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Movie Reviews: Zombie Girl, The Yellow Handkerchief, Defendor 

Also, Easier With Practice, Formosa Betrayed and more

Friday, Feb 26 2010
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A PROPHET (UN PROPHÈTE) Agreeing at the insistence of a Corsican mob boss to suck and then slash a fellow inmate, newly jailed Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) — poor, illiterate, a “dirty Arab” in the prison’s racist pecking order — gets what’s coming to him, but in a good way. Indeed, crime pays in A Prophet, the Gallic gangster movie whose armed assault of film fests and critics’ polls has made it the most widely valued French underworld thriller since the ’60s reign of tough-guy auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. Does director Jacques Audiard deserve his new status as a made man? Sold to the global art-house market as the “French Scorsese,” Audiard does know his genre. A Prophet, the director has said, is the “anti-Scarface.” Thus jittery El Djebena carves up a snitch in the first reel and goes out stylishly in the last. In between, he’s incrementally rewarded by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) — the French jailhouse Don Vito Corleone. Whatever suspense A Prophet musters in its rather protracted running time involves our predictable unease about how far the student may be willing to go for — or against — his master. A Prophet affects an almost spiritual transcendence, but it’s deficient in form and content — not naturalistic so much as neutered, less revisionist than rote. Audiard’s shrewdly determined redemption conceit requires his multiethnic gang war to resolve into some marketably “universal” truths. As Tony Montana would say, for the price of a movie ticket, the world is yours. (Rob Nelson) (Citywide)

THE CRAZIES “It’s Dad. He’s got a knife.” So do many of the dads in the Midwestern town of Ogden Marsh, where men and women alike are suddenly developing blank stares and homicidal urges. The boy hiding in a closet with Mom, while Dad stalks them with that kitchen knife, is destined for an unpleasant end, in a sequence that re-creates the opening scene of George A. Romero’s 1973 film, The Crazies. For the remake, director Breck Eisner (Sahara) and screenwriters Scott Kosar and Ray Wright have kept the key elements of Romero’s scenario, including the U.S. military’s heavy-handed attempt to contain the virus it accidentally unleashed, while largely doing away with the speechifying that drags down the original (sorry, Mr. Romero). Despite a midfilm lull of his own, Eisner stages a series of nifty action sequences, nearly all of which feature a moment of surprise, as well as gruesome wit, including a memorable bit of business involving a sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) with a badly stabbed hand and a nearby crazy who must die. Although English actor Joe Anderson nearly steals the movie as the sheriff’s increasingly unhinged deputy, Olyphant grounds it with his ever-fascinating mix of soulfulness and swagger. Any day now, he’s gonna be a star. (Chuck Wilson) (Citywide)

DEFENDOR Likable but hardly memorable, the offbeat action-comedy Defendor follows the exploits of Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson), an emotionally crippled, comic book–obsessed construction worker who goes out at night dressed as Defendor, a crime-fighting vigilante without superpowers or a gift for clever catchphrases. (“Look out, termites — it’s squishing time” is about the best he can muster.) More likely to get the crap beaten out of him than he is to apprehend evildoers, Arthur is obsessively pursuing a mysterious nemesis named Captain Industry, in the process running afoul of a crooked cop (Elias Koteas) and befriending a young prostitute (Kat Dennings). Rather than viewing Arthur with withering scorn, Harrelson and writer-director Peter Stebbings clearly have a lot of affection for this well-meaning, imbalanced everyman, using him as a metaphor for the chasm between our heroic aspirations and our meager realities. But although Harrelson displays the right balance of sweetness and quiet instability, Defendor’s genial spirit fails to mesh with the filmmaker’s exploration of darker emotional terrain, whether he’s trying to evoke pathos from Arthur’s unhappy childhood or create tension from Defendor’s showdown with a dangerous Russian gang. (Even worse, Stebbings throws in some weak social commentary by turning Arthur into an unlikely champion for the city’s disenfranchised citizens.) In some ways, Defendor’s modest charm is preferable to the furrowed-brow misery of deranged-loser cautionary tales like Big Fan, but while Arthur may be a nicer breed of kook, that doesn’t mean he’s a more compelling one. (Tim Grierson) (The Landmark)

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GO  EASIER WITH PRACTICE True story: A guy all alone in a motel room answers the bedside phone. There’s a woman on the other end. She sounds young and hot, and, before he knows it, they’re having phone sex. The woman begins calling the guy’s cell every day, and soon he’s having an intense romance with someone he’s never met. In real life, all of this happened to writer Davy Rothbart, who went on to create Found magazine. In this surprisingly emotional fictionalized version by first-time writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the man in the motel is Davy Mitchell (Brian Geraghty, the nervous blond soldier from The Hurt Locker), a shy 28-year-old writer traveling the Southwest with his brother (Kel O’Neill) on a sweetly pathetic “book tour” for Davy’s self-published story collection. It wouldn’t be fair to give away any more of Easier With Practice, but the weird turns that Davy’s life takes always feel emotionally honest, thanks in no small measure to Geraghty’s achingly true performance. From the virtuoso 10-minute single shot that encompasses the initial phone call, to a long, traveling shot of Davy all but running from a humiliating sexual encounter, Alvarez trusts Geraghty’s fear-and-wonder–filled eyes to tell the tale. These two need to make more movies together. (Chuck Wilson) (Sunset 5)

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