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No one's really beautiful...
(...there are just mediocre men)
When the movie ends, you just know what "Ugly" stands for. Another missing-child movie? Hey, wait. Since Villeneuve's "Prisoners", we know that there is still something new to bring to this film genre. Two references came immediately to my mind when watching "Ugly": "Fargo" and Korean thrillers. The movie borrows a nice set of money-hungry losers from "Fargo" and a frantic pace and plot from Korean detective movies. Add a pinch of dark humor and social critique and you're bound to have a startling piece of work that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the even more startling ending. Sometimes you'll get the impression that everything goes way too fast, but be patient, each erratic behavior, each twist in the narration has an explanation. The story starts with the kidnapping of an aspiring actor's daughter. This aspiring actor (Rahul) has a suicidal ex-wife married to a temperamental police captain, once Rahul's rival when they were kids. Rahul has also a best friend who is ready to stab him in the back whenever he can. Now, imagine how the situation becomes exacerbated by the aforementioned relationships, then add a fair amount of scheming, double crosses and triple crosses, laced with a good dose of police corruption. You can start to imagine how the situation will evolve and you won't be even close to reality. Because on top of everything, believe it or not, the plot is based on actual facts.
If you want to check if truth can be indeed stranger than fiction, try this one. Well served by very fine (and often hilarious) performances, "Ugly" is a modern film noir of the type you wouldn't expect from an Indian director, except if you keep in mind that India has much more to offer than Bollywood sickly sweet romances.
Piccolo mondo antico (1941)
"Little old-fashioned world" was a tremendous success when it was released in Fascist Italy in 1941. It is said that it was as huge in Italy as "Gone With The Wind" in America. It also started the career of Alida Valli (who starred years later in "The third man" and in Visconti's "Senso")as a movie star.
Having said that, very little of this past glory has stood the test of time. What remains today is some incredible and pompous period film, dull and unimaginative in spite of Valli's beauty and sensibility. Based on a novel that sets a melodramatic romance against a backdrop of major historical events, the story is set in the nineteenth century, during the Risorgimento era. Cut off by his family for marrying below his station, a young nobleman faces war fighting the Austrians and a different kind of war with a vengeful grandmother and neglected wife. Some people regard this film as a forerunner of Italian neorealism. They are dead wrong. "Piccolo mondo antico" reminds one constantly of heavy adaptations of novels as they were made in the 1930s. An established writer before turning to film director, Soldati is far from being Visconti. Let's do him justice by reading more of his novels and reviews.
My Little Princess (2011)
Based on a strongly autobiographical story, I doubt "My Little Princess" will be widely seen, for its subject can shy away many cinema lovers (it tells how a talented photographer literally sold her daughter's soul via erotic shots). And yet, "My Little Princess" deserves to be seen, not only because it is an unconventional story, well told and well played, but also because it makes you think and wonder about what can be done for the sake of art. And the answer is of course not an easy one.
Director Eva Ionesco has a full bag of stories regarding mother-and-daughter relationships and the world of art as it was in the 1970s. To begin with, as bizarre and cruel as they seem, yes, many aspects of MLP are true. Eva's mother is Irina Ionesco, a French photographer of Romanian origin who became famous some forty years ago for her erotic stills, particularly those showcasing her daughter in artsy and suggestive situations. These pictures created much controversy as Eva was only four when her mom began to take fetishist pictures of her. These photos are still a problem for Eva Ionesco as her mother goes on displaying and selling them on the Net and in some art galleries. It can be thus inferred that MLP is without any doubt a therapeutic work of art.
However, Ionesco has managed to lay anger aside when she wrote the scrip of MLP, for her work is astonishingly non judgmental. Young Anamaria Vartolomei (herself of Romanian origin) plays the part of Violetta, torn between Hanah (Isabelle Huppert), her eccentric and over-possessive mother, and her devout great-grand-mother (Georgetta Leahu). The danger was to expose Anamaria Vartolomei to the same unpalatable exhibition Ionesco has herself experienced, but the director knew exactly where to draw the line. There is more suggestion in the film than anything else, when Hanah takes pictures of Violetta for instance, then there is only brief nudity and it concerns only adults. Not that the film is an innocuous one -- of course it isn't (cf. the upsetting scenes with Jethro Cave), but Ionesco chose instead to focus on the psyche of a child who would do anything to gain her mother's love, then who turns into a rebellious teenager.
We've seen Huppert playing icy, half-insane and abusive characters so many times before than her performance is hardly a surprise -- she is nevertheless one of the film's best assets. Looking in turn like a witch or a fairy in her Gothic outfits and Harlowesque hairdo, she is as poisonous and beautiful as a datura. Anamaria Vartolomei is a rare finding, an astonishingly mature girl who was only 10 when the film was shot. She is a born actress.
At the end of the film, while she is saving herself from her mother's clutches, Violetta transforms herself into a sort of provocative Lolita who wears make-up and tight pants to go to junior high school. The future of such a disoriented girl looks quite uncertain, but soon we will find out what happens next as Ionesco has already said that MLP is the first part of a trilogy. Next episode will deal with the period of her life when she was the youngest night bird of all Paris. "A much more funny time for me", she says. With such a promising debut, there is enough to be looking forward to watching Violetta's new adventures.
L'arte di arrangiarsi (1954)
The art of changing sides
Alberto Sordi, one of the major actors in post World War II Italy, had a tendency to make one movie after another, meaning that he could either star in masterpieces ("I Vitelloni" directed by Fellini, to name just one example) or appear in dreadful flicks. It seems that he was never really choosy in his career. He fortunately met a few directors who knew how to direct him and use his skills: not only Fellini, but also Risi, Rosi..., and the lesser known Luigi Zampa. I was expecting another star vehicle for Sordi but "L'Arte di Arrangiarsi" ("The Art of Getting Along") is more subtle than that. Indeed, Sordi plays once again one of those petty characters he has often played. Fortunately, the film was not made just in praise of Sordi's talent. With the story of Sasa Scimoni (Alberto Sordi), Zampa recounts forty years or so of Italian history with irony and dark humor, portraying Italian society with all its imperfections. The main character of the film is an expert at changing sides, his only interest in life being women and money. It wouldn't be so much a problem if Sasa didn't live in a troubled era: from the 1910s to the 1950s, Italy underwent a period of drastic political changes (especially with the rise and fall of Mussolini) and no less than two world wars. Impossible to pull through such an eventful period without getting some fingers burnt, as Sasa will learn. Zampa was a good satirist, but his films did not have the same impact or strength as works from directors like Risi or Fellini. One can tell why when watching "L'Arte di Arrangiarsi": it is a well-written comedy (maybe a little too well-written...), Alberto Sordi is in good shape, but it lacks that little spark that would have taken the film much higher. Maybe it wasn't enough biting? It is nevertheless a very enjoyable film, not only for Sordi's fans, but for all those who love Italian comedies.
Those who love Chéreau can take the next train
"Persecution: active, systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another group or individual."
After watching "Persecution", you might just wonder who is really persecuted: Daniel, the short-tempered main character, stalked by a stranger who claims he's in love with him, Sonia, Daniel's girlfriend with whom he argues frequently and can hardly connect, or simply the spectator. Watching a film like this is anything but a treat: unlikeable characters, stark settings, ugly photography, it is French "psychological" cinema at its worst. I don't have a problem with Chéreau, I understand he makes films for an adult and educated audience. Some of his daring choices (as in "Intimacy" for instance) are challenging but interesting, at the very least enough thought provoking to get something out of them. Unfortunately, "Persecution" is a pretentious and overblown piece of work, as if Chéreau gradually became more and more full of himself over the years to eventually forget one essential thing: the audience. "Gabrielle", released in 2005, was already a "stiff" and dry film, well played and well directed, yet haughty and cold. As Chéreau's works get more and more personal, spectators are more and more kept at a distance by the filmmaker. The problem is that films are made for an audience (even if it's not a broad one), not just for the pleasure of wasting money. When artists create works that not only have no appeal for most of the people, but also have seemingly no clear purpose, I believe they lose the sense of reality. I assume that is what happened to Patrice Chéreau, who has proved with other films that he is more than an able director. I don't mind watching a film where the main character is complex, obsessive and quite unlikeable (remember "Naked" directed by Mike Leigh). I don't mind watching wordy films (I've had my share of Woody Allen's and Eric Rohmer's flicks). But I resent films where I am left out, where the story has nothing to catch my attention. Romain Duris (who plays Daniel) is as convincing as a home renovator as Gérard Depardieu as a nun but is very good at getting on everyone's nerves, including the spectators', Charlotte Gainsbourg as the aloof girlfriend is remarkably dull, Jean-Hugues Anglade's intriguing character is sacrificed, secondary characters are not fleshed out as they should have been (poor Hiam Abbass has only a few lines to say). Even what would have been interesting leads were given up by Chéreau (for instance, we never know whether the stalker's character is a figment of Daniel's imagination or not, and that could have added an uncanny touch to "Persecution"). At its worst, the film is extremely repetitive when things begin quickly to stall. In spite of a good opening scene, I couldn't care less about what was going to happen to any of the characters. In other words, I never felt that "Persecution" was a movie really worth my time.
È primavera... (1950)
Beppe Agosti (Mario Angelotti), a cunning yet naive young man from Florence, is sent to Sicily when drafted in the army. There he falls for one of his comrades' fiancée, the dark and stern Maria Antonia (Elena Varzi), and seduces her to eventually marry her. Some weeks later, during a short stay in Milan, Beppe meets the fair and hearty Lucia (Irene Gemma). He soon proposes her... This is how Beppe learns (a little bit too late, perhaps) that the penalty for bigamy is to deal with two wives. Not a very wise move, especially when the two wives live at the two opposite ends of Italy...
Castellani's first film, "Un colpo di pistola" ("A Pistol Shot"), was released in 1942; but it was only after World War II that he made the trilogy of the poor people and young love for which he is best remembered: "Sotto il sole di Roma" ("Under the Sun of Rome") (1948), "È primavera" (a.k.a "It's Forever Springtime" or "Springtime in Italy") (1950), and his most successful work, "Due soldi di speranza" ("Two Cents Worth of Hope") (1952). While "Under the Sun of Rome" and "Two Cents Worth of Hope" got both awards in prestigious international film festivals (Venice and Cannes), "È primavera" did not get the same attention. No wonder why: in spite of a script co-written by Suso Cecchi d'Amico and Cesare Zavattini (who were frequently associated with Visconti and De Sica), this potentially promising work fizzles out towards the end, as if the screenwriters and director didn't know what to do with all their ideas. Performed by non-professional actors, and shot on location from one end of the Italian peninsula to the other, the film follows the steps of Rossellini and De Sica, but in a much lighter way for "È primavera" has indeed more in common with the Italian-style comedies of the 50s than with "Bicycles Thieves" or "Paisa". Castellani's taste for farcical plots and happy endings have led critics to brand him as a "pink neorealist". The burning questions of that time (the opposition between the industrial North and underdeveloped Mezzogiorno, unemployment, Christian ethics vs. modern society...) are cloaked in humor and an optimism that official Italy found probably reassuring after the bleak view exported by the above-mentioned masterpieces. Mario Angelotti is a true natural for portraying Beppe; the rest of the cast is maybe less convincing. It is really a shame that the ending of the film is a little bit of a mess, because Castellani had obviously some skills -- but not enough to match the great masters of neorealism or Italian comedy. Therefore "È primavera" is nothing more than a nice old-fashioned little film, the type you enjoy if you are in the right mood but forget very quickly.
Benda Bilili! (2010)
Kinshasa Social Club
The first scene sets the tone. One of the happiest and most joyous musics starts and what you see is a middle-aged cripple (a man deprived of his legs). And the cripple dances to the music -- and I mean it: the guy doesn't move around by the beat of the music, he really dances. Amazing.
Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye have followed a band made of four homeless paraplegics and three "abled" men, the Staff Benda Bilili, from the streets of Kinshasa, Congo, to music festivals in the cities of Europe. Some have guitars and wonderful voices, some have a wire on a tin or pieces of wood to beat. Another success story? Yes, but there is more to it. There are ups and downs, as life isn't always easy in one of the poorest countries on earth, especially when you have just a sheet of cardboard on which to sleep.
The two filmmakers started to befriend the leader of the band, Ricky, and after becoming enchanted by Benda Bilili's terrific music, they decided to help the small group make a recording. At the time, they had no idea that their commitment would take five years. The other striking character is young Roger, a street child with a gift for music at the beginning of the documentary, a man and an accomplished musician at the end of the film. It's moving to watch him grow, escaping from gang life and God knows what, and making his dreams come true. It's too bad though that we don't learn much about the members of the band, but given the budgetary restraints under which the film was made, I think that it was merely impossible for the filmmakers to delve into this subject.
Look out for "Benda Bilili!" if you can, especially of you dig in African music or/and "cinéma vérité".
Händelse vid bank (2009)
When shorts are more meaningful than full-length features
This amazing short was awarded the Golden Bear in the Berlin Film Festival this year (2010).
Based on a real incident, this short was filmed in just one take. It looks like a video surveillance film, but it says much more than any video surveillance would say.
"Incident by a Bank" recreates in real time a failed bank robbery that took place in Stockholm in June 2006. About everything goes wrong in front of us, not only the robbery but also the reactions of the people in the street, especially two friends out for a stroll who become spectators, commentators, and ultimately documentary makers(!). To say the least, their reactions to the unexpected are both composed and odd (precisely because they are composed).
The result is both chilling and amusing. I don't know Ruben Östlund who directed this but I'll certainly keep an eye on him from this moment on.
Black Mic Mac (1986)
Colorful Blacks and Whites
French director Thomas Gilou has obviously an interest in cross-cultural identities and minorities. He has thus depicted the French-Arabic community in "Raï" (1995) (also a little bit in "Michou d'Auber" - 2007) and the French-Jewish (sephardic) community in "Would I Lie to You?" (1997), his biggest hit so far. In "Black mic-mac" ("Black Mix-Up") (1986), he has portrayed French-Africans in a gentle and warm way, albeit not always in a very subtle manner.
This comedy covers no less than immigrant life, family unity, culture shock, interracial romance and black magic(!). With such ingredients, you would expect one of those challenging intellectual films that the French are (sometimes) so fond of. On the contrary, "Black mic-mac" displays a good-natured humor and always remains on the light side. The "mix up" starts when some African squatters in Paris, threatened with eviction, find themselves fighting against the French administration. For fear that no good will come from the bureaucrats, our group of African squatters turn to their best option to solve the problem: they call for a sorcerer from home. The target will be Michel Le Gorgues (Jacques Villeret), a preventive health service inspector who has to investigate the case. The guy is actually a well-meaning but zealous civil servant who knows nothing about the customs of Paris' African community he discovers little by little (as we do when watching the movie). The sorcerer hops on a jet to Paris to cast spells on Le Gorgues, and while en route he strikes up a conversation with a fellow passenger, mentioning his job pays quite well. The very idea of making some money is quite appealing to the interested passenger who decides to take the sorcerer's place. Once he arrives, the impostor has to act like he knows what he is doing, and at the same time, he had better solve the eviction problem...
It has been years since I have watched "Black mic-mac" (when it was released first, then maybe once on TV). I think it would be interesting to watch it again today, first to check how the movie has aged (probably nicely as I have kept a good overall impression), then in the light of what is going on in France nowadays with the new laws on immigration. It is somehow amazing to realize that back in the mid 80s, forced evictions of immigrants were seen as a potential subject for comedies in French cinema, while now it is the basis of much more militant films (see for instance "Welcome" by Philippe Lioret and "Eden à l'ouest" by Costa-Gavras). Yes, reality has taken over in the meantime. And yet, even though it promotes some unsavory stereotypes (e.g. all Africans believe in black magic and keep live chickens in their house, etc.), "Black mic-mac" remains a refreshing and amusing little comedy. Of course, all things end well and Le Gorgues gets eventually "bewitched" (but not quite as it was intended). One of the biggest hits of 1986 in France, the movie also features a fine score, a good mix of West African music with songs from Youssou N'Dour, Papa Wemba, Salif Keita, to name just a few. Isaach De Bankolé, who plays the scheming but helpful impostor, won a French César for Most Promising Actor in 1987, the first Black actor to win a César ever. One piece of advice: avoid "Black Mic Mac 2" (1988) with a completely different cast and director, which got extremely poor reviews when it was released in France. For that reason, I have never bothered to watch that sequel.
Pourquoi Israel (1973)
"Pourquoi Israël" ("Israel, Why", without a question mark) is Claude Lanzmann's first documentary. Lanzmann is famous for his most prominent work, "Shoah", a lengthy yet powerful and unforgettable history of the Jewish genocide during WWII. "Pourquoi Israël" examines life in Israel twenty-five years after the birth of the state.
Lanzmann said that he was in Germany to study philosophy when the Jewish Agency became the Provisional government of Israel in 1948, therefore not at all aware of what was going on in Palestine. Not a fervent Zionist himself, Lanzmann is nevertheless haunted by what makes Jewish identity and anything related to this topic. It is interesting to note that Lanzmann started to shoot footage for "Pourquoi Israël" right after writing "Elise, ou la vraie vie" ("Elise, or Real Life" -- see that entry) which was a film on the Algerian war. Indeed, it may seem a little odd that someone who is clearly against colonialism would support the survival of Israel, but Lanzmann takes on a non Manichean approach (I wouldn't say "objective", that's something else) when he depicts the achievements and contradictions of the Israeli nation. Through a series of scenes, where the director spends time with many different people (German-Jewish migrants, dock workers, intellectuals, police, prison inmates, and the newly arrived -- especially from Russia), Lanzmann shows that the normality of a "state like any other" is actually abnormality itself. "How peculiar is a place where there are Jews and nothing but", he once stated in an interview.
Is "Pourquoi Israël" "Shoah" before "Shoah"? Yes and no. It is already a lengthy collection of interviews (it lasts almost three hours; that's short by Lanzmann's standards), but it has a faster pace, some mise-en-scene here and then and, yes, some humor, as the film often addresses much lighter issues than "Shoah" (as one may expect). In any case, Lanzmann's works are meant to make you think. As always, you have to be ready to absorb their content and make something out of it.
The title of the film is often incorrectly given as a question ("Why Israel?"). The documentary is rather an answer or an explanation. That is why it is still relevant to watch this documentary, even today (the film premiered in a difficult context, just when Yom Kippur war broke out in 1973), for most of the problems Israel still faces are exposed here. Lanzmann started to make extensive research for "Shoah" right after the release of "Pourquoi Israël", obviously the second part of an insightful trilogy on what is "Jewishness" today (the third part being the documentary named "Tsahal").