Sunday, September 25, 2016

70's Bonanza: Max and the Junkmen

A slight parallel can be drawn between Claude Sautet's "Max and the Frenchman" and Michael Mann's 1995 epic crime masterpiece, "Heat". Both leading cops in the film (Al Pacino as Vincent Hannah in the latter and Michel Piccoli  as Detective Max in this one) are singularly determined to bring down a group of thieves. Outside of the domestic upheaval in Hannah's life (and a step daughter who threatens to bring the violence he works with daily in the streets crashing home), he cares about very little other than achieving his goal of solving crimes. Likewise, Max is given even less enjoyable backstory, other than a check that arrives monthly from his family from their riches of wine producing. It's alluded to that he doesn't even need to work, but chose this profession due to some jilted sense of injustice as a magistrate years earlier. The likeness between the films deepens even further when both cops become exposed to their respective "crews" when the progression of confidential information unwittingly gives them leads into a much bigger series of events. The way Pacino as Hannah spins on a dime when his C.I. mumbles, "man, this Slick ain't no joke" is a marvel of "ah hah" procedural that rarely gets noticed in modern movies. Likewise, Max is poking around the garage of a known car theft front when he sees a recognizable face downstairs. The owner of the garage, under pressure from Max and his partner, fingers that man named Abel (Bernard Fresson) as someone whose supplied cars to various thugs in town. Using his past as a fellow soldier to reunite with his old friend, Max slowly perpetrates a series of double crosses and roleplaying with the man's prostitute girlfriend to steer the man and his crew into a bank robbery. Endlessly fascinating for the way in which "Max and the Frenchman" undulates between crime film procedural and slowly invading romance drama, it's an unheralded great film that, besides its marginal re-release here in the U.S. back in early 2013, deserves a wider audience.

But that's where the similarities between the two films ends. While Robert DeNiro and his crew in "Heat" are intelligent, coiled professionals.... ready to drop, kill or run with brutal precision at any moment... Max is chasing a rather lump-headed and sullen crew. Living in the junkyard of their boss (who takes most of their money from their random 'scores' of stealing copper wire), its rather clear where their destinies are headed from the get-go. These are not successful, career criminals. What filmmaker Sautet is essentially after is the relationship that develops between Max and Abel's girlfriend, played to perfection by Romy Schneider. The moral complexity that eventually grows between them is the core of the film, and it's a hugely impactful moment that occurs between them in the film's finale.

French 'policiers' of the 70's have a distinctive flavor and tone. Either they end up as muscle-bound, illogical sleaze-fests such as some of the latter day Alain Delon films, or they strike the perfect balance of intelligence and pathos. Of course, the gold standard are the films of Jean Pierre Melville. And while Sautet's "Max and the Frenchmen" isn't quite "The Red Circle" or "Un Flic", it is a well crafted and devious procedural that understands truth is in the hushed details of a conversation over car chases and grand shoot outs. It does feature a pretty awesome shoot out at the end, though.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On "The Light Between Oceans"

Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance seems to be preoccupied with consequences and all the messy, time-lapsed emotions that come along with them. In his previous film, the masterful "The Place Beyond the Pines", he quickly aborts the gritty, burned-out-looking crime thriller premise about halfway through and jumps ahead in time more than a decade to ponder the fate of two children helplessly caught up in the maelstrom of their parents decisions. And with his latest film, titled "The Light Between Oceans", (based on the novel of the same name by M.L.Stedman), the innocent are at the mercy of another bad decision by two people hopelessly dealing with grief and loss. It's certainly a prestige picture... full of handsomely mounted purpose and sweeping drama.... but it also defiantly stands its own ground as a film imprinted with the soul of its filmmaker and deserves its hard-earned whimpers and eye swells.

Somewhat battered by critics and avoided (thus far) by audiences, perhaps its a film done under by its tell-too-much-trailers or the convenient Labor Day weekend schedule release. Too early for the fall and way too heavy for late summer. Or perhaps its subject matter.... about a despairing lighthouse-tending couple who find an abandoned baby and keep it as their own despite the fact the real mother shows up years later.... felt like standard Lifetime TV drama stuff. Regardless, Cinafrance's foray into mainstream filmmaking (after the very independent "Blue Valentine" in 2010 and the aforementioned "The Place Beyond the Pines" in 2012) hasn't landed him the unadorned praise of his earlier work, which is a shame because the film often reaches and maintains a level of excellence that's been sorely missed so far this year.

As the isolated young couple, living on a coastal plateau and cut off from the rest of the Australian mainland after World War I, (Tom,) Michael Fassbender and Isabel (Alicia Vikander)- who's so marvelous again here, able to convey so much depth and emotion with the delicate canvas of her beautiful face- quickly become antiheroes of this noirish period piece in which her despair over losing two pregnancies due to miscarriages sees them make a very tough decision when a baby and dead man wash up shore in a small boat. She talks her strict, rule-regarding husband into keeping the baby and they live happily for several years. It's only when they return to town that they stumble upon the real mother (Rachel Weisz) both grieving and desperately searching for answers to her German husband and baby's disappearance.

Working it's way through a series of guilty note passing and sublimated blame, "The Light Between the Oceans" pivots in its second half and becomes a mournful examination of the bad decisions and its life-altering impact on the three people at its center. Even more moving is the film's final few minutes as its skips even farther into the future and, like "The Place Beyond the Pines" or this year's other treatise on missed expectations and deep-seated regret titled "Indignation", the film honestly pulls on the heartstrings and drastically alters the perception of the right-or-wrong actions of  Tom and Isabel in the eyes of the person most affected by their decisions. I'm a sap for this type of generational storytelling, and "The Light Between Oceans" hits the solid spot there.

In addition to the strong narrative chops, Cianfrance adapts his urgent handheld camera technique to strong results here. In one scene, very early in the courtship between Tom and Isabel, the camera hovers just on the opposite side of a carriage they've dismounted after their date and Cianfrance frames them perfectly in a darkened hue. No words are exchanged, but the mounting kinship and mutual attraction is felt through the lens. Its almost a throwaway snatch of time, but it's a voluminous moment. Even more adventurous for a prestige "weepie" such as this is the way Cianfrance and novelist Stedman etch the characters in realistic grades of reason. There are no grand villains or truly repugnant actions. Each motive, action and reaction are modulated carefully. Admittedly, Cianfrance errs on the side of Vikander's Isabel as the most damaged and empathetic character of the three, such as the aesthetic choice to cut from a cold medium shot of Fassbender's Tom being questioned by the police to a soft dissolve close-up of the weary and tear-stained face of Isabel in the same position. Not without her Shakesperian deviancy to fulfill her dreams of a happy family, even her actions can be understood, appreciated and mourned.

The same can be said for Rachel Weisz's Hannah and the complications she endures as the estranged mother whose daughter is ripped from her life. Serving as the persecuted figure in the film, even her third act motivations don't ring false or contrived. It's rare that three well defined, intelligent characters exist in a film whose primary undercurrents are supremely melodramatic.

Even though its failing to find an audience (and generating quite the snark from online blurbs whose presence is growing increasingly unwelcome in these lightning quick digital times), "The Light Between Oceans" deserves to be seen and recognized as a piece of proper Hollywood fall season bait done oh so right by Cianfrance and his attention to the complicated and treacherous decisions that ultimately save one life but destroy many others.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.18

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Starring in several Amos Gitai films, actress Natalie Portman proves that she's interested in some of the same knotty polemics that define many of his films, especially when it comes to the violence and rhetoric about Israel's foundation and its inhabitants struggle for peace both physical and emotional. Co-starring here, Portman directed and wrote the film based on Amos Oz's memoir of the same name. Decidedly splintered into two halves and filtered through the eyes of young Amos (Amir Tessler), the first part comes off as profound and episodic, such as when the film equates childlessness with losing memory and the many tales-within-the-tale spewed by Portman to Amos that feel like motherly fairy tales with an assured dark spin. The second half becomes more didactic and straightforward, detailing the family's life around the 1947 founding of the Jewish state and the ensuing violence between Arabs and Jews. Compounding the external strife, Portman's mother descends into her own hellish state, withering away before our eyes and giving "A Tale of Love and Darkness" its grim decor. Portman's direction is strong and all the performances are measured, yet the film feels as if it's trying to assemble too many ideas into its compact 97 minute running time.

Kaili Blues

First Jia Zhangke did it in "Mountains May Depart". And now Gan Bi- in his perplexing but undeniably original feature debut- has staggered the opening credit title until approximately 30 minutes into the film. If nothing else, it's a shock to the system. Drawing from the melancholic tempo of 1990's Hou Hsiao Hsien, "Kaili Blues" also takes its time in introducing any identifiable narrative until the latter half of his effort when a country doctor (Yongzhong Chen) decides to mount a trip to find his dislocated nephew. Following the trip (and its many longeurs and character tangents) in a remarkably staged 40 minute single tracking shot that sweeps and pans and snakes its way up and down a mountain, through a hilltop village and behind several various people as they carry on their own lives, its the real reason to see "Kaili Blues". Knowing such a technical marvel was in store and constantly waiting for it, perhaps, reduced its ultimate impact on me, but "Kaili Blues" is just mysterious and audacious enough for its other merits to seek this one out.

Don't Breathe

No amount of terror, suspended thrills or contrived/cutesy backstory (ohh that precocious little sister) can make me root for three dumb kids who break into someone's house to rob them. Nevermind that the old man has a young girl tied up in the basement either. Fede Alvarez's much lauded micro-horror failed to connect with me on any level, proving that true modern horror is only done right when one cares about the people involved.