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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 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.