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‘Deplacer’ lacks strong characters ‘Prince’ repetitive, mindless actioner

It’s often an arrogant and presumptuous critical tic to reflexively refer to turkeys starring major stars as “paycheck projects,” as though venality were the only possible reason a good actor might end up in a bad film. Yet it’s hard to think of a better explanation for the presence of John Cusack and Bruce Willis in Brian A. Miller’s “The Prince.” With the latter turning in one of his least committed onscreen performances, and the former appearing to be suffering from the worst migraine of his life every second he’s on camera, it’s up to star Jason Patric to somehow salvage this basic-cable-quality actioner, yet his options are limited. A brief theatrical run seems a mere formality for the Lionsgate release, with on-demand offering more promising returns.
 
Set very prominently in New Orleans, though shot in Mobile, Ala., “The Prince” seems to imagine itself a sort of Cajun-seasoned take on “Taken,” tossing in a dash of “Unforgiven” and a soupcon of David Mamet’s “Spartan” for extra flavor. The results, however, are far more “Grand Theft Auto: Ninth Ward,” with rote backstories, videogame-like shootouts and repetitive, uninteresting interrogations hustling the pic through its by-the-numbers paces. Protagonist Paul (played by a competent if uncharismatic Patric), is a humble, ripped, widowed Mississippi auto mechanic with a shady past in the New Orleans criminal underworld. When his college-age daughter (Gia Mantegna) goes missing, he’s forced to sharpen up his dormant ass-kickery chops and revisit his old stomping grounds, shaking down a series of token hoods and reawakening some sleeping grudges from his bad old days in the Big Easy, most of which revolve around resident crime lord Omar (Willis, all but checking his watch). Violence quickly and inevitably ensues.
 
Along the way, he’s joined by his daughter’s snotty, coked-up friend Angela (Jessica Lowndes), who provides some moderately valuable intel at the start, and then inexplicably sticks around for the duration of the film to complain, scream and occasionally provide strange doses of sexual tension. Midway through, the pic introduces another ally in Paul’s old running buddy Sam (Cusack), who sighs and grimaces through his scenes as a luxury hotel-bound hustler. No one seems to want to reinvent the wheel here, and an idle Netflix user could certainly do far worse when browsing for mindless actioners. But the overall air of shrugging obligation from those both in front of and behind the camera proves contagious.
 
Rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Jung Ji-hoon (better known as Korean pop superstar Rain) have minor, not entirely comfortable roles which seem to serve no purpose other than to broaden the pic’s potential appeal to younger auds and Asian demos, respectively. The action sequences are competently directed, but exhibit virtually no flair or invention, as Patric simply stands there shooting at waves of anonymous henchmen until they all fall down. If nothing else, “The Prince” does seem to afford its array of weaponry greater than average care, and unlike most mid-grade shoot-’em-ups, the film actually shows its central avenger frequently stopping to reload, and even making multiple trips to an ammo shop between gun battles. If only the rest of the film paid as much attention to detail.
 
“Sud Eau Nord Deplacer” director Antoine Boutet knows better than to wade into the political quicksand surrounding China’s Nan Shui Bei Diao project — a crazy idea dreamt up by Chairman Mao to transfer water from the country’s south, where it is plentiful, to its arid northern reaches — though the French video artist instinctively recognizes the enormous potential, both sociological and cinematic, in documenting the most ambitious attempt to redirect the flow of water in the history of humankind. Ironically, humankind happens to be what Boutet’s cold and impersonally distant film most lacks, starved for characters that would ensure that its arresting images resonate with more than just gallery crowds.
 
There’s not a single frivolous shot in Boutet’s meticulously edited (if somewhat less carefully composed) “meditation” — to borrow that overused film-critic euphemism, wherein one man’s tedium is another man’s transcendence. The trouble is, there’s as awful lot missing, including the fact that auds must wait nearly half an hour to get an explanation of what is is they’re watching. Only then does Boutet think to feature anything so mundane as a chief engineer talking about what this massive public-works project involves, likely a vestige of the helmer’s fine-art background, where his video and installation work places a greater burden on spectators.
 
Still, even in a context-free vacuum, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by some of the surreal images Boutet captures, including the sight of government workers planting trees in the desert (part of an immense “greening” project) and a once-thriving river reduced to a series of puddles. Every scene flows back to the pic’s central theme, including one fortuitous glimpse at a small-town TV set, on which Bruce Lee quotes a line from his “Longstreet” series: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water” — good advice for auds ruminating on that very subject and a fitting mantra for the director.
 
Boutet’s arm’s-length approach encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions about the absurdity of this undertaking. Working with a small crew, the helmer tags along for a bureaucratic tour of resettlement housing one moment (“With these villages, migrants are leaping forward 80 years with a single bound,” a spokesperson says), then delves behind the scenes the next to hear from the disgruntled farmers, upset about the cheap houses and lousy plots they’ve been given. While the Chinese public seldom see beyond the ubiquitous pro-Communist billboards and banners commenting on the project, Boutet doesn’t hesitate to trespass when necessary, elbowing through to the sites that are most affected to film either by himself or with a very small crew (one reason for the uneven visual and sound quality).
 
Bringing Western investigative instincts to a heavily censored environment, he aims to provide a more nuanced picture of how Nan Shui Bei Diao is transforming both the lives and landscapes of the country. On the latter front, the docu echoes photographer-turned-filmmaker Edward Burtynsky’s recent “Watermark” (a more profoundly artistic look at man’s global impact on water). But it’s the rare moments when Boutet focuses on individual people — including a dissident teacher who spent 19 years in prison awaiting rehabilitation, now singing and swimming near a newly constructed dam — that leaves the strongest impression. Though this huge government undertaking will affect millions, hearing from one or two does far more to reveal its implications.
 
You can’t blame a gal for wanting to take a break from a scruffy, ambitionless b.f. like “Pause’s” Sami (Baptiste Gillieron) after four years. Audiences may feel the same way after just four minutes, though debuting Swiss director Mathieu Urfer’s intent is to make both Julia (Julia Faure) and us love this lost-puppy-like country musician by the end of what aspires to being a generic American studio romancer. Buoyed slightly by sweet English-language songs the helmer wrote himself, this otherwise flavorless feel-good pic would have been far more charming as a full-blown musical, a la “Once” with real production values. (RTRS)
 
Building on a background in shorts, Urfer has the directorial skills to make something far more interesting, but is limited by a screenplay (of his own design) that assumes we’ll empathize with a mopey character who, more than anything, needs a good shower and shave. Between his matted flannel shirts and old military-surplus coat, plus all those cigarettes and the sheer amount of time spent in bars, Sami makes one grateful that Smell-o-Vision never caught on. (Though a surprising number of scenes feature Sami in the tub, the poor sod never actually looks clean.)
 
But maybe that’s a male bias speaking. Ladies love a good project, and it’s not hard to imagine why Julia might initially have been attracted to such a hapless fixer-upper. (Anti-charismatic newcomer Gillieron looks a bit like Johnny Depp, or one of the unemployed actors who play him on Hollywood Blvd., at least.) When they meet, Sami is living in his car after being kicked out by his previous g.f. (she too gave him four years to grow up), and after a coke-snorting, mutual-bath-taking montage, the couple move in together.
 
Cut to the present: Julia holds an adult job, while Sami still spends most of his time hanging out with an old guitar player named Fernand (Andre Wilms), writing decent but decidedly noncommercial songs at a retirement home where the other residents are too deaf to be bothered by the music. A chain smoker and heavy drinker, Fernand is old enough for his imminent demise to serve as a plot point, but in the meantime, he’s a veritable font of useless relationship advice, coaching Sami through the eponymous “pause” (French for “break”), wherein Julia moves back in with her sister to sort out her emotions.
 
Sami’s convinced that Julia really intends to break up, recognizing that he needs to change but not nearly bright (or motivated) enough to know where to start. So instead, he wallows in his misery, tapping those emotions to write a song that we hear snippets of, but must wait until the final scene to see performed in its entirety. (It begins with the line, “When the stars are shaking,” volunteered by Julia in an early scene and which Sami belatedly realizes might be wise to include in a missing-you ballad.)
 
In the meantime, Urfer puts us through the agony of their separation, teasing the idea that maybe Julia’s sleeping with her boss (Nils Althaus) — who, guess what, turns out to be gay — or that perhaps Sami should just find another woman with four years to waste. It’s all taxingly predictable, but at least the kid gets a decent song out of it. (RTRS)
 
By Andrew Barker

By: Andrew Barker

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