Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) dir. James Nguyen.
"I'm not worried about no blackbirds. They're not the dangerous animal. It's the human species that is the dangerous, menacing, terrifying animal."
Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) dir. James Nguyen.
"I'm not worried about no blackbirds. They're not the dangerous animal. It's the human species that is the dangerous, menacing, terrifying animal."
I've interviewed filmmaker Kevin Smith numerous times, in person and via telephone, and he's always been terrific - disarmingly funny, uncommonly forthcoming, self-deprecating and highly intelligent. But I'm not entirely surprised that Smith is claiming that after the critical reception his last movie, Cop Out, received, he's considering not screening his films in advance for critics anymore and making them buy a ticket like everyone else.
I first interviewed Smith for Dogma when it played the Toronto Film Festival in 1999. I wrote a feature story about the movie and the controversy that surrounded its release. Then, a week later, I wrote a two-and-a-half star review. I next spoke to Smith for a feature story about Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, then gave the movie two stars. Smith called me out on his message board when that review ran, accusing me of pretending to have liked his movie when we spoke in person, then turning around and stabbing him in the back.
This is the thing: I learned very early in my career (when I was very young and green and interviewed Michael J. Fox about For Love or Money, and asked him point-blank if he was disappointed in the finished film) that you simply don't tell actors and filmmakers you didn't blindly love their movie. It's rude, it puts them in an impossible position, and what are they supposed to say?
After Smith publicly stated he felt I had betrayed him (I've searched but I can't find his post online anymore), I decided I would never again write a feature story about a movie I didn't genuinely like. Since then, my mantra to publicists who pitch me interviews has been "I need to see the movie first." If I don't like the film, I turn down the interview. I did this a couple of weeks ago, when I was offered an interview with John Cusack for Hot Tub Time Machine. I've never spoken to him and was very interested. Then I saw the movie and politely declined.
The next time I interviewed Smith - for Jersey Girl, a movie I really enjoy and think was unfairly trampled by the Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck affair - the first thing we spoke about was his reaction to my negative review of Jay and Silent Bob. In my defense, I explained that I had wanted to interview him, even though I hadn't loved his movie, and dwelled on the positive during our chat out of respect. He argued that he came away from the interview believing I thought Jay and Silent Bob was funny, and he felt like a chump when he read my review. I can understand that.
The difference between Smith and, say, Michael Bay or Martin Scorsese, is that Smith still reads his reviews and cares about them, even though he's at a point in his career when you'd think he would be beyond that. He is, at heart, very much the ordinary guy he puts forward on his website and on his podcasts. That's what makes him such a great interview subject, and that's why he takes negative reviews so personally.
Smith is blaming critics for not taking Cop Out on its own terms - a silly buddy comedy - but he's not acknowledging the reality: The movie just wasn't funny. Despite all the drug references in his films, Smith always claimed to never partake of narcotics, until he started habitually smoking weed during the making of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which was a perfect marriage of his vulgar humor and his romantic sensibility. Maybe all the pot-smoking has made him paranoid, but I'm disappointed in Smith's newfound attitude toward critics. I'm also baffled as to why he's taking the reviews of his most impersonal film to date so personally, I really want to see Red State, his next film (a horror picture!) and I'd love to talk to him about it, too - if it's good. Put down the pipe and nut up, Kevin. Sheesh.
The Girl on the Train (La fille dur RER) was inspired by an infamous case in Paris in 2004, when a young woman told police she had been the victim of a vicious anti-semitic attack, then later recanted and admitted she had made the whole thing up.
The story exploded into a media sensation, fanning the increasing prejudice against Jews in France. But in The Girl on the Train, the great director Andre Techine (Wild Reeds, Les Voleurs, My Favorite Season) dramatizes the case with a focus on human behavior and familial relationships, not social commentary. Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne) is a beautiful young woman who lacks drive and direction. She agrees to go on a job interview only at the insistence of her widowed mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve), who is troubled by her daughter's lack of ambition.
Then Jeanne meets Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a wrestler training for the national Olympic team. Franck is handsome, street smart and persistent, and although there's something vaguely ominous, even threatening, about him, he woos Jeanne and wins her over. When a shop owner hires them to take care of his property while he's gone, they move in together.
For more than an hour, The Girl on the Train plays out as a captivating, trenchant drama about ordinary people who balance family lives with personal aspirations. A separate storyline involving Samuel (Michel Blanc), a wealthy lawyer with problems with his son, runs parallel to the main plot but doesn't seem to bear much relevance.
But after a startling act of violence, the strands coalesce into an absorbing whole. Techine shoots certain scenes in long takes, letting the camera settle on the faces of his superb cast, and he throws in beautiful little touches, such as a late-night online chat between Jeanne and Franck in which you don't see what they are typing to each other; you only see their webcam images. Instead of just telling us, The Girl on the Train shows us why Jeanne did what she did and the impact her actions had on the people around her. Like Techine's best films, the movie appears to be a story about nothing - until it suddenly becomes a meditation on the vagaries of the human heart.
The Girl on the Train opens Friday March 26 at the Regal South Beach.
Almost everything you knew about dragons is wrong. They don't just breathe fire. They can belch lightning and toxic gas, too. They come in every color and shape imaginable, not just lizard green. They curl up into a ball and fall asleep when you tickle their chins, like kittens. And contrary to every fable you've ever read, they don't necessarily want to kill you. They're just hungry. A properly fed dragon makes a great house pet.
With How to Train Your Dragon, directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois achieve the same trick they pulled off in their first feature, Disney's Lilo & Stitch: They revel in the deep, elastic pleasure of whimsical animation. The story, drawn from the children's book series by Cressida Cowell, is pure boilerplate: In the Viking era, a scrawny teenager named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) tries to live up to the expectations of his brawny warrior father (Gerard Butler),but ends up befriending one of the creatures he's expected to slay.
The plot is just a framework, though, onto which the filmmakers can hang their wondrous art. Get past the reams of plodding exposition in the first 10 minutes, and you'll be rewarded by a nutty, exhilarating ride into a high-tech Looney Tunes. The bond that grows between Hiccup and a fearsome dragon known as Night Fury is derivative of everything from Old Yeller to E.T., but it still works as well as it ever did. (The directors pay critical attention to the beast's eyes; its pupils dilate into fat circles when it is happy and narrow into cat-like ovals when it gets mad.)
When Hiccup takes flight atop his unlikely new friend, the swooping camera conveys the stomach-tickling vertigo of a log flume ride. And the movie keeps topping itself as it goes along: When the winged creature takes Hiccup on a ride to the dark, fiery mountain where all the dragons live, the film achieves the same visual wonder Avatar managed, without all the portentous allegories and hand-wringing. And when the enormous queen of the monsters' den enters the action, the movie turns into the best Godzilla yet.
How to Train Your Dragon doesn't have the depth and resonance of a classic, but the picture's modesty is refreshing,and its artistry is awe-inspiring (the lighting and cinematography are particularly impressive). I saw the film in plain old 2D, so I can only imagine what the 3D version is like. But in either incarnation, the movie is a transporting thrill. Here be dragons - lots and lots of dragons - and that, for once, is a good thing.
How to Train Your Dragon (*** out of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday, March 26.
"Let's do something fun and create a memory!" suggests one of the protagonists of Hot Tub Time Machine. "Let's do cocaine and break into a school!" But Lou's (Rob Corddry) idea of a good time is greeted with skepticism by his mopey pals: The unhappily married Nick (The Office's Craig Robinson); the recently dumped Adam (John Cusack), and his computer-obsessed nephew Jacob (Sex Drive's Clark Duke). The four have come to a Nevada ski resort on vacation - the same resort where they once raised hell and had the time of their lives as teenagers.
The plan was to relive the past and get a break from their sad-sack present. But the hotel has gone to seed, the one-armed bellhop (Crispin Glover) is inexplicably angry and the mirror doesn't lie: With the exception of Jacob, who wasn't around the first time they were here, they've all gotten old. Then, during a drunken bout of hot-tubbing, someone accidentally spills a Russian energy drink onto the thermostat,û and the men are magically transported back to 1986, when hair-metal bands, MTV and leg warmers all ruled. They even look like their former teen selves to everyone but each other (although Jacob, who had not yet been born, develops a strange habit of flickering).
The breakneck movie that follows is intended to be an outrageous, hilarious ride - a comedy capable of startling even the most-jaded viewer into laughter. But shock value loses its novelty quickly, and the parade of tacky day-glo fashions and vintage movie posters invokes only a fleeting nostalgia. The 1980s were not intrinsically funny - they were just ridiculous - and so is the movie. Hot Tub Time Machine is good at being dumb and bad at everything else.
Directed by Steve Pink, who has a penchant for overusing close-ups to the point of enducing claustrophobia, Hot Tub Time Machine cannot sustain the level of comic insanity the filmmakers hoped for - no movie could - although it's bound to play much better on late-night cable TV, especially when accompanied by a few beers and the occasional bong hit.
A big part of the problem is casting: Of the leads, only Robinson, often the bright spot in otherwise flat comedies (The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard), strikes the right balance of straight-faced humor and droll satire. Everyone else seems miscast. Corddry is intolerably shrill and irritating from his first scene; Duke is an actor in need of a personality, and even the reliable Cusack seems muted and distracted, as if his other duties on the movie (he also served as a producer) were weighing heavily on him.
An extended cameo by Chevy Chase also falls flat: You wonder what a gifted comic (say, Bill Murray) would have done with the part of the magical hot-tub repairman. The funniest performance in Hot Tub Time Machine belongs to Glover, whose bitter bellhop turns out to be genial and easy going in 1986, when he still had two arms. How and when his limb comes off becomes a terrific running gag in the movie: Glover is always doing something that could potentially cost him his appendage, and the four leads are constantly running to watch him, expectantly.
If that joke doesn't strike your funny bone, Hot Tub Time Machine has plenty others to offer. This is the sort of movie in which a cute little squirrel gets knocked off its perch by projectile vomit (and later exacts big-time revenge). This is the sort of movie in which a guy dressed in a teddy-bear suit appears without explanation in one scene and then loiters in the background for the rest of the picture, usually getting liquored up or knocked down.
This is the sort of movie in which someone remarks that a bully reminds him of "the bad guy from The Karate Kid," and later, the actor who played the bad guy in The Karate Kid (William Zabka) pops up in a small role as a bad guy. This is also the kind of crummy-looking, exploitative, childishly gross and pointedly homophobic teen-sex comedy that was ubiquitous in the 1980s. Golden days, those.
Hot Tub Time Machine (** out of ****) opens in South Florida theaters on Friday, March 26.
For a while, Chloe looks like the long-awaited return to form by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, whose early films (Exotica, The Adjuster, Speaking Parts) were often absorbing character studies cloaked in the guise of a thriller and spiked with sexual tension. Unfortunately, the wait continues. This remake of the French-language hit Nathalie... eventually becomes the sort of risibly naughty picture you'd normally find on late-night Cinemax - complete with a gratuitous girl-on-girl sex scene - only infinitely better acted.
Julianne Moore is terrific as Catherine Stewart, a gynecologist who consults her patients on more than their bodily health ("An orgasm is just a series of muscle contractions," she consoles a woman who admits to being afraid of sex.). At home, though, Catherine's footing isn't so sure. She's suspicious of the long hours her college-professor husband David (Liam Neeson) is keeping, and when she intercepts a text message on his cell phone - "Thanks for last night!" - from someone named Miranda, complete with incriminating photo, she's convinced adultery is afoot.
So Catherine does what any other woman in her situation would do: She hires a beautiful hooker, Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), to come on to her husband and see if he takes the bait. Yes, the premise sounds a bit far-fetched. But Egoyan, working from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), sells the concept by allowing most of the film to unfurl exclusively through Catherine's eyes. (There's a nice scene set at a restaurant, after she's decided David is cheating on her, in which she watches him surreptitiously; his slightest exchange with their waitress suddenly seems like overt flirtation.)
Egoyan also deftly establishes Catherine's estrangement from her surly teenage son Michael (Max Thieriot), who openly defies her by allowing his girlfriend to spend the night in his room. Moore makes palpable Catherine's frustration at feeling like a stranger in her own house and being unable to explain how things deteriorated so badly. The actress earns our sympathy, so we tolerate Chloe for a while as this intelligent, astute woman embarks on an increasingly contrived series of escapades, instead of simply confronting her husband with what she knows. But the patience runs out.
Seyfried, all grown up (seriously) from Mamma Mia!, does what she can with the role of the ethereal prostitute, hinting at potential malice - even madness - beneath her angelic face. But as the movie goes on, the character makes less and less sense, and Egoyan resorts to some cheap business involving an ornate hairpin that is, quite frankly, beneath him. What has happened to this smart director's ear for resonant, compelling stories? Taking a cue from its eponymous character, Chloe skillfully seduces you, then leaves you feeling hollow and a little used.
Chloe (** out of ****) opens in South Florida theaters on Friday, March 26.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), the mopey, neurotic protagonist of Greenberg, returns to Los Angeles for the first time in 15 years to house sit for his brother, who is vacationing in Vietnam with his family. Roger lives in New York, where he works as a carpenter and recently had to be institutionalized after a nervous breakdown. Back on the west coast, he reconnects with old friends Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Eric (Mark Duplass), who are still bitter that Roger abandoned their band just as they were poised to land a record deal.
Roger also starts an affair with Florence (the terrific Greta Gerwig), who runs errands for his brother's family and is getting over a recent break-up. Florence is a lot younger than Roger, but she's just as emotionally damaged and eager for companionship. They seem to share an instant rapport,but the first time they try to have sex (in a wonderfully awkward scene), her heart just isn't into it. Later, Roger will be cruel to her, lashing out from a place of false superiority, but his anger is misdirected. "Hurt people hurt people," Florence tells him, and the sentence becomes a mantra for the movie.
Greenberg was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose previous pictures (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) also centered on wounded, sometimes petty protagonists. But Greenberg, Baumbach's best, most accessible film, has a maturity and focus his other movies sometimes lacked. Baumbach has a gift for capturing the way real people talk and interact, and even when the movie reaches for symbolism (Roger goes for a swim in his brother's pool but can only dog- paddle and almost drowns), it never feels heavy handed or artificial.
Stiller doesn't get much credit (or box-office results) for his dramatic work, but his performance in Greenberg is an acting high-wire feat. Roger is a self-important, self-obsessed man who directs his energies into writing complaint letters to Starbucks and American Airlines. He's so wrapped up in himself, he's completely oblivious to what anyone else might be thinking. When he goes to dinner with an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach's wife, who also co-wrote the story), he can't believe she doesn't regard their relationship as a landmark in her life and only barely remembers the details. Consideration for others is simply beyond his reach.
And yet, as unlikable as Roger is, Stiller finds a way to make you see past his bitterness and sympathize with his aimlessness. You don't like him, but you feel his pain. Greenberg is a comedy (a scene in which Roger attends a boisterous college party and pitches a fit over the music is marvelously funny), but it's a sad, rueful comedy about disappointment and regret - about a man in his forties who hasn't made peace with the fact that life rarely turns out exactly the way you thought it would.
Greenberg (*** out of ****) opens Friday March 26 at the Regal South Beach in Miami; Gateway in Fort Lauderdale; Palace, Delray Beach and Gardens in Palm Beach.
Sometimes, even classics fall through the cracks into oblivion. John Huston's beloved 1951 hit The African Queen, the picture that brought together Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn for their first (and only) screen pairing, had not been available on home video in the United States since the VHS era, because the original negative had deteriorated so badly, a DVD release would have looked like mud.
But after an extensive frame-by-frame restoration, The African Queen (Paramount, $26 DVD, $40 Blu-ray; in stores today) looks better than ever, especially on Blu-ray; the image is so clean you can count the whiskers on Bogart's stubble. Some shots are still a little soft, and the resolution of the high-def image makes the blue-screen work stand out even more than before,but this is probably as good as the film is ever going to look.
After almost six decades, The African Queen remains a thrilling and captivating adventure - the sort of film parents can watch with their kids, and everyone will be equally entertained - even though its bulk consists of two people sailing down a river in a rickety boat, hoping somehow to sink a German gunboat during World War I. But what a river, and what a pair! Bogart, Hepburn and Huston had all fallen from favor when they collaborated on the project, their legendary status in Hollywood threatened by the brewing McCarthyism that would derail the careers of many other artists.
So without the sanction or financing of a major studio, they hightailed it to Africa - specifically to Uganda and the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) - essentially using the same tactics independent filmmakers today use to raise their budgets. The African Queen was a smash when it was released to theaters and remains a sparkling entertainment today, a textbook example of how old-school Hollywood star power can trounce even the biggest names of today. Just imagine, say, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler in its lead roles. The result would curdle the blood.
The DVD and Blu-ray include only one extra, but it's fantastic. The hour-long documentary Embracing Chaos: The Making of The African Queen uses new interviews with directors and critics (including Martin Scorsese, who can still remember the exact day and theater in which he first saw the film as a child); vintage clips with Hepburn, Huston and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and comments by still-living members of the crew to recount the tumultuous story behind the film's creation.
The documentary, which also makes ample use of a priceless trove of beautiful photographs shot on the set, is a perfect chaser to the main attraction, packed with great anecdotes and information. The script (co-written by the great film critic James Agee) originally ended on a downbeat note, like the C.S. Forester novel it was based on. But once shooting got underway, the chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn was so great, Huston realized he was really making a comedy and could not possibly kill off his two stars, so a writer was flown in to craft a new ending. The filmmakers also had to contend with everything from an attack by soldier ants to rampant dysentery and malaria (they had unwittingly been drinking unfiltered water). Only Bogart and Huston never got sick, because the only thing they ever drank was booze.
Huston also started every day on the set by getting his rifle and heading into the wild to hunt an elephant. Hepburn disapproved of the habit as "piggish," so the director took her along on one of his expeditions. They were almost trampled by a stampeding herd, but the adrenaline rush was so great that Hepburn changed her mind about Huston's obsession. The documentary has plenty more stories to tell, and all of them add to your appreciation of the movie. With this new release, a lost treasure has been found and given its due.
DeadlineHollywood.com reports that Frances McDormand and John Malkovich have joined the cast of MIchael Bay's Transformers 3, scheduled to begin production in May. McDormand will play the U.S. National Intelligence Director and Malkovich will play Shia LaBeouf's boss (who apparently has graduated from college and gotten a job).
Since Revenge of the Fallen grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide, I know it's foolish to expect much of a difference with the third Transformers picture. But the presence of McDormand and Malkovich will at least bring a touch of intelligence and maturity to a movie that ... wait, what the hell am I talking about? This is a Michael Bay movie. Intelligence and maturity serve no purpose here.
I saw Romance and Cigarettes for the first time at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. The screening I attended was on a stormy weekday afternoon at the tail end of the festival. I was cranky, tired and running late - the theater was so packed by the time I arrived, I had to sit in the third row - and I came away thinking writer-director John Turturro had made a noble attempt, but failed.
The movie never opened in Miami theaters, so I didn't have to review it. But I've watched Romance and Cigarettes several times on DVD since then, and I like it more with every viewing. Why is it that some movies get better the more times you see them? This is not a matter of learning to appreciate a film for its camp value or unintentional humor. I wouldn't qualify Romance and Cigarettes as a guilty pleasure or anything like that. I think some movies - and they are rare - are so peculiar and specific, they require a certain mindset in the viewer before you can appreciate what they are trying to do. You have to learn how to watch them before you can really savor them (Barton Fink is another film I would place in that category).
I would never defend Romance and Cigarettes as a masterpiece, but I realize now my initial reaction to it was completely off. Check out this clip from the film in which Tony Soprano James Gandolfini sings an Engelbert Humperdinck tune and tell me this is not awesome (the musical numbers by Christopher Walken and Kate Winslet in the film are standouts too):
"This is a terrible place," laments one of the protagonists of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a comedy about that infamous ring of hell known as middle school. The condemned are stranded between childhood and adolescence, still awaiting the growth spurt that puberty will bring, dodging bullies, not yet aware of the opposite sex but becoming increasingly conscious of their social standing and public image.
No one yearns to be popular quite so badly as Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), the eponymous narrator, a bright and observant sixth-grader who will try anything to stand out. While some of his friends seemed to grow several inches and facial hair over the summer, Greg remains stranded in boyhood, weighing a puny 75 pounds. He's also prone to public embarrassment caused by his oblivious best pal Rowley (Robert Capron), who doesn't understand why hollering "Hey, you want to come over and play?" at school is no longer acceptable.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid was originally conceived as an online comic, and later as an illustrated novel, by Jeff Kinney, whose stick-figure sketches are incorporated throughout the film. The wise, funny book was as appealing to grown-ups as it was to children, focusing on the awkward phase of childhood when we all feel a little wimpy. The movie, though, is strictly kiddie fare, willing to resort to an extreme close-up of a booger for laughs.
Director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) has a knack for working with young actors: The leads make a likable, engaging team (Capron is particularly good as the rotund, cheerful Rowley), and they are surrounded by a fine ensemble of unknowns, including Grayson Russell as Fregley, the most-freckled and weird kid on the block. Only a miscast Devon Bostick, as Greg's mean older brother, strikes a false note.
The movie sticks close to the incidents of Kinney's book, from a misbegotten night of trick-or-treating to Greg's tryouts for a school production of The Wizard of Oz. The camera is usually set low, at kid's-eye level,and although the production looks astonishingly cheap, (including some of the worst green-screen effects I've ever seen), I doubt its intended audience will mind much. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is an adequate adaptation of Kinney's novel, but no replacement for the real thing. Read the book, then see the movie.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (**1/2 out of ****) opens in South Florida theaters on Friday March 19.
The sci-fi thriller Repo Men gets off to a sluggish start. But wait. You have to give the movie time to find its groove and establish its premise: In the near future, people can live much longer thanks to The Union, a manufacturer of artificial organs and body parts. The catch is that the parts don't come cheap - and if you fall behind on your payments, The Union will track you down, slice you open and reclaim what's theirs, the way a bank forecloses on a mortgage. The repossession process often has the unfortunate side effect of leaving the customer dead.
"A job's a job" is the way repo men Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) rationalize their gruesome wet work, which is tantamount to sanctioned murder. The first half of Repo Men, which was written by South Florida natives Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner and marks the debut of director Miguel Sapochnik, is somewhat discombobulating. There's no one onscreen with whom you can remotely identify or root for - certainly not Remy and Jake, who get off on taunting their prey and bragging about their collection quotas while their boss (Liev Schreiber) counts the money and ropes in more suckers. They are repellent, loathsome characters no amount of movie-star charisma can overcome.
But then, around the film's midpoint, when circumstance forces one of the repo men to consider the other side of their profession, something happens: The movie goes completely insane, in the best way possible. From the scene in which Remy discovers he can plug a set of headphones into the artificial ear of a singer (Alice Braga) he harbors a crush on, Repo Men drops all pretensions of social commentary and satire about our health-care system and the economy and becomes a rollicking B-movie, with all the sheen and gloss big-budget Hollywood can offer.
The less seriously the filmmakers treat their premise, the livelier Repo Men becomes (the picture also gets more violent as it goes along; this is an astonishingly gory movie). Beautifully shot by cinematographer Enrique Chediak (28 Weeks Later, The Faculty), the film pays homage to its obvious inspirations, such as a brief clip of the "Live Organ Transplants" segment from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life ("May we have your liver?") or a tip of the hat to the hallway fight from Oldboy. But Repo Men ends up finding its own weird, outrageous vibe - a dark, gory vision of a dystopian future leavened with cracked humor, a warped sensibility and a daring spirit. Repo Men bears no relation to 1984's Repo Man, except this: Here, again, a cult following is born.
Repo Men (*** out of ****) opens Friday, March 19 at South Florida theaters.
Most prison movies are about escape or survival. A Prophet (Un Prophete), director Jacques Audiard's Oscar-nominated drama, is about the creation of a consciousness. This one, too, could have been called An Education. When Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate 19-year-old of Arab and Corsican descent, enters a French prison to begin serving a six-year sentence, you fear he won't last a week (he is beaten and robbed of his sneakers within a day).
For the next two and a half hours, A Prophet lays out, in scrupulous detail, Malik's evolution into a cunning, resourceful criminal whose reach extends far beyond the prison walls. His transformation is heroic, almost inspirational. Audiard isn't glorifying crime: He's celebrating self-awareness and responsibility. The setting just happens to be horrific.
Soon after arriving, Malik is drafted by Cesar Luchiani (the tremendous Niels Arestrup), the wizened old Corsican gangster whose tribe rules the prison. Cesar offers the young man a haven within the unforgiving dungeon: To earn it, though, Malik must first murder an Arab inmate, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), using a razor blade concealed in his mouth. Malik tries everything he can to get out of his predicament; he even gets himself thrown into solitary confinement. But Cesar's power extends to the guards, too. There is no escape.
This is the first of several instances in which Malik, magnetically played by the gifted Rahim, must hurry up and make a decision. Audiard is intrigued by moments that end up defining us - the moments when we take a leap into the unknown, aware of the consequences our choices carry. Malik goes through with his assignment: He's clumsy at murder - he's not a killer - and the violence is hair-raising and obscene. (Cesar warns the kid not to get any blood on himself, but he winds up drenched anyway.)
The initiation buys Malik some reprieve from the perils of prison life, but it doesn't earn him much praise from Cesar and his crew, who start to grumble about the young man's Arab heritage. A Prophet delves into the prejudice and discrimination felt by Arabs within French society, but the characters' ethnicities are not the point. "The idea is to leave here a little smarter," Reyeb tells Malik moments before the teen kills him, and the young man takes the advice to heart. He learns to read. He learns to observe. He studies the cruel and unforgiving Cesar, whose cold eyes never miss a thing.
The plot of A Prophet grows increasingly tangled, with warring drug cartels and day leaves into Marseilles. But Malik's role within the greater dimensions of the story is always clear. As the years stretch on, and his experience grows, the actor seems to transform on the screen. There's more than a trace of Michael Corleone in this innocent, who must quickly learn to make his way in the only world that will have him.
A Prophet incorporates blasts of hip-hop, blocks of text, dream sequences and even a nerve-racking shoot out inside a car; the guns sound like cannons. But the film never succumbs to the pitfalls of the prison-movie genre, and there's something poetic about how Audiard, in the midst of all this violence, manages to make a punch to the stomach seem like the most violent act of all. By the time Mack the Knife plays over the end credits, Malik has lived up to the expectations established by the film's portentous title: In his shrewd, improbable soul, we can glimpse the future.
A Prophet (***1/2 out of ****) opens Friday, March 19 at the Regal South Beach in Miami and the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale.
What followed was, quite possibly, the most violent R-rated film I've ever seen - this thing makes Scarface seem like The Little Mermaid - and yet the mother and son remained in their seats, munching happily on their popcorn, bonding over a fun night out at the movies.
This, to me, proves two things:
1) Kids today have an infinitely higher tolerance for gore than I did (I was 13 when I went to see David Cronenberg's Shivers, for example, and my friends and I literally bolted out of the theater, wigged out of our minds, the first time the parasite throbbed within the dude's torso).
2) The Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board has become just as desensitized to violence as audiences.
I don't mean this as criticism: After a sluggish start, Repo Men finds its footing and becomes a rollicking, outrageous B-movie ride with all the gloss and sheen big-budget Hollywood can provide. I'm glad the members of the ratings board, whoever they are, appreciated the film's subtle tongue-in-cheek approach to violence and let it slide by.
I was just struck by how much the film gets away with, while Brian De Palma had to trim the motel room/chainsaw sequence in Scarface repeatedly in order to avoid an X rating. In Repo Men, that scene would qualify as boring character exposition.
I've never thought of myself as squeamish - quite the opposite - but eavesdropping on that mother-son conversation tonight, and then watching the movie that followed, made me feel like a bit of a wuss. Or maybe I'm just getting old.
James Cameron is notorious for taking his sweet time to do his films justice on DVD: A proper release of 1997's Titanic wasn't out until 2005, the director's cut of The Abyss took ten years to put together (and still has never been issued in anamorphic format) and True Lies never received the special edition treatment it deserved.
Cameron is also known for re-releasing his films on DVD endlessly (e.g. Terminator 2: Judgment Day), so it should come as no surprise that Avatar will make its home video debut on Thursday April 22 on DVD and Blu-ray in a bare-bones edition completely devoid of supplementary materials.
Producer Jon Landau has given the L.A. Times a juicy rationalization for the cash-grabbing double-dip movie-only decision. "Everything that is put on a disc takes up room -- the menus, the extras, the trailers and studio promotions -- and we got rid of all of that so we could give this movie the best picture and sound possible." Landau did not explain why the filmmakers didn't just throw in an extra disc of supplements, perhaps because the truth would make him sound greedy.
With 3D Blu-ray technology poised to hit the market, and the existence of a longer director's cut already confirmed, the home video re-release potential of Avatar is endless. "There are details that you can see on the Blu-ray that are just amazing," Landau told the paper. "And the reason the movie has done so well isn't because of the 3-D, it's because of the story and the messages and the imagination. The way I view the Blu-ray is a chance for people to go back to Pandora." Of course he does.
When Cameron does release a special edition, the results are usually fantastic (the making-of documentary on the DVD of The Abyss remains one of the best and most candid I've ever seen). So I'm sure the eventual tricked-out release of Avatar will be worth the wait. It's just going to be a long wait.