Month: January 2009

Les Noces Rebelles

Les Noces RebellesRevolutionary Road
Sam Mendes :: USA :: 2008 :: 2h05

Based on the first book by Richard Yates of the same title (1961), Revolutionary Road is set in a post-war Connecticut. The young couple Frank and April Wheeler, struggle with the pressures of 1950s conformity. Trying to set out a path of their own, one in which they can make themselves happy, they buy a beautiful house in the suburbs, on Revolutionary Road. The house, in which they thought they could be themselves, despite the suburban stigma, becomes a symbol of the dictate of society. Frank had turned into a commuting worker in an abstract office job he does not care for. April had become a housewife, unhappy and lacking a passion for anything. The two of them smoke and drink their way through their relationship and their obligations, but the first step to escape comes when April proposed to just leave and move to Paris. They would try to make something out of themselves before they were just swallowed up by conformity.

Quite some emphasis is set on the characters living their lives in the suburbs, even the title, and that being somehow responsible for their unhappiness. Of course that is not really the case. Suburbia plays a mythical role in the American dream of the ideal life. The Wheelers are there, in a pretty house in a tree lined neighbourhood with the harmless, nosey but kind neighbours one would expect. It is the conformity of living in that neighbourhood, living out that dream which is not theirs, which haunts them. The neighbourhood embodies the end of a childhood dream of a special life, paradoxically, by the fabricated happiness that it shines out. The suburbs are accused as being artificial, as shown through the side characters, a world in which nothing is real, not even the sentiments people express. It is a world which de-humanizes people, turning them into caricatures.

It is perhaps not surprising to find that it was British director Sam Mendes, who brought us American Beauty, that launched himself into the project. Taking on board his wife Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, last seen together on Titanic, has been brilliantly cast. The movie also makes a perfect showcase for the actors’ talents, almost distracting you away from their game as you contemplate what they will say at the Oscars. Without the irony, they do actually do a good job crying their way through this production, and if you enjoy seeing good acting for its own sake, certainly do not miss this one. For the rest of us, Revolutionary road is not a happy movie, and the dark picture it paints is without relief or hope of a better future. Perhaps you can console yourself that you do not live in the suburbs, or that you are not like Frank and April Wheeler. In your time with them, you will live some moments to be cherished, but as a whole, keep your head up high to be able to question the validity of the points made lucidly afterwards. Watch at your own risk.

http://www.revolutionaryroadmovie.com

Erik Nietzsche

Erik NietzscheDe Unge Ar
Jacob Thuesen :: Denmark :: 2007 :: 1h32

With the script written by the provocative Lars von Trier, Erik Nietzsche is a lightly veiled ironic autobiography. The young Erik, a dreamy, naive social incompetent, is rejected from one school after another, until, by a miraculous coincidence, he is admitted into the Copenhagen film academy. At the impoverished, grotty film school, the poor fellow does not book much progress in any direction – he remains as awkward as he was when he started, and his lack of artistic vision or talent does not help either. His teachers are equally incompetent, his fellow students no better, and the general educational system employed by the school is silly. This could have had the ingredients of an amusing absurd flashback into the past, but the biggest problem with this all, is that it is not funny enough.

Interwoven into the main story-line, we get to see collages of images and a series of bad little films made by the students. This variation alleviates the boredom, but does not argue in favour of dedicating time to the production. All the characters walking around in this film academy are repulsive, leaving the viewer with nobody to cheer for. Erik, the main character, is so passive a loser that you can not expect him to ever get anywhere, in this cruel world, or any other. He does, however, adapt himself somewhat, not to his credit, taking over characteristics of this world in which he finds himself. Of course, that does not make him any more interesting as a character, nor does it make the film any better. That such a dropout at such an institution would later give the world the likes of Dogville, as Lars von Trier does, is completely unbelievable.

As the story drags on, the audience becomes less and less interested in what can only be far from the biographical truth. The Danish master may have studied at a worthless film academy, but he must have learnt something about cinema somewhere. The climax American pretentious “I’m the best” speech in reply to the badgering of the incompetent professors is just beyond cheesy. If you really want to see this movie out of principle, choose a cinema-café where you can talk through it – one and a half hours of this in silence is really just pushing it a little too far.

http://www.filmsdulosange.fr

Sextet

SextetSextet
Eddy Terstall :: The Netherlands :: 2007 :: 1h36

Set up as a relay of consecutive not-too-serious stories about sex. It is the second part (after Simon) of a trilogy looking at life in contemporary Dutch society. The fundamental questions treated: Can you actually listen to what a beautiful girl is saying? Do you not have the right to be a little discriminated if you are a Lesbian couple? If you fall in love with someone who is married, does your love or their commitment take the upper hand? As I am sure you understand, comedy is the way here, and it should be judged on its humour and power to hold our attention. Sextet has some of both, with some creative merit in surprising places.

Sextet is advertised as a cheap sex movie (see the website), which is grossly inaccurate. The movie is simple, funny and gives you some insight into life in the Netherlands, wrapped up in a package with a lot of pretty girls. It is only the latter, with some gentle nudity thrown in, which is supposed to justify the marketing approach. Although, that could also have been to counter some criticism the director apparently had been getting… “What do you mean, too many breasts in my movies? I would rather have a pair of breasts against my head than a gun.” (VPRO Gids, 2004) Having read that, you may now be surprised to find that there is actually relatively little nudity in it.
But it is not a movie about nudity, but one about sex. We see a whole range of different relationships with the questions which pre-occupy the characters. It is clearly unpretentious amusement, which thankfully never falls into an emotional rant. Some of the stories are too simple (man falls in love with married girl) and some are too outrageous (woman finds lover in bed with another and easily lets it go) but as a whole it is a pleasant ride. Dutch society is lightly analyzed, opening with: “the only people who still marry are gays” and as Holland is slowly but surely becoming atheist: “religion is often accompanied by sexual obsession, so where does that leave us?” And on that note, we are taken from story to story.

Humorous quotes aside, there are plenty of changes of visual style to keep you interested (black and white to colour to animation) and even the story relay itself is presented as a movie in the movie by a frustrated teacher at a Belgian film academy. This trick, together with the negative comments from the film academy teacher about the movie, lighten your critical stand to the movie. Although it is not a masterpiece and the visual switches are seemingly random, you can take the whole mess casually. And to help reduce your criticism, it should probably best be watched late at night.

http://www.sextetdefilm.nl

L’Etrange histoire de Benjamin Button

L'Etrange histoire de Benjamin ButtonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

David Fincher :: USA :: 2008 :: 2h35

In New Orleans, 1918, a mother dies in childbirth. Her husband picks up the child, only to find him with a body deteriorated as if he was 80 years old. Shocked, the father runs out into the street, and leaves the nameless baby on a random doorstep, to be found by raised by the barren Queenie, who works in a nursing home. Queenie names the baby Benjamin, accepting him as he is.

And what he is, is far from the ordinary: Benjamin (Brad Pitt) starts his life with the body of an old man, strengthening up to middle age and youth, to eventually leaves life as a baby! None the less, his life unfolds  somewhat normally, falling in love with “the girl next door” Daisy (Cate Blanchett), but their bodies are only ever really in sync when they are both 40. In the second half of their lives,  the one grows older and the other younger, putting an inevitable complication on their love.

Based on a short story by Scott Fitzgerald, who answered Mark Twain’s regret that the best part of life came in the beginning and the worst at the end. The humorous postulate made for a outrageous story. However captivating the idea, in the movie, Benjamin suffers more from a bizarre disability than anything else. His best years are in the middle, not in the beginning, nor in the end.

The movie tries to present a common, normal life with an absurd, impossible element. As if the absurd would have to be accepted through the normality of the rest. But the absurd does not need to be credible, or accepted here. As a thought experiment, the reversal of age is considerably more exciting than watching the relatively “normal” lives of these  characters. Of course, you have Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett to compensate you there. The movie would have been so much more captivating -as the short story is-, if the benefits of Benjamin’s age actually came with his age. But would we then be somewhat naive and reckless after 30 years of marriage, with our youthful long hair and handsome looks? But what would that be worth if the love of our life had aged?  The film manoeuvresaround the awkwardness to create a normality… something you should certainly not do in the café afterwards – the concept is too seductively humorous and cryptic to pass over, as this film has done.

http://www.bejaminbutton-lefilm.com

Walkyrie

ValkyrieValkyrie

Bryan Singer :: USA, Germany :: 2008 :: 1h50

The movie opens in Tunisia, during World War 2. We see Colonel Claus von Stauffenburg (Tom Cruise) writing that he is appalled by mass murder of Jews, by military command and his realisation that he can not find a single general to oppose Hitler. After being wounded by an air-strike, he is flown back to Germany, where he is called on to join a conspiracy against Hitler. Von Stauffenburg becomes the key figure in a wide plot by many senior officers to kill their leader. The plan was to execute Hitler’s own last line of defence -operation “Valkyrie”- which was to mobilise the reserves which were there to guard Berlin and Hitler himself in case of an Allied attack. By ingeniously modifying the operation to cut the SS out of the loop, the conspirators could use the very troops which were there to guard Hitler to stage a coup. Of course, Hitler does not die in the attack on his life, and the Valkyrie plan backfires on the hearing of the Fuhrer’s voice.

This is an exciting film about a daring rebellion, which ends badly – 200 executions for treason and many more arrests. Although the heroic story is well known, the film none the less succeeds in showing who was there, how their visions differed and how the events unfolded. The collective fear of the Nazi regime they themselves were a part of stands in stark contrast to the openly critical stance of the senior officials in the rebellion. The mixture of fear and dedication to the greater national cause transpire through the characters.

In Claus von Stauffenburg himself the dedication is the most remarkable, as he comes from a privileged aristocratic and military background. He risks his life and that of his family with the hope of saving millions around Europe, knowing fully well that the Allied landing in Normandy is the beginning of the end of the war. A swift end to the Nazi regime would not only save many, many lives but also permit a peace negotiation. Some of the other conspirators are in there for the ideal, to show they do not agree, to show the world after the war that Germany was not only Hitler’s Germany.

There are quite a few impressive scenes. When Von Stauffenburg is recruited by the Berlin conspirators, the conversation takes place on the benches of a Church. As Von Stauffenburg was a devout Catholic, the moral worth of his treason is not taken lightly. As they separate, we see that the roof of the gothic cathedral has been blown off, with a cloudy blue evening sky shining in.

We see Hitler as a frail hunchbacked old man who tries to pierce through every officer near him to single out the traitors. We are shown elaborately how hard it is to get to him, and how high up in the military ranks the conspiracy is. None the less, the devotion of the military majority, or their fear, eventually causes the failure of the plot. A plot which so nearly succeeded. A tragic and brave story, in a past so uncomfortably close by. Brilliantly constructed story board and excellently made. No need to hesitate to go in, if you have not done so already.

Website

Religolo

ReligoloReligulous

Larry Charles :: USA :: 2008 :: 1h41

US comic and television host Bill Mahler argues against religion in this one-sided appeal to unite US atheists. Interviews with religious representatives and random believers -Muslims, Christians, Jews, Scientologists, and variations- in the USA, Israel, the Vatican and the Netherlands are inter sped with mocking commentary or explosive archive footage.

Although director Larry Charles has been mostly responsible for television comedy, like Seinfeld and Curb your Enthusiasm, he had recently completed the outrageous big screen production of Borat. While in Borat the main character tries to suck ridicule out of unsuspecting (well-meaning) normal people, here Mr Mahler provokes people to admit to absurd beliefs. The idea being to show that religion stops people thinking for themselves, and accepting the absurd. He does this by any means he can think of, with quoting from holy texts (the controversial lines, of course) or asking people to solve age old theological problems on the spot (“problem of evil”). Of course people can not do it, but, amazingly enough, they do try. Bill Mahler advances that religion gives people false hope and false confidence to affront the difficult questions.

Throughout the movie, he is grossly unfair on the believers, as their answers are waved off screen with Mahler’s wit, which at times is genuinely funny, but often rather easy. This approach is justified by the fact that the movie’s point is not about having a religious discussion, but rather to convince US atheists, or potential atheists, to come out of the closet. In other words, the joke may be at their expense, but he was not addressing them with the final cut.

This movie is clearly not intended for European audiences either, where secularism is mostly the norm, and at times radically enforced (France, Turkey). It rather imagines US atheists coming together to form a lobby group to promote a secular “sanity” in US public policy. I am not sure how effective that would be, but he mentions that none of the current US senators are open atheists. It must be noted that Mahler himself does not take that position either. He could be described, from this movie, as anti-religious but agnostic as far as the existence of God goes. It seems as if being an open atheist in the US undermines a political or television career – only scientists seem to get away with it. If he wants others to make the step, he should do so himself as well. Or, alternatively, argue for a real secular US federal government, in which case both he and US politicians can keep their faith (in doors).

Mahler emphasises that religious people are not afraid of the end of the world, or they may even welcome it. He comments that the fearless religious voice might sound reassuring from your priest, but when voiced by your political leader who can actually bring the destruction about, it sounds considerably less pleasant. This leads him to a “Grow up or die” warning for mankind, which is supposed to drive home the fear of religious fanaticism. I think Mahler, although he can barely contain his disdain for many of the religious characters he spoke to, can bring a lot more to the table than he does in this film. Like with Borat, it is easy to mock people, especially with something as complicated as Theology, but arguing constructively (with Mahler’s keen wit) would achieve more. A commendable attempt worthy of a second round.

http://www.lionsgate.com/religulous

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog MillionaireSlumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle :: UK, India :: 2008 :: 2h

Jamal (played by the British actor Dev Patel) grows up in the slums of Mumbai, scavenging the dumps till a wave of religious violence turns him into an orphan. Together with his ruthless brother Salim and the equally orphaned little Latika (the acting debut for the beautiful Feida Pinto), they are swept along by a Dickens whirlwind of poverty and crime. Jamal and Latika loose sight of one another with Jamal launching himself into everything he can think of to find her back.

Jamal’s character is the only one who is somewhat worked out, curiously enough, for a 2 hour movie. He dominates the story, driven by his determination to find Latika, but in the face of the ugly world, takes on a permanent detachment, a stoic unaffectedness by the events around him. His detachment helps him protect himself, and his sanity. Living on the fringe of the criminal world, he plays at times the petty criminal and at times the victim. As an audience, you want him to get out of this miserable circle he finds himself in, but Jamal is too busy just surviving too occupy himself with some kind of exit strategy.

The cruel world in which the characters find themselves is no surprise coming from director Danny Boyle. He has made a name for himself with violence in film, having started his big screen career with the morbid Shallow Grave and the exceptional cult classic Trainspotting. In both films, the violence serves the dark humour, with the latter film taking on memorably surrealist dimensions. Slumdog Millionaire could certainly have used more dark (or other) humour to ease the tension away from the violent reality in which the characters are placed, to lighten up the whole adventure.

None the less, Slumdog Millionaire is clearly intended as a feel-good movie, in the tradition of British romantic comedies: with love portrayed as a matter of destiny (rather than, for instance, as something that is developed) against all odds. These odds, are uncharacteristically the bath of violence  and cruelty which keeps the youngsters apart. There is no mistaking the ‘blockbuster’ signature with plenty of reminders (recap images) for an audience supposedly not paying attention. I half-heartedly recommend the movie for having been set in Mumbai and for putting Dickens into the 21st century, but equally regret that the movie could not provide a little more. Mumbai changes around the characters but unfortunately the formula films, like this one, change too little.

http://www.foxsearchlight.com/slumdogmillionaire