In this round of DVD reviews we cover a Norwegian thriller about an art thief, an animated French feature about an art thief, and a French Canadian drama about a teacher with a haunted past. Let's get hoppin...
Headhunters - Why does it seem like in recent years European cinema has made much better action thrillers than has American? Probably because it has. But what is the reason for this? Upon reflection, I think that it is because that instead of giving us generic, superhuman "Action Heroes", they give us protagonists who are less than extraordinary men and thrust them into situations that are anything but ordinary. It changes the viewer's perception from "I could never do that. I'd be dead.", to "Could I do that? In his situation, would I be dead?", which is a much more engaging state of mind. Which brings us to Headhunters.
Headhunters is a Norwegian thriller about a corporate headhunter who is also an art thief on the side. He is mostly the planner and procurer of information though, not a man accustomed to gun fights and car chases. He is also plagued by his own insecurities, especially pertaining to his diminutive stature. It is a well written script that is far less predictable than most action films. Both Roger (the headhunter) and the viewer are tricked more than once along the way. I am unfamiliar with the previous works of director Morten Tyldum, but will be less than surprised if Hollywood scoops him up to make English language features in short order.
Star Aksel Hennie is already rumored to be in the next Die Hard installment (What is it called? Die Predictably?). I hope that he can bring some of the depth of characterization apparent here to an American action franchise, but we'll have to wait and see about that. As for his performance in this film, it is excellent. He really makes the picture, crafting a real human being who we care about (flaws and all) enough to actually spend much of this movie on the edge of our proverbial seats. 4 of 5*
Monsieur Lazhar - Yes, I finally have seen the final Foreign Language Film nominee from last year's Academy Awards. This was the fourth feature as writer and director for emerging French Canadian film maker Phillipe Falardeau. When I first read the synopses for this film, I must admit that my first reaction was, "Oh...ANOTHER inspirational teacher movie, JUST what cinema needs."
I am happy to report, however, that this movie went a good deal beyond that formula, and was a wholly original experience to watch. While I may not have been blown away quite enough to run out and find Falardeau's first three films, I am quite interested in seeing where the young auteur goes from here. The script is masterfully crafted; the way it is composed you never quite realize how much is being said until you get very close to the end of the movie and the big picture begins to come into focus.
However, Mr. Falardeau cannot take sole credit for the success of Monsieur Lazhar. He gets an exceptional lead performance out of Mohamed Fellag in the title role. A native of Algeria, Mr Fellag now resides in France, where he is building a name as an actor and writer on both stage and screen. His performance here is excellent and gives the movie more of a sense of reality than this sort of film usually possesses. He is full of passion, but never overblown in a way that is contrary to the dignity of Bachir Lazhar's station.
The two principle actors amongst his twelve to thirteen year old students also give tremendous performances, especially when you consider their youth. Sophie Nelisse, in particular, gives an exceptional performance, exuding maturity without trying to ape adulthood. Emilien Neron as Simon seems a little less complex, but maybe that's just because boys mature more slowly. Both of them would have placed well in my Best of 2011 rankings for Best Juvenile Performer had I seen Monsieur Lazhar in time to include them.
While I wouldn't say that this movie provided ample competition to A Seperation in the Foreign Film category (nothing did, not even my beloved Bullhead), it was definitely one of the stronger also-rans. What could easily have become a story we've seen a thousand times before, a "Goodbye Monsieur Chips", if you will, proved instead to be a thoughtful and thought provoking commentary on personal tragedy and grief, and how experiencing such things can mold one into a person better prepared to shepherd others through comparable experiences. It moved me and I had no idea that it would until about fifteen minutes from the end. A strong 4 1/2 of 5*.
A Cat in Paris - It would have been particularly nice if I could have caught this final Animated Feature nominee from last year's Oscars BEFORE I finished the Best of 2011 series. I would have been able to compose a respectable top five animated feature list without having to dip into the shorts to come up with five movies I could actually recommend. While this debut feature about a house pet with a daring double life from French co-directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol (the latter of whom also wrote the screenplay) is not a perfect film, it was still delightful and a lot of fun.
I did have a few reservations. At first, the hand drawn animation seemed a little primitive, but as the film went on, I began to see it as a moving graphic novel. I think it was the marvelous use of light and shadow that eventually won me over visually.
The script is pretty predictable. I had a fairly clear idea of where it was headed ten minutes in. However, there were several clever little surprises along the way. The story's strongest element was the interesting characters, who were very well developed for an animated film, especially one that is barely over an hour long.
By the end of the picture, I didn't care that it turned out mostly as I expected. In fact, I cheered it on to the finish. It's also family friendly, a great choice to share with any kids you know who could use a viewing option crafted with care and intelligence. 4 of 5*
Next time around, we'll be covering much more commercial fare, but don't fret film snobs, there's still a couple of pics I'd recommend in the mix. See you then.
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