up with the same fairly narrow range of trailers on a loop each time I visit. The Place Beyond The Pines has a striking trailer, in which Ryan Gosling is revealed as a stunt motorcycle rider (as opposed to the stunt car driver in Drive) and the father of Eve Mendes’ baby son, which he wishes to support. The trailer also reveals that robbing a bank is what he does to raise some funds, and that Bradley Cooper’s cop in some way confounds this plan. I commented to my friend Lucy that it gives too much away, but, having seen it, she assured me that it doesn’t.

So … the bare bones of the film – sexy images, by and large, of the main protagonists – are all that we who have seen the trailer actually know about The Place Beyond The Pines. Unless we have read David Denby. I tell you this so that, if you intend to see it, you avoid reading any more reviews (although you’re safe to read on here). The trailer gives away only half the picture. It’s a very clever trailer.

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And it’s a very ambitious film. Indie by nature, it ticks the credibility boxes by casting Gosling in the lead, but casting him opposite Bradley Cooper, who is a much more mainstream star, with cred of his own after Silver Linings Playbook. (Gosling started out as a cool actor in challenging stuff like The Believer and Half Nelson, but his commercial appeal grew, whereas Cooper hit big with broad-appeal movies like The A-Team and The Hangover and has been working hard to improve his licks, which is bearing fruit.) It’s a film about men, and these two are the men it’s mainly about, but not exclusively.

With its diners, carnivals, trailers, auto shops, car lots and 1st National banks, it’s almost a caricature of smalltown America as seen in the movies – as such it takes on mythic properties, and is lovingly shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose beautiful work you’ve already seen in Hunger and Shame. Set and shot in and around the former Mohawk settlement Schenectady, it has a realism of place that’s hard to replicate, and despite the melodrama unfolding within it, it lends authenticity to the performances, which might otherwise tip into camp. (Many have likened Gosling’s brooding brute in a white t-shirt to Marlon Brando in his ape-like prime, and you can see where they’re heading.)

I think I bought into the film more than other critics, who’ve variously questioned the length (it’s two hours and 20 minutes, which is long for an indie), the third act (of which too much must not be spoken for fear of neutering its revelations), the paucity of anything much to do for the decent female actors (Rose Byrne is underused, too) and Cianfrance’s lack of control with the material as it expands outwards. I forgive it these sins. It’s bold, high-minded American cinema that isn’t afraid of having a character stop at a crossroads on his motorbike and fail to respond to a green light at the point when he is at a crossroads in his life. Neither is it afraid of visual rhymes – again, which should be savoured without me listing them here – or big themes like fatherhood and honour and, just maybe, the poisoning of the American dream.

Oh, and the music is superb. The score is by Mike Patton, formerly of Faith No More, and its haunting theme, The Snow Angel, pressed into effective service for the trailer, is a pre-existing tune written for a previous film, but no less fitting for it. There are also numbers by Bruce Springsteen, Suicide and Hall & Oates, and some passages by Arvo Part. It’s all put together with maximum care and attention. (And Hall & Oates’ Maneater has a hook in an earlier line of dialogue, it’s not just a hit song for its own sake.)

This and Compliance are my favourite American films of the post-Oscars year so far.

Leak ending

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It wasn’t exactly the Battle of the Blackwater, but there was a brief exchange of fire below the line under this week’s Telly Addict, which was dominated, predictably, by my review of the opening of Season 3 of Game Of Thrones. Although I was careful not to give away any important plot details from Episode 1 in my review – nor to let anything slip in the clips I chose – I strayed, indirectly, into the minefield anyway. This was the pretty angry comment posted by a man called Richard Berry:

Why did the Guardian ensure this video gave a blatant spoiler, even for those who haven’t watched it?

The still image used to advertise the video on the Guardian HOME PAGE shows a character who is clearly alive in season three. The entire plot of series two is that a whole range of others are trying to kill him. Thanks for ruining it.

We don’t all have Sky, and I thought the Guardian would try to refrain from forcing their viewers into the embrace of Rupert Murdoch.

Note that he does not blame me, which is why stepping in may have been a mistake on my part, but it seemed unlikely, what with around 120 comments left under the review at that stage, that anybody involved in producing Telly Addict or responsible for choosing the still that accompanies each one on the page would be following the discussion as vigilantly as I do, so I responded. In my haste, I parried that the offending still was actually from the end of Season 2, which I believed it was. (It certainly features two characters who appear in Seasons 2 and 3, but I have been re-watching episodes from the first two seasons of late so I can’t be trusted!)

Anyway, it turned out to have been from Season 3 after all – from Episode One, in fact. Either way, Richard Berry felt that in revealing that two characters from Season 2 were even in Season 3 was, in and of itself, a spoiler. One of the characters is a principal. It is not out of the question that he might have been killed at the end of Season 2, as a principal was killed at the end of Season 1. However, Sky have been advertising Season 3 with huge billboards in the UK, and these feature the faces of the principal characters, one of whom is in the still the Guardian used. (Is all this obfuscation really necessary? I don’t know.)

Having myself recently re-watched the climax of Season 2 (which revolves around the Battle of the Blackwater), I know that the story does not hinge upon … actually, I now feel too paranoid about spoilers to even discuss it in vague non-detail. After all, not all GoT fans are Sky subscribers, HBO customers or illegal downloaders; although many will have read the books and will know exactly what happens throughout Season 3, and, I think, 4, maybe even 5. (I haven’t looked.)

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I have some sympathy with Richard Berry, as he’s working his way through the box sets, as I have done with a number of US imports, notably Battlestar and Breaking Bad, in both cases behind the actual broadcasts and susceptible to spoilers. I’m currently watching the stirring and addictive Friday Night Lights, on Sky Atlantic, which started showing all five seasons after the fifth had aired and when the whole saga was in the public domain. I made the innocent mistake of looking up one of the lower-ranking actors during Season 1 and found out that he was in all five seasons, so I know he’s in for the duration – a spoiler of sorts, although nobody’s fault but my own, right?

But a vanilla still of two characters, officially released by HBO and Sky, surely cannot be categorised as a “spoiler”. Richard will have to wait until Season 3 is out on box set – at the end of this year no doubt – before he can see it. In the meantime, I expect he’s diligently avoiding any internet sites related to GoT, including Wikipedia. He saw a photo on a newspaper’s website below a caption saying something like “The Week in TV”, assumed it to be from a future episode, and felt that it “spoiled” Season 2. Without going into any plot detail, it was impossible for me to explain to him why it wasn’t a spoiler, because you’re on thin ice the whole time when you’re ahead of someone.

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The spoiler is well-named. “A person or thing that causes spoilage or corruption,” according to the dictionary, or else “a plunderer or robber”. Before the internet proliferated, its most contemporary setting might have been in print publishing, where newspapers still habitually print spoilers to undermine a competitor’s scoop, and entire magazines are launched to interfere with a rival’s plans. (OK! is just about the most successful spoiler title in publishing.)

I wrote about spoilers for the Observer in 1999, but the focus then was movies. I noted that the concept of spoilers was “an underground one”, which seems quaint now. “Nuggets of information made public with the sole intention of undermining the authority of a forthcoming cinema release” were, I wrote, “all the rage, thanks to the Internet, where knowledge truly is power. If you want to know what happens at the end of The Blair Witch Project, just key the title and the word ‘spoiler’ into your search engine, and you’ll soon find the goods.”

I had been commissioned to write the piece because of the forthcoming Sixth Sense, whose twist had the new-fangled Internet aflame. Its twist had, in fact, become a commercial issue, as patrons in America had already started buying a second ticket to re-view the film. “That’s a very important element,” said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney, in between counting his takings. “People are going back to catch all those things you don’t pick up the first time.” The spoiling of twists is, of course, a one-time-only offer.

I did a roll-call of those 90s thrillers with a twist – The Usual Suspects, The Game, Scream, Primal Fear, Wild Things, Twelve Monkeys, Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge – and it did seem like an epidemic. I also observed that many actually fall to bits once you revisit them armed with the special knowledge gleaned at the end.

An article about The Sixth Sense in 1999 in American magazine Entertainment Weekly was stamped with a warning to readers: STORY CONTAINS KEY PLOT POINTS. This was an early example, I believe, of what we now know as the SPOILER ALERT. As a longtime subscriber to Sight & Sound, whose trademark synopses of new releases inevitably give away endings, I have grown used to the warning. I may as well also confess to being the type of person who reads on when advised not to.

I read the Entertainment Weekly piece right through, not having seen the film, and I went in to see The Sixth Sense knowing the wham-bang ending. I wrote, “As a result, barring amnesia brought on by a blow to the head, I will never be able to see The Sixth Sense the way it was intended.” This has remained true ever since. I am simply a sucker for reading synopses and long reviews, where twists are most likely to be revealed. The warning SPOILER ALERT is a welcome mat to me. (The recently deceased Roger Ebert, perhaps America’s most famous film critic after Pauline Kael, admitted to having been “blind-sided” by The Sixth Sense in the Chicago Sun-Times. Lucky him.)

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When Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game came out in 1992, journalists and those attending preview screenings were asked not to give away the big twist. (If you’re still unaware of this one, it occurs long before the end and has an important bearing on the central relationship. It’s also one of the most beautifully-handled and powerful gasp-moments in modern cinema, the sort you envy someone not knowing.) Because The Crying Game had so many other merits as a moviegoing experience, most kept their mouths shut. Ebert, again, ended his review with the words, “See this film. Then shut up about it.”

Being asked to shut up about a hot new film sends out mixed messages: we, the paying public, are usually urged, “Tell your friends!” Because no matter how sophisticated and well-oiled the Hollywood publicity machine has become, word-of-mouth, and its successor word-of-Tweet, is the one marketing factor that’s truly out of The Man’s control. (Only this week, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Oblivion was screened to journalists the night before it went out on general release, but that was, I suspect, for a different reason of media control.)

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In 1960, Psycho was publicised with the memorably jolly tagline, “Don’t give away the ending – it’s the only one we have!” Hitchcock actually issued theatre-owners with a handbook, The Care And Handling of Psycho, with half-jokey notices for the foyer reading, “It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning. The manager of this theatre has been instructed at the risk of his life not to admit any persons after the picture starts.” House lights had to remain down for 30 seconds after the end credits, to allow “the suspense of Psycho to be indelibly engraved in the minds of the audience.” Try maintaining that level of compliance in the iPhone age. (Although Steven Moffat and the Doctor Who team were able to pre-screen the first episode of last autumn’s new series to die-hard fans before transmission and successfully implored them not to electronically blab about the unscheduled appearance of the Doctor’s new assistant. Moffat effectively made it a trust issue.)

Back in August 1999, the Sun filled its front page with the headline, “OFFICIAL: BBC’S LOST THE PLOT”, claiming it had obtained “all the storylines of EastEnders for the next year”. However – and here’s the twist – the paper didn’t reveal a single detail. Readers were asked to vote by phone whether they wished to have their enjoyment scuppered or not. They did not. (I was writing for EastEnders at the time and felt very close to this passing scandal. When Phil Mitchell was shot, none of the writers knew who’d dunit. It was safer that way.)

All the Internet has done is made the sharing of information easier. For diehard fans of a franchise, whether it’s Doctor Who or Star Wars or Game Of Thrones or Twilight or Harry Potter, leaks and rumours and revelations feed their devotion. (I always felt luckier than everybody else in the cinema when I saw a Harry Potter, as I had no idea what was about to happen, not having read a word of the books; whereas the more devoted fans around me must have known every last detail.) Richard Berry and those like him who are one season behind on GoT and who have not devoured George R.R. Martin’s source novels, exist in a permanent time-delay: the story they are following is way ahead of them, and it’s out there, in the public domain, out of the bottle, airborne. They moan a lot in comments sections – a pretty risky place to dwell if you’re afraid of spoilers, in any case – but whose responsibility is it to protect them?

I fully intend to see the new Ryan Gosling film A Place Beyond The Pines at the cinema this weekend. David Denby revealed its surprise twist in his review in the New Yorker. I was initially as annoyed with Denby as Richard Berry was with the Guardian. And then I got over it. Not knowing something that happens isn’t the only enjoyment to be had. If something’s good, it won’t really matter.

It is not until the final frame of Citizen Kane that we learn who or what “Rosebud” is. As Kane’s effects are burned on a bonfire, the camera alights on the answer. Just as no-one heard him utter the word at the beginning, no-one notices the reveal at the end: the secret rests solely with us, the audience. Orson Welles, of course, thought it was a “hokey device”.

Spoiler alert! 1) the legend ends 2) the dark knight rises

There will be no spoilers about The Dark Knight Rises here. Just the news that I really liked it, thought it was better than The Dark Knight and on a par with Batman Begins, and surely a four-star movie (not a three-star movie, according to many critics here, and certainly not a two-star movie, which the critics in the Mail and the Evening Standard seemed to think it is). So no plot details, just the really basic building blocks that are pretty much spelled out in the trailer: a man in a mask threatens Gotham; another man in a mask returns – or rises – to stop him. Two hours and 40 minutes pass while this happens, and there’s a nail-biter of a climax, with a couple of revelations that will surprise you if you haven’t read about them online, or in “long reviews”, as they are technically known. It’s a worthy end to the three-part saga.

I’m not one for revealing endings, or key plot points. In my weekly Telly Addict review for the Guardian, I try to make a point of taking clips from the beginnings of things, as I’m sensitive to those who might not yet have seen the episode I’m reviewing. (At the S2 climax of Game Of Thrones recently, I ran a clip in which Alfie Allen’s character Theon Greyjoy gave a speech to his men, and was knocked out by Ralph Ineson’s Dagmer. I think some people thought he had killed him, and thus cried spoiler. But he hadn’t, or else I wouldn’t have run the clip. You can see what a minefield it is.)

If you wish to avoid spoilers, whether to a film or an episode of a TV show, it surely goes without saying that you really have to tread carefully on the internet. Stuff gets out. It’s a long time since we enjoyed the luxury of seeing things without warning, preamble or carefully stage-managed hype. The one I always trot out is Blade Runner; I saw it at the cinema in 1983 with not a clue as to what I was about to receive. The poster, such as it was, gave little away, other than a futuristic setting and Harrison Ford. What unexpected delights it concealed. I loved it, and part of that was down to the surprises in store. These days, especially with sci-fi, I’d be hard pushed to get that much fresh pleasure from such a big movie. You have to bury your head to achieve that kind of consumer purity.

I understand the Guardian found itself at the centre of a spoiler row over The Dark Knight Rises – specifically Xan Brooks’ first-off-the-blocks overnight review. It’s a big below-the-line talking point, fuelled by a recurring allegation against the paper’s chief critic Peter Bradshaw of writing “spoilerific” lead reviews, where more words are spent and more plot is necessarily rolled out. Also, much more concretely it seems, David Letterman revealed the ending while interviewing Anne Hathaway on his chat show, the fool. This is far more of a crime: a vanilla promotional TV interview should be a spoiler safe-place! In print, and especially with lead reviews, you take your life into your own hands.

I am a disciple of Sight & Sound, renowned for providing detailed synopses along with its reviews, which are never short, and addressing key plot points with filmmakers when the films have only played at film festivals. But they always flag these up. And you’d have to be a masochist to read the synopses anyway. (I should know, I do this often.)

Anyway, the film is very good indeed; you should go and see it, if you haven’t already. I thoroughly enjoyed Batman Begins and approved of Nolan’s reboot. I wasn’t totally blown away by The Dark Knight: two films welded together that didn’t quite hang for me (but that’s just my opinion, which is worth re-stating when Nolan devotees are around), and felt a little indulgent. Begins was leaner, and had more work to do. Anyway, I risked the wrath of the disciples by awarding The Dark Knight three stars in Radio Times, a 150-word review so controversial it has since been upgraded to a four, and rewritten by one of my colleagues. I’m glad to have wrestled myself free. Rises is far better. Its self-indulgence is justified, for the most part. It’s operatic stuff, with only about two borderline witty lines to remind us that there was once camp hereabouts, since obliterated. But I find myself admiring Nolan’s cast-iron sincerity.

The baddy, Bane (Tom Hardy), is proper bad. With his face scrunched into breathing apparatus that might have been designed by HR Giger, he is not camp. Although I did like Hardy’s – and Nolan’s – brave decision for him to speak, through the Vader voicebox, as if he was in an Ealing comedy. At times, it felt like the apocalypse was being threatened upon Gotham by Rowley Birkin QC. Quite, quite sinister.

Bale, Caine, Oldman, Freeman, all present and correct; Hans Zimmer’s portentous score seemingly “on” the whole time; Anne Hathaway gave convincingly corm to Catwoman; hardware spectacular. Can’t discuss the politics – essentially conservative, in lines with most blockbusters – without giving away act-two plot points, so I’ll refrain. Go and see it. We’ll discuss it when the fuss has died down.

Horrible business, that shooting in Denver, but the film’s worldwide box office will not be harmed by this terrible, depressing association. It’s big. It’s an event picture that actually provides an event onscreen, and not just in among its own hype. Perhaps best of all, with it, Christopher Nolan strikes an important blow against
the commercial orthodoxy of 3D. This film doesn’t need a technological mask to breathe through. It has dimension enough already.

It’s better than The Amazing Spider-Man, because it is actually amazing in places. And the song-and-dance number at the end is a masterstroke.