A Prophet (2009)

★ ★ ★ ☆

I suppose the fact that I refrained from giving A Prophet four stars could be construed as fairly harsh criticism. I assure you that I'm not going to go all Armand White, though I did enjoy his overstated review. A Prophet was a very enjoyable film, laced with several riveting scenes. The first murder scene (yes, there's a murder in a movie about prison violence) is among the most intense scenes you'll see anywhere. The themes of Arabs in French culture, and the prison as a farm team for criminal organizations were handled particularly well. Good as it was, it was far from perfect.

From a technical standpoint, A Prophet was pretty solid. The acting was great all around; the cinematography was exceptional. Malik (Tahar Ratim) maintained a prophetic demeanor (as it were), even in the most chaotic scenes. Director Jacques Audiard was able to create (what I assume to be) a more authentic incarceration experience than most viewers have ever experience. He managed to capture the claustrophobia, the degradation, and the sheer terror of
life in a maximum security prison.

My problems were twofold. First, I couldn't stand the ending. When contrasted with it's closest cousin, The Godfather, it's ending comes up short. To avoid spoilers, I will refrain from further comment on this point. Second, the prophetic elements muddled the point of the film. There were the subtle allusions to Muhammad, such as the 40 days in solitary, which added greatly to the film, and then the supernatural elements, like his prophetic dreams. The supernatural elements were problematic, from a normative perspective.

Essentially, A Prophet can be interpreted as an allegory for the rebellion against colonialism. After all, it is about an immigrant prisoner, who can neither read, nor write the language of overseers. He is taken on as a servant by the Sicilian prisoners, who treat him like a dog. The combination of the anti-colonial theme, and the quasi-religious elements bothered me. If religious assumptions are going to be incorporated into a film, it should be done without losing site of the moral implications. If Malik is actually a prophet, then what do his brutal actions tell us about his faith? Are drug lords the new shepherds? Either Audiard is implying that there is a God, who is quite evil, or is being inconsistent. I assume the latter is the case.

In an interview, Audiard stated that "The character of the Prophet heralds this new criminal prototype: he’s not a psychopath, he’s intelligent and almost angelic." This is what makes Malik fascinating. The religious allusions are great, but the outright supernatural elements bring up too many metaphysical questions that undermine the film. Though A Prophet is not perfect, it is a must see. Just don't let the hype create unrealistic expectations.


Things We Lost In The Fire (2007)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Some actors are typecast early in their careers. They are doomed to play the same role over and over, with decreasing success. Benicio Del Toro is one of the rare exceptions to this rule. Most of Del Toro's major roles have dealt with drugs, and addiction. Even his most recent role, The Wolfman dealt with the subject of addiction obliquely. Yet somehow, Del Toro seems to add an additional layer of complexity to his oeuvre with each role. In Fear and Loathing, he played a comedic, yet frightfully erratic junkie. In Sin City, he played a merciless, abusive drunk. His character in Things We Lost In The Fire provides a stark contrast.

Things We Lost In The Fire is a story about the fallout of a homicide. Audrey (Halle Berry), plays a widow, left with a young family, and the grief of her husband's recent death. Jerry (Del Toro), her husband's best friend, is a drug addict who is shaken by the death of his only friend. Jerry has avoided Audrey for years, since she disapproved of her husband's relationship with a heroin addict. Were it not for her husband's demise, she may not have ever seen him again. He likely would have died in an alley somewhere. This is how she felt it ought to have been.

This was arguably Del Toro's best role to date. Jerry seems to represent a best case drug rehab scenario, though we're always aware of his vulnerability. He is eerily detached, especially when listening to music or having a cigarette. He seems to immerse himself in these activities the way that only a recovering addict could. Halle Berry was no slouch either. There is a fine line between depressed and mopey. She deserves major credit for straddling that line. It's rare to see two actors so excel in such difficult roles simultaneously. There was a kind of synergy that is quite rare.

Though the acting made the movie, Susanne Bier's gritty directorial style certainly complemented the leading roles. Shifty camcorder shots helped accentuate the sense of disarray. This disarray would momentarily stop every time the camera peered into Halle Berry's eyes, or paused on Del Toro's face. It's as though Bier was trying to plunge the audience into the depth of their souls. From this close, we could just see that tiny glimmer of hope left for them. This is one of the most mature, and ultimately hopeful cinematic treatments of grief, and addiction. A wonderful English language debut for Susanne Bier.


Clash Of The Titans (2010)

★ ★ ☆ ☆

Generally my expectations for action movies are quite low. Things blow up, the bad guys die, and we all live happily ever after. My expectations were a bit different for Clash of the Titans. Given how heavily it relies upon supernatural phenomena, I assumed that it was either going to be really good, or really bad. As a movie about a war between mortals and deities, there are obvious logical problems that can hinder the film. Given the fuzzy metaphysical assumptions that are adopted, any sort of realism is nearly impossible to achieve. The only potential saving grace would be if that very metaphysical scheme made an interesting philosophical point. From the outset, it seemed likely that it would be a train wreck.

Admittedly, I was wrong: Clash of the Titans was neither good, nor bad. It did a reasonable job of reigning in the excesses of supernatural movies, though didn't achieve the philosophical importance of a film like 300. Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, and Ralph Fiennes all put in respectable performances. Louis Leterrier deserves credit for taking a difficult screenplay, and making it watchable. While the screenwriters didn't entirely drop the ball, they wrote in their fair share of cliches and fell into some of the expected traps of supernatural films. I was satisfied, though after having walked out of Alice in Wonderland, I'd have been happy with just about anything.

Alice In Wonderland (2010)

★ ☆ ☆ ☆

There isn't much to say about Tim Burton's Alice. It was the first movie that I actually walked out of and got a refund. The CGI was creepy, and the subtexts were extremely lewd for a kids movie. I don't think Burton really knew who his audience was. It isn't really appropriate for children, yet is completely uninteresting for adults. As a big fan of Tim Burton, and an even bigger fan of Johnny Depp, I was extremely disappointed (though I couldn't sit through enough of it to actually see Johnny). I'm at a loss for words.