Movies – Angel-A

Luc Besson’s ANGEL-A, in the first ten minutes or so, seemed like it would be insufferable – one of the oldest set-ups in the world (depressed man about to jump off a bridge suddenly spies a beautiful woman about to do the same thing; she jumps first and he saves her! Quel surprise!!), followed by some pretty clueless line readings, posing as her side of a dialogue, from statuesque eye-candy Rie Rasmussen. I fully credit the engaging Jamel Debbouze for investing her with any credibility at all – we grow into believing in her because he does.

But if you stick with this film, it’s surprisingly easy to fall into. Angela is a guardian angel, and she is consigned to awaken André’s belief in himself. And André himself presents difficulties, needless to say. The guilelessness of the whole film is it’s salvation. It’s predictable in it’s I’ll-save-you-no-let-me, I-give-up-oh-yeah-well-so-do-I rhythms and plot ‘twists’. Besson pays shameless sentimental homage to the Capra-esque mechanics of the plot, yet throws in enough rough edges to keep things from getting too maudlin. Rasmussen doesn’t interact with Debbouze particularly well acting-wise, but she has a rock-solid idea of what her function is, and performs it with enthusiasm and integrity. Over ninety minutes, it becomes a genuinely admirable performance. What other film would dare posit that a female emissary from God had just gang-banged a nightclub’s entire male population, for the money? Rasmussen’s persistence, and Debbouze’s likeability, win out, trust me.

Also noteable is Thierry Arbogast’s flat-out gorgeous black-and-white cinematography – Wings Of Desire is the obvious reference, but Arbogast mixes in enough of his own novel imagery and lighting ideas to convince you he’s not just ripping off Henri Alekan.

I won’t kid you – this film is a predictable fairy tale. Think that gang-bang really could have happened? Think André may not be saved by Angela? Think Angela will finish her mission and abandon André, sadder but wiser? Then you’re probably too jaded to enjoy this – all told, it’s pretty fluffy. But it’s beautifully fluffy, well-executed fluffy, fluffy for grown-ups. It’s not for everyone, but there are far worse wastes of time. I considered this a very good, worthwhile waste of time.

For the earthier, this-doesn’t-sound-like-my-kinda-thing types among you, may I recommend ‘The Girl On The Bridge’ – same set-up, with a wonderfully dark and original story of what-happens-next, featuring major-league acting turns from Daniel Auteuil and Vanessa Paradis.

You may also be relieved to know my Netflix list from here consists of a pretty sizeable chunk of American films. I’m a shameless Francophile, but I’ll ease up over the next few weeks.

Movies – The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrêté) (France, 2005) is a remake of a nasty little film from the late seventies called ‘Fingers’. It concerns Thomas, a roughhouse member of a team of enforcer/fixers for his real-estate-slumlord father. They roust squatters, plant rats, and break legs – it’s just what they do, and Thomas does it with angry enthusiasm. A chance meeting, however, redirects Thomas’ priorities. He happens upon the former agent of his late concert-pianist mother, who remembers Thomas as a pianist full of promise himself. Thomas then applies himself to re-learning his former high level of playing with the help of an Asian conservatory pianist who has recently relocated to Paris.

Romain Duris, as Thomas, does a superb job of showing us the layers that make up Thomas. His vocation as enforcer and aspiring real-estate wheeler-dealer is driven by a fierce loyalty to his father, as well as his own unfocused sense of ambition. When the musical alternative presents itself, we learn that Thomas’ mother developed some behavioral conflicts associated with her career, and has passed on. Who Thomas will choose to emulate, and where Thomas’ emotional loyalties really lie, become intriguing questions. He needs to find his own capacity for creative generosity and discipline while remaining loyal to his father, who shares his own testosterone-fueled inclinations for danger and sex. Thomas participates in helping his working cohort lie to his wife about his infidelities – when the arrangement is discovered by the wife, Aline (Aure Atika), Thomas expediently seduces her. Has he coldly manipulated her, or is this connection something he actually needs, and can create? The piano lessons are equally intriguing – his teacher, while obviously a talented and caring musician, speaks absolutely no french, and their communications are sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing. And where they end up at the film’s conclusion is richly ironic.

The original, ‘Fingers’, situated the Thomas character, Jimmy Fingers, as a Mob enforcer, and Harvey Keitel really worked both extremes of the character’s duality, at times profoundly compassionate, and other times amorally cruel. It was James Toback’s first film, and Toback placed Jimmy in a much darker, more malevolently stylized New York than the Paris that Thomas functions in. It’s instructive that in the DVD extras for ‘Heart’, Audiard explains that his co-screenwriter, Tonino Benacquista, hated this movie. They collaborated to create a character that kept Jimmy’s rough, sociopathic edges while investing him with a more empathetic sense of what his choices are and how he pursues them. And Duris is sensational – I’d never seen him, but he also appears in the french films ‘Gadjo Dilo’, ‘L’Auberge Espanol’ and ‘Moliere’.

Highly recommended.

Movies – Big Fish

Watched Big Fish last night, a very enjoyable mainstream effort from Tim Burton that eschewed his usual Aubrey Beardsley / Edward Gorey-fied art direction in favor of something a little more expansive and hopeful. A local-boy-makes-good story that wouldn’t be out of place in the Preston Sturges catalog, it draws from a number of ideas – his own ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”, a little ‘Forrest Gump’-ish-ness without the cloying earnestness, a little ‘Barton Fink’ without the dark psychosis, and even a sequence that reminded me a little of ‘A Boy and His Dog’s’ Topeka. Ewan MacGregor enacts the life story of a near-his-deathbed Albert Finney. MacGregor’s one of those actors who delivers admirably when cast and directed well. He’ll never resuscitate a lousy movie, but he’ll make a good one better, and he strikes every right note as the enthusiastic protagonist of Finney’s tall-tale life story. Some other pleasant and unexpected surprises – Billy Crudup is pitch-perfect as the skeptical, resentful son who slowly comes around on ol’ Dad without a single sentimental misstep. Danny DeVito creates a terrific character out of seeming comic-book thin air in very brief screen time. They didn’t give her much to do, but it’s nice to see some solid early work from Marion Cotillard. And I found myself admiring the musical score, and being pleasantly surprised that it was, yet again, Danny Elfman, not sounding anything like his usual semi-goofball self. I wish composers like John Williams and James Newton Howard could figure out how to push their trademark envelopes like this.

A very, very good film. Despite my boredom with his usual spook-house M.O., I’m inclined to take Tim Burton a little more seriously after this. Highly recommended.