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“You don’t have to like heroes.  The hero in my film is there to illustrate the capacity for resistance of the individual and his ability to make himself his own rules, his own life.” – Jacques Audiard, Director of A Prophet (pictured left)

French director Jacques Audiard’s genre film Un prophete (A Prophet) was one of the major hits on the 2009 festival circuit, winning the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, Best Film at the London Film Festival, and receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.  Although it is a gangster & prison movie,  there is something slightly different in play here.  The gangster film tradition is tied to a gangster’s rise and fall.  What is different here is that we don’t see the fall.  It is strictly the rise.  Is that enough to set this film apart?  Does this film belong only in art-houses because it is subtitled?  Lets take a look.

This is a film that traffics in cultural differences.  Set in a French prison, which is controlled by a Corsican overlord prisoner, Caesar (Niels Arestrup), and then we have newcomer Malik (Tahar Rahim), the film’s hero who is of Arab descent.  The languages in the film fly past fast and furious.  I am fluent in none of the languages used so I am sure there were things that I missed.  But what was obvious was the way that language represented the differences in culture.  Cultural division is standard fare in prison settings.  You need not go further than HBO’s OZ or the National Geographic documentary series Lockdown (available on Netflix Instant).  Every episode of Lockdown shows the cultural self-segregation that occurs within prison communities (it is not a bad show if you can get beyond the really bad VO writing – it’s like Deadliest Catch Super-Max).  Where A Prophet is different is that Malik is culturally adrift.  He starts by fitting nowhere and is able to rise to power by fitting in everywhere.

Like any good prison film, A Prophet gives you a real sense of space.  From the sets to the camera lenses Audiard uses to tell this story, it is very claustrophobic.  We always stay close to the characters.  Prison life is very repetative.  Aside from the violence, life is centered around routine.  This is very prevalent during the film’s first forty-five minutes, from the  prison jobs scenes, to meal times.  A Prophet is able to break out of the prison routine by employing an episodic structure.  It allows the filmmakers to introduce new plots and characters with the barest of introduction, and since the film already runs two hours and forty minutes . . .

Malik comes to prison, and the film, as a blank slate.  He seems to have a criminal past but is certainly not a hardened criminal.  He is French, but viewed by most of the prisoners as a “dirty Arab.”  He has Arab ancestry but does not seem to connect with the Muslim’s prisoners.  The film chronicles Malik’s rise within the underworld of prison politics, while also taking special care to show his steps of education at every step.  It is the detail of this education which raises the film above its genre roots.  We see him always learning, soaking up information, and then using these lessons to better his situation.

“The audience must fly with me, must go where the images take them.  The film, as all good films should be, is rooted in realism, but you must not ignore the poetry, the fiction, the story.  Film is abstract, not definite.  It is a dream.” – Jacques Audiard

With a heady mix of gritty realism and fantasy, A Prophet is a good, and maybe even a really good film.  Although my own personal taste tends towards a more operatic vision of crime, this is certainly a worthwhile film.  You will not only be rewarded with a solid genre experience, but also a pretty interesting character study on education and power.  The film ends with the Jimmie Dale Gilmore version of the Kurt Weill classic, Mack the Knife.  Maybe there will be A Prophet 2?

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To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the book on which the film was based – Click HERE

Bigger, Faster, Stronger* was directed by amateur bodybuilder-turned-filmmaker Christopher Bell.  He dresses, talks, and looks like many of the folks he talks to in his movie.  In this first-person documentary, Bell takes us on a tour of the steroid culture of America, which includes stops within his own family–both of his brothers use steroid.  The film looks at the following question: Are steroids the evil they have been painted to be or have they just been the target of a well oiled media machine on the lookout for the newest item tearing at the very social fabric of our society?  Both sides of the issue are addressed in the film and if the filmmaker began with an agenda, I think it was discarded at some point during the project.  The film’s aim seems to be to pull back the curtain and bring to light the issues: the truth, the spin, and all the questions in-between.  There are plenty of soapboxes to be witnessed in the film, but Christopher Bell is not standing on any of them.

People in the film seem to treat the steroids issue as a moral issue as much as a health one.  And one of this doc’s successes is taking a look at why steroid use is such a vilified issue.  The targets are arbitrary.  It is strongly a political issue.  There was a fairly damning interview with Representative Henry Waxman of California.  While you may remember him as being front and center in the Congressional steroid hearings in Washington, in this interview he is shown to be almost clueless on the issue.  The steroid issue is more than an issue; it’s a cause.  In the moment, Waxman had to do something and yet after the fact he knows almost nothing.  “We as Congress are righteous and are here to protect you, our children and, while we are at it, America’s pastime.”  Yeah, right.

Bell also spoke to Donald Hooton, who testified before Congress about the suicide of his seventeen year old son.  Bell shows how Hooton’s story was used as a cause; a rallying cry for the risks of steroids to the youth of America.  It is a sad story, but the facts seem more cloudy than the clear picture painted by the media.  The media shows people struggling to answer a dreadful question: why did my child kill himself?  Are steroids really the culprit or just an answer to an awful question?    Steroids make for a good sound-bite and the ship has long sailed on the “fact” that they are damaging.  Therefore, a story with steroids in the title doesn’t have to be validated or propped up in any way.  Steroids are bad, end of story.  By the way, there are over 200 different types of steroids.  To speak of “steroids” is already to make the story unclear.  Cut to commercial.

Even with the film’s opening images of Bell’s family, Bigger, Stronger, Faster* became a much more personal story than I expected.  Christopher Bell’s eldest brother, Mike, spent some time wrestling for the World Wrestling Federation (he was a jobber; a filler–put in the ring to lose).  There is high turnover in those positions.  Mike never had a contract and, at some point, the WWF stopped calling.  He was left living on the fringes, trying to keep the dream alive.  Bell’s youngest brother, Mark, is a competitive power-lifter who still uses steroids.  Although the film examines how American culture has displayed and sold the Rambos, Hulk Hogans, Arnolds of the world, it keeps coming back to the personal.  In some ways, the film parallels Maria Shriver’s interview with football player Lyle Alzado.  Alzado blamed steroids for cutting his career short and his subsequent illness.  Alzado’s story brought the steroid issue to the media’s attention; suddenly it was front and center.  And Shriver, while conducting the interview that would bring the steroid issue to the public, also had her own personal connection to the matter–her husband, Former Governor Schwarzenegger, has admitted steroid use in his past.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* was named best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008.  While the film felt a bit sprawling, and maybe a tad long, it was entertaining and informative.  If you have any interest in these issues, you will not be sorry for taking two hours out of your day to give this a watch.

To watch the preview of the film – click HERE

To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the film – click HERE

Available to watch instantly on Netflix

“I have a lot of respect for mass taste.  There is a reason why some things have a mass appeal, and I don’t distance myself from those feelings.” – Paul Jay, Director of Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows

“The virtue of wrestling is that it is a spectacle of excess.” – Roland Barthes, author of Mythologies

At some point in my youth my Saturday mornings went from being about re-runs of cartoons like Jonny Quest and The Superfriends to being about watching professional wrestling.  My love affair was short lived but the images of its stars have remained: Andre the Giant (pictured left with Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka), George “the Animal” Steele, The Junkyard Dog, Rowdy Roddy Piper, wrestling managers like Captain Lou Albano (who I also seem to remember appearing with Cindi Lauper on a number of occasions) and resident “heel” announcer Jesse Ventura.  I also remember Bret “The Hitman” Hart, but my only memories of him are of his pink wrestling tights.  I checked out of wrestling around the time of the first Wrestlemania.  There was a lot of history to catch up on.

“I found that wrestling was a grand, modern day morality play.  This was soap opera, melodrama, it was another way people were trying to explore their emotions – but on a mythic, grand scale populated by giants who personify basic human emotions.” – Paul Jay

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows is a behind-the-scenes doc that follows “The Hitman” during his last turbulent year as a member of the Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF) family.  Filmed in 1996 & ’97 and leading up to the “Montreal Screwjob“, Wrestling with Shadows shows how Bret Hart went from a star in McMahon’s stable to being a wrestler who was too expensive and old (he was in his early 40’s)  to be a worthwhile investment for McMahon.  It was easier to pass Hart on to the rival company, Ted Turner’s fledgling World Championship Wrestling, than to find a new role for him in the changing world of the WWF.  Hart was a good guy; a hero and a champion.  But the wrestling audience was changing; they started to cheer for the bad guys.  Hart explained that the “guys people are supposed to hate are getting loved.”  The wrestling audience’s shifting preferences resulted in a storyline more bizarre than anything I remember from my wrestling-watching days.  Hart needed a new persona.  The WWF turned him into a bad guy, but only in America (he’s Canadian).  Hart began badmouthing the United States.  The storyline was clear: Hart, as a Canadian, was declaring war on the United States.  Hart, when addressing a Canadian audience from the ring, explains: “For me, Canada is a country where we still take care of the sick and the old, where we still have health care, we got gun control, we don’t shoot each other on every street corner.  Canada isn’t riddled with racial prejudice and hatred.”  When did Michael Moore start writing copy for wrestlers?

While wrestling might be seen as fake by many, this was Hart’s life.  Hart would say near the beginning of the film, “I loved being a hero to the kids around the world . . . This was real.”   He seemed really troubled that his persona change might cause him to lose his fans without the possibility of getting them back.  His concern was almost touching.  Almost.  At its core, wrestling is a business; its sports entertainment.  As filmmaker Paul Jay has said, “[wrestling] is a fight over ideals, whether life is going to be about more than making money.”  Jay’s interest was in this struggle.

“In our film, like a drama, [Hart] represents the yearning for the positive hero.  It’s not meant to be a biographical piece.” – Paul Jay

There are some echoes of Wrestling with Shadows in Aronofsky’s fictional film, The Wrestler, which was made ten years later.  While Hart is not nearly as down-and-out as Randy “The Ram”, Hart was just as concerned about his future.  He wanted to leave wrestling “as a success, not as a tragedy” like so many others he worked with had.  Hart would describe wrestlers as being like “circus animals”, tossed away when they outlived their usefulness (wrestlers are not unionized and thus have very little job security).  But Hart, like “The Ram”, is a true believer in the world of wrestling.  He has drunk the Kool-aid.  One can see how much of Hart’s life and identity is tied to wrestling.  In addition to the similarities between Hart and “The Ram”, there was one moment in The Wrestler that seems to have been directly lifted from Wrestling with Shadows.  In The Wrestler, we see Randy “The Ram” playing himself in an old Nintendo game with a neighborhood kid.  In Wrestling with Shadows, Hart is playing himself in a wrestling videogame against one of his sons.  Humn.  Although covering a lot of material, one topic not touched on in Paul Jay’s film is steroids role in the wrestling world.  Guess we will need to watch Bigger, Stronger, Faster* to take a look at that.

To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the film – click HERE

Available to watch instantly on Netflix