Monday, April 16, 2007

The Prestige

The Verdict: Professionally made, if slightly turgid. A great cast does well enough, but a range of dislikeable characters and a thoroughly self-important feel mean you'd be better off watching 'The Illusionist'.

The Rating:

Featuring a truly excellent cast, 'The Prestige' promises much, right from the first words of dialogue, where the tease of a plot twist is dangled before us by none other than Mr. Michael Caine. Michael informs us that the true magician delivers a trick to the audience in three parts. The pledge is a promise to the audience, a statement of fact. The turn is the trick itself, the moment where the illusion happens, but the Prestige.. well, that's when you deliver the 'wow', that's the moment when the audience reaction shifts into the realm of wonder.

So, right from the off, we're expecting a trick in the movie as well, that the plot will have a 'prestige' moment... now, I'm no expert in suspense, but I'm of the opinion that the best plot twists are.. and stay with me here... unexpected..? (Controversial - Ed) I didn't really appreciate a friend ruining the Sixth Sense for me, and I felt the same pang of muted anger when Sir Michael revealed an impending surprise to come. So, the language is a little couched, but the message is loud and clear.. and it's in the title for gawd's sake! .. 'Expect a big trick at the end people!' They may as well have called it 'The Big Plot Twist' for all the secrecy that surrounds the prestige moment of this movie.

Hmmm, maybe I'm getting a little cynical here. (Just a tad - Ed). There is a lot to like in this movie. Christian Bale is one of PCMR's favourite Hollywood actors (since 'American Psycho'), Hugh Jackman has shot up the league table since making 'The Fountain', and Christopher Nolan has got to be one of the more exciting directors working in Hollywood ('Memento', 'Insomnia' and 'Batman Begins' were all very good). Add into the mix the supporting heavyweights of a certain Michael Caine, Scarlet Johansson, Andy Serkis (looking decidedly human for a change) Piper Perabo and, um, David Bowie (Ziggy! The StarMan himself! - Ed) and you get the formula for a winning movie, right? Well, in PCMR's humble opinion, not exactly.

The story centres around the rivalry between Alfred Borden (Bale) and The Great Danton, also known as Robert Angier (Jackman). The two men start their careers together, but for a variety of reasons, each eventually becomes the nemesis of the other. Borden accidentally kills Angier's wife, and Angier responds by shooting Borden, all in the first fifteen minutes of the movie! So right from the off, you can see why they wouldn't be on each other's christmas card lists.

The rivalry hinges around the jealousy of these men for the situation of the other. While Borden is happily married - to the casual observer at least - Angier becomes steadily more bitter. Borden eventually develops a new trick, called The transported man, and Angier becomes obsessed with trying to figure it out.

I don't want to ruin the plot of 'The Prestige' for you folks, but the reveal of the trick to Borden's illusion is pretty stupid. I'm not one to normally say 'I could see that coming', but let's say that this 'twist' was telegraphed, signposted, highlighted in bold and luminous yellow on-screen, and then tattooed on Scarlett Johansson's cleavage in case you were distracted. Well... everything except that last part.

So Angier, unable to figure out this painfully obvious trick, (the big eejit - Ed) travels to California to meet a certain Mr. Tesla. Mr. Tesla is played by a certain David Bowie. David Bowie employs a certain accent in this movie which is like a cross between Shortbread Tin Scottish, and Harrison Ford Russian (remember that submarine movie?!). It is truly remarkable that Nolan allowed Bowie to use this accent, but he was probably in awe of the man, and we can forgive him that I suppose. (Don't be saying bad things about David Bowie now! - Ed) The thing is, Bowie's character is just so patently ridiculous, and I couldn't get past that as I listened to his Mittel-Europaische-Glasgow-Celtic twang. (At least Michael Caine had a good cockney accent - Ed)

(*Sigh*).. Anyway, I should add that the narrative of the Prestige is really quite unnecessarily complex. The movie begins with Borden (Bale) in prison reading Angier's (Jackman) journal, and cuts to a flashback. Then in the flashback, we see Angier reading Borden's journal, and off we go to another flashback. Nolan successfully manipulated the narrative of his story to creative effect with 'Memento', but in this instance it jarred with me. Why not start from the beginning Chris!? It worked with Batman!!

This is a professionally made movie, and the cast are all quite good (except for Bowie's accent, which of course I mentioned already.. but just in case you missed it, it was terrible). the film looks lovely, and the leading men all get to sport a variety of amusing fake beards quite regularly, which adds a little novelty value. Unfortunately, all the fancy window-dressing can't disguise the lack of a decent prestige moment to reveal to the audience in the end. Sadly, the twists and turns seemed drawn out, predictable, and a little silly for me. Add the fact that the two lead characters are pretty much miserable gits, obsessed with one-upmanship, and you get a movie that I found difficult to warm to.

In a 'celebrity deathmatch' between 'The Prestige' and 'The Illusionist', my money would be on The Illusionist to get medieval on Christopher Nolan's effort. Now that movie had pedigree. For me, this one was a little flattered by the critics, and, dare I say it, I would recommend caution before rushing out to watch it. Let's just say it's a little more Paul Daniels than Derren Brown.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Indigènes (Days of Glory)

The Verdict: Relevant, moving and extremely well-crafted, this ensemble piece is a fantastic addition to the cinematic cadre of war movies.

The Rating: 8/10

Since donning the movie reviewing mantle, I've become increasingly aware of the disparity between what film critics think audiences should see at the cinema, and what the punters really go and watch. As for the punters, they seem more than willing to - in their droves - watch movies that are universally panned by critics. Witness some of the recent top ten flicks across the pond: 'Wild Hogs', 'Ghost Rider', 'Premonition', 'Epic Movie', the list goes on. On the flip-side of this, there are the movies the critics call 'must-sees', 'if you only see one movie this year...' and so on. 'Thank You For Smoking' springs to mind as well as the excellent 'Half-Nelson' and these would fall into this category. For some reason, the marketing men can't get the wide distribution or the audiences for these pictures, despite them being recognised by critics and awards ceremonies alike as 'best of breed'.

Sadly, I have the distinct feeling that 'Indigènes' will be the a bit of a critic's darling, while remaining a stranger to most of the cinematic audience outside of France. And that's a real shame, because it's the type of movie that could really have a wide appeal. Quite simply, it's a great war movie.

The title roughly translates as 'Natives' ('Days of Glory' sounds more like a Will Ferrell vehicle - Ed) and the story is set against the backdrop of the Second World War, where regiments of North African soldiers from Morocco and Algeria are enlisted to fight on the side of the French Army in the 'motherland'. The main characters in 'Indigènes' all experience different facets of the complex relationship between a colonised people and their motherland, especially in the context of fighting for a country that for the most part, they've never seen before. Although the motto of the motherland is 'liberté, egalité, fraternité', the war-time reality faced by the North African infantrymen was far from free, equal or fraternal.

Their training consists of written exams, and when the North African recruits arrive at the front, they are hardly prepared for battle. Led by the grizzled sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan) this rag-tag bunch of recruits soon learn the realities of battle, but this story is about more than that.

Jamel Debbouze is a comedian by trade, but he produced this drama, and takes the lead role as the likeable Said, a one-armed peasant who his mother behind in the desert sands of Morocco. Sergeant Martinez takes Said under his wing as his dogsbody/assistant, and the two develop a strong bond. This bond develops despite the constant tension between the sergeant and the rest of his men, who give Said grief for making the sergeant's coffee and fetching his shirts and what have you.

Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is a sharp-shooter, who falls in love with a French belle in Marseilles, and then cannot understand why his letters to her seem to go unanswered. Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is ambitious, and wants to get ahead in the army. Yassir (Samy Naceri) just wants to get through his tour with his skin, and that of his constant companion and younger brother, intact. (Incidentally, Naceri is almost unrecognisable here as the cab driver from the phenomenally successful 'Taxi' franchise.) Martinez, meanwhile, is actually a North African, but is hiding the fact because of the impact he knows it will have on his army career.

This ensemble cast jointly received the best actor award at Cannes last year, and the film had such an impact that Jacques Chirac, after seeing the movie, decided to resolve the situation it highlighted, that of unpaid pensions to the recruits from French colonies during the war. This fact alone should be an indication of how powerful the film is.

It is dark in parts, as each character is exposed to a different level of institutionalsed racism in the French military. Messaoud's letters are censored, Abdelkader is passed over for promotion, and the troop are consistently passed over for shore leave, exposing them to the harsh winters of the Vosges and Provence. Martinez constantly fights between keeping the men in line with his command, and encouraging the powers that be to recognize the 'pieds noirs' - as they are derogatively called - the same rights as the rest of the French military. However, in spite of the military powers, this group of characters continually struggle to maintain their dignity. As one by one, they seem to lose faith in the value of their mission, Abdelkader's leadership becomes more prominent, but will his unshakable loyalty and belief to convinve his war-weary colleagues to continue fighting for their recalcitrant motherland, and perhaps even paying the ultimate cost?

The scale of this movie is perfectly measured, to allow the audiene to gradually get to know each of the central characters. As the movie builds towards it's inevitable climax, when this small group is charged with defending Alsace against the Nazis until reinforcements arrive, each character is well defined and familiar to us, and I found I was genuinely interested in how each character would end up.

Let me be clear though, this is not a war movie in the same vein as 'Saving Private Ryan'. The battle scenes are not sweeping and wide in scope. The view the audience is given of the battles is either up close and personal, from the point of view of the central characters, or seen from a safe distance, from the point of view of the generals surveying the battlefield through binoclulars. The one I would most readily compare it to is possibly 'The Dirty Dozen', if only because the spirit of the story is similar. These guys start the story from the very bottom of the ladder, and struggle through the entire movie. PCMR has a soft spot for movies like this, where the central characters spend most of the movie trying to cope, or figure out the situation they find themselves in. (think 'Empire Strikes Back', 'The Matrix', 'Seven', 'The Big Lebowski')

Also, the Ireland and U.K. audience in particular should be able to relate to the difficult theme of colonialism and the complex relationship between a colonised people and the colonial power pulling the strings on their behalf. This runs through the core of what Indigenes is all about, and is at the heart of the difficult situations with which each of the central characters is faced.

So, I though it was great, and despite my increasing despair as to whether the critic's voice really has any impact on the audience in the case of movies like this, I'm going to heartily recommend 'Indigenes'. (Jeez, chin up PCMR, one man's irrelevance is another man's.. er... important stuff.. - Ed) I really hope you do get to see it, because it's worthy of your time and won't disappoint.

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