Month: March 2009

Gran Torino

Gran TorinoGran Torino

Clint Eastwood ::  USA :: 2008 :: 1h55

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a retired factory worker and war veteran, who lives in a gang-infested run-down neighbourhood, where he dislikes almost everyone and everything besides his own house. His life is filled with a near-perfect cliché of American redneck tough existence: arrogance, ignorance, materialist, racist and rude, sitting on his porch drinking beer with the American flag behind him, his dog at his feet and the pick-up truck in the driveway.

What changes all this, is when he finds the neighbours’ boy Thao (Bee Vang) in his garage trying to steal his car, as a gang initiation. To pay off their shame, the neighbour’s family, led by his sister Sue (Ahney Her), wisely send their son to work for Kowalski, doing whatever he sees fit. As the boy re-earns his honour, they develop a friendship, one Kowalski never had with his own children.

The movie has been, curiously enough, conjuring up quite some positive reactions. This is grossly unmerited if you look at the story-line. The main reason why the audiences are so enthusiastic, is because of Clint Eastwood himself. He is amazing. Not only his on-screen presence, but also his ability to express himself with a grunt, as the Dirty Harry revival. That might not sound like much, but it is an essential quality for a character like Kowalski. Eastwood is still clearly on top of his game, showing himself able to convincingly tell off an armed gang of thugs. That is nothing short of astonishing, remember that he is nearing 80!

Besides Clint Eastwood himself, the best characteristic is the dialogues. Naturally they are awash with racial slurs and general tough-talking testosterone fuelled insults, but they are funny and quintessentially American tough. Peculiarly enough, a lot of them pass by unnoticed when Kowalski can not help himself but insult, even as a guest in his neighbour’s home. But this tough-speak is considered essential by the film, as speaking English is enough – one has to speak “American” (i.e. insult, etc) to be considered worthy of attention. It is this attitude of Kowalski which made him a loner. He is a self-righteous brute who has traumatised his children through his lack of love and attention, not to mention his awful grandchildren – in street wear and texting at their grandmother’s funeral. None the less, Kowalski’s wife was supposedly well loved. This should make you wonder what a special woman she must have been, who could get along with both him and his family. But unfortunately we do not meet her. We are left with the ruins.

This is an upsetting film. It induces fear of the outside world, the world beyond your own porch. It encourages violence (verbal or physical) as the norm of masculine interaction.  It holds a lesson in badmouthing (Kowalski teaches Thao). It teaches racism from an every-man-for-himself perspective. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Kowalski sits in the hospital waiting room. By then we are well enough trained by the film to be able to understand that we are supposed to be looking at race first – the people there are all not white and we are supposed to think that that is not a good thing(!?). If that was not bad enough, taking on the world vision of a redneck, Thao’s sister Sue later says to Kowalski that she is happy to meet a “real American”, suggesting that only white immigrants are real Americans and all the other immigrants which make up their country are not. And Sue is born and raised in the USA! This is a doomsday vision of the country as a cocktail of The Warriors (1979) with the USA as a gangland nation and Manderlay (2005) presenting it as an inherently racist society. Gran Torino sports the redneck vision which is neither uplifting nor accurate.

I find it hard to launch this kind of criticism against a foreign production, but spreading racism is not going to do anyone any good. Of course the film has its positive moral hidden in there, but it is not that which will stick in people’s minds. It is the endless parade of stereotypes, insults and violence which will make their point in your mind, not the inevitable moment of redemption. Well that, and of course, the brilliant performance of Clint Eastwood…


There’s a Dutch film Industry?

Tushinski AmsterdamA short history of film from the Low Countries

The Netherlands, a few exceptions aside, offers an atrocious cinema experience. Run-down cinema’s with sub-par sound, un-sharp or faded colours on the projection screen and that is usually interrupted in the middle for a marked-up consumption break. Under such conditions you can only watch very simple movies, which, appropriately, is almost the only thing on offer. If you aspire to see a film without Will Smith, you might get lucky, but you will have to be very alert and flexible because it will be out of the cinema in less than 2 weeks. These unfavourable conditions have become a chicken and egg question, as the audience avoids the cinema because it is not attractive and they have no incentive to improve themselves because nobody comes.

But it was not just the decline of the cinema’s themselves. The VCR of the eighties certainly contributed to the plummeting cinema attendance in The Netherlands. They had dropped down to the lowest in Europe! The average Dutchman today goes to the cinema 1.4 times a year. If that does not sound low to you, consider that next door, in Belgium, the attendance is already 50% higher, while in France it is an amazing 300% that figure! If you feel bad for the Dutch, and want to help then out, you can send your complaints across the ocean: film distribution in The Netherlands is under near complete control of American companies (75% in 2004), with UIP, Warner Bros, Disney, etc. And they’re not doing a very good job over there.

The Dutch government does not help either. Of the 300 million euro budget they have to help “cultural production”, a mere 20 will go to film. Film is not seen as an art, as in France, but rather as entertainment. This, traditionally, has been the reason not to take it all too seriously, and certainly no reason to promote or to help it.

So, does anyone in Holland actually make films? You could be excused if you scratch your head remembering the last Dutch film you saw, but might be surprised to find that there are quite a few noteworthy productions. And not only that, but there are sufficiently few of them that you can become an expert in Dutch Cinema in no time, and take in a few great films along the way.

Fifty years ago, Dutch cinema was focussed on documentaries, fiction was regarded suspiciously, as an annoyance or a religious distraction.  Within the world of documentaries, the occasional work of fiction slipped through, like the hilarious Fanfare (1958)  by Bert Haanstra about an escalating misunderstanding in a fishing village leading to a brother against brother internal rivalry. Fiction remains low-key till , together with the liberalising society, the 1970s come along with Jos Stelling and Paul Verhoeven. The former could take credit for filming the 16th century drama Mariken van Nieumeghen (1975), which earned him a Golden Palm in Cannes and kick-starting a long career. The latter filmed Turkish Delight (1973) which was to become the most famous film ever to made in the The Netherlands. The quality was rewarded with becoming a huge national box office hit with 3,3 million entries. The story follows a “modern” whirlwind romance with an honest but crude look on life. The raw side of the story, with all the nudity and sex which comes with it, was a defining style for this to come (even if the raw side gets toned down with time).

Turkish Delight turned the entire crew into celebrities.  The title roles were played by Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven. The director of photography was Jan de Bont, who would later disappear into Hollywood’s machinery, directing blockbuster-type films like Speed (1994), Twister (1996) and Lara Croft (2003) and produce others like Minority Report (2002).  But before all that happened, they managed to document the wild 70s with  the explicit coming of age drama Spetters and the internationally celebrated WWII resistance film Soldier of Orange. Verhoeven himself left for Hollywood as well, making near run-on-the-mill blockbuster films like Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992) and Starship Troopers (1997). These are all clearly American films, having lost the edge of his earlier work.  In 1996 Verhoeven came back to Europe to create the acclaimed Black Book, a war film set in The Netherlands, and is currently working on another.

While Verhoeven was gone in the 80s, one Dick Maas became active in the country, producing a long series of commercial successes with silly productions like the elevator thriller De Lift (1983), Amsterdamned (1988) and the awful Flodder (1986) about an asocial family which managed to top the charts and spawn a follow-up and a TV series. Ruud van Hemert managed to further lower the level with his commercially successful Army Brats (1984) and an even worse follow-up. To save Dutch film in the 80s, Fons Rademakers produced The Assault (1986) about the moral dilemmas of war, earning him an Oscar and the country some honour abroad.

But we have to wait till the 1990s for Dutch cinema to take a turn for the better. Alex van Warmerdam, who was impressing his audience with the creative musical theatre Orkater which he created, decided to  launch himself into film. He created the curious The Northeners (1992), The Dress (1996) and the hilariously funny Little Tony (1998). His theatrical and in-habitual look on the world was a welcome breath of fresh air. The young Robert-Jan Westdijk followed suit with the funny and dramatic cam recorded Zusje (1995). Another newcomer Marleen Gorris filmed the generational Antonia’s Line (1995) becoming the first female director to win an Oscar for best foreign film. She was followed by Mike van Diem who filmed his only real feature length, the oscar-ed impressive but cold movie Character (1997), after which he disappeared again. The 1990s have been a great source for new talent, but keeping them going has proven to be still an issue.

With all this activity in recent years, Dutch film has certainly earned itself a place. Production conditions, however, are still far from optimal. The lack of state subsidy weighs heavily in a small domestic market, and the downward spiral of cinema attendance (and less and less cinema’s themselves) does not encourage private investors to take chances. If a film fails on the domestic market, there is usually not much to be expected from its export either. Remember, that in the European Union, US movies make up an enormous 70% of the market! French movies make up the next 11% and then there’s the rest… including  the Dutch productions.

Despite the grim picture, films are still being made, and the last decade is looking considerably brighter than the one before, so there is reason to be optimistic. You might be forgiven to have been oblivious to a lot of the film production in The Netherlands, but make sure you do not miss out on the little gems. And of course it is also your chance to be different – you take pride in being amongst that little group of experts in Dutch cinema!

Read the latest Dutch films reviewed.

Photo: Cinema Tuschinski Amsterdam (Source)

Le Déjeuner du 15 août

19056835jpgPranzo di Ferragosto

Gianni Di Gregorio :: Italy :: 2008 :: 1h16

Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio), who is well into his forties, has no job or income and still lives in his comfortable family home with his ageing mother. She is a capricious but refined woman who requires a lot of attention and even more patience. Gianni offers her those but can barely squeeze a little life of his own in there. When those around him escape from Rome for some fresh countryside air in the mid-summer weekend, he finds himself left behind in the empty city with a motley of elderly ladies.

I suppose many people will amuse themselves wondering if Mr Di Gregorio is playing himself, or at least a little… as the Gianni in the movie is somewhat removed from normal society. He seems to have accepted that he will be taking care of his mother, at the expense of having his own life. This is a rare form of self-sacrifice in our day, and shows, through our own eyes, our expectations of an individual’s life. Can you live a full life without a romantic relationship? Can you feel content without being able to provide for yourself (and your family), without perusing some kind of personal development? How far from the ordinary can you be removed and still feel content about your life?

It is not easy. Gianni needs money and yet does not work. Of course if he would work, then who would take care of his mother? Should he be working to be able to pay for a home for her, so that he can start a relationship of his own? Then his mother would be all alone, unhappy and less well taken care of than in the company of her own son. The dilemma of the ageing society laid bare.

When we see the elderly ladies laughing and interacting together, it is almost as if a choice has to be made in society, that either the elderly or the young have to sacrifice themselves for the other. This awkward thought is dispelled later on, at least somewhat, as the characters all find a place for themselves in this unexpected weekend away without leaving. This is a touching and funny film, which should have been released here in May when everyone has one foot at home and the other in a long weekend away. It would have added a nice tie-in with the reality around us.

The party’s over kids – Sarko’s in the house


As of yesterday, the buying of cigarettes and alcohol has been banned for the under 18s (up from 16). That pretty much covers anything young people can do today – not allowed to drive, not allowed to drink, not allowed to smoke, not allowed to touch marihuana (or any other drug), not allowed to download music… and you could add onto that a seat-belts obligation, helmets,  excessive police surveillance, camera’s, down to the absurd obligation to pick up the poop of the family dog Fifi (for the last parents to offer their children a puppy).

Growing up in France is not what it once was, the generation of the 60s and 70s who fought so hard for their liberty are the ones who are denying it now for their young. Every law can be explained in itself, and even if it is well meaning, this is the wrong way to go about it. Petrified by the advancing financial crisis, the already high youth unemployment rate and the regular riots are provoking the government to lash out against the victims once more. The government should know better.

What’s next? Enforcing a skateboard and roller skating ban on public roads? Increase in the minimum age for driving to 20?  Fines for teenagers listening to their  iPod on a Vélib? Taking kids down to the station for kicking a football in the street? The government needs to calm down and cut the youngsters a little slack. There is no reason to be afraid of the young. A repressive government is not going to make an already anxious society any happier. The government seems to think that banning all activities of young people makes them easier to control and supposedly protects them, but it does not work that way. Young people are creative enough to find their way around bans, and growing up with a guilt and habit of defying the establishment is not the way to raise responsible citizens. They have to learn to take their own responsibility and that can only happen if they are accorded some. Society can help avoid dangling cigarettes and alcohol in front of children, but for the rest they will have to learn to deal with it – just like everybody else once did.


Does working more actually benefit anyone?

manuelsaez-daybed-chairIn a simple world, we would suppose that if you work more you will produce more, hence earn yourself and your company more. This is also the slogan of President Sarkozy, with which he wants to boost the country and the population’s budgets. If you work more the company should pay you more. Fair enough. But do you actually earn your company more by working longer hours?

This is an extremely complicated question,  which depends of course on what it is you do for a living, but here I want to sow the seeds of doubt that working more actually benefits someone, and most importantly not yourself. Let us start with a resumé of  the recent history of working hours in France, by summarising Jeanne Fagnani (CNRS) who researches the subject.

In 1998 (to 2000), the socialist party introduced an across the board 35h work week in France. Partly to improve the work-life balance and partly to create more jobs though sharing. Presumably it did contribute to the reduction of the traditionally relatively high unemployment rate of around 10%, but as always, it is hard to say what exactly triggered the improvement. As for the work-life balance, the increased flexibility actually made life more complicated (linking work times to school times), and in some cases actually deteriorated due to imposed atypical working times. None the less, France has the highest fertility rate on the continent and the highest percentage of working women. Even if not everyone is happy about the life-work balance, the government must be on to something here.

So the unemployment went down and people managed to even out their life-work balance, all because of the 35h work week? For management, who now has to work longer hours, there was even some compensation in that productivity per hour  of staff had increased!

So by working less, people have become more productive. Of course the counter point is that they are under more pressure to do so. French full-time employees actually work an average of 38.3h a week (compared to 43.5h in the UK), making it about the shortest working week in Europe. But does a shorter week really equal a more productive week? It appears to help.

In a recently published research in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers tried to establish a relationship between health (mental and physical) and working hours by testing  British public servants at Whitehall over a  5 year interval. They found that working longer hours (i.e. over 40h a week) tended to reduce your fluid intelligence (more than natural decline), that is your cognitive processes such as memory, attention and speed of information processing (which in term is linked to abstract thinking, creativity, novel problem solving). In other , more layman, words: it makes you dumber.

The research also looked at crystallised intelligence, which is supposed to increase  for most of your life through education, occupational and cultural experience. The Whitehall staff with normal working hours remained constant, as expected, but those who were on the overtime actually scored lower. Why? They could be working longer hours because of their limited cognitive skills, or their longer working hours provoke it due to the more limited worldly exposure. Either way, working longer hours will not help the situation.

But not only that, but overwork can be associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, fatigue and depression. In the long term, the risk in old age of dementia or premature death increases.

In part, this new research merely confirms our idea that you can work yourself to death. On top of that, the idea that working hard actually makes you less effective and reduces your mental skills is also not so surprising. But let us now turn back to France, and the 35h week, to see who is doing what.

If the 35h week has reduced working hours for the population at large, this would be beneficial for both productivity and the life-work balance. As the French are the longest living Europeans, with the highest female fertility rate, we have some of this research confirmed. But what about  the upper echelons of our organisations, where the most hours are clocked? They work long, and have working conditions similar to Whitehall (i.e. offices). They, management, are the ones whose jobs have become more complicated.

It is a worrying thought that management’s reasoning capabilities are presumably decreasing as they climb up the ladder, even besides the other worrying health issues. This, in turn, will have a negative impact on the future of companies. Formulated differently, if you thought (big) companies were badly run before, they must have become worse since 2000,  since the 35h law in force.

The discussion on the future of the 35h work week, and research into overworking reiterate traditional choices of economy or family. Working more to earn more, might end up being working a whole lot more for a little more money as your productivity decreases. And with the little extra you might have trouble covering the extra health drawbacks. The 35h was the right track, but needs more fine-tuning, to smooth out those who found their working lives conflicting more with their family lives rather than less. And, to let that balanced life be available to all, including management. If we want a productive bright future, they too will need to slow down one way or another. Working less may or may not have created jobs, but it did improve lives and increase productively. This is the right path and the President should take note. President Sarkozy? Are you still here?

(Update: he seems to have left to his next meeting mumbling that he never understood what overwork was anyway. Perhaps a consequence of working too many hours…)

Image source:



Sharon Maguire :: UK :: 2008 :: 1h36

A young woman (Michelle Williams) is trapped in an empty marriage tucked away in an ugly apartment block in London. Her pride and joy in her grey existence is her 4-year-old son. One day, as the two of them are at the football match, she seduces a slick journalist Jasper (Ewan McGregor) in the local pub. As fate would have it, they are locked in a lovers embrace, with the football match raging on behind them on TV, when the stadium going up in flames with a series of explosions. Her husband and son are both killed in the terrorist attack, leaving her broken and alone.

If you are now thinking that a film about the aftermath of a major terrorist attack from the director of Brigit Jones’ Diary sounds like a recipe for disaster, then you are partly right. But it is not bad for the reason you might think. The film is, for the most part, an emotional roller-coaster – you could be crying your way through most of it. But not because of her grieving for her lost family. The bombs are just the beginning – she still has to endure a full load of unlikely events in the hour to come. She understandably loses it along the way as the story becomes so over-dramatised that it is just ridiculous (especially when you run the story back in your head afterwards).

Towards the end she enters a phase of grief hallucination and reconciliation with life. As the movie is neither funny nor exciting, this should have been the route to take all along. Concentrating on the mourning of the young mother, and perhaps even throwing in some guilt towards her semi-estranged husband. Her husband is just gone with his death. He is not missed nor is there any regret for his disappearance. Even for a semi-estranged husband this sounds a little harsh – she did worry about him, after all, so she must have felt something. It is also curious that they have no family, or friends who drop by to comfort her. A lonely marriage must have pushed them into some kind of a social circle, or a hobby, or at least the occasional phone call with their mothers. Was their life really that lonely.

The movie is clearly intended as a pamphlet against terrorism, by showing the human cost at the level of ordinary people. It also takes the time to “explain” the resilience of London in a voice-over. It is a little desperate to save a movie through nationalism, but can actually be fit in here, although it could have been better prepared, by, for instance, by making her a more integral part of London. This is no masterpiece, nor an entertainment jewel, and can easily be missed altogether. A pity, because it does have some potential.

NB French release date unknown

La Vague

La VagueDie Welle

Dennis Gansel :: Germany :: 2008 :: 1h48

High school teacher Rainer Wenger (played by Jürgen Vogel) is assigned a week long teaching course on autocracy. His students bore at the thought of talking about the Nazi’s again and are convinced a fascist rise to power would no longer be possible in contemporary Germany. Rainer looks at the motley group of students before him, and embarks them into a movement, baptized the Wave, which will show them how fascism rises.

The story is based on the 1967 events in California, of high school teacher Ron Jones’ demonstration of how the Nazi’s could come to power. This movie, which follows the famous experiment, is set in a contemporary, affluent German town. The story is so well known, that not only do you pretty much know how it will all unfold, you can not help but wonder how come the students do not know the story if it is set in the here and now. And then there is the whole route from class today to the autocratic group – it is all so naive. Would they really not see the parallel between themselves and the Nazi films and anti-Nazi speeches they have been bombarded with throughout their youth? And all of this in a week?

La Vague is like a teenage re-run of a story you already know, with a moral you already know. Even though it runs at close to 2 hours, it does not offer any new insight into fascism, politics or human psychology. The political vision portrayed is simplistic and does not help to understand the challenges faced by those living under autocratic rule today. Or, closer to home, the film does not address the subtitles of the democratic/ authoritarian balance faced by many nations today. Unless, by some unlikely series of coincidences, you have missed out on the whole story and need a (relatively) quick fix, I would miss out on this one.