Thursday, March 22, 2012

Films in Brief: "Free Men"; "4:44 Last Days on Earth"; "The Deep Blue Sea"

The history of the French resistance, which comprises thousands of worthy stories, was most recently treated most compellingly by director Robert Guédiguian in 2009’s Army of Crime. The latest attempt, Free Men, presents the resistance through a different lens: the setting is the Paris Mosque, where it was historically documented that the Muslim community protected and assisted Jews to escape the Nazis.

Director Ismael Ferroukhi’s fictionalized version revolves around his Algerian-born hero Younes who, after being coerced by the Vichy-controlled police force to inform on Muslims suspected of being freedom fighters, almost accidentally becomes transformed from an uninvolved immigrant to a committed resistance member. This remarkable change occurs after Younes discovers that the young and talented Algerian singer Salim--whom he has befriended--is Jewish; soon after, he helps hide two Jewish youngsters whose parents were taken away, and his new career has begun.

Despite melodramatic touches, Ferroukhi builds tension without sacrificing credible psychology as Younes becomes politically--and morally--engaged. Tahar Rahim (above, right), who was so memorable as the protagonist in Jacques Audiard’s prison drama A Prophet, plays Younes as an innocent naïf, remaining a blank slate for the director to fill in the character’s interior complexity. At times, Rahim is too much his director’s pawn, so detached he seems. But no matter: Free Men believably chronicles the multi-faceted Vichy atmosphere through the eyes of people we’ve rarely encountered onscreen: Muslims putting their lives on the line to defeat Hitler.

Abel Ferrara’s movies come off as unhinged rantings, which result in stillborn messes like the recent Go-Go Tales or his latest, 4:44 Last Days on Earth, which explores the final hours for a group of Manhattan city dwellers as the countdown to (an unexplained) Armageddon begins.

There are interesting moments here--particularly when protagonist Willem Dafoe (above, right) screams from his building’s rooftop at neighbors and others still wandering the neighborhood--but Ferrara never develops anything coherently. The relationship between Dafoe and a wooden Shanyn Leigh as his wife never gives us any reason to care about the impending demise of non-entities. Aside from the woeful Leigh, the cast works hard, but Ferrara lets them (and the end of the world) down.

For his first fiction film since The House of Mirth in 2000, British director Terence Davies tackles Terence Rattigan’s dated play, The Deep Blue Sea, in which Hester, an unsatisfied young wife, finds solace in the arms of another man; since these are the conservative 1950s, her older husband--an upstanding judge--refuses to divorce her, committing her to a life of unhappiness.

Rattigan--a closeted homosexual at a time when it was a crime--originally wrote Sea with gay characters, but he knew it could never be produced during his lifetime, so he made the protagonist female, which further simplifies an already simplistic story without gaining emotional or psychological weight. Davies--also a homosexual--doesn’t change too much, diving head-first into Rattigan’s drenching sentimentality. The result is at the same time remote and syrupy.

Rachel Weisz (above) suffers dutifully as Hester, first seen recovering from a suicide attempt; she looks and sounds perfect, yet her character’s inner life remains unexplored. Tom Hiddleston (lover) and Simon Russell Beale (husband) are fine. Davies’ eye for period detail is unerring, but his ear needs work: by smearing Samuel Barber’s aching, yearning, ecstatic Violin Concerto over everything, he fails too urgently dramatize Hester’s (mostly) unspoken longings and feelings.

Beautiful as Barber’s music is, it’s forced to carry the bulk of the drama’s burden, which Davies usually--and impeccably--avoids. But with Barber an easy shortcut, The Deep Blue Sea ends up treading water.

Free Men
Directed by Ismael Ferroukhi
Opens March 16, 2012

4:44 Last Days on Earth
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Opens March 23, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea
Directed by Terence Davies
Opens March 23, 2012

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