The Guys Will Melt Your Cynical Heart

In the aftermath of 9/11, when New York was on its knees, Anne Nelson, a journalist from the Upper West Side, wrote eulogies for a Brooklyn fire captain who lost the men in his station, later turning this profoundly moving experience into a play, The Guys , with the help of director Jim Simpson, husband of actress Sigourney Weaver. The Guys has since become a cathartic, spiritually guiding force that has united audiences everywhere, as it now does once more in a fine and forceful film, directed by Mr. Simpson, and performed with sincerity and purpose by Ms. Weaver.

Anthony LaPaglia plays Nick, a man of much action and few words who is struggling with the most difficult assignment of his career: how to bring comfort and closure to the grieving families of the courageous and dedicated firefighters who sacrificed their lives for their city. Ms. Weaver, in a no-frills performance that seems inspired by some greater power than the lines in a screenplay, plays the journalist-editor who meets the fire captain through a friend, at a time when everybody in New York wanted to contribute to the redemption of a decimated city. Out of 350 missing firemen, they found a way to celebrate eight guys in eight separate eulogies. As the words come tentatively to the surface and the stories come to life, constructing memories, you find yourself asking the piercing, penetrating question: “Is anyone O.K.?”

The Guys is a two-hander that never seems static. The stars are so natural and generous with their time and talent that the movie doesn’t even seem scripted. It makes you think of firefighters in a different way. They cook. They take dance lessons. They ride bikes. Ms. Weaver’s probing concern and intelligence brings out the best in Mr. LaPaglia, who shows the tight-lipped, burly, buzz-cut, emotionally reserved fear of a man secretly capable of great sensitivity, occasionally brushing away a tear. Through the portraits of “the guys” they paint with vivid words that are quirky, funny and true, they share an emotional center that helps them to examine their losses and redefine what getting back to normal is. How can you cut deals with God under these conditions? What happens next? And, most importantly, why did any of this happen in the first place? Articulating all the right universal responses, The Guys is one of those rare and exemplary motion pictures that is likely to make audiences of strangers want to hold hands. I usually distrust and avoid this kind of cinematic revival-meeting fervor, but in The Guys , pain and healing become one. In a great document of a unique time and place, film turns into the visual equivalent of all the right words put together.

Seedy Surprise

Remaking foreign-language films in English is always a mistake, but The Good Thief , written and directed by Neil Jordan, is a lovingly crafted update of Jean-Pierre Melville’s romantically masculine caper flick, Bob le Flambeur , that jazzes up a French classic without losing any of its dark edge or bitter flavor. The story of a gambler reduced through addiction and penury to one last chance at underworld redemption with the spectacular robbery of a Paris casino worked better in black and white, staged in the neon-bruised hours between dusk and dawn, than it does in lush Technicolor and set on the French Riviera. Let’s face it: In all of the Côte d’Azur, there is not a shred of the same mystery, danger or exotic sense of desperation you get in one single, descending camera pan from the heavenly heights of Sacré Coeur to the sleazy bowels of Pigalle. Still, Mr. Jordan has lovingly recreated much of what glittered in the hard French thrillers that once starred Delon and Belmondo, and provided a superbly customized vehicle for the salty charms of ashtray-voiced Nick Nolte, who delivers a performance of sliced Limburger light enough in tone to resemble an underworld comedy of manners.

Bob is an American thief and junkie who has been convicted so many times the French cops have practically become his pals. Now he’s stranded in the South of France, out of luck, out of money and at the end of his rope, with one last chance to save his reputation by robbing the most impregnable casino in Monte Carlo of 80 million francs and its priceless art collection-on the night before the Grand Prix! One-third of the movie catalogs Bob’s agonized attempts to kick drugs cold turkey by handcuffing himself to his headboard; one-third is about the pimps and fences and killers who form Bob’s crew of partners in crime; and the final third centers on the heists themselves-one of which may be a red herring. In addition to the seedy atmosphere, double-crosses and surprise cameos (good work by Ralph Fiennes as a maniac who collects art), the film has the kind of jaded dialogue that doesn’t mean anything but always sounds good. The title is from the biblical story of the “good thief,” who was crucified next to Jesus and was promised a place in paradise. You wish the same fate for Bob, who is actually a man of principle underneath the scum. There’s something wonderful about the fact that the main reason he comes back from the dead to risk his life robbing one more casino is for the chance, before he dies, to perform one last heist wearing a tuxedo. This is the movie I was hoping Ocean’s Eleven would be, but so much better.

Dancing With Duvall

Going to fabulous Oscar parties, getting paid millions to lock lips with the planet’s most beautiful women, perfecting your craft until you are the envy of the acting world and get photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair is more than enough for some actors-but not Robert Duvall. He wants to be Orson Welles. Spending more than a decade and more than $5 million of his own money to get his vanity project, The Apostle , on the screen in 1997 wasn’t enough. Now he’s challenging the Hollywood system again as the writer, director and star of Assassination Tango .

The film is a dud, but Mr. Duvall has earned respect through years of fine work, and watching him is never a waste of time; I always learn something. In Assassination Tango , he plays a middle-aged guy with a ponytail who lives with a nice girlfriend and her adoring daughter. A great neighborhood favorite with young and old, he cuts a dapper figure with the ladies on the dance floor. There’s only one thing wrong with this picture: After dark, he’s a cold-blooded freelance hit man whose naïve girl (Kathy Baker) hasn’t got a clue why he’s always leaving town on strange jobs. As long as he’s on the dance floor, or spending time with the two girls in his life, he’s a great family man-gentle, humorous, generous to a fault. When he’s on a “job,” he’s a killing machine-fearless, tough and dangerous. His new and potentially final assignment is a three-day quickie that takes him to Argentina to kill a powerful retired general responsible for the torture and murder of political dissidents in the 1980′s.

The job drags on for weeks. While he’s passing the time, he gets distracted by the sensual pull of the tango and falls for a sexy young dance instructor (Luciana Pedraza), who teaches him the precision, control and exotic rituals of the dance. The picture drags when the lovers swoon once too often over the tango as a symbol of love, life and religion, and the reason Mr. Duvall went to Buenos Aires in the first place becomes secondary to the passion he experiences on the dance floor. The dance scenes are almost as lovely as the intoxicating tourist views of Buenos Aires, but the more Mr. Duvall imitates José Greco, the more he loses control of the film and sinks into a lot of naughty self-indulgence. The film takes on so many of the dance’s abrupt right turns that by the time Mr. Duvall finally gets around to the darkness and violence of the assassination, it almost seems like an afterthought. It’s a curious and unsatisfying lark, in which Robert Duvall the actor is rendered speechless by Robert Duvall the writer and sideswiped by Robert Duvall the director.

Amour Fou

Jeanne Moreau ages like Mr. Poe’s amontillado. Properly cherished and handled with extreme caution and care, there seems to be no limit to her shelf life. In Cet Amour-là , the startling and still-vivacious Ms. Moreau, now in her mid-70′s, plays French literary icon Marguerite Duras in the final years of her life, in a film that concentrates on the relationship between the aging Duras and a boy named Yann Andréa, less than half her age. It was a love affair that began in 1980, when Duras was 60 and her lover was in his early 20′s, and lasted until her death in 1996 at the age of 76.

The film, directed by Josée Dayan, is an obvious labor of love. Ms. Moreau, the celebrated actress, and Duras, who wrote such classics as Hiroshima, Mon Amour , met in 1959 and became intimate friends with a lot in common-a love of art, literature, film, politics and men. Drinking to excess, chain-smoking endlessly and sleeping with young admirers was as natural to both women as inhaling one of their battered Gitanes. Playing Duras at the same age as the famous writer the year she died, Ms. Moreau’s asymmetrical mouth, pockets under her eyes as deep as teacups, and the obvious fact that she couldn’t care less, add up to an animal energy that makes the role and the film appear preordained. She’s been whore, madonna and lover in so many films that it’s unlikely she could reveal any new secrets surrounding the myth of women. Yet, as she catches the mercurial moods of Duras-a woman of great wit and charm who was equally capable of selfish egotism and tortured self-analysis-Ms. Moreau’s whisky voice and full range of gestures, smiles, glances and looks are utilized to full effect. She is a wonder to behold, one difficult, willful and fascinating artist playing another artist of equal temperament and stature.

Too bad Yann Andréa, the young fan who arrived on her doorstep in Brittany after five years of fan letters, is such a dolt. Or maybe it’s Aymeric Demarigny, the fuzzy actor who plays him, who makes the character such an egghead. The equation never balances. Duras was abusive, heaping the lover young enough to be her son with ridicule for hanging around while she grappled with writer’s block, accusing him of being useless and talentless. She was strong-willed and opinionated to the exclusion of all others, a loner who enjoyed solitude and considered friendships intrusions. Ms. Moreau plays her with her usual intriguing mix of practicality, humor, haughty French snobbery, mystery and tenderness. But there are times when you wonder why the boy doesn’t smack her across the face. Instead, he moved into her bed, drinking wine, talking with her, typing her manuscripts and keeping her old bones sexually charged for 16 years. Undeniably, the best thing about the affair was that Andréa, offering himself as amanuensis, was responsible for one of her most successful works, The Lover , which revived her literary reputation. The bad side was that he lured her back into alcoholism, which landed her in the hospital and hastened her death. She threw him out in fits of rebellion, but always took him back-bedraggled, cold, impoverished and badly in need of her nourishing soups. Their bittersweet amour fou was the stuff French writers have been thriving on since Colette. Warts and all, Cet Amour-là is an astoundingly intimate portrait of the love affair that kept all of France enthralled. Set against the beauty of the Breton seaside, it is also a film that revels in the insights of Duras’ writing and the wisdom of Ms. Moreau’s ripe experience as an actress-a perfectly observed hommage to two extraordinary women of distinction, alone but never lonely.