Monday, June 28, 2010

Umberto D. (1952)

My grandfather was a quiet man, a tidy little fellow who sat on his front porch on Mifflin St. in South Philadelphia, his vest and shirt buttoned to the top, his chin pointing the way with certainty--and everyone on his block knew they could trust him. And while Grandpop saw through most people, he maintained his own Sicilian counsel; you might guess his approval or displeasure by a shift in the temperature of his look, but that was about all--and often just about enough. While he lived, he worked; and while he knew what was wrong with the world, he let it alone as much as he could.

The little old man in Umberto D. wanders around in my head together with my grandfather, little men passed by, but trying to keep their shirts buttoned--except Umberto is losing everything--home and dignity both torn up beneath his very feet. All he has is Fike, his little dog--"a mutt with intelligent eyes," as he puts it, the two of them children--even younger, it seems, than the pregnant girl he befriends, and whose little round face is often wet with tears. It is a sad world they live in, with a slow approach to the big finish--Umberto deciding to End It All, having kept his own counsel for so long only Fike knows.

The director, Vittorio de Sica, was very good at balancing a commitment to observe life unadorned and a desire to sympathize with those who led the lives he asked us to watch. This balancing act lies at the heart of the Italian neorealists, who wanted so badly to record life--but after all, they themselves lived in Italy, and so could never entirely stop hearing an opera playing softly but insistently in the background, encouraging them to find grandeur in the everyday. Umberto D. so easily reminded me of my grandfather not only because of the little man and the Italian words, but because of de Sica's understanding that we all hear that music rising in our lives, making them more than points on a line, but notes on a staff.

This post is adapted from an entry of The Constant Viewer. (Maybe more xeroxed than "adapted.")

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mon oncle (1958)

Father's Day is over, and I was having too much fun to write--so I guess it makes sense that for a (post-)Father's Day Pick of the Moment I should choose a film that sidesteps fathers in favor of an uncle. Jacques Tati's Mon oncle features every child's dream relative: an indulgent uncle who remembers what it means to be a child--if only because in many ways he remains one. In three pictures, Tati molds his own version of Chaplin's Little Tramp: M. Hulot, tall and quiet, a solemn stork in a trench coat who seems always to be leaning in a slight breeze, his hat still firm but his pipe a bit off-center in his mouth, while his umbrella stays tucked under his arm, safe from stray winds. He lives in a corner of Paris that may exist only in his mind, where the year is inexact and beautifully pale and streaked, an old photograph one can live in.

Hulot's Paris fits him, this silent-movie character otherwise stuck in The Paris of Tomorrow, screeching gadgets in a house as bright and flat and cold as poured concrete and plastic. His sister and husband see life from the comfort of an Eames chair--except without the comfort. And Hulot flees from this as quickly as he can, taking with him his young nephew, who can't wait to climb over the low crumbling wall with his oncle to get to the Old Paris, where scruffy bushes and ramshackle houses sit in soft dust, while the noisy neighbors argue without rancor.

There's a nice bit at chez Hulot: He swings open his window, hears a bird burst into song; he swings the window in and hears the twitter abruptly end; opens it again, hears the song--and notices that his open window reflects the sun onto a bird in a cage. He leaves it open so that the overjoyed little fellow can make his noise. It seems an image of Hulot himself, in a small world getting smaller--a cage he does not notice, except when he travels to his well-to-do suburbanite relatives and sees with some concern that they, too, are trapped, by their own excess.

But Hulot still has a little time left, a small corner where he can jaunt along, part owl, part stork--a bird himself. Tati has lovingly crafted a fantasy-memory, a Paris any child (or I) could live in right now, as long as it holds the real world at bay, umbrella raised like a sword, pipe jutting in half-smiling defiance.

By the way, the other full-length Hulot films are M. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and his masterpiece, Playtime (1967)--both also available on Instant Play. And the French animator, Sylvain Chomet, who directed 2003's The Triplets of Belleville (not on Instant Play, but available through Netflix), this year is releasing The Illusionist, based on an unproduced Tati script. It is gaining attention because of its autobiographical nature--but whether or not you know the inside story, it's sure to be another welcome addition to both Chomet's and Tati's bodies of work.

(NOTE: This post is adapted from a diary entry in The Constant Viewer. Just keepin' me honest.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Odd Man Out (1947)

Carol Reed's Odd Man Out is the first in a trifecta followed by The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949) (the last is also available on Instant Play). But the closest comparison I can make to Odd Man Out is John Ford's The Informer (1935) (not on Instant Play, but worth putting on your Queue)--although the Ford picture has an inverse plot: While Ford's Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen in a justly deserved Oscar-winning performance; Ford also won for Best Director) is forced to play Judas as he wanders drunkenly through his own Nighttown, all fog and sold souls, Reed's film follows an IRA-styled nationalist (James Mason) who wanders what must be Belfast after being shot during a robbery. However, even though Mason's Johnny McQueen is a staunch martyr, he too falls into the same surreal mist as McLaglen's, slowly dying in a city that also eventually turns its face from him.

Another strange echo of Odd Man Out can be heard in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995), with Johnny Depp's wounded accountant, Bill Blake, making his way through a different wilderness, absurd and indistinct in its meaning. Reed's picture, though, works not so much as existential philosophy ("not that there's anything wrong with that") as it does a eulogy for Johnny McQueen's efforts to remain a code hero--the man of his word surrounded by liars. It's a weird noir--although that seems a bit redundant: all noirs are weird. Still, Odd Man Out wants to open not only Johnny McQueen's soul but Northern Ireland's wounds, viewed as stigmata, signs of loss and promise. I'll leave it up to you to decide if we're left more with loss or promise--but don't expect a neat answer from Reed; as in his following two pictures, Odd Man Out observes closely, but in the end keeps its own counsel.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hollywoodland (2006)

Hollywoodland insists we remember the original wording on that big sign we all know, thirteen poison letters that, as Kennth Anger mythologizes in Hollywood Babylon, had to be shortened because frail things like Peg Entwistle had jinxed the sign by using it to commit suicide. (On a side note, Entwistle died shortly after making a film entitled Thirteen Women.)

This lingering aura of violent loss surrounds Hollywoodland, as it seeks answers to fatal questions about faded fame and un-kept promises. George Reeves, who played Superman on TV in the 1950s, dies from a gunshot wound, and an obscuring mist quickly settles in, despite the best efforts of Adrian Brody's sad private eye, Louis Simo, who is suffering his own losses as a divorced father. The film shifts between Simo's efforts to discover whether Reeves had been murdered and Reeves' own life as an aspiring actor and unhappily famous TV star. While the Reeves scenes have more punch to them, Simo's slow walk down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams serves as a telling counterpoint. We are not surprised that his investigation, like Reeves' life, seems to go nowhere.

One of the lasting pleasures of Hollywoodland is the cast. As always, Brody is a perfect nervous schlub, a guy who splutters and stumbles, pitching forward into the plot like a silent film comedian; imagine Buster Keaton in a film noir. As studio head Eddie Mannix, Bob Hoskins' American accent once more satisfies, and Diane Lane as Toni Mannix--cheating on Eddie with Reeves--is given the fullest opportunity yet to channel her inner Gloria Grahame. And the film's first-time director, Allen Coulter, had previously helmed a dozen Sopranos episodes, so he was ready for a tale of duplicity and brutal anxiety.

But special notice must be made of Ben Affleck's George Reeves. I'm not sure why we're supposed to laugh at Affleck--all right, some will sneer, "Gigli," but a deeper resentment seems at work here. The "Bennifer" crap is a manufactured response to an imagined affront--or maybe a real one: Sometimes I suspect that one night Affleck simply flipped off the wrong paparazzo. The good news is that, after three years of this nonsense, he gathers all the sheepish grins and burning resentments, puzzled grins and you-got-me shrugs, and carefully portions them out in his portrayal of George Reeves, sliced up and served as a turkey sandwich at Musso and Frank's, just another story to tell while waiting for the bill. I don't know if Hollywoodland is the best movie about that town, but it may be the saddest.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Anytown, U.S.A. (2005)

This documentary about a mayoral election in Bogota (rhymes with "Vigoda"), New Jersey--a town a local police officer describes as a cross between Norman Rockwell and the Bronx--begins with Tip O'Neil's famous pronouncement, "All politics are local." Director Kristian Fraga revitalizes the old bromide by immersing you so deeply into Bogota's teapot-tempest that by the end you'll want to move there just to register to vote.

While the issues seem small and the arguments personal--and they certainly are, sometimes embarrassingly so (extending to two of the candidates’ legal blindness--and it’s not your fault if you notice the irony)--Fraga maintains a wry sense of proportion that neither enshrines nor trivializes the contest; in fact, the film watches the campaigns very carefully, allowing us to draw comparisons to not only our own local elections but the Big Show of national politics.

And Anytown U.S.A. never forgets Tip O'Neil's observation: Throughout the course of the film we are privy to every petty squabble and knock-down-drag-out, and attention is paid to all the candidates, so that our allegiances swing from one to the next as their personalities and aspirations impose themselves on us. By the end, we have a clearer understanding of the kinds of decisions we make when we vote, the almost-whims that can swing us from one candidate to the other--and the deep-seated loyalties that can blind us to the "truth"--and those quotation marks, this documentary teaches us, must never be forgotten, as we involve ourselves in a (democratic) process that is not only local but always personal.

By turns satiric and sentimental, ironic and intimate, Anytown, U.S.A. neither takes itself too seriously nor condescends to its subject. Add it to the short list--including Primary (1960) and The War Room --of great film records of the fickle heart of democracy.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

High and Low (1963)

A movie like Akira Kurosawa's High and Low makes me yearn for a pre-home-video world, where you'd go out and see a movie like this with friends, then sit around all night talking about it. Still, in those days one had to depend on the luck of geography and circumstance to make that happen--and besides, this is a site devoted to instant access, immediate opportunity.

So get some friends together to watch High and Low--the more (post-viewing) talkative, the better.

In some ways, High and Low is Kurosawa's most "Shakespearean" film--even though he himself directed versions of Shakespeare plays: Macbeth in Throne of Blood, King Lear in Ran. But with High and Low (based on a crime novel by Ed McBain), Kurosawa follows the Shakespearean urge to explore the fullest range possible of human relationships within a single narrative. Kurosawa's film gladly accepts the burden of a dual plot and a host of characters to achieve this goal, and the result is a complex interweaving of the personal and the public, the idiosyncratic and the civic. Part exploration of class, part exposé of business, part police procedural, part family drama, part test of friendship--one could go on; suffice it to say that High and Low's title should tip you off that Kurosawa is shooting wide.

And speaking of shooting, this is also a gorgeous picture to look at, its black-and-white world belying the complexities of its characters' motives and trajectories. While Kurosawa shines in his "epics"--swords and flames, alarums and excursions for everyone--he also made a number of pictures that adapt the epic to living rooms and boardrooms, offices and back yards. With Ikiru--which I'll get to one of these days on this site--High and Low exemplifies Kurosawa's ability to see the struggle for heroism as everyone's challenge.

And by the way, make sure to watch this while the watchin's good: it seems that Mike Nichols is remaking it, with a David Mamet screenplay, so it may be pretty good--but I think you should first have Kurosawa in your head.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Before Zazie dans le métro, before Lacombe, Lucien--and way before Pretty Baby and Atlantic City, Louis Malle directed a hardboiled existential thriller, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, that manages to be exciting and loaded with ennui at the same time.

An executive loves his boss's wife, kills the boss, tries to beat a hasty retreat--but is stuck in the elevator. Down at street level, a French James Dean and his girlfriend steal the murderer's car and get into their own trouble--for which the murderer is blamed. All the while, the luminescent Jeanne Moreau, like some beautiful deep-sea creature, drifts through Paris at night, her inner monologue of love and despair counter-pointing the panic and casual brutality of the main plot.

Or is there a main plot? The above speaks only to the bare skeleton of this layered picture. Consider the background of the killer: ex-Legionnaire, paratrooper in Indochina and Algiers, a real cold-blooded customer for the dirty work of a confused empire. And the joy-riding punk and his girlfriend, at once amoral and touching. And of course Moreau herself, commanding the picture just by wandering around, the archetype of the French lover who knows that love and death make their own dark tryst.

Malle handles all of this not without a little misstep--or maybe sidestep--here and there, but the plot(s) is/are so strange and claustrophobic, the mistakes so fatal, the acting so cool and loose--or cool and tightly wound, depending on what's up in their what-next world--that all is forgiven, and Malle leaves us with a movie that stays in one's mind like all the great images of the French New Wave: washed in rain, alternating between hope, acceptance and despair, and intercut with dark and light like those faces in Ezra Pound's station of the Metro, "Petals on a wet, black bough."

Friday, June 4, 2010

Matinee (1993)

There's a certain kind of cinema that's all about anticipation. The movie itself (usually with the word "attack" or "terror" or "wild" in the title) is less than memorable--unless you saw it when you were under, say, 14 years old or so; the build-up was everything. The Coming Attraction, the poster, the schoolyard speculations and rumors--all these gave you more than your money's worth. At the heart of the movies is the joy of imagining what you will see, then re-imagining what you have.

Joe Dante understands this just about as much as anybody. Since Piranha back in 1978, most of his horror films have been in large part homages to/parodies of the genre, filled with references to classic B pictures, the sendups always affectionate. In 1993, he finally received the chance to bring this tendency to the forefront with Matinee, courtesy of a William Castle/Roger Corman/Samuel Z. Arkoff-style director/producer, Lawrence Woolsey, who finds himself debuting his latest feature, Mant ("Half man, half ant, all terror!"), during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Nuclear annihilation was never so much fun, not even in Dr. Strangelove.

Everyone who loves this movie remembers the salient features:

1. Woolsey's picture, the above-mentioned Mant, scenes from which Dante presents in loving, laughable detail.

2. John Goodman as Woolsey, in a performance that I still hear echoes of in everything fine he's since done.

3. Cathy Moriarty as his jaded but patient companion. If she'd handled Jake LaMotta this way in Raging Bull, he wouldn't have dared to lay a finger on her.

Dante gets just about everything right, from the achingly bad "family musical" the mother would rather the young protagonist see than all that horror stuff, to the joyful chaos of a Saturday matinee. I have mixed feelings about the finale--although, to tell you the truth, the details are a bit fuzzy: I haven't seen this picture in a while, since its availability has been woefully spotty. But it remains in my memory as a re-imagined masterpiece--so much so that I know another viewing will not entirely diminish its charms.

I'm keeping it safe in my Instant Play Queue for this weekend--and you should, too. It's not available through Netflix on disk, but it's ready and willing to watch now, as real as the gimmicks Woolsey uses to keep 'em in--and jumping out of--their seats.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Trucker (2008)

I'd like to begin this Pick of the Moment for Trucker by quoting Roger Ebert, at whose Ebertfest I first saw this film:
"There's one of those perfect moments in Trucker when I'm thinking, This is the moment to end! Now! Fade to black! And the movie ends. It is the last of many absolutely right decisions by the first-time writer-director James Mottern, who began by casting two actors who bring his story to strong emotional life. Both of them show they're gifted and intelligent artists who only needed, as so many do in these discouraging times, a chance to reveal their deep talents."
When I read that first paragraph, I knew I was going to see something special. What Roger (and I'm sorry for the namedropping, but between his blogging and tweeting and clubhouse-ing, he encourages that kind of thing) was promising was a perfect movie--and that does not necessarily mean one for the ages, Top Ten topper, King of the Canon; no, simply one that knows what it wants to do, and makes "absolutely right decisions" to do it.

Trucker is that kind of perfect movie. The actors Roger refers to are Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible III, Gone Baby Gone, Eagle Eye) and then-twelve-year-old Jimmy Bennett (young Kirk last year, one of the sons in Evan Almighty); and they never misstep, never go for the easy flourish that would make their characters more recognizable as types--and so less interesting as characters going somewhere. Monaghan is the titular trucker, Diane, who has no time--and less emotional energy--for her son, who lives with his father and knows exactly what she is: as he puts it, a bitch. But her husband (Benjamin Bratt, pitch-perfect, from the soft accent he rolls around--like a sad Woody Harrelson--to his sickbed posture--not strong, but still smiling a little for his son's sake) has cancer, and she's forced to take in her son.

You can predict where this is going, but plot surprises do not matter here. Instead, Trucker wants to bring life to a familiar plot, and the actors take control of this urge and never overreach. I was especially happy to see Nathan Fillion (fellow nerds don't need to be reminded he was the charming Capt. Reynolds on the coolest SF TV show just about ever, dude, Firefly) as Runner, Diane's almost-boyfriend. Casting the low-key, self-effacing--but also pretty-boy charming--Fillion is yet another perfect decision by Mottern: We want Diane to choose Runner, but he's married, and there's enough hesitation on both sides to make for another movie. But Trucker is more than a character study, because Mottern wants his plot to matter--and he wants us to care about what's happening--and so character, performance, plot and direction need to work together. Mottern pulls this off, and effortlessly. I haven't seen such a satisfying film in a long time.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ugetsu [monogatari] (1953)

Ugetsu is Kenji Mizoguchi's retelling of Akinari Ueda's "Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain"--a title both stilted and beautiful, like the film's Lady Wakasa, lovely as only an Asian ghost can be, hiding in the woods like a fawn, but still the doom of anyone who gets too close.

Two simple but ambitious men--one a potter who pursues wealth, the other a would-be samurai who seeks glory--endanger their families for the sake of their desires, while ghosts possess and spirits soothe, until ambition is humbled beneath the Buddha’s yearning for a middle path of compassion amidst suffering.

The men in Ugetsu who seek fortune and glory are indeed successful, but of course at a bitter price, paid in a dreamlike marketplace, where Genjuro's babble of commerce is hushed by a beautiful, gliding ghost; and on the battlefield, where the clatter of warfare delivers a general's head to an accidental samurai, Tobei. Their gains and losses, captured by a mist-shrouded camera, provide an illustration of the calm insistence that one must enter another's suffering to end one's own--as well as the other's.

Mizoguchi devotes the middle portion of his film to Genjuro's possession by Lady Wakasa. She is many things, not the least of which is respite from the storms of ambition--as well as its prize: a beautiful, Geisha-like patroness who murmurs love over both Genjuro and his blue-tinged pottery. It is an essay on beauty, love, and delusion. And then Mizoguchi draws us down to the core, as he lingers on the child in the story, Genichi, and the women who suffer, Miyagi and Ohama, whose fates are mirrored by the tale of Lady Wakasa, abandoned as her noble house fell, lost like Miyagi and fallen like Ohama. The challenge is for all of them to accept their true need--to show compassion and thus to love and be loved.

In the West, we had to invent something called "Magic Realism" to introduce the natural and the supernatural to each other so that they could get along and build stories together. Ugetsu reminds us that others have long made room for both, ghosts and potters comfortable with each other, at least for the sake of the story.

NOTE: As I've done before, this is adapted from something I wrote for The Constant Viewer. Just keeping me honest.

Eraserhead (1976)/Carnival of Souls (1962)

It's difficult to write about Eraserhead or Carnival of Souls, particularly out here on the interwebs, because every midnight-movie geek on the planet has been there--and yes, done that. But not only did I want to point out that these movies are now on Instant Play, but I think they work well as a double bill.

Although David Lynch certainly went places--as strange as they may be--since his "student film," Eraserhead, while Herk Harvey, the director of Carnival of Souls, returned to educational films (It's fitting that Harvey's next credit after Carnival of Souls is Pork: The Meal with a Squeal; sounds like a Lynch short), each of them followed his vision all the way, and produced, as the tagline for Eraserhead puts it, "dreams of dark and troubling things."

And what are these dreams? Both pictures confront mortality, our resistance to having to grow up only to die. I must confess, the older I get, the scarier Eraserhead seems, a horror-film metaphor for meet-the-parents anxiety, as well as the uncertainties of one's own parenthood, the loss of youth and the regrets of missed opportunity, the yearning for both a return to innocence and an immersion in experience--and in the end the suspicion that none of this is within our control--like that most frightening of clichés: "Trapped in a world they never made!" Lynch hand-crafts an alternate universe, expressionistic and nauseating in its Freudian observation of instinctual urges beaten down by by neurotic hesitation/guilt, an aural-visual "happening" that denies all 1960s promises of freedom and rubs our noses in '70s malaise.

Now there's a ringing endorsement. Enjoy Your Feature Presentation!

But don't get me wrong: While Eraserhead may be a movie you will want to see only once, it has its own "dark and troubling" beauty; after all, Lynch and his cohorts spent more than four years building it, moment by moment, and it shows. The miniatures, the practical/special effects, the sets, the lighting--and above all the rich black and white cinematography: all these things combine simply to serve the film. There is nothing that doesn't belong here, no decorative elements, no lookit-me fireworks.

And in the end, Eraserhead may just be serving a Higher Purpose after all--this is when you may roll your eyes; but despite all its gory goo, its permeating sense of dread, the picture moves toward reconciliation with its horrors, even a kind of apotheosis--OK, I will not go so far as to assert it's an elevating experience--oh, why not: For me it is, as "surly bonds" are broken and Henry finds himself in--here it comes--Heaven. There is an irony here, of course (as the Woman in the Radiator sings, "In Heaven everything is fine"), but in the end I think the movie respects Henry's desires, and wishes it could help him. It's usually at a point like this that I bring up Pinocchio, as important in its own way as Citizen Kane in its examination of the desire to "become" something. There is a real Blue Fairy mood in the final scenes of Eraserhead, one that the movies, especially American ones, find hard to resist. It's possible that Henry becomes a real boy--which removes him from the muck-n-mire the rest of us share.

Speaking of muck: Enter Carnival of Souls, another Gothic parable, set in a bleak, salt-flat middle of nowhere. But what matters most is the almost entirely internalized geography it spreads before us, the shadowland of its protagonist's mind. Mary Henry goes for a joyride that ends badly--and from the moment of her coolly observed emergence from the water into which the car had plunged, as she steps along a little spit of sand, Mary slips away, closer to the pallid face and pale invitation of the Other Side. She refuses to die, to admit she’s not so much being pursued by ghosts as reclaimed by them. A church organist without faith, she fades (as do the sounds and human contact of the world around her), fluttering like a small bird held in soft, cold hands.

At the center of the movie is Mary's dance with/of the dead, which has a surprising resonance--an almost cruelly impartial observation of a nightmare, with its matter-of-fact slow decline, its relentless delivery of Mary into the hands of those pale revelers. It begins with the simple fact of universal mortality, and refuses to provide any reprieve.

And, like Eraserhead, it is beautifully directed, its sound editing, lighting and camera placement perfect. It looks exactly the way it needs to, and manages to overcome its budgetary weaknesses simply by staring at its subject without blinking. As the dead rise from the black water, or dance in delirious speed--and as Mary flees under the dark skies and shadowed streets, as the camera looks over, down and up, always holding just long enough to see, but not to break the mood, Carnival of Souls joins Eraserhead on the short list of films that move like dreams. Its very detachment becomes an invitation to the danse macabre, and its meager resources force us into the narrow passage Harvey demands we follow, back to the car wreck, the spit of sand, and the thing we've known all along, but had to be told--because we want it so little: that Mary needs to go the way of all flesh. It is a movie that, like Thomas Gray's poetry, tells me to see the world as a graveyard, and ultimately is not so much cruel as clear in that vision; in the end, almost with kindness, it "leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

While these may not be the happiest of movies, their complementary look and mood invite not only comparison but double-billing. So be brave, hold someone's hand, and walk through--as they say on Futurama--The Scary Door.

NOTE: The section on Carnival of Souls is adapted--all right, copied--from a piece I wrote for my other blog, The Constant Viewer. If you must steal, steal from yourself. You will have a tendency not to press charges.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tender Mercies (1983)

Even as a little filigree along the frame of a movie, Robert Duvall satisfies. When he shows up as Karl's father in Sling Blade I immediately settled in, certain he was going to do something worth remembering--and it was, the mumbling, cornered vermin he evoked as expertly crafted as his crotch-grabbing, napalm-smelling Col. Kilgore (the name alone like some minor villain out of Dickens), his few minutes on screen still as quotable as Here's-looking-at-you-kid.

In a starring role he can be almost overwhelming. Even in something as "easy" as Secondhand Lions--the ease coming not only from the sentimental script but his costars--given enough space, Duvall takes over--no, that's not right; he's too generous to dominate. OK, he rises to the occasion, all the way to the brim. The scene at the bar with the punks in Secondhand Lions is ready-made--Eastwood would've had fun with it--but Duvall brings an extra touch of weariness to the moment, his paunch sticking out as he once more faces a foolish world. Showy, but irresistible.

You are now duly warned: A Duvall leading role can take a lot out of you. It appears he knows this in Tender Mercies, so instead goes for our weak flank: We do not get what we expect. His washed-up C&W performer, Mac Sledge, is almost not even there. He slips in the back door--like the Very Old Man with Enormous Wings in Gabriel García Márquez's "Tale for Children"; but he does not arrive to irritate and confound. Sledge wants merely to disappear with some dignity, but this decidedly quiet movie won't let him fade away. Instead, he is given the opportunity to take a few small, monumental steps back toward others. Tess Harper as Rosa Lee (and Ellen Barkin in the role that made me love her forever) joins Duvall in this world waiting to begin; the ending, which seems so inconsequential, becomes for me one of the most moving final sequences in film, a dry Texas coda that makes a small but essential promise to Mac and his family.

I suppose when it comes to memorable Duvall performances nothing can match Sonny in The Apostle (1997). But that was Duvall's picture all the way--as star, director and writer--and he gave it everything he always wanted to give us. In Tender Mercies, he serves Bruce Beresford and Horton Foote--but Beresford knows what to do with Duvall and Harper: While we lose Sonny's terrier yelps and help-me-Jesus stares, Tender Mercies gives us Whispering Bobby, his head down, ready to keep taking it if he has to, but hoping for a little something more.