March 26, 2010

Getafilm Gallimaufry: A Prophet, Fish Tank, Robin Hood and More

[Note: This series includes scattered thoughts on various movie-related topics. I was looking for a word that started with the letter "g" that means collection or assortment, but lest you think I'm some elitist wordsmith, know that I'd never heard of "gallimaufry" and I don't even know how to say it, but it was the only other option the thesaurus provided aside from "goulash" (too foody) and "garbage" (no).]
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A Prophet (A) 

A Prophet is the first must-see film of 2010. Maybe that's not saying much considering the caliber of movies that have been released in this first quarter. How about this instead: A Prophet is one of the best crime sagas in recent memory, and, along with last year's Lion's Den and Hunger, it has helped usher in a new era of harrowing prison dramas (the last truly memorable one being what, The Shawshank Redemption?).

Written and directed by Jacques Audiard, whose last film (The Beat My Heart Skipped) was highly acclaimed but unseen by me, A Prophet boasts impressive verisimilitude for a completely fictional story. Maybe it's not surprising considering former convicts were hired as extras and advisers, but Audiard himself has admitted that prison life is rarely depicted in French film and television. French citizens are apparently clueless about what goes on behind prison walls in their country, so it doesn't take much convincing to accept this story as reality.

Indeed, life on the inside is reflective of life on the outside: the old French/European power structure is fading as new immigrant groups - particularly Arab Muslims (that term should not sound nearly as redundant as it does) - are arriving and establishing their identities as the "new French". Symbolically speaking, this film is urgently relevant (it won nine of the record 13 C├ęsar Awards for which it was nominated); cinematically speaking it is a masterful showcase of acting, cinematography, pacing (even at 150 minutes), suspense, music, action and, most importantly, global insight.
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Fish Tank (B+)  

I'd been looking forward to Fish Tank for a while after positive buzz followed it everywhere it played in 2009, but I became even more interested when I discovered it was written and directed by Andrea Arnold (whose previous film Red Road I have heard much about but not yet seen) and it starred Michael Fassbender.

Two things I know now after seeing Fish Tank: 1. I must see Red Road; and 2.) It's confirmed - Michael Fassbender is now a must-see, on-the-verge-of-a-breakout actor. Much as I'm completely uninterested in this summer's Jonah Hex, if anyone can make it watchable it will be him.

Impossibly, he's not even the best actor in this movie. That crown belongs to newcomer Katie Jarvis as Mia, the 15 year-old troubled, troublesome teen who spends her days dancing, drinking, and, eventually, fantasizing about being rescued from her life by Fassbender's character (as far as acting debuts go, hers is the most impressive I've seen since Tahar Rahim in A Prophet, whom I did not recognize above). Mia is the anti-Juno MacGuff: she looks, walks, talks, and generally acts like a teenager, which is truly refreshing in this age of ironically mature teen characters. Makes you long for the teenage immaturity on display in John Hughes movies, doesn't it?

The third act of Fish Tank was predictable and tonally awkward for me, but it didn't ruin what is an otherwise engaging, contemporary coming-of-age story. And, anytime you close a movie with a song by a rarely used artist like Nas, well you know I'll leave satisfied.
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Despite the fact that it uses no visual trickery whatsoever, Police, adjective, which won a special award at Cannes for "enterprising filmmaking", must be considered one of the more deceptive films in recent years. It is what you think it is (a restrained crime drama, and Romania's Oscar submission for 2009), but then it's not that at all. Like not at all.

At some point during Police, adjective you will need to come to this realization or you won't have the patience to make it to the end, which, incidentally, includes one of the best long take scenes of this young year. Writer-director Corneliu Proumboiu, 35, earned numerous accolades a few years ago with his 12:08 East of Bucharest (including the award at Cannes for Best Debut Feature), and loyal NYT readers may remember A.O. Scott's profile of Proumboiu and his Romanian peers ("New Wave on the Black Sea", 1/20/08).

Their films offer fascinating insights into post-Communist Romania, and two years later, Scott's last line underscores the talent represented in this dynamic young group: "maybe in Bucharest, nowadays, a filmmaker with a prize from Cannes is nothing special. "
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Reflecting on Robin Hood


Last year, when I heard Ridley Scott was directing a Robin Hood film starring Russell Crowe (come on, Crowe as someone named "Robin of Locksley"?), I felt a surge of both defiance and delight. Defiance because I watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves countless times as a young teen - and loved it every time; delight because I fell for the Scott-directed, Crowe-starring Gladiator in much the same way.

Both movies are about good guys doing bad things while brandishing outlandish weapons and delivering memorable (or in the case of Costner, memorably cheesy) dialogue. Both movies feature thrilling stunts and distinctive set pieces, and neither takes itself too seriously trying to make a political point (ahem, Green Zone) or grand insight about human nature. As far as meaningless popcorn entertainment goes, this is right up my alley.

The character of Robin Hood also appears to be a gold mine for film adaptations. Two of the movies are among my favorites (the Costner version and the Disney animated version), while the 1938 Errol Flynn-starring version, which I saw for the first time last year, offers its own clumsy charm in vivid Technicolor. Heck, even Robin Hood: Men in Tights isn't that bad.

Nonetheless, I'm so wary of any "reimagining" or "reboot" these days that I'm going to go into the upcoming Scott version (out May 14) with some skepticism. I haven't and won't watch the trailer, but for your viewing displeasure I offer the trailer to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which must be considered one of the worst trailers of the 1990's.


But to make up for it, here is the theme by Michael Kamen from that same movie, which must be considered one of the best original scores of the last 25 years - and unquestionably one of my favorites of all time.


And who can forget Bryan Adam's "(Everything I Do) I Do it for You", which must be considered one of the last great original soundtrack songs to crossover to mainstream pop culture.


While I'm here, I might as well make public the fact that, for reasons not clear to me today, my best friend and I listened to the Bryan Adams album "So Far So Good" probably every day for an entire summer in the mid-90's, and I've listened to it hundreds of times since then. I'm utterly unfamiliar with the rest of Adams' discography and I know nothing about the guy other than the fact that he's Canadian, but I bet I'll know every word to every song on that particular album for the rest of my life.
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New Google Searches - Careful What You Look For

Has anyone else noticed that Google recently started showing rating information under particular search results when you query a movie title? Google "A Prophet", for example, and you can see without following any link that the movie (as of today) has an 8.1 user rating on IMDb and a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I'm not sure how I feel about this yet. I often search for a film on Google specifically to get to its RT or Metacritic rating, but weirdo that I am, I also don't like to see what the critical consensus is on every film before I see it, so as not to be swayed even a little bit while watching it. The new search situation will take some getting used to, and I may have to be more careful looking up movies that I haven't seen yet. This, remember, coming from someone who actively avoids trailers.
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An Update on My Favorite Period/Place Meme 

Last year I rather ignorantly created a "meme" in the hope of finding out where other movie lovers would like to travel if they could choose a setting from a particular movie (I've created my own annual list the last two years). This was before Avatar was released and Pandora made people crazy, but there were still some really terrific ideas stirred up by fellow movie bloggers. 

Nearly a year later, CNN has come up with a list of "great movies that inspire you to travel". No offense to the author, A. Pawlowski, but this has to be the most bourgeois, Euro-centric list of movie places I've ever seen. Maybe I just have eccentric travel desires, but there is an exotic vibrancy to City of God's Rio de Janeiro or Slumdog Millionaire's Mumbai or The Beach's Bangkok, and a serene beauty to The Motorcycle Diaries' South America or The Song of Sparrows' Iran, that appeals to me much more than...Tuscany.

24 comments:

  1. Daniel: I saw Fish Tank, gosh, more than a month ago now. I really liked it. I was going to review it but was too busy, and at this point I need to see it again to do it justice. So I guess I'm waiting for it to come to DVD. Also waiting for Police, Adjective on DVD, as I didn't have time to see that one.

    As for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves -- that had to have been a trailer and not the trailer, right? Gosh, it really is awful. Then again, the de facto trailer was Brian Adams' video -- back in the day when (a) you couldn't get away from that song and (b) MTV actually played videos all the time, and that one seemed to be on a loop.

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  2. Please do review any of those three movies - I'd like to hear your thoughts on Police, adjective in particular. Mostly because you'll make more sense of it than I did.

    Robin Hood: yes, rather unbelievably, that was THE trailer for that movie. We're not the only ones who think it's horrid - this guy went so far as to cut his own version of a new trailer. It's infinitely better despite the almost unwatchable video quality. He utilizes Kamen's score (I swear, every time I hear that theme I just want to stand up and cheer) AND he features that money shot - the arrow POV into the tree. I remember watching that part over and over again because it looked SO COOL. Ah, how far we've come in 20 years.

    In any case you're right about the Bryan Adams video. It colors my memory of the movie as much as anything else, much like Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" video for Batman Returns.

    On the subject of the Adams song, it's hilarious to listen to the lyrics and think about how many couples awkwardly danced to that song at their high school prom. It's not just a love song, it's a timeless ballad about immortal, passionate yearning:

    "Take me as I am, take my life;
    I would give it all, I would sacrifice;...

    ...I'd fight for you, I'd lie for you;
    Walk the wire for you, yeah I'd die for youuu..."

    I can just picture a ballroom of 17 year-old boys uncomfortably looking down at their feet while their 15 year-old girlfriends longingly gaze at their chins.

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  3. As I recall, that movie came out in the summer between my 8th grade year and my freshman year. So when they played it at the 8th grade graduation dance, it was a lot of boys looking up at the chins of their faster-maturing girlfriends. Or wannabe girlfriends, in most cases.

    I have to say, it really was a great age to fall in love, so to speak, to that song. On the other hand, Adams had his revenge my senior year of high school when the last dance of prom was to his ballad from Don Juan DeMarco The song was a hit for all of about 3 weeks -- and prom just happened to be during those 3 weeks. As it played, we all looked at each other like, "Fuck, what a lame year to graduate high school."

    It was the capper on a terrible senior prom day for me in general that included (1) sucking in my final track meet; (2) getting into a rare stress-based pissing match with my longtime girlfriend that had us mostly silent through dinner; (3) standing in the line for photos for most of prom. I finished just in time to say hi to friends and dance to "Have you ever really loved a woman?" Ugh. Painful.

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  4. That, my friend, was one of the most laugh-out-loud funny anecdotes I've read in a very long time.

    Also, my mind was just blown a little as I realized that "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?" from Don Juan DeMarco (1995) is NOT the same song as "All for Love", performed by Adams, Sting, and Rod Stewart for The Three Musketeers (1993) soundtrack.

    Adams was on fire there for a while - both Everything I Do and Have You Ever Loved were nominated for Oscars, each losing to Alan Menken for "Beauty and the Beast" (from Beauty and the Beast) and Alan Menken for "Colors of the Wind" (from Pocahontas), respectively. No offense to Alan Menken (who also won in '92 for "A Whole New World"!), but, well, are you kidding me?

    On a related note, Michael Kamen's lack of Oscar recognition for Robin Hood's original score (he wasn't even nominated, and greedy ol' Menken took the prize for, of course, Beauty and the Beast) has just vaulted up by Worst Oscar Snubs list, maybe tied with Ellen Burstyn's Best Actress loss for Requiem for a Dream - to Julia Roberts. For Erin Brockovich.

    Anyway, I cannot get enough of the strings, percussion, and majestic horns in that theme! Years of old memories watching Robin Hood are flooding my brain.

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  5. So I was thinking about this more today, and the thing that sucked about "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?" wasn't just that it was a lame song that you just knew was going to be totally forgotten in a matter of weeks, but that it was awkward to dance to. Think about it ... it starts off like a typical slow ballad and then it gets some kind of, I dunno, mariachi kick to it. Too fast to slow dance to. Too slow to do anything else to. If you were ever at a high school dance where they played "Stairway to Heaven," you know what I'm talking about.

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  6. Ha, yes, the rhythm in that song is not made for the high-school-awkward-two-step. For that matter I don't know how a whole generation of people grew up dancing to rock ballads - older Gen X, who came after disco but before 90's hip hop and...whatever kids dance to these days.

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  7. Dan, THE PROPHET may well be the greatest film I've seen in 2010. (and it is technically a 2010 film, as that's when it opened in USA theatres. hence for me it's an early leader for next December's ten-best list, as I gave it a five-star rating, though other film like VINCERE, HOW TO TRAIN A DRAGON, VINCERE and BLUEBEARD are basically just as great. I am very happy to hear of your stellar assessment, where you rightly proclaim it as one of the "best crime sagas of recent years." It's also one of the best prison films ever, no surprise when you consider it's auteur genius Jacques Audiard was at the helm here.
    I also share your affinity for FISH TANK, although it's not the equal of THE PROPHET. It beckons to the 60's British realistic dramas helmed by Ken Loach.
    Apparently I liked POLICE DETECTIVE a bit more than you, as it finished at #6 on my year-end list, but I fully understand where you are coming from when you say it's not easy to be patient. i fely the final coda made the wait well worth it though.
    Wonderful round up here through and through, even with that guilty pleasure PRINCE OF THIEVES brought to the table.

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  8. Ok, good - for now I'll keep A Prophet on my Best of 2010 list as well. I wasn't sure if it had opened anywhere in the U.S. prior to January.

    I may not have appreciated Police, adjective to the extent that you did (you're right that the end is the best part), but as I say it points to a promising future for Romanian films. I'm interested to see the next film by Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks...), which is apparently a satire on the communist period in Romania.

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  9. Fish Tank and A Prophet were both disappointments for me. I wrote a review on the former a while back, and will post my review of Audiard's film shortly - I just saw it two days ago.

    To offer some brief comments about my problems with A Prophet, I must start with the familiarity of the story. It offers nothing -- outside of the authentic prison setting -- that hasn't been seen and experienced in other gangster films. When it tries to go into new territory, notably in the "prophet" sequences, it feels completely unfocused and any symbolism Audiard was trying to create was completely ineffective with me.

    As good as the actors are, the characters are very familiar, Arestrup's in particular. He is a fine actor, but on the page, Audiard brings nothing new to this stereotypical role.

    With both of these films, I'm surprised that so many people have fallen for such generic storylines. Yes, they both feature good performances and authentic settings, but where it counts most (on the page), they both fall well short for me.

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  10. Fair points about that symbolism in A Prophet, Danny, though since we're talking about it I think the symbolism in Fish Tank was more troublesome for me!

    In terms of originality, maybe there wasn't much new as far as characters and rise-in-the-criminal-ranks storyline goes, but for me this was all about the relevancy to contemporary France, which is up in arms about what to do with its immigrants. In many ways actually I think you could argue The Class was just another Dangerous Minds/Stand and Deliver, but that would be completely ignoring its portrayal of what's going on right now in Parisian classrooms, just as A Prophet may show what's going on in French prisons and neighborhoods.

    When it comes down to it I guess I would argue that it counts most on the screen for me, not on the page. These are both admittedly timeless, generic stories, but when applied to contemporary situations that viewers can identify with in a new way (A Prophet maybe much more so than Fish Tank), it can almost pass for a new story. It's a case-by-case basis, to be sure.

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  11. To be honest, I am pretty unaware of any of the current immigration issues in France, and if that's why you enjoyed it more than me, I can live with that.

    I just think it's a bit illogical to label a film like A Prophet some kind of masterpiece just because it depicts contemporary issues in a convincing manner. I'm not saying that you called it a masterpiece or anything, I'm just saying that so many other critics have, and if it is necessary to understand current immigration issues in France to appreciate A Prophet to the fullest extent, then it seems that the film will continue to lose significance over the years, especially as future generations watch it and have no idea what was going on in France in the early 2000s.

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  12. We'll have to agree on the split there, Danny. I do think that the film is a powerful analogy for French-Arab immigration tensions (and that's why I think it will actually have more significance for future generations), but I do think it can stand on its artistic merits as well. I still have to concede that the symbolism didn't hit me as hard as it was supposed to, but otherwise I was completely taken by it.

    Unrelated, but I'll also note that I was able to avoid the most graphic violence and I'm glad I don't have any horrifying images of the first murder stuck in my head.

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  13. How could you?!

    Personally, I thought the first act was the best of the film, Malik's first murder included. I thought it was a brilliant scene, but yes, rather R-rated.

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  14. I have kind of a photographic memory, so I'm able to remember the grisliest images from films I saw once many years ago. Knowing that this was going to be no-holds-barred, I knew when to avoid the bloodshed - right when he turned around and they got into the wrestling lock.

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  15. I am definitely looking forward to see Un Prophete. Everyone is raving mad about it :)

    As for Robin Hood, nice soundtrack! I always felt that movies about the character were always a bit underwhelming and I have huge hopes for the upcoming Ridley Scott feature. You can watch a 3 minute featurette here:

    http://www.firstshowing.net/2010/04/02/great-behind-the-scenes-video-for-ridley-scotts-robin-hood/

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  16. Thanks for that, Castor - I only lasted a few seconds as I really want to go into this (and every movie) totally blind, but from what I gather this is all of a sudden one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year. And opening at Cannes? Bizarre. Either way I'm also looking forward to it, Gladiator-vibe or not.

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  17. Christ, I knew I should have seen A Prophet when it came to the art house. It was only there for a week. Should have jumped on it. I saw Mother last weekend and have 40 minutes of The White Ribbon left. Their reviews will be up soon. Saw A Call Girl. No bad, might review it. If I can find Fish Tank, I will check that out as well. I have Tetro but haven't watched it yet.

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  18. I'm surprised A Prophet had such a short shelf life considering it's award pedigree and strong reviews, but then this is a pretty packed time for limited and foreign releases making their brief U.S. debuts. Fish Tank was only here for a week, so I guess it makes sense. I would like to see Mother still; Tetro I saw last year and while it was refreshingly artistic I've pretty much forgotten about it.

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  19. I learned my lesson. The art house I go to, Bow Tie, is showing more commercial films now as it is the only theater in the down town area. Indies that used to be there two or three weeks are only there for a week now. They are already advertising Kick-Ass there.

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  20. Same thing has happened at a local Landmark Theatre here, apparently a top-down corporate decision on Mark Cuban's part due to lagging ticket sales for the foreign/indie stuff they've been showing for years. Now two or so screens are usually reserved for some new blockbuster like Harry Potter or The Dark Knight. As if people can't go see those at any major chain theater?

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  21. Now that I know the new rules, I will act appropriately. BTW, I finished a draft of my Shutter Island review, "Flare Matches" and all. Should be good.

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  22. I'll seek it out, especially if you've done any kind of research on how DiCaprio's character could have had such technologically advanced matches in the 50's.

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  23. Watched A Prophet. Not bad. Liked the ending with the cars, his luxury cars, following him. A very telling moment. Reminded me a little of Shutter Island's telling ending.

    Luciana shouldn't have been putting Malik down all the time.

    He goes in with shoes falling apart and comes out with an entire organization. Very cool.

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  24. Yes, loved that ending with the caravan outside the prison. It will be tough to top that as my favorite ending of the year.

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