Raw (2016)

Raw (2016) movie poster

director Julia Ducournau
viewed: 04/02/2017 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

Be a little wary of dating a French or Belgian veterinary student who eschews meat. At least that is what Julia Ducournau’s debut film Raw has taught me. If this is what “coming of age” looks like, it’s better to hide under the bedsheets.

Seriously, though, Raw is a riveting film, showing great promise from Ducournau. It’s body horror, cannibalism, sexual awakening.

Garance Marillier is a fresh-faced waif of a girl, transformed by her first year at college. It turns out it’s only partly the hazing rituals, in that they unlock a part of Marillier that she did not know was there.

I’d sure I’m one of a very few dad’s who took his teenagers to see this one. It’s not as gruesome as some have suggested, but it’s powerfully conceived and executed. I look forward to Ducournau’s further work.

Calvaire (2004)

Calvaire (2004) movie poster

director Fabrice Du Welz
viewed: 02/05/2017

Who knew that you could experience Deliverance in Belgium? I guess there are backwoods rednecks with weird proclivities everywhere.

I’ve had Calvaire in my film queue since it came out, now more than a decade ago. It’s not exactly Deliverance, to be fair. But small-time entertainer Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) finds his equivalent when he gets lost in the woods. He finds a lonely kook named Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer) who sees in Stevens, the reincarnation of his lost wife and sets about forcing that into reality.

The woods are full of the mentally-diminished and zoophiliacs. Stevens’s “ordeal” is to somehow escape this insanity.

It’s well-produced and nicely filmed. If the comic aspect of it was turned up a notch, it might feel almost Australian (Australians pretty much love their crazy boondock-dwellers; they certainly find them amusing.) Instead, it hews to the almost lugubrious and melancholy, possibly empathizing with the adbductors and rapists.

Ernest & Celestine (2012)

Ernest & Celestine (2012) movie poster

directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner
viewed: 08/28/2015

It would be understandable if you watched the French/Belgian animated production, Ernest & Celestine, and didn’t right away make the connection that it was co-directed by the team that brought us A Town Called Panic (2009).  We watched it and didn’t make that immediate connection (though we spotted the poster for A Town Called Panic in the bedroom of one of the characters).  A Town Called Panic has been one of my kids’ favorite movies of all time.

It’s a totally different style of film.  Ernest & Celestine is a traditionally cel animated film with a look-and-feel of illustrations, adapted from a series of books with a style akin to that of the original material (whereas A Town Called Panic was stop-motion animation.)  And where aspects of the humor have some similarities in sensibility, Ernest & Celestine is a much more straight-forward tale as opposed to the uber-anarchy of A Town Called Panic.

Ernest & Celestine is the unlikely story of a friendship between a bear and a mouse in a world in which bears live on the surface while mice live below ground, and the economy is oddly driven through teeth.  The two communities are in utter horror of one another, though the mice steal bear teeth to replace their own when they fail, and little mice, like Celestine, are forced to sneak into the bear world to collect teeth as real-world tooth fairies.

The American version features voices of Forest Whitaker, Lauren Baccall, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, and others, and is a charming, odd, story, more fun than logical.

The kids both enjoyed it, though doubtlessly less than A Town Called Panic.  Still, something worth recommending outside of American animation productions.

A Town Called Panic

A Town Called Panic (2009) movie poster

(2009) directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar
viewed: 08/20/10

An oddball, funny, fun stop-motion animated feature film from Belgium, A Town Called Panic was a real hit with the kids.  Expanded from a television show, short episodes of the wacky adventures of Horse, Indian, and Cowboy, the whole character and aesthetic of the world of A Town Called Panic is one where little toys have come to life.  The figures don’t have great depth of facial expression and many of the standing figures have little platforms attached to their feet like the army men in Toy Story (1995) and thus waddle about for movement and express themselves with their whole bodies.  The limitations of the characters’ movements and style are all chosen and opted for in the filmmakers’ aesthetics and give the film its hilarious and kooky personality.

The fact that the characters are “supposed to be” animated toys belies the fact that they actually have multitudinous models for the characters to give them the range of expression and physical extremes.  It’s a wholly different approach to stop-motion animation from say, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) or Coraline (2009).  But it’s further argument that 2009 was a fantastic year for the form.

The story is sort of simple, but it grows into an epic-like adventure.  It’s Horse’s birthday, so Cowboy and Indian, the troublemakers of the gang, order some bricks to build him a barbecue as a gift, but accidentally order too many, which leads to the destruction of their home.  Their subsequent re-build of their house is troubled by the theft of their walls, which turns out to be the doings of a submarine Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)- like gang of amphibious fellows who live in the underworld world below.  There is also a weird sequence in which a motorized giant penguin, run by super-strong old scientists, roams a snowy wasteland throwing giant snowballs at other worlds on the planet.

It’s the absurdity and comedy that make this whole film just plain fun.  It was in French, with subtitles, which I had to read to them, which oddly didn’t diminish their enjoyment at all.  They watched it the next morning on their own again and laughed just as hard the second time around.  In fact, Felix rated it among his favorite films of all time, a list which I tried to query him on to of which get a better understanding.

Sometimes the best things are the weird little ones that you just plain aren’t expecting.

JCVD

JCVD (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Mabrouk El Mechri
viewed: 05/09/09

When was the last time you watched a Jean-Claude Van Damme film?  For me, it was the hilariously awful Double Team (1998) in which he starred along with Dennis Rodman, and that was purely because it was Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark’s first American film (and surprisingly not his last, nor anyone who was affiliated with that film’s last for that matter).

Toward the late 1990’s, as the action film of the 1980’s, the Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren (anyone?), et cetera, et cetera indeed…was dying its ignoble death by being temporarily re-inflated by having the kings of Hong Kong action cinema coming to Hollywood and serving at least one film with Jean-Claude.  John Woo got Hard Target (1993), Ringo Lam Maximum Risk (1996), and the afore-mentioned Double Team.  There may well have been others, but you see, it was not something worth following.

So, when was the last time a Jean-Claude Van Damme film had a meaningful buzz?  Was there any such thing until he worked with the Hong Kong directors?  I don’t know.  I probably don’t want to recount that I’ve probably seen more than my fair share of his films, all while not ever really liking him one iota.

And then this, probably his agents wet dream, a film that is considered “interesting” and in which not only do critics say that Jean-Claude can “really act”, but the film is essentially one in which he plays himself, a modified version of himself, but as a very sincere and sensitive human being.  So, you not only get attention, appreciation, but you get projected depths and belief in the man himself.

JCVD is a conceit.  It’s a film in which a down-on-his-luck Jean-Claude Van Damme returns to Belgium to get his life in order after losing his daughter in a custody battle.  He’s a joke to a large extent, a guy who got into karate to no longer be a skinny wimp and who went on to movie stardom in the world’s garbage factory.  He’s hugely popular at home, especially with losers who love action movies.  And he walks into a bank to get an advance and gets wrangled into a heist and a hostage situation.  And the cops think he’s part of the plot.

Ironically, enough, he’s the plot of the film, just not in the plot of the crime.  He’s shown to be a beaten-down, good-hearted fellow, rich with humanity, and still able to smack down people at the age of 48 (his real age at the filming of the movie).  And when the camera sits on his face, with its real pathos, you wonder, why didn’t this guy make movies in France or something?  Like the movies of Jean-Pierre Melville?  If he can really act, his aging visage shows the world-weariness that would be prime for some aging thief.

The movie is quite alright.  My largest issue is actually with the cinematography, which is in these muted colors, and while not overly hand-held, has a feeling of more “art” than might have been effective.  The film made me think of Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film Irma Vep, and maybe with a bit more of something along those lines, there might have been more of total epiphany here.

Who knows?  If this film can’t kick-start Van Damme into something at least better, nothing probably ever will.  In the right film, in the hands of the right director, he could be something more than he’s ever been, and he wouldn’t even need a fight scene to do it.  This film certainly achieves it’s primary aims and Jean-Claude, how little we knew ye.

L’Enfant

L'Enfant (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
viewed: 11/04/06

I’d been reading about the Dardenne brothers and their films off an on for a while and certainly about this film, a story of a guy who sells his baby son on the black market and then struggles to get him back and more.  They are often compared to the Italian Neo-Realists in their depictions of blue collar, working class, or less-than-working class (as in this film) Belgium.  Truly, it’s not far off from any world in many ways.

It was good overall. I guess.  It was involving enough and the performances were good.

It didn’t effect me the way that a film like this attempts to effect the audience.  And I guess that was a part of what bothered me about it.  I suppose that this film’s striving for “realism” and its emotional power therein is supposed to be compelling and powerful.  It’s intended to have effect.  It’s not objective.  It’s manipulative as any Hollywood film in many ways, maybe a little more subtle since it doesn’t have a soundtrack blaring out directions for your emotions.  But even without those obvious sign-posts, it’s clear that the ending is meant to be cathartic and heart-rending.  It’s not without power.  But it doesn’t wield the magic that it strives for.