Cinema reviews: The Place Beyond the Pines, Oblivion, The Gatekeepers and more

Ryan Gosling probably isn’t a more skilful actor than Bradley Cooper, the other global heartthrob in The Place Beyond the Pines. But in this movie he has a harrowing confidence that, with his gold-tinted hair and strange tattoos, makes him look mythic, and ideal for a film whose very name is deliberately epic. The Place Beyond the Pines is an old Mohawk phrase. Gosling plays Luke, the star motorbike stunt rider in a carnival visiting a pine-forest-edged area near Albany for a couple of weeks one summer. He’s a guy, claims the director, that “1960s girl groups like the Shangri-Las would write songs about”. I love Derek Cianfrance for even thinking this – you can imagine Nicholas Ray saying that kind of thing too while mulling over the casting options (Sterling Hayden? Too tall for a stunt driver. Scott Brady? Not hot enough with his shirt off).

So, every night Gosling drives his bike past a crowd of girls and guys with horny leers yelling “Luke! Luke!” (like they yelled “Maximus!” to Russell Crowe in Gladiator and “Lawrence!” to Peter O’Toole. No wonder actors go nuts). He hurls himself into a “ball of death” while everyone screams and hollers, and then afterwards quietly goes about trying to woo an ex (the never-better Eva Mendes) who has just had his baby without telling him. Luke robs banks to bring home the bacon, but the proud and serious Mendes thumbs her nose at him and his cash. The first time Luke meets his son he takes him in his arms and is shocked. Being a tough guy is suddenly not the only ideal he has ever aspired to. But Luke doesn’t remotely understand his feelings – he can only sense a terrible recognition dawning in him, and the movie seems to pivot on this. But then very soon it completely changes and twists and reaches with its structure and plot into something else, something you were not remotely expecting.

You have to admire the film’s ambition. Its first half is as exciting as hell: bank robberies filmed in one long messy take featuring real-life bank tellers; tongue-lolling stunts directly inspired by shows such as World’s Wildest Police Videos. Bradley Cooper plays a slightly creepy, asexual, super-smart cop (in the Nicholas Ray version, surely Robert Ryan) and the terrific Australian actor Ben Mendelssohn turns up as an adorable sleazebag. (Nobody smokes like Mendelssohn; even his jeans look emphysemic.)

It’s an intriguing, long, imperfect film that loosens in the middle and then again towards the end – but those are the parts some will come out liking the most. And if you’re prepared for confrontation scenes that don’t fully come even, that’s all right too. This movie always wears a proscenium arch around it anyway: it feels deep.

The $120m sci-fi Oblivion is set in a high-tech future after (as Tom Cruise says in voiceover) “we used the nukes” and starts as a kind of Silent Running or Omega Man (bliss) but collapses into a noisy Matrix-y Independence Day. Cruise plays Jack Harper (wasn’t he just Jack Reacher? And immediately before that Stacee Jaxx?), an astronaut living in a minimalist tower above a decimated North America with the British actress Andrea Riseborough. She changes into meticulous heels to click-clack up the stairs to work at her spaceship control panels every day, even though the only person at work is her. It is the only interesting quality the character has – apart from being Riseborough, and hence brimming with an air of helpless violent superiority and murderous steel.

Jack spends his days wandering the wreckage of our lost civilisation, visiting the long-crumbled Empire State Building, where he finds a cuddly toy King Kong. He also has a man-shed by a lake, where he goes to listen to Led Zeppelin and read Dickens while, back at the tower, Riseborough silently sips milkless tea (the future is gluten- and dairy-free). This is where the film is best. It’s the sense of isolation in good science fiction that we really dig. Studios refuse to get it into their skulls, but audiences have tremendous patience for the sci-fi blues – long lonely sequences with things feeling a bit lost or off, followed by a little bit of tension and action. We don’t really need much more. Think of Moon. Or Z for Zachariah.

The film has some spectacular sets – especially the scenes filmed in Iceland – but nothing as spectacular as Cruise’s face. Before watching his films I now prepare myself that this is the point at which his looks will have started going, that the dread moment has arrived and he’s going to be up there staggering around like John Wayne or Roger Moore into the hideous declining years. You can’t be the man of action for ever. Unless you’re Lee Marvin. Or Bruce Willis. Cruise is neither and excels in other ways. He ought to be doing much more interesting things – things made with real love. But still, at 50, he is going into middle age as the “officially handsome and slightly older guy”, as well as that ultimate actor-star Paul Newman. And yet his choices are nowhere near as characterful as Newman’s, who at 50 was making Slap Shot and bringing vulnerable forlorn depth to the idea of the over-aged jock. What next, Tom? Your move.

The phrase “Oscar-nominated documentary” always makes my heart sink. You know precisely what you’re going to get: talking heads discussing the recent political past in a self-consciously explosive way, as in The Fog of War. The Gatekeepers interviews six former heads of Israel’s secret service agency Shin Bet, who talk frankly of torture and other queasy issues following the six-day war. While memorable in sometimes unexpected ways (1980 head Avraham Shalom’s long unwashed nails), there is always the nagging feeling that any revelations are being pushed or sold a little too hard.

Unlike First Position, a griping documentary following several ballet hopefuls as they prepare for an international competition. The pummelled feet, the crushes and passions, the sheer weirdness of the form, all delivered at machinegun pace while ramming us with mythic information: Nureyev refusing to stop dancing, even when all the other students were in bed, spinning like a madman and ripping blankets to shreds while his friends groaned, rolled their eyes, and bitched.

Flying Blind
, a doomed love story set in Bristol between a secretive designer of drones and an Algerian student and possible terrorist, belongs on television but tries to go deep into the emotions stoked by lust and paranoia. Helen McCrory wears her pain well, as though from a lifetime of accumulated injuries. Disillusioned and weary, she carries the film.

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