Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Good but grim
There's a clever idea at the heart of 'Bullhead': in a story about the trade in illegal cattle hormones, the central character is, as a result of a painful childhood incident, himself dependent on exogenous testosterone. This is one of a number of Belgian films that paint a very harsh picture of the country: grey, gloomy, run-down, divided and rotten to the core: the focus of agribusiness (and its mechanical approach to life, and death) is unusual and makes for a distinctive subject. However, it's hard to warm to the pumped-up protagonist, and if there is a message here it's all negative: stay away from other people, don't live in Belgium, and perhaps even don't eat meat.
Not the greatest show on earth
Harry Houndini was a great magician, showman, and at least according to his own legend, a fascinating character. But this doesn't mean that his life story is actually a single great narrative. This glossy renditioning of his biography leaves (too) little to the imagination; yet it's continuously straining, trying to find a uniting theme that means something more than the birth, extraordinary career, and death of one man. In places, the over-stretched story makes little sense: it's understandable that Houdini's assistant should have been grief-stricken by news of his death, but not that this should make him want to destroy all of his master's equipment. Aiden Brody has been good in other stuff, but in this role, there's a lot of screen time and not much to do with it. I could imagine Houdini playing a role in a clever-clever drama not unlike Nic Roeg's 'Insignificance'; but as a biographic hero, this is obvious and surprisingly dull stuff.
That which can not be forgiven can not be acknowledged
'Festen' was the first film made under the 'Dogme 95' manifesto, which called on film-makers to abandon trickery and simply record what the actors did in front of the camera. The merits of the manifesto lie less in the fact that such trickery is bad (indeed, there are always new tricks available to the clever artist, and the wholly naturalistic film would be wholly dull), but in that it encouraged directors to think about what they were doing, and not fall back on clichéd short-cuts to induce certain responses in the audience. But a great film is a great film, whatever the rules under which it is made; and 'Festen' reminded me of Robert Altman's 'The Wedding', which begins with a long zoom shot from a static camera, the complete antithesis of the hand-held style that 'Dogme 95' dictates.
'Festen' starts as a black comedy, the tale of the re-union of a highly dysfunctional family. But it soon becomes clear there's a reason for this dysfunction, and the story soon becomes truly horrifying, yet utterly convincing in its depiction of how a bully can remain unchallenged. Perhaps the take-home message it that crimes that can never be forgiven can never be acknowledged, either. Although the darkness gradually overwhelms the humour, it's a superbly executed movie, ultimately sympathetic but completely unsentimental, and with an immediacy that is the benefit of the chosen method.
The Ides of March (2011)
Doesn't get to the real dirty heart of politics
In the U.S. at the moment, there's a bizarre story unfolding that follows on from the 2012 Republican party primary campaign, in which a campaign manager for one candidate took money from another campaign in exchange for publicly announcing he was defecting on principal. And we all know the stories of Bill Clinton and the intern. Politics, it seems, is often a dirty business; but 'The Ides of March', Geroge Clooney's take on these themes, is ultimately unenlightening. Yes, it tells a story that verges on plausible; but there are two problems. Firstly, plausible or not, it feels manufactured, the characters aren't drawn deeply enough to make one feel that their responses to events are anything except what the scriptwriter needs to keep driving the plot, which overall has a by-the-numbers feel. And secondly, what is really missing is the sense in which its the nature of the political campaign in itself, rather than the fatal flaws of its personnel, that really bring politics down. Watch 'Bob Roberts', for a hilarious but worrying take about the influence of money in politics; or 'The Candidate', which might date from 1969 but still seems as pertinent together, and you'll get a better sense of why whoever you vote for, nothing seems to change. And it's nothing to do with the sort of tale of personal revenge that you'll see in this film.
Café de Flore (2011)
Ambitious but without purpose
'Cafe de Flore' is a an unusual film. It's deceptively ambitious, but unfortunately its ambitions extend only to being ambitious as an end in itself, a movie whose complexity is unmatched by actually having anything to say. It begins as a montage of heartwarming scenes and images, telling us one story of success and happiness, another of pluck and courage, and whose overall message appears to be nothing more than that love is lovely for the beautiful people. But just when you might otherwise be starting to pull out the sick-bags, the film gets darker, although the treatment of the characters' lives remains somewhat superficial: while the aftermath of a break-up between two of the leading protagonists is at the centre of one of the plots, its details are (seemingly deliberately) denied us. What gives the film its structure, however, is the link between the two stories, which at first is also denied us, but is eventually revealed: one of the characters is dreaming (or remembering, from a past existence), the life of an another. The film never quite abandons its realistic underpinnings, but ends up in no-man's land: the link is insufficiently explicit to make this a ghost story, but as a mere suggestion, it's a remarkably flimsy basis to hold the story together. Director Jean-Marc Vallee successfully adds some tension as the brings the two stories to climax in partnership, as if they were really the same story; but from a little distance, it's very unclear what this concordance is supposed to imply or signify. A final clue hidden in the credits provides a 'Shining'-esque conclusion (but one equally unenlightening as the end of that movie)
Miss Bala (2011)
Better than it could have been, worse than it should have
The drug cartels of northern Mexico have corrupted many aspects of life there; in 'Miss Bala', a depressingly believable story is told about how they event infect a beauty pageant. But exactly how or why is never quite clear: the plot in this film is muddled, the motivations of the lead character are never completely unravelled, and the limited budget is also only too obvious at times: lots of scenes are shot in close up in ways that doesn't serve the movie's purpose (nor clarify what is actually happening), but which was presumably cheaper than shooting wide-angle. In the end, one gets the broad picture, and the horror of individual episodes, but the two are not properly linked. It's a shame, as it's an important subject, and one of more dramatic potential had it been better executed.
The Honourable Woman (2014)
Admirably ambitious if over-honourable
Hugo Blick's 'The Shadow Line' was an unusually complex, disturbing, stylish and odd thriller, and one of the best television dramas of recent years. With 'The Honorable Woman', he follows it up with an even more ambitious piece of work, a political drama set in the Middle East. There's much to enjoy here, but it's not quite in the same class as its predecessor. The stylishness at times slips into pretension; the plot is not just complex, but initially baffling - it takes a few episodes before one can actually understand what the story is really about. In addition, the central plot twist - a plan to get the United States government to recognise Palestinian statehood - doesn't seem realistic given the prevailing political climate in the U.S. Most problematic, though, is the choice of central character: the honourable woman, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is indeed wholly honourable, though moving through a world of ruthless chancers. Moreoever, she's a millionairess, beautiful, capable of great public composure, and simultaneously running a large business and promoting peace in the world. It would be wrong to say that Gyllenhaal is anything other than good in the part - and yet, the character is written with an underlying strain of innate superiority. While the motives and capacities of every other character are questioned, I found it hard to sympathise with a heroine who uniquely is both morally whiter than white, and also, in conventional terms, hugely blessed by fortune of birth. While her philanthropic interests are in some senses admirable, I found myself wondering, what right does this person have to choose how to set the world to rights? - which wouldn't have been a problem if only this hadn't been the one question among dozens raised by the drama that the script seemed to have no interest in addressing. I'm being cruel here - this is still top notch stuff compared with the majority of television programs, both in execution and concept. It is, perhaps, just a little over-conceptualised - but it's still the most challenging series you're likely to watch this year.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
What was that?
With his 2002 movie 'Punch Drunk Love', director Paul Thomas Anderson, known for his epic films 'Boogie Nights', 'Magnolia', and 'There Will be Blood', rather surprisingly turned his attention to romantic comedy. In theory, this was bold and promising, certainly to someone like myself who finds the standard by-the-book Hollywood romance insufferable. But having seen the film, it's hard to remain convinced. Adam Sandler plays a man with serious social limitations, with whom an attractive woman inexplicably falls in love, only for his happiness to be threatened by his prior use of a telephone sex line. The characterisation is jerky and uneven: Sandler never plays normal, but gyrates between autistic and irrational for no reason. Meanwhile, there's a quirky, intrusive soundtrack, deliberately odd backdrops, and random thematic motifs. Ultimately, I can't see who this film is supposed to appeal to, with its absence of realism, sweetness or any basis sense: an odd entry indeed in Anderson's otherwise fine career.
Edge of Darkness (1985)
Edge of brilliance
Watching 'Edge of Darkness' almost 30 years after it was made is an interesting experience. One can witness the dry, minimalistic script of Troy Kennedy Martin; and the strong performances from the cast. There's a glimpse also at a Britain that already seems surprisingly dated: not just in it's look and feel, but also in its uncynical nervousness (by which I'm suggesting, I suppose, that to be blasé is to be more cynical than to be paranoid). In the age of cruise missiles, a consignment of plutonium was hot stuff in more senses than one - not just a long-term environmental threat, but a weapon to destroy the world, a hand-holdable weapon of mass destruction (if, like one of the protagonists in the drama, you don't mind facing the consequences). Plutononium mania drives the plot: the weakness of the story is that once you strip out this theme, it doesn't make a huge amount of sense. But remember this was the time of the miners' strike, and the politicisation of the police associated with that, and the drama's ambiguous mood starts to make sense. Star Bob Peck, understated but passionate throughout, died young and left us a sadly reduced legacy compared with what might have been.
En forårsdag i Helvede (1977)
The "Hell of the North", the infamous annual bike race from Paris to Roubaix, is an epic sporting contest; and Joergen Leth, a film-maker with a long-term love of professional cycling. Yet Leth's 1976 film of the race is a documentary that seems quaint with age. In a world where sporting events are everywhere on television, there's no-where Leth's film takes us we can't see everyday live on our screens; and the quaint English commentary dissipates the tension of a sporting event through it's use of a tone that is one part anthropology, one part an episode of 'The Clangers'. It's also surprisingly light on relevant sporting detail: the challenge of the great Belgian, Eddy Merkkx, is described without any reference to the fact that this was the tail end of his great career, when his powers were in decline and he was in fact never again to win a big race. When made, this might have been revolutionary; as it is, it pales besides the live action you can see alongside side it.