In contention for the foreign-film Oscar, in contention to be exact for two more days after its debut on Friday at the Landmark Hillcrest, A Prophet is a sort of Prisoner’s Progress, a brutal and brutally long account of a young Muslim naif who enters a French penitentiary on unspecified charges, gets recruited by the Corsicans as a double agent to knock off a fellow Arab, and from there climbs up the criminal ladder as a man without an ethnicity.
The Corsican and Muslim factions, behind those walls, make a welcome change from their stereotyped American counterparts — the Hispanics, the blacks, the white supremacists — and there’s a good deal of informative and interesting material on the French penal system (e.g., twelve-hour day passes to do mischief on the outside), and yet there’s no great narrative skill in getting it across, only a good deal of murky approaches, unclear connections, loose ends. (What becomes of the maternal hostage photographed, for purposes of intimidation, with a noose around her neck?) And the incident of clairvoyance that gives the movie its title, and the protagonist his temporary epithet, hardly seems central or consequential.
At times a pitch of intensity is reached, but that seems to be an effect more of the hyperventilating music of Alexandre Desplat than of any control of the throttle by director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, tepid thrillers). The performances by mostly unknowns, chiefly Tahar Rahim and chiefly excepting the characterful character actor Niels Arestrup, are nicely contained, in the French style, dedicated to team goals instead of individual glory; and the gritty, frigid, moldy-green image fits in with the overall intent of giving the moviegoer the lowdown if not quite giving him a movie, a diversion. The carrot at the end of the 150-minute stick is a haunting rendition of “Mack the Knife” by the inimitable Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
Brooklyn’s Finest treats what would be an historically bad week for the NYPD as simply the average run. Amid a series of racially charged shooting incidents, three diverse policemen (the brink-of-retirement beat cop, the stressed-out undercover cop, the off-the-rails rogue cop) pursue their individual paths on what we come to suspect will be a collision course but we find out instead is a mere geographical convergence to three separate simultaneous shootings on the same city block. Antoine Fuqua’s return to the precinct of Training Day, opposite coast, holds the attention about as pleasurably as a thumbscrew (if you can imagine it), with Ethan Hawke now graduated from rookie to the rank of Bad Lieutenant, trying desperately to finance a real-estate deal with confiscated drug money while behaving as if he is at the same time trying to kick heroin or else to win a scholarship to the Actors Studio. His purpose, his function, seems to be to make the other cast members (Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Wesley Snipes, Will Patton, Brian O’Byrne) look good in comparison, and from that angle he succeeds spectacularly.
Cop Out, a different view of the NYPD, is a by-the-book buddy comedy about black and white patrol partners whose apparently unrelated cases involving Mexican drug runners and a stolen baseball card conveniently dovetail. The sneering and snarling bad guys are played murderously straight, but they’re still funnier than the smirky white (Bruce Willis, on automatic pilot) and buffoonish black (Tracy Morgan, almost incomprehensible at a bellow, and indeed he spends a lot of his time bellowing). This is director Kevin Smith’s first time out as a hired gun, strapped with somebody else’s script (Robb and Mark Cullen’s), a script sufficiently potty-mouthed by most standards but perhaps not by Smith’s. After the likes of Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, no one but the clinically delusional could feel disappointed in him.
The Crazies is Breck Eisner’s remake of a lesser-known George Romero horror show from 1973, a therefore more defensible remake than those of the Dead series, for which we can hope that Romero (credited as executive producer) received decent compensation. The no-nonsense line of action to do with a contagion of homicidal lunacy in rural Iowa, caused and exacerbated by military misconduct (if it matters), is mostly routine, but the scene in the car wash, with the assailants obscured by shampoo suds and rotating brushes, rises slightly above. Timothy Olyphant, though he’s got the voice for it, does not look likely by this route to become the next Clint Eastwood, yet he gives a creditable effort as the town sheriff, together with the plain-named Joe Anderson as his good-ole-boy deputy. And while it may seem a little strange to regard as a Scream Queen someone who has worked with Woody Allen, Robert Benton, Marc Forster, Lisa Cholodenko, among others, Radha Mitchell appears hell-bent on getting us used to the idea.
We’re a week away from the seventeenth annual San Diego Latino Film Festival (sdlatinofilm.com), March 11 through 21 at the UltraStar Mission Valley in Hazard Center. I cannot realistically expect it to top or equal the sixteenth annual (Carlos Saura, who last year gave me Fados, will be represented by Io, Don Giovanni, the backstage period drama of the genesis of a Mozart opera), but I’m game once again to plunge into the jungle.