Judge Michael Nazarewycz has a hot date tonight with a couple of gals named Polly and Esther.
Crime runs in the family.
One of the most talked-about films of 2013 was David O. Russell's 10-time Oscar nominee American Hustle. A popular topic of conversation about the film involved comparisons to the works of Martin Scorsese, most notably Goodfellas. Both ambitious dramas offer an impressive cast, a great period vibe, husbands and wives, and the deft use of an era-specific soundtrack; the collective of which is set against the backdrop of crime.
Reviews for Russell's film were mostly positive, but the general consensus was that American Hustle is no Goodfellas. Now another film comes along that matches every trait mentioned above, from the gaudy cast to the jukebox tunes, leaving only a comparison to its predecessors to be made.
Facts of the Case
Brooklyn, 1974. Chris (Clive Owen, Children of Men) is fresh out of jail but struggling. The career criminal's relationship with his cop brother Frank (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous) is terse at best. His relationship with Monica (Marion Cotillard, The Dark Knight Rises), a prostitute and the estranged mother of his children, is rocky. His relationship with his new girlfriend, co-worker Natalie (Mila Kunis, Black Swan), is problematic. He hates his job as a grease monkey for a small garage. Even his moments spent with his father and sister (James Caan, The Godfather; Lili Taylor, The Conjuring) are somehow off. It isn't long before he's back to his criminal ways. But he isn't the only one dealing with problems.
Frank has two big concerns. The first concern is the heat he is feeling from his superiors and colleagues on the force. Some want him to get his brother to rat out criminals. Others are worried Frank is shielding Chris. The second concern is the flame he has rekindled with his former lover, Vanessa (Zoe Saldana, Avatar). She is reluctant at first but eventually succumbs to his charms. What makes this a problem is her current boyfriend, Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone). He is both wildly violent and the father of her child. When Frank arrests him, there is some suspicion that it was done to get the hood out of the picture so Frank would have a clear chance with Vanessa. Eventually, Scarfo is released from jail and all he wants is revenge.
So much of Blood Ties sets up so well to be THE period crime drama for a new generation—from that gaudy cast to those jukebox tunes. And yet the film fails on every level not just to be that period crime drama for a new generation, but to be a good film regardless of genre or era.
The story, based on the 2008 French film Les liens du sang (which itself is based on a French novel of the same title), has great screen potential, but the whole thing plays as if director/co-writer Guillaume Canet (Love Me If You Dare) and co-writer James Gray (We Own the Night) thought they could make an American '70s crime drama after binge-watching a bunch of American '70s crime dramas. Everything on the screen is a good concept but a completely undeveloped idea.
The face of the film, Chris, is one of the least compelling central characters I've seen. This is a man whose past, present, and future are colliding. He's an ex-con resisting an inevitable return to criminal life. His brother is a cop. His ex is a prostitute. He has kids. His current love demands honesty. And yet as created by the filmmakers, and as delivered by Owen, he just a big brooder. Call it "being stoic" if you must, but his stoicism is more like an Internet meme where a collection of eight pictures of an identical face are gathered, each with a different caption: Happy, Angry, Horny, and so forth; but the face never changes. It's clear the filmmakers didn't know what to do with him once they decided on an AntiHero in this particular circumstance.
Making matters worse is that this warm body contributing to a cold story directly affects his relationships with others, especially Natalie, which can only be described as heterosexual. He's a man, she's a woman, they hook up. But there is no spark between them whatsoever. The same can be said for the lack of chemistry between Chris and Monica. The filmmakers wanted their AntiHero to have an Ex and a NewLove, but they never thought through the chemistry; they only presented the characters and wrote them into scenes together.
If Chris is the AntiHero, Frank is the AlmostHero, and he isn't much better. Here's a guy who never truly struggles with the obvious conflict his life presents him. He's got a hood for a brother, a hood for competition with his romantic interest, and a chain of command that grows more tired of him as the film progresses. And yet he simply goes through the motions. Again, the filmmakers had an idea for a character and some stuff he could go through, but they got nowhere near the deeper consequences of the AlmostHero's decisions. Please. Of course Scarfo is going to be angry, and of course Frank's bosses are going to have reservations, but how does all of that change as Frank makes decisions? The answer is it doesn't.
"I saw them do this in a movie once." "Let's do that in our movie." And so on. Every character is a character we've seen in better movies. Here, they are far less developed and their actors act as if they know it.
One other glaring fault with the film, and this falls squarely on Canet, is the jukebox soundtrack. The songs selected are so mismatched with the scenes they play over they take you out of the moment (instead of enhance the moment, which movie music is supposed to do). Once again, someone heard old jukebox tunes (and good ones) in an American '70s crime drama and decided to include old jukebox tunes (and good ones) in this American '70s crime drama, yet completely ignored why the songs selected were used for the scenes.
Throw in other obligatory tropes—including your average good guy/bad guy shootout and a completely unexciting car chase—and you have Blood Ties: a film with a great recipe but stale ingredients and a questionable chef.
The 2.40:1/1080p image transfer is perfectly fine. Much of the film's visuals are muted to establish a dark mood and present an era-specific palate of earthier colors, so there is little chance for the transfer to actually dazzle. There are no significant flaws or defects, however, and any grain present is natural. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, on the other hand, can't get out of the way of itself. Dialogue is at times difficult to discern, and when tracks from the film's soundtrack are introduced, they overpower the scenes' dialogue and ambient sounds.
Despite an incredibly deep acting bench comprised of talent from different countries and eras and professional experiences, all of whom come to a project like this with unique perspectives, there is only one extra. This is disappointing. The 26-minute Making Of is pretty standard fare that includes director thoughts, filmmaking stories, and a lot of behind-the-scenes footage. While there are soundbites from Owen, Cudrup, Cotillard, and Saldana, they don't reveal much.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Zoe Saldana is the lone bright spot. She doesn't get a lot of time onscreen, and even though her character is no more dimensional than others, she makes the most of her moments.
Blood Ties feels like a period crime epic cobbled together with unwanted footage from a better period crime epic. And not cobbled together well.
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