Frank has just pulled off what is meant to be his last major bank robbery without a hitch. As he looks in on the riches contained inside the vault, he allows himself the very slightest of satisfied smiles. He doesn’t know yet that his future is going to bring violence and heartbreak, but in that moment he seems perfectly content with the path life has led him on. Frank’s trajectory, and indeed the overall structure of the narrative, will be familiar to anyone who has seen their fair share of heist films, but in large part because of wonderful little moments like the one I just mentioned, Michael Mann’s debut feature from 1981 makes you care. James Caan deserves a lot of the credit for his great central performance, but Mann’s screenplay is just as valuable, devoting plenty of time to really get to know Frank. Like in a surprisingly direct diner scene where he lays everything out on the table for the woman sitting opposite him, his hopes and dreams, his fears and insecurities. Or in a crucial scene late in the film where he willingly starts in motion a chain of events that will end in him disappearing alone into a new life, if he survives long enough to get to that point.
Not many heist films take their anti-heroes to the places Mann and Caan explore here, and that gives Thief more resonance than your typical run-of-the-mill heist film. That, and just the way the film looks. This is a stylish film right from the opening, a jewel heist in the rain-stained streets of Chicago, set to a memorably dissonant electronic score from Tangerine Dream. And it just continues on from there, with Mann presenting a vision of the Windy City that doesn’t shy away from the seedier edges. The filmmaker has long proven himself to be an adept hand at wringing as much atmosphere possible from cityscapes, but Thief confirms his hand was sure right from the very beginning. While some awkward edits and strange beats do betray the fact that this is a debut feature, other moments are so remarkably assured that if you knew nothing about the production, you’d be forgiven for thinking it to be the work of a seasoned pro. Mann would go on to even more sure-handed work, but very few filmmakers today can claim ownership of a debut as confident as Thief. 8/10.
I’m not usually the type who gives much time to the semantics of what exactly constitutes a film. If the results are compelling, what does it matter if the creators took a more unorthodox road to get there? But I have to say that mindset was given a real workout during the course of watching this 2012 work from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. At the most basic level, this is a documentary, in that it “documents” the dreary operations onboard a commercial fishing vessel. But attempting to find anything resembling a “traditional” documentary in Leviathan is just going to end in frustration. The “film” is essentially not much more than glorified home video footage, edited together with little rhyme or reason and given almost no context apart from some biblical quotations at the very beginning (which honestly could be changed out with just about anything else and I doubt it would have made much of any difference). The footage is shot with cheap waterproof cameras, either attached to people going about their business on the ship or to sturdy tethers so that they can be whipped around and thrown into places cameras don’t usually go. So can Leviathan be called a film? I don’t know if I can answer that question.
And yet, I will acknowledge there is a power to some of the images, especially when the cameras manage to hold on something long enough for the viewer to decipher what they’re seeing . At one point, the image is lowered down to ground level, amidst a heap of dead and dying fish sloshing around on the floor as the ship rocks back and forth. A later moment takes things down even further, into the ocean, to show excess fish guts being dumped out of the ship. As the camera bobs above and below the blood-streaked water, a large flock of hungry seagulls materializes to hover over their future meal. In its most arresting moments, Leviathan combines its chaotic visuals and oppressive aural soundscape to create something genuinely foreboding and intimidating, a grim and desolate portrait of life on the open sea. Because the piece is so much a sensorial and textual experience, I can imagine a theatrical viewing offering a drastically different experience from a home viewing. Projected onto the biggest screen possible and supported by a powerful sound system, Leviathan could have hooked me. Even then though, I doubt the line would have been strong enough to reel me in. 4/10.
The eighth film in the Zatoichi series. One of the more fascinating aspects of working through a lengthy series such as this one is seeing how each subsequent entry attempts to stave off complacency. Subtle breaks away from the norm can be thrilling, even if not every change is an entirely successful one. Judged on those merits, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a triumph, a film that stays true to what has come before but also breathes new life into the franchise. The film opens with the infamous blind swordsman on the road again, but this time he is being hunted by a gang of assassins. Through a series of misunderstandings, the assassins accidentally kill a young mother instead of Zatoichi, leaving behind an infant in need of protection. After learning of the slain woman’s plight and destination, Zatoichi takes it upon himself to deliver the child to its rightful home. On the way there, he encounters a female thief, who agrees to accompany him and help with the child for a small daily fee. As the journey continues, however, both Zatoichi and the thief grow closer to the little one in their care.
In some ways Fight, Zatoichi, Fight feels like a return to the series’ roots. Kenji Misumi, helmer of the original film, is back in the director’s chair, and there is a renewed emphasis on character over action. Apart from a memorable final showdown, in which Zatoichi’s opponents use a new tactic to drown out his hearing advantage, the film significantly scales back on swordplay. Free of the usual setups and story beats, the film is able to explore new dimensions of the Zatoichi character. This could have just as easily been called Zatoichi The Family Man, with its traveling company of Zatoichi, the thief, and the child forming a makeshift family unit, if only for a very short while. The third film in the series, New Tale Of Zatoichi, explored the blind swordsman’s desire to retire his violent ways and settle down to a peaceful life, but this story takes that idea further, providing a look at what Zatoichi would be like as a loving father and husband. That makes the tragic undercurrent to the whole affair even more heartbreaking; Zatoichi is destined to remain a lone wanderer, always on the run and always surrounded by danger. The poignancy Fight, Zatoichi, Fight brings to the character makes it the best entry in the series since the New Tale Of Zatoichi, and quite possibly the very best so far. 8/10.