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This film image released by Focus Featues shows Ryan Gosling in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines.’ (AP)
‘Pines’ tackles complex daddy issues ‘Retaliation’ surprisingly lacks rhythm

LOS ANGELES, March 31, (RTRS): Better to have a film with a reach that exceeds its grasp than a movie with no ambition in its pretty little empty head beyond regurgitating the same tired old pabulum. “The Place Beyond the Pines,” director-cowriter Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his 2010 corrosive marital drama, “Blue Valentine,” is plenty ambitious. If, in the end, it collapses on itself from trying to carry too heavy a symbolic load, one can still admire its attempted reach and several of the performances. The focus of “Pines” is fathers and sons and how the relationship between the two, or lack of, leaves a lasting legacy. The film is essentially a trilogy, focusing sequentially on two men and two youths whose stories intersect.

The first part of the film, easily the strongest, concerns Luke (Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” star Ryan Gosling, in yet another mesmerizing performance), a daredevil motorcycle rider in a traveling carnival. He’s covered in tattoos and is your classic sensitive bad boy. During Luke’s star turn under a tent, he vrooms about in circles inside a spherical metal cage, an elegant metaphor for the fact that his life is going nowhere. While performing on night in Schenectady, N.Y., he is visited by Romina (Eva Mendez, in a strong turn), a waitress with whom he hooked up briefly the last time he was in town. Upon learning that she has given birth to his son, Luke decides to stick around town and try being a father, despite the fact that Romina now lives with a decent and dependable man.

Partnering with a lowlife associate (Ben Mendelsohn), Luke soon turns to robbing banks, putting his motorcycle riding skills to use by executing daring, two-wheeled getaways. His new profession leads to his path crossing with that of Avery (Bradley Cooper), a lawyer turned idealistic rookie cop whose father is a powerful judge in town. Without giving away too much plot, the movie moves on from Luke’s story to Avery’s – hailed as a hero cop, he suffers from self-doubt – and then, in its final section, to what happens when the teenage sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) of the two men meet. The boys both bear the scars of having been raised, for differing reasons, with absent fathers, and an antagonism develops between them.

Only the Luke portion of the film succeeds in feeling most of the time as if the characters are more than literary and symbolic conceits. In the second and third parts of the movie, about Avery and the two teenage boys, a viewer is too aware of the puppeteer behind the camera pulling the strings in an attempt to keep the characters dancing to the heavy-handed father-son theme. That said, there’s much to appreciate in “Pines.” There’s a verisimilitude to the film’s settings (it was shot in and around Schenectady) and the performances, especially in the first third, are raw and exciting. Maybe if the story was told chronologically in reverse, as Harold Pinter did in his 1978 play, “Betrayal,” and director Gaspar Noé did in 2002’s “Irreversible,” it would have accumulated greater poignancy and power. Hey, just throwing out an idea here for an alternative version to be included on the DVD.

Studio marketers love to call action movies “thrill rides,” but here’s the thing about thrill rides  – they work because they occasionally stop to let you catch your breath before jolting you again. Roller coasters don’t just speed downhill for the entire ride; there are climbs and flat parts so that you can scream again all the louder when you take another plunge. That’s not what happens in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” a movie not only designed for hyperactive 10-year-old boys but also apparently written and directed by them, even though the credits claim that Jon M. Chu (“Step Up 3D,” “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”) was behind the camera and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who gave us the far superior “Zombieland”) crafted the inane dialogue and bang-clang-boom plot.

“Retaliation” begins with the GI Joe team flying into Pakistan to recover some loose nukes after the assassination of the nation’s leader has led to chaos in the streets. (“It’s not a country, it’s a riot with a zip code!” yelps a member of the joint chiefs.) The mission, led by Duke (Channing Tatum), goes well, but that night the Joes’ encampment is destroyed by enemy fire, leaving few survivors. Turns out that the president (Jonathan Pryce) has been replaced by master of disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), and while the real POTUS is held captive in a bomb shelter, the fake one is conspiring with the villainous COBRA to take over the world. After apparently destroying and discrediting the Joes, the next move is to spring Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) from an underground prison by sending in Storm Shadow (Byung-Hun Lee) dressed as Snake Eyes (Ray Park).

Wow, this sounds even stupider on paper than it did in my head. Anyway, surviving Joes Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) work to expose the fake president with the help of retired O.G. Joe General Colton (Bruce Willis), while on the other side of the world, Snake Eyes and Jinx (Elodie Yung) try to capture Storm Shadow, all in the name of selling toys. Or, rather, saving the planet. Whichever.

Anyone looking to discuss the MPAA’s ridiculous standards when it comes to screen violence can start right here; “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” has even more explosions, gunshots, hand-to-hand combat and people getting tossed off roofs than “Olympus Has Fallen” (another movie where the US flag gets taken down from the White House), but since “Olympus” shows blood and people actually dying, it gets an R while “Joe” squeaks by with a PG-13. The violence becomes all the more apparent because Chu never paces it. Early on, we get a few scenes in which people stop to have conversations - granted, they’re not all that interesting, but at least they break up the flow.

Once the story picks up, however, it’s all ka-blam all the time, but rather than generate thrills and excitement, it ultimately becomes enervating. For a guy who’s made two movies based in music and dance, he has a surprising lack of rhythm here. The cast pretty much plays it straight rather than go over the top - apart from Walton Goggins’ amusing scenery-chewing as the warden of the super-prison – but they’re all apparently on board for a movie with as much depth as a Saturday morning cartoon. Not that there’s anything wrong with Saturday morning cartoons, mind you, but there’s a reason they don’t last two hours.

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