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Saturday, January 28, 2012

French films ... and we bother with them why?

I have seen some great French films in my time. But sometimes, I gotta admit: I just don't get it.

For instance, I saw this one a while back about a man (he's horrible with women) and his best friend, a woman (she's married and has known the male protagonist since college). So he's a nice guy who just happens whose having love problems, and she's married to a wonderful man with whom there is no passion. Their marriage is in a rut, and their love making is perfunctory.

Male lead reveals to his friend he's having trouble with his girlfriend (he's bad with women but lands a pretty stewardess as his girlfriend ... hmmm). The girlfriend thinks he's a bad kisser, and his best friend offers to see if she agrees with his girlfriend's take. So they kiss. And then they kiss some more. And then ... well, you get the picture.

In the end, she ends up with him and leaves her bewildered husband, whose new wife is severely tempted to do the same thing to him with a man she meets on a business trip. All of it is slowly paced, very little of it is humorous, there is no dramatic tension, the end is largely predictable, and the only point to the film seems to be, "Vive la narcissism! Vive la nihilism! Vive la relativism!"

Now tonight, I watched A Prophet. If I see a review of a film that gets kudos and seems relatively interesting, I put it on my Netflix queue. That's how A Prophet ended up in my mailbox. It's about a guy who won't turn snitch, and so he takes the rap for a crime, and that earns him six years in the slammer. This prison happens to be run, in effect, by the Corsican mafia. They make the crew in any of the Godfather trilogy or the movie Goodfellas or even The Sopranos look like just the nicest bunch of guys in the neighborhood. Malik has no one, knows no one inside or outside, so when he's threatened, "Off a guy who's about to be a star witness at a trial or we'll off you," he feels he has little choice. Now why the French authorities place a material witness for a mafia case in a prison of any type isn't explained. We're just supposed to go with it.

Nor is the amount of freedom these guys have explained. How likely is it that prisoners are allowed to have people in their closed door cells, that they can access prostitutes in the visiting booths, have five person meetings in the capo's cells, and the many other things that do not square with my experience of visiting prisons on tours or visiting prisoners. Either France has really lax security measures for their inmates or this was as about as unreal as anything Hollywood releases.

But I digress. So Malik does the job and thereby starts moving up the criminal ladder. Will he double cross the capo or not? Will he turn to a life of crime or realize just in time that crime simply doesn't pay?

Ah, the suspense of it all. Yes, there are interesting character turns, at least on Malik's part. Why, however, does his friend Fyed turn to crime? After all, he's a husband and father of a baby boy has nothing to gain by doing so (well, nothing unless you watch the deleted scenes)? Too many oddities, curiousities, and questions are left for you to ponder throughout this, let's just put it charitably and say languidly paced film that is over 20 hours long. Sorry. I mean 2 hours long, but at times, it felt like it was 20. As my wife asked, "Is this move never going to end?"

So why do I do it? Why do I keep watching French films?

Because once in a while, just every now and then, I hit the jackpot and see something brilliant, a film with something to say and is bright and bold and beautiful. Take Paris, Je T'aime (i.e., Paris, I Love You), which is a superb movie of 15-20 five-minute vignettes. A few, very few are quite dreary and dreadful. The vast majority, however, sing like birds who are simply happy Spring is here again. The African illegal immigrant who falls in love with the paramedic, the man who learns to love his wife, the middle aged curmudgeon who is hit by love in the most unlikely way, these and more are are just wonderful. La Femme Nikita ... another great film. Every so often, the French, they just hit the nail on the head.

To find these gems, however, you have to slug through so much time wasting crap. It's no different from American cinema, granted. At least with that, though, I know exactly what I'm getting before I get into it. With French films, on the other hand, it's always a flip of a coin.

Anyway, don't waste your time with A Prophet. Lots of nudity, sex scenes, implied sex scene, lots of violence, lots of vulgar language, not for anyone under 18.

Oh, almost forgot: I also saw Get Low with Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray this week. It's about a recluse named by Felix Bush (serviceably played by Robert Duvall) whose good friend dies. This "good friend" he hadn't seen in who knows how many years. That gets him thinking about his own death and thus his funeral. The only problem is, he doesn't have anyone who would want to attend. See, people in this rural Tennessee town tell all manner of wild tales about him: that he killed a man, that he's insane, that he's a cannibal (well, that one didn't come up, but it may as well have). So he hands Murray's character, Frank Quinn the undertaker, a wad of cash and says he wants to have a funeral and that he wants to be there.

"Oh, you will be," says Quinn. No, Bush tells him, I want it before I die so that I can be there.

The rest of the movie deals with how will they get folks to attend a funeral of a man they don't know anything about except that he scares them and who will be there, alive. Will all of the pieces come together? What will happen at the funeral? What will happen after?

Get Low is a decent, slowly paced film, but that's because, as you might be able to guess, there's not a lot of drama going on. Nothing riveting happened to draw me in and make me care. Even when Bush revealed why did all this, it caught my attention not because I'd come to have feelings for this man. Rather, it was that I'd spent this much time with the film, so I may as well find out why he's such a wounded man of mystery. Get Low wasn't terrible, it just wasn't fantastic. Basically, the best that can be said for it is that it was an interesting twist on the standard redemption tale. Or if your nerves are frazzled and just want a movie that's quiet and and clean and not full of bang-bang shoot-'em-ups, this one's a good call in that way.

Sissy Spacek is marvelous, Bill Murray isn't half-bad, and Lucas Black who plays Murray's assistant in a funeral home turns in the best performance of them all. IMDb says the movie is partially based on a real story. No nudity, one fight scene, no sex, mention of an adulterous affair. Because of themes such as death and Duvall's admitting an affair at one point, as a parent, I wouldn't let anyone under 14 or so watch it.

Finally, Secretariat was good. Saw it finally last night. I'm not normally, "Wow, isn't it great that they showed a strong woman character on screen!" but I did come away thinking that and really admiring Mrs. Tweedy as played by Diane Lane. The always fantastic and underappreciated Lane presents her character as a model of a womanly strength who didn't sacrifice one scintilla of her femininity. You know, it's that old saw: "Why is that if a man is tough, he's just doing what he needs to do to get things done, whereas when it's a woman doing that, she's a b---h?"

Lane's portrayal of Mrs. Tweedy shows there is no contradiction between being a tough woman and being decidedly unb---hy. It's a nice family popcorn movie, with no violence, no nudity or sexual immorality, and only a little bit of adult language (I think I remember a "damn" and maybe one use of the Lord's Name in vain). The only thing to which I objected was that Diane Lane's character was being torn between her vocation and her desire to turn things around for her family of origin's horse business. Sadly, being a good wife and mother (in the sense that she was actually present to her husband and four children) lost out. The movie shows her practicing her vocation over the telephone and by dropping in now and then. That's definitely not positive. Yet the movie also shows how torn she is between her heart's passion and her vocation, so it's not like it just blows off the topic. All in all, a very solid film.

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