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Sept. 15, 6:30 p.m., Roy Thomson; Sept. 17, 11:45 a.m., Scotiabank 1



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A Prophet

Jacques Audiard (France)

***

This first-rate prison drama follows the criminal career of a young Arab inmate in a French jail. Echoing The Godfather, it's a tale of a man who goes from humiliation to twisted triumph in a prison world where normal co-operative social values are turned upside down. Nineteen-year-old Malik el Djebena (Tahar Rahim) enters jail on a six-year stretch and immediately finds himself forced to kill a fellow Arab by the reigning Corsican crime boss. Soon, Malik becomes the despised servant of the Corsicans, learning their operations from the inside, while gradually forging ties with the Muslim hoods who make up the other major prison group. Stretched over years, the film is sometimes bewildering in outlining the complex alliances and rivalries between the gangs and their bosses, but Audiard's sensationally directed set pieces and the quietly compelling performance by Rahim hold interest throughout. L.L.

Sept. 13, 6 p.m., Elgin; Sept. 15, 2:45 p.m., AMC 3



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The Road

John Hillcoat (USA)

***

Like No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy's The Road cries out for a screen adaptation. Hillcoat's answer to that cry is respectfully faithful to the text and skillfully evocative of its postapocalyptic setting - a frigid world of ashen snow where crops have failed, buildings stand empty, cars are rusted hulks, all energy has withered, and no birds sing. There, foraging for scraps and dodging ravenous cannibals, a father and son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) head south to a grey sea, carrying between them the flickering flame of decency and the dying embers of love. The two principals are superb, and the direction is resonant in its very restraint. But there's still something missing, the quality that gave the novel both its gravitas and its near-unbearable poignancy. Which is? Simply the rhythm, the texture, the faint Biblical echoes of McCarthy's prose. With them, The Road is an odyssey; without them, it's a journey. R.G.



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Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags

Marc Levin (USA)

***

An expertly crafted HBO documentary on the American garment industry contained within a few blocks of midtown Manhattan, from turn-of-the-century sweatshops to the mid-century rise of family businesses to today's current shell of an industry. The major touchstones are all here, with a trove of archival footage. There's the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, which saw 146 workers burned alive or killed jumping to the street below - a disaster which led to unionization. There's the rise of the eccentric owners in the schmatta, or rag, business, often from Jewish and Italian backgrounds. But now - following the rise of celebrity designers by the 1970s, the union-busting of the 1980s and the globalization of the 1990s - jobs have headed to ghastly sweatshops overseas, disseminating the workaday garment manufacturing industry in New York. All that's left is marketing, hype and widespread unemployment. The documentary frames this as an omen of where many industries are headed. But what of successful independent designers and emerging smaller-scale clothiers, accessory companies and shops? That's outside this film's scope, which is focused squarely on the big picture. G.D.

Sept. 14, 5 p.m., AMC 10; Sept. 16, 5:15 p.m., AMC 2

A Serious Man

Joel and Ethan Coen (USA)

***

This is every bit as dark as No Country for Old Men, but a whole lot funnier. The Coens have set their black comedy in the cookie-cutter suburbia of the late sixties, then centred it around the travails of a latter-day Job called Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). A math professor entwined in his very own "uncertainty principle," he's a nebbish struggling to become a mensch, and failing miserably, beset on all sides by a geometric progression of calamities and humiliations - a wife who leaves him, kids who ignore him, a brother who tries him, rabbis who patronize him, colleagues who deceive him, doctors who diagnose him, neighbours who tempt and torment him. Yes, his deck of deuces can definitely seem stacked, and the parable suffers on occasion from an artifice more clever than convincing. At times, we too need Job's patience, but there's enough lively wit and bleak wisdom to see us through. Just as satisfying is Stuhlbarg's performance. At the eye of life's dreck-storm, and on screen almost continually, he's a meek marvel, serving up a lesson in humility that the humble would do well to skip. R.G.

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