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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with David Chase's NOT FADE AWAY and the French crime drama THE BIG PICTURE!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Okay, technically. NOT FADE AWAY might not qualify as a "art house" film, but considering the number of screens this movie is taking up this holiday season, it hardly qualifies as a mainstream release either. Plus, I needed one more film to round out this week's column, and this one jumped out at me as the obvious choice.

The first feature film from "The Sopranos" creator David Chase feels like exactly what it is: a passion project. What it also is is a perfect footnote to a near that was partially devoted to celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Rolling Stones, a band whose American television appearance in 1964 inspired a group of three high school best friends (John Magaro, Jack Huston and Will Brill) living in New Jersey to start a Stones-like rock band in their basements and garages. As it turns out, this band had talent, played the local circuit, and seemed suited (if not ready) for a certain level of success. But like most bands formed in high school or college, something was missing—whether it was timing, inspiration, luck, or any number of elements that work against achieving one's dreams.

I've heard people compare NOT FADE AWAY to the Tom Hanks-directed THAT THING YOU DO!, but despite the music angle, that doesn't quite work. Hanks' film felt like something of a fairy tale, and at least that band had one hit. The guys in Chase's movie don't quite pull it together, and that gives the film more of a desperate feel, one that is probably very familiar to those who have been thought similar situations. One great element to this story is the presence of unsupportive parents (seemingly a must to any successful rock star). In NOT FADE AWAY, James Gandolfini plays the father of Douglas (Magaro), who clearly wants the best for his son, which he does not see happening if he chooses music as his life's ambition. Gandolfini has the physical presence to come across as threatening, but he never actually follows through on the mild violence he threatens his son with.

NOT FADE AWAY doesn't work without two interconnected pieces: the great period soundtrack and the man who procured it and adds to it, the E Street Band's Steven van Zandt, who is a connoisseur of garage band music and its roots. Van Zandt even contributes a song to the film, which happens to be the first song this fictional band ever writes together. The other borderline startling thing about the film is how much discussion their is of music, both the band's own and that of other bands that they cover. There's a great little scene where Douglas is deconstructing Charlie Watts' work on a Stones' cover of "Not Fade Away." It has nothing to do with what little story there is here, but it feels like it represents about 90 percent of all conversations band members have with each other.

Chase wisely keeps things intimate. The trials and tribulations come from internal riffs, and not, for example, one of the band members getting drafted to go to Vietnam. One guy falls in love and spends too much time with the girlfriend; the original leader of the band is effectively pushed out because his playing isn't progressing with the rest of the group; and family drama is always present. There's also a great deal of humor in NOT FADE AWAY, most of which stems from mishaps at various gigs. I'm particularly happy this film exists because it's a story that never quite been told this way before, and certainly not with this level of attention to detail. There's a final sequence that borders on haunting, and it was in that moment that the film went from very good to great in my mind. I know there are much sexier films out there in the world right now, but take a moment and remember the smaller stories that use real human emotion and passion as their greatest special effect.

I have loved French crime dramas since I had an inkling of what they were and what made them different from crime dramas of other right-thinking countries. And while the French versions have changed over the years, they're still alive and well and being made by directors like Eric Lartigau, whose latest work is THE BIG PICTURE (which he co-adapted from the novel of the same name by Douglas Kennedy). I'll admit, I began watching this film not knowing a single thing about it, including that a crime was even committed in it. In fact, the way the film begins, it seems like more of an drama of the heart than one that involves an accidental killing. The film centers on Paul Exben (the great Romain Duris) as a young lawyer, who is both immensely successful at his firm (run by his mentor, Anne, played by Catherine Deneuve) and as a husband and father of two young children.

Paul's excessive workload has gotten him in trouble with his wife, Sarah (Marina Foïs), at times. When Sarah attempts to tell Paul about a major change in her life, his enthusiasm and support for her decision leaves a lot to be desired. And for her, it's the final straw. At a neighborhood gathering, Paul embarrasses himself and Sarah when he comes to realize that she is having an affair with neighbor Greg (Eric Ruf), a handsome, free-spirited photojournalist. Soon after, Paul goes to visit his neighbor, who taunts him about the affair, leading to Paul lashing out and accidentally killing him.

At this point, the film takes a series of turns that are both sensical and utterly random, as Paul covers up the murder, makes it seem like Greg left town for a job in a hurry, and fakes his own death (which he wants people to think was a suicide) so that he may begin a new life with a new name, landing in a small community on the Adriatic Sea (I'm pretty sure). In a move that may seem unwise but makes sense in the context of the story, Paul takes on the identity of the dead photographer (photography was also a bit interest of Paul's before the job took over his life), and begins a new career working for the local newspaper and falling for a local woman, Ivana (played by Branka Katic, probably best known to Americans from her role on HBO's "Big Love").

Duris' performance here is fascinating to watch as he simply goes into a melancholic trance once the killing occurs. He knows what he must do to survive and do so without his wife and children paying the price. But he's the architect of his own potential demise by allowing himself to be drawn in by a little bit of fame that his photos bring him, when an art gallery shows an interest in displaying his work. It's easy to get lost in Paul's lonely journey, and we completely understand him wanting to introduce some level of intimacy into his necessarily solitary lifestyle in Montenegro. But we're always keenly aware where the traps are, waiting for him to expose himself just a little too much. The low-level suspense is wonderful, and not surprisingly, we want Paul to succeed in building a new life for himself despite his inadvertent crime. THE BIG PICTURE is a film that finds its many strengths in the power of smaller moments.

-- Steve Prokopy
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