Month: September 2009

Un Prophète

Un PropheteUn Prophète
Jacques Audiard :: France :: 2008 : 2h35

A young man is being admitted into prison. The scars on his body and face betray a violent past. He can barely read and write. He has no friends. Malik (Tahar Rahim) is 19 years old. Out on the concrete courtyard, he is recruited by the ruthless Corsican mafioso César (Niels Arestrup) to kill a rival passing through their prison. Malik is beaten into submission. His life could have ended right there and then. But that is not how it was to be. Malif comes out the corner fighting.

Most of the film is concrete slabs and dirt. There is the constant murmur of the rumours passed around in Arabic and Corsican if it is not in banlieue slang French. And then there is the violence. Nobody gets punished because nobody interferes. Even when inmates get killed there is no indication that they are being investigated. The detainees are all on their own. We do see the state’s legal machinery operating in the background with lawyers and judges shifting paper. We see the inmates work in the prison factory sowing clothes. We see the willing bullies being schooled. But the penitentiary staff shine mostly in their absence. Malik knows it is going to be a long 6 years.

He takes what he can get, and tries to make the best of himself. He could have made an excellent career for himself in the army, if life had been different. He has the adaptability, the patience, the dedication, the intelligence and the lack of moral restraint to make it far, in the right framework. If only he had been in an organisation which could contain and direct him, rather than unleash him, as prison did. We see him slowly becoming a man to be reckoned with, creating his own new order. Make no mistake, this young man is taking you along to the bitter end.

Un Prophète is a tough film to watch, but immaculately constructed. I can not claim to have captured the full finesse of the all the criminal dealings, but it does not matter. The audience is thrown into the story as the young Malik is. Thrown in, to live it with him. And live it, you will. It is a masterfully made film with a clever script, an excellent cast and a surprising attention to detail. A rare pearl in the genre, bound to be as rewarded as director Audiard’s previous De Battre mon coeur s’est arrêté, which won no less than 8 Césars!


Thirst, Ceci est mon sang

Park Chan-wook :: South Korea :: 2008 :: 2h13

Sang-hyun (Song Kang-Ho) is a modern catholic priest. He is both rational and motivated by a selfless desire to help and to do the right thing. He volunteers for a risky medical experiment to find the cure for a deadly virus, in which he ends up receiving donor blood from an unknown source. He miraculously survives the virus, but the blood transfusion changed him, strengthened him even. Unfortunately, the flip-side of his new strength quickly becomes apparent, when he realises that to stay healthy, he needs to drink human blood. He has de facto become a vampire.

Sang-hyun survives his affliction without compromising his integrity, too much. But along with his craving for blood, came his lust for carnal pleasure too. From there it does not take long for his eyes to fall on the young Tae-Joo (Kim Ok-bin), married to a mildly retarded childhood friend of his. Treading with tenderness and care, he manages to seduce her. Tae-Joo, who was practically living as a family slave, reawakens as a femme fatale, challenging her lover well off the right path. The film swings from dark humour to sexy and from absurd to scary and all that in an aesthetically rich environment. Thrist is a great new twist on the vampire theme, even if it wonders off a little at times. It is funny to note that the marketing boys also had a tough time placing the film.

The French release poster has Kim Ok-bin’s character hanging upside-down from the Priest’s neck like a bat, exposing a lot of rosy hued skin in a darkness. It is a pure aesthetic, with a clear sensual feel, which has a “mainstream” look, as if the film plays down its foreign-ness and its originality to attract its audience. It is immediately visible that Sang-hyun is a priest, offering the intrigue. Any doubt you might have is taken away with the title “Ceci est mon sang” which has a religious ring, and the merit of mentioning “blood”. The film is actually more original and more horror laden than the poster would suggest.

Thirst Korean poster

Notice the difference with the Korean poster. It is as a scene from a faded film, where the female character’s near-panic is contrasted with the male character’s more controlled fear. The two characters are in full view, almost filling the entire poster, although the twist that Sang-hyun is a priest remains hidden. The two characters are white with a fear of something external, even though, on closer inspection, it is Sang-hyun himself who has blood on his lips! Although such an existential fear is not really the subject matter of the film, the poster does suggest fear and blood in old-school cinema. This is not only an accurate description, but also targets the audience who would most appreciate the film. If it is you, do not hesitate – Thirst is a great film.

Le Voyage d’hiver

Amelie NothombLe Voyage d’hiver :: Book :: Amelie Nothomb :: France :: 2009 :: 133 pages

Zoïle was scarred at an early age by a realization that sharing an aesthetic experience was little more than an invitation to ridicule. He took the cue to reject the pull of mediocracy, by developing an extremely individualist, selfish approach to life. He would not qualify as a social success, but as he was to be the only measure to himself, to remain untouchable from the leveling standards of society. In his simple life, he meets the woman of his dreams – a beauty who sacrifices her every living moment to a dysfunctional woman who doubles as a literary oracle. His love, in its physical expression, is thwarted by the constant presence of the vile but illuminated literary spirit. As his frustration mounts, he knows that it will end with a bang.

I will lift out one aspect of the book for consideration. In this year’s novel, it is as if Amelie Nothomb has returned from a high school reunion with a fierce determination not to be like the others. Irrespective of which of her school reunions she went to, there is little chance of that. Her writing is as fluent and creative as ever, and her characters as off the wall as they can get. Bizarrely though, she seems to feel that she has to justify herself. She argues for praise of qualities which make someone unique and the ability to recognizing talent or exceptional qualities in others too, irrespective of whether it “pays the rent” or not. It is as if she had been bombarded with questions as to whether or not she is earning enough with her strange novels.

In a society where recognition and pay check are increasingly being seen as the same thing, she rebels. It is as if she feels she does not receive enough recognition for her work herself, or that it is being brushed over. As in a wave of self-mockery, her editor even put Nothomb’s Harcourt picture on the cover, which, for those who do not know the studio, is a sort of photographic wax museum. If that is still not enough to take her seriously, she argues that our favourite passages should be copied, to unleash the power of the words. In case you are wondering how these words are going to be unleashed, she compares the action of copying literature to sheet music, as having more impact when it is played than when it is read (p128). I do not share the view of writing over reading for a superior literary experience, but her point is clear: she wants to be read with care.

After having soaked up the pretension, a reader can not help but feel a little tricked by the simplicity of the metaphor of this solitary seducer’s end. It is as if we are playing hopscotch in the streets of Paris with the two compulsively innocent women, while it is raining proverbial elephants. But then again, it is a pleasure to read Amelie Nothomb, and, it has to be said, she did surprise us once again with this literary road trip.

Paris Burning

Fire La Taverne by Eric Tenin (c)sept 2009

Fire La Taverne, (c) Eric Tenin 2009

ParisDailyPhoto :: Eric Tenin :: 12 sept 2009

Journalist Eric Tenin is one of those people who not only take beautiful pictures, but also have the heart to share them online, in a charming one-a-day format. Today, he showed us a picture of a fire at La Taverne, a restaurant in the 9th arrondissement. It was not the only fire he had seen last weekend, having witnessed one at the Freemasonry headquarters of the  Grand Orient de France, which is located right by his house on rue Cadet in the same district. Perhaps in a wave of concern, he looked up the statistics on fires in Paris too. The results, as he must have noticed, were quite remarkable.

With a little bit of calculating, we can see that in 2008 there were 4,260 fires in Paris. That is 82 a week, with his arrondissement, the 9th, accounting for 3 of them. That’s 3 fires a week! Now if you think that sounds like a lot, then you are right. A quick glance at the map below could, alarmingly enough, also remind you that the 9th (which houses the Opera Garnier and the Grands Magasins) is not very big either.  A few calculations further down the line, looking at number of fires per Parisian square metre, we notice that his arrondissement comes as second worst hit, after his southern  neighbour the 2nd district (the textile industry HQ the Sentier).

fires in parisBefore we all start urging Eric to get out of there as fast as possible, let us look at population density as well. Naturally, the population density of the city varies, as urban space is not only housing, think of the space taken up by schools, churches, hospitals, cemeteries, parks, shops and ministries.  The resident density of the 9th (27,100 per km2) classifies as just over average by Parisian standards. So if we take the number of fires per inhabitant, the rate drops to a little over the city’s average.

Should he one day wish to reduce his chance of having another fire next door, he would have to consider a move to the left bank. Curiously enough, the southern arrondissements, although slightly denser, have considerably less fires per person than the right bank (2.9 fires a week per 100 000 inhabitants as opposed to the 4.1 fires a week on the right bank). But Eric’s beautiful picture actually does not show the fire. He shows the smoke and the Parisian firemen. They not only belong to the biggest fire department in Europe, but they also offer an impeccable urban coverage. And thanks to them, another fire was extinguished without anyone getting hurt. //




Lynn Shelton :: USA :: 2009 : 1h35

Ben (Mark Duplass) is living a quiet life in Seattle with his wife Anna, when his old university friend Andrew (Joshua Leonard)shows up, as the prodigal son. Andrew has been bumming around for ten years in hippy semi-artistic circles, and the two men look at each other as different versions of what they could have done with their lives. From a combination of an “I’m free, you’re not” kind of argument and an amateur porn-as-art festival, comes the idea of the two of them having homosexual sex on film. Although the idea repulses them, neither wants to give in to the other, for the risk of losing face at the challenge.

The idea of a homosexual challenge is both very silly and potentially amusing, but here we are left stranded at the former. And it has silliness written all over it. It has even been shot in a messy way – with an unstable, low quality camera which is sometimes out of focus. The script follows suit, by seeming to be mostly based on improvisation judging by its simplicity. The film is actually the 20 minutes or so in a hotel room (where they are to have sex), the rest could just as easily have been scrapped. The whole amateur approach could have been an added value for a film which needs the “fear-of-gay discomfort” element to work, but we never actually get to some value, to be able to consider any more added on.

The characters act (and dress) as if they are 15 years old, with a matching insecurity, no sophistication (although supposedly with an education), teen-style pushing each other around and with no direction in their lives. They are just permanently uncomfortable with themselves in relation to others.

Ben is supposed to be living a dull bourgeois life, with a wife and house, and Andrew the adventurous drugs and swingers life, but neither are a mentionable success. If being married and having a house is to be considered boring (!?) then the movie could have shown them sitting silently in front of a TV game show, with him taking a grey commuter train to work in the morning and Anna pruning the roses under the auspicious eye of the elderly neighbours. So to speak. Just saying that he has a house and a wife is meaningless.

If the contrast is supposed to be with his country-hopping lost friend Andrew, then surely Andrew should have received a little more credit himself, rather than just a pretension. Already in the introductory scenes, Andrew is shown giving an inappropriate kitsch gift followed by a story of his work at an artistic community in Mexico, which we can only assume to be a failure as he left. Despite his talk about art, he does not produce anything or show any understanding of it. That leaves us with sex and drugs. His uncommitted swingers life should have given him an ease in sexual relations, but even there he does not excel, or have any noteworthy advantage to justify a superiority. The character is just shown as a loveable loser. The contrast does not work.

Basically, we are left watching two cowardly superficial characters fail. If they had wanted to succeed they could have brought along some alcohol. Or some drugs. Or perhaps eased themselves into it with something more accessible first. Or perhaps they should have just set themselves some more constructive goals, closer to their heart to try to grow up. As the director should have done. And remember that this production is marketed as a comedy. Perhaps something funny could have been squashed in there somewhere in too…

A Deriva

a derivaA Deriva
Heitor Dhalia :: Brazil :: 2009 : 1h43

The Sao Paulo writer Mathias (Vincent Cassel) and his wife Clarice (Débora Bloch) are at their beach house in the coastal town of Buzios for the summer. They spend their days living a bohemian life with their friends, their three children and the rest of the young rat-pack from the beach. Their beautiful eldest daughter Filipa (Laura Neiva) is coming of age, although sitting on her fathers lap she is slowly but surely discovering her femininity. However the spring time of her youth sees not only the pitfalls of young love, but also a growing rift between her parents, and the threat of a disintegrating home.

A Deriva is a pleasure to watch, despite a simple storyline. It hinges on the relationship between Mathias and his daughter Filipa, as the film’s warm focal point of the fragmenting family. Their roles are well worked out in these trying times. Mathias, and his wife Clarise, wisely protect their children from exposure of their marital rifts, but naturally the children -and specifically the eldest- feel the overshadowing conjugal burst.

What is perhaps the most remarkable, is how the same story filmed through the eyes of another culture, would have been so different. There are two elements at play here: a romanticised Brazil and the time frame. By placing the story in Brazil, we are taken into a joyful carefree latin world of beaches, beautiful people, love and dance. By placing the story in the 1980s, were see a reality as if it was recalled by a much older Filipa looking back. It is a reality without a technology-inspired stress and superficiality, with a seeming authenticity of life orientated around physical people, living in homes filled with curiosity relics, without made-in-China goods and television-mimicking sentiments. It is a vision which justifies a perhaps kinder look at reality.

For everyone who is wondering how French top actor Vincent Cassel found himself in a small Brazilian production – Cassel is a frequent visitor of Bahia, the African-influenced state in the tropical north. He speaks Portuguese fluently, but as all attentive viewers will notice, it is not his (slightly off) accent which puts him in a curious position in the film – his role does not get lines as credible as those which the other characters get. Mathias’ character, and hence the film, is saved by Cassel’s acting talent. But then the movie was destined to float or sink on Cassel and Laura Neiva’s capacity to convey the sensual lightness of living anyway. And that, they pull of masterfully.

District 9

District9District 9
Neil Blomkamp :: South Africa :: 2009 : 1h50

The unlikely action hero Wikus works for a large international paramilitary organisation called the MNU. The company deals with the affairs of the almost 2 million aliens which were rescued from their stranded ship over Johannesburg, and grouped together in an area named District 9. After an uncomfortable status-quo of apartheid, Wikus is assigned the mission to move the aliens to a new district further out of town… and out of sight. The disorientated aliens are not wholly complying with the MNU’s wishes.

Amongst the things which go wrong during the eviction of the rundown township of district 9, Wikus is exposed to a unique alien matter which turns him into the most sought after man on earth. With the ruthless and the power hungry at the South African political helm, all means are deployed to hunt him down. There is but one hiding place he can think of: back to District 9.

This is not just science-fiction film. District 9 lets you into its world through its network of websites (see below). The film is presented as but part of the story you are thrown into through the websites, allowing you to live the film before actually going in. On the internet, you get to hear mock interviews with people on the streets criticising or supporting the aliens and the apartheid system. It is an amusing (if bitter) satire to surf through.

Once you get to the cinema, you will find the film both unconventional in its form as in its matter, despite having the general blockbuster structure. The aliens and the people are not scared of one another (although shockingly uninformed!), but find themselves in an abusive cohabitation. In normal human society, relations between different groups are usually determined by who controls either the economic means (capital) or the army – in other words, the wealthy dominate the poor or the stronger dominate the weaker. Politics can be a big part of the problem, or it can even out the propensity to abuse to create a more harmonious ensemble.

Here, the government is clearly part of the problem, hoping to maximise its power no matter the cost. When these two civilisations -alien and human- meet, the aliens objectively seem to have the upper hand: they have superior technology (read: weaponry), yet they find themselves oppressed. The aliens are not even particularly noble creatures either, making it all the more peculiar for them to be a civilisation armed to the teeth, flying far from home and be pacifist all at the same time. If they were that peaceful, surely they could have travelled without arms, as explorers? And also, why were they travelling with so many of them if they did not have the intention to settle down somewhere? On earth, they suffer under South African rule, and even within their limited scope for movement, they do not seem intent on making something of their lives (they must have been organised to get where they are). These story lapses matter because the film has the pretence of being true, offering a possible world as our own.

To get to that reality-tv approach, the film, as the websites, film the action in a messy and grainy way to give you the impression of being there. But as opposed to stringently sticking to a shoulder camera realism approach, the film sometimes lets you look at the action “on tv”, sometimes through “security cameras” and sometimes as if you are crouched at a distance looking in. This variation keeps the excitement in the film, without loosing the realism element – it is easy to stay in character with the film.

With so much emphasis on this story being potentially true, we are constantly reminded of the racial Apartheid law which ruled the country for so long. If we were to draw a parallel, then the government and its agents are accused of being (having been?) downright evil, blinded by a thirst for power. The human race comes off so badly in word and deed, that we can barely recognise ourselves. But that, is perhaps rather to our credit. //