Sunday, September 13, 2009

Old Dogs, New Tricks (Tetro and Redbelt)

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.


Kevin J. Olson said...

I haven't seen Tetro yet, and I still haven't watched the other new Coppola Youth Without Youth (although it's next on my Tivo), so I skipped the Coppola portion of this review.

I did, however, see Redbelt, and I placed it in my top 10 of last year. I thought it was great that Mamet simplified his con (read: not as convoluted as the film you line it to The Spanish Prisoner) and made the movie more of a "traditional" movie -- like he did in his superb Spartan.

I like your connections between The Spanish Prisoner and Redbelt and how they both have idealistic characters (you could also throw in the Lindsay Crouse character from House of Games as the focus. I actually didn't feel like Mamet was jerking me around and just making shit up by the end of the movie (as he seemed to be doing at the end of The Spanish Prisoner, and that added to the pleasure of what I thought was a highly entertaining film.

Chiwetel Ejiofor was phenomenal in the movie, too. One of the most overlooked and underrated performances from last year.

Great thoughts as always, Craig.

Unknown said...

Interesting takes on both movies.

I actually found "Tetro" to be one of Coppola's more relatable films in years. Sure, I think he goes a little overboard with the melodrama, but I was willing to go along with it (except maybe the final revelation isn't really necessary).

A lot of Coppola's misses for me have been when he drowns in technique which makes his films effective to watch with the sound off, which I would put "Youth Without Youth" into that group. With "Tetro", I finally thought Coppola was investing himself more emotionally into his film for the first time in a long time, while acknowledging that he does it somewhat awkwardly.

I did think "Redbelt" was lesser Mamet. Not unlike "Public Enemies", it often felt like a director stuffing one movie with the greatest hits of previous films whether it fit the subject matter or not. Did we need to see David Mamet work in another con into this type of movie?

Somebody does need to write a thesis one day on David Mamet's issues with women. Because I had seen previous Mamet films, I never had any doubt that Alice Braga's character would betray her husband and kept waiting for that and other Mamet plot turns to happen in this movie. The problem is that most of those plot turns did show up.

Although, like Kevin, I loved "Spartan", which I thought broke away from Mamet's usual plot mechanics (which I think is one of his weaknesses) and dealt with the struggles of being honorable in a corrupt world more effectively than "Redbelt" did.

Adam Zanzie said...

I also loved Youth Without Youth, so you can't imagine my disappointment when Tetro failed to show up here in St. Louis. I'm eagerly awaiting its DVD release.

Did you read what Ryan Kelly had to say about Tetro? He gave it an outstanding thumbs-up, and his review definately made me want to see it. Though I have yet to see Tetro, you might want to ask Ryan about any quibbles you have with the film; he could probably help you out!

I hesitated to see Redbelt when critics began to refer to it as "Mamet's Rocky", and that of course sounds less than enticing. And while I've always been a fan of Mamet's writing, he's still a novice when it comes to directing. House of Games and Spartan both have snappy dialogue from beginning to end, but they wouldn't work with the sound turned off if you see what I'm getting at.

Craig said...

It's nice to see Coppola still stirs the passions.

It was Ryan and Steven's reviews (among a few others) that prompted me to see "Tetro." I'm not sorry I did. Like Steven noted, there's definitely more emotional investment from the director than most of his work from the previous two decades. I respected it for that. (I felt that engagement in "Youth Without Youth" too; it's just a more oblique movie -- like a Lynch film without malevolent dwarves.)

Here's the thing, though: For me, Coppola does such a commendable job creating the laid-back, sensual, artistic, playful atmosphere of Buenos Aires in the early scenes that the big secret (which I won't spoil for those who haven't seen it) lands like an Acme anvil. Would it be inappropriate to say that, with the proper tone, "Tetro" might have worked as a comedy? From a certain skewed angle, it is kind of funny.

Craig said...

"Redbelt": "Mamet's Rocky" may have been the pitch to help get it made, but it's very much his own spin on a particular genre like all of his other works.

I agree with Kevin that the con is really pretty basic this time out; it just seems complicated while watching it because we bring a set of expectations to the film that Mamet has fun using against us, piling up coincidences that have nothing to do with anything.

And I agree with Steven that Mamet's misogyny could fill an entire graduate-level college course, though he may be getting better at writing women. Rebecca Pidgeon's character in "State and Main" is one of my favorite characters -- male or female -- in recent years. (Her con is inverted so that it helps the protagonist rather than harms him.) The Braga character in "Redbelt" is a wash but Mortmer's suggests a believable human being. It takes a while to realize she's not a femme fatale either.

I still enjoy "The Spanish Prisoner," particularly Campbell Scott's lead performance, which radiates a kind of resourceful decency. But Chiwetel Ejiofor brings more charisma than Mamet's had from anyone since Pacino. I felt Mamet was bringing something more this time too. The finale of "Redbelt" didn't work for me on a narrative level, but it did work on a personal level -- the sense that the filmmaker was revealing something about himself, or at least the kind of person that he admires and wants to be.

Craig said...

Adam, I went about it roundaboutly, but let me thank you directly (along with everyone else) for your comments. I've read your contributions to Tony's De Palmathon and enjoy your knowledge and enthusiasm.

Kevin: let us know what you think about "Youth Without Youth." It's definitely different.

Fox said...

Totally agree with you on Redbelt here, Craig. I know it was pretty well received, but I still see it as an underrated film.

I can only guess that the balance of professionalsim and machismo that Ejiofor gives off is something that Mamet feels about himself and deals with in his life. I enjoyed the way it came out through the Ejiofor's character.

Also, I'm pretty sure Mamet is a blackbelt himself. He's already an intimidating person to me, but knowing he can tear my head off makes him even more so.

Craig said...

Thanks, Fox. We were bound to concur sooner or later. Personally, I don't find Mamet terrifying in the least, but if he looks to Chiwetel Ejiofor as a source of inspiration then the guy must have some finer qualities.