Remember Prophet Zone (Weekly Links)

Tahar Rahim, A Prophet

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

A Prophet. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle piece, dropped from a 20-foot-height, falling miraculously and perfectly into the last missing space in a 1,000-piece puzzle, and you’ll have some idea of the exhilarating effect of the final scene of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet.”

This film was one of the nominees in the foreign-language Oscar category, although it lost to Argentina’s entry. That better be one great movie, because “A Prophet” is a triumph.

The film’s hero is a cousin to the protagonists of “The Godfather” or “Scarface,” but the movie writes its gangland saga without phony mob glamour. In fact, most of it takes place within a harsh prison. As “A Prophet” opens, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim) arrives in jail. A young man who knows absolutely nothing about anything, he is easily exploited by the Corsican gang that rules the yard. He can’t truly be one of them, because of his North African heritage, but the big boss, Cesar  (Niels Arestrup), uses him as a gofer and a go-between—and in one harrowing sequence, an assassin.

The story takes place over six years’ time, and after a while Malik earns enough points to qualify for furloughs. All the while, he learns. He does errands. He curries favor. And he watches. Because Jacques Audiard is not spelling anything out for us, we notice these developments ourselves. He took a similar approach in his two previous films, both superb, “Read My Lips” and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.”

For a while, the virtually-unknown actor Tahar Rahim seems to fade into the wallpaper; yet by the time the intricate deals of the final hour begin to go down, he’s become defined, sharp, sharklike.

It’s something of a mystery–even after the movie is over–whether Malik’s instincts are nearly visionary (that might be why it’s called “A Prophet”) or whether he simply develops improvisatory skills to make the best out of any situations handed to him. Is he a genius or a savant? He’s a good chess player, that’s for sure. And watching him slowly navigate the shoals of the criminal anthill makes for fascinating viewing.

When the final scene comes on, we realize we’ve been guided in a very particular way to this exact spot—the camerawork, the performances, and the droll choice of music bring the curtain down in a very satisfying and sinister way.

Along with winning a major prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and getting the Oscar buzz, “A Prophet” revives a tired genre, the mob picture. Martin Scorsese, eat your heart out.

Green Zone. “Being right about history and making a good movie are two different things.”

Remember Me. “A gimmick or a tragic twist of fate.”

She’s Out of My League. “There are fantasies worked out all over the place.”

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Daniel Ellsberg’s trajectory through American life took a distinct path: as a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, he supported basic Cold War thinking and helped devise ways to expand the Vietnam War; but by the beginning of the 1970s, he was leaking a top-secret government document that revealed the truth about the war.

His shift in attitude is largely the subject of “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” a documentary that (not surprisingly, given Ellsberg’s full participation in it) treats him as the hero of this tale. Nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category this year, it lost to “The Cove.”

Why the change of mind? At one point in the mid-1960s, as the war escalated, Ellsberg went to Vietnam to see how things were going. A former Marine, he plunged into the action and was disturbed by the disparity between what he was seeing and what was appearing in official reports about the war’s progress.

In the documentary, he recalls standing in a rice paddy and turning to the soldier next to him and saying, “You ever feel like the Redcoats?”

After contributing to the top-secret document that would later be known as the Pentagon Papers, he came to the decision he would leak them—to congress, and to the press—even if it meant going to jail.

The resulting fight with the Nixon White House (which included an effort by some of the Watergate burglars to steal information from Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in an effort to discredit him) makes up one of the strongest sections of the movie.

“The Most Dangerous Man” is not notably different from a good PBS documentary, and directors Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith keep it straightforward and simple in telling their story.

They have a good eye for compelling detail. When Ellsberg decided to photocopy the Papers, he enlisted the service of his 13-year-old son in the laborious process, after informing the boy of the historical significance. The idea of father and son feeding pages into the Xerox machine in the middle of the night (as Ellsberg’s daughter cuts off the “Top Secret” part of the copies) gives a surreal twist to the controversy.

Richard Nixon is a presence, too, in the secret tapes he kept in the Oval Office. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard these before, it’s still amazing to hear the president go on about how to “get” his enemies. What a boon to historians, and to documentary filmmakers.

And a preview of the 15h Seattle Jewish Film Festival.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Marcie Sillman about the Oscars and documentaries: here. The movie bit begins at the 14-minute mark.

Movie Diary 3/9/2010

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010). The camera shakes, and so does national integrity, in an Iraq War thriller that does a disconcerting amount of fictional telescoping. (full review 3/12)

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010). I wonder whether Baumbach works backward from his endings, because he sure knows how to put the pieces in order at the fade-out. Ben Stiller as a burnout staying in his brother’s empty house for six weeks, a situation that could serve as an Eric Rohmer premise; Stiller has an especially good moment surveying a crowd of 20-year-olds in his shell-shocked vicinity. (full review 3/26)

She’s Out of My League (Jim Field Smith, 2010). Junior would-be Apatow action, with Jay Baruchel graduating to lead nerd. Not entirely without yoks. (full review 3/12)

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith, 2009). An Oscar loser, but cogent in laying out Ellsberg’s history; some choice excerpts from the Nixon tapes, which astonish even when you’ve heard them before. (full review 3/12)

The Jazz Baronness (Hannah Rothschild, 2009). Totally absorbing account of the woman who tended Thelonious Monk in the last couple of decades of his life, told by her great-niece (or something); both ladies are of the Rothschild clan. Not sure why, but Monk is a fine subject for film – see Straight, No Chaser. (shows in Seattle Jewish Film Festival 3/15)

Human Failure (Michael Verhoeven, 2008). Holocaust documentary with a specific angle: what exactly happened to all the stuff – just the sheer ocean of stuff – that belonged to the Europeans Jews who were murdered, driven away, or simply ripped off. Some remarkable stories, and (like the accounting in Shoah), a sickening litany of efficient German records-keeping of these crimes. (shows in SJFF 3/18)

Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story (Scott Goldstein, 2008). Tribute to Las Vegas Sun publisher Greenspun, who was hanging around for all kinds of interesting moments: Joe McCarthy, Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, even a slice of Watergate. (shows in SJFF, 3/14)