Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hors de Prix (“Priceless,” 2006)

My wife says the romantic comedy is dead; they just don’t make good ones anymore. On reflection, of course, it’s clear that that is an overstatement. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” came out just last year, and it was charming and hilarious. It is true, though that the genre is dominated by trite, disposable crap. The formula is pretty standard. Two people meet in some cute circumstance. They have obvious chemistry, and eventually they give in to it and hook up. Then there is some sort of misunderstanding that drives them apart. Then, triggered by obvious clues from the soundtrack, they realize that they were truly meant for each other and re-unite. Bring on the swelling score, the embrace, and the pull-back shot of the lovers in some romantic location, and everyone gets to go home and wait for their check. Hollywood just switches out actors and a few details and cranks these things out, and most of them suck.

Now to be fair to the romantic-comedy genre, I must point out that the same could be said of all Hollywood genres. Hollywood is not about making movies as much as they are about making money. Mostly they make crap, and they serve it up as fast as they can to a public desperate for the next distraction. By its nature, filmmaking requires the collaboration of so many artists and financiers that it is no wonder that most films are such a watered-down mediocrity, pandering to the lowest common denominator in the audience, that I can’t bear to watch. That’s why it is such a huge relief to me when I see something that doesn’t suck.

“Hors de Prix” is a sweet, funny Audrey Tautou movie in French that doesn’t suck. It doesn’t fail-to-suck in an epic, stirring way, the way “Lord of the Rings” didn’t suck. It fails-to-suck in the compact, straightforward way of well-done small films. Tautou plays Irene, a talented gold-digger who is one step short of being a prostitute. She lives glamorously off the largess of the older men she seduces, but she has nothing of her own and is always a day away from poverty. In quiet desperation, she works towards the goal of marrying one of these billionaires.

When Irene meets Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a hotel bartender, she gets the mistaken impression that he is one of the hotel’s wealthy guests. They hook up, but when Irene learns the truth, the pragmatic hussy leaves Jean without even looking back. Jean, meanwhile, is smitten, as Irene is a beauty beyond his wildest dreams. He follows her like a lost puppy, and in order to stay close to her, he becomes a gigolo. Sharing the same profession now, the two finally develop a real connection, and, well, you’ve probably seen enough of these movies to figure out the rest.

“Hors de Prix” never strays from the classic formula; it just executes that formula with grace. This romantic comedy delivers comedy that is understated and unforced, and romance that is actually romantic rather than trite. Now THAT is beyond price.

4.5 stars out of 5

Monday, January 12, 2009

Laura (1944)

I’ve been trying to figure out what I didn’t like about “Laura,” and I think it comes down to the movie trying to pack too many noir mystery staples into one film. The title character is played by Gene Tierney, who is one swell-looking doll. The movie starts with detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating Laura’s murder. He finds no shortage of suspects, including Laura’s fiancĂ© Shelby (Vincent Price), Laura’s aunt, who is keen on Shelby, Shelby’s girl-on-the-side, and Laura’s aged admirer Waldo (Clifton Webb). The movie takes us through the usual rigamarole in which we suspect each person in turn. It also throws in plenty of twists that will be familiar to noir-lovers.

I’m not sure what place “Laura” is supposed to hold in the world of noir. I get the impression it is considered something of a classic, but I never got that magical feeling that is the hallmark of a classic. For example, one major plot device is that detective McPherson finds himself falling in love with Laura as he learns more about her and repeatedly sees her picture. This side of the story may be better developed in the novel, but in the film his morbid attraction is handled in a fairly perfunctory manner. “Laura” is entertaining, but it lacks the distinction of a true classic like “Double Indemnity,” which came out the same year.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, January 09, 2009

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, 1958)

One thing I love about certain old, noir movies is how moralistic they are. They may revel in murder, adultery, and all forms of vice, but in the end, the message is, “No matter how perfectly executed the crime, justice will find you.” In “Elevator to the Gallows,” the crime goes off almost without a hitch. Julien (Maurice Ronet), embroiled in an affair with his boss’s wife Florence (Jeanne Moreau), plots with his lover to kill her husband. He kills his employer in his office, staging it to look like a suicide. He makes only one mistake, but he recognizes it before it is too late, and zips back up in the elevator to fix things. Unfortunately for him, the power gets cut, leaving him trapped in the elevator with his boss’s dead body upstairs. He spends the night trying to figure out an escape, while Florence wanders the streets all night wondering what went wrong with their plan.

In a discussion of another noir movie, “The Third Man,” I believe, I commented that many noir films seem to have as a theme a basically good person who gets put into seedy circumstances in which he may or may not turn bad. Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” inserts us into the story a little farther along than that. Julien and Florence have already turned bad, and the theme here is another noir favorite, “Will they get away with it?” As in most of these older films, the answer is “No,” but along the way we get treated to the vicarious pleasure of rooting for the bad guys.

With this film, Jeanne Moreau continues her habit of playing bad girls, with this being one of her darkest roles, yet. In other of her films that I have seen, her characters are torn by complex motivations, and they are not completely evil. In “Elevator to the Gallows,” she is really just a murdering adulteress, and probably a gold-digger. A lesser actress might have overplayed an “evil seductress” role like this, but Jeanne Moreau plays it with self-contained grace. The reason she is so good at these roles is that she plays them without shame. She never asks the audience to forgive her or tries to remind us that she is just playing a character. In watching a Jeanne Moreau performance, the audience is confronted with a strong, female character of dubious morality, and we are not allowed to stereotype or pigeonhole her. Moreau brings all the complexity of a real woman to these roles. We may not love her characters, but we are never able to dismiss them.

4.5 stars out of 5

Friday, January 02, 2009

Bad news for my wife

It turns out I have terrible taste in women. The first time I saw Jeanne Moreau on the screen, my reaction was that she was gorgeous, and I still think she is one of the most beautiful women I have seen in a movie. I would place her in the same pantheon as Liz Taylor and Angelina Jolie. Once I started reading about Jeanne Moreau, though, I discovered that she is widely considered to be a talented actress of marginal looks. Even in her film “Jules and Jim” one of the characters mentions that she has appeal, but she is not really beautiful. Really?

I don’t know what is wrong with my eyes. I look at Jeanne Moreau’s strong features, full lips, and natural eyebrows, and I think she is a goddess, and an amazing actress to boot.