Friday, December 27, 2013

English-language movies at French Cinemas: The Immigrant & Zulu

As I mentioned last week, I opted to use a few evenings during my Paris vacation going to the movies; the city loves film and has dozens of theaters, from multiplexes to old palaces to screening rooms and everything in between. 17 pages worth on Google's movie listings, compared to 6 for New York City and a thin two for Boston. The types and formats are varied, too - plenty of homegrown movies, of course, and plenty of Hollywood stuff, playing both in dubbed and subtitled versions.

And, of course, there was a bunch of stuff that seemed random. Was Boxcar Bertha playing because Martin Scorcese had a new movie coming out? How about Ordinary People - was that there for All Is Lost? Little Odessa must have been a tie-in to The Immigrant, right? Plus tons of old noir, and a Sunday afternoon where practically every animated Disney movie seemed to be playing at one theater or another. We get pretty good repertory programming in Boston, but Paris is something else.

Surprisingly, going to the movies is roughly the same. None of the three places I went had reserved seating as seems relatively common in the UK, and the snacks at the concession stand were basically the same staples as the US - popcorn, M&Ms, soda. Sure, the soda was mostly in bottles, but I wasn't looking at anything distinctly French. Maybe at higher-end arthouses. The biggest details I noticed were that UGC offers an unlimited films program similar to MoviePass (though only applying to their theaters, obviously), which is something that both exhibitors and studios have, at various times, fought in the United States but which seems reasonably well-entrenched in France. Then there's the advertising, which is not only much less segregated than it is here - in the US, its non-movie ads, movie previews, feature, while France mixes the ads and previews up - but which also included some of those infamous ads that American movie stars do oversees but don't want to be seen lowering themselves to at home: George Clooney and Matt Damon for Nespresso, for instance, or Julia Roberts in a short film directed by Tarsem Singh for some Lacoste fragrance.

Well, that was the case in the UGC Cinemas; I didn't really get a chance to investigate the Publicis one more closely because... Well, at first it just seemed like one of those cases where the more sophisticated a movie venue is, the slower everything moves ("oh, no, we're not like the soulless places the worry about separating people from their money to see the Adam Sandler movie as quickly as possible; we're going to pay attention to just you and get you your soda at a relaxed pace even if there are a half-dozen people in line behind you!"), but there seemed to be a couple of folks arguing with the guy at the box office,something about how many promotional tickets you could use at once. The last of these conversations was going on in English, and a manager(?) eventually flat-out told the guy that other movies were starting and his continuing that argument was ticking people behind him off (whether she noticed I was starting to become the human embodiment of a clenched fist, as I often do in those situations, or if the entire line was grumbling, I don't know). It did seem weird to me that there were two other people standing around the box office but only one selling tickets when there was a line out the door of this two-screen cinema right next to the Arc de Triomphe, especially since the place doesn't seem to have any concession stands. Maybe there was one near Screen #1, but both it and the second screen I went to both seemed to be served mainly by vending machines. Heck of a weird business model, I thought, taking five minutes to sell each ticket and then not even selling popcorn. Then again, the Publicis Cinema was right next door to the Publicis Burger/Steak House, which was right next to the Publicis Drugstore. Kind of a weird combination of businesses, but maybe they wind up working well together.

I wound up seeing these two movies as a double feature, seeing as the venues were right across the street from each other and I spotted four or five other theaters on or just off the Champs-Elysees (not even counting how the George V was split between two adjacent buildings). I'd wanted to split them between two separate nights, but both times I learned the important lesson of maybe not trusting one's movie app completely in an unfamiliar city, as I was twice sent to the wrong address earlier in the week, which leads to a lot of frustration and no movie that night. Part of it was also a sort of paralysis - the immense number of choices led to me wondering if I wanted to go to this movie at that place, or that one there, and by the time I made a decision, both were out of range. It would have been neat if I saw some of the more random stuff, though.

On the other hand, I did get to see the trailer for the new version of La Belle & La Bete, with Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel in the title roles for Christophe Gans, who really needs to actually get films made more often. I absolutely would have gone to see it if it were out, even though my French isn't very good at all. And while all three of the movies I saw in Paris were mostly English-language, I did have a few worried moments whenever someone spoke a foreign language, whether it be Korean in Snowpiercer, Polish in The Immigrant, or Afrikaans in Zulu, as that would be subtitled in French. I managed to do all right by that, although having a big old head between me and the subtitle region in Zulu didn't help.

Just walking around, I saw a bunch of other nifty-looking theaters. If some website or travel gluide would like to pay me to visit every theater in Paris in order to make recommendations, I don't think I'd say no to the job. It's really a great city for people who love movies, even if you speak even less French than I do.

The Immigrant

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2013 at Principis Cinemas Champs-Elysees #2 (first-run, DCP)

The first shot of The Immigrant - the Statue of Liberty seen from behind, through a brownish fog - is certainly the sort that let the audience know just what the next two hours have in store. Director James Gray doesn't stray very far from that image, and while that doesn't make for the most complex of films, it's certainly a worthy entry in its genre.

This sight of Lady Liberty presumably comes from the ship carrying Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), and America is not exactly welcoming to these new arrivals from Poland: Magda's cough looks like tuberculosis, which may put her in quarantine for six months, while not only are the aunt and uncle who were meet them not at Ellis Island when Cybulskis arrive, but the address they were given does not appear to exist. Faced with being deported as an incident on the ship has Ewa accepting the help of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who wants Ewa to do more work than that of a seamstress at a burlesque theater. Things may look up when the theater hires Emil (Jeremy Renner) - aka "Orlando the Magician" - to perform before the girls, although his history with Bruno will certainly complicate things.

What follows on from this is inevitable, and it's to the credit of Gray, co-writer Richard Menello, and the cast, that they don't put on a great show of shock at how Ewa must lower herself in order to survive; as much as she's no eager participant in the skin trade, the audience at least is given some credit for knowing how limited a woman's options were in 1921. What must happen is so clear at times as to make the story seem thin; Bruno outright says that Ewa won't do something because that might jeopardize her chance to see Magda again, and it feels as much like an explanation of how the story works as a threat. Whenever something happens outside of the actions of Ewa, Bruno, or Emil, it seems a bit of an outside force.

The three actors playing those leads, unsurprisingly, hold up their end of the bargain. Jeremy Renner doesn't appear until the movie has been running for a while, but the way he slides in is quite appealing: He makes Emil cheery and pleasant, which not only serves as a welcome contrast to the rest of the gloomy picture, but makes him detached enough from the reality of the situation that he could be a well-meaning disaster in the making. Ewa's reaction to Emil recognizes that; where Cotillard spends much of the movie portraying one form of anguish or another, she also makes sure that there's so much caution to Ewa's reaction that it almost smothers the hope and attraction she feels. It's an impressive bit of variation to a performance that can seem like a lot of being on the verge of tears.

It's Joaquin Phoenix who winds up stealing the show, as Bruno Weiss is the sort of bastard wrestling with his own humanity that Phoenix excels at. Like all the major parts, Bruno is more or less what he appears to be and never has a moment when he is shown to be something else, but Phoenix gets inside the head of this sort of guy better than most, and puts that up there without making him particularly sympathetic. It's a bit of a melodramatic role, but Phoenix makes it feel restrained.

In a way, that's what Gray is doing with the whole film: It feels like a sort of cross between two early 20th-century genres, a muckraking social conscience tale of the poor and desperate told with the sort of restraint and precision usually reserved for the upper class. It does, perhaps, lean on the specific muddy look established at the start to the point where a switch seems obvious, but Gray and company do all right in not making it feel overdone or oversimplified most of the time.

Splitting that difference may make The Immigrant a difficult film to really love; it neither inspires turbulent emotion nor shows off the sort of hair's-breadth nuance that often make costume dramas memorable. It's a nice, human-scale, take on this sort of story, and the cast breathes quite a bit of life into their characters.

(Previously at EFC)


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2013 at UGC Cinemas George V #7 (first-run, DCP)

That Zulu is basically a mismatched-cop movie is not something that should be held against it; that's a field-tested template which could prove a little more interesting than usual given this film's South African setting. There's usually something in those movies, though, that keeps them from being just a battle between cops as out of control as their quarries, and this one maybe could use a little bit more of that, because it is frequently very grim indeed.

The black portion of the investigating team is Captain Ali Sokhela (Forest Whitaker), a Cape Town detective who still has one foot in the townships where his father was set on fire thirty-five years ago. He's teamed with Dan Fletcher (Conrad Kemp), a likable family man, and Brian Epkeen (Orlando Bloom), a divorced alcoholic, on a murder case - the sort where the white victim comes from a prominent family but traces of a drug more common to poor black neighborhoods are found in her system. So Ali's superiors would like a tidy solution, even if that's decidedly not what the detectives uncover.

No, there's a conspiracy whose roots reach back to the apartheid era. There's a sort of paranoid grandeur to it - the plot is the sort of thing I imagine South African conspiracy theorists see around every corner - although it's not necessarily completely specific to that place: An audience in any country where economic imbalances still linger as the result of past policies can identify some with what's going on here, even if the details are local or push a police story toward a larger thriller or even a horror movie.

It's certainly at times bloody enough for that sort of movie. Aside from the gruesome nature of the murder, it's not very long before a normal procedural scene erupts into shocking violence, and as the movie goes on, there's a fair amount of torture and rather vicious fighting still to come. It's not just the physical action that may cause the audience to squirm, though; screenwriter/director Jérôme Salle (working from a novel by Caryl Ferey) seems to take great pride in kicking characters when they are down and making a point of reinforcing their poor fortune right to the edge of grim self-parody. It's the sort of thing that can trigger contradictory emotions, as the sustained cruelty can seem artificial but the audience knows that anything going the heroes' way would feel like them getting off easy.

That doesn't happen, and to be fair, Salle doesn't just wallow in very serious misery. The explosively violent scene mentioned, for instance, is actually quite well-staged and thrilling beyond the initial shock of how quickly a bunch of weapons come out and get used; the action work is quick and clear throughout, and he jumps between characters. It sometimes seems like certain pieces of the story interest him much more than others - the villains are not nearly as memorable as one might like, and some new elements are awkwardly introduced as they are needed - but he delivers the sort of no-messing-around genre action audiences have come to expect from the current crop of French mainstream directors.

He and his cast do all right working in English, although I can't say how well Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom do in Zulu and Afrikaans when the situation calls for it. They both play their parts in safely intense ways, Whitaker intensely sorrowful and Bloom with a chip on his shoulder. Whitaker does light up a bit when acting against the actress playing Ali's mother; those aren't perfectly played scenes, but there's a sweetness to those scenes that's in direct contrast to the rest of the movie. There's an easy charm to Conrad Kemp, though, whether playing against Whitaker and Bloom or Tinarie van Wyk Loots as Dan's wife.

Salle, his cast, and crew put together a movie that looks and sounds quite nice; Zulu wouldn't look out of place in a mainstream multiplex, seeing as it has a lot of "Lethal Weapon" in its DNA. It could maybe do with a bit more, to get the audience excited about what comes next when the darkness is particularly unrelenting.

(Previously at EFC)

One last thing: Whoever own the rights to Zulu, put up an official website or at least fill in your IMDB page. It kind of looks bad that a movie that deals with race in South Africa, Forest Whitaker seems to be the only person of color listed in the cast. I wanted to praise some of the other characters, but pretty much the entire listed cast was white. Awk-ward!

No comments: