Import Fridays – Un prophete



Un prophete (2009, dir. Jacques Audiard)
Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi

Un prophete is playing at the Belcourt Theater starting today.

Everyone loves a story of “boy makes good”. Nothing better than a young man pulling himself up by his bootstraps and making a name. The only downside is the body count. That story is what French film Un prophete seeks to tell, and colors its story with issues of racial identity, particularly how it can influence other’s perceptions of us. And the film also manages to not miss the simple moments amongst all the crime and violence. It’s in those moments that the picture shines.

Malik has just entered prison after an undisclosed crime. He’s a very young Frenchman of Arabic descent, who is incredibly nervous and introverted now confronted with years in prison. After a chance encounter with Arab inmate Reyeb, he’s recruited by the Corsican mob on the inside to kill this rival. That murder colors Mailk’s existence, Reyeb appearing in his bed in the middle of the night, his garish throat wound still present. The haunting happen in such a subtle way, Reyeb just suddenly there, Malik never jumping but living with this ghost in his mind.

Malik begins taking on more responsibilities with the Corsicans, who still view him as a “filthy Arab”, while the Arabic in prison see him as a “Corsican dog”. It’s evident that this labeling has a strong effect on Malik. Despite this internal conflict, he soldiers on, running errands while on day leave for Cesar, the head of the Corsican prisoners. What Malik doesn’t tell Cesar is that he is starting his own low level operations on the outside, particularly running drugs.

Every thing Malik does is out of an innate sense of survival. He knows he won’t make it long on the inside so he takes the murder job from the Corsicans, spending hours trying to hold a razorblade on the inside of his cheek for preparation. The film lingers on those moment of prep time, letting Malik fester in the anxiousness of what he has to do. As terrible as you know his actions will be, you still root for him, want him to get away with it because of his relative innocence compared to the weathered inmates around him.

One of the highlights of the film comes when Malik flies a plane to meet with Arabs in Italy. This is his first plane ride and, instead of skipping over it to get to the action with the Arab mob, the film pauses and lets us see Malik’s wonder at riding in a plane. He peers over his seat mate for a glance out the window and is surprised when a flight attendant brings him cookies and glass of water. Scenes like this are what make Un prophete stand out from other “rise to power” mob stories. Malik’s tale ends in the way the audience will probably expect, but its not his position as the new boss that is important, its the journey that brought him to it and the person he was that he left behind.

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Jolly Good Thursdays – Son of Rambow



Son of Rambow (2007, dir.Garth Jennings)
Starring Bil Milner, Will Poulter, Jessica Hynes, Jules Sitruk

I can remember watching Ghostbusters (not the first time, probably the tenth) when I was seven, and afterwards taking an old backpack, a paper towel cardboard tube, and attaching the two with a long piece of a yarn. A shoebox with another piece of yarn attached served as my “ghost trap”. I was always doing these things as a kid. Not having the latest action figures of my favorite comic book or Saturday morning cartoon characters, I would draw and cut out figurines on paper to play with. My desire to tell stories was stronger than the limitations of economy. This is the same love of stories, and being forced to go low tech that informs Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow.

Living in the 1980s, young Wil Proudfoot is the son of a woman involved in a Mennonite-like religious sect. As a result, he is not allowed to view films or television, but has a strong sense of creativity, drawing intricate worlds on the pages of his Bible. Lee is the son of an absent mother, growing up in a nursing home owned by his step-dad, and has an older brother who forces Lee to bootleg movies for him to sell on the street. Lee and Wil meet each other during an incident at school and Wil follows Lee home and glimpses his first film ever: First Blood (the first Rambo film). Wil is smitten with the film and immediately sets about storyboarding his own sequel, Son of Rambow, which he and Lee decide to film together.

Jennings is a well known music video director (he’s worked with Blur and Radiohead) and is best known in film for his adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That less-than-stellar flick bears some similarities in its quality to Son of Rambow. Rambow starts out with a crackling sense of excitement and possibility. Wil’s fantasy sequence right after seeing the film is brilliance; done in line drawings on paper and with the slashing speed lines that accompanies such artwork. There’s some great meta-textual commentary on filmmaking as well. As more kids find out about the production, and particularity with the involvement of hip French exchange student, Lee’s vision as director is co-oped. A brilliant scene where Wil is admitted into the upper upperclassmen’s lounge, which parodies the sort of upscaled celeb parties one would encounter in Hollywood (Coke and pop rocks are used to substitute alcohol and cocaine).

The flick is definitely worth a view, but wans near the end as it tries to make a “lesson” of the story. I would have enjoyed the sense of playfulness at the beginning to continue throughout. It was also wonderful to see Jessica Hynes, best known for co-starring with Simon Pegg in Spaced. If you get the chance, and were a kid who loved to imagine, check this one out.

Newbie Wednesday – Brothers



Brothers (2009, dir. Jim Sheridan)
Starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Shepherd, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison

“Support the troops”. Its a slogan we hear time and time again. Yet, no matter how many yellow ribbons we put up or bumper stickers we slap on our cars, there is a severe situation involving soldiers coming home with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. While Brothers addresses this, it fails to create compelling characters and ultimately comes off as preachy, rather than significant.

Capt. Sam Cahill (Maguire) is preparing to ship off to Iraq, and the day before his little brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is being released from prison. Cahill leaves Grace (Portman), his wife and two daughters behind and ends up being declared KIA. While, Grace deals with the loss with the help of Tommy, Sam is actually alive and well, being held by Sunni extremists along with a private in his unit. Sam is put under severe torture and starvation and made to commit horrible acts. Tommy finds himself drawn closer to Grace but the two fight their urges to give in. Eventually, Sam is coming home and there will be a falling out.

The film is slow, but that is not a bad thing. The plot involving Sam is very interesting and were the moments of the film I paid attention to the most. The Grace/Tommy story is where the film drags. There is really no chemistry between the two so the hints that they might end up together feels incredibly forced. The relationship is so muted to the point of feeling like a way to kill time till Sam returns home. The most compelling interactions are between Tommy and his father (Sam Shepherd). It seems their father dealt with PTSD upon returning from Vietnam and drowned it alcohol, eventually taking it out on the kids. Tommy ends up being the black sheep of the family, and Sam enlists in the Marines because of his idolization of his father.

The picture ends on a very melodramatic note, though its last 20 minutes are its best. The top performance comes from 11 year old Bailee Madison, who plays Isabella, Sam and Grace’s daughter. She very natural and composed for her age, and is a key part of the conflict in the film. Overall, a decent picture but this director has made much much better films.

Hypothetical Film Festival #10 – Gary Oldman Forever!

If you don’t know who Gary Oldman is upon seeing the name, then I weep for your soul. He’s one of the best, most versatile actors in the biz right now. Very few actors disappear the way he can. So without further ado, the film festival!



Sid and Nancy (1986, dir. Alex Cox)
Starring Gary Oldman, Chloe Web

This was the one that helped Oldman breakout. His portrayal of seriously messed up Sex Pistol Sid Vicious is shocking, heartbreaking, and exhilarating all at once. Chloe Webb is equally fascinating as the crass Nancy Spungeon. Its completely evident why these two are in love. They are both so deep in the chaos of their lives, they cling to each other to keep from drowning. The tragedy of these two will tear your heart out. The final scene between them is one of the most emotionally painful performances I have seen on film. It was evident from early on that Oldman was an actor to watch.


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Richard E. Grant

This is not a good movie. It suffers from a lot of indulgence on the part of Coppola, and a lot of poor acting from Ryder and Reeves. What makes the film tolerable is a completely unrecognizable Oldman as the dastardly count himself! Oldman definitely ranks amongst Lugosi and Lee with his take on Dracula. His best performance comes as the decrepit older Dracula that Reeves encounters at the beginning of the film. The film proves that Oldman can make a self-indulgent piece of crap watchable just because of his awesomeness.


Leon/The Professional (1994, dir. Luc Besson)
Starring Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman

Here Oldman takes on the role of Stansfield, a drugged out cop so crooked he murders an entire poor family. It seems the man of the house had gotten involved with Stansfield’s DEA unit and was hiding cocaine for them. Things go bad a little Matlilda is left an orphan, getting help and training from her neighbor/hitman, Leon. Oldman is the perfect villain for the film, at once charismatic and second later exploding and completely off his hinges. A scene. A scene where Stansfield and Matilda encounter each other in a public restroom is particularly unnerving.


The Fifth Element (1997, dir. Luc Besson)
Starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm

There were a lot of garish sci-fi films in the 1990s. But The Fifth Element is the only one that got that over the top sense just right. Oldman is industrialist Zorg, a schizophrenic Southerner who is obsessed with communicating with a cosmic force of evil and becoming one with it. To do this he must intercept a mysterious Fifth Element. Also on the search are Korben Dallas and Leeloo, the heroes of the film. This is a loud, obnoxious, insane film and it couldn’t be more fun.


Hannibal (2001, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Giancarlo Gianni

I don’t like this movie. It’s too long. It’s too dull. The one gem within it for me is Gary Oldman as the utterly disgusting Mason Verger. Verger had his face gnawed apart years ago by Hannibal Lecter, and is using his vast resources to capture Lecter and feed him to some hogs. Oldman delivers a gruesome, gurgling performance and amps the creep level up to 11. A film ONLY worth watching because of what Oldman brings to it.

Wild Card Tuesday – Mean Girls



Mean Girls (2004, dir. Mark Waters)
Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried, Lizzie Caplan, Daniel Franseze, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Ana Gastneyer, Neil Flynn

I know what you are thinking, “Why? Why would you watch this?” My excuse is that the screenplay was worked on by Tina Fey, who also plays the main character’s Math teacher, and I gave it a chance based on her pedigree. Well Tina, you didn’t completely disappoint me.

Cady Heron (Lohan) was raised by her parents in Africa, and subsequently homeschooled because of the experience. Now back in the States, Cady is going to a public school for the first time and completely unaware of the highly structured clique system in place. She befriends two of the art kids, Janis and Damian, who encourage her to infiltrate the Plastics (read: popular girls) and ruin the status of queen bee Regina (McAdams). The rest of the film plays out as a mix of typical high school comedy with moments that rise slightly above that.

The female cast was definitely a strong one. Every single one of the key actresses has done a lot of notable work before and since this film. I don’t think I had actually ever seen a Lindsay Lohan film (save A Prairie Home Companion where she played a very small role), but she is (was?) a very good actress. Her performance as Cady feels very genuine and I never saw the acting going on, which happens a lot with younger actors and actresses. For example, Lacy Chabert was very transparently acting and it showed. Rachel McAdams was also very good, especially knowing her from other such different roles. But the stand out, and you had to be watching closely to catch it, was Amanda Seyfried. Her role appears simple: the ditz, but the girl has some great comic timing. Pair that with her recent role in Jennifer’s Body, and I am excited about seeing her in upcoming films (particularly the soon to be released Atom Egoyan picture Chloe).

As good as these actresses were, it didn’t save the film. The parts I laughed the hardest at were the moments centered around the teachers. Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, and the rest of the cast in those teacher roles were awesome, and I found myself wishing the movie was about the faculty. We have so many teen comedies on the market, but a clever flick, scripted by Fey, about high school teachers would be a treat. The film will definitely make you laugh, but its nothing worth more than a single view. And I couldn’t help but wonder that instead of using director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Just Like Heaven) they had hired JOHN Waters to helm the picture. Now that would have been a skewering of high school hierarchies.

Director in Focus: John Sayles – Silver City



Silver City (2004, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfus, Danny Huston, Mary Kay Place, Tim Roth, Thora Birch, Maria Bello, Miguel Ferrer, Billy Zane, Michael Murphy, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah

John Sayles is not shy about his politics, and this film is definitely the work of a bleeding heart liberal. I myself am a fellow bleeding heart so I sympathize with the sentiments of the picture. However, it is a piece of cinema made out of anger and frustration and, while those elements have helped make great art, they cause Silver City to feel overly bitter and despondent, and way too didactic.

The movie opens on the filming a campaign commercial for gubernatorial hopeful Dickie Pilager (Cooper), the dim-witted son of a former governor of Colorado now believing he can win the seat. Sound familiar? Cooper’s performance, obviously modeled on President George W. Bush was very well done and, as much as I like Josh Brolin, made me wish we could have seen Cooper in Oliver Stone’s W.  During the filming of this commercial, as Pilager casts a rod into the crystalline lake in the frame, he pulls up a hand belonging to a body left in the water. Immediately, Pilager’s campaign manager (Dreyfus) thinks someone is setting Pilager up and hires a detective agency to investigate. The investigator is Danny O’Brien (Huston), a former news reporter who is less than enthusiastic at first. As he journeys deeper he becomes obsessed with Pilager’s connection to a multi-corporate mogul Wes Benteen (Kristoffersen).

On paper, this sounds like a great concept. But it fails, and it fails badly. Huston is completely unnatural in the leading role, proving to me he needs to keep to the supporting ones. I can’t figure out if it was the dialogue or actor, but he comes incredibly stiff and forced in his performance. And with Danny O’Brien as the character we are following, it makes the film that much more painful to get through. Cooper and Dreyfus deliver great performances, but aren’t in enough of the movie to make it work. I would have preferred that it had focused on the Pilager character’s campaign more and been a satire of President Bush. Instead, we get a poorly made activist film where metaphors are incredibly shallow.

The film made me feel very conflicted, as every political note it touches I am right there in support of. But it proves that when views are expressed too overtly they bog a film down. The film takes it self too seriously for the majority of the time, and when it does attempt to go light, such as when Daryl Hannah’s tough hippie character is introduced, the humor feels hollow and tainted by Sayles bitterness. Not the best work of this director; he CAN make great films about his political views (Matewan for example).

Next up: Sunshine State and my final thoughts on John Sayles.

DocuMondays – Young @ Heart



Young @ Heart (2007, dir.Stephen Walker)

The film opens with a jarring scene: a music video featuring a group of senior citizens performing The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”. The first reaction is one of amusement, it is “adorable” that these “little old people” are singing a punk rock song. However, once the lyrics sink in, the simple “aw, how cute” fades away and there is a profound expression that is created when these words come from those mouths:

“Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go….
Just put me in a wheelchair, get me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry before I go insane
I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my brain”

There’s something very honest and appropriate about a group of aged faces yelling out these lyrics. It seems more appropriate for them, than a group of young buck musicians. This is what the 2007 documentary Young @ Heart does so well, it balances the “cute, old people” moments with a rich and meaningful exploration of aging and confronting our mortality. 
The heart behind the Young @ Heart Chorus is Bob Cilman, a truly extraordinary person. Bob had dedicated hours of work to help organize and put on performances with the elderly, and he doesn’t coddle them. When his two featured performers have trouble with James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, Bob doesn’t speak to them in hushed tones. He shouts at them, he gets angry and frustrated, and eventually decides to just work on another song. It can appear mean, but Bob has such a high level of respect and such lofty expectations for this group he can’t help but be intense about it. And those expectations pay off a hundredfold.
The performers bring a lot of love into their performances, and the film captures a very tumultuous year for them. Long-time and dedicated performer Bob Salvini takes ill and eventually dies in the middle of the group’s performance season. A profound moment occurs when, during their concert, Fred Knittle performs Coldplay’s “Fix You”, a song he was meant to share with Salvini. The lyrics reflect the feelings of the the performers and Joe’s family who watch in the audience:
“And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you”

The documentary is deeply moving. In another scene the group performers for prisoners at a correctional facility. The way the camera shoots the faces of the chorus singing “Forever Young”, then cutting to the faces of criminals having to look down or cover their faces because of the tears welling in their eyes makes it impossible for the audience to not experience the same sense of compassion. Don’t discount this film as made for the old, or purely an attempt to exploit the elderly. This is a film made for the young to discover the depth and wisdom of their elders. This is one to be hunted down as soon as possible.

Fred Knittle performs Coldplay’s “Fix You”

The Young @ Heart Chorus performs “Forever Young”