Saturday, March 6, 2010

Un prophète: Jacques Audiard’s Thrilling ‘Ride’

Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète (A Prophet) is one of the most strikingly original French movies of recent release and in a country that regularly puts out superb films, that’s saying a lot. It’s also unusual in that its antecedents aren’t the typical art house fare that most current French filmmakers pay homage to and excel at. Un prophète (A Prophet) draws instead from the commercial prison dramas that have long been the staple of Hollywood and independent American cinema.

The film begins with a young fresh faced North African Muslim man, Malik el Djebena (Tahar Rahim, making his film debut), entering the rough French prison system. He’s been convicted of fomenting violence against the police – a charge which may or may not be true – sentenced to six year of jail and thrown into an environment that will see him used a pawn in a long running internecine and low level war between Arab and Corsican prison inmates. Both those groups have their grievances against the larger French society, within and without the prison walls. The Corsicans, whose country is technically occupied by France but given semi – autonomous status as one of the country’s 26 regions, are agitating for full independence, with the inmates from Corsica demanding to be treated as political prisoners. The Muslim prisoners and the community at large face the brunt of French discrimination and their own inability or refusal to fit into France’s secular culture and society. Malik, who is illiterate, begins in the film as an ‘innocent’ who likely will face a difficult time in the stir, but as the movie ends is revealed as a master manipulator and fixer. How he gets that way is the gist of this complex, ragged and intricate drama, which recently won the César award for Best French film at home and is up for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars on Sunday.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Tripping Down The Rabbit Hole: Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Don't be afraid by the Disney logo preluding Tim Burton's latest film -- be worried knowing that the logo will try to leap off the screen in 3D. Burton isn't a stranger to Disney, nor is he a stranger to family friendly entertainment. After all, he had his start with Disney as an animator on films such as The Fox and the Hound (1982) and has found popularity with contemporary fables like Edward Scissorhands (1990), Big Fish (2003) and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005). On the other hand, grandiose 3D epics are new territory for him. So it comes as a bit of a shock that he would use the technology to neglect the hand-crafted set pieces which have become a more appealing staple of his usual style. Burton may want us to follow Alice through the rabbit hole, but instead of going on a marvelous exploration into the surreal, we find ourselves tripping along a path paved with only green screens. The problem Burton has isn't with Alice, it's in Wonderland.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book: Stephen King's Under the Dome

There's an old joke about Stephen King: He sits at his typewriter, pounding out reams of pages for his latest book. He freezes for THREE SECONDS and then starts typing like mad again. "I hate writer's block," King mutters. Okay, I didn't say it was funny. Forgetting this joke about his prolific ways for a second (he's written/co-written over 65 novels, short-story collections or works of non-fiction since 1974 - I've read over 30 of them), I think that Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

Both were/are successful populists, both wrote/write about societal ills (Dickens' set in a version of the real world of England; King's generally from within the horror or science fiction genres), both were/are always concerned with writing a good story that would appeal to the largest number of readers. Most of Dickens 20+ books have never been out of print and to date neither has King's. I predict in a century they will still both be widely read and studied. Why? If you want to understand the era these books were written in, I submit you will come away with a better understanding reading Dickens or King than trying to wade through most literary fiction or history books published at the same time.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New Maps for a New Land: Frank R. Rossiter's Charles Ives & His America (1975)

“The quest for identity runs through American music like a leitmotif,” writes music critic Veronica Slater. “Long before musical nationalism became an issue in Europe, native-born composers in the New World were trying to speak with a voice recognizably theirs and theirs alone.” Americans, according to Slater, rebelled against the rules in both politics and music for good reason. They were after an indigenous art rooted in their own experience of the new land, not what they inherited from the Old World. The map of that rebellion and quest is aptly provided in Frank Rossiter’s rare and illuminating study of American composer Charles Ives in his book Charles Ives & His America (1975).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Germs R Us: The Crazies (1973) (Part Two)

A scene from George Romero's The Crazies (1973).

Even someone who’s not exactly keen on the genre is likely to admire George Romero’s brand of horror. Along with the inevitable bloodletting, his work boasts an incisive social conscience. In 1973’s The Crazies, he made ordinary folks homicidal -- or, in some instances, just exceedingly goofy -- when their town water supply is contaminated by mistake with an experimental bio-warfare toxin. Nicknamed Trixie, it comes courtesy of the Army, which establishes a quarantine but never thinks to tell panicky locals to stop drinking from the tap.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: The Crazies (2010) (Part One)


One thing you can say about The Crazies (2010), it isn't trying to hide the fact that we've already seen our world at the brink of its own destruction many times over. It's also not particularly concerned with presenting a cautionary tale on how to avoid such a catastrophe. While there is definitely a running commentary rampant throughout the narrative, it's the same message we've been getting from many zombie films over the past decade. Films such as Danny Boyle's 28 Days (2002) and the grisly follow-up 28 Weeks Later (2007) both gave us a glimpse at military and government incidents which damn near brought the entire world to its knees. The politics at play have been dealt with more aptly in some of George A. Romero's earlier works from the late 60s and 70s (one of which this is a remake of) and in some of the apocalyptic thrillers churned out during the Bush administration. But once the tired (but timely) message is loose, the politics of the human spirit prove to be far more engrossing and this is where The Crazies finds its legs.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Five Reasons I Like Oscar: An Unfashionable View

Of all the many awards shows currently airing on TV, I only regularly watch one, the Oscars, which are trumpeting their 82nd edition on Sunday March 7. I don’t for a second consider The Academy Awards to be a benchmark for excellence, and all those film critics who regularly cite Oscar worthy performances ought not to be reviewing films. However, after suffering through the recent Grammy awards, which are supposed to honour excellence in music but are as mainstream as can be, I appreciate the virtues of the Oscars more than ever. Here are five reasons why.