Saturday, March 22, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: BLOOD TIES (2014)

(France/US - 2013; US release 2014)

Directed by Guillaume Canet.  Written by Guillaume Canet and James Gray.  Cast: Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, James Caan, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana, Matthias Schoenaerts, Lili Taylor, Noah Emmerich, John Ventimiglia, Domenick Lombardozzi, Yul Vazquez, Richard Petrocelli, Jamie Hector, Eve Hewson, Griffin Dunne, Olek Krupa.  (R, 129 mins)

Since his 1994 debut LITTLE ODESSA, writer/director James Gray's films have always felt out of place with contemporary cinema.  Initially lumped in with the post-RESERVOIR DOGS, Tarantino indie scene, the not-prolific Gray has established himself as more of a Sidney Lumet disciple with his gritty, character-driven, low-key NYC period pieces that frequently involve cops, criminals, and the blurred lines that separate them (most notably his underrated 2007 gem WE OWN THE NIGHT, set in the late '80s with connected club owner Joaquin Phoenix taking on his Russian mob friends after they shoot his cop brother Mark Wahlberg).  BLOOD TIES seems like the movie Gray's wanted to make for the last 20 years, but alas, he only co-wrote it, as TELL NO ONE director Guillaume Canet fashions this French production as a loving throwback to the tough, hard-edged NYC cinema of the 1970s.  It's a triumph of production design and visual detail as Canet and the crew flawlessly recreate 1970s Brooklyn, augmented by subtle examples of seamless, non-intrusive CGI done right.  If only as much attention had been paid to the script.

A remake of Jacques Maillot's 2008 film LES LIENS DU SANG (RIVALS), which was set in 1979 Paris, BLOOD TIES opens in 1974 Brooklyn (with a bloody, brain-splattering shootout accompanied by the Ace Frehley version of "New York Groove," which wasn't recorded until 1978 but let's not nitpick because it's a terrific scene) and offers the old standby of the just-paroled con (Clive Owen as Chris) trying to stay straight. He's constantly butting heads with his resentful brother, NYPD cop Frank (Billy Crudup in the role Canet himself played in RIVALS), who gets him a job at a garage where he meets and falls for cashier Natalie (Mila Kunis), while trying to connect with his two kids and dealing with his bitter, hooker ex Monica (Marion Cotillard).  Meanwhile, Frank has arrested low-level mook Scarfo (BULLHEAD's Matthias Schoenaerts), who owns a van that's been tied to a rash of robberies.  Scarfo claims he's innocent and the whole thing is a set-up by a vengeful Frank, who used to be involved with his wife Vanessa (Zoe Saldana).  As Chris struggles to stay afloat after a potential deal to open a snack stand with his ex-con buddy Mike (Domenick Lombardozzi) falls apart, he eventually accepts a job from mob-connected bar owner Fabio (Yul Vazquez) to rub out three rivals with the Famous Last Words caveat "I just wanna get back on my feet...I'm not gonna make a habit of this."  Of course, one job leads to another and as the cops continue to keep an eye on Chris, who buys Natalie a beautiful engagement ring and is suddenly able to afford an expensive new TV for their ailing father (James Caan), Frank starts getting heat from his boss (Noah Emmerich) and the NYPD brass starts questioning his loyalty.

Released in Europe last year at 144 minutes, BLOOD TIES has been cut by 15 minutes for its dump-job of a US release (28 screens and VOD).  Whether distributor Lionsgate made these edits with or without Canet's involvement is unknown, but at least in this incarnation, it feels rushed and incomplete.  It aspires to be an epic, sprawling crime saga, but it suffers from an awfully choppy opening half-hour and a finale that feels too abrupt, and as a result, the film jumps all over the place and feels like a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole. What exactly is Chris?  It's explained that he was in prison for a revenge killing when his girlfriend--presumably Monica--was raped and he offed the attacker.  But once out, he becomes a hit man and later, out of nowhere, he's suddenly a pimp. The film takes place over a few months from late 1974 into early 1975 but the time element never feels right.  Too much goes down in such a short amount of time. Also, there's numerous instances where people are congregated in a scene and behaving as if their last scene together didn't happen.  There's one glaring instance of two scenes that seem to be out of order when Frank kicks temporary roommate Chris out of his apartment, and in the very next scene, Frank is outraged and storms out of the room when he's told by an NYPD honcho that unless he tells Chris to move out, he'll have to turn in his gun and badge.  The large supporting cast gets little to do:  Caan has a big, emotional speech that feels shoehorned in, and Cotillard and Schoenaerts finally get their own plot threads going around 100 minutes into the movie, as if the filmmakers suddenly remembered they were in it.

Is this something unique to the US cut or was this a problem in the European version as well?  Even if the flow and the rhythm of the story are improved by those missing 15 minutes, it won't eliminate the predictable story elements and the cliched execution.  How many times have we seen the ex-con sucked back into "the life"?  How many times have we seen brothers on opposite sides of the law clash only to have the familial bonds reunite them?  It's a great song, but at what point do we stage an intervention for a filmmaker who makes the conscious, straight-faced decision to use the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" for a scene where a junkie falls off the wagon and hits bottom?  Canet indulges in some heavy Scorsese worship throughout BLOOD TIES, and it's fun early on when he shows Chris watching Monica walk away in slo-mo to Lee Moses' "Bad Girl" or late in the film when he's fleeing the cops and speeding from place to place like Ray Liotta's coke-addled Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS.  Scorsese-worship can be a blast--David O. Russell's AMERICAN HUSTLE is recent proof of that--but someone needs to tell Canet that you can't have the camera slowly move in on the pensive visage of Clive Owen to the opening guitar riff of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" nearly 25 years after GOODFELLAS and expect to be taken seriously.

BLOOD TIES is a mess, but it's a beautiful mess, and the performances of Owen and Crudup (looking a lot like a younger Harvey Keitel here) are top-notch.  Canet aims high and sometimes hits the mark (there's a kinetic energy to the opening shootout, and one late phone call between Chris and Frank has a gut-wrenching moment of clarity for both of them), and even with its copious cliches, there's a very good film trying to break out of the merely OK one in which it's trapped.  It's pretty obvious that Gray was a gun-for-hire on this one, probably brought on to ensure that the dialogue had a genuine NYC feel to it instead of sounding awkwardly translated from French.  Gray's films don't lean this heavily on cliches and convention, whereas Canet is a movie buff with an obvious affinity for 1970s crime flicks and wanted to make one of his own.  That's great, and he certainly succeeded on a visual level and got the right attitude from his actors--this is a rare-for-these-days example of a 1970s-set film not looking like a bunch of out-of-their element, in-over-their-heads actors playing ironic hipster dress-up against a gaudy digital greenscreen--but the script just doesn't hold up its end of the deal.

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