Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jacques Audiard: Rust and Bone

Piercing character study is one of excellent French filmmaker Jacques Audiard's strengths as a storyteller. In addition, he is immense in the way he cuts through social milieu to the visceral heart of his wounded, mostly realistic characters. Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, and now Rust and Bone, have all offered up palpable characterizations in addition to beautifully burnished surfaces that belie the depths of his undertakings. Almost no other French filmmaker can afford the culpability and clarity with which this artist brings forth his touchable protagonists.

In addition, his grasp of masculinity and French manhood can be startling as well as fresh and complex. With his early film, the Hitchcockian Read My Lips, he offered a female counterpart in the spunky Emmanuelle Devos character to almost balance the pathos of Vincent Cassel's brutal/brutalized con with a conscience. In his new film, the touching and typically tough Rust and Bone, he gifts the astounding Marianne Cotillard one of the strongest roles thus far in her career, as a killer whale trainer named Stephanie, who must live with the repercussions of a near-death experience.

Her chance meeting and eventual love affair with a troubled single father, Alain ( the sublime Matthias Schoenaerts, wonderful earlier this year in Michael Roskam's masterpiece, Bullhead) sets off sparks, and more importantly, opens up both characters to the audience, offering us a glimpse into ourselves in the process. Several plot twists feel a bit generic and/or forced, and yet, Audiard's intrinsic knack as a director makes up for these in the scheme of things. Two truly brilliant performances, a mostly excellent script, and overall the director's mise en scene, wash wawy the minor incosistencies which depend on your individual pov's.

Stephane Fontaine once again wields the camera with a force unforeseen, his palette washed out as the character's exhausted lives. Alexandre Desplat once more waxes a classically lovely score that is both romantic and subtle. While not as collectively powerful as Audiard's transcendent prison crime drama A Prophet, Rust and Bone remains potent proof of its creator's importance as a contemporary voice in world cinema.

Gus Van Sant: Promised Land

Continuing on an upward trajectory that has revealed, layer by layer, one of the most fascinating ouevres in American cinema, Gus Van Sant crafts the entertaining if uneven, Promised Land. Working from an original script concocted by stars Matt Damon (his first since winning the Oscar for scribing, with Ben Affleck, Van Sant's standard Good Will Hunting) and John Krasinski, the helmer paints a quotidian portrait of movie small-town America in the face of the evil corporation manipulating it. The subject of "fracking" seems original, if filtered into a been there, done that plot about one man's awakening to the negativity and exploitation of the company he works for, and the purity of the simple life through the love of a good local woman.

Van Sant is a master filmmaker with an individual sensibility.His gift for delineating masculinity, family literal and symbolic, and the essences of reality and dreams, are pretty well suited to this simplistic tale. In the end, it all comes off as one of his "in between" movies, the more general fare he makes such as the aforementioned Hunting and Findind Forrester and the like, while dreaming of the textures and syntaxes of his more personal works, such as Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park. His cinematographer Linus Sandgren paints a soothing pallette of Americana in base colors, while Van Sant's regular composer Danny Elfman illustrates the action with a basic, lovely theme.

The cast is quite strong and lends a lot to the backbone of this good, if minor work in a great director's career. Damon, Frances McDormand, Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, et al, are all ideally cast. When its all over, we feel gratified yet pretty much forget it all on the drive home.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Andrew Dominik: Killing Them Softly

Grabbing the audience by the lapels and never letting go for the entirety of its hypnotic 90-minute running time, auteur Andrew Dominik's third and best feature film, Killing Them Softly, is a masterstroke which will be recognized generations from now as one of this decade's most important films. A high octane crime drama filled with rich subtext, spellbinding sequences, and a muscular miss en scene, the whole picture is a tour de force.

Dominik, an Australian director, has proven himself the most talented motion picture artist to come from down under in the past decade. His film debut, the wonderful Chopper, signaled the birth of a voice to watch;his visceral prison drama cum character study revealed his as a visionary talent, adept at not only atmosphere, but social commentary and directing actors in career high turns. His American debut, the brilliant Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, homaged Altman and Malick, reveling in the beauty of 1970s American cinematic craftsmanship.

Killing Them Softly is that picture's opposite; as fast, mean, and brief as that one was slow-paced, subtle and lengthy. Adapting a 70s novel written by pulp scribe George(Friends of Eddie Coyle)V. Higgins, Dominik immerses us in a modern Boston that could be the 70s, and feels like it, save the running commentary on our country now, as evidenced by President Obama on t.v. sets in the background.

Paralleling the underworld with our political world is a ballsy move, and it works. The intrigues of organized crime, heists and hit men hijinks, are to be relished in a fascinating script cooked up by the incredible Dominik. Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and especially James Gandolfini, all turn in excellent performances. The director successfully mixes these instantly recognizable stars with a great cast of unknowns; Scott McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Trevor Long, and Max Casella all shine brightly. The fusion of all elements is complete; to my mind this is the best American crime drama in years, and unquestionably the masterpiece of this Fall and Winter; no overblown Oscar wannabe can touch Dominik's cinematic genius.

Containing the best and most realistic heroin-high sequence I've ever witnessed, as well as the most original murder sequence I've seen in some time, Andrew Dominik delivers the goods in spades. Killing Them Softly holds its own against the 70s classics which fueled its fearless creator to spark this celluloid flame in the first place.

David O. Russell: Silver Linings Playbook

Submitting to popular cineplex formulae whilst maintaining his fiercely individual style of characterization and dialogue, American master David O. Russell delivers his most flawed film which still contains a multitude of pleasures. Silver Linings Playbook, an adaptation of a recent novel, tackles mental illness, family, and human frailty within the context of Hollywood rom-com generalities.

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker all turn in splendid performances, heading a game cast that seems amped on Russell's quirky, idiosyncratic way with words. And yet, aside from all that, the structure, momentum, and denouement are all ruefully disappointing.

While it is exciting that Russell, one of our country's leading cinematic lights, has finally broken through to a mass audience, its lamentable that it is with his most ordinary film. The buzz built around Silver Linings Playbook is just that: buzz; all sound and no fury. Here's hoping that those who adored this good but minor film will glance backwards at his masterworks; Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, and I Heart Huckabees, some of the most inspired and magical American motion pictures of the past two decades.