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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Oct. 31, 2014

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Ryan Gosling stars in "The Place Beyond the Pines," now playing.
Ryan Gosling stars in "The Place Beyond the Pines," now playing.

Ambition makes "The Place Beyond the Pines" easily worth a visit

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance made a nice name for himself back in 2010 with his indie depression-fest "Blue Valentine." The film told the story of a collapsing married couple – mixed with flashbacks to their cute origins for maximum tragic effect – with such brutal honesty and intimacy that the MPAA almost gave it a NC-17 rating basically because it was too painful to watch.

His follow-up, "The Place Beyond the Pines," represents a massive leap for the young director. The movie still has the intimacy that made "Blue Valentine" so emotionally potent, but it’s also a big, bold crime epic, tracing its way across two generations through multiple storylines.

Its lofty aspirations come with their share of flaws, but they also come with a sense of exhilaration. To borrow a phrase from one of the film’s costars, it rides like lightning but avoids crashing like thunder.

"The Place Beyond the Pines" tells three intertwined stories of fathers and sons connected through the consequences of their choices. Cianfrance favorite Ryan Gosling stars as Luke, a star stunt motorcycle driver for a travelling carnival. While the carnival makes a routine stop in Schenectady, New York (the origins of the town’s name gives the film its title), he reconnects with a fling from the past (Eva Mendes) who, unbeknownst to Luke, is raising his child.

When he finds out about his secret son, he ditches the carnival in order to stay in Schenectady and support his son. Unfortunately, his only skill is driving motorcycles fast, an item that doesn’t impress on too many resumes. Under the tutelage of a loner mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn, continuing his streak of playing characters who don’t shower), Luke begins robbing banks, which sets him on a collision course with Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, who doesn’t show up until about the 45-minute mark).

Their dramatic meeting, thrillingly captured by Cianfrance, leaves Avery – the son of a politician – a shaken hero, as well as our …

Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Sheri Sebbens make up "The Sapphires," now playing.
Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Sheri Sebbens make up "The Sapphires," now playing.

"The Sapphires" sings a sweet feel-good number

A good song gets in your bones when you hear it. Even if the lyrics are dumb or vapid, sometimes a song just makes you feel good, good enough to sing along and dance – or at least tap your feet or sway a bit if you’re in public.

The Australian music dramedy "The Sapphires" is that sensation in film form. I’m won’t say that I was singing and bopping in my seat as the movie went along (and that’s the story I’m sticking with), but I will say that by the midway point, director Wayne Blair’s film and its unapologetically feel-good warmth and energy won me over completely.

Aussies Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell star as a band of musically gifted Aboriginal sisters during the late ’60s. Gail (Mailman) is the group’s straight-talking, strong-willed leader, Cynthia (Tapsell) is bubbly and light-hearted, and Julie (Mauboy) is the youngest but also has the strongest pipes.

While America was in the midst of a heated fight over civil rights, across the Pacific, the Aboriginal people were having their own struggles. Up until 1971, the government took many indigenous children with light skin and white blood from their families and gave them to new adoptive parents in the hopes of turning them into "civilized" Australians, trained to hate their origins. Dark-skinned Aboriginal people were left to the outskirts, where they were considered a part of the "floura and fauna" by the government, which assumed they would eventually just die out.

Despite the inevitable racist taunts and glares, the trio ventures out from their isolated desert mission town to sing some country numbers at a nearby talent contest. They lose Bigot Idol, but during the show, they impress hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck –and I should add fictional – manager Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd, the Irish scene stealer from "Bridesmaids"). Dave gets the ladies to ditch the country music and pick up his personal preference: soul. They also hesitantly pick up Kay (Sheri Sebbens, mak…

"Trance," now playing, stars James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel.
"Trance," now playing, stars James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel.

"Trance" teases, but then tires the brain

I’d like to think I’m a fairly smart guy (when it comes to movies, not calculus or anything like that), but "Trance" eludes me. "Slumdog Millionaire" director Danny Boyle creates a puzzle in which each piece is another, smaller puzzle, and every couple of minutes, the pieces change shape, and you have to start all over again. It’s a fairly exhilarating experience at first, but by the end, that exhilaration turns into exhaustion. But it’s still an experience.

The movie certainly gets off to a crackling start. Simon (James McAvoy) is a fine art auctioneer and the inside man for a band of thieves, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel from "Black Swan"), hoping to steal a valuable Goya painting. He manages to nab the painting, but during the heist, he gets knocked in the head and wakes up forgetting where he put the prize.

After politely asking and then not-so politely pulling out Simon’s fingernails, Franck proposes a new solution: sending Simon to a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) who will unlock the secrets in his brain. However, there are more secrets tucked away inside Simon’s noggin than just the location of the painting, and the hypnotist might have her own motives for tinkering around with Simon’s brain.

"Trance" hooks the audience almost immediately with a furious flurry of excitement. Boyle drops the viewers right into Simon’s brain as he talks about the history of art thievery, the security measures of his establishment and how he intends to foil them. With its dark wry humor, criminal underworld menace and snappy pace, the first act plays like a Guy Ritchie caper that graduated from the grimy streets to the art house, mixed with a healthy serving of Boyle’s signature kinetic edits and saturated color scheme. 

When the film moves into the hypnotist’s über-modern office and Simon’s amnesia-addled mind, however, it turns into an even more complicated version of "Inception." Writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge (the latter wrote many of Boyle’s early hi…

Chadwick Boseman stars as baseball hero Jackie Robinson in "42," now playing.
Chadwick Boseman stars as baseball hero Jackie Robinson in "42," now playing.

"42" a not-so heroic telling of an American hero's tale

When Jackie Robinson came into professional baseball in 1947, he broke the rules. There was no written rule about race in baseball, but as any fan of the game knows, unwritten laws are often the most intensely followed. But Robinson was a rebel and a fighter without throwing a single punch, and in the end, he helped make baseball America’s pastime, not just white America’s pastime.

"42," on the other hand, follows all of the rules. It delivers everything you expect from a sports biopic and everything you already knew walking in without adding much new life or perspective. The story is powerful, if not the storytelling.

Newcomer Chadwick Boseman fills the subject’s big cleats (the only other film about Robinson,"The Jackie Robinson Story," starred No. 42 himself), as he makes his climb from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers of the major leagues. Before he makes the big leagues, though, he has to prove himself with the Dodgers’ farm club, the Montreal Royals.

He proves himself to be a capable hitter (his career batting average was an impressive .311) and a menace to opposing pitchers on the base paths, all while battling the racist taunts of many fans and fellow players. In the middle of one game, a police officer insists Robinson leaves the field. Later, a mob threatens to attack his house. He shakes them off, and after a year with Montreal, his tough skin and play earns him a spot on the Dodgers.

The bigger stage comes with bigger pressure and louder outcries. Teammates ask for trades, pitchers throw at him and fans boo him with opposing managers – namely Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk of "Firefly" fame) – joining in with vile insults of their own. No matter. Jackie plays through, helping the Dodgers win the 1947 NL pennant and earning Rookie of the Year honors, as well as the respect of most of the nation.

Writer-director Brian Helgeland covers the legend all right; it’s the man underneath who escapes h…