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120 battements par minute (2017)
Lengthy French aids drama
'120 Battements par minute' is about the protest movement Act Up Paris, which tried to put aids on the map as a major problem. The film is set about thirty years ago, when there was no efficient treatment yet against aids. There is at least one other film about this era and about this theme: 'Dallas Buyers Club'. Both films show how desperate aids patients were to get their hands on promising new medication. Both films show what the disease can do to a human being. Both films show the ignorance and prejudice of that period.
The American film is a clever, well-made and well-written film in which the development of the lead character is central. But the French movie is slow-moving, lacks any suspense and doesn't seem to have any central focal point.
It starts by showing, in excruciating length, the weekly meetings of the Act Up members, who more often than not embark on endless discussions about something as mundane as the slogan for a campaign poster. They also try to disturb official meetings, and invade a pharmaceutical company which refuses to release the test results of a certain kind of drug.
This last story element offers some dramatic possibilities, but the film makers don't elaborate on it. This becomes clear when, in one scene, the managers of the pharmaceutical company are invited to explain their policy to the Act Up members. Instead of showing this exchange of differing opinions, and thus creating some much-needed dramatic development, the story moves away from the pharmaceutical company to the experiences of one individual Act Up member. Suddenly, he becomes the protagonist, and we see him struggling with the disease.
Throughout the whole film, I kept on thinking: what's the point? Where is this story heading? Why is the first half of the film about a group of people fighting for a cause, and the second half about one individual fighting against a disease? The problem is also that the urgency is gone. Most of the things Act Up is angry about, are solved now. Very few people in the western world die of aids anymore, and everyone is aware of what the risk factors are. The makers of 'Dallas Buyers Club' knew this. That film was not so much about aids, it was about how one particular man handled aids. In '120 Battements par minute', the disease is still very much the lead character.
From Russia without love
After having watched the trials and tribulations of the lead character in this film for more than two hours, I realized I didn't even know her name. Did I miss it somehow? No, I didn't. Her name is not mentioned even once, and in the credits she is referred to as 'the gentle creature'.
This is symbolic for the dehumanization of the Russian society, which is the main subject of this film. Citizens are not seen as human creatures that need help, assistance or simply a kind smile, but as inconveniences, causes for trouble and objects for complaints. The whole society seems to consist of bitter, demoralized and cynical people.
The film shows how the nameless woman travels to a huge prison in an isolated town in Siberia, to visit her husband. The package she sent him was returned to sender, so she wants to find out what happened. During her long search she has to confront rude prison officials, corrupt police officers, greedy pimps, drunk lodgers, nostalgic nationalists and a disheartened human rights activist. The woman endures everything with admirable patience. Her facial expression remains completely even, whatever happens to her, and she only speaks when strictly necessary.
The movie is filmed in slow, almost contemplative scenes. The audience has to be patient, just as the woman. But the film is far from boring. The viewer completely identifies with the woman. After every deception, you're asking yourself: what next? What can be worse? An important aspect is the very clever cinematography. In several scenes, the director starts by showing a conversation or an event that is seemingly unattached to the story, only to show the connection after several minutes. A good example is the scene in the train taking the woman from her village to the prison town. We see four train passengers discussing the fate of the Russian state, until the camera turns, showing the woman sitting in a corner of the compartment, silently observing the goings-on.
The situations sometimes get so absurd that the viewer hesitates between laughing or crying. When asking for directions, the woman is told: 'Just look out for a burned house. A friend of mine died there.' It's something this film has in common with the films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, who also shows ordinary men and women struggling in their daily existence. At times, even David Lynch comes to mind. That is particularly the case in the last part of the film. This dream sequence takes a quite different turn, and it is open to question if it makes the film better or worse. There's something to say for both, but in any case it adds an extra dimension that is worth thinking about. In this dream sequence, the Ukrainian director seems to hammer home his point: Russia is a deplorable country.
Keep in mind, Ukraine is still at war with Russian-supported militia over the control of its Eastern parts. As an insult to Vladimir Putin, this film doesn't miss its target.
The Big Sick (2017)
Predictable and not very funny
Pakistani-born actor and stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani has made a film about his own experiences dating a non-Pakistani girl. His family members didn't accept the fact that he loved his girlfriend, and kept on setting up dates with Pakistani girls, as is the custom in that country.
Instead of a drama about the consequences of these culture clashes, Nanjiani made a lighthearted film, following the classic screenplay structure of the romantic comedy. Boy meets girl, falls in love, has to overcome all kinds of setbacks and problems, is rejected by the girl, but keeps on trying, and ultimately succeeds in winning her love. Everything is so predictable that the jokes must be really good to make up for the unimaginative screenplay.
Unfortunately, they're not. I counted one really good joke (about 9/11) and a handful in the category 'not bad'. But overall, this movie lacks the wit and humour that you'd expect from a film that was praised at Sundance. The jokes are flat and the running gags, like the endless parade of Pakistani marriage candidates, are boring.
So, the film is predictable and not very funny. That wouldn't have mattered if Nanjiani had turned his own experiences in a really heartfelt drama about how in some immigrant communities traditional parents try to arrange marriages for their unwilling offspring. And how this can lead to devastating consequences, like parents disowning their children. In 'The Big Sick', this fact is presented in the offhand manner which of course is typical for comedies.
The theme of arranged marriages in immigrant communities made me think of the excellent German/Turkish movie about this subject, 'When we leave'. That film was like a punch in the stomach. 'The Big Sick' is like listening to someone trying in vain to be funny.
There is only one thing I really liked in this film: Holly Hunter's part as the mother of Nanjiani's love interest. The way she completely played everyone else off the screen, for example with a wonderful and completely unexpected outburst of grief-induced anger, was absolutely great.
Baby Driver (2017)
This film has plenty of scenes that put a smile on your face. The combination of an ultra-cool baby-faced hero, a killer soundtrack and a tongue-in-cheek heist theme should be the ultimate recipe for a film with maximum entertainment value. Especially when the director is not afraid to make creative use of those ingredients. The scene of lead character Baby walking down the street to the music of Bob and Earl's Harlem Shuffle, and using everything he sees as an imaginary musical instrument, is great cinema. There are many such moments in this film, which is driven (pun intended) by its soundtrack of 35 songs that are almost without exception great music.
Still, I left the cinema slightly disappointed. Towards the end, this cool, stylish and original film morphs into an unimaginative succession of shootouts and car chases, not so much different from any commercial Hollywood blockbuster. By then, the multitude of screeching tires, machine guns and crashing police vehicles has become a bit tiresome. The contrast between the super exciting first five minutes of the film and the dull and boring last fifteen, couldn't have been bigger.
Remarkable tour de force
One of the most intense scenes in Christopher Nolan's war movie 'Dunkirk' doesn't feature bombs, planes or boats. It shows three soldiers, sitting on the beach, looking at the surf, waiting for help that may never come. While they're sitting there, we see another soldier behind them. He is walking over the beach towards the sea, first dropping his helmet, than his gun. He keeps walking and disappears into the sea. The three soldiers sitting on the beach know what they've seen. And so does the audience. Not a word is said, but an awful lot is shown.
This scene proves that 'Dunkirk', other than some of Nolan's previous movies, is not only visual bravado. It's not just big budget film making, aimed at entertaining large audiences yearning for the ultimate cinema experience. Nolan uses his big budget to tell us something. To give us a history lesson. To show us the Dunkirk evacuation as it really happened. Never do this again, he advises us. Never again decide to send innocent teenagers into a senseless, cruel war.
The film is outstanding in many respects. One: the narrative structure is a tour de force. Three different story perspectives with three different time frames are blended into one film, showing the same events from different angles. Two: technically, the film is perfect. Without many computer generated images, Nolan lets boats sink, planes go down and bombs explode. Three: it may sound strange, but in 'Dunkirk', war has an aesthetic quality. Thousands of soldiers queuing on the flat beach, waiting for boats that are nowhere to be seen, is a remarkable sight and Nolan makes the best of it. The same with the masses of identically clad soldiers, and with the impressive opening scene of soldiers catching flyers, wafting through the empty streets of Dunkirk. Four: 'Dunkirk' is an overall white-knuckle experience. Even although we know how it all ends, the suspense is always there because we don't know who will live in the end and who won't. The minimalist and extremely effective soundtrack adds even more adrenaline.
At the very end of the film, the chilling observations of war cruelty are followed by sentimental British patriotism. In my view, it's the only minor flaw of this otherwise remarkable cinematographic experience.
La fille de Brest (2016)
Multi-layered whistle blower movie
It is tempting to compare 'La fille de Brest' with 'Erin Brockovich'. Both are about female whistle-blowers, fighting the establishment with all they have. Both are based on actual events. Both are outsiders, initially not taken seriously by their opponents. Both have a star actress in the title role.
But there is an important difference. In 'Erin Brockovich', the title character is much more one-dimensional than in 'La fille de Brest'. Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen plays small-town pulmonologist Irène Frachon as an intelligent and passionate woman, who has qualities as well as weaknesses. Her performance really carries the movie.
Doctor Frachon accidentally discovers that some patients suffering from a cardiac disorder also take the drug Mediator against obesity. She suspects that the disorder is a fatal side-effect of Mediator, and embarks on a crusade to prove her point. That's easier said than done, because even with the help of a professor she has a hard time writing a scientifically solid paper. In the sample of patients treated in her hospital, in the small seaside town of Brest, she finds a remarkable correlation between Mediator use and the cardiac disorder. But the drug company and the authorities think the sample is too small to be scientifically acceptable.
The film has not chosen the easy way: the story doesn't simplify things too much. In fact, the start of the movie is not the best part because the viewer feels bombarded by technical information. Later on, the story moves forward more smoothly when Frachon and her team hire a lawyer to represent the patients, find an editor to publish a book about the affair and approach a journalist to write a scoop about it. Also, the involvement of an insider from the health insurance agency gives the story a nice extra dimension.
The film clearly attacks the heavy involvement of the medical industry in the supervision process. According to the end credits, things have changed in France after the Mediator scandal. It would have been a happy end, if several of doctor Frachon's patients wouldn't have lost their lives because of Mediator. Her reading their names aloud during a live television interview, is one of the finest moments in the film. The message is clear: it's all about them, not about reputations, profit or statistics.
L'amant double (2017)
Game of mirrors
One reason I'd like to see 'L'Amant Double' for a second time, is just to count the number of scenes featuring mirrors. A rough estimate: somewhere between twenty and thirty. Sometimes there are two or three mirror scenes in a time span of just a few minutes. A few of them really stand out in a cinematographic way. In one scene, we see a conversation between two people, but it seems as if they are talking to each other's mirror image: they are never shown talking directly to each other.
The symbolism of it all is clear. In 'L'Amant Double', lead character Chloé is in love with twin brothers. At least, that's what she thinks. And that's what we think. Unless the twins are really two sides of the same personality. But two sides of which personality exactly? His, or a projection of hers? What is real, what is imagined? Director François Ozon plays the game of mirrors perfectly, and keeps it up until the very end. When you think it's all clear, there are still some strange things. Which one of the twin brothers was the smoker again?
The film is very stylish. Ozon has made the most of the locations. In the museum where Chloé works as a guard, outrageous art is being exposed. It's a perfect backdrop for some visually beautiful scenes. The clothing, the hairdo's, the furniture: everything is done in the best of Parisian tastes.
There's much to enjoy in 'L'Amant Double', for different kinds of moviegoers. It is a thriller of some sorts, with the suspense building up until the last few minutes. It's also a psychological drama, with lots of twists and turns. And in the very end, there's even a little bit of horror. But overall, this is a very French film, with some kinky scenes and a nice amount of Parisian elegance.
Get Out (2017)
Race relations and violent horror
'My parents are not racist', Rose tells her boyfriend Chris when she's planning to introduce him to her mum and dad. She's not planning to tell them Chris is black. Why should she? They're not racist.
Indeed, her parents seem to be more worried about his smoking habit than about his skin colour. But the fact remains that they employ two black servants, who seem rather submissive and not very talkative.
The first part of this film is a clever exploration of race relations. Chris feels that something strange is going on in the household of his girlfriend's parents, but he doesn't know what.
Only in the second half it becomes clear what is going on. The movie changes radically: thriller and horror elements take over. Subtlety makes way for straightforward violence, the viewer is treated to a series of bloody killings, contrasting strongly with the sophisticated observations about race relations.
This is a film with two faces: intelligent drama and bloody horror. You could argue that it's clever to combine both elements, but it's also the weak point. Viewers who don't like horror (like me) are disappointed by the bloody second half, viewers who do, will find the first part boring.
Les fantômes d'Ismaël (2017)
Top actresses lost in messy screenplay
The basis for a good film is always a good screenplay. Because the screenplay of 'Les fantômes d'Ismaël' is a mess, the film is a failure. What is undoubtedly meant as an intelligent multi-layered story highlighting the many aspects in the life of a film maker, is in reality an incomprehensible hodgepodge of subplots going nowhere.
Right from the very beginning, the viewer is confused. The first few scenes are not scenes from the film we're watching, but from a film within the film, which is being shot by lead character Ismaël. The main plot item, however, is the return of his wife, who has been missing for 20 years and was presumed dead. This in itself can be fine material for a well-acted drama, exploring the way the husband, his girlfriend and his long lost wife cope with this new situation. With multiple award winning actresses like Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard on hand, this would seem to be the most logical option.
Instead, the viewer is offered a myriad of increasingly complicated side-stories, flash backs and dream-like sequences, culminating in a laughable scene of the tormented film maker shooting his own executive producer by accident. I have no doubt this film tries to make a point, but I'm afraid only the director knows which one. Unless you're a fan of French pseudo-intellectual art-house dramas, this film is to be avoided.
Tarde para la ira (2016)
Very effective Spanish thriller
The single most important thing distinguishing a good thriller from a bad one, is the screenplay. It has to be simple but effective, with lots of suspense and without any unnecessary subplots.
'Tarde para la Ira' is a great thriller, because the writer, who is also the director, has stuck to this basic rule. The story of a man who waits for years to take revenge, is very effective. And the carefully planned way he finally gets even with his adversaries, keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very last moment.
Also, this film is very good in creating the right atmosphere. There's nothing polished or glamorous about the people in this film. They are as rough as the working class neighbourhoods in Madrid, where the film is set.
The great thing is that the film doesn't need many action scenes. There is one great scene, the very first one, shot from the viewpoint of a driver, who is trying to escape from the police after a robbery. This is a crucial scene, but why it is so important becomes clear only later in the film. There are a few violent scenes, but they are filmed in a very matter-of-fact style.
This film seems to be a perfect candidate for an American remake. It doesn't take much effort to change the setting from Madrid to Chicago, Los Angeles or Miami. On the other hand, I doubt if an American director can do as good a job as Raúl Arévalo.