Tuesday, September 30, 2014

FOREIGN CORNER: City of God (2002)

Somewhere between Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone (the good version), there is Fernando Meirelles and his searing and immediate film, City of God.  That is not to say Meirelles' film is not unique, but visual and narrative threads connect with these directors and their better pictures.  City of God is a film that is told with urgency and violence, but one with flair, panache, and a tone that is fresh and vibrant in the face of despair.  It tells the story of poverty breeding crime in the slums of Rio De Janeiro, but with a love for its characters which creates sincere emotional connections.

Much like Scorsese's Goodfellas, City of God is told through the eyes of a narrator in the midst of violent street crime.  His name is Rocket, played by Alexandre Rodrigues, and he and his brother occupy the dusty streets of a shanty town outside Rio De Janeiro where the privileged isolate the impoverished.  It is called the City of God, a place where God has overlooked the desperate.  Rocket tells the story of his youth in the sixties in the city where he avoids the criminal life while his brother, Shaggy, falls headlong into robberies and heists.  He tells us of the Tender Trio, a group of pre-teen hoodlums who rob propane trucks and brothels, and grow up to battle for power in the slums.  The trio merely lays out a culture of crime and violence, where everyone carries a pistol.  The film moves seamlessly from the sixties into the seventies, where one of the slum's children has grown into a psychopathic, power-hungry drug lord.

Once Li'l Dice as a child, Dice has grown into a hong man and re-named himself Li'l Z (Leandro Firmino).  Z is a cold-blooded killer, using force and murder to gain control of the City of God.  His partner, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), is a much nicer, more diplomatic drug dealer.  He doesn't kill, he bargains and becomes friends with everyone in the slums.  But Li'l Z has a thirst for control that is unmatched in cinema, and he vows to take over the final neighborhood in the slum, run by Benny's friend, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele).  The way these stories and events weave in and out of each other grows hypnotizing, told through the eyes of Rocket's objective narration.  The film is based on a novel from Paulo Lins, who based the story on his time growing up in the City of God, lending even more to the steadi-cam, documentary feel.

Rocket, all the while, struggles with the everyday issues of being a teenager.  He likes a girl, but fails at losing his virginity.  He tries crime, but everyone he and his friend decide to rob is too nice to hurt.  Rocket loves photography, and lucks into a job as a photographer of the local newspaper thanks to his exclusive access to these criminals.  Certain events unfold, there is a rape and a murder, and war breaks out in the City of God between the two gangs.

The plot is complex, yet easy to follow thanks to the names and bright characterizations of every person on the screen.  Characters named Knockout Ned, Clipper, Stringy, and Melonhead all occupy their own place on the screen and are all painted with vivid energy.  The vibrancy of the direction helps to counter balance the despair, the violence, and the moments which are hard to watch.  There are children in danger any number of times, but the story earns such tough scenes.  And despite the violence, Meirelles picks and chooses what to show and what not to dwell on in order to create the most optimal impact on the screen.

City of God is a visceral picture, hard to watch but impossible to turn away from, told with wonderful fervor.  Aside from the visual mastery at play, there is true tragedy at the core, a story about poverty breeding crime.  The story may take place in the slums of Rio, but there is something universal to the tragic nature of these children, and how they will, more than likely, dissolve into death within the impoverished walls of the City of God.  Rocket's story is a rarity, to say the least.      

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Drop



THE DROP: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, directed by Michael R. Roskam (106 min.)

Tom Hardy can play just about any type of character, and play it well.  I enjoy him as an actor.  But he might be most effective when he is understated, and in The Drop, Hardy is the most understated, unassuming protagonist to ever occupy a crime drama.  He is Bob, our narrator, who tells us in a voiceover about the "drop bars" in a New York neighborhood where low-rent mobs store and move money around town at night.  He tells us about the criminal element that exists in his neighborhood, an serving as a sort of tapestry for the common citizens.  And Bob?  Well, he "just tends the bar," or so he tells us.  He carries himself with a limp, acts slow on the draw.  But there is something up with this guy, and the majority of the film involves trying to break through the simple-minded exterior of this slump-shouldered bartender.

Bob runs the bar of his cousin, Cousin Marv, a washed up gangster wannabe played by the late James Gandolfini in his final role.  Well, it used to be Marv's bar; despite the sign outside, more prominent criminal figures own the establishment.  Marv tried to run the neighborhood a few years ago, but was muscled into submission by a foreign faction of gangsters who are much slicker and more menacing.  Bob is his right-hand man.  He speaks simply, softly, and stays in the shadows of his own life.  Cousin Marv's bar is one of the many drop bars in town, and one night when it is robbed by two masked men, the police begin snooping around and the real, foreign owners come calling.

But this screenplay, written by Dennis Lehane (who wrote Shutter Island and Gone Baby, Gone), does not take the typical approach to a crime drama.  Rather than amp up the violence, The Drop takes a side road with Bob.  One night on his way home, Bob hears a puppy whimpering in a nearby trash can.  He retrieves the Pit Bull puppy, bloody and abandoned, and is confronted by the homeowner, a skittish woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) who takes some time to warm to Bob.  She had nothing to do with the dog being abandoned.  Bob doesn't know a thing about dogs, but Nadia implores him to take ownership, and the couple bond over the puppy.  It is an interesting branch to a familiar story.  Before long, the owner of the dog appears, and is a menacing former boyfriend of Nadia.  He presses Bob to return the dog to him, but why?  Some motivations remain unclear in the film, which is a drawback in the end.  But I admire the effort to expand upon a traditional story.

The former boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), becomes a larger player as the story unfolds, and his menace creates great tension.  The plot is occasionally too obtuse for its own good, but The Drop is less about plot and more about these broken lives of neighborhood folks who were once much happier people.  As we begin to learn more about Nadia and, eventually, Marv, Bob remains a mystery until the final moments.  The screenplay lets us into these lives, and allows us to feel sympathy for Bob, all the while keeping him at arm's length for very deliberate purposes.  

In the end, perception has changed for just about everyone involved.  The Drop was a film I was not expecting.  While the directing is unremarkable in the end, and the narrative too convoluted at times, the performances are sublime and unique to the performer.  Noomi Rapace, with an open face and dark eyes, hides sadness well.  And it is still a little odd seeing Gandolfini in film roles this long after his passing.  Nevertheless, he brings comfort to a crime drama like this, playing yet another photo negative to his powerful and egomaniacal Tony Soprano character.  But this is a film where Tom Hardy captivates from the opening scene.  He can do so many things with his voice and, like the best actors around, can say so much without so much as raising an eyebrow.

The Drop may ultimately be unremarkable as a whole, but I found certain elements fascinating, and I respect the writing for attempting to approach a crime drama from a fresh perspective.

B-

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Thief (1981)

He carries it all in his shoulders, the weight and pressure of the criminal life, the years behind bars.  He expresses his confidence in his strut.  Frank is a loner, but he is not alone.  He has a woman in his life whom he loves and wants to spend the rest of his life with.  But what is the rest of his life, the life of a career criminal?  Frank is trying to rectify the impending doom of his occupation when we meet him; but, of course, the allure of the life and dangers of outside influence won't allow swift exodus.  Frank is the perfect protagonist in Michael Mann's debut feature, the electric crime thriller Thief.  We all know the films of Michael Mann, and what he has become in a long and brilliant career, and some of his finer work is an echo of Thief in one way or another.  Mann is fascinated with crime, practically sexualizing the act of thievery in some of his works (Thief included), and from the very beginning it was clear his ability to harmonize the thrill of criminal behavior with a world that is fully realized, enveloping, and beautiful.

Frank is played by James Caan, a master of angst, confidence, and ferocity at the right moments.  He is an expert safe cracker who works independently with his own crew he can trust.  The story is a familiar one these days, the introvert criminal looking for one final score before he can ride off into the sunset.  But, as I have always said about cliches and genres, it is only a cliche if the execution is poor.  A film can have the most predictable plot outline, but the developments and the style can define it as something unique despite convention.

Thief is a living, breathing city noir, where Chicago as a backdrop absorbs the players as if they were on in the same.  Consider the opening shot, a sheet of rain backlit by green streetlights which we follow down an alley framed with fire escapes, to Frank a few moments before a heist.  Frank was borne of the city.  He keeps his circle small with his friend and partner, Barry (James Belushi in his debut performance), and his love, Jessie, played by Tuesday Weld.  Frank visits his mentor, Okla (Willie Nelson) in prison, maybe to spend time with Okla, probably to remind himself he never wants to be back in prison.  Frank wants to get up enough money so he can skip town, leave the life behind, and live the rest of his life in peace with Jessie.  But then a wise guy comes calling for his services.

Robert Prosky plays Leo, an underworld boss who convinces Frank to work for him on one big score.  That, of course, doesn't turn out to be the case.  The one score turns into another, and when Frank tries to get out, things don't go as he had planned.  The thefts are a backdrop to the struggles of Frank as he gets his life in order.  This is a character study about a thief, not an action film charged and driven by pure plot devices.  One of the finest moments in the whole picture is a monologue from Caan in a diner booth, telling Jessie a story about his time behind bars.  In the end there is a double cross, a revelation for Frank, and a thrilling climax, all of which belong in a crime drama and devices noir fans recognize.  But, remember, it's the execution that sets genre films apart, and Michael Mann is better than just about anyone at technical execution and its marriage to style and panache.

Mann is known for his research and his attention to technical details, as well as his unique collaborations.  In Thief, Mann employed an actual safe cracker for technical support, and that safe cracker, John Santucci, would go on to play a detective in the film.  Conversely, the late Dennis Farina, who was a retired policeman, played a hood for Prosky's mob.  The materials used in the safe-cracking scenes were actual tools of the trade.  Thief was also the beginning of Mann's eccentric musical choices to pair up with his films.  Sometimes his music has worked wonders, other times it has not.  Thief is completely scored by the techno pop band Tangerine Dream, and the acidic musical notes almost bring more energy to the picture, or pull the seething tension to the forefront in some brilliant ways.


On occasion, Mann's technical obsessiveness has gotten in the way of his final product, and the humanity of some films suffer.  Ali starts like a rocket and fizzles out as Mann gets caught up in the politics of the story.  Public Enemies looks fantastic, feels authentic, but is lifeless.  However, Mann's better films - a list which outweighs his misfires tenfold - manage to capture both the authenticity as well as the human angle.  Think about Heat, or The Insider, his greatest achievements, and their ability to .  Those films, in their own separate ways, belong as the offspring of Mann's first film, which just so happens to be his first truly great film, Thief.