Saturday, 3 April 2010

A Prophet; Precious; The Crazies; The Criminal

A Prophet

Anyone who has seen Jacques Audiard’s previous work, particularly The Beat That My Heart Skipped, will know that any new feature is a cause for excitement. French cinema is often typecast as largely bourgeois navel gazing and the attempts to focus on the grittier, urban side of France rarely result in Le Haine, but more likely end up with the cartoon of District 13 or the slickly produced but stereotypical Tell No One.

The prison drama has become a genre of its own, with a lot of time spent analysing the particular situation of men locked up together and a number of resultant tropes. A Prophet is very much of its stable – we have nasty violence between inmates; the poor (mostly) innocent forced to become a worse person in order to survive; the intricate schemes involving the smuggling of contraband; the kindly friend introducing a possibility for the future (in this case as in many, education); the boss man who lives in relative comfort and has a degree of control over how the prison runs; inmates divided over racial lines; and one familiar scenario not isolated to the prison genre and more often found in crime in general – the young man learning the ropes and rising through the ranks.

Although it does feature all of the usual prison drama trappings, there are moments of lyrical beauty and quiet, much like 2009’s sublime Hunger. Reyeb, Malik’s (our anti-hero) first kill, literally haunts him, appearing in his cell throughout the film and voicing his conscience or playing devil’s advocate. Along with these more visual flourishes, there is a certain attention to detail that many other straight prison flicks would habitually miss; one such scene sees Malik (played wonderfully by Tahal Rahim) on a limited release toward the end of his sentence, he is flying to the south coast as part of a meeting on behalf of the Corsicans and has never flown before. After passing through the metal detector the airport security briefly frisk him, and Malik automatically opens his mouth wide and sticks out his tongue, a routine ingrained as part of prison life.

The final scene where Malik walks away from prison a newly free man, with his friend’s wife and baby, is filed with tension and menace as they are followed by a convoy of Mercs and SUVs, indications of his new place in the underworld and that his past will haunt him, no matter what happens.

A Prophet is deserving of the praise heaped upon it and has already made a place for itself in the murky crime genre, it will no doubt be hailed as a classic in years to come.


You know those films where the actors are so convincing that you take it for granted and don’t really feel like anyone’s making an effort? Precious is one of those films. Every actor completely inhabits his or her character, even to the point where you start seriously thinking of Mariah Carey as an actress. Monique? Amazing. Transforms into a completely believable but repulsive monster. Lenny Kravitz. Really? I didn’t even realise until I saw the credits. Somehow they made Lenny Kravitz into an actor, not a cameo or an addition to a star-studded cast but a proper acting-in-character actor. That’s not to mention the numerous people who didn’t have a music career prior to the film, from Gabourey Sidibe in the title role to each of her ethnically diverse mix of classmates, each one of them living and breathing the role and elevating what on paper could be another TV-movie-of-the-week to a captivating and heartbreaking feature.

Precious is a harsh film, one of those that will have the majority of the audience in tears at some point. Dealing unflinchingly with domestic abuse, it must have been an uphill struggle to get it made, let alone garner the exposure and awards that are being bandied around. For once it’s good to see a film that focuses on the poor and downtrodden of urban America without getting caught up in the titillation of drug and gang culture – this story could be about a girl in any city anywhere in the world where poverty and overstretched government resources leave people falling through the cracks.

In many films the dream sequences where Precious imagines a life of fame and success would be corny, but here they help lighten the tone, bringing a brief respite from the problems that she faces.

It’s often hard to recommend films that mainly just make you feel miserable, as despite what some would say there is little joy here, no answers for the problems Precious faces and the people that help her through only highlight the plight of others like her that don’t get that support. However, the film is undeniably moving and if your viewing choices don’t have to all be about sweetness and light or explosions and empty grunting then you should check it out; sometimes a film gets hyped for a reason.

The Crazies

Hollywood’s recent fetish for remaking 70s horror continues with an update of Romero’s non-zombie zombie movie. Arguably less famous than the Dead films, it does make a nice change for them to choose something a little more obscure to dig up and re-heat, though it would be better if they started to go for films that weren’t quite classics. The original Crazies did a decent job in marrying the psychopathic contagion/community containment ideas that have variously cropped up in some form in everything from Outbreak to Rec. Whilst Romero did the live ‘infected’ decades before 28 Days Later, here the emphasis is just as much on the government’s response to the infection as it is with seeing what happens when lots of people go violently mental.

Happily we have some decent chops to get us through the exposition, with Timothy Ollyphant as the town sheriff and Rhada Mitchell as town doctor, a husband and wife team who find themselves part of the governments lockdown shortly after people start going nuts, and together they try and make it to the next town along with Ollyphant’s deputy, played by Joe Anderson.
Like many similar zombie/apocalypse movies, once the initial confusion over infection and government crackdown have happened, it’s mostly a chase movie as our group tries to get to the nearest city for help, stopping off at truck stop diners, supermarkets and abandoned houses along the way all ripe with the potential for hiding crazies and providing jump-out scares and action scenes.
All of the cast play well and there are a few tense scenes (the pitchfork/hospital ward stands out in the memory) sprinkled among those of straight up gory action, but there is little to raise this above a number of similar entries. The Crazies is solid and watchable but it never feels like it adds to the original in the way that Dawn of the Dead arguably did.

The Criminal

The debut feature of writer-director Julian Simpson, The Criminal was perhaps doomed in the way many British features have been for the past couple of decades. Unless it’s a period feature or a rom-com there are few chances of a success, with only a handful of films getting the exposure to break the mainstream, usually based around some sort of plucky underdog situation (the Full Monty, Billy Elliot, East is East).
As a conspiracy thriller about a normal bloke thrust into a seedy and murderous underworld, The Criminal put itself up against decades of stiff competition and with Eddie Izzard as one of the biggest names in the cast it was going to be a hard struggle for blockbuster levels of success.

Whilst the plot is not exactly grounded in reality (think the recent Clive Owen vehicle, The International for an equivalent level of silly/sensible) and ends up with things being tied up a little too quickly right in the last moments, the high quality of acting and the excellent ear for dialogue has you swept up in the story. Whilst there are inevitably a few less than natural clunkers when it comes to having to chuck in a bit of exposition, there is a healthy dose of banter that is hugely enjoyable. The relationship between Bernard Hill and Holly Aird in particular is excellent, as the detectives investigating the central murder, and their chief suspect J, played by Steven Mackintosh. The two genuinely feel like people that have worked together for years, that have come to know each other’s quirks and foibles, and can happily snipe away at each other only to immediate lapse into a shared joke. Hill in particular brings the strongest performance to the film, always lighting up a scene despite the fact that his swearing, slightly pig-headed character could easily be played as caricature.
Izzard is notable for giving one of his better performances here. Whilst there is an element of throwaway casualness that can seem at odds with the situation, for the most part he works well and doesn’t glare as he has done in some miscast roles.
Whilst he has worked steadily in films, appearing regularly since the late 90s, more recent performances tend to be that of supporting roles, those usually afforded to characters actors where his talents work best. Back in the period between 1999 and 2001 Izzard’s inclusion in a movie cast was trumpeted much more loudly than today, at least this side of the Atlantic presumably as a hope that it would add to the domestic box office. Whilst Izzard did work on occasion, in the Criminal and also in Shadow of the Vampire where a certain amount of hamminess was required in the role of a silent film star in what is a slightly camp black comedy, in others he didn’t fare so well – Mystery Men was a fairly decent stab at a super hero comedy based on third rate super heroes but Izzard’s part as one of the super villains stuck out a bit in a cast of zingy, SNL-style comedians. The post Lock, Stock gangster pic Circus was universally panned on release, and whilst it’s a little unfair to dump it all at Izzard’s door he certainly didn’t help.

The Criminal is a decent low budget London thriller, and aside from the strange inclusion of an unhinged yank squatter character (did they have to get an American accent in there by law?) it’s wonderfully written, brilliantly acted and whilst not the glossiest of features it doesn’t look bad for something scraped together in Bethnal Green. It’s a shame that Julian Simpson hasn’t had the chance to make a film again, even if only as a writer he has a definite talent for dialogue and character, but up to now he has been firmly placed in the world of TV with episodes of the likes of the well-respected Spooks, Hustle and New Tricks under his belt. Imdb has news of a new writer/director project One Way Split, so let’s hope this gets more of a chance to gain an audience.