April 13, 2010

Tribeca Film Festival, Part Three.


The whistle-blower, in the movies as in real life, is often a socially responsible person who tries to halt or change an illegal or immoral practice. Movies are deeply ambivalent about someone pushing against a system or a systemic wrong. Remember "The Insider"? Russell Crowe played the tobacco company scientist who can't go on manipulating nicotine levels, and so he pours his heart out to a television producer (Al Pacino) and legendary journalist (Christopher Plummer), only to see their network initially refuse to air the story. Tribeca's festival has debuted two striking new examples of the man-who's-mad-as-hell-and-won't-take-it-any-more.


"The Caller." Frank Langella keeps getting better and better. For decades Langella was a leading-man-with-depth and even, briefly, a matinee idol. Anyone who saw him as "Dracula" on Edward Gorey's monochromatic Broadway set will remember when Langella straddles a Victorian beauty on her bed, tears his shirt open to the waist and rakes a fingernail down his handsome chest, opening a rivulet of bright red blood. Women of all ages in the audience gasped.

In more recent times, perhaps starting in Polanski's "The Ninth Gate," Langella has begun the long, noble journey of doing more by doing less. In "Good Night, And Good Luck" (playing CBS chief Bill Paley), in "Starting Out In The Evening" (as an aging novelist past his prime), and now as a corporate manager who decides to blow the whistle on his energy company's deceitful practices, knowing it may cost his life, Langella is quiet, measured, supremely assured. In "The Caller" he's at peace with his doubtful future from the get-go.


Part of Langella's confidence in this outing comes from playing opposite Elliott Gould, who's undergoing much the same transformation. Gould was our loose-limbed Jean-Paul Belmando through the 60s and 70s, a slim, funky romeo. Over the decades his face and body have thickened, but his eyes retain a childlike twinkle that's critical in this elegant, puzzling thriller. Gould is the detective Langella hires to flank him, though Gould doesn't know his employer is the man he's tailing. There is a defining relationship between the two men that you'll want to discover for yourself. Most of "The Caller" takes place in Manhattan, which here is a subtle, restrained backdrop for their work in a finely tuned ensemble cast directed by Richard Ledes. The script is by a French psychoanalyst, Alain Didier-Weill, and everyone appears to trust the material. "The Caller" has a distinguished relative in the Oscar-nominated "Michael Clayton," in which George Clooney goes from being a corporate bagman whose mantra is "the truth can be adjusted," to a hunted man whose crisis of conscience frees him to cut through the legalistic treacheries of a huge case. "The Caller" is in that league.


"Redbelt." It's always irritating to hear someone describe a film using the phrase,: "Well, it's MOVIE A meets MOVIE B!!" expecting you'll get the sandwiching of two pictures you may not have seen to make a third film you're not at all sure you want to see. What an annoying practice. But David Mamet has built a career on people telegraphing each other emotions in short, sharp soundbites, frequently using his stock company of familiar faces like Joe Montegna, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Ricky Jay. The Sundance and IFC channels could make up entire broadcast days built around the kind of cynical and shrewdly calculated movies that Mamet writes and directs. Making you feel good is not David Mamet's specialty.


All this is to prepare you for "Redbelt," which is, in a phrase, "Michael Clayton" meets "Million Dollar Baby." This is a kinder, gentler Mamet offering, the first in his screenwriting career since "The Untouchables" and "The Verdict," and it's a feel-good, four-handkerchief movie. Is this possible? It is, and it works--a big, handsome, impeccable sports drama that pits one good man against a solid wall of Mametized corruption and degradation. The good guy is a Jui-jitsu instructor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose Los Angeles self-defense school is having problems paying the rent. Chiwetel's wife (Alice Braga) has her own little business which is making a tiny profit, and as the bookkeeper for her husband's walk-in martial-arts storefront, she's forever chiding him about expenses. Mamet sets up their relationship carefully. This is a solid marriage of two honest entrepreneurs who are struggling to make ends meet, and right away we're rooting for them when things--make that everything--starts to go wrong.


The "Michael Clayton" side of "Redbelt" starts to emerge when fate and circumstance lure Chiwetel to fight in an undercard to possibly win $50,000 and pay off his debts. The main event is between a Japanese champion and Chiwetel's wife's brother, who's a Brazilian champion--but that fight is rigged by the sleaziest consortium of promoters (Joe Montegna, Ricky Jay and Tim Allen lead the pack) that Mamet has ever conjured up. Chiwetel is outraged by the deception, refuses to fight and decides to publicly blow the whistle on the top rigged bout...The young Chiwetel (who has much the same kind of patient discipline that informs Frank Langella's performance in "The Caller") has to get through the packed tunnel leading up to the ring, and that's where the Brazilian champ confronts him. What follows is the thrilling finale, the "Million Dollar Baby" side.


Mamet took a page in a recent Sunday NY Times (4/27) to compare his fighters with the hardcase wrestlers in the black-and-white films noir "Night and the City" and "The Killing," and also the Edo warriors in Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai." Mamet makes "Redbelt" sound like an over-the-top, neo-noir samurai saga, and it's not. The hand-to-hand combat throughout his film is clean, choreographed and almost scholarly. It's never a bloodbath, and while you may not leave the theater with a song in your heart, this is a deeply satisfying fighters' movie. In "The Caller," Frank Langella's integrity may cost him his life, but in "Redbelt," Chiwetel Ejiofor's integrity may win him a new and better life.

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