Faint praise: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is probably the best video game adaptation to date. Not that there´s been much competition; up next there´s Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Max Payne, Hitman, and so on. Like the others, Prince of Persia is not a great movie; it rises to the top of the heap, perhaps, because of the amount of money Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer threw at it in search of another Pirates of the Caribbean.
I´ve played some of the platforming Prince of Persia video games, which were created by Jordan Mechner and released on every system from the Apple II to the PS3: they had little story but lots of running up walls and across rooftops, swinging from poles and ropes, hanging on ledges, the occasional bit of swordplay. These elements, set against the backdrop of ancient Persia, could make for some exciting action sequences in a feature film.
But not in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, because director Mike Newell has little idea of how to shoot an effective action sequence: they´re distractingly over-edited, have no rhythm, composed of too many close-ups and medium shots: we have almost no sense of where the characters are in relation to their surroundings or each other or what, exactly, is going on. This drains the action scenes of any suspense (let alone comprehension), and since they occur so frequently, the midsection of the film becomes a real slog to sit through.
Ironically, a 2-dimensional platforming video game has a better grasp of physical dimension and how that relates to audience interaction. A single long shot with the main character in the center, no editing because any split-second the player takes to re-adjust would render the game unplayable. We´re not “playing” the movie, so it´s like the filmmakers decide it´s not all that important if we can´t tell exactly what´s happening.
Quick side-note: I recently saw Green Zone, from director Paul Greengrass, who popularized the shaky-cam, hyper-editing style in his Bourne films. The action scenes in Green Zone work because, back to the basic tenets of editing, the damn shots match: when he cuts, the movement of the camera from the previous cut transitions into the next one, and the screen composition matches as closely as possible too. And the shots are wide enough to give us perspective. This helps us adjust as smoothly as possible. It can be done.
So what works in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? Would you believe the story? I, too, was shocked at just how much I appreciated the lighthearted tone and the characters and the plot, which is, admittedly, a whole lotta nonsense.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Dastan, an orphan who was adopted by the king after committing an act of bravery. He and his brothers Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) lead the Persian army into the city of Alamut, which they believe to be hoarding weapons. They capture the city, and brother Tus proposes marriage to the beautiful Queen Tamina.
Things seem to be going well, but through a series of unfortunate events Dastan finds himself hunted as a traitor and takes it on the lam with the princess. Now he has to prove his innocence, and, this is key: he has come into the possession of a magical dagger that can turn back time. I wonder if he´ll get some use out of it.
The first forty-five and the last ten minutes of the Prince of Persia are worthwhile; that´s half a good movie. You may be able to guess the ending of a movie that centers on an object that can turn back time, but I found the denouement wholly satisfactory. If you can make it through the mindless action scenes and a sluggish midsection, you´ll have some fun here.
Brooklyn´s Finest is a perfectly decent cop movie (or rather, three perfectly decent cop movies), the only problem being that we´ve seen them before, usually cheaper and better on TV: The Wire, The Shield, etc. It´s capably directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), taken down a few amps from his usual work, but just doesn´t bring much new to the table.
Fuqua cuts back and forth between three stories that, we sense, will become entwined by the end even though they have nothing to do with each other. Two tired conventions: there´s no reason for these stories to cross paths, and the intercutting doesn´t work as well here as it does (in much shorter bursts) on TV; the director builds up some good story tension in 10-minute spurts, then loses it all when he cuts to something entirely unrelated.
In one storyline, Ethan Hawke stars as Sal, a strung-out cop who debating whether to swipe some of the cash he encounters on a daily basis while busting drug dealers. His wife (Lili Taylor) is pregnant with their fifth (sixth?) child, the mold in their cramped house is giving her asthma attacks, and he needs money for a down payment on a new house before the realtor turns it over to someone else.
Hawke is quite good – in full, world-is-collapsing Before the Devil Knows You´re Dead mode – but his character´s moral dilemma just didn´t fly with me. In the opening scene, we see him kill a man in cold blood, for, I assume, a lunchbag full of cash. What´s with any dilemma after that? But Hawke can play a twitchy basket case with the best of ‘em, and while a cop buddy tries to convince Sal that hey, you should be happy with all those kids and a loving wife, we never doubt the direction Sal is going to end up in.
In another storyline, Don Cheadle plays Tango, an undercover cop who has been on the streets a long time. So long, in fact, that he begins to side with the drug pushers, especially Caz (Wesley Snipes), who once saved his life, over his supervising officers played by Will Patton and a rabid Ellen Barkin. You know what´s going to happen here: Tango is gonna have to make a choice.
And in the most interesting storyline, Richard Gere plays Eddie, a good cop who has seven days to go before retirement. And no, the obvious does not occur here. Instead, Gere plays a guy who has done everything by the book for an entire career, and is now questioning whether the book is right. He takes a do-gooder rookie out on patrol, who questions Eddie´s bravado when he plays it straight rather than doing the right thing. The next time Eddie sees that rookie is in an obituary, but the point has been made.
Brooklyn´s Finest does just about everything right, and undemanding audiences will leave satisfied. But the genre doesn´t do the film any favors, and there´s an air of been-there-done-that that I´ve noticed in other recent cop movies: Pride and Glory and We Own the Night, both of which were superior to this film but not entirely successful. Or maybe I´ve just been watching too many cop dramas on TV.
Lee Daniels´ Precious sure sounds depressing: it´s the story of an illiterate, grotesquely obese 16-year old black girl who lives in a Harlem slum and suffers daily physical and psychological abuse from her nightmare of a mother. She has a 4-year-old mentally ill daughter and is currently pregnant; both children the result of incestuous rape at the hands of her father.
And yet, while Daniels takes us through this vision of hell, based, as the title awkwardly informs us, on the novel Push by Sapphire, it doesn´t feel that bad at all; it´s colorful, touching, even lightly comedic at times. It´s the most mainstream version of this story imaginable, with style to spare and darkly humorous fantasy sequences; this has helped it reach a wide audience and garner multiple awards, but I´m not so sure it´s such a good thing.
This, I am sure of: Gabourey Sidibe is a revelation as Claireece Precious Jones, the girl whom life hasn´t exactly been kind to. She´s an impenetrable mountain of a young woman, built for survival; her appearance and dialogue at a sharp disconnect with her true nature, represented in her narration. It would have been easy to play off scenes like the one where she steals a bucket of fried chicken for quick comedy, but Sidibe´s performance never lets us forget what her character has had to endure, every minute she´s on the screen.
Mo´Nique, on the other hand, in an Oscar-winning performance as Precious´ mother Mary, has been universally overpraised. She´s undeniably an imposing force on the movie, but the character is an almost one-note parody of a villain, and the actress never lets us through the thick exterior (though as written, I doubt that would be possible.) Her “big emotional scene” at the end is all facetious, and betrays the intelligence of the character as set up earlier in the film.
More impressive work is done by Paula Patton, as Blu Rain, the teacher at an “alternative” school that takes Precious in after she gets kicked out of public school. Ms. Rain is the kind, gentle soul that sees something in Precious and does her best to help, even though she knows she can only take her so far. Patton, lively and upbeat despite what her character has to witness, brings a great deal of warmth into the film.
Precious also stars musicians Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz; either could have felt like stunt casting, but both blend into the film seamlessly. Carey – almost unrecognizable without any makeup and a throaty Bronx dialect – plays Ms. Weiss, the welfare agent looking into Precious´ case. Kravitz is Nurse John, who helps deliver Precious´ baby and draws titters from her schoolmates.
I only have one qualm with the film: it´s less effective than it ought to be. It´s down to the approach Daniels has taken: he hasn´t changed the story, but he´s augmented to tone to something more suitable to mainstream sensibilities, and undercuts the drama in the process. Ironically, in one of the fantasy sequences Precious imagines herself inside a 1950s black-and-white Italian film. Precious could´ve used a little more Italian neorealism, a little less magic realism.
Also opening: Streetdance 3D (showtimes | IMDb), a 3D dance movie from directors Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini. Screening in a Czech-dubbed version on Prague screens. I’ve seen the Czech dub: the film ain’t much and the 3D is a total disaster. Fast-movin’, hyper-edited dance sequences converted to 3D never give your eyes a chance and induce a feeling of physical discomfort.