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Le gamin au vélo (2011)
Good performances in an uneven story
I went to see the Kid with a Bike knowing just the basic story, and that it was a film by the famous Dardenne brothers. I haven't seen any of their other work, like La Promesse or L'Infant, but I was hoping to get an idea of their style from this film. The film's narrative starts out very strong, almost relentless: 10-year-old Cyril Catoul has been abandoned by his dad, and he wants him back.
Cyril will do anything to find his dad, running away from his state-run orphanage, lie, fight, anything, despite mounting evidence that his father wants nothing to do with him. He meets Samantha, a hairdresser who agrees to take him in on weekends while he searches for his dad.
The directors do a good job of showing Cyril's disintegration as he realizes his dad wants no part of him, but this all happens within the first half of the film. I found the latter half where Cyril is seduced into a local gang and then commits a crime to be less engaging, and the ending, though hopeful, seems a bit off. Also, I wish the film had spent more time on why Samantha wants so badly to help Cyril. There's very little background given on her character. All throughout though,
Thomas Doret does excellent work as Cyril, but I'd say this is definitely more of a rental, not worth the price of theater admission unless you're a real Dardenne aficionado.
Uncertain what I'm supposed to get
There are some movies you're not supposed to take anything away from besides an experience, a feeling, a rush. The obvious comparison for this film is Run Lola Run, as another reader indicated, but that film had far more cohesion than "Uncertainty." It had potential: running a domestic drama in contrast to a thriller is an interesting concept. After all, bringing your boyfriend to meet the family when you're secretly pregnant and unmarried is as ripe for tension as being chased by gunmen through the streets of New York. If you had to choose one, which would you pick?
I thought to myself at times that I was watching the male and female versions of what we look for in suspense, the domestic manners drama and the gangster thriller. The parallel narratives work for a little while, but then strangely, the tension completely deflates in Brooklyn, while it continues to build in Manhattan.
If the dramas had both advanced and each situation gotten tenser, with the mother finding about the pregnancy and getting involved, just as the gunman found them in Chinatown, that would have made for interesting parallels. As it was, you're left with a very unclear ending and a sense of pointlessness to the whole enterprise.
While I'm slightly curious as to what the writers were trying to do, whatever it was, it didn't really work. So my curiosity is somewhat sated. Try "The Hurt Locker" for an excellent indie film out there right now, or for JGL fans, "500 Days of Summer" is just fine.
Children of Men (2006)
Stunned, saddened, and stirred by powerful film
I left the theater initially just arguing with my dad that the tale isn't so hopeless as he thought. We talked for a little while, and then shortly after we got home, I turned to him and had to give him a hug. The vision in this film is very disturbing, I suspect, because we live in wartime.
Our country is in the midst of a war that we are not certain how to stop, and there are other conflicts in the world around us that we haven't committed to ending. Israel and Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia-there are many cases right now of desperate armed conflict much like what we see in this film.
It is my sincere hope that HOPE can be revived in these regions: there are relief workers in all of these areas and peace workers fighting for it. Brave groups like Medicines Sans Frontieres, the UN, other NGOs, and parts of our government that are trying to instill hope and foster peaceful solutions. I don't know what can be done in the Sudan, but thinking of people like Don Cheadle's character in Hotel Rwanda, one start is trying to just save lives and say "Enough bloodshed."
Even where I live here in New York, we have youth that are used to violence in their lives, along with drugs and teenage pregnancy. However at the same time, in the school where I work, they find hope to go to college, get out of the neighborhood, and/or maybe even change it for the better. I don't think we can call ghettoes and slums lost causes, because once we do all that is left is to cut ourselves off from them like severing limbs.
If we do cut ourselves off from our local and international war zones and conflicts, we will end up creating the kind of apartheidist society envisioned in Children of Men where force is the only answer anyone has anymore. The infertility problem in Children of Men is more of a symbol than a science-fiction creation: it stands to me for a lack of hope, a resignation: King spoke of that death of the spirit that comes when we stop fighting for what we believe in, and to King, that meant NONVIOLENT action against all oppression.
If this film serves as a wake-up call, it will do some good. At the very least, it is a potent well-acted suspenseful allegory. SPOILER: It is enough that watching this film, you honestly believe that gunmen could hush in awe at the sound of a baby's cry.
Let us heal the broken parts of our world.
The Apostle (1997)
Preach the Gospel: if necessary, use words
I watched the Apostle two nights ago, and I rented it partially out of guilt. I saw a film called "The Ice Harvest" that made me realize I wanted something a bit more inspiring, more wholesome, more spiritually focused in film. The Ice Harvest strangely enough also has Billy Bob Thornton along with John Cusack as some of the most profane and greedy but not nearly the most messed up characters in a rural Kansas town. Sex, violence, the whole mix, and what's worse, a sloppy ending. So, I rented this because I wanted to be uplifted.
The Apostle often delivers a brand of Southern comfort, simplicity and humanity that's quite refreshing without being naive: I thought it was an important and sobering note that the old man who gives Duvall a tent also sleeps with his rifle on his chest watching him. That combination is very human and very American: we live at once in love and fear of each other very often.
Another wonderful thing about this film is it is race-conscious but very much about integration, all God's children like Duvall says. I love the moment when Blackwell tells Duvall how black he sounds on the radio for a white man.
As for being inspired spiritually, I almost cried when Duvall prayed over Billy Bob, "Troublemaker." As a matter of fact, I think that moment is the spiritual high point of the film, the sinner converting another sinner and saving a church. If we had immediately seen the police coming for Duvall after that, it would have served as a great coda to reminds us that within sinners like Billy, there are saints/good men, and within "apostles" like Duvall, there are sinners.
None of us are as pure as the driven snow, but none of our souls are so black that they can't be redeemed. That's one of the great things about CRASH: that is a film that shows both corruption of the decent and the unexpected decency lying within the corrupt.
The main problem with Apostle, like Ice Harvest oddly enough, comes down to a sloppy ending. (SPOILER) Duvall draws it out for far too long with the sermon: once the police have arrived, it needs to come to a close. Would an officer wait that long to arrest a man for first degree murder? Duvall's rally cry of "Get Behind Me Satan" is quite effective, but it drags on for ten minutes. Finally, Sammy's acceptance of Jesus, given what has already happened to Billy Bob, lacks the punch it should have.
It brings me back to an eerie feeling that I got throughout the movie: this particular branch of Christianity that the Apostle is representing seems to shout a whole lot what really shouldn't need that kind of volume. I was taught a year or so ago the phrase "Preach the gospel at all times: when necessary, use words." It means that it's in our actions that we show our love not just in our words, and it's not just love for other Christians, but for non-Christians as well. And we don't just gather together and praise God so that we may be saved, but we continually strive to be closer to God and bring others closer to God and further from the devil and to CREATING RECONCILIATION AND JUSTICE in the world, working alongside the "devilish" as well as the saintly.
Remember that scene where Duvall drags the guy out of the bar? It reminds me that there are those who say there's the world of the devil, and the world of God and we should steer clear of the former. However, I think it's a world we need to engage and learn about: we need to be in those bars, not just dragging men out, but learning why they're in. We need to figure out about why men really go to strip clubs, why women work there, WHY women abort their children, WHY teens have premarital sex, WHY divorce occurs, and not just dismiss them as things of Satan to be steered clear of. Good fences do not make good Christians.
Now if the worlds of "The Apostle" and "The Ice Harvest" could be combined, that would be a very powerful movie about Jesus in the real world.
I will say though that the last bit of the Apostle (SPOILER) is a great reminder of Duvall's power: he continues to preach even as a prisoner on a chain gang. Now THAT is Holy Ghost Power. Amen. Continue to seek Him, praise Him, serve Him, and love Him!
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brave film-making, but over-hyped
I guess there had been enough built up about Brokeback Mountain as a great expression of the purity of love that I was really thinking "Best Picture" material as I went in to see it. So, my expectations were high: they weren't met.
For one thing, the plot seems to get lost about 3/4 of the way through the film. Especially once Jack is gone, I began thinking that the plot had lost its focus, and I was just waiting for the ending. The performances are worthwhile though, especially Ledger who seems to arrive already burdened or repressed even as the film just starts. Actually, it reminded me of Billy Bob Thornton's performance in Sling Blade, and suddenly I remembered how excellently Ledger had played Thornton's son in "Monster's Ball."
However, the thing about Brokeback Mountain is it's not a great film: it's a well-made film about a subject almost no one is willing to tackle, men on the DL. Men carrying on homosexual affairs within the confines of marriage and family, not because they want to, but because they believe society's reaction to the truth would be so brutal that they'd be in fear for their lives.
This was the 60s-70s, and to some degree, the fears these men have could still exist today. I wonder how much things have changed; are cases like Matthew Shepard rare anomalies or are they the kind of thing that could happen to many men who came out openly and refused the confines of marriage?
I read one Christian site review that said the film was artistically made but still seemed to condone these men's choosing of homosexual relations, which they see as sinful. Still, it is what comes naturally to them, and as long as they hurt no one else in the process and mutually consent, then what is the harm? Why persecute them?
In the end, the film is at times shocking, at times challenging, but overall more of a slow character study. Ledger is worth bearing with, seeming to always have layers to pull back of anger and passion. The film becomes remarkable not as a great work, but as a well-done film about a very difficult subject. ***.5
L'homme du train (2002)
Glad I gave it a chance...
Well, "The Man on the Train" takes a long time getting where it wants to go and is very French in its sense of humor and dialogue, but as they say, all's well that ends well. In this case, it's a great ending. I had turned off this movie around an hour in, bored by the dialogue and lack of plot advancement, right around when Luigi arrives in town.
DO NOT DO THIS! I decided to give it a last chance. From there, the film gets more interesting, and the ending sequence, virtually wordless as we go between each man's "operation," is suspenseful. The interesting thing about "Man" is that it's not about trading places: it's about two people who wade in the waters of each others' lives but never quite dive in. That could have been unfulfilling, but it turns into an engaging narrative on the "what ifs" we all ask ourselves instead of becoming an overly contrived caper.
Rochefort powerfully conveys his frustration and anger, while Hallyday becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on. The ending shots of him sitting in the house by the piano are totally understandable: Milan sees Manesquier's life as leisure, while Rochefort sees in Milan's a life of adventure. Both of them have that "grass is always greener" problem, and both of their lives unfortunately, as unchanged, lead to dead ends. I suppose you have to be the risktaker for a while in order to enjoy the leisure, and maybe you have to have been stuck in a dull life to enjoy the risks. It seems as if neither has ever known the other side and so ends life with regret about what could have been. Let it be a lesson to us all!
The Weather Man (2005)
A disjointed journey towards contentment
Someone else said that this film reminded them of American Beauty, and I agree: there is some similarity of an immature man unhappy with his career attempting to get things right in his family and personal life. However, in the case of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey,) the methods were far more intentional: Lester decided to turn into a kid again, to buy what he wanted, to start smoking weed, and take a job with no responsibility. Lester Burnham never cared about status: he wanted freedom. David is a case of a man who has his freedom but craves a higher status and seems tortured at how unhappy the people he loves have become. David Spritz is more haphazard and less methodical in his journey.
The one commonality in the two characters is finding focus and respect in a physical exercise. For Lester, weightlifting purifies him, strengthening him, whereas David finds focus in archery, aiming for targets. Their goals are definitely different. American Beauty centered a great deal more on Lester's pursuit of sex with a lovely teenager, a purely rebellious move, whereas The Weather Man is after career advancement, regaining status.
Out of many subplots, Verbinski's film does best dealing with David's relationship with his father and craving for his respect. David struggles to gain his father's respect through his job offer in New York, to write a book that will impress him, but he seems to win approval easiest by doing the right thing for his own son. Michael Caine does a fine understated job of trying to correct the denigrating situation his son's family has descended into.
The film is crass, at times producing humor, and other times simply unnecessarily crass such as the moment between Noreen (Hope Davis) and David discussing BJs.
The Weather Man often seems more like a collection of scenes and subplots searching for an arc more than a ready-made story like American Beauty, but the lesson certainly seems less hokey and more realistic than Sam Mendes' film. Unlike American Beauty's asinine rebellion/renewal angle, this ends up as a story about learning to want what you've got when you can't get what you want, accepting reduced status and lowered expectations in life when necessary. David realizes that he cannot do all things for all people and finally hits the bullseye by staying true to what he does best: that's an essential lesson for us all to learn.
Lord of War (2005)
Leaves you cold, but then maybe it ought to....
I have been running "Lord of War" through my head; cinematically, it promises to be a more interesting film than it ends up being. The first shot of the path of the bullet from start to bloody finish promises a stark look at the gun-running industry, and to a degree, there is some truth to it. However, I also wonder how much of the film is Hollywoodized. I kept on thinking that it felt like a Hollywood story of corrupt power like that of Tony Montana or Johnny Depp in "Blow."
The strange thing about Cage's character is perhaps that he doesn't want to be a "warlord;" he doesn't want an empire. He wants to be a great provider for his wife and family; tragically, he's more in love with his product than any human being. Leto does an awesome job as Cage's brother, Natali, a man who is as loving as he is insecure.
The film is extremely well-written, and Cage does a great job of portraying his character sympathetically though certainly morally bankrupt. You do begin rooting for this guy to get away (well, at least I did) with his crimes.
I wish I had walked out of the film with a greater sense of anger or passion about preventing gun violence: instead, I walked out feeling I had been hit with a cynical, bitter look at gun violence that didn't motivate me at all.
There's a monologue I once read in college that talked about how "the hand was made for the gun," and not the other way around. I suppose if the film had delved more into our natural tendency towards gun violence and less towards the morality of selling arms, it might have delivered a stronger punch for me.
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Not original, but offbeat fun
Jim Jarmusch movies, as a rule, need to be viewed late in the evening. The man's sense of humor and timing is not like your usual comedy: it fits that the first of these was made for Saturday Night Live, because these sketches need a late-night crowd.
None of these sketches are amazing, though almost all of them have a certain kind of funky humor that it's enjoyable IF YOU LET THEM BE. There is a giggle to be found in watching the gorgeous Renee French leaf through a guide to knives and semi-automatics over her coffee and cigarettes, the White Stripes' demonstration of a Tesla coil in a coffee shop, RZA's and GZA's health warnings to Bill Murray, Vinnie Vella's "silent type" kid, and Isaach de Bankole's uncomfortable reunion with his moody friend Alex. All of these and the better ones, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan and Cate Blanchett, have some dose of humor, or at least appreciation of the art of people watching.
The line that may define the Jarmusch style is his first line to Steve Buscemi in "In The Soup." As an independent television director, Jarmusch interviews Steve for a part, and the first thing he says is "You're reading my dog's mind, aren't you?" Now, in most circumstances, this would not be funny, but if you're in JUST the right mood, something good starts bubbling up inside of you. That's a lot like what this movie does, over the course of 12 short sketches, percolate a sense of the bizarre. Just go and see the damn thing, and you'll have your own thoughts.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Having something to say
In trying to figure out why Kill Bill Volume 2 lacked the punch of Volume 1, I am left with two possibilities: either, I am a bloodthirsty action-movie addict unsatisfied by the relative lack of limbs, or Tarantino's dialogue did not live up to my expectations. Fortunately, on Saturday night, I recalled the prophetic words of Ms. Mia Wallace who basically asked Vincent Vega one night at Jackrabbit Slims, "Why do people feel the need to fill uncomfortable silence with B.S.?" She then became quite lively when it turned out that Vincent actually had something on his mind, and it turned into a fun conversation. From what I've seen in this movie, Mia Wallace would have walked out on a date with Bill. Here, the majority of the conversations are rather unnecessary. From Budd and Elle discussing "Which one are you filled with" to Bill's long-winded discussions of life and death and superhero mythology, there is a sense of aimlessness to the monologues. Compare "Ezekiel 25:17," or Tim Roth's set-up to introduce himself to the gang in "Reservoir Dogs." Bill is blowing hot air compared to any one of them. (O-Ren Ishii came close to getting somewhere with her warning to the Yakuza.) I seem to be in the minority opinion here, though about the quality of conversation. Frankly, I preferred the silent treatment that O-Ren Ishii gave The Bride to Bill's death-by-monologue style. Dialogue should be led by intention: Bill's questioning towards the end of the film seems to have absolutely no bearing on his ultimate wish to see The Bride dead. So, it seems to be filler material. By the way, (SPOILER) if there's anything to address in dialogue, why not address that The Bride's about to kill her daughter's father? And why doesn't it bother the kid that Daddy's gone, after he's the only one she's seen for years? I suppose it was the climax of the film that disappointed me most: maybe it's just that the Tokyo showdown was so much more elegant and over-the-top that it feels like it should have ended the film rather than (SPOILER) a sitdown bit of swordplay in a backyard. In terms of cinematography and music, the film is also not quite up to the level that Kill Bill Volume 1 scored (b&w sequences, Zamfir music, anime, shadow swordfights.) Fortunately, the Pai Mei sequence harkened back to the cinematic style that was all over Volume 1. Ultimately, Kill Bill Volume 2 is an inferior but still worthwhile product. The showdown with the Crazy 88 and O-Ren Ishii will be Kill Bill's image in popular memory for years to come. VOLUME 1: ****. VOLUME 2:***.