Month: December 2008

W. – L’improbable Président

W. - L’improbable PrésidentW
Oliver Stone :: USA :: 2008 :: 2h

From his student fraternity days to meetings in the White House, Oliver Stone’s biography is not a very uplifting film to watch, neither is it particularly informative. We see George W Bush (Josh Brolin) as a drunken cowboy in Texas who, after scraping by at university, can not manage even a simple job. The rising power of his father helps him out, but even more so, puts a pressure on him that he can not take. The movie is a portrait which could be summarised as an immature, undeveloped man who lives, and cracks, under the shadow of his unappreciative father.

It is of course worrying that the US president actually resembles the incompetent drop-out shown in the movie. Positive qualities attributed to his character are humour, kindness to others and a Christian determination to do the right thing, but in the movie they are completely over-shadowed by his incompetence and sheer lack of intelligence. The whole tale follows a “loser” from beginning to end, with about his only notable success being Laura Bush. He is shown to be manipulated by many people, most notably by his vice, Dick Cheney, who the movie suggests held the real power during his time in office.

The French title shows the angle which Oliver Stone wanted to take: how improbable is it that such a man could become the leader of the USA? This question, unfortunately, is left unanswered. George Bush is portrayed as not knowing anything about anything, not having read anything of value and possessing none of the skills (besides his overlooked charisma) required for running even a small enterprise. How such a man could have made his way through the system on his name alone remains a mystery. This is probably the biggest flaw in the movie, which leaves us with rather little to contemplate. Stone gives us two hours of watching an idiot dig himself deeper into trouble and that is not encouraging. You need a healthy mix of sadism and masochism to see this through to the end, as it no longer can serve any political purpose and the main character is now thankfully out of harms way.


Le Chant des Mariées

Le Chant des MariéesLe Chant des Mariées

Karin Albou :: France, Tunisia :: 2007 :: 1h40

We open into an engagement party for Nour and her cousin Khaled, Tunis 1942. Although it is an arranged marriage, Nour’s relationship with Khaled is one of a blossoming love as they get to know one another. Nour, 16, is denied an education, but had been taught to read by her best friend Myriam and receives books from the young Khaled. Nour and Khaled’s marriage is postponed several times as Khaled has trouble finding work in the German occupied city. Our attention is directed at the love and experience of the two girls discovering the world around them. The movie is roughly divided into two halves, with the first more on Myriam (and her relationship with Nour) and the second half concentrating on Nour’s development.

The girls had grown up together fantasising about romantic love and watch it grow between Nour and Khaled. For the girls, it is as if Nour is living her love story for the two of them. Myriam hopes she will have her own ‘Khaled’ someday, but fate, as directed by her mother, unfortunately sets her to be wed to an older man, the doctor Raoul. Her first meeting with him spells out their future… she does not like him. Raoul had come into the picture as the saviour from the German occupiers’ cruel laws affecting Myriam and her mother. His generous offer to help, in exchange for Myriam in marriage, came at a bitter price as they find out he labours in collaboration with the Nazi’s. Khaled, who seemed the bright young fiancé, turns out to be quite somebody else when pushed under the occupying force, to the disillusionment of Nour and Myriam.

The sensual awakening of the young girls is contrasted with the onslaught of propaganda and fear perpetuated by the German occupiers. The movie shows not only the girls’ vulnerability but also the dangers of a lack of education to be able to judge and defend themselves. Nour may have been taught to read by her friend Myriam, but it is not enough to arm her against the propaganda pouring into their house (radio and brochures) and the fear through the window (bombs and soldiers marching). Neither of the girls really know how to deal with the situation they were thrown into, but it is clear that Myriam had the advantage of seeing clearer through the ideological disinformation.

Visually, the movie is very intimate. As we see the world through the eyes of Myriam and Nour, the men are mostly cut out of the visual field. Most of the movie is indoors, in their house, where they live. The war is heard outside, and through their shared radio, which had now become an auditive wall between the families. The occupying force is never shown with faces, soldiers are like robots which are heard marching. The girls’ love for one another is shown with the proximity of sisters, with their intimacy as their shared good. Love is not so much an emotion which is described as it is an emotion to be felt, with the stroking or the holding of the other. A physical southern Mediterranean feel dominates, as the heat lingers in the tight social construct in which they live. It is a flawed society, as all are (here specifically the position of women), but it is their world, the world of Myriam and Nour.

Parallels can be made with La Petite Jerusalem, with its emphasis on sensuality and vulnerability, for the mixture between modernity and tradition, for the almost exclusive female look on the world, or for the potential clashes between Muslims and Jews. Ms Albou’s first film was more focussed than Le Chant des Mariées, which takes on more subjects than it can realistically handle. This is unfortunate and weakens the film.  The director is still young, and with a talent like hers, she will have more than enough opportunity to pass on any point she wishes. Karin Albou is clearly a very gifted filmmaker and one to watch out for. Even if too many elements in a movie stomps off thought and confuses the viewer, we can consider ourselves blessed with such a beautiful performance. Do not hesitate to go in, Le Chant des Mariées opens doors to a world normally hidden from sight, and does so admirably.

Dossier de presse (The Wedding Song)

Le Jour où la Terre s’arrêta

Le Jour où la Terre s'arrêtaThe Day the Earth Stood Still

Scott Derrickson :: USA :: 2008 :: 1h42

Huge alien ships land on earth, with Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) stepping out as their representative. Klaatu is an emotionless, robotic type of alien in a human form, but with superpowers adapted to each moment. He is helped along by giant robot named Gort, which both a weapon and a time-bomb. A paranoid US government inexplicably opens fire on the alien. Klaatu survives and befriends a scientist named Helen (Jennifer Connelly) in the process. Klaatu wants to speak to the earths leaders, but the US government refuses. They escape together, chased by the US military, and as panic unfolds throughout the world, they hold the key to the survival of the planet.

The clearly intended to be a blockbuster film, is a remake of the 1951 original, but made using contemporary techniques – a story-line which does not make sense, the moral lost along the way, cheap sentimentalism and a general repeat of many other similar films. In other words, the secret recipe of success… I should not have given it away.

It is hard to decide where to start with a list of grievances. Even the setting, New York, is so dull – could the action not please take place on another street for a change? And then there’s the story. Believe it or not, there was an alien monitor living happily on our planet and studying us for 70 years, but it required this second emotionless one, to see a crying child to decide to save us all. And then there is the destruction in the end that mysteriously does not take place. But we should remember, that here characters can save themselves from the rough equivalent of a nuclear explosion… by hiding under a small bridge.

The sloppiness of this production goes all the way into the details:  it even opens with two superfluous scenes and ends in a meaningless event. A custom built cage and deep underground prison for the alien robot Gort had been prepared in a matter of hours. Along the way, we are presented a wound on the alien Klaatu which bleeds onto his shirt on the right hand side, but the actual wound appears to be on the left when we see it a little later on. I am sure you can all amuse yourselves tracking down all the errors in this awful production.

And, of course, do not forget the moral: the moral of the film is supposed to be against excessive consumerism, and yet, lo and behold, we are explained the latest gadget technology, we are presented with the miracles of Lg’s products which are randomly placed into the scenes and a top alien meeting had to be planned in… McDonalds. It’s really pretty bad.



Mabrouk el Mechri :: Belgium, France :: 2008 :: 1h36

Back in Brussels from Los Angeles, an jet-lagged Jean-Claude van Damme hopes to find some peace and quiet from the cut-throat world of the entertainment business. Exhausted from his journey, from his humiliating child custody case for his daughter, and from the unending pressure to keep his career on the float. His home town of Brussels is proud of him, for being a fighter, for chasing his dreams. Unfortunately, within an hour of being back home, bad luck slips him into the heart of an unfolding  robbery. A robbery which becomes a robbery with Jean-Claude van Damme.

JCVD is a sad movie to watch. The mix of fiction with reality (the actor playing himself) brings the whole scenery close to home. It is filmed in a Belgian film noir kind of way (filming from down below with light falling on half the face for dramatic effect), with dry humour in the dialogues. The ambition of being a thriller combined with the musings of Jean-Claude van Damme, makes for an unnatural combination which takes the speed out of the thriller and puts more social drama into the musings. Three quarters through the film, Jean-Claude is actually lifted out of the scene to be left in a messy social and personal musings session.

The auto-derision of the actor and his incapacity to remove himself from the mess in which he finds himself (his life, the world) puts a weight on the shoulders of the viewer. The viewer expects the action hero to make it all right again, and he knows that this is what people expect from him. At the same time, he is afraid and there is not very much he can do to help himself, or the others. The movie does not resolve problems in Jean-Claude’s life, it merely sketches them as a portrait. At the same time, the robbery must finish, putting a beginning and an end to the time we pass with him. The portrait jostles for attention next to the unfolding robbery, leaving a somewhat unclear montage. But then again, for those who grew up on Jean-Claude van Damme movies like the director, this is a rare insight into the karate hero, and his first serious film. Watch it at the last showing at night, when your logical expectations are down, and you will come out feeling more ‘aware’.

The Duchess

keira-knightley-is-the-duchessThe Duchess

Saul Dibb :: UK :: 2008 :: 1h50

At the end of the eighteenth century, the beautiful, witty and joyful Georgina Spencer becomes the first wife of the dreary Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendisch. Under pressure to provide a male heir for her husband, their formal marriage is strained under its already weak bond. Escaping her marital misfortune, she launches herself into the social scene, developing herself into a popular socialite, amassing a considerable influence within the London elite. Her estrangement from her husband, eventually leads her into the arms of the future prime minister Charles Grey, and the Duke himself into the bed of her best friend Elizabeth.

The movie’s promotion lays a parallel with the late Princess Diana (who is a descendant of Georgina Spencer) in the hope of convincing you to go and see it. Let us remind ourselves that this parallel is only superficially valid, and certainly not an important reason to remind yourself of Georgina’s life or to see this cinema adaptation. Georgina finds herself living with her husband and his mistress (her best friend) after a few years a marital misery, provoked mostly by the coincidence of their children being girls (and the Duke wanting a boy as his heir). This does not sound like the life of Princess Diana. On top of that, the Duke is portrayed here as a one-dimensional merciless brute. Prince Charles may have suffered from quite some bad press in his time, but not cruelty. Try to forget the marketing parallel, other than that Diana and Georgina are related.

The Duchess is a simple drama which puts a spotlight on Keira Knightley in, often, beautiful dresses. That should also be the prime reason for going in, as, besides her and the occasional witty remark, there is very little to add. The locations, manors, interior decorating and photography are fine but just at the customary level in costume dramas. The biggest stain is certainly the Duke himself, who seems to feel compelled to attend parties which bore him, but feels comfortable walking out of a dinner at his own home. The Duke’s dull blasé character renders the salon parties meaningless and since the parties embody society life, it would suggest he is above idle chit-chat. If he was, their lives would have been considerably more pleasant and most of the drama would be gone. A little more effort should have gone into this production, but that is no fault of Keira’s. And, thankfully, it is Keira who is mostly on screen, so for her fans out there, you know where to be!

Caos Calmo

Caos CalmoCaos Calmo
Antonello Grimaldi :: Italy :: 2008 :: 1h55

Pietro’s life takes a cruel turn when his wife Lara dies in an accident in their holiday home. Pietro returns to Rome with his 10 year old daughter Claudia, lost in the void of Lara’s absence. When he brings his daughter to school, he decides to wait outside till she comes back out again. Sitting on the bench under the trees mourning, his work, his family, his emotions, all pass him by.

The movie is not only very original in its set-up, following Pietro as he passes his time in front of his daughter’s school, it is also beautifully made. Filled with subtle details: most of Pietro’s life shows up on that little square. He takes on new priorities in his life (like a little game he plays with a passing child), meets new people and sets himself back into the saddle. Pietro’s development from his confused and shocked state of his wife’s death to coming to terms with being a widower with daughter comes through a re-think of his entire life up to that point. Not in the sense that his life needs remodelling, but rather to be able to look at it up close.

Professionally, Pietro is surrounded by the management of the a big Italian cinema channel. The company is in the middle of a discussion of whether or not to merge with an American group. This discussion rages on passionately around him, but he does not really defend or lobby for his opinion on the matter. Working life just continues, with his secretary or his colleagues passing by on the little square to sort things out which can not do without his input, or just to get something off their backs. There are several remarkable ideas at play here. Firstly, the idea that cinema as just another product to be sold is far removed from a vision of cinema as a one of the pillars of Italian culture. Losing control of their own cinema barely seems to touch the executives because they deplore the current situation. Of course this becomes bitter-sweet, when you realise you are watching an excellent Italian movie and not a popcorn supplement. Secondly, Pietro is an important man and his absence from the office does not seem to have much effect on his career or the functioning of the organisation. Everybody can be missed for a while, the organisation just solves most issues organically to fill up the void.

Caos Calmo shows a quiet stream flowing, with Pietro standing at the side watching. As he stares into the stream, focusses his eyes, slowly but surely he can see the undercurrents. The movie is not a particularly joyful one, but it is filmed realistically and most importantly, it is very funny. The humour removes the weight of the sadness, making the exercise a pleasure to watch. Highly recommended.

L’Odyssée de la Vie

affiche_odyssee_de_la_vie_2005_1The Odyssey of Life

Nils Tavernier :: France :: 2005 :: 1h30

Barbara and Manu want to have a child. They allowed television director Tavernier interview them on the Côte d’Azur, where they live, at the different stages of her pregnancy. Inter sped with the interviews, we get to see an animation of the foetus as it grows into a baby. The mixture between the action on the outside, for instance when Barbara is swimming and the animation of her baby being jolted around inside her is magical.

The whole film is guided by a narrative voice explaining what contemporary science believes takes place at the origins of human life, written under the supervision of Professor René Frydman. The narrative walks the fine balance between a dry scientific view and the magic which takes place.

On the down side, as if often the problem with television, Barbara and Manu, like most people, do not really want to be filmed – and it shows. Acting and being filmed is fine, but “being yourself” is near impossible when there is a camera pointed at you, as people do not really know what their own behaviour is. Barbara coves up by having prepared what she wants to say before the crew shows up at their house. Manu, who originally did not want to be filmed but changed his mind, says close to nothing. But what can he say? He is clearly thrilled at the prospect of being able to hold his own child, but what should he say about it to a television station? His original apprehension is confirmed. Despite that inherent problem, Tavernier does his best not to intrude into the privacy of Barbara and Manu, and films respectfully.

mac_guff_paris_-_lodyssee_de_la_vie_2006The main attraction of the movie is the captivating narrative with the amazing development of the baby presented in animation. The movie a perfect explanatory aide to the beginnings of human life for people “trying to imagine it” and equally for educational purposes for teenagers. Attempt to see beyond the television shortcomings, and prepare yourself for a very special journey.

NB The movie is Christian ideology-friendly, but note that the couple is unmarried (they are engaged) at the time of filming.