Friday, January 31, 2014

THIEF - #691

I am sure back in the day all video store employees had games they played to pass the time when they got bored. When another loop through The Simpsons or Arrested Development DVDs wasn't enough of a distraction, it was necessary to find other things to keep the day from drowning. Where I worked, on particularly slow days, we would each pick out a handful of movies that we had never seen but always wanted to. Once chosen, we would watch the first five or ten minutes and analyze them. I think it was someone's pick of ...And Justice for All that led us to a slow-day revelation. The lengthy opening of Norman Jewison's film is a set-up that has nothing to do with plot, but everything with character. It seemed indicative of what made 1970s American cinema special: the storytelling was the concern, and the filmmaking itself was paramount. No one was worried we wouldn’t know where it was going, or even what might happen next. There was no formula to how the tale was told, just follow the behavior.

Michael Mann's Thief came at the tail end of that era, but it brings up the rear nicely. It opens with an extended heist, dialogue at a minimum, dropping the audience straight into the action. There is a clear line to be drawn between it and Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive [review], one that I would think Refn would acknowledge. Though both openers would, on paper, sound like they are plot mechanicals, the truth is neither has that much importance to the main story. Seeing either Ryan Gosling's driver or James Caan's thief on the job tells us what we need to know about them, how they identify themselves, but not necessarily where the narrative they inhabit might be heading. The particularly key information is in what they do after the crime is done. As Frank, Caan goes to the waterfront and shares a danish with a fisherman, relaxing as the sun rises over the water, calming down from the rush of the robbery. He doesn't introduce himself or give his name, he just is. A thief, and a man.

The whole first half hour or so is just our chance to get to know Frank. It's only in subsequent scenes that we find out he sells cars as a front for his night-time activities, or that he has a thing with the waitress (Tuesday Weld) at his favorite diner. He is a thief first, an individual second, and the evolution of how he is presented to the audience mirrors his personal quest within the film. Stealing diamonds is funding the construction of another life. It will eventually pay for him to be out of the underworld and a citizen in the legitimate world. He's even mapped this out with a collage he made in prison.

Of course, there still emerges an identifiable plot to push Thief along. The first heist and some resulting fallout gets Frank the attention of a local crime boss (Robert Prosky) who wants to bring Frank in under his umbrella. The independent operator is reluctant, and with good reason: just talking to the guy puts him on the radar of law enforcement who previously had no idea he existed. Yet, the promise of a big score means Frank can fast track his transition to the good life, marrying and having a family. He also needs to move fast to get his mentor, Okla (Willie Nelson), out of prison before the old convict's heart condition takes him down for good.

The new boss sets up Frank with a rather large target, and despite the job being complicated, the takeaway will be worth the risk. There are shades of Jean-Pierre Melville in Mann's stoic staging, though Thief also owes plenty to Jules Dassin's Rififi [review], possibly in the same way Refn owes a nod or two to Mann. I’d wager it’s no mere happenstance that Criterion has reissued Dassin’s 1955 caper alongside Thief. The climactic rush to stop a double-cross and keep mother and child out of the combat zone is not an altogether original scenario, but there seems to be at least some eye cast from Mann back to Dassin. Then again, there are lots of genre tropes being employed here. The ending of Thief is also reminiscent of many a western--though Mann's handling of the violence lacks the bloody grace of a Sam Peckinpah, not to mention the restrained tension of traditional shootouts like the climax of High Noon. [review

Fans of the Miami Vice TV show or Crime Story [review] are familiar with Mann's affinity for slow-mo paint-splattered showdowns. The violence here is fairly clunky. The aesthetics only call attention to themselves. The years have not been kind, nor is high-definition the filmmaker's friend. It's a little jarring, because everywhere else, the new technology shows how Mann's love of neon was already firmly in place, even at this early stage. The night-time skylines are beautiful, as is the shot of James Caan driving his shiny Cadillac onto the car lot, lit up under a canopy of light bulbs.

This is merely window-dressing, however. All of the macho stuff--the gunfights, the stealing--is superfluous; it all still comes back to character. The best material in Thief is what happens away from the job. Willie Nelson, for instance, shows an incredible depth of emotion in his short appearance, and there are some interesting class issues that emerge as Frank tries to bury his past and present himself as a working stiff looking to make good.

The best bit in the movie, though, is an extended interaction between Caan and Weld. Out on a date, they both decide to put their cards on the table and get real. No more hidden pasts, no more looking the other way. The exchange feels raw and unscripted. No artifice, just two people sharing a back-and-forth. I didn't check the clock, but it goes on for what seems like ten minutes, and the two of them could easily highjack the movie at that point. I'd have been more than happy to have Thief turn into a Before Midnight-style discussion between a gangster and his dame.

Of course, that's the first scene they'd cut today. You can't have a big genre picture with a lot of talking. James Caan would pull Tuesday Weld out of the bar and then there'd be a hard cut to them having sex. And it wouldn't be James Caan, it'd be someone more conventionally handsome and not so abrasive. And Tuesday Weld would be an actress at least ten years his junior. And there'd have to be a pretty awful bad guy and a recognizable rival cop. Stuff that tests well, you know?

Which just makes Thief all the more intriguing, all the more special. The end of an era of adventurous mainstream filmmaking. We still see movies of a similar stripe crop up occasionally--the films of David O. Russell spring to mind--but not even Michael Mann makes them like this anymore. There’s something fresh and unforced about Thief that his quest for perfection would prevent him from ever recapturing. Moments still pop up here and there--who can forget the sitdown between De Niro and Pacino in Heat--but the fresh excitement of Thief is something you only get to have the first time.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


There is a mutual appreciation society between New York indie icon Jim Jarmusch and quirky Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, and that spiritual and creative connection has never been more evident in any of the Kaurismäki films I have seen than it is in his 1992 effort La vie de bohème (The Bohemian Life). Like the early works of his Aki's New York compatriot, it's a lazy comedy drawn in warm tones, inhabited by genial losers, and depicting a pocket of society just around the corner from the norm. Based on work by writer Henri Murger that also served as the inspiration for La Bohème (and thus all the iterations that followed), La vie de bohème also owes a little something to the tradition of similarly minded efforts featuring ex-pat artists and writers and the bungled romances that plague them, such as Ernst Lubitsch's A Design for Living [review] or even Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's An American in Paris [review].

La vie de bohème is quintessentially Kaurismäki, however, and unmistakably European. The trio at the heart of the film are Marcel (André Wilms), a struggling playwright; Schaunard (Kari Väänänen), a loutish musician; and Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpää), a refugee from the Soviet bloc making his way in Paris as a painter. Marcel is being evicted from his apartment, and Schaunard is moving into it, and after a night of drinking where the writer shares a glass or two (or five) with Rodolfo, the three become fast friends. Kaurismäki's script details their various schemes to stay afloat, including Marcel's taking over a burgeoning fashion magazine (his publisher is played by Samuel Fuller, a mentor to Jarmsuch, as well) and Rodolfo bilking a naïve art collector (Jean-Pierre Léaud, who is a dynamo in both of his scenes). In the midst of this, Rodolfo has a romance with another immigrant, Mimi (Evelyne Didi), gets deported, and then comes back. He is, arguably, the driving force of the narrative. If nothing else, he serves as some kind of conscience, the guy that, were he to do better, could change everyone's fates. In particular, he holds to some stringent ideals that adversely affect Mimi. His old-fashioned views on the relationship between men and women are as impractical as his chosen lifestyle. It's up to Mimi, as well as Marcel's girlfriend/secretary Musette (Christine Murillo), to provide the voice of reason, worrying about such pesky things as food, rent, and delivering on promises.

Kaurismäki has a good time with the classic story, infusing it with his own kooky sense of humor while also having fun with the conventions of nineteenth-century dramatic novels. Naming Rodfolfo's dog after Baudelaire will give you some indication of the reverence (or lack thereof) the auteur holds for classic authors. La vie de bohème goes from silly to melodramatic parody before finally settling into a fairly dark finale. The artists of the piece have spent the movie trying to dodge all responsibility, including the results of their own actions (or inaction). Inevitably, this is an unsustainable practice, and Rodolfo is forced to face his own selfishness when his bad habits lead to him being very much alone.

The cast of La vie de bohème is populated with Kaurismäki regulars, all of whom click well together and have little problem balancing the absurdity of most of the script with its all-important moments of realness. Pellonpää plays a similar straight-man role to his one as the manager in the Leningrad Cowboys movies [review], while Wilms' trademark earnestness, seen most recently in Kaurismäki's Le Havre, makes him a rather delightful con man. His scene where he escapes from a thug by distracting a cop with a quickly improvised story is something straight out of a 1930s comedy. One gets the sense that Marcel's writing is likewise a feint, or at the very least relatable only to himself. We are spared hearing any of his prose. When it comes to the boys' art, Kaurismäki reserves his savage humor for Schaunard, who plays a song that is a weird hybrid of John Cage and German noise and industrial. It unsurprisingly sends both Mimi and Musette running out of the room.

Fans of early 1990s indie cinema will appreciate La vie de bohème's casual pacing. The movie is in no real hurry and is as content as its characters with letting the rest of the world move on as it stays settled. Timo Salminen, who is Kaurismäki's go-to director of photography, shoots the movie in black-and-white, and will inevitably draw comparisons to similar work by Tom DiCillo (Stranger than Paradise [review]) and Robby Müller (Down by Law). There is a clean look to everything, however, that separates it from its grainier cousins. For all the squalor the layabout artists indulge in, there is a shabby beauty to how their lives look on film that is reflective of the everyday experience they attempt to capture in their own work. When they bother to do it, that is.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk

Sunday, January 12, 2014


By the time master Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray made his 1984 film The Home and the World, he had been directing movies for nearly thirty years. This film, and the others that make up the trio of movies in the 40th Eclipse Series boxed set Late Ray, show the confidence of all those years of experience, even if maybe the passion in the story doesn't come through with the same kind of vivacity as it might have previously.

Based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, who also provided the story for Ray's movie Charulata twenty years prior, The Home and the World is a drama set in a wealthy household at the turn of the 20th Century, a time of political and social change. Nikhil (Victor Banerjee) has opened his home to his college friend, Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee, who had worked with Ray since being Apu in his famous Apu Trilogy), the leader of a movement to expel the British occupiers through individual economic sanctions; namely, banning foreign goods and only buying Indian products. Nikhil agrees in theory, but sees the potential damage these boycotts could do to the poor merchants who work in his jurisdiction by limiting their options and also the religious strife it would cause between wealthier Hindu activists and their Muslim neighbors.

Caught between these two points of view is Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee), Nikhil's wife, who prior to Sandip's arrival has lived according to a tradition where a wife does not leave the house once she has taken her marriage vows. Nikhil has always encouraged his spouse to live free, and her friendship with Sandip inspires her to finally venture outdoors, even if only to see him. She finds the allure of this impassioned speaker irresistible, and the opportunistic politician takes advantage of her innocence. This love triangle is the driving force of The Home and the World, setting up its essential conflicts. The steady, thoughtful, and progressive Nikhil must contend with the more reckless--and ultimately self-serving--Sandip, with Bimala bouncing in between, trying to parse the truth from the compelling fictions.

The Home and the World has some interesting ideas to wrestle with, but Ray's telling is fairly dry. The sexless romance lacks the sense of stifled desire that allows other period pieces of this nature, such as Scorsese's Age of Innocence or James Ivory's The Remains of the Day, to overcome the lack of physical heat. There isn't much draw here. Perhaps the problem is that Sandip isn't that compelling a scoundrel. His flaws are far too obvious. Nikhil's arc is much more fascinating, particularly once the pacifist has to take up arms to fix his friend's mistakes.

On the upside, Ray's attention to details, including period sets and costumes, is excellent, and his steady narrative presentation manages to keep the film moving forward, even as some of the interpersonal drama grows repetitious. You may want to tackle this one over a couple of sittings. It took me three nights to finally finish it off myself.

Much better is 1989's An Enemy of the People. Health concerns forced Ray to lessen the scope of his production, and it makes for a more succinct, incisive drama. Five years passed in between the The Home and the World and An Enemy of the People because the filmmaker was recovering from a heart attack he suffered near the end of The Home's production. For this follow-up, Ray once again turned to an older text, this time updating it for a modern context. An Enemy of the People is an adaptation of the 1882 Henrik Ibsen play of the same name, transplanted to India and modernized.

Soumitra Chatterjee returns as Dr. Ashoke Gupta, a mild-mannered medical practitioner concerned about the increase of jaundice and hepatitis amongst the local population of his Bengali residence. These are diseases not common to the area, and he believes that an introduction of new contaminants to the water supply is responsible. Further investigation bears this out. Most troubling, though, is the pollution's connection to the town's Hindu temple. The holy water the worshipers partake in is infected, as well.

It's this last bit that causes Gupta the most trouble. The temple has become a tourist attraction and pilgrimage destination, and the city leaders who profit from this influx of travelers do not want to see its reputation damaged. Dr. Gupta's younger brother Nisith (Dhritiman Chatterjee) takes a hard stand against his sibling, getting both the temple and the local newspapers involved, stirring up religious fervor to stifle the doc's health warnings.

The theatrical origins of An Enemy of the People is still quite evident in Ray's production. Most of the action takes place on three different sets, with each scene clearly demarcated by the shift in between. Enemy is a talking-heads movie, with bits of clumsy exposition here and there to orient the viewer to who is who. There is also some character shorthand, with the costume designer in particular typecasting through wardrobe. Nisith, for instance, dresses in Western-style clothes that make him look like a villain in a British drama; the morally weak newspaper editor wears a sweater vest and big glasses, the stereotype of a milquetoast liberal. These decisions mean much of Enemy comes off as starchy, but the source material and the cast largely overcome this problem. Soumitra Chatterjee is especially good in the lead, playing a man overtaken by his ideals and ill-equipped to apply them in the real world. His belief in the rightness of things means he can be taken advantage of and betrayed with surprising ease. It's a testament to Ibsen's initial premise that the issues he raised still applied to India over a hundred years later, and could easily be adopted to our own culture today. It was apparently Ray who added the religious element to the story, which makes it even more potent to a modern society that, maddeningly, still has to contend with religious obstinacy blocking the way of scientific advancement and common sense practices.

Also quite good is Mamata Shanker as Gupta's daughter. She represents the younger generation and is the sort of atypical progressive female that Ibsen was known for. Her character has some of the most nuanced story points in the screenplay, and her decisions are effectively juxtaposed with the more old-fashioned beliefs of her mother (Ruma Guha Thakurta).

There is also a bit of a clash of old values and new skepticism integral to Ray's final film, and the best of the set, 1991's The Stranger. The auteur, as per usual, wrote and directed and composed the music, though he did so from his sick bed, an impressive fact to consider. The Stranger is as solid a film as you're likely to find, constructed skillfully and featuring finely tuned performances. It sags at times, mostly when we get a song or dance number, but it seems fitting that a revered filmmaker's final effort should speak with such clarity about identity and what is and is not knowable.

Utpal Dutt plays Manamohan Mitra, the stranger of the title, a world traveler who gave in to his self-described wanderlust 35 years ago and left Calcutta to see the world. He has now returned, much to the surprise of his only living relative, his niece Anila (Mamata Shankar). She is sceptical of his true identity, but willing to take the risk; her husband, Sudhindra (Dipankar Day), is not so open-minded. He thinks this is a scam. The returning uncle's willing acceptance of their doubt does little to assuage it. (In this, he is maybe similar to Sandip in The Home and the World, in that the man puts his own contradictions front and center. Compare, for instance, Sandip's addiction to European cigarettes.)

The Stranger is basically a series of challenges as different people confront Manamohan and try to challenge his story. His deft dismissal of these disputes could be interpreted as proof that he is who he says he is, or just further confirmation that he's a skilled con man. The situation grows more complicated and suspicious when it's realized that there is a long unclaimed inheritance at stake in addition to whatever personal connections Manamohan will reclaim. Dutt is a shrewd actor, never really tipping his hand. You'll likely only lean one way or the other when the weary nomad begins to grow tired of the endless interrogation. Even then, you might find yourself still waiting for him to pull the rug out and contradict whatever it is you'd decided.

There is a fascinating psychology at work in The Stranger, though it's not necessarily that of the stranger himself. He remains a bit of a cipher even up until the end. Rather, Ray has figured out that the really interesting story here is how others react to the man, and he concocts scenarios where we can see a broad range of personalities interacting with Manamohan. In one case, it is an actor intrigued by the backstory; in another, it's a lawyer used to dealing with cynical con men.

In the end, the filmmaker is using The Stranger to affirm his belief in the human spirit and in the benefits of trusting and accepting one another. It serves as a fitting coda to a career, and also is a remarkable example of an artist remaining sharp even in his final days. It's so easy to get hung up on the first declaration of an individual voice, to embrace what is fresh and new, but there is something far more rewarding in a mature work by a seasoned professional who has refined those earlier impulses into a far deeper, more meaningful expression.

In the year following The Stranger, Satyajit Ray received an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar, and then shortly after that, passed away. The Stranger is a respectable final statement, going along with that last seal of approval from Ray's peers and admirers. It is a tale of a man whose years only exist in the stories he tells. What we know of the artist, we know through his work, and the work of Satyajit Ray carries on even though the man is gone.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk