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THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

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Derek Cianfrance’s third fiction feature, the follow-up to the well-received “Blue Valentine,” is certainly ambitious, a multi-generational saga of fathers and sons with distinctly fatalistic, tragic overtones. But the reach of “The Place Beyond the Pines” exceeds its grasp, and the result is intermittently powerful but ultimately disappointing.

The title is an English translation of Schenectady, New York, where the story is set, and what Cianfrance constructs is a three-act narrative that shifts focus from character to character in a fashion many viewers will find frustrating. The initial segment focuses on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist in a traveling show that returns to the city on its regular tour. There he encounters Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he’d had a typically brief fling on the last circuit. He discovers that she has an infant son—his, of course. And he decides to end his rootless existence and try to be a father to the boy, even though Romina is living with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who’s protective of her and the child.

Luke now has no way of earning a living, however, so he falls in with a bank-robbing scheme suggested by Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), the low-life mechanic he takes a room with. Predictably, after some early success their scheme—which involves Luke performing the heist, jumping on his cycle and riding in into the back of a truck Robin’s ready to drive off in—falls apart, and Luke finds himself desperately trying to get away while rookie patrolman Avery (Bradley Cooper) I hot pursuit. Luke winds up shot to death by the young cop after breaking into a house and briefly holding a woman and her son prisoner.

The focus of the picture now shifts to Avery, who falls in with Deluca (Ray Liotta), a veteran on the force who introduces him to the dark side by forcing Romina to turn over to him and his crew the stash of money Luke had left behind for his son. But Avery—who’s hardly as callow as he initially seems—uses the clout of his ex-judge father (Harris Yulin) not only to bring down the gang of corrupt cops but to take advantage of his celebrity to turn to politics.

Fifteen years later, Avery’s running for governor, but at home his life is complicated by the arrival of his son AJ (Emory Cohen), who’s shunted off to him by his ex-wife (Rose Byrne). A surly, arrogant kid who’s also a drug user, AJ befriends his new classmate Jason, Luke’s son who’s been raised by Romina and Kofi. AJ takes advantage of the tense, fragile kid and gets him into trouble by enlisting him in an effort to buy drugs. When that leads Avery to recognize who Jason is, he steps in to keep the two boys apart, but his efforts fail; meanwhile Jason learns about his real father, and decides to deal his long-ago loss by taking aim at AJ and Avery.

The schematic character of this rather contrived scenario is evident. It’s reminiscent of a lot of earlier films, including “Home from the Hill,” Vincente Minnelli’s 1960 adaptation of William Humphrey’s novel, which treats some similar themes. But the script doesn’t manage to tie the various threads together with much success, and Cianfrance’s picture remains, despite its considerable length, more a blueprint than a well-wrought drama.

The film also becomes less effective as it goes along. The best portion is certainly the first, to which Gosling brings his familiar slow-burning intensity and Mendelsohn a convincing yokel appeal. When the focus shifts to Avery, the quality level drops, not only because Cooper doesn’t provide much character depth but because the entire crooked-cop subplot, complete with Liotta doing his standard turn as a steely-eyed villain, feels tired. The third act boasts an impressive turn by DeHaan, but it’s undermined by Cohen’s weak performance, which has an amateurish feel. Mendes, though underused, nonetheless gives the film some much-needed warmth—which can’t be said for Byrne, who’s pretty much wasted.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is technically competent, with cinematography by Sean Bobbitt that meshes almost classic compositions with some jittery interludes and manages some impressive tracking shots. But overall the look of the picture isn’t as distinctive as one might hope.

This is one of those films that one has to respect. It raises intriguing questions about human relationships, and fashions some powerful characters. But in the end it fails to overcome its highly literary construction and its downward dramatic arc.

CROODS, THE

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The animation is excellent in DreamWorks’ new animated kidflick. It’s a pity that the script isn’t remotely in the same league. Though based on a story credited to John Cleese as well as directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco (who also wrote the final screenplay), “The Croods” features characters who have remarkably little personality and dialogue that has very little wit.

Set, like the “Ice Age” series, in prehistoric times—and at a time when, as in the fourth entry in that series the picture, the land masses are splitting apart into continents—the movie replaces the warm-fuzzy animals of the earlier franchise with the titular cave family. Its members are the well-muscled but dim dad Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), blandly supportive mom Ugga (Catherine Keener), Ugga’s mother, the feisty Gran (Cloris Leachman), chunky, dull-witted Thunk (Clark Duke), fierce toddler Sandy (Randy Thom), and spunky, risk-taking daughter Esp (Emma Stone). It’s the latter who defies her father’s injunction to always be afraid and to stay in the dark cave all night, thereby running into Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a leaner, intellectually more developed specimen who’s the sole survivor of his family.

The screenplay is based on two weak elements. One is Grug’s impatience with his clan’s—and especially Esp’s—fascination with the newcomer, whose knowledge about such hitherto unknown things as fire and shoes and innovative ways of hunting seem miraculous. (Clearly romance is in the offing between Esp and Guy.) The other is the group’s long trek toward a legendary place of safety Guy talks about as the only refuge from the topographical catastrophe happening around them. In the course of the journey, of course, Grug not only accepts Guy as son-in-law material but tries to emulate him in terms of that foreign concept of “thinking.”

In terms of plot, there’s a striking resemblance between “The Croods” and Disney’s 2000 “Dinosaur,” and the problems are similar, too. The dino-characters in the older movie lacked pizzazz, and so do the human ones here (though the portrayal of Sandy as the family’s secret weapon, loosed when Grug shouts “Release the baby,” is amusing). Apart from Cage, the voice work is bland as well, with even the usually reliable Leachman gets few laughs because the writing is so drab, with gags like Grug’s invention of such things as a “snapshot” coming off rather like rejects from the “Flintstones” playbook. Some incidental animals—a big blue cat, some monkeys, a tiny elephant—pop up occasionally and are pleasant diversions, if not much more, from the familial shenanigans.

As with “Dinosaur,” the movie tries to compensate with eye-catching backgrounds of cliffs, jungles, roiling volcanoes, tar pits and mountains, against which the directors stage a string of impressive action sequences, starting with a lengthy, slapstick-filled hunt by the Croods and concluding with the troupe’s attempt to get across a huge gorge to reach the promised land as the landscape behind them turns to rubble (not Barney Rubble, of course). But though the energy of these sequences and the skill with which they’re rendered in Darren Holmes’ widescreen images are undeniable, even they’ve grown a trifle tiresome by the ninety-minute point.

Presented in the now-obligatory 3-D, which is fortunately employed with more subtlety than is often the case in these animated ventures, “The Croods” deserves points for trying to be different. Unfortunately, it lacks the memorable characters and laugh-worthy dialogue needed to raise it above the ordinary.