Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Prophet (Saturday, February 27, 2010) (18)

Jacques Audiard's A Prophet is a magnificent film rich in texture and visual elements as well as a beautiful story of trust, faith, devotion and deception.

The film opens with Malik, a young North African man arriving at a prison complex in Northern France. It seems he's gotten in a fight with cops and is now going to serve six years. Quickly the Corsican mob, who run the underworld in the prison, task him to kill a man who is going to be a witness against them in a trial. He does this and begins to gain their trust.

Malik is indeed Muslim and speaks Arabic, but was raised in a foster home, so he is just as comfortable around white folk as he is around Arabs. He becomes a right-hand man for the mob boss, Cesar Luciani, and begins to take on more and more responsibility in the gang.

He is given a one-day parole ostensibly to help with his rehabilitation, but instead of going to the garage where he's supposed to work, he runs a job for Luciani and gets paid handsomely for it. While out, he begins his own drug running ring and builds street capitol with the criminals inside and outside the prison gates. He then has to navigate the complicated waters of being a servant and member of Luciani's gang as well as being the head of his own burgeoning enterprise. (Note to self: if you ever go to jail for a violent crime, try to do it in France where you not only get fresh baguettes every day as part of your meal, but you get one-day furloughs while serving. Not too bad!)

Technically the film is beautiful. It is shot mostly in chronological order with several dream and fantasy sequences cut into the middle. Malik grows to rely on a phantom of the man he murdered for Luciani as his cellmate and moral foil. The photography by Stephane Fontaine is gorgeous, frequently using natural or available light inside the prison. This is especially powerful in suggesting to us the smallness of the spaces and the intimacy they have with one another and with their own thoughts.

The dream sequences are even more gorgous, using slow motion, masked frames and other visual tricks. Sometimes it's not clear if what we're seeing is inside Malik's head or if it's narration by Audiard. Either way, these elements are central to understanding of Malik's journey. Alexandre Desplat's beautiful score is sometimes violent and sometimes sublime, but fits perfectly with the action onscreen (and how nice to see him not only doing big Hollywood movies, but French films as well!)

The central germ of the story is a very old one about fathers and sons. Malik seems to have no father figure in his life and takes to Luciani very easily. Luciani sees Malik as his heir, despite their ethnic differences, but is naturally a cold, hard man. He hates that Malik is using the protection he offers for his own private business, but he also hates that Malik is showing that he might want something other than what he wants for the kid. He is a man who has lost control of his empire, and his one last hope doesn't care about it.

It is beautiful how Audiard does not show us the big picture until the very end of the film, keeping us guessing about exactly what everything means in the short term. It seems that Malik is merely a very capable employee with his own hopes for self-promotion, but his sometimes insignificant actions add up to a glorious total. It is never clear whether he is incredibly lucky or brilliant and conniving with plans from the beginning. Either he is able to play the chess game six moves ahead or he is able to capitalize on opportunities as they fall at his feet. Regardless, he is a totally fabulous, smart character who frequently questions the morals of his own actions.

The script, by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (based on an earlier screenplay), is intricate, complex and beautiful. It plays like a long novel with wonderful little characters and audacious power shifts.

The acting is also remarkable led by relative newcomer Tahar Rahim as Malik. He moves elegantly from timid and scared boy simply trying to survive, to smart and confident junior team member, to grown agent of his "father's" business and his own as well. Niels Arestrup as Luciani is also marvelous as the sad, dark gangster who is seeing his life's work fall apart. He had previously worked with Audiard in The Beat My Heart Skipped, as the abusive father, and does an even better job in this role.

This film is basically perfect. It has a beautiful story with a wonderful script, a fabulous cast and a gorgeous matter-of-fact style dotted with elegant artistic moments. This is what every film should hope to be. Intricate but not confusing, simple but not trite, beautiful but not overdone.

Stars: 4 of 4

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Art of the Steal (Friday, February 26, 2010) (17)

This is a documentary about the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia - arguably the greatest single collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works of art in the world. Founder and creator Albert C. Barnes gathered the works in the early 20th Century and was widely mocked by the Philadelphia establishment at the time for buying what was then considered to be bad art. He then set up his foundation in a suburb of the town, in Lower Merion, for students and scholars and made a point of not allowing it to be loaned or toured.

After Barnes death, the bylaws of the foundation kept the rigid structure he had set forth, but left its board in the control of Lincoln University, an under-funded Historically Black College in Philadelphia. Over the years as the collection aged and its building began to need work, money was needed.

Richard Glanton, then president of the board, decided to raise money by breaking the bylaws and touring the collection around the world. He then got in a ridiculous battle with the neighbors over what he perceived to be a racist slur. A big lawsuit followed that drained even more money from the Barnes coffers.

In the end, the foundation was out of money and looked to Philadelphia for help. Everybody in the city wanted to move the collection and everybody had a reason why Barnes' vision of a collection out of town for research and not profit was outdated and unsustainable. Ultimately with court approval, the foundation was able to raise $150million and allowed to move inside the city and out of sleepy Merion.

Almost none of this story and none of the film is fresh and new. It has been told many times in newspaper and magazine articles and Internet reports. I've read the story at least twice. The filmmaker, Don Argott, not only recycles old material, but he's incredibly one-sided with the story. He paints Glanton and politicians like Ed Rendell as villains and a handful of board members or former associates as heroes.

It's not totally polemical because it does interview the opposition and give them their time to make their points, but not totally fair either. It's a very one-sided argument, but seems almost too lazy and uninspired to be venomous. Overall the story itself is wonderfully Shakespearean in nature (a great collection put together by a controlling king that is then essentially sold off by his careless princes) told in a one-sided fashion.

The elegance of the story - especially that the Annenberg Foundation which was created by one of Barnes' biggest enemies is now the white knight arriving to save the day - is all but lost in the midst of the blame being slung around. It is not nearly as interesting as it could be and Argott deserves blame for this. In the end, this is a very decent movie, but not at all a great one.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Eyes Wide Open (Saturday, February 20, 2010) (16)

Aaron, and Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem, walks to the door of his butcher shop. On it he removes a sign announcing his father's death. He goes into the shop, takes out the old meat in the freezers and begins to clean up and get back to work. He's a sad man, but it's not clear if this is because of the loss of his father, his sad life with a loving, but nagging wife and a bunch of kids who don't listen to him or some sort of midlife crisis.

After a few minutes a young man walks to the door and asks to use his phone. This is Ezri and he says he's studying at a Yeshiva nearby (Aaron tells him he thinks that particular one closed a year earlier). It seems Ezri has secrets and has come to this neighborhood to hide or get away from his past.

Aaron soon hires Ezri and puts him to work, showing him how to be a kosher butcher. Soon, young men from a Yeshiva come to tell Aaron that he has to fire Ezri because he's "unholy" and a "sinner". It seems that he was kicked out of his school for being gay and having sex. Over a period of time, the two men become very close and ultimately they have sex. For Aaron this is a revelation and brings untold amounts of joy into his life. The problem, of course, is that the Orthodox community he lives in (not to mention Aaron's wife) does not want Ezri around and Aaron is loathe to kick out his lover.

Like many recent Israeli films I've seen recently (My Father My Lord, Lebanon, Beaufort), this film is wonderfully simple and straightforward. Director Haim Tabakman does a beautiful job making very efficient and tight movies with some very powerful imagery. Here the story is very small and quiet. The story is not about the butcher coming out as a big flaming queen, but slowly falling in love with this interesting young man. The sex scenes between them are very short and gentle, but convey the point in a short time span (whereas most Western directors would probably hover over them in bed and make the scene more dirty).

I really like the use of color – or use of no color here. Clearly we associate Orthodox Jews with black and white, but the butcher shop is totally stark white and there’s a washed-out quality to everything we see. It makes you appreciate later when Aaron confesses to his rabbi that Ezri brought him back to life. There’s clearly a visual significance to this.

I think the script, by Merav Doster, has some problems in it, most notably how Ezri shows up out of nowhere and ultimately recedes back into nothingness rather all of a sudden (well, after he's beat up, but he seems to not fight back in a lame way). It was a bit too random and a bit too writerly for me. I like the humanity and naturalness of the story, but these parts felt a bit forced. I guess Aaron and Ezri were living an amazing dream and when physical violence came into their lives, they knew it was time to end it.

I'm very interested in how the Orthodox characters here are seen as very close-minded, clinical and unloving. There's a sense that Ezri is a rather "free spirit" and that he can be a good Jew and be gay. The community doesn't really know that anything has transpired between the two men, but just don't like Ezri because he's gay and seen as a sexual threat. In many ways these Orthodox people could stand in for any conservative religious group on the planet. Maybe this is a bit sweet and precious, but it works nicely here, I think.

Stars: 3 of 4

Shutter Island (Saturday, February 20, 2010) (15)

It has been a very long time since Martin Scorsese made a great movie, and also a long time since he made even a good movie (I guess one could argue for The Departed or Gangs of New York - but I thought both were only OK and mostly derivative of earlier stuff of his). Shutter Island falls into a growing category of his recent films: terrible movies.

The story is about Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)a U.S. Marshal in the 1950s who is called out to the eponymous island, an insane asylum and jail, in the Boston Harbor where a violent woman criminal has broken out of her cell mysteriously. Somehow, though it's not clear what exactly he's doing there, he is supposed to find her on this isolated island he's never seen before (because the guards who know the island well are unable to do it).

We find out that Daniels' wife and kids were murdered recently and the man who did the job is on this island behind bars. Daniels also doesn't know his brand new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), who just started in his department the morning they start the case. The bald-headed doctor on the island, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is super weird and mysterious too. Oh, and it's foggy and rainy the whole time - because sunny and clear wouldn't be scary enough.

As Daniels tracks the missing woman around the island, he becomes more concerned that the inmates are being mistreated with electro-shock treatments and begins to question his own sanity. He has flashbacks to his time in World War II when he liberated a concentration camp and found out about some of the electro-shock experiments the Nazis had done to some of Jews. Oh - and one of the doctors on the staff of the hospital is German. Blah, blah, blah.

It's hard to imagine a cast of such talented actors (DiCaprio, Ruffalo, Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer) could all put out such consistently bad work throughout this film. All around the acting almost not serious it is so overdone. That Marty didn't see this is shocking to me; that he would direct actors this way is also shocking. And then they all struggle with the Boston accent. I think Leo is a very good actor, but I don't think he has the chops for accents the way some actors do. He's very naturalistic and organic and he struggles with the accent here as much as he did in Gangs of New York.

The script by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the Dennis Lehane book is a freaking joke. (I've never heard of her, but I see she was a producer on Avatar, so she has *that* going for her and hopefully she's made enough money from that that she won't ever have to work again... Oh, God I hope so!). It jumps back and forth between the present and the past and a fantasy world that it's almost impossible to figure out. Then it twists so many times - and not all that unexpectedly - that you end up getting a very different movie than you started with (like The Sixth Sense meets the Bird Man of Alcatraz). What's worse, the twists are telegraphed three scenes before they happen so it's impossible not to see them coming before they do.

(I would also like to say here that of the three Dennis Lehane books that have been adapted to the screen - this one, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone - it surprising to me how good and how bad some of them are. In order, Gone Baby Gone, directed by Ben Affleck is the best, Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood, is very OK but not worth the Oscar attention it got, and this turd is the worst. So you have Affleck is better than Eastwood who is better than Scorsese... I never would have believed that!)

This film is directed terribly. I don't know how it's possible, but Marty has clearly lost something. The dubbing is terrible so you can hear when looped in dialogue is clumsily spliced into certain spots. In the few scenes where blood is seen, it looks like Marty went to the Hammer Studios makeup department and got some ketchup to spread all over the place (a big change for a man who used to deal beautifully with blood - in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas). There also seems to be no control on the story or the script. It goes on for at least 30 minutes too long, running 2 hours and 18 minutes. There is absolutely no need for this last 18 minutes, but it should be even shorter than that. What ever happened to a nice 112-minute movie, Marty?

There is nothing good about this film whatsoever. It is boring, totally trite and totally confusing. The acting, directing and writing is terrible. I guess the photography by Robert Richardson is nice, but I thought it was generally too cliche (grays and blues outside and blacks and golds inside - boring). Somewhere in the middle of the film, maybe in one of the many Nazi flashbacks, I strongly considered walking out because the story was going nowhere and I the twists coming down the pike were uninspiring. I stuck with it, but now I'm considering whether that was a good way to spend those 70 minutes of my life. I'm not sure it was.

Stars: .5 of 4

Friday, February 19, 2010

Phyllis and Harold (Friday, February 19, 2010) (14)

This is an interesting, if unsuccessful, personal documentary by writer/director Cindy Kleine - who happens to be the wife of Andre Gregory - about the relationship of love and hate between her parents.

More than being about both Phyllis and Harold, though, it is really the story of her mother, Phyllis before, during and after her father, Harold. She tells the story of two people who got married probably when they shouldn't have and stayed together for more than 50 years because that was what people did from the 1940s through the 1990s. They certainly loved each other, but fought constantly the whole time they were together. But this fighting was not typical marital disagreements - it was vicious, hateful, angry fighting.

For many years, Phyllis had an affair with a man she worked for as a secretary in the 1940s and never forgave Harold for taking the bliss she felt in that affair away from her. Harold was a hard-working dentist who always provided for the family, but was always emotionally distant and never totally aware of his wife's hopes and desires.

This is a fascinating concept, I think, that hatred can be as much a binding agent in relationships as love. If this were a scripted narrative drama, it would be a very interesting idea. Sadly the format for the film feels very cheap and undermines the greater message of the film. Kleine uses terrible and unnecessary animated elements to transition between elements of the story, but these come off as looking cheap. Most of the film is shot on what seems to be a digital home movie camera (with lots of old Super 8 footage cut in) and it gives a less-than-serious quality to the picture. A bad score underlines this feeling as well.

Mostly the film is interviews with Kleine's parents, friends, sister and some biographical background. We see how once Harold dies, Phyllis is almost re-born as a young woman again, free to make her own choices (until her age reminds her that her body is not as young as her mind).

Overall there is a lot of interesting material here, but it comes off as poorly executed and badly written. There is a way of framing a fly-on-the-wall documentary so it follows a particular story. What we get here is a nice structured, opening
and then a more and more cloudy resolution to the story with no denouement or ending.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Act of God (2009) (Saturday, February 13, 2010) (222)

I was very excited to see this documentary when I first saw the trailer for it. It tells the story of lightning and people who have been hit by lightning and how it changes them. Visually it looked stunning with lots of dark landscapes punctuated by bursts of bright bolts. Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal does a wonderful job of showing mother nature at her most shocking and surprising (sorry for the pun).

Through the film we meet several people who have survived direct strikes or who were in groups of people that were hit and they are some of the few survivors while their friends perished. There is an interesting existential question asked here about why each person was hit and whether there's a greater meaning to the experience. We see some artists, including Paul Auster (OK - writer, artist - whatever), who talk about how the electric experience help to shape who they are today.

Unfortunately the structure of the movie is rather loose and episodic, so it gets rather boring as we move from one story of a lightning strike to another, to another, to another. There should be more big-scale form to the film that might make it more interesting. Lots of credit should got to cinematographer Nick de Pencier for the beautiful images, but, alas, that's about all that works well here.

Stars: 1.5 of 4 stars

Friday, February 5, 2010

Terribly Happy (Friday, February 5, 2010) (10)

This film is a Danish western, set in the western part of Denmark. It is a quite brilliant modern story that makes clever references to classic Westerns of Anthony Mann, John Ford and Howard Hawks. It is clearly visually inspired by David Lynch and the Coen Brothers, but has its own interesting style that makes it appear to be totally fresh and original.

Robert is a big city cop who is being disciplined after a big screw up. He's sent to a godforsaken town at the edge or civilization to become the new sheriff. This unusual town has only a few dozen residents, a doctor, a grocer, a pastor, a hair dresser and, of course, a bar. All of these people are dominated by Jorgen, the town tough who wears a cowboy hat, rules with an iron fist (almost literally) and takes care of people who get out of line. The fate of most who cross him is the bog outside of town where people can be disappeared in the mud without any evidence.

As Robert learns his way around and learns the politics of unusual town, he meets Ingerlise, Jorgen's wife and live-in punching bag. She's frustrated with her life and interested by Robert and seeks help from him for her situation. Little does he know that trying to help this sad woman will lead him deeper in the madness of this town, where everyone knows everyone's business and knows the rules that govern the place.

Writer/director Henrik Ruben Genz does a wonderful job of weaving a story that's familiar enough to recognize classic western threads (like the new sheriff in town meeting the old thug or the town doc who knows everyone's secrets but can't do anything about it, or the complicity of the townsfolk in the misery of others who sit back and judge from afar) but makes them contemporary enough to make them interesting. He uses a wonderful style with mostly static shots, beautifully filled up frames and amazing color to make what seems like a bleak setting come alive. The townspeople are always sweaty (and filthy) despite the bitter cold outside.

The photography by Jorgen Johansson looks a lot like the work that Roger Deakins has done for the Coen brothers, particularly for films like A Serious Man and Fargo; the music by Kaare Bjerko is a simple minimalist guitar and feels a lot like music Carter Burwell has written for them as well. Overall the style is gentle and peaveful, which belies the grime and violence the is at the heart of the town.

Jakob Cedergren is wonderful as Robert and is a perfect proxy for us. He's clearly a trouble man trying to escape his past - as much he's being sent to this place as punishment. He seems to have a good heart and is always doing things by the book (and even saying exactly that as he does those things). He's as mystified by the people and things he sees as we are and he responds in mostly sensible ways the way we might respond in a similar situation.

Of course the problem is that doing things by the police book is not the same thing as doing things by the book according to this town and these people. Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp from My Darling Clementine or Clint Eastwood's Stranger in High Plains Drifter come to mind as we see Robert, an outsider, come to put some sense in this town that doesn't really want him.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ajami (Thursday, February 4, 2010) (9)

Ajami is an Israeli film that was nominated for Best Foreign Language film in this year's Oscars. It tells a few stories of people in a multi-religious slum in Tel Aviv. There is a part about a poor Muslim family who has to pay a debt to a Muslim organized crime element, a Christian family whose daughter wants to marry a man outside of the faith and a Jewish soldier who went missing while on a military mission. The stories are all intertwined, sometimes a bit too cutely, and the structure jumps back and forth between these stories and others as well.

Much of the press surrounding the film has dealt with the interesting production, which was co-directed by a Jewish (Yaron Shani) and Palestinian (Scandar Copti) duo. The actors are mostly amateurs with no experience and it was shot mostly in the places where it takes place (The title of the film comes from a neighborhood in Tel Aviv-Jaffa).

I was not thrilled with this film as I felt it was just too much stuff - too confusing, unfocused and less powerful than it could have been with a more specific story. We never spend enough time with any one character or story for long enough to align with anyone. It jumps so much that we lose interest in each part as it moves along.

There are certainly interesting moments in the story (like the concept of organized crime in the Palestinian world or the Christian minority in Israel), but these bits are watered-down to the point that they have much less impact than they should. I don't get sentimental about Israel-Palestinian relations - and I think this film is not much without the romantic and political elements behind the scenes of this film.

Stars: 1.5 of 4 stars