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Teströl és lélekröl (2017)
I loved everything about this film
Who would have thought that scenes of two deer, slowly moving through a snowy forest, could be so meaningful? Apart from being beautiful nature shots, there is a special meaning to them in this film, when it turns out that the two protagonists both dream of being a deer. That's the magic of cinema: to give images a deeper emotional meaning than they seem to have at first sight.
I loved everything about this film. The slightly bizarre story to begin with: two people discover that they're having the same dream every night. The way they discover this is priceless in itself. I also loved the two characters: both are slightly handicapped, one physically and the other one emotionally. Actress Alexandra Borbély is great, playing a girl with autistic spectrum disorder. And above all I loved the way the director takes her time to let the story develop: slowly but very deliberately, taking care of every small meaningful detail.
This is a very tender movie. The viewer can't help but sympathize with these two lonely people, both trying so hard to understand each other. It's making a great case for human dignity, mutual understanding and tolerance.
Drama about how people cope with life and its dissapointments
The title of this film says a lot about its theme. Just like the façade of a building can give a wrong impression of what's behind it, the lead characters in this film are different from who they pretend to be.
The movie is about Alex, an translator who seems to lead a succesful life but in reality has doubts about her relationship with her unfaithful partner Claus. And it is also about her father, who suffers from dementia but has difficulties accepting this.
The father-daughter relationship is tested when Alex's mother one day dissapears without leaving a note or a message. Her dissapearance is triggered by certain events in the past, the nature of which is very slowly uncovered during the film.
The screenplay is clever: the film starts and ends with a scene in which the viewer discovers that Alex has a big scar on her leg. This scar is the result of the past events of which the true nature is only revealed at the very end of the film.
Façades is a drama exploring the way people interact and try to understand each other's behaviour. It is filmed in an unhurried and quiet way, in warm, saturated colours. It's not a tear jerker filled with strong emotional moments, but a drama about how people cope with life and its dissapointments. A strong acting performance is given by veteran actor Johan Leysen, who plays the elderly father, and seems to have no trouble switching from pride and dignity to shame and helplessness.
A lot to enjoy, but could have been much better
What a shame the Coen brothers didn't make the screenplay for Suburbicon into a movie themselves. I'm sure they would have done a better job than director George Clooney. They would have disposed of all the political correctness Clooney couldn't do without. In the hands of Ethan and Joel, this could have been a terrific neo-noir like 'Blood Simple'. Stylish, funny, dark, straightforward.
Instead, Clooney has turned the screenplay into a much too complicated film, with an unnecessary and overdone sub-plot. It lacks the subtle mix of humor, absurdity and cruelty of the Coen-movies. Apart from Oscar Isaac's wonderful but small part as a smooth talking insurance agent, the casting is not right. Matt Damon lacks credibility as an all-American dad who decides to get rid of his wife.
To be clear: there is a lot to enjoy. There are some very nice scenes, for example when Damon's son hides under a bed and hears a bloody fight going on in the room. The camera stays with the kid under the bed during the whole scene. The only visible parts of the fighting men are their shoes. The setting is also very attractive: a model suburbs from the fifties. And, of course, the screenplay is so good that it's impossible to ruin the film. Damon slowly sinks deeper and deeper into a pool of crime and violence he couldn't have dreamed in his worst nightmare.
But the essential problem with this film is that it's not clear what it is exactly. On the one hand it is a satire on the American dream in the fifties, with its shiny colourful surface and its rotten core of racism and materialism. And on the other hand a crime story with dark humour. Clooney should have considered making two separate films.
The Square (2017)
Powerful satire about modern western society
A man's nice, comfortable and structured life is turned upside down by a sudden incident. This was the case in Ruben Östlund's film 'Turist' from 2014, and it is again the case in 'The Square'. But this time, the film is more ambitious. Not only the values of the lead character are questioned, but also Swedish society as a whole, and maybe even western civilization itself.
In 'The Square', museum manager Christian has to cope with a multitude of crises. After his wallet has been stolen, he succeeds in getting it back by working out a clever plan, but this soon backfires in an unexpected way. At the same time, a press campaign for a new museum exhibition turns into a public relations disaster. And on top of all this, a one night stand with an attractive American journalist also takes its toll.
Östlund tackles a lot of themes. 'The Square' is about an art project meant to promote human kindness and mutual understanding, but Christian is not so kind and understanding towards many of his fellow citizens. It is a metaphor for the way Sweden handles its immigrant population. Another theme is freedom: modern art is supposed to be a domain of ultimate freedom of expression, but when the museum issues a very provocative campaign, Christian is forced to backtrack. And there is the arts theme: Östlund enjoys himself ridiculing the modern art community with its hollow phrases and self-indulgence.
This last theme is shown in one of the most hilarious and at the same time unsettling scenes of the movie, in which guests to a fund- raising dinner are treated to the performance of an ape-man. This wonderful scene alone is worth seeing the film.
There are many scenes like this, balancing between funny and disquieting. Another example is an early scene, in which Christian thinks to have rescued a terrified woman from an aggressive man, only to find out that his wallet and his smartphone have been stolen. These scenes are the strongest moments of the film. In others, Östlund rubs in the message with a bit too much emphasis. For example, when Christian records a movie with his smartphone, in which he repents for his insensitive behaviour.
'The Square' is a powerful satire about modern western society, and it has some very good scenes. But is also a bit fragmented and aimless, because Östlund wants to convey too many messages at the same time.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Agatha Christie, 21st century style
It sounds like a fun idea. Take a classic Agatha Christie-story which has last been made into a film more than forty years ago, put together an ensemble cast with a mix of Hollywood stars and British stage actors, and see what 21st century film making can add to that.
As for that 21st century treatment: computer generated effects can certainly spice up even a traditional film like 'Murder on the Orient Express'. I was impressed by the images of the steam train moving through Istanbul as it must have looked in the 1930's. Or by the scenes in which an avalanche descends from high up in the mountains on the fast moving train in the valley below.
Another modern element that director Kenneth Branagh touches upon very briefly, is the interesting question if our criminal law system is morally just. It's a pity that the screenplay doesn't give this subject more than a few remarks, because it could have added an extra dimension to this traditional film.
Apart from this, the film is what you'd expect it to be. The cinematography is breathtaking: everything looks picture perfect, from early 20th century Jerusalem to the high mountains where the train gets stuck. The stars do what they are supposed to do, but in a film like this the emphasis is more on the story and the claustrophobic setting than on the acting performances. It is a pity that great actors like Judy Dench and Derek Jacobi don't get more screen time, but that is the consequence of an ensemble cast. It was nice, though, to see that Michelle Pfeiffer is still going strong. It had been a while since she was cast in a major big budget production.
Of course, the screenplay demands a rather considerable suspension of disbelief. Some story elements seem to come out of the blue, and viewers have to keep very concentrated in order not to miss some detail that is essential for the crime solving process. But that's not unusual in a screen adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel.
'Murder on the Orient Express' is nice entertainment, and it is good to see that Hollywood is still willing to invest considerable budgets in this kind of traditional film. But this is not a movie that will surprise the viewer.
After having seen this film, there is only one mystery to be solved: will Branagh take on 'Death on the Nile' as a follow up project, as the last scene of 'Murder' suggests?
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Richer, deeper and more beautiful than the original
After having seen 'Blade Runner 2049', there are lots of things to debate. But the most important one is this: is this sequel better than the original, or is it the other way round? As things stand now (november 15th), the IMDb community has decided in favour of Denis Villeneuve's film. It is rated 8,4 versus 8,2 for Ridley Scott's original. The sequel is number 62 in the top rated movies, the original is number 147. And, after only six weeks, the sequel has almost as many user reviews as the original has accumulated in 35 years.
It's clear that the sequel is already becoming a cult classic, just as the original is. That is no small accomplishment and it is entirely deserved. In a way, this film is richer, deeper and more thought provoking than the original 'Blade Runner'. Maybe it is also more beautiful. And, at the same time it is a great homage to the original. Already in the first seconds of the film, it's clear that this is not just a sequel, but in fact a modern recreation of the 1982 film. The oil refineries from the original are now huge solar installations, to mention just one updated detail.
But there are also differences. Villeneuve has a lot to say about modern society. The 2022 blackout is a reference to the way we tend to organize our entire lives online or in the cloud, without realizing the possible risks. The children in the orphanage are not much different to what must be happening in modern day sweatshops in countries like Bangladesh. And the derogatory remarks the lead character has to cope with, reminded me of the racial inequality in the US.
As I said: there are lots of things to debate after leaving the cinema. But above all, 'Blade Runner 2049' is a superb film from a cinematographic point of view. The world in 2049 looks frightening, but also beautiful, and never artificial. The integration of special effects and on set acting is seamless. Even if you don't care about the story, which at times takes some complicated turns, just watching what happens on screen is already a great experience.
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Billie Jean King then, Hope Solo now
The makers of this film can send a thank you card to Harvey Weinstein. Because of the #metoo-movement, the film now has extra significance. If it weren't for Weinstein, this movie would be a nice nostalgic trip down memory lane, to those long lost times when men were proud to call themselves male chauvinist pigs.
As it is, the Weinstein affair has made it impossible not to make comparisons between then and now. Women now make millions in the professional circuit, but their colleague soccer players don't (although the Norwegian women's team has tried). What's more, they have to cope with men 'grabbing their asses', as US goalkeeper Hope Solo puts it.
'Battle of the Sexes' shows how seventies tennis player Billie Jean King had to fight against prejudices and gender discrimination. The culmination of this fight is the show match against Bobby Riggs, a fifty-something has-been of the tennis circuit and, yes, a self declared male chauvinist pig.
Both King and Riggs have their own problems. His is an addiction to gambling, and the problems this causes in his marriage. Hers is her budding love affair with a female hairdresser, and the problems this will certainly cause in her marriage.
This juxtaposition works very fine, because the characters of the two leads are so completely different. Riggs is a showman who mixes bravado with stupidity and recklessness. King on the other hand is smart, determined and dead serious. In a way, it's a pity that the film is based on a well-known historic event, otherwise the outcome of their battle would have added lots of suspense.
Both parts are played well, but I particularly liked the way Steve Carell plays Riggs as a man you love to hate. Beneath his abject behaviour towards women like King, he is deep down a nice person who just loves a good laugh.
Because of the character development of King and Riggs, this is much more than just a sports movie. In fact, there is relatively little time spent on actual tennis playing. It is a piece of American history, recreated for the big screen. 'Battle of the Sexes' isn't cutting edge cinema, but it is a well made, entertaining movie about a subject that is still hotly debated.
Happy End (2017)
Haneke's bleak view on the world
If the screenplay of 'Happy End' is an indication of Michael Haneke's view on the world, it is a very bleak one. There is no happy end to this film; in fact there is very little happiness whatsoever.
Haneke's portrayal of a French bourgeois family is extremely dark. The grandfather wants to kill himself, the son is exchanging kinky chat sessions with someone who is not his wife, the grandson is a spoiled brat with a low self-esteem, and the twelve year old granddaughter is an angel-faced scoundrel. Only Anne, the daughter who runs the family business, is relatively normal.
The film opens with homemade smartphone video images, followed by images from a surveillance camera. It's Haneke's way of keeping distance from his characters: he is merely the observer. This is also emphasized by several scenes in which the camera registers the events from a distance. It's all typical Haneke, as well as the elongated scenes in which not much happens. Haneke doesn't make it easy for the audience: in the first half of the film, the scenes don't really seem to be related, only after a while things become more clear.
In some films by Haneke, these style elements work well and add value to the story. But in 'Happy End', it feels like they have become Haneke trademarks just for the sake of it. They're not drawing the viewer into the film but instead creating a barrier, preventing a full appreciation of it.
Still, if you're ready to get over some cinematographic hurdles, this can be a very rewarding film. Perhaps some elements are a bit too much, but at least it doesn't leave you indifferent.
An emotional punch in the stomach
Most war movies are about soldiers and generals, trying to defeat the enemy. Not this one. 'Insyriated' is about what war does to the daily life of ordinary citizens. That can be even more gruesome to watch than scenes from a battlefield.
The film is set almost entirely in an apartment, where an extended family of nine tries to survive the war. The neighbourhood is constantly bombed, snipers are roaming the streets, there is no running water and no cell phone coverage. The front door of the apartment is barricaded. The rest of the building has been abandoned, left to looters and rapists.
In these circumstances, the family tries to live life as normal as possibly. During air raids, the teenage daughters listen to music on their smartphone, one earbud for each, as teenagers do. The grandfather quietly smokes his cigarettes and hugs his grandson. In the morning, family members quarrel about who can use the bathroom.
But the war is everywhere. There is no escape from it. The film shows how the lives of the family members are increasingly being dominated by fear, despair and anger. These human emotions are far more powerful to show the effects of war than even the most intense battlefield scene.
The decision to film everything within one apartment is a masterstroke. It creates a claustrophobic tension, and it helps the viewer to identify with the family members. Of course, this only works with a superb cast. The two powerful female leads stand out in particular. The mother, played by Arab-Israeli actress Hiam Abass, is great in hiding her true emotions and suppressing her fear to prevent unsettling her children. When she breaks down, at last, the impact is devastating. But the Lebanese actress Diamand Bou Abboud is no less impressive as the upstairs neighbour who has fled to the apartment with her baby, after her own apartment has been bombed.
One of the great things about the film is also that it doesn't spell out the war. In fact, nothing is being explained. We don't know who is fighting whom, or why. It doesn't matter. War is ugly anyhow. Apart from the title, there is even no indication that it takes place in Syria. It is a universal story.
Apart from being an emotional punch in the stomach, the film contains a lot of suspense. The script is very clever. Already in the first few minutes, a terrible incident creates a heart breaking dilemma for some family members. During the rest of the film, some other high-impact events make you sit on the edge of your chair.
'Insyriated' is definitively one of the best films I've seen this year. Maybe even the best. It would make a great candidate for the foreign language Oscars. What a pity that the producing countries, France and Belgium, have chosen other films. Neither one can even stand in the shadow of 'Insyriated'.
Good Time (2017)
Excellent crime drama
Few films have such an ironic title as 'Good Time'. A more fitting title would have been 'Murphy's Law'. Anything that possibly could go wrong, goes wrong.
In this case, the law applies to Connie, a tough and streetwise New Yorker. Het robs a bank with his mentally handicapped brother Nick, who gets caught soon after. By trying to get the money for his brother's bail, Connie gets himself in deep trouble. His situation goes from bad to worse. Some of the predicaments he gets himself in, are sad and funny at the same time. He stumbles from one seemingly hopeless situation into another, but with some luck and a lot of guts he can escape most of them.
A large part of the film takes place during the night time, which gives it a special character. The cinematography shows a neon-lit urban landscape, filmed in a nervous style, corresponding with Connie's state of mind. The soundtrack full of sinister music adds to the gloomy atmosphere. The Safdie brothers, one of whom also plays the part of the handicapped brother, have shown to be very talented directors.
The interesting thing is that viewers will have no problem identifying with Connie. Although he is a criminal and a hoodlum, the ultimate motivation for his acts is the love for his brother. He has to get the money for his brother's bail, and that's the reason to forgive him for his less noble acts. 'I am better than you', he tells another criminal at one point. At first this seems preposterous, because at that point Connie seems to be the ultimate loser. But then you realize he's right: there is a deeper motivation for his acts than just foolishness.
In the end Connie becomes more and more desperate, and throughout the film you know that this can't end well. But it does: although he doesn't succeed in his goal and has to face defeat in the end, the very last scene of the film is a very hopeful one. It adds to the theme of moral ambiguity that gives this movie an extra dimension.
Le Fidèle (2017)
Crime, love and punishment
Gigi and Bibi. It sounds like two cartoon characters, but in fact they are the nicknames of Gino and Bénédicte, the two leads in Michael R. Roskam's new movie 'Le Fidèle'.
Already in the first five minutes of the film, Gigi and Bibi fall in love. This love affair is the main theme of the film. It's not an easy affair, since Bibi is the daughter of a wealthy business man, who supports her race car driving career, while Gigi doesn't have any relatives and earns a living by robbing banks and cash transit vans.
At first, Gigi hides his real occupation and pretends to be a car salesman. When he no longer can hide the truth, he is quick to point out that they both have a lot in common, in spite of their different backgrounds. He likes the risk-taking and the danger that comes with his job, exactly as she does with hers.
For Belgian moviegoers, the film has an extra appeal. Roskam has based his story on the lives of a well-known gang of criminals, who were household names in the 1990's. They captured the attention of the media and the public at large, because they combined extremely audacious and violent robberies with a glamorous lifestyle.
Roskam shows in this movie how such brutal criminals could at the same time be loving husbands and friends. Gigi loves Bibi, and he is extremely loyal to his criminal friends, but he has no respect for the feelings of his victims. Matthias Schoenaerts plays this complex character very convincingly, and Adèle Exarchopoulos is quite effective as the slightly naive girl whose love for Gigi is unconditional.
The last part of the film is different from the rest. The love affair, having been firmly established, is no longer the central theme. Instead, we see a quick succession of increasingly dramatic events, which sometimes feels a bit exaggerated. But the beautiful end scene compensates for this. This long take is technically simple, but very clever and creative from a cinematographic point of view. And the very last shot even more so. It's these kinds of scenes that show how original a film maker Roskam can be.
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Taxi Driver revisited
It's hard to review this film without mentioning 'Taxi Driver'. Both films are about disillusioned war veterans, moving through the urban jungle, loathing the decadence of modern society, and rescuing a young girl from a brothel. Also, both films feature an aspiring politician during an election campaign. It's simply impossible to ignore so many similarities. But it's extremely difficult, not to say impossible, to make a film that can stand up to the iconic Scorsese classic.
Joe, a silent war veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix, specializes in difficult operations like rescuing young girls who have run into trouble. So he doesn't hesitate when an influential politician asks him to search for his daughter. The man doesn't want to involve the police, because he fears for his reputation.
Finding the girl turns out to be remarkably simple. But after having saved her by violently eliminating everyone standing in the way, things go wrong. There is more violence, more blood and more killing. In the end, Joe seems to emerge victoriously, but there is nothing to be happy about. 'Where do you want to go?', he asks the saved girl. 'I don't know', she says. 'I don't know either', is the desperate sounding answer.
Lynn Ramsay explains Joe's state of mind by inserting lots of short flashes, sometimes almost subliminal. It adds to the general mood of darkness and looming danger. All kinds of unpleasant things are going on, but Joe nor the viewer know exactly what. The only way to deal with it, is with ruthless violence.
But is this one man rescue mission enough to carry a whole film? I have my doubts. The first time Joe rescues the girl, the action is filmed in a very original way. We see everything happening through the images of the surveillance cameras in the building. This is exciting cinema. But at the end, Joe is filmed in a conventional way while slowly moving through a large villa, suspecting danger around every corner. This is a scene like so many similar scenes from other movies.
After leaving the cinema, I felt I had seen a bit too much violence and too little storytelling. But without doubt, this is a personal feeling: perhaps the lack of story elements is what makes this film stand out from others.
No drama, no suspense, no excitement
Two deaf children run away from home, in search for a lost parent, but they are fifty years apart. Rose travels from New Jersey to New York in 1927, Ben makes the trip to the Big Apple from the Midwest in 1977. Both stories are told in alternating scenes, one in black and white and the other in colour. Soon the viewer learns that both stories will come together somewhere in the film.
The problem of the screenplay is that during most of the film, there is no suspense and nothing really dramatic happens. Two children traveling on their own to New York City is not really the most exciting thing to watch in a cinema theatre. It's nice to see how New York looked like in the twenties, and because Rose is deaf the film has the look and feel of a silent movie. Ben's part of the story is not very exciting either. When in New York, he starts a search for a bookshop which, he suspects, can offer clues about the whereabouts of his father.
When the story finally reaches its climax, you can't help but wondering if that's all there is. Moreover, the film takes too much time explaining all kinds of things that are not necessary for the story. The final part is designed as a sort of stop-motion film, but it feels like it's added afterward.
Apparently, the film is based on a popular children's book. I can only hope the book is better than the film.
Extremely funny film about grief, anger, revenge and violence
It seemed that the pregnant police detective Marge Gunderson from 'Fargo' would forever be the most memorable character of Frances McDormand's acting career. But now I'm not so sure. Mildred Hayes, the heroine from 'Three Billboards', is a serious contender. This might well be her best performance ever.
The part of Mildred Hayes was written with McDormand in mind. Hayes is a divorced single mother, living with her son on the outskirts of a small, remote town. She had a daughter too, but the girl was raped and killed on a quiet mountain road not far from home. Frustrated by the lack of progress of the investigation, Hayes decides to rent three dilapidated billboards, publicly accusing the local police chief of incompetence. By doing so, she attracts the attention of the media, angers almost the entire town and causes a succession of increasingly violent actions.
Although the film is about grief, anger, revenge and violence, it is extremely funny. Above all because of Mildred Hayes' stubborn character and her ability to verbally humiliate people by her extremely sharp tongue. The monologue she delivers when a priest visits her house to tell her she has gone too far, is priceless.
Apart from McDormand's performance, the screenplay is another great feature of this film. The story is full of unexpected twists, gradually shifting the positions of the main characters towards each other. None of the characters are one-dimensional: they all reveal surprising parts of their personalities as the story moves forward.
And then there is the overall, almost Coen-esque atmosphere of a small town full of colourful characters. There is a racist cop, a friendly midget, a smart advertising guy and a pretty girl who is so dumb she doesn't know the difference between polo and polio.
It is hard to mention something negative about this film. 'Three Billboards' is, from start to finish, a great movie. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying it.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Iphigenia in the 21st century
Not one single deer gets killed in this film, let alone a sacred one. But by choosing this title Yorgos Lanthimos lets us know where he got the inspiration for this film: in Iphigenia, a character from the Greek mythology. After having seen the film, I took one of my old books from high school (1978!) to find out what this myth is about exactly.
Iphigenia's father, King Agamemnon, is ordered by the goddess Artemis to kill his daughter, in order to atone for his killing of a sacred deer. When she hears what is going to happen, Iphigenia agrees to being killed, because this would be beneficial to the Greeks.
In Lanthimos' version, Artemis takes the shape of a creepy teenager, who terrorizes a successful heart surgeon he considers responsible for his fathers's death in the operating theatre. The surgeon and his wife (Colin Farell and Nicole Kidman) have to witness both their children getting paralyzed. This, announces the teenager, is the first stage of a slow and painful death that can only be stopped when the surgeon kills a family member.
'The killing of a sacred deer' is a horror thriller, not so much different from other movies in this genre. The otherwordliness that made his earlier movies 'The Lobster' and 'Dogtooth' so special, is less prominent is this film. There are still some familiar features, such as the strange, deadpan way of talking by many characters. But the surgeon clearly has emotions and is increasingly desperate when he realizes that medical knowledge is useless in this case.
'The killing of a sacred deer' is a decent thriller, with a nice weird edge. But the typical Yorgos Lanthimos-style is less prominent, which was a disappointment to me.
French society under the microscope
For those who have seen Laurent Cantet's previous film 'Entre les murs', his new movie 'L'atelier' can have a 'déja vu' effect. Both films share the same concept: a group of French teenagers from all walks of life, brought together under the supervision of an adult, talk about their lives and what's going on in society. 'Entre les murs' was almost entirely set in a school building, 'L'atelier' shows a creative writing workshop in La Ciotat, a town on the Mediterranean coast near Marseille.
There are many similarities between both movies, but also many differences. 'L'atelier' delves deep into the psychology of one workshop participant, and also shows the world around the house where the workshop takes place. In a way, it is more complex and deeper than 'Entre les murs'.
The location of the film is very important. La Ciotat is a town in decline, but the local population cherishes nostalgic memories of its past as an important ship building town. Cantet uses historical footage to show this glorious past. The shipyard is still there, but it is no longer in use. The resentment of the locals is a rich feeding ground for anti-immigrant politicians.
These problems will soon dominate the workshop, led by the elegant Parisian author Olivia Dejazet. The kids in the workshop think she is snobbish and doesn't really understand their problems, but she soon shows her teaching talent by coaching their sentiments and encouraging them to use those feelings in their writing efforts.
Dejazet is intrigued by Antoine, a provocative workshop participant who shocks with his extreme and cruel writing efforts. She wants to understand what's going on in his head, partly because she considers using this insight in her next novel. In turn, Antoine tries to analyze Dejazet's way of thinking by dissecting one of her novels. After a while the mutual obsession between teacher and pupil gets out of hand.
'L'Atelier' tackles the problems of modern French society in a very original way. The contrasts are numerous: the intellectuals in Paris versus the working class population in the industrial towns, the Muslim population versus the non-Muslims (the Bataclan massacre is one of the discussion subjects), and the ultra-right populists versus the socialist left. But the film is also a psychological drama between two strong characters, both played very effectively. Laurent Cantet has put French society under the microscope, and shows that there is a lot of dissent, but also much hope for better times.
Excellent drama about unhappy people
Parents love their children. It's one of the most fundamental and universal forces in the world.
But not in this film. Zhenya openly regrets not having aborted her son, who is now 12 years old, and her husband Boris agrees that an abortion would have been better for everyone. This unhappy family is finally falling apart: Zhenya and Boris are getting a divorce and are considering a boarding school for their son. Both hope to find happiness with new partners, and clearly they don't want the boy to interfere.
This situation takes an unexpected twist when the son doesn't turn up at home after school. Reluctantly, the parents inform the police about the missing child. A volunteer corps starts a search of the neighbourhood. Even after the boy's computer is inspected, his best friend has revealed their secret hideaway, and his grandmother has been visited for possible clues, the boy is not found.
The search for the boy puts Boris and Zhenya in a ambivalent situation: they are supposed to be heartbroken, but in reality they consider the disappearance of their son as a rather fortunate event. On their minds are their respective new partners, more than the whereabouts of the boy.
Just leave it to director Andrey Zvyagintsev to turn this situation into an excellent, but pitch black drama without even the least shimmer of hope. The hate between Boris and Zhenya is extremely intense, and the rest of the cast doesn't show much human warmth either. On countless occasions, the characters check the screen of their smartphone. When nobody exchanges a smile or a kind word, digital friendships are better than nothing. The last scenes are the most desperate: even with their new partners, Boris and Zhenya don't seem to find any happiness.
Surprisingly, Zvyangintsev doesn't use any urban decay or Russian dreariness to accentuate the general negativism. On the contrary, Moscow looks modern and many scenes could just as well have been set in an American or European city.
Apart from the drama of a family falling apart, the film has something to say about Russia. There are news flashes about the war with Ukraine, and a police officer complains about not having enough resources to fight all the crime that's going on. The ultimate metaphorical statement is in the very last scene: Zhenya is running on a treadmill, wearing a training jacket with 'Russia' on it - not even in Cyrillic letters. The message: Russia is wasting its energy and not making any progress.
120 battements par minute (2017)
Lengthy French aids drama
'120 Battements par minute' is about the protest movement Act Up Paris, which tried to put aids on the map as a major problem. The film is set about thirty years ago, when there was no efficient treatment yet against aids. There is at least one other film about this era and about this theme: 'Dallas Buyers Club'. Both films show how desperate aids patients were to get their hands on promising new medication. Both films show what the disease can do to a human being. Both films show the ignorance and prejudice of that period.
The American film is a clever, well-made and well-written film in which the development of the lead character is central. But the French movie is slow-moving, lacks any suspense and doesn't seem to have any central focal point.
It starts by showing, in excruciating length, the weekly meetings of the Act Up members, who more often than not embark on endless discussions about something as mundane as the slogan for a campaign poster. They also try to disturb official meetings, and invade a pharmaceutical company which refuses to release the test results of a certain kind of drug.
This last story element offers some dramatic possibilities, but the film makers don't elaborate on it. This becomes clear when, in one scene, the managers of the pharmaceutical company are invited to explain their policy to the Act Up members. Instead of showing this exchange of differing opinions, and thus creating some much-needed dramatic development, the story moves away from the pharmaceutical company to the experiences of one individual Act Up member. Suddenly, he becomes the protagonist, and we see him struggling with the disease.
Throughout the whole film, I kept on thinking: what's the point? Where is this story heading? Why is the first half of the film about a group of people fighting for a cause, and the second half about one individual fighting against a disease? The problem is also that the urgency is gone. Most of the things Act Up is angry about, are solved now. Very few people in the western world die of aids anymore, and everyone is aware of what the risk factors are. The makers of 'Dallas Buyers Club' knew this. That film was not so much about aids, it was about how one particular man handled aids. In '120 Battements par minute', the disease is still very much the lead character.
From Russia without love
After having watched the trials and tribulations of the lead character in this film for more than two hours, I realized I didn't even know her name. Did I miss it somehow? No, I didn't. Her name is not mentioned even once, and in the credits she is referred to as 'the gentle creature'.
This is symbolic for the dehumanization of the Russian society, which is the main subject of this film. Citizens are not seen as human creatures that need help, assistance or simply a kind smile, but as inconveniences, causes for trouble and objects for complaints. The whole society seems to consist of bitter, demoralized and cynical people.
The film shows how the nameless woman travels to a huge prison in an isolated town in Siberia, to visit her husband. The package she sent him was returned to sender, so she wants to find out what happened. During her long search she has to confront rude prison officials, corrupt police officers, greedy pimps, drunk lodgers, nostalgic nationalists and a disheartened human rights activist. The woman endures everything with admirable patience. Her facial expression remains completely even, whatever happens to her, and she only speaks when strictly necessary.
The movie is filmed in slow, almost contemplative scenes. The audience has to be patient, just as the woman. But the film is far from boring. The viewer completely identifies with the woman. After every deception, you're asking yourself: what next? What can be worse? An important aspect is the very clever cinematography. In several scenes, the director starts by showing a conversation or an event that is seemingly unattached to the story, only to show the connection after several minutes. A good example is the scene in the train taking the woman from her village to the prison town. We see four train passengers discussing the fate of the Russian state, until the camera turns, showing the woman sitting in a corner of the compartment, silently observing the goings-on.
The situations sometimes get so absurd that the viewer hesitates between laughing or crying. When asking for directions, the woman is told: 'Just look out for a burned house. A friend of mine died there.' It's something this film has in common with the films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, who also shows ordinary men and women struggling in their daily existence. At times, even David Lynch comes to mind. That is particularly the case in the last part of the film. This dream sequence takes a quite different turn, and it is open to question if it makes the film better or worse. There's something to say for both, but in any case it adds an extra dimension that is worth thinking about. In this dream sequence, the Ukrainian director seems to hammer home his point: Russia is a deplorable country.
Keep in mind, Ukraine is still at war with Russian-supported militia over the control of its Eastern parts. As an insult to Vladimir Putin, this film doesn't miss its target.
The Big Sick (2017)
Predictable and not very funny
Pakistani-born actor and stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani has made a film about his own experiences dating a non-Pakistani girl. His family members didn't accept the fact that he loved his girlfriend, and kept on setting up dates with Pakistani girls, as is the custom in that country.
Instead of a drama about the consequences of these culture clashes, Nanjiani made a lighthearted film, following the classic screenplay structure of the romantic comedy. Boy meets girl, falls in love, has to overcome all kinds of setbacks and problems, is rejected by the girl, but keeps on trying, and ultimately succeeds in winning her love. Everything is so predictable that the jokes must be really good to make up for the unimaginative screenplay.
Unfortunately, they're not. I counted one really good joke (about 9/11) and a handful in the category 'not bad'. But overall, this movie lacks the wit and humour that you'd expect from a film that was praised at Sundance. The jokes are flat and the running gags, like the endless parade of Pakistani marriage candidates, are boring.
So, the film is predictable and not very funny. That wouldn't have mattered if Nanjiani had turned his own experiences in a really heartfelt drama about how in some immigrant communities traditional parents try to arrange marriages for their unwilling offspring. And how this can lead to devastating consequences, like parents disowning their children. In 'The Big Sick', this fact is presented in the offhand manner which of course is typical for comedies.
The theme of arranged marriages in immigrant communities made me think of the excellent German/Turkish movie about this subject, 'When we leave'. That film was like a punch in the stomach. 'The Big Sick' is like listening to someone trying in vain to be funny.
There is only one thing I really liked in this film: Holly Hunter's part as the mother of Nanjiani's love interest. The way she completely played everyone else off the screen, for example with a wonderful and completely unexpected outburst of grief-induced anger, was absolutely great.
Baby Driver (2017)
This film has plenty of scenes that put a smile on your face. The combination of an ultra-cool baby-faced hero, a killer soundtrack and a tongue-in-cheek heist theme should be the ultimate recipe for a film with maximum entertainment value. Especially when the director is not afraid to make creative use of those ingredients. The scene of lead character Baby walking down the street to the music of Bob and Earl's Harlem Shuffle, and using everything he sees as an imaginary musical instrument, is great cinema. There are many such moments in this film, which is driven (pun intended) by its soundtrack of 35 songs that are almost without exception great music.
Still, I left the cinema slightly disappointed. Towards the end, this cool, stylish and original film morphs into an unimaginative succession of shootouts and car chases, not so much different from any commercial Hollywood blockbuster. By then, the multitude of screeching tires, machine guns and crashing police vehicles has become a bit tiresome. The contrast between the super exciting first five minutes of the film and the dull and boring last fifteen, couldn't have been bigger.
Remarkable tour de force
One of the most intense scenes in Christopher Nolan's war movie 'Dunkirk' doesn't feature bombs, planes or boats. It shows three soldiers, sitting on the beach, looking at the surf, waiting for help that may never come. While they're sitting there, we see another soldier behind them. He is walking over the beach towards the sea, first dropping his helmet, than his gun. He keeps walking and disappears into the sea. The three soldiers sitting on the beach know what they've seen. And so does the audience. Not a word is said, but an awful lot is shown.
This scene proves that 'Dunkirk', other than some of Nolan's previous movies, is not only visual bravado. It's not just big budget film making, aimed at entertaining large audiences yearning for the ultimate cinema experience. Nolan uses his big budget to tell us something. To give us a history lesson. To show us the Dunkirk evacuation as it really happened. Never do this again, he advises us. Never again decide to send innocent teenagers into a senseless, cruel war.
The film is outstanding in many respects. One: the narrative structure is a tour de force. Three different story perspectives with three different time frames are blended into one film, showing the same events from different angles. Two: technically, the film is perfect. Without many computer generated images, Nolan lets boats sink, planes go down and bombs explode. Three: it may sound strange, but in 'Dunkirk', war has an aesthetic quality. Thousands of soldiers queuing on the flat beach, waiting for boats that are nowhere to be seen, is a remarkable sight and Nolan makes the best of it. The same with the masses of identically clad soldiers, and with the impressive opening scene of soldiers catching flyers, wafting through the empty streets of Dunkirk. Four: 'Dunkirk' is an overall white-knuckle experience. Even although we know how it all ends, the suspense is always there because we don't know who will live in the end and who won't. The minimalist and extremely effective soundtrack adds even more adrenaline.
At the very end of the film, the chilling observations of war cruelty are followed by sentimental British patriotism. In my view, it's the only minor flaw of this otherwise remarkable cinematographic experience.
La fille de Brest (2016)
Multi-layered whistle blower movie
It is tempting to compare 'La fille de Brest' with 'Erin Brockovich'. Both are about female whistle-blowers, fighting the establishment with all they have. Both are based on actual events. Both are outsiders, initially not taken seriously by their opponents. Both have a star actress in the title role.
But there is an important difference. In 'Erin Brockovich', the title character is much more one-dimensional than in 'La fille de Brest'. Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen plays small-town pulmonologist Irène Frachon as an intelligent and passionate woman, who has qualities as well as weaknesses. Her performance really carries the movie.
Doctor Frachon accidentally discovers that some patients suffering from a cardiac disorder also take the drug Mediator against obesity. She suspects that the disorder is a fatal side-effect of Mediator, and embarks on a crusade to prove her point. That's easier said than done, because even with the help of a professor she has a hard time writing a scientifically solid paper. In the sample of patients treated in her hospital, in the small seaside town of Brest, she finds a remarkable correlation between Mediator use and the cardiac disorder. But the drug company and the authorities think the sample is too small to be scientifically acceptable.
The film has not chosen the easy way: the story doesn't simplify things too much. In fact, the start of the movie is not the best part because the viewer feels bombarded by technical information. Later on, the story moves forward more smoothly when Frachon and her team hire a lawyer to represent the patients, find an editor to publish a book about the affair and approach a journalist to write a scoop about it. Also, the involvement of an insider from the health insurance agency gives the story a nice extra dimension.
The film clearly attacks the heavy involvement of the medical industry in the supervision process. According to the end credits, things have changed in France after the Mediator scandal. It would have been a happy end, if several of doctor Frachon's patients wouldn't have lost their lives because of Mediator. Her reading their names aloud during a live television interview, is one of the finest moments in the film. The message is clear: it's all about them, not about reputations, profit or statistics.
L'amant double (2017)
Game of mirrors
One reason I'd like to see 'L'Amant Double' for a second time, is just to count the number of scenes featuring mirrors. A rough estimate: somewhere between twenty and thirty. Sometimes there are two or three mirror scenes in a time span of just a few minutes. A few of them really stand out in a cinematographic way. In one scene, we see a conversation between two people, but it seems as if they are talking to each other's mirror image: they are never shown talking directly to each other.
The symbolism of it all is clear. In 'L'Amant Double', lead character Chloé is in love with twin brothers. At least, that's what she thinks. And that's what we think. Unless the twins are really two sides of the same personality. But two sides of which personality exactly? His, or a projection of hers? What is real, what is imagined? Director François Ozon plays the game of mirrors perfectly, and keeps it up until the very end. When you think it's all clear, there are still some strange things. Which one of the twin brothers was the smoker again?
The film is very stylish. Ozon has made the most of the locations. In the museum where Chloé works as a guard, outrageous art is being exposed. It's a perfect backdrop for some visually beautiful scenes. The clothing, the hairdo's, the furniture: everything is done in the best of Parisian tastes.
There's much to enjoy in 'L'Amant Double', for different kinds of moviegoers. It is a thriller of some sorts, with the suspense building up until the last few minutes. It's also a psychological drama, with lots of twists and turns. And in the very end, there's even a little bit of horror. But overall, this is a very French film, with some kinky scenes and a nice amount of Parisian elegance.
Get Out (2017)
Race relations and violent horror
'My parents are not racist', Rose tells her boyfriend Chris when she's planning to introduce him to her mum and dad. She's not planning to tell them Chris is black. Why should she? They're not racist.
Indeed, her parents seem to be more worried about his smoking habit than about his skin colour. But the fact remains that they employ two black servants, who seem rather submissive and not very talkative.
The first part of this film is a clever exploration of race relations. Chris feels that something strange is going on in the household of his girlfriend's parents, but he doesn't know what.
Only in the second half it becomes clear what is going on. The movie changes radically: thriller and horror elements take over. Subtlety makes way for straightforward violence, the viewer is treated to a series of bloody killings, contrasting strongly with the sophisticated observations about race relations.
This is a film with two faces: intelligent drama and bloody horror. You could argue that it's clever to combine both elements, but it's also the weak point. Viewers who don't like horror (like me) are disappointed by the bloody second half, viewers who do, will find the first part boring.