Thursday, March 4, 2010

Un Prophète

Peace Be Upon Him...

In Jacques
Audiard's, Un Prophète an Arab teenager is born again into a French prison as an infant of sorts. He is unformed, unshaped, and completely vulnerable, yet despite this, he is gifted with a boundless capacity to observe, imitate, and navigate the almost infinitely hostile world that surrounds him. Throughout the course of the movie he will be adopted, baptized, learn to speak, read, survive, prosper, and eventually transcend the circumstances of his "birth." Similar to the story of another titular prophet, he enters a cave of sorts both illiterate and orphaned and emerges from a world of darkness and ignorance into one of power and revelation, where the costs of both are paid in blood.

When Malik (Tahar Rahim), the main character in Audiard's film, is introduced, we know nothing of him, save the few basic details that will define his existence inside the beast: he is an Arab, he is illiterate, has no family to speak of, and has been convicted of assaulting a police officer and sentenced to six years inside. Yet, all of these trappings and signifiers of identity mean little or nothing to Malik. We get not the slightest hint of who he is, or more likely was, outside of incarceration. He has little interest in, or even knowledge of religion--while being processed he is confused when asked about his dietary requirements, and later claims to not know which language he spoke first, Arabic or French--he is an empty mold, which will be filled with the signs, faith and knowledge of a criminal education.

This education starts early on when the Corsican gang leader, Cèsar (Niels Arestrup), who runs the prison recruits Malik to kill a snitch hiding out in the segregated Muslim unit of the prison, by telling him if he does this favor for him he will be under the gang's protection, and if he doesn't they'll kill him. A grim predestination begins to takes effect, as the actions set before Malik take shape and solidify with a terrifying life of their own. His baptism begins in earnest as he rehearses how to properly tickle someone's balls before spitting out a razor blade and slashing their throat under the guise of the ole' drugs for blowjob setup. Simply put, the tension created by everything leading up to this murder is one of the best and most harrowing sequences put to film in recent memory. What is most impressive is that before his carotid artery is opened, the unfortunate Reyeb, imparts key lessons that will define Malik's character for the rest of the movie. Namely: not everyone is your friend, so the only rational course of action is to be in control of every situation, every transaction. And perhaps most importantly he tells Malik that the idea is to leave prison smarter than when you came in. The murder he commits is a form of revelation, and from that point on, he leaves every situation he enters smarter than before.

Proving that few things are more intimate than murder, Reyeb sticks around as a kind of ghostly soul/roommate, appearing before Malik while on fire, or simply smoking out of the open fold in his neck to advise him or merely shoot the shit. Is Reyeb a vision telling him what to do? Or is he simply a part of his own mind telling him what he wants to become? It is a question that adds resonance to a vision that comes into play later while Malik is advancing his criminal degree while on furlough from prison in Marseilles. This series of leave days--granted for good behavior-- gives Malik opportunity to put his lessons to good use in the outside world, and develop into a formidable figure running hash and making connections that extend beyond the reach and charity of his Corsican benefactors. It also affords a chance to get on a plane and see the ocean for the first time, and in a particularly nice touch, as he goes through airport security, he spreads his arms to be scanned by a metal detector and then out of an institutionalized force of habit opens his mouth wide and sticks his tongue out.

It is Malik's vaguely defined sense of identity and enigmatic character that allows him to rise to the top of the micro-world of prison, and perhaps even more in the one outside. He is an Arab errand boy to the Corsicans, and a sell-out stooge to his Muslim "brothers." This seeming lack of a defined role or place is what allows him to deftly navigate the path that is set out for him early on. The pressure-sealed universe of a prison, rigidly and violently defined by its tribes and allegiances, is only a more condensed and claustrophobic version of the society that builds it. On the outside, people of a minority just have more territory than a kitchen, laundry or cell block to cloister themselves in. France has whole housing projects for that. Rejecting social classification is hard enough on the outside, and impossible in prison. Yet, our main character manages somehow, a miracle in its own right. The film is certainly a comment on the state of immigrants, and Arabs in particular in a nation and culture that seemingly wants nothing to do with them. The film seems to say that in a nation and world where lines of state, language, religion, and nationality continue to disintegrate, the individual least tethered to anyone of these is the one most capable. The only real prophecies are self-fulfilling ones, and for someone like Malik, prison is the strange, brutal, and perhaps only means of making real a vision he already had of himself.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Black Sabbatical

Again...so sorry for my rather extended absence here at The Leader, but you see I have something of a real life now which makes this whole "blogging" thing increasingly difficult, as it's a medium for shut-ins of the unemployed, deranged, unhinged, or simply depressed variety. So to all fifty or so of my readers, stick with me, I'll have my review of Antichrist ("The date movie of the year!" or "Sam Raimi meets Ingmar Bergman!") up before the weekend. Stay tuned, maybe something special tomorrow as well.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Zombieland

Ready...Set...Woody Harrelson!!

By all accounts
, I shouldn't have liked Zombieland as it parodies my beloved zombie genre mainly by ignoring every one of its central themes, ideas and conventions. Rather than a day, night or week of the dead, Zombieland plays more like a road movie about a family of Depression-era, hobo children grifting their way across the country while being chased by--in this case undead, and blood-spewing--shopkeepers, rubes, and train conductors. In fact, outside of the very beginning, and a fairly satisfying slaughter at the end, the zombies play almost no role at all and the gore was tepid at best. Unlike Shaun of the Dead which stands alone as both a perfect zombie film and perfect zombie film parody, Zombieland is simply a comedy with some zombies. Where Shaun got all its laughs from dealing crisply from the Romero deck with a dash of a British comedy of manners, Zombieland owes much more to the work of a certain comedic actor--who makes a hilarious cameo appearance as himself about halfway through the movie-- than anything the horror genre has ever produced. The film is more early Ivan Reitman and John Landis, than Romero, but that's hardly a bad thing. At a lean 80 minute running time, Zombieland was like a cinematic bit of Halloween mini-candy: not too much, sweet, chewy, easily consumable and arriving just in time for the season.

While it may have been a brief treat that was mostly a funny and thoughtless romp, there is one large caveat, one interesting idea, that I think warrants its inclusion in the zombie canon. The film itself may not have even been totally aware of it, but its comedic pedigree and complete lack of any sense of doom or danger, makes Zombieland the first movie in the genre to focus entirely on not just how much fun a zombie apocalypse would be, but also make the case for how vastly improved this nation would be by a plague of the undead. There has always been some element of wish fulfillment in apocalyptic film, as who doesn't take at least some pleasure in seeing this stinking society and species spit out its last gasps, and what's more who wouldn't want to emerge unscathed from the ruins to enjoy all the benefits of a newly depopulated American landscape? (And If you haven't had similar thoughts, you've clearly never had to walk across 34th St. in Manhattan.) This film takes that nugget of adolescent eschatological fantasy and makes the explicit case that the only possible way for the life of the American beta-male to ever become tolerable is through cannibal holocaust.

Played here by Jesse Eisenberg, doing his virginal-neurotic thing again, "Columbus" certainly wasn't doing or amounting to anything great before the end of the world, and is depicted as something of a stand-in for the audience and screen-writers presumably, you know those geeks who stay in Friday nights and watch zombie movies, or spend Saturday morning writing about them. You see, contemporary American society has so very little to offer those quiet, sensitive souls, whereas The Zombie Apocalypse has so much. For starters, the death and putrefaction of almost every other human will immediately give you the opportunity to meet and hang out with much cooler people, like Woody Harrelson, and more importantly, you'd now have a definite chance with all those hot girls who previously wouldn't give you a second look back when most people still had faces that weren't partially eaten. Just the fact that you're both still breathing is a perfect ice-breaker, and all those other assholes who are the secret bane of the existence of every smart, sensitive guy are finally fucking dead, or deadish, so you can fill them with the all the .12 gauge buckshot you've long wished you could.

In Zombieland, the Plague is just the opportunity to live out all of those teenage fantasies that exist just beneath the facade of reasonable, lawful, civilized behavior. Namely, zombies would give us the opportunity for the completely guilt-free indulgence of things like playing with guns, shooting people, hitting them with baseball bats, driving drunk, destroying property, looting, squatting, and almost every other kind of hilarious and gratifying mayhem one could think of. So basically, Zombieland is a lot like Americaland, except you--the shy, nice guy--get to be captain of the team, pull off the big win, and get the girl, all totally consequence-free. Bring on the walking corpses please.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Work Not Play



All apologies for the rather sparse posting as of late, I know I've been MIA this week, but I'm unfortunately burdened with a real job for the moment...one where I can't just pretend to look busy, but really dick around on the internet like every other job I've ever had.


I've come to expect certain standards of myself regarding the near daily output of high quality drivel we've all come to know and love here, so I promise to have "Zombieland" up by the end of the week, and I'll do my best to keep the streets wet with that good dope during this drought.

Also...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Underworld

My little travelogue around NYC continues with a trip to the A, C, E Circle of Hell...





The Journey continues here...

Wanted: Sexual Tyrannosaurs

What's this? They're casting a bunch of slack-jawed faggots in the new Predator movie? Via io9 and LG&M, I see that the likes of Adrien Brody and Topher Grace will be filling the boots of Bill Duke, Jesse The Body, Sonny Landham, and Arnie. Adrien Brody weighs about a buck-twenty, soaking wet. I could kick his ass, a Predator? Sheeeet....

If it bleeds, we can kill it....

I was excited by the back story for the new movie, where an all-star team of ultimate, bad-ass killers from Earth (Russian mafia hitman, Salvadoran Death Squader, neo-nazi prisoner, and Danny Trejo) are shanghaied and taken to the prehistoric jungle of the Predator home world, where they are to be hunted down in sort of a Pro-Bowl of killing. I like that they're taking Predator back to its roots, back to the jungle for some brutal tooth and nail, hunter/hunted type ish, but again...Adrien Brody? Those familiar with the Predator mythos, know that a Predator will only kill those capable of defending themselves, only those either armed to the teeth or who will put up enough of a fight to warrant the collection of their skull and spinal column. I'm not sure where the fun is in hunting down and killing some waifish hipster is...wait, scratch that, I see where the fun is, but I'm not sure a Predator would. As Robert Farley points out, the best part about the original Predator was that Apollo Creed was the bookish, nerd type in a group of manly men hewn from granite.

Manpower...

I want to have me some fun tonight, and I'm holding out hope for Long Tall Sally, but I think it may be best to just bleed this one...real quiet.

Update -- As I understand from what I've read, Topher Grace will be playing a quiet, unassuming serial killer-type, so that could work, but Adrien Brody as a Leader of men? If you're using the original Predator as our Bible, and really why wouldn't you, the correct question is not, "Can I imagine Adrien Brody going face to crab-face with a Predator?" but rather "Can I imagine him one day being a duly-elected and sworn-in Governor of a major American state?" Or President for that matter, because if we're being honest, if it wasn't for our stupid Constitution, Arnold would be our Leader...

Let's take a dip into the archives all the way back to February of this year, for a bit of Leader Classic, where in I examined the real and imagined political careers of Predators, porn-stars, and Val Kilmer, in the post "The Iceman Cometh."

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Serious Man

The Jew Who Wasn't There...

Big questions about faith, God, and mortality surround small people and the even smaller vagaries of fate and circumstance in the work of the Coen Brothers. However, all those big questions are posed not as religious or philosophical queries but more as punchlines in the great cosmic joke of life. Old Testament references are sown throughout their work, be it the Song of Solomon in Miller's Crossing, Genesis and The Book of Daniel in Barton Fink, and probably the whole thing somewhere in the The Big Lebowski. Yet, if there is a common denominator to the Coen's entire body of work it is the utter absence of any controlling order, morality or meaning in the universe, so why then would God figure so largely in their films? I think the answer lies in the fact that the God of the Old Testament is their favorite fictional character. They relate to him, because who other than those sarcastic tricksters could get one of their favorite creations to try and butcher his own kid, or inflict any number of other cruelties for a bit of a laugh? So, it is fitting that their latest would be a take on the Book of Job, a biblical shaggy-dog story already in The Brothers mold. Much like the God of Abraham, the Coens know that there is nothing funner than to create a universe, fill it with interesting characters, beset them with all manner of major and minor calamities and disasters and then listen to the cries of "Why? Why? Why?" roll in, from both your creations and their audience.

A Serious Man is maybe the Coens most personal film to date and as Todd McCarthy of Variety points out, the kind of the movie you can only make after winning a few Oscars. Who else could do a black comedy about Judaism set in the suburban Minnesota of the late 1960s? The film opens with something of a Yiddish ghost story set in the "old country" where an encounter with what may or may not be a dybbuk, (a cameo by Fyvush Finkel), sets in motion what may or may not be a curse which plays itself out through the generations all the way to 1967 and our lead nebbish, physics professor Larry Gopnik, played with hilarious deadpan by Michael Stuhlbarg, whose life goes to complete shit in the weeks leading up to his son's Bar Mitzvah as circumstances conspire to test his faith. His tenure is threatened by anonymous letters denigrating him, a Korean student tries to bribe him for a passing grade, he has unwittingly joined the Colombia records club, his possibly, maybe anti-Semitic neighbor is encroaching into his lawn, his daughter is stealing from his wallet, his son is in turn stealing from his sister to buy a lid of pot, his semi-insane brother (Richard Kind) is crashing on his couch and perpetually hogging the bathroom, and to top it off his wife is leaving him for a smarmy, over-touchy widower.

It's enough to make even the most devout confront the lyrics to the Jefferson Airplane song that bookends and forms something of a coda to the film. Indeed, what Larry thought to be the truth was lies, and what's more, all the joy within him dies. In other words--in typical Coen fashion--these events snowball into a bizarre series of mishaps, all of which our lead character has absolutely no control over, save for mounting financial obligation. Larry seeks solace in the Jewish tradition and attempts to find meaning for his suffering in the counsel of a series of Rabbis. Why would Hashem give us all of these questions but none of the answers? And what good is religion if its only answer is that it's not our place to ask? Of course, Larry gets no satisfaction from consulting the rabbis and maybe more surprisingly, gets no answers from smoking weed with a foxy neighbor given to nude sunbathing. Larry's search for meaning and reason for his numerous tribulations stands in contrast to his job as a physics professor, where in front of a giant blackboard filled with mathematical equations, he tries to explain things like Schrödinger's Cat--and similar to Tony Shalhoub's monologue in The Man Who Wasn't There--the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. All things which point to the essentially random nature of the universe, be it in Quantum Mechanics or the trivialities of everyday life, in which these principles find their expression. For Larry, in physics as with Judaism, the only true meaning to be found is in uncertainty.

Because A Serious Man, takes place in the Coen universe, it is given to demonstrations of not so much the banality of evil or suffering, but rather their absurdity. And similar to the one we inhabit when we leave the theater, the Coen universe is so meticulously crafted that the absence of an inherent order seems almost impossible. How could something of such exquisite function arise from something so absurd and meaningless? As such, we are left to pour over every detail and scene with an eye for an ever elusive tidbit or revelation that will bring the grand narrative into sharp focus. Of course, with the Coens and God we see everything through that glass darkly and the joke is always on us...and God doesn't even have Roger Deakins as his cinematographer.

Bonus -- Stay seated for the entire credits and you'll get an Easter Egg assuring you, "No Jews were harmed in the making of this film."