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)
FORMOSA BETRAYED Like any normal former TV star with free time and a cause that’s caught his eye, James Van Der Beek could have done a voice-over for a documentary about Taiwan’s bloody struggle for independence. Instead, he plays an FBI agent in this educational thriller set in early-1980s Taiwan. After a Chicago prologue suggests that a Taiwanese-American professor and human-rights advocate may have been killed by gang members hired from across the Pacific, Jake Kelly (Van Der Beek) is dispatched to the embattled island for a look-see. Welcomed by fishy local officials and a flinty embassy liaison (Wendy Crewson), Jake starts applying his two investigative techniques: shouting “FBI!” while running full-tilt at uncomprehending local police, and getting pulled into doorways by underground resisters to the nationalist government. In impromptu history chats between the American and every other person he meets, carpetbagging anticommunist Chiang Kai-shek is recalled as the ur-villain and looter-in-chief, planting the seed for later repression and torture of native Taiwanese. Neither the investigation nor the suspense (hobbled by editorializing) has much impact; the movie, necessarily shot in Thailand, plays like secret-history tourism, complete with archival footage haunting the screen. True to the genre, the question “What about the truth?” is raised by Jake — only to be, incredibly, summarily dismissed. (Nicolas Rapold) (Beverly Center)
GO THE YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF Director Udayan Prasad’s post-Katrina road movie is not a remake of Yôji Yamada’s 1977 winner of the first-ever Japanese Academy Award for best picture, nor is it tied as tightly to Tony Orlando’s oak tree as it is to “Going Home,” the Pete Hamill short story that inspired all of the above. (Of course, Hamill stole from folklore, so go stare at the sun: Ain’t nothing new under it.) Affecting in his muted mien of regret, William Hurt plays a freshly paroled Louisiana ex-con with a history of violence — as Maria Bello can attest in parallel flashbacks — who hitches a lift and briefly becomes a father figure to a makeshift family of self-perceived misfits. Behind the wheel is a socially retarded, redneck eccentric (Savage Grace’s Eddie Redmayne) with a dire need for Ritalin and a hard-on for the other drifter, a too-trusting teen romantic (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) with daddy issues and an awkward surge of budding sexuality. It’s the mismatched-ensemble-together-in-loneliness formula that Sundance dreams are made of, and the predictables add up: that title image signaling hope from afar; a run-in with the po-po; and occasionally the next line of dialogue. Still, Hurt’s revealed criminal past could’ve been cringe-worthy, and it’s not. All three leads are solidly convincing in their candor. And Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission) shoots the hell out of the swampy South to make for a nontoxic diversion. (Aaron Hillis) (Playhouse, Royal, Town Center)
ZOMBIE GIRL Romero, Cronenberg, Jackson, Snyder: Plenty of directors figured out on their first go-’round that all you need is a script and some zombies to keep the marketability high, the budget low and the pitch brief and breezy. Emily Hagins, an aspiring filmmaker in Austin, took the same track for her debut feature, Pathogen. The difference is that Emily, when we meet her in the behind-the-scenes documentary Zombie Girl, is 12. Directors Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall and Erik Mauck first learned of Hagins’ homemade movie after seeing her casting calls stapled to telephone poles, and while that kind of low-fi, low-budget enthusiasm does a lot to help Zombie Girl charm you, there’s actually a lot more at stake. As Emily’s mom, Megan, supports her daughter’s dream and buckles under the weight of microbudgets, mistakes and make-it-up-as-you-go filmmaking, we get a glimpse of a mother-daughter relationship that has bright blossoms of love but thornier moments, too. Zombie Girl also functions as a neat look inside Austin’s film-buff subculture, where Emily found support from film nerds and filmmakers with a common undying passion for pure horror. (Pathogen’s zombies, Emily emphasizes, do not run.) With giddy-gory title cards by Deborah Allison and a sweet-but-never-saccharine appreciation for dreams, family bonds and fake blood, Zombie Girl, like Pathogen, has rough edges, raw passion and real spirit. (James Rocchi) (Downtown Independent)