Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Leaves of Grass (2009)

To call Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass a "serio-comedy" touches only the surface of a seriously funny movie. It asks Big Questions from diametrically opposed positions--passionate/impulsive and rational/controlled--and accepts the merits of both sides, resulting in what might be a third view--and I won't bore you with my vague conclusions. Instead, let me point out one of the movie's great treats: two Edward Nortons, the actor playing twins--both geniuses, one a philosophy prof, the other a hydroponic pot-growing wizard. Their lives collide following the prof's self-imposed estrangement from his family--including Susan Sarandon doing what she does so well: playing crazy, just enough to keep her distance from the real world while understanding it all too well. His rocky (and that's putting it mildly) road home makes for what can only be described as a screwball tragedy--maybe.

The writer-director behind this bifurcated plan is Tim Blake Nelson, a pitch-perfect character actor--as Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, delivering one of the great lines of the movies: "Them syreens did this to Pete. They loved him up and turned him into a horny toad"; and the enigmatically pleasant Gideon in Minority Report--among other welcome appearances. We even have the treat of his turn as Bolger, the pot-dealing twin's partner, drawing out his Oklahoma accent like a nice fishing-rod he'd like to show you--got it when he was a boy and it's still in good shape. Nelson is a gifted artist, and his direction matches the swerving tone of Leaves of Grass step by reckless step.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

This Is England (2006)

Who remembers the Falklands War? They're small islands off the coast of Argentina; both Argentina and the U.K. claimed them. The Argentinians occupied them in April 1982, and about two months later the conflict was over, with the U.K. maintaining control, more or less.

The victory made Margaret Thatcher popular, but left some scars on both sides. The 2006 movie This Is England offers one boy's story--his father among the few hundred soldiers who died in the conflict, leaving the boy to navigate grief and adolescence while the punks and rude boys made way for the new skinheads who loved being white more than they did the saving sounds of Toots and Maytals and turned every town into a Ghost Town. The movie charts Shaun's sweet and sad, sometimes harrowing attempts to find his father in the New England that the hard 1980s built.

Thomas Turgoose as Shaun is as natural an actor as you could hope for. His early good times with his new, older mates--still playing in the fields, giving Shaun a sense of home, young skins and their pretty girls all the brothers and sisters he needs--are an idyll he certainly deserves, as temporary as it may be.

But an old friend of Shaun's new circle returns from prison, his head still shaved but his mind cleaned out, leaving nothing except the half-understood--but full-blown committed--politics of hatred. And sadly, Shaun finds a home here, too, and the film becomes a near-nightmare. Loss and hate and hard times is too strong a mix for Shaun, and he's left with only himself to decide what he's going to become.

Don't get me wrong: The early sequence is actually heartwarming, propelled by music and, as The Beatles put it, "that magic feeling--nowhere to go." And this makes the shift downward even more jarring: We want Shaun to mend with his friends. But he has a hard road ahead, and This Is England makes him travel far--almost like Francois Truffaut's alter ego, Antoine Doinel, in The 400 Blows, in that both boys are cut loose, and run to the sea. I'll let you decide what Shaun finds there.
Live Clash, "This Is England": "I got my motorcycle jacket / But I'm walking all the time."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mesrine, Part 1: Killer Instinct (2008)

Jean-François Richet—who directed the tight, tough 2005 remake/re-imagining of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13—presents a big two-part film about Jacques Mesrine, a notorious French criminal (think Dillinger crossed with Joe Pesci's Tommy in Goodfellas) whose exploits (at least in this first part) span much of the globe, from Algeria in the late 1950s to France to Quebec to Arizona—then back again. Along the way, he robs, tortures, kidnaps, murders, goes to prison, gets out, abuses his wife, loves her (and others), all the while inventing himself as a celebrity/political radical, prison reformer (with automatic weapons), and Gallic Clyde Barrow. Vincent Cassel—always good, particularly in Brotherhood of the Wolf and The Crimson Rivers (in which he manages to be as cool as Jean Reno, and that's saying something)—plays Mesrine without apologies, neither sympathetic nor demonic, his violent temperament constructed without prejudice. We're left to observe Mesrine as-is.

The best thing I can write about this movie is that I was sorry it was over. When some people read a good book, they speed up, hungry for each page. Me, I slow down. But I was greedy with Mesrine, and didn't pause it to leave the rest for another day. No, I held out to myself the promise of Part 2: Public Enemy No. 1 and finished up Part 1, sorry to see it go. I haven't watched Part 2 yet, but let this review stand for both. This is about as straightforward as gangster pictures come, moving with confidence and speed, like Mesrine himself robbing two banks in one minute.
NOTE: In my haste, I neglected to mention the supporting cast, headed by the always-charismatic Gerard Depardieu, along with two women—Elena Anaya (the abused wife) and Cécile De France (Mesrine's steel-plated Bonnie)—who effortlessly match the pace of their ferocious male co-star.