I desperately wanted to like Tetro, the new Francis Ford Coppola film starring Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich as estranged American siblings abroad in Buenos Aires. Who doesn't? It's a testament to the reach of his epochal work from three decades ago that every Coppola movie still instills hope for another classic -- or at least a good movie. His last picture, the metaphysical time-travel fantasy Youth Without Youth (2007), I quite enjoyed despite not knowing what the hell was going on. The movie was anchored by Tim Roth's inventive performance as an old man who gets struck by lightning and begins aging backwards, and it featured startling images like Roth's rotting teeth abruptly falling out to give way to new ones. The (mostly) Rumanian setting was given a lustrous vibrancy by cinematographer Mihai Milaimare, Jr.; and Coppola, who had become a notorious trailer-dweller on his increasingly fewer sets over the years, concerned with technique above all else, seemed more engaged with his characters and narrative than he had in ages. Youth Without Youth received mixed reviews, to put it mildly, but in retrospect it does more with its concept than the thematically similar Benjamin Button failed to achieve. (Now there's a picture that's hermetically sealed.) More than a few critics I respect recommended Youth Without Youth and thought highly enough of Tetro that I decided to give that film a shot too.
Tetro begins as a much more accessible movie, focusing on Bennie's (Ehrenreich) quest to reunite with his expatriate older brother Angelo (Gallo). Years earlier, Angelo, a talented writer, had a nervous breakdown and fled to Argentina, where he lives with his almost-wife Miranda (Maribel Verdu) and mans the lights for a local theater. Now calling himself "Tetro," the character is an agreeably familiar archetype -- the tortured artist who reinvents himself -- and Gallo, who would seem to know a few things on the subject, plays him with an appropriate shroud of mystery. Tetro is a prick who cares; and his one-step-forward/two-steps-back treatment of Bennie is believably frustrating and touching.
Unfortunately, Coppola has weightier themes in mind; and while Gallo navigates them as well as anyone could, Ehrenreich, who bears a startling resemblance to the young Leonardo DiCaprio from the latter's This Boy's Life period, flounders in the kind of melodrama that Leo has successfully faked his way through for years. There's a place for Greek tragedy; I just don't think these characters and this setting -- which together hit such an easy groove early on -- warrant that level of gravitas. Still, it's a pleasure to see Klaus Maria Brandauer (where've you been, dude?) in the pivotal role of Bennie and Tetro's famous patriarch, and a kick to note the obvious appreciation Coppola has for Verdu's sensuality. (She was Luisa in Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien and is nearly as good here.) I grew exasperated by the number of dance sequences Coppola appears to stage less to enhance the narrative than to put on his own version of The Red Shoes, no matter how ravishingly they were shot (by Milaimare again, as sudden bursts of color in a predominantly black-and-white movie). Tetro has some promising elements that didn't add up for me, but it made me glad Coppola's still out there swinging away.
David Mamet's Redbelt, his tenth feature film, released last year, shows the famed playwright still plugging away in the film medium as well; and perhaps to underscore a sense of struggle he makes jujitsu his subject. His protagonist, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is a low-rent dojo owner in Los Angeles whose window is accidentally shattered by a high-strung woman (Emily Mortimer) and finds himself in need of the kind of quick cash that professional martial-arts bouts can ostensibly provide. Money is a constant in Mamet's worldview ("That's why they call it money!"), as are scams, cons, grifts, grafts, red herrings, petty hustlers, wealthy schemers, and two-timing tramps.
All are in ample supply in Redbelt, which despite its novel setting echoes Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner (1997) in more ways than one. Mike is reminiscent of Campbell Scott's naive, honorable hero who owned a valuable piece of intellectual property in Prisoner, as is the casting of a well-known comic actor (Tim Allen in this film, Steve Martin in the previous) to portray a shady mentor figure whose intentions may or may not have an ulterior motive. Where Redbelt departs from Mamet's earlier works is the near total absence of stylized dialogue. Even more distinct are its surprisingly human qualities. Part of this comes from the authenticity that actors like Ejiofor and Mortimer bring to the table (I look forward to those two more than just about any performers working right now), and part of it is from a filmmaker who, at the end, is clearly becoming more interested in revealing something about himself than jerking us around. Some have expressed surprise that Mamet's next feature may be The Diary of Anne Frank, but that seems like a natural extension to what he accomplishes here. Redbelt is a minor work and doesn't make a damn bit of sense, yet it shows a side of David Mamet that seems done with playing games.