Tag Archives: B+

MONSIEUR IBRAHIM

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B+

Movies about kids befriended by old curmudgeons (and vice versa) are a dime a dozen (check out last year’s “Secondhand Lions”), but this French version of the story, adapted by writer-director Francois Dupeyron from a book by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, makes it seem almost fresh again. The youth in this case is Momo (Pierre Boulanger), a lonely Jewish teen living with his dour, unaffectionate father (Gilbert Melki) in 1960s Paris. The pair have a dark, sterile apartment in an area which may be called Rue Bleue, but is definitely a red light district, with hookers lining the road; and Momo, just on the cusp of manhood, eagerly secures an initiation with one of them, Sylvie (Anne Suarez), while also trying to connect with freckle-faced Myriam (Lola Naymark), the girl who lives downstairs and is into rock music. The nearest thing Momo has to a real friendship, though, is with Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), the local shopkeeper, a Muslim grocer who’s Turkish but is known in the trade as an Arab because he’s open all the time. Ibrahim overlooks Momo’s petty thefts from the store and even instructs the boy on how to stretch the money his father gives him to buy the groceries he must then prepare for their supper. Ibrahim also offers sometimes comforting, sometimes enigmatic advice based on his expansive Sufi reading of the Koran. (The original title of the picture, in fact, was “Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran.”)

At first, the bond between Momo and Ibrahim is occasional and even a bit tense, but that changes when the boy’s father first abandons him (just as his mother had done years earlier) and then–after a time when the kid manages to get along on his own by using leftover cash and selling items from the house–is reported to have committed suicide. Ibrahim adopts Momo and, suddenly overcome by the joy of fatherhood, purchases a flashy car, learns in a humorously halting fashion to drive (with Momo’s considerable help), and takes the boy off on a wondrous trip back to his homeland, introducing him along the way to the joys and profundities of life; they visit churches, mosques and coffee-houses along the way, with the smiling old man dispensing pearls of wisdom in the process. The duo make it to Turkey, where fate intervenes but Ibrahim maintains his upbeat faith in the face of it.

This is a fairly frail plotline, to be sure, and the conclusion comes as a rather damp squib, but the picture is enriched by the unusual sense of place, which–with its mixture of light and dark– gives the film an almost fairy-tale quality, and by the affecting lead performances. Sharif appears to be having a great time playing the serenely happy Ibrahim, and his enthusiasm is intoxicating. But it’s Boulanger who provides the film’s emotional core. In the hands of this screen newcomer, Momo becomes a figure not only of charm but of surprising depth and poignancy–a youngster whose dogged determination one can admire and whose charm seems natural and unaffected. Melki is suitably gruff as his father, and Suarez and Naymark are both likable as his very different female interests. Dupeyron uses his actors and locations well to create a seemingly magical atmosphere, aided immeasurably by Remy Chevrin’s spruce cinematography and a well-chosen selection of songs to accentuate the period mood.

“Monsieur Ibrahim” demonstrates that even a relatively stale plot can be refreshed by a good cast and knowing, imaginative treatment. With its unusual setting, winning characters and engaging performances, it’s an affectionate coming-of-age tale whose sweetness never becomes cloying, even in its later stages.

MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

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B+

It looks as though it’s safe for Hollywood to go back in the water, in terms of making period oceanic movies with some chance of success. For decades pictures set on sailing ships seemed unable to attract contemporary viewers–even the Bounty story failed to make a splash, either in terms of the 1962 remake with Marlon Brando or the Anthony Hopkins-Mel Gibson retelling of 1984. More recently, though, the A&E “Hornblower” series of telefilms have proven a consistent draw, and this summer “Pirates of the Caribbean” scored an unexpected triumph. Now director Peter Weir and star Russell Crowe have collaborated on a sumptuous film shaped from two of Patrick O’Brian’s popular novels about the adventures of British Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey and his friend and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic wars. The result is a highly enjoyable movie that proves that even in the twenty-first century you don’t need a lot of light sabers and space vessels to generate cinematic excitement. The clumsy title of “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is probably the worst thing about an exceptionally intelligent and robust old-fashioned maritime yarn that has the snap of fresh sea air.

The basic plot of the picture isn’t really much–it’s a cat-and-mouse pursuit story, sort of a variant of “Run Silent Run Deep” featuring surface sailing ships instead of submarines. In early 1805, before the French fleet was decisively defeated at Trafalgar by Admiral Nelson in October, Captain Aubrey and the crew of the H.M.S. Surprise engage in a duel with the Acheron, a larger, more powerful French vessel, that takes them to the coast of Brazil, around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, eventually ending up at the Galapagos Islands. The periodic battle scenes are beautifully choreographed and shot, and the passage through the treacherous, storm-tossed Cape is frightening enough to serve as a modern equivalent of the experience depicted in the original 1935 “Mutiny on the Bounty.” The mixture of full-scale action, model work and computer-generated effects in these sequences is absolutely seamless and equally enthralling, even more so than the purely CGI effect of “The Perfect Storm.” And the fact that some sequences were actually filmed on the Galapagos–the first time that’s been allowed–gives it a special interest; visually these episodes are quite extraordinary.

But as impressive as the recreation is–and in purely physical and historical terms it’s masterful (kudos to production designer William Sandell, cinematographer Russell Boyd, costumer Wendy Stites and art directors Bruce Crone, Mark Mansbridge and Hector Romero)–in the final analysis what makes “Master and Commander” special is the success Weir and his cast achieve in infusing the narrative with human feeling. Crowe strikes all the right poses as Aubrey, but his performance goes well beyond appearances; he invests the captain not merely with virile strength but with a sense of humor and some undercurrents of vulnerability, too. And his connection with the various members of the crew–particularly young Max Pirkis, as Lord Blakeney, with whom he bonds early in the film after the boy suffers a terrible loss (and who gives a lovely, unaffected performance)–carries a charming paternal feel. But the most important relationship is the one he has with his closest friend, the scientifically-oriented ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Crowe and Bettany worked well together in “A Beautiful Mind,” and they do so again here; the musical duets they play together–Bach and Mozart, especially–symbolize the synchronicity not merely of the characters but of the actors as well. (The period music, elegantly performed, is nicely complemented by a modern score composed by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti.) On his own Bettany captures well the spirit of a man of the Enlightenment, whose passion for exploration and the rational examination of natural phenomena sometimes brings him into conflict with the captain’s drive to fulfill his mission, whatever the cost. Bettany is also given the opportunity to show Maturin’s extraordinary courage, in a sequence where the doctor literally operates on himself–and he pulls off the episode superbly. The rest of the cast, many of them character actors with faces that are memorable from their first appearances, make for a colorful crew; when one is injured or killed, however briefly he might have been glimpsed, the viewer feels a real sense of loss. (Lee Ingleby, for example, manages to earn some genuine sympathy as midshipman Hollom, who falls under suspicion that he’s jinxed the voyage and ultimately takes a desperate way out.)

“Master and Commander” is not, to be sure, the most profound or subtle drama one is likely to encounter in this season leading up to the year’s awards presentations. It often has the feel of a boy’s adventure story rather than a sophisticated examination of courage, loyalty and patriotism. But it’s been carried off with such aplomb and extraordinary craftsmanship that it sweeps aside any misgivings. Those in search of profundity may be advised to look elsewhere, but those who will be satisfied by a rousing tale, impeccably realized by a director of uncommonly good taste and style, should find this a most enjoyable journey.