Monday, January 26, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

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By Ty Burr, Globe Staff

Every war generation processes horror and guilt in its own fashion, but Ari Folman has come up with a truly unprecedented genre: the animated repressed-memory atrocity-mystery documentary. Watching "Waltz With Bashir," Israel's entry for the 2008 foreign language Oscar, you feel like a 19th-century naturalist presented with a platypus. How can something made from so many different pieces draw breath?

"Waltz With Bashir" not only breathes but it howls - and sobs and curses and croons and, in the end, when sound proves useless in the face of calamity, falls into awful silence. The film is concerned with events of the 1982 Lebanon War but its echoes volley off the current conflict in Gaza, the history of Israel, the history of the Jews - the history of war itself. The film, devastating and distressing in equal measure, widens in meaning as it narrows in scope.

It begins very simply. Folman visits a friend, Boaz, who tells of recurring nightmares about the dogs he shot while on patrol in Lebanon, lest their barking wake the enemy. Afterward, the filmmaker realizes he has no memories of his own from the period. A quarter century on, the best he can come up with is a jagged image of fellow soldiers rising naked from a livid sea and coming ashore at the foot of bombed-out high-rises.

This film, then, is Folman's investigation into his own past and his generation's. "Waltz With Bashir" is animated, one senses, out of self-protection - from a need to get close to the nub of trauma while keeping it abstract enough to confront. The visuals are awkwardly realistic, similar to the rotoscoping technique used in films like "Waking Life" and "Chicago 10" but not quite as convincing. The colors are nightmarish; the movements have the repetitive smoothness of a Web cartoon. Animation serves as a diving suit here, allowing the director to plumb his psychic depths, but it's leakier than he'd like.

Still, as a therapist friend tells Folman, "We don't go places where we really don't want to go." So the filmmaker heads off to interview high school pals and platoon-mates, hoping their memories will give shape to his, like blips on a sonar screen. In Holland, he visits a friend who has made a fortune selling falafel to health-conscious Europeans and who recalls shooting up a Mercedes full of Arab innocents in a blind panic.

Other men remember other horrors: a child sniper shot to pieces in an Eden-like forest; a junkyard full of body parts; a soldier who watches his platoon wiped out and then floats through the night sea back to his regiment, feeling calm bleed into survivor guilt. Each step of "Waltz With Bashir" brings us closer to what one character calls the "disassociative event" - the September 1982 massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

The killers were Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen, revenge-crazed over the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel two days earlier. The camps were ostensibly protected by the Israeli Defense Force, of which Folman was a member. At first the filmmaker only knows he was within several hundred yards of the genocide, separated from it by soldiers and walls. Then, as his friends' memories chip away at his subconscious, "Waltz With Bashir" burrows closer toward the black core of personal experience. The IDF sent up flares. They only served to let the Phalangists see the women and children they were murdering.

At its rueful heart, the movie is a meditation on the lines where being present at an atrocity turns into being complicit, where complicity shades into guilt, where guilt becomes a shadow identity. Who knows how far up the Israeli chain of command knowledge of the massacre went? Folman's parents survived Auschwitz, and the line "Waltz With Bashir" brushes with its most inarticulate loathing is where a Jew might become a Nazi. Memory here becomes an act of poisoned expiation.

And then it becomes simply memory: bearing witness, no more. At the very end, when Folman has tunneled far enough into his past, he lets go of animation like an unwanted life vest and throws himself and us onto the rocks of real life. Footage from the camps in 1982; stunned women wailing "Photograph this!"; something unspeakable lying under an overhang of rubble. "Waltz" at last looks and sees and understands, and that understanding is the coldest comfort of all.

A short history of the sequence of events that led to the Sabra and Shatila massacre:

In June 1982, the Israeli army invaded South Lebanon after Israel’s northern towns had been bombarded for years from the Lebanese territory. The Israeli government’s original plan was to occupy a 40 km security zone in Lebanon in order to “cleanse” the missile range used by the Palestinians against Israel’s northern towns. In fact, the Israeli Minister of Defense at the time, Arik Sharon, developed a fantastical and ultra-imaginative plan: to occupy Lebanon as far as Beirut, including Beirut, and to appoint his Christian ally, Bashir Gemayel, President of Lebanon, thus eradicating the threat to the State of Israel from the north and expanding and increasing the front against Syria, a country that also borders on Lebanon and was always considered Israel’s cruelest and most tenacious enemy. Sharon and senior military leaders were actually the only ones who knew about the plan. While the Israeli government approved a 40 km range operation only, the IDF thrust full speed ahead all the way to Beirut.

Within one week the IDF inundated Lebanon and reached the outskirts of Beirut. However, just then, before entering the city, questions were raised: What business does the army have being in a foreign capital, so far from home? Why are Israeli soldiers being killed on a daily basis when their actions have no real link to the protection of Israel’s northern border? Suddenly, the correlation to the Vietnamese war was inevitable.
In August, two months after war broke out and the IDF was still waiting on the outskirts of Beirut for the command to penetrate the city, a treaty was signed with the Palestinians according to which all Palestinian combat fighters would be evacuated from Beirut on ships to Tunisia. In return, the IDF would remove the threat of penetrating the city. That week, Bashir Gemayel, senior commander of the “Phalangists” Christian militia, was elected President of Lebanon. Gemayel was considered extraordinarily charismatic, a fashionable young man, handsome and infinitely admired by all Christian militia soldiers and their families. He was especially esteemed by the Israeli leadership. Gemayel’s appointment as President of Lebanon was designed to ensure relative quiet on the tense border between the two countries.

While giving a speech at the Phalangist headquarters in East Beirut, Bashir Gemayel was killed by a massive explosive charge. To this day it is unknown who was responsible for the murder, but the assumption is that the assassination was orchestrated by Syrian or Palestinian factions or that they collaborated thereon.
That afternoon, Israeli troops penetrated a region in West Beirut that was mostly populated in those days by Palestinian refugees, and they surrounded the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Towards evening, large Phalangist forces made their way to the area, driven by a profound sense of revenge after the killing of their revered leader. At nightfall, Phalangist forces entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps aided by the IDF’s illumination rounds. The declared objective of the Christian forces was to purge the camps of Palestinian combat fighters. However, there were virtually no Palestinian combat fighters left in the refugee camps since they had been evacuated on ships to Tunisia two weeks earlier. For two whole days the sound of gunfire and battles could be heard from the camps but it was only on the third day, September 16th, when panic-stricken women swarmed the Israeli troops outside the camps, that the picture became clear: For three days the Christian forces massacred all refugee camp occupants. Men, women, the elderly and children, were all killed with horrific cruelty. To this day the exact number of victims is unknown but they are estimated at 3000.

News of the massacre shocked the entire world and a spontaneous protest of hundreds of thousands Israelis forced the Israeli government to create an official inquiry committee to investigate the liability of Israeli political and military authorities. Minister of Defense Arik Sharon was found guilty by the committee for not having done enough to stop the horror once he became aware of the massacre. He was dismissed of his duties and prohibited from serving as Minister of Defense for another term. This did not stop him from being appointed Prime Minister of Israel twenty years later.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Meduzot (Jellyfish)

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There are an increasingly impressive number of films coming from Israel and MEDUZOT (JELLYFISH) is one of the more creative works of cinematic art in that rich catalogue. Shira Geffen (who also wrote the screenplay) and Etgar Keret collaborated on this seemingly small film and from a few threads of separate and disparate characterizations have woven a fascinating and deeply touching montage of the lives of several people whose destinies curiously intersect. The manner in which the film is presented is a graceful mixture of naturalism and fantasy and the directors know just how to combine the two approaches to maximum effect.

The film opens in Tel Aviv at a routine wedding reception where untidy Batya (Sarah Adler) works as a waitress, her life being recently shaken by the dissolution of her relationship. At this noisy and gaudy reception we also notice the bride Keren (Noa Knoller) who encounters an accident in the washroom that results in a broken leg requiring a cast and preventing her from a planned honeymoon (her new husband Michael - Gera Sandler - finds instead a hotel on the noisy boulevard which is less than romantic), and Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipino caregiver for older unwanted women who works to send support to her young son in the Philippines, and a young female photographer who captures it all on film. The owner of the catering business fires Batya and the photographer and the two share living space. While musing on the beach Batya finds a strange young mute girl (Nicol Leidman) wearing a circular floating device and when Batya cannot find the girl's parents she resorts to police help - a turn which only places Batya as custodian of the strange child.

Meanwhile Keren and Michael begin their disastrous honeymoon in the noisy hotel, discovering that the quiet top floor suite is occupied by a single woman poet whom Michael meets and eventually requests they trade rooms, a decision that leads to strange circumstances that affect all three people. And during this time Joy is passed among several older women, ending up with a cranky mother of an actress who speaks only Hebrew and German and takes her time growing into the kindness Joy offers her. Small incidents continue to occur, incidents that bind these people together in mysterious ways, some happy, some sad. And while the characters of this tapestry are very realistically drawn, there are moments of magical realism that embroider their lives with a glowing sense of fantasy - moments that address the topics of childhood memories, core needs, death, and that universal need to connect to others. This is a delicate work of crocheted art that remains in the mind long after the credits of this gifted cast and production crew complete the film.


21 Grams

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BY ROGER EBERT / November 25, 2003

"21 Grams" knows all about its story but only lets us discover it a little at a time. Well, every movie does that, but usually they tell their stories in chronological order, so we have the illusion that we're watching as the events happen to the characters. In this film everything has already happened, and it's as if God, or the director, is shuffling the deck after the game is over. Here is the question we have to answer: Is this approach better than telling the same story from beginning to end?

The film is by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the almost unreasonably talented Mexican filmmaker whose "Amores Perros" (2000) was an enormous success. That film intercut three simultaneous stories, all centering on a traffic accident. "21 Grams" has three stories and a traffic accident, but the stories move back and forth in time, so that sometimes we know more than the characters, sometimes they know more than we do.

While the film is a virtuoso accomplishment of construction and editing, the technique has its limitations. Even though modern physics tells that time does not move from the past through the present into the future, entertaining that delusion is how we make sense of our perceptions. And it is invaluable for actors, who build their characters emotionally as events take place. By fracturing his chronology, Inarritu isolates key moments in the lives of his characters, so that they have to stand alone. There is a point at which this stops being a strategy and starts being a stunt.

"21 Grams" tells such a tormenting story, however, that it just about survives its style. It would have been more powerful in chronological order, and even as a puzzle it has a deep effect. Remembering it, we dismiss the structure and recall the events as they happened to the characters, and are moved by its three sad stories of characters faced with the implacable finality of life.

Because the entire movie depends on withholding information and revealing unexpected connections, it is fair enough to describe the characters but would be wrong to even hint at some of their relationships. Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts play the key figures, and their spouses are crucial in ways that perhaps should not be described. Penn is Paul, a professor of mathematics (even that fact is withheld for a long time, and comes as a jolt because he does not seem much like one). He is dying of a heart condition, needs a transplant, is badgered by his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to donate sperm so that she can have his baby -- after his death, she does not quite say.

Benicio Del Toro is Jack, a former convict who now rules his family with firm fundamentalist principles. He is using Jesus as a way of staying off drugs and alcohol; his wife (Melissa Leo) is grateful for his recovery but dubious about his cure. The third story centers on Christina (Naomi Watts), first seen at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting; she has a husband (Danny Huston) and two daughters, and her life seems to be getting healthier and more stable until an event takes place that eventually links all of the characters in a situation that falls halfway between tragedy and fraught melodrama.

As you watch this film you are absorbed and involved, sometimes deeply moved; acting does not get much better than the work done here by Penn, Del Toro and Watts, and their individual moments have astonishing impact. But in the closing passages, as the shape of the underlying structure becomes clear, a vague dissatisfaction sets in. You wonder if Inarritu took you the long way around, running up mileage on his storyteller's taxi meter. Imagining how heartbreaking the conclusion would have been if we had arrived at it in the ordinary way by starting at the beginning, I felt as if an unnecessary screen of technique had been placed between the story and the audience.

Yet I do not want to give the wrong impression: This is an accomplished and effective film despite my reservations. It grips us, moves us, astonishes us. Some of the revelations do benefit by coming as surprises. But artists often grow by learning what to leave out (the great example is Ozu). I have a feeling that Inarritu's fractured technique, which was so impressive in his first film and is not so satisfactory in this one, may inspire impatience a third time around. He is so good that it's time for him to get out of his own way.

Amores Perros

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'Amores Perros' is a shocking experience from visionary director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu. It's a difficult film to watch, one which continuously challenges its audience, but a reward in of itself for those who can withstand its brutality. It puts a magnifying glass to the pain of love, and those who are destroyed by it. It gives new meaning to the film title's literal translation, 'love is a bitch'.

In a single moment in time, several lives in Mexico City will be changed forever by a devastating car crash. The film divides itself into three separate segments: representing the past, present, and future. Octavio is searching for recognition and love, but looks in the wrong places. It's a desire that drives him, leading him to make choices in life that will soon haunt him. Valerie, whose life is most impacted by the car accident, finds herself living in a relationship that's crumbling and self-destructing. El Chivo must deal with the absence of his daughter, and the void it's left in his life. He finds companionship in the dogs he picks up off the street, and they soon become the only living things he can connect with. Together, the lives of these individuals will collide in more ways than one. They will find themselves connected by a single thread: love. And the hell that can be unleashed with it.

When I finished watching 'Amores Perros', one of the first things that popped into my mind was why 'Babel' couldn't have been this good. Where 'Babel' lacked in emotional depths and highs, 'Amores Perros' at times finds itself drowning in it. It's a visceral and gritty film, so raw and intense. You may think you've seen it all, but 'Perros' will challenge even those who are rarely phased by cinema. You may find it difficult not to look away at times. Iñarritu's movie has been described as being a 'dog holocaust', and at times I can't disagree. The film's sheer violence is so penetrating and disturbing, it packs a mighty punch. And while this film is definitely not for the squeamish or faint of heart, there's no question that 'Amores Perros' has a tender heart and message ready to be heard. Iñarritu crafts a compelling story from start to finish, which strips down to the bare basics. His ability to capture a piece of the human spirit is wondrous, even if it doesn't always cast us in the best light. It's dark, fierce, and relentless, but nothing short of greatness.

'Amores Perros' features an array of actors and actresses, all of which work wonders in their respective roles. Gael Garcia Bernal is, as always, brilliant. It's a more restrained and less quirky role than many are used to seeing him in, but nonetheless has the rare ability to capture and audience's attention with ease. Emilio Echevarria stars as El Chivo, and delivers a haunting performance as a man who finds himself alone and saddened. It's the weakest part of the film, but is made up for by Emilio's wonderful presence. Goya Toledo plays Valerie, a celebrity crippled by the accident the film revolves around. I found her part in the story to be most interesting, if not for the fact of seeing the life of someone who goes from having it all to nothing at all. There are many numerous performances, too many to cover, but they all lend their talents to create something extraordinary.

'Amores Perros' is an adrenaline rush for its entire running, which tops two-and-a-half hours. It's all a very human and primal film, which can be attributed to Iñarritu's impeccable style and talent. Combining a mutli-faceted story with electric performances, 'Perros' works on many different layers to satisfying results. An original and bold step in film-making, this nearly perfect picture will have you experience a collage of emotions, and invest in flawed characters... all for the sake of love.


Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain

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For 20 years Jean-Pierre Jeunet collected small astonishing and intriguing moments in his life, taking notes in his diary, not knowing that he was up to co-write and direct one of the most successful film in French film history. Jean-Pierre Jeunet fell in love with the story and the film he titled Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain. But it's popularity was even a surprise to Jean-Pierre Jeunet himself as he once stated: `I guess I have to produce a film like Alien Resurrection (USA 1997) to make a movie like Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain', obviously not aware of the films potential. Unfortunately the film didn't win an Academy Award for the best foreign film in 2001 which still puzzles film fans all over the world.

I consider Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film as a masterpiece. In my opinion, it is an outstanding film in film history for its cinematography, the music, the story, but above all the overall atmosphere. Going to the cinema is like meditating. We sit for over one-hour and comfortable chair - our breath slows down and as the lights are switched off, we enter a dream world. We seek to escape our normal world just for a short period of time, to experience something totally different and yet, we want to find ourselves in this world. Thanks to Jean-Pierre Jeunet I had a wonderful dream, I will never forget.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his camera man, Bruno Delbonnel, wanted to make the film look like the Spanish painter did his artwork. To establish a dreamlike atmosphere they used mostly red and green, sometimes adding a little blue spot in the picture to set the contrast. Audrey Tautou (Amélie Poulain), mostly wears either red or green dresses, as well as the housekeeper (Yolande Moreau as Madelaine Wallace, concierge), and Amélie's mother (Lorella Cravotta as Amandine Poulin) in the beginning of the film. When Amélie Poulain sits down to watch the tragedy of her life on her TV, there is an outstanding of a blue lamp in the background. Sometimes the use of color gets very obvious. Amélie's apartment for example is almost completely red, the underground station and the train station are kept in green and the green grocery store stands out from the grey buildings. Honestly, I haven't noticed the extreme use of color the first time I watched the movie. I just wondered how Jeunet succeeded in establishing such a fabulous atmosphere.

The atmosphere is also supported by the magnificent music by Yann Tiersen who has composed 19 songs in 15 days for this movie. The principal motive appears in many variations somehow being joyful, yet at the same time sad - slow and sometimes fast and activating. The music supports every moment in the film and becomes the sound of a fabulous world.

Camera movement certainly contributes its part to the atmosphere. Balanced and unbalanced pictures contribute to the message of each shot. Right in the beginning when Amélie's mother is introduced, the picture is balanced symbolizing her pursuit for correctness and cleanliness. The same can be about the first shots of Amélie's father. When talking about his dislikes, the shots are unbalanced. But more impressing are some camera movements. For example there is an astonishing high angle shot of Amélie flipping stones on le canal in Paris. The camera shows her leaning on a fence, flying above her head then craning to a low angle shot to show her flipping stones in the direction of the camera. Another one worth mentioning might be the chase of the repairs person. Nino is shown falling up the steps chasing the repairs person for the photo machines. The camera turns to show the man getting in the car driving off. Still in a low angle Nino starts his moped, trying to follow the worker, almost hitting a car. Amélie is entering the picture running after Nino. The camera follows her, then turning almost 180° around her to show her hold Nino's red bag that he lost. When Amélie sits in front of the station, we see her in a long shot, the camera dollies in to fly over her head to an over-the-shoulder shot. Some of these camera movements are really awesome, not only from a technical point of view, but moreover from an aesthetic standpoint. They support the dreamlike atmosphere, adding interesting aspects to ordinary actions.

Audrey Tautou at the age of 23 is an astonishing actress. I really can't imagine anybody doing the job better than she did. To me she is not only giving life to the character, she lives it. It's wonderful to watch her. There was no moment when I had the faintest impression that there is something wrong or inappropriate in her acting. Also Mathieu Kassovitz as Nino Quincampoix is extraordinarily gifted with his talent. Most of the actors have done a wonderful job, although I want to mention the scene when Amélie's mother gets her nervous breakdown because of the suicidal fish. This scene appeared to me exaggerated which it probably was intended to be. Anyhow, the extreme close-up of Yolande Moreau was to intriguing to me, so I shrug back in disgust rather than laughing about it. I gues this was the director's choice, so I don't hold her responsible for that.

Another negative and distracting thing where some scenes when Jean-Pierre Jeunet decided to show the key in Amélie's pocket after copying it and bringing the original key back to the grocer's door in a very unrealistic way. He uses a digital effet showing the key's silhouette in a yellow light. This is a technique that hasn't been used very often in the film, except for showing Amélie's heart going faster and the old, blind man feeling very happy after being guided by Amélie. All these scenes disturb the otherwise wonderful cinematography. There could have been other ways to communicate the actions. A simple smile on the old's man face, a close-up of Amélie's hand letting the copied key slide into her pocket and the heart beat as a background sound would have done the same without disturbing the atmosphere.

Anyway, Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain is still my favorite movie. The narration is perfectly arranged taking its time to tell every detail. I enjoyed the subplots a lot that are told in a subtle way. Maybe the introduction is a bit to long, but still I enjoyed every second. Maybe I am too used to typical Hollywood productions, where you can tell the stages of a story by watching the clock. Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain has its own rhythm driving the story forward not by a superhero trying to achieve his goal, but by a hero that knows that she has time to arrange everything by strategic means. Maybe that is also one reason why I like this film so much. The story is told with time and not against time. There is no last minute-rescue, no time pressure, no need to act. It just takes its time as life does.

In my opinion, Jean-Pierre Jeunet created a masterpiece. A film that is not only outstanding because of the cinematography, the special effects or any other technical characteristics, but also combines the perfection of craftsmanship with a wonderful story, humour, and emotion.

La Cité des enfants perdus

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A soulless man named Krank who was long ago created by a brilliant but unstable scientist is struggling to remain alive. His inability to dream has made him age at an accelerated pace, and the only way he can halt this process is by stealing the dreams of children. He is aided in this endeavour by the other creations of the scientist: six identical goofy-looking clones, one midget and wide-faced wife named Mrs Bismuth, and a super-intelligent brain which lives in a fish-tank and sees using an old-school bendable camera lens. Krank appears successful at stealing children's dreams, but he is not a happy man because all the dreams he captures are nightmares by children who are obviously traumatized by the kidnapping process.

Meanwhile, Krank's hunting ground, the city of lost children, is a treacherous place; Krank's "cyclops" henchmen are always trying to capture children for his purposes. We follow the story of a young girl named Miette (meaning "crumb" in French) who belongs to a small and resourceful gang of children who are exploited by Siamese witch-like twin sisters who run a school where the children steal for them. Miette befriends a simple-talking strongman named Mr. One (Ron Perlman, aka Hellboy) who is looking for his kidnapped little brother Denree. As the story progresses, Miette must escape from the clutches of the evil Siamese twin witches, while also helping One find his long-lost Denree.

The movie features terrific acting by all involved. Especially noteworthy is the high quality of the child actors. Further, although the dialogue is simplified in the subtitles for the sake of easy reading, it is very imaginative. Of special note is the scene where one of the clones is describing a dream to Krank. Many dialogue quirks help to give the movie a unique and memorable feel, such as the writer's fondness for making insults out of calling others the name of an unfavourable animal. City also features great casting, with every actor having a look which suits the character ideally (note the one gluttonous and very cute boy). But perhaps the best aspect of the movie is its cinematography. Every shot is done impeccably, and the look and feel of the movie is very much in the surrealist vein in which the directors intended. Make no mistake, this is a full-fledge dark fairy-tale fantasy movie. Finally, the classical score complements the movie very well.

If there is anything that detracts from the movie, it would be the lack of focus. The movie hops from one scene to another without allowing enough development of any particular story thread early on. As such, we don't get a good grasp of what the story is really about until later in the movie. For many, this will mean the movie will fail to hold their interest early on, and they may be tempted to give up. For those that don't give up, however, they will find the story to be quite satisfying. And for those willing to give the movie a second viewing, they may be able to fill all the story gaps that they missed the first time around. Much like most Cohen brothers movies, this is one of those movies that improves after the first viewing. Also, much like other movies that improve after first viewing, this is one of those movies that makes the top ten on many film-buff's top movies list.

The following movies/stories have major similarities to City: Brazil, for its own lack of focus and its similar retro-futuristic feel (note the hyper-intelligent brain's look as well as the cyclops'); Dark City, for its similar cinematographic style; Frankenstein, for its "scientist creates something awful and tragic" theme; and Amelie, for its imaginative similarities stemming from the director in common. Terry Gilliam himself made the following comment on City of Lost Children: "the most astounding visuals of 1995, 1996, and possibly 1982." Genre: Fantasy. Verdict: 8/10.

Monday, January 05, 2009


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Delicatessen is hard to pin down under a specific genre label; it's a surreal black comedy, a human drama, a post-apocalyptic horror movie, a twisted thriller, a futuristic fantasy; and all in all; one of the strangest and most original films I've ever seen.

In this fantasy world, the world has been ravaged and food is now in short supply. This has therefore made food invaluable and it is being used as currency. Things are traded for with grain, corn and lentils, but not everyone can afford the luxury of food, and some have had to resort to cannibalism to continue to enjoy eating. Our scene opens at a delicatessen in an unspecified location in France, and we are treated to an absolutely delicious sequence (no pun intended) in which a man is desperately trying to hide himself in the trash can. We later find that the reason for this is that this particular delicatessen hires handymen and keeps them long enough to fatten them up, and then they are eaten by the delicatessen's butcher and the inhabitants of the apartment building in which they live. The story really gets going when an ex-clown turns up at the shop, wanting the handyman's job, which has...become available. The plot thickens when the new handyman meets, and later falls in love with, the butcher's daughter; Julie. Julie knows what goes on at the delicatessen and can't allow her new found love to meet the same fate as the others, and therefore does the only thing she can do; hire a band of vegetarian freedom fighters to save her love from becoming dinner for the butcher and his customers.

Delicatessen is directed by the team of Marc Caro (whom, I'm afraid, I am unfamiliar with) and the more well known Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of a few lesser known modern classics, but best known for the enthusiastic 'Amelie'. The film is brought to life by a brilliant ensemble cast. Dominique Pinon (who also featured in Jeunet's Amelie, Alien 4 and City of Lost Children) takes the lead role of the clown turned handyman. His performance is both understated and magical; as he simultaneously manages to entice the viewer into his performance, and yet keeps his character in the realms of reality (a place in which this film doesn't take place). Jean-Claude Dreyfus is the real star of the show, however, as the extroverted and over the top butcher. His performance certainly isn't subdued, to say the least; and every moment that he is on screen is a delight. In a stark contrast to Dreyfus, Marie-Laure Dougnac; the young lady that plays his daughter and love interest for Pinon is very down to earth, and is the most 'normal' character in the film...although there's still room for her to be a nearly blind klutz. The rest of the ensemble comes together excellently, and not a single actor in the film performs below par or looks out of place; and there's not many films that you can say that for.

This film isn't quite like anything else I've ever seen. In fact, the only film I can think of that is similar to this is Terry Gilliam's futuristic fantasy; Brazil. The film draws it's originality from it's plot mainly, which is extremely surreal and inventive in itself, but it's not just that which makes Delicatessen one of a kind; it's all the smaller plot points. How many films do you know that feature a bullshit detector? (that is set off when the butcher tells it that "life is wonderful", no less). The way that the film looks is also wonderfully different; Delicatessen has a yellow hue, which lends it a style that is very dull and dreary; and that does the film no end of favours when you consider it's core subject material. The yellow hue also makes the film almost feel like a moving comic book, which is one of the things that gives the film it's surreal and absurd edge. I'm a big fan of atmospheric films, which is one of the main reasons why I like horror so much; and this film also has an atmosphere like no other. It's the way that the yellow-ish buildings look next to the dark skyline, and the way that the film uses darkness and smoke to make it more horrifying (see roof sequence towards the end) that gives this film the finishing touch to it's already distinct style.

The love story in the film is sweet and tender, and this very much offsets the dark overtones of the rest of the film. This is nice, as during the scenes between the clown (Pinon) and Julie (Dougnac), the film allows itself to indulge in humour that isn't dark like the rest of the film, and you get the impression that it's enjoying itself a little more. This is just another thing in a long line of great things that make Delicatessen a great movie. Another of these things is the more minor characters. I have never seen a more motley crew than the one in this film. As previously mentioned, Julie, although not entirely 'normal', is the most normal character in the film; the rest of it is populated by lunatics. There's a man with a house full of frogs, a woman that continually tries to commit suicide, a man that puts cans on his deaf mother in law so they know where she is etc. The support cast's wackiness don't add anything much to the story itself (which only really requires them to be there), but the fact that they are different and imaginative is another of the film's absurd edges, and another thing that makes this film different from everything else.

Delicatessen concentrates more on being absurd and surreal than it does in posing deep and philosophical questions. Personally, I have no problem with that, but those who do want a movie to be deep and meaningful might find the film disappointing because of that. That is not to say that the film completely lacks depth or meaning; although a moral to the story doesn't seem to present itself, the film takes it's depth from the 'what if' scenario that it presents; "if the world's food supply became too short to feed the population, would you resort to cannibalism or join the vegetarian freedom fighters?". It's a very general message; but it's definitely there.

Overall, Delicatessen is a sublime piece of cinema. You wont find imagination and inventiveness to the extent that it is shown here in most films, and that alone is reason enough to warrant this classic status. Delicatessen is everything I say it is and more; and overall the film is one of the true highlights of the 1990's. A gem.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Lucas Belvaux's One Two Three Trilogy

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An actor of some twenty odd years the Belgian born Lucas Belvaux turned to writing and directing with Parfois trop d'amour in 1992. With only two feature films under his belt in this capacity it would come as some surprise when in 2002 an ambitious project would emerge, a trio of films written and directed by Belvaux that would take place within the same world using six primary characters as we explore different aspects of their lives over a period of ten days in three different genres: thriller, comedy and melodrama. Working off the concept that for every primary character we see there is a secondary character whose story goes untold; this project puts two of the six main characters in the limelight per film, depicting their story in a genre best suited to them before they are relegated to a secondary role for another. The result is a trilogy of films that mostly work very well on a standalone basis, but achieve a greater success when viewed together as the genres chosen to depict the many sides of each character helps to round them out to a level rarely seen before.

The first in the trilogy tells the story of Bruno, who having just escaped from Prison after serving 15 years for terrorist activities within the popular army is high on the police wanted list. Bruno may be in hiding but his agenda is clear, find and kill the man he believes gave him and his comrades up and then live out the rest of his life in the foothills of Italy. Abandoned but secure safe houses provide a wealth of necessary equipment and a location to prepare for what he must do, while old contacts provide him with a means to locate his betrayer. Along the way however Bruno's motives prove too hostile for those he thought he could trust, while his emotions get the better of him when he takes pity on a junkie named Agnès which only complicates his situation.

Aptly titled On The Run Belvaux as a director concentrates on the notion of being constantly on the move, threatened by his surroundings we are plunged into Bruno's paranoia via a myriad of sensory assaults that confuse through their simplicity. The most effective being the numerous car journeys, with a fixed camera looking through the windscreen during high speed chases this results in a claustrophobic effect, as we only know where danger may arise through sound, a feature which plays a major part in this story. Sequences showing Bruno encapsulated by the darkness of his garage holdings with only a fire lamp to illuminate the solitary desk he uses to practice his weaponry skills further highlight the requirement Belvaux puts on sound, with Bruno flinching at the possibility his location has been compromised when footsteps can be heard outside.

Belvaux as an actor is most impressive. He convincingly portrays Bruno as a man willing to die for his cause, deftly sincere as he travels through the film in a range of often laughable disguises. Bruno is a man with a purpose, yet it's one we shouldn't sympathise with but through his actions in the early stages of the running time and the boyish charm Belvaux brings to the role we can't help but. The well crafted script delivers a wealth of intriguing characters and increasingly tense set pieces and while the anti-hero persona setup within Bruno is continually built upon Belvaux never allows it to fully take hold, yet when the odds against him rise to tangible levels his inevitable actions still manage to shock, both the audience and one of the key secondary characters which finally carve out the doubts within the lead character we always had.

An Amazing Couple is a comedy of errors centred around Alain and Cecile, a happily married couple of many years whose lives are sent into disarray by Alain's decision to keep his wife in the dark about a health problem which requires an operation. With his heart in the right place but his mind on vacation somewhere else Alain's activities cause Cecile to suspect him, not necessarily of infidelity but her worry is such that she turns to a friends husband for help. Pascal, the detective we first met in On The Run is hired as a private investigator to discover just what exactly is going on. Unfortunately Cecile has that effect on men which sees both Pascal and Alain's doctor making thinly disguised advances upon her whenever the opportunity arises, and in his current state Alain begins to suspect his close circle of family and friends are conspiring against him to ensure the operation he requires goes very wrong.

Traditionally the comedy farce genre is one I love to hate, for they generally revolve around a script so threadbare you end up screaming at the characters to simply shut up and come clean, saving both them and us a whole lot of bother. This works though and by and large it's down to the distance Belvaux puts between the husband and wife. They're patently unaware of each others suspicions whilst fully caught up within their own. Cecile is painted as the beautiful housewife any man would be crazy to cheat on, while Alain has a case of hypochondria brought on by the minor operation which steamrolls the setup. The third parties aiding either side add to the fun, the private investigator is a despicable piece of work using his position to edge in on his employers affections while Claire - Alain's secretary - and her boyfriend are put in situations that are sordid to the outside eye and deliciously entertaining for the viewer.

Plot devices such as Alain dictating his revised will throughout the movie to a personal recorder is genius, both keeping us up to speed with his current mind state and causing many a belly laugh along the way. Equally amusing moments can be found littered throughout the dialogue while Belvaux also resorts to moments of simple physical comedy that thanks to the energetic performances never fail to appear fresh, including Claire taking a little too much pleasure in bringing Alain round following his own hilarious collapse at the wheel. Importantly however the characters progress, especially Alain, and throughout the script never once fails to suggest something other than the happy ending could be in sight, and right through to the very last shot there is a sneaking suspicion in the viewers mind that not all is as it should be.

The final part of the trilogy, After Life is the longest and due to its reliance on events from the previous films the least accessible to newcomers, but also the most trying for those watching the three as one due to numerous repeated sequences (albeit re-shot from different character perspectives to often powerful effect). Taking two of the most familiar yet possibly least likeable characters from the prior films, After Life is woven in and around the stories already told. Pascal, the detective who is working on re-capturing Bruno while also playing private investigator to Cecile, has problems of his own to deal with. His wife Agnès, a teacher colleague of Cecile's is a morphine addict, and through his work Pascal is able to control her supply without going though a dealer. Despite her habit Pascal is genuinely in love with his wife and this is an aspect of his character that Belvaux reveals in this story, but deliberately held back on in the previous.

The heartless one-dimensional character depicted in the comedy piece of An Amazing Couple is rounded out here to become one we sympathise with. Pascal is put in a very difficult position by the wife he loves, the addiction he loathes and collision of police work and private investigator duties which drive him to question his love for Agnès, his moral duty in both professions and which takes precedence over the other. By far the most dramatic of the three each of the leads put in a powerhouse performance that requires a complete range of emotions to be laid bare on the table while there appearances must be sacrificed constantly to achieve the complete effect. Of equal stature is the scripting which beautifully ties this piece in to the others, adding greater impact to repeated viewings by revealing facts previously unknown to the viewer about characters who play only a minor role here, but a greater one elsewhere (most notably Jeanne and her husband who feature most prominently in On The Run).

The events which take place in each of the characters lives should be well known to anyone who has seen the prior films in the trilogy, and this is what inevitably makes the two hour run time drag but it should be noted Belvaux works up to a stunning finale that is worth sticking around for and made all the more revelatory by the resonance created through the tales already told but put in a whole new light by this one. The decision to not give in to the obvious shock ending is one I'd also like to applaud; I was certainly thinking it and almost willing it to happen but the film is all the more effective for not giving in to the sick and twisted events we often yearn for in film.

Visually the trilogy is accomplished, with each sharing an obvious style set about by the film stock and inherent grain but each can also be defined by the cinematography and camera methods employed. From the point of view shots and concentration on dark and light shades in On The Run to the bright, cheery and sophisticated look of An Amazing Couple through to the up close and personal, solemnly lighted and hand held nature of After Life. Via the extra features you can see just how well they cut together and could share shots from each other, but you can also see the achievement in taking the selected genres and matching the adopted styles. Sonically On The Run stands out through attention to sound design and some haunting musical pieces that aid the tension Belvaux creates, while An Amazing Couple features its share of light and frumpy tunes that punctuate the comedy and carry it well. After Life however uses minimal audio accompaniment, instead choosing to maintain the sombre mood through unnatural silence and raw performance.