Sunday, July 14, 2013

Outside the Prodigal Idiots

     Our fourth installment of the 2010 rewind series brings Algeria's Oscar nominee, an unusual documentary about a transsexual and her estranged brother, and an animated feature about redemption that will give you wings...

  Outside the Law - The story of three brothers and the roles that they play in the early twentieth century fight for Algerian independence from France, Outside the Law earned Algeria a nomination for Best Foreign Language film at the 83rd Academy Awards.  Director Rachid Bouchareb had previously been nominated for the 2006 film Days of Glory which I regret to say I have not seen.  Taken on its own merit, "Law" is something of an old fashioned sprawling family epic, one that highlights a culture and a people that have received relatively little exposure in world cinema.  For this alone, the film is to be admired.
     However, it is also a tale well told and a capably handled production.  The three lead actors in particular are to be commended.  The brothers are all such distinct personalities, yet their onscreen chemistry never lets you doubt the common history and bond that they share.
     Jamel Debbouze plays the youngest brother Said, who could be said to be the pragmatist of the trio.  He lives outside of the law in service of personal profit, trying to build a bubble of security for himself and his own with a small empire of endeavors that range from promoting boxers to running prostitutes.  Debbouze plays him with a smarmy charm that never quite comes across as slimy.  Of course, one could make the argument that characterizing a pimp in such a sympathetic light ignores his exploitation of women. I prefer to see him as a truly well rounded personality, complete with both despicable and noble qualities.
    Nobility is the very spirit of eldest sibling Abdelkader, played by actor Sami Bouajila, but he can be the most ruthless of them all in the service of a cause that he perceives as noble.  He is a man who is comfortable with ideals, but not so much with interpersonal relations and emotion.  Bouajila portrays him, in fact, as something of a cold fish when not immersed in the passionate fight for Algerian independence.  As an activist, however, he is bold, charismatic, powerfully spoken, and inspirational.
     Roschdy Zem plays the middle brother, Messaoud.  He has the gentlest and simplest nature of the three, and is the last one to become an outlaw.  He is also a complex figure whose nature is rife with contradictory elements. He can be an absolute physical monster of a man in defense of what is his, a decorated soldier long before he joins his elder brother in the Resistance.  He is the most sympathetic of the three, as played by Mr. Zem, and the most tragic.  In the end, his loyalty to his family and his people is his Achilles' heel. Physically, he is by far the most formidable member of his brood.  In his heart, he is the most vulnerable.
     As you can easily see from this basic rundown of the main players, the story is far from short on conflict on multiple internal and external levels.  Watching how the brothers change in response to circumstance and each other makes for a complex and captivating tale of war and brotherhood that I can only criticize for an occasional slide into melodrama...4 of out 5 stars.

  Idiots and Angels...Writer/director/producer/animator Bill Plympton is generally considered to be one of the most talented and exciting makers of animated film around.  His short films have won awards at Cannes and nominations from the Academy.  His feature films don't lack for critical laurels, either. Despite this, your ignorant little Froggy had not seen ONE Plympton original until I watched Idiots and Angels for this rewind series.
     I can see, even at first exposure, what all the fuss is about.  Idiots and Angels was a highly original piece of work, with a strong story line that didn't condescend to its audience. While certainly not aimed at children, the script does make excellent use of elements common to children's tales.  Taken at its most simple elements, it is an allegory of redemption.  The characters are largely allegorical in nature and the story draws clear lines between good and evil while still allowing for the existence of both within each individual.
      The animation is strongly influenced by the Film Noire school in tone and style.  The images are not designed to achieve the "hyper-realism" of modern computer generated graphics, but use a simple, representative approach to character and scenic design.  I'm not sure (being shamefully unexposed to Plympton's other films) if this is simply the animator's constant style or if it was tailored specifically to Idiots and Angels, but it complemented the allegorical slant of the movie perfectly.  The transitions between scenes were particularly brilliant, morphing one focal object into another as the background shifted almost imperceptibly.behind them.
      If you enjoy watching unique and creative approaches to animated story telling, this picture should be a must see.  It has less musical numbers or fart jokes than most animated Oscar nominee have (none, actually) but it does have something far more difficult to come by in today's world of market testing and target audiences...MAGIC...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Prodigal Sons - My opinion shifted several times during the course of this offbeat documentary from director Kimberly Reed.  It begins as a simple story about Ms. Reed's first trip back to her home town after transitioning from her old identity as Paul McKerrow many years before.  I grew a little weary during the first thirty minutes of the film, which don't really cover much new ground in terms of LGBT acceptance issues in biological families.  But this is just the beginning, and explorations on the themes of gender, identity, acceptance, and the nature of family are only broached at this point.
    The most grating thing about the picture's first act (and indeed, the whole picture) is the onscreen presence and personality of the film maker's older adopted brother Marc.  Yet Marc's abrasive nature serves the film well, because it sets the viewer up to write him off as the voice of ignorant intolerance that hinders the progress of our valiant hero.  In the second act (which is mostly Marc's story), you see that Marc's fears and the emotional distance he maintains are brought about largely by his own insecurities and indefinite sense of personal identity.
     By forcing the viewer back and forth between perspectives, the film maker calls attention to the subjective nature of perception. Like a fun house mirror, life often shows us an image that is warped enough to appear as something "other" when it is really just our own reflection.  As much as I came to admire the documentary that this film grew (somewhat accidentally, it appears) into, I still felt that the first act was a needlessly drawn out example of a scenario we have seen numerous times before, presented in a manner that has become somewhat dull with repetition...4 out of 5 stars.

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