Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Crimson Rivers/Les rivière pourpres (2000)

I recall Tom Hanks on a talk show plugging The Da Vinci Code and being appropriately geeky over the fact that he not only got to see the Mona Lisa after hours, but that Jean Reno was with him.

Is Reno the coolest man in movies? Faithful Reno-philes will simply murmur Ronin, and close the case. But how often can you watch Ronin? (Don't tell me; my own number is embarrassingly high.) So, if you want all-Reno, all the time, turn to The Crimson Rivers, a twisty-curvy mondo-weirdo thriller that sends Reno--and aint-he-also-cool Vincent Cassel--clambering around the French Alps in search of a--well, I won't spoil it for you, even though the movie itself does some of that for us: Its plot is a bit untidy, its ending a little off-center.

But who cares? Reno and Cassel are fun to watch, the Alps look great--and the murders are satisfyingly Se7en-ish. Besides, do you really want to get your Reno-fix by watching Godzilla again? (All right, a cheap shot: I actually like that one, especially when Reno spits out the "French" roast coffee.)

This Sporting Life (1963)

David Storey adapts his angry-young-man novel This Sporting Life, with Richard Harris as Frank Machin, the rugby Raging Bull whose only desire is to satisfy himself--but he doesn't know what he wants, so he simply digs in (always at his sport, like De Niro's Jake LaMotta) and crushes anything in his way--including his almost-love, played by Rachel Roberts (so good a few years earlier opposite Albert Finney in another angry-young-man drama, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)--and Roberts, like Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, is well-suited to keeping up with her growling, all-but-remorseless costar.

The film has grittiness to spare--the rugby scenes are muddy and brutal, as though the viewer were in the pileup--and the requisite sense of mute anguish (and not-so-mute: What would a Richard Harris movie be without sudden outbursts?) provides a long hard look at the heart of tragedy: Choice is a limited resource--every choice means one less--until only one remains, and that one is doom. Here, it's the rugby field, where Machin pushes like Sisyphus against his rock, getting nowhere.

I'm struck by how often I'm attracted by movies that remind me of King Kong, the "great ape" (Machin is called this at one point) that swipes at every obstacle, rages against what it hopes is the Other but that ends up being the Self. And as awful as such monsters are, they break my heart, like Jake LaMotta in his jail cell, insisting against all evidence to the contrary that he's not that bad.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Disclaimer: I'm a fool for the Coen brothers, so this isn't a "review"--I mean, I like The Hudsucker Proxy.

The Man Who Wasn't There is one of the Coen brothers' period pieces--like almost half their films--and they work hard to reproduce the essence of film noir: claustrophobic immobility in the face of a random disaster that is spurred by one reckless act. (I think that covers it.) In fact, the mood hones so closely to the quiet desperation of noir, and the details of its late-'40s milieu are so closely observed that, like The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn't There threatens to become parody. But, like their more recent A Serious Man, an air of detachment rescues the film from self-conscious homage/pastiche.

As so often, the Coens are very lucky/smart in their casting. Billy Bob Thornton's granite-faced barber strikes just the right note of ambiguity: he is a victim but also a perpetrator, wronged but also perilously wrong. Not since Sling Blade--OK, maybe Friday Night Lights--has Thornton delivered such a controlled performance. (And kudos to the Brothers for recognizing the Boris Karloff who hides behind Thornton's face, the sad monster you both pity and scorn.) As for the rest of the cast: I'll let you discover the pleasures of their performances, everyone infected with Coen-commitment, as though they'd been rehearsing for these roles for a long time.

Yes, it's an unhappy movie moving haltingly about in a dim and uncertain space--the flying saucer scene remains one of the Coens' great elusive (allusive?) moments. But, if you want to see what may be the best adaptation of an imaginary James M. Cain novel, The Man Who Wasn't There should be--there, that is, in your Instant Play Queue.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Awful Truth (1937)

Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, and Asta (the Wonder Dog from the Thin Man series--plus Bringing Up Baby): The cast alone makes this worth watching--and they're all young and fresh-faced--even mopey Bellamy, only in the picture (as he is so often) to help the plot go from boy-loses to boy-gets-girl.

Grant will fast-talk and caper like this in other pictures, most notably with Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell; but in The Awful Truth he's up against Irene Dunne--and he'd better not be fooled by the good breeding and calm demeanor. Dunne's Lucy Warriner knows how to counter-punch, and the two of them play out this thwarted-divorce version of a screwball comedy with nimble, even athletic moves. The bit with the hat and the dog, and Dunne's pretending to be Grant's sister, and the business with the door in the cabin at the end--little of it makes sense, but all of it works, one snappy moment after another.

Watching these late-'30s-early-'40s comedies, I forgive myself--and them--if the plots and characters run together in my mind. I think they're meant to, if only because the term "formulaic comedy" is a little redundant: Half the pleasure of comedy is repetition, the familiar pattern realized--and, in the best of them, re-imagined--while the performers heroically run themselves ragged in the attempt to keep things fresh. Nothing is more fun than watching great comic actors like Dunne/Grant/Bellamy trying to out-think their own material, and that's all we need to know about The Awful Truth.

(See The Awful Truth at Netflix HERE.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Not One Less (1999)

Yimou Zhang, the director of Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers, turns from cold opulence and bamboo wire-fu spectacle to make this teacher’s favorite movie about teaching, Not One Less (1999). A small rural school keeps losing students to work opportunities and sports recruiters. Teacher Gao is leaving for a time, and he instructs his thirteen-year-old substitute not to lose any more—not one less.

Of course, that is exactly what happens, and young Wei must travel to the city to fetch her wayward charge. Raising the money to do so provides her students with a living arithmetic problem—how many bricks does the class have to move to buy a bus ticket?—and a chance to literally broadcast their concerns to urban China.

While the film’s semi-documentary feel and use of amateurs lend charm, the ending—which directly addresses the audience via title cards that document the plight of rural education in China—has struck some as heavy-handed. But by the time we get to this PSA, Zhang has earned our attention: the Bicycle Thieves-like wandering in the city, searching for the lost child, is as touching as the growing solidarity of Wei’s class. She becomes a teacher, they become students. It’s as simple as the performances, and as profound as any of life’s milestones. I particularly appreciated the movie’s willingness to expose Mei’s weaknesses—and its brave assertion that our hearts should not be embarrassed to feel the rush of pity and hope.

Find Not One Less at Netflix here.