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Good, but not sensational
'Girl' was a sensation in Cannes and received rave reviews in the Flemish press. This film is about a teenage girl who wants to be a ballet dancer, but is born with the body of a boy. It is based on a real life story about a transgender ballet dancer, who has publicly endorsed the film.
The film shows the anguish the girl feels about being stuck in the wrong body. She almost can't wait to get female curves. Although she looks very feminine and has the support of everyone around her, the whole process causes severe emotional problems. Moreover, her ballet classes are extremely hard and she isn't exactly an excellent pupil.
The film succeeds in showing what a girl like her has to go through. But nevertheless, I was a bit dissapointed after having seen the film. Apart from the transgender theme, there is not much moving the story forward from a dramatic point of view. A lot of scenes show the ballet classes, and after a while they don't offer anything new to the story. The same goes for the conversations between the girl and the medical team. The doctors encourage her to be patient, she reacts by not saying much in reply. In order to add any dramatic evolution into the screenplay, there is a very shocking incident at the very end. But to me, this felt forced, out of place and overdone. (This scene is, by the way, not based on a real life event).
The lead actor, Victor Polster, is in a way perfect for the role because he has the right androgyn looks. He is also convincing as a shy teenager, not feeling comfortable with a lot of things in life. But on the other hand I found his acting a bit restrained and one-dimensional, he showed little emotion.
The film received criticism for being too obsessed with the physical aspects of being a transgender, and not enough with the emotional side of it. I think this is beside the point, because the only question that really should matter is: is this a good film? My answer to that question is: yes, but not as good as the hype around it makes us believe.
Nos batailles (2018)
Wonderful real life drama about a mysterious dissapearance
'Nos Batailles' is a film about a mysterious dissapearance. But this is not a thriller, trying to unsolve the mystery. It is a real life drama about what happens to a father and his two young children, after his wife leaves the family without leaving a trace.
In fact, the viewer never knows exactly why the wife left her husband and children. And exactly this is what drives the father almost crazy. He wants to be angry, but at whom? Director Guillaume Senez succeeds in showing his desperation, and in letting the viewer feel what he feels. At first, he is reluctant to discuss the issue with his children or anyone else. Only after his sister confronts him with his own relation to their father, and after some dramatic events, Olivier comes to terms with the new realities in his life. The film ends with a wonderful, hopeful scene.
This is only Senez's second feature film, but you'd swear it was made by a much more experienced film maker. Sometimes, it seems Senez is influenced by his fellow Belgians the Dardenne brothers. They share the same unpolished style of film making, and also the emphasis on social themes such as workers' rights - Olivier is a union representative at his company. At other times, the film making style of Hirokazu Kore-Eda comes to mind. For example in the way Senez tells the story by showing small events.
Showing intense emotions in an honest, restrained and non-sentimental way is one of the hardest things in film making. In this film, Senez does exactly that. And he does it very well.
A Quiet Place (2018)
A good film for lovers of silence
In our modern western society, silence is undervalued. It seems as if it has no right to exist. Everywhere you go, there are sounds. In shopping malls, background music is played through hidden speakers. On a beach or in a park, people carry portable radios. Car stereos accompany our travels. Runners carry music players with small earpods, in order not to be exposed to silence.
'A Quiet Place' is a good film for lovers of silence, like me. Large parts of the film have no sound at all. To be clear: it is not an ode to silence. On the contrary. The silence is involuntary. The characters are silent because they can get killed by alien creatures when they make even the slightest sound.
This may sound as a weird concept. But it is very effective in creating lots of suspense. The family in the film has to be permanently on alert. The slightest error, like dropping an object, can cost them their lives. This is shown very effectively in the first few minutes of the film.
This very intense first scene creates the mood for the rest of the film. We see how the family copes with the silence: by using sign language, by walking barefoot over a layer of soft sand, by retreating to a waterfall where the sound of falling water is so loud that the aliens don't hear human voices.
The forced silence is a great concept for a suspense thriller, just like the racism theme was for 'Get Out'. The screenplay makes good use of the concept, and the actors do a good job. The only minor flaw are some inconsistencies in the story, which can spoil a bit of the fun if you're sensitive for it. On the other hand, this film is not about the consistency of the story, but about the fear of being killed by making a sound. It's meant to make your heart rate go up, not to analyze every story detail. In such a film, some degree of inconsistency is always inevitable.
'A Quiet Place' is original, exciting and well made. That's all it takes for a good film.
Sandome no satsujin (2017)
Crime and fatherhood
The murderer in this film has killed twice. So, why is the film called 'The Third Murder?' It's up to the viewer to answer the question. In my view, the third victim is the truth. As one of the protagonists remarks in a crucial scene: 'No one has spoken the truth'.
'The Third Murder' is a film asking a lot of questions, but answering few. To be clear: that's a good thing. What is truth? What is righteousness? Which of the two are more important for a lawyer? And for a judge? Is capital punishment always wrong? Or, in the words of the killer: should some people never have been born?
With this film, acclaimed film maker Hirukazo Kore-eda takes a different path from many of his previous films. He is known for his delicate and subtle dramas about the family life of ordinary people. This time, he has made a sort of courtroom drama (although only a small part is actually set in a courtroom) about a killer and his possible motives.
Still, the theme of family relations is not absent in this film. Far from it, in fact. Fatherhood is omnipresent. One of the most important characteristics of the killer is how he has failed as a father. The lawyer defending him discusses the case with his own father, a retired judge who has convicted the same killer decades earlier. And the dead victim turns out to have been the worst father imaginable. At least, in one version of the truth.
'The Third Murder' is a multi-layered, complex film which offers lots of surprises and twists. Kore-eda succeeds in keeping the viewer wondering what comes next. But at the same time, the result is less convincing than in some of Kore-eda's best family dramas, in which human nature is dissected by small acts and symbolic details. Not by important, philosophical questions.
Isle of Dogs (2018)
An outburst of wild, untamed creativity.
An outburst of wild, untamed creativity. That's the best way to describe 'Isle of Dogs'. You would almost think that director Wes Anderson's imagination is spinning out of control, judging from the number of ideas, storylines, gimmicks and visual treats in the film. Let's face it: at first sight the story sounds like something crazy. It is set in a Japanese city where the mayor decides to evacuate all dogs to a garbage island. His twelve year old nephew decides to rescue his favourite pet from the island, and hijacks a sputtering jet fighter. This leads to a series of wild adventures and weird developments. In a way it is indeed completely crazy - but just leave it to Anderson to make it work.
In 'The Fantastic Mr Fox' Anderson showed how he could use stop motion animation to create animals who talked and acted like humans. In 'Ilse of Dogs' he brings this process to perfection. Helped by a top cast providing the voices, the dogs are great characters. Their personalities are much more developed than the humans in the story. This is accentuated by the Japanese dialogue of the humans, which is largely left untranslated. This puts the viewer in the position of the dogs, who can't understand humans either.
Visually, 'Isle of Dogs' is wonderful. It's full of nice aesthetics, original viewpoints, and funny running gags. An example is the way Anderson shows the many dog fights: a large cloud of dust, with the fighting dogs largely invisible, apart from some body parts sticking out of the cloud.
Sometimes there is almost too much going on at the same time. I had trouble paying attention to all the little visual details, while at the same time concentrating on the story (with some flashbacks adding complexity) and trying to recognize the voices of Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson (hers was easy). So if you go and see the movie, be warned: you can't lean back and relax, you have to stay alert at all times!
Lady Bird (2017)
A laugh, a tear, a shiver and some goosebumps
The greatest thing about this film is its balance. It's funny, it's touching, it's emotional and it's heartfelt. Some scenes will make you laugh out loud, others will make you shiver and some will make you feel happy. Every emotion is perfectly measured out. Not one single scene is overdone or melodramatic.
The theme of the film is classic: growing up. Christine is seventeen and she wants to be different. That's why she calls herself Lady Bird. She lives in Sacramento ('The Midwest of California') and she hates it. That's why she wants to move to the East Coast ('where there is culture'). She attends a high school run by nuns called Immaculate Heart, but she feels she doesn't belong there. That's why she applies for Ivy League universities, defying advice and common sense.
All the coming-of-age ingredients are there: the longing for greater things (already in one of the very first scenes), the parents who have forgotten what it's like to be a teenager (one parent in particular, in this case), the joy of turning eighteen, the urge to get away from home.... and I could go on.
Because all this has already been done so many times on the big screen, it's difficult to stand out. But director Greta Gerwig has managed just that. Not by adding anything special to the mix of familiar themes, but by showing them just as they are. And by applying the perfect mix of a laugh, a tear, a shiver and some goosebumps.
The Rider (2017)
They ride horses, don't they?
While watching the end credits of this film, I noticed that Brady Jandreau is mentioned twice: as the lead actor, and as the horse trainer. It's a way of telling the audience that Jandreau is, in fact, playing himself, or at least a version of his personality.
Brady Jandreau - only his last name is changed for his movie role - is a rodeo rider who is recovering from a near-fatal head injury. Doctors tell him he should never ride again, but after having spent some weeks working in a supermarket, he comes to the conclusion that there's only one thing that makes him happy: riding rodeo's.
It's a simple story, but it is told with lots of empathy for the heart wrenching choices Brady has to make. We can see him wrestling with his fate and in the end, he knows that he is meant to ride horses, 'just as a horse is meant to run across the prairie'.
There are several side stories deepening the insight in Brady's predicament. His teenage sister is mentally challenged, the family is poor and lives in a trailer, and he has to say goodbye to two of his favorite horses.
The film can be interpreted as a heroic tale of perserverence and dedication. Brady lives for the rodeo, and the viewer understands why he gets a kick out of the horses, the clothing, the masculinity and the competition. The director indicates this in subtle scenes. For example when he decides to pawn his custom made saddle, because he needs the money. At the last moment, he changes his mind.
But you can also interpret this film a a sad story of a man who has only limited possibilities in life because of the environment he grows up in. Brady really has nothing else in his life, and is not capable of even imagining changing it. One of the saddest scenes in the film is when Brady visits another rodeo hero, who is paralyzed for life after a fall, and lives in a care facility. Helped by three assistants, Brady lifts his friend on a wooden horse, puts a cowboy hat on his head and makes him move as if he is riding a horse. Even this terrible example doesn't deter Brady from continuing rodeo riding.
The cinematograpy is beautiful, with plenty of shots showing the treeless prairies of the empty American heartland in all its beauty. It also gives a nice insight into the rodeo world, a cultural phenomenon as essential to the American West as bull fighting is to Spain. But it's essentially a film about a man fighting the odds to do what he wants to do.
Una Mujer Fantástica (2017)
Strong plea for tolerance and understanding
I had expected 'The Square' to win the foreign language Oscar, and I had hoped 'On Body and Soul' would take home the award. I was wrong. Instead of the urgency of the former or the poetry of the latter, the jury chose the delicacy of 'Una Mujer Fantástica'.
Probably, the choice has been as much inspired by the subject of the film as by the cinematographic quality of it. 'Una Mujer Fantástica' is a plea for mutual understanding, tolerance and kindness. And at the same time a condemnation of bigotry, prejudice and brutality. It can't be seen without having to think about the wave of intolerance against all kinds of minorities currently sweeping western societies.
The fantastic woman who has given the film its title, is Marina Vidal, a woman in her twenties who is dating a businessman about twice her age. In spite of the age difference, they seem to be happy with each other. But it's not so much the age difference that is remarkable. Marina is a woman who has been a man before.
In the first part of the film, this is not an issue at all. It's only after her lover suddenly dies, that Marina's gender becomes something peculiar. The medical staff, the police and, above all, her lover's relatives treat her with utmost distrust and suspicion. They won't even let her grieve, or attend the funeral.
The film shows how Marina suffers from the way she is treated, and how she refuses to give in. She remains her proud self, and in the end gets what she wants: a decent goodbye to her deceased lover. The film doesn't fall into the trap of making the whole thing too sentimental. The director registers the events, with a certain amount of compassion, but without making a tearjerker of it.
This is not a groundbreaking movie. But 'Una Mujer Fantástica' is without any doubt a well-written, well-directed and well-acted drama, with an underlying message that's hard not to agree with.
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.