An award magnet, a couple of strong docs and a remake are among the films opening in theaters this week.
"Jacques Audiard's febrile, engrossing prison thriller A Prophet opens the way tragedies often close, with a man forced to choose between his life and his soul," begins New York's David Edelstein. "Malik (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old French Arab, is ordered by the prison's most powerful inmate, the aging Corsican mobster César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), to seduce and slit the throat of a fellow Arab.... Audiard is not exactly a cockeyed optimist, but something inside him fights the bleak scenarios to which he's drawn. He remade James Toback's fatalistic fever dream Fingers as the romantic, relatively upbeat The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and in A Prophet, he seems to be turning De Palma's Scarface inside out and finding the core of self-actualizing inspiration that no climactic hail of bullets could puncture."
"A Prophet is about the education of a young man within a specific social order," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "You could read it as an allegory about France and its uneasy relations with generations of Arab immigrants and their children. As usual, there is room for diverging, even contradictory interpretations, and the political certainly is as much at play here as the Oedipal."
"Malik is a man of the new Europe," declares Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "He may be a rootless orphan who emerged from darkness and has lived his entire life outside the law, but his future is not yet written."
More from Julien Allen (Reverse Shot), Mark Asch (L Magazine), Richard Brody (New Yorker), Nelson Kim (Hammer to Nail), Anthony Lane (New Yorker), Noel Murray (AV Club), Rob Nelson (Voice), Michelle Orange (Movieline), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York), Nick Schager (Slant), Andrew Schenker (Artforum), Matt Singer (IFC), James van Maanen and Armond White (New York Press). Earlier: David Phelps here in The Notebook, reviews from the UK and from Cannes, where the film won the Grand Prix.
Conversations with both Audiard and Rahim: Brandon Harris (Filmmaker), Aaron Hillis (IFC) and Omar PL Moore (Popcorn Reel). Larry Rohter reports on the film's making and influences for the NYT.
Meantime, Eric Lavallee passes along word that "French trades are reporting that the very busy Rahim, will play the male lead in [Lou Ye's] Bitch, a film that will surely be a hot topic film at [Cannes] in 2011."
Update, 2/28: A Prophet swept Saturday night's Cesar awards, reports the AFP.
"Matisse called the Barnes Foundation 'the only sane place to see art in America,'" notes Melissa Anderson. "But the clamor over moving one of the world's foremost collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern art from its home in the bucolic suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania, to center city Philadelphia (4.6 miles away) has been anything but reasonable. Unapologetically on the side of those who oppose the relocation (executive producer Lenny Feinberg is, like many of the doc's impassioned interlocutors, a former student of the Barnes Foundation), The Art of the Steal presents its aesthetes versus Phila-stines argument cogently, convincingly, and engagingly." Also in the Voice, Anthony Kaufman reports: "Art critics and Barnes acolytes are using the film to raise public awareness of what they see as an injustice and, perhaps, spark enough upheaval to obstruct the flow of donations necessary to carry out the move."
Sam Adams opens his cover story for the Philadelphia City Paper by recalling the splash Don Argott's doc made at the Toronto International Film Festival: "It's doubtful any Philadelphian with a passing interest in art needs a refresher on the controversy, but to many at Toronto, the very existence of the Barnes' peerless collection of Impressionist masterworks was a revelation. The astonishment that this trove of masterpieces by Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir, Picasso and many others lay only a few miles outside one of the nation's largest cities and yet remained relatively unknown was matched by a sense of urgency that time to see it in its original location was running out fast."
"Argott remains so intent on mounting a case against those who wish to move the Barnes collection to a place a few miles away where it will be infinitely more accessible to the public, and on presenting a chain of increasingly nefarious corporatized and political villains, that he doesn't allow room for both sides of his argument," finds Fariha Zaman in Reverse Shot. "The contention of these 'villains' that art should be made available to the public, regardless of the owner's original intentions, is given short shrift in favor of a succession of Barnes followers positioned as the little guys holding fast against a vast coterie of powerful institutional evildoers including Ed Rendell, the Governor of Pennsylvania, and the Pew Charitable Trust."
"In this David-and-Goliath story, Goliath kicks the ever-loving shit out of David, and the film is convincing and righteous in its advocacy," argues the AV Club's Scott Tobias.
More from Chris Barsanti (Filmcritic.com), Christopher Campbell (Cinematical), Manohla Dargis (NYT), Nelson Kim (Hammer to Nail), Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY), Benjamin Sutton (L), James van Maanen and Lauren Wissot (House Next Door). Earlier: Reviews from Toronto and the New York Film Festival. Also, Adrian Curry on both the teaser and official posters. Interviews with Argott: Constance Rosenblum (NYT) and ST VanAirsdale (Movieline).
"George Romero's The Crazies (1973) has always existed in the shadow of his zombie movies, but this epidemic thriller is perhaps the horror maestro's most provocative exploration of his great theme: the collapse of social order." Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times on Blue Underground's newly released Blu-ray; more from Eric Henderson in Slant.
"It may come as a shock, but the fanboys reveling in the eviscerations, explosions and Car Wash of Death scene contained in the director Breck Eisner's new take on The Crazies will also be contributing to socially progressive cinema," reports John Anderson in the New York Times. The film's "about a spill of biological weaponry into a small town's water supply and the military response to what ensues: an epidemic of homicidal mania that turns a bucolic Iowa community into a virally induced abattoir. Like many of the better suspense thrillers, from Psycho to Jaws to The Silence of the Lambs, the original Crazies was based on a plausible premise as well as one with an ecological subtext. Enter Participant Media" which "has a mandate to produce profitable cinema with a social-action impulse. The Crazies, as crazy as it might seem, fits right in."
What's more, "nearly everything about it works," finds the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips. "It isn't a period-obsessed riff on 70s gore or a somber deconstruction of it," adds Slate's Dana Stevens, "just a modestly budgeted and not terribly ambitious updating of the formula. That sounds like faint praise, but I quite liked The Crazies. It lacks the fevered sincerity (and the political timeliness) of Romero's original, but it's tightly scripted, cleverly cast, consistently scary, occasionally funny — everything you could ask from a well-made and completely unnecessary remake."
More from Simon Abrams (Slant), Sam Adams, Richard Corliss (Time), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), John Gholson (Cinematical), Mike Hale (NYT), Kurt Halfyard (Twitch), Keith Phipps (AV Club) and Nick Schager. Interviews with Eisner: Seth Abramovitch (Movieline) and Todd Gilchrist (Cinematical). Update, 2/27: A roundup from the Atlantic Wire: "[A]s long as these movies have existed, critics have been happy to read them as social commentary. In the midst of the blood and mayhem, what do cinéastes think The Crazies is really about?"
"In the first twenty or so minutes of Kimberly Reed's marvelous documentary Prodigal Sons, the film's director, who is also one of its main subjects, returns to her small Montana hometown to attend a high-school reunion," writes Michael Koresky at indieWIRE. "En route, she is reunited with her adopted older brother, Marc, with whom she casually mentions she has been estranged for over a decade. Soon, the first bombshell, uttered by Marc from the backseat of a car: his sister Kim, our narrator, used to be his brother, Paul. A third child, Todd, will waft in and out of conversation and the movie itself. Shot in perfunctory home video style with the occasional Big Sky Country visual interlude, these early scenes would seem to establish the film in predictable personal-diary doc territory — and though the structure and aesthetics of the film will not necessarily come to refute this impression, Prodigal Sons turns out to be so much more."
And more from Melissa Anderson (Voice), Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), Kevin B Lee (TONY), Noel Murray (AV Club), Andrew Schenker (Slant) and James van Maanen. For Filmmaker, Damon Smith talks with Reed "about past selves, gender transition, and the ethical challenge of representing family members on film."
"In Udayan Prasad's The Yellow Handkerchief, William Hurt is so effortlessly commanding he upstages even the evocative post-Katrina Louisiana backdrops," writes Sam Weisberg in L Magazine. "As a sideline to her recurring role in the world's most successful vampire franchise, Kristen Stewart has made a mini-career of starring in as many tepid indie projects as possible," notes Andrew Schenker in Slant. "Unfortunately, The Yellow Handkerchief, Udayan Prasad's three-character road drama, seems pretty typical of Stewart's selections, though unlike Cake Eaters, the film fails to provide Stewart the courtesy of a role with scene-stealing potential." As for the third character, for the AV Club's Keith Phipps, Eddie Redmayne's "spastic performance falls somewhere between Justin Bartha in Gigli and Eddie Deezen in, well, anything. Hurt's story, measured out in spoonfuls, feels as familiar as it is insubstantial once it arrives in full. It's nice to see a film unafraid to be quiet and sensitive, but one good gust of coastal breeze would blow this one away."
More from Aaron Hillis (Voice), Stephen Holden (NYT), Nicolas Rapold (TONY), James van Maanen and Armond White (NYP). Kyle Buchanan talks with Maria Bello for Movieline. Conversations with Hurt: Kyle Buchanan (Movieline), Terry Gross (NPR), David Poland (video), Brent Simon (New York) and Chuck Wilson (LA Weekly).
"Directorially challenged Kevin Smith ventures outside his comfort zone by opening Cop Out with an actual aerial shot," notes Nick Schager in Slant. "After that horizon-expanding gesture, however, it's back to the usual ineptness for the former indie wunderkind, whose first for-hire gig is a meandering, sloppy hodgepodge of gags strung together by a narrative beset by superfluous subplots."
"Nothing to see here, keep moving," sighs the Chicago Reader's JR Jones. More from Jeffrey M Anderson (Cinematical), Ed Champion, Richard Corliss (Time), Alonso Duralde (Queer Sighted), Roger Ebert (Sun-Times), Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Karina Longworth (Voice), Michael Phillips (Tribune), AO Scott (NYT, where Jonah Weiner has a backgrounder), Matt Singer (IFC), Scott Tobias (AV Club), Keith Uhlich (TONY), Bob Westal (Bullz-Eye), Armond White (NYP) and Stephanie Zacharek (Salon). Amy Plitt (TONY) interviews Seann William Scott and Kyle Ryan (AV Club) talks with Guillermo Díaz.
"We needed another delicate, comedy-tinged American independent drama about a socially awkward, emotionally stunted creative guy who has a hard time communicating with girls like a hole in the head," sighs Michael Koresky in Reverse Shot. Easier with Practice is "an adaptation of a fact-based short story about a passive young writer, Davey (Brian Geraghty), who begins a phone-sex relationship with a woman who one night randomly calls his motel room while he's on a book-reading tour of the American Southwest." At the very least, writes Chuck Wilson in the Voice, "the weird turns that Davy's life takes always feel emotionally honest, thanks in no small measure to Geraghty's achingly true performance."
More from Manohla Dargis (NYT), Craig Kennedy, Scott Tobias (AV Club), James van Maanen and Armond White (NYP).
"If Toe to Toe were a young-adult novel," writes the NYT's AO Scott, "it would be embraced and argued about in classrooms and eagerly read by thoughtful teenage girls. The film's observations about race, class and friendship are clear and accessible without being overly didactic, and its sometimes harsh candor about female sexuality would not be unfamiliar to devotees of contemporary adolescent literature. But because it is a movie — the first nondocumentary feature film by the writer and director Emily Abt — Toe to Toe is likely to languish in art-house limbo, far from the eyes of its ideal audience."
Joseph Jon Lanthier probably wouldn't mind. In Slant, he writes that it "winds up biting off more urban high school malaise than we can swallow without gagging." More from Aaron Hillis (Voice) and Keith Uhlich (TONY).
"The director of Teen Patti, Leena Yadav, can't quite control [Amitabh] Bachchan, which is good," writes Rachel Saltz in the NYT. "Though he occasionally looks tired, his scenery chewing provides the movie with some of the heat that its card games fail to generate.... And like many artists drawn to gambling themes, she can't resist clunky philosophizing about life, chance and certainty. She even brings in Ben Kingsley, playing a magician and mathematician (they're the same, he says), to give voice to some of her profundities."
"Neither China nor the United States recognizes Formosa (better known as Taiwan) as a sovereign nation, a knotty issue that gets hammered over our heads in this otherwise unpretentious political thriller," writes Aaron Hillis, reviewing Formosa Betrayed for Time Out New York. "[A]ll the heartfelt references to the 228 Massacre and the White Terror don't make this any more thrilling than a Wikipedia entry." More from Aaron Cutler (Slant), Stephen Holden (NYT), Janice Page (Boston Globe) and Nicolas Rapold (Voice).
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