Monday, 12 November 2018

Coffee Time?

So, what's this post all about?  Just above the Facebook link near the very bottom of the page, you should see a nice little button with "Ko-fi" written on it (it looks just the one above, except it's a bit smaller and a different colour).  Basically, if you enjoy the site and want to help keep it going, you can show your support by clicking the button - this will take you to a page where you can pay, via PayPal. the price of a cup of coffee.  I'm not planning on giving this much of a sell beyond what you're reading just now, and the button is tucked well out of the way so shouldn't change how you use the site.  I'm well aware of how annoying pop-ups can be when you're trying to read an online article, so I was keen to come up with something that wouldn't be disruptive to the site or its users - and the fact that I have to draw your attention like this proves just how subtle the Ko-fi presence is.  So if you ever feel like using the button, it'll always be in the same place as it is now.  Needless to say, any and all contributions are very much appreciated.

This incarnation of Holland Focus is now over a year old, and for the first 12 months the main focus was on getting the new site established following the closure of iet and Freek's print magazine.  The modest aim was to publish at least one article a month, and I did meet that target with the exception of last December - during which I was suffering from the worst bout of 'flu I'd had in years, and could barely muster the energy for the briefest of seasonal greetings.  Now I have a bit more time to spend on the site, I do plan on publishing articles with greater frequency.  But spending more time on Holland Focus has inevitably involved more consideration of the various running costs, and I'm sure you all appreciate that both time and money are required to keep the site operational.

Anyway, that's that covered.  Normal service will be resumed shortly, and please keep in mind you can read more London Film Festival reviews over at the Letterboxd page.  I saw ~30 features and a number of short films at this year's festival, and Letterboxd is a good place to park up all the reviews which didn't feature here.

Back soon.

Darren Arnold

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (Bruno Dumont, 2018)

Police captain Van der Weyden is one of the more memorable characters in recent television history (OK, I must admit I don't watch much TV), and since this character - played by the untutored Bernard Pruvost - first appeared in Bruno Dumont's Li'l Quinquin, I've been itching to see more of him; that show, which ran to four episodes (and also played in cinemas as one long film), was always ripe for another series.  A sequel is now finally here in the form of Coincoin and the Extra-Humans and, happily, second time around proves no obstacle for the director and his fine cast of non-pros who, four years on, effortlessly slip back into this surreal and occasionally very troubling world.  Bruno Dumont has been no slouch between these two series, pumping out both Slack Bay and Jeannette, the latter of which, like Quinquin, enjoyed near-simultaneous big and small screen releases.

As with Li'l Quinquin, this latest endeavour consists of four episodes of around 50 minutes each.  Pretty much everyone from the first show is back for this caper - even Lisa Hartmann's Aurélie, and if you saw the first series and are wondering how this can be possible, just watch and you'll see - oh, you'll see.  Whereas Van der Weyden's bizarre investigation last time around was at least rooted in reality with its hunt for a murderer (who, predictably enough, was never revealed nor apprehended), this series jumps off the deep end from the start as a strange black magma is splatting down from the skies.  This substance proves mystifying enough to both police and civilians, but its true menace is only revealed each dusk as it releases a floating light which proceeds to invade an unfortunate, seemingly random local resident, who then spawns a doppelgänger; rinse and repeat.

In addition to the antics of Van der Weyden and his sidekick Carpentier (Philippe Jore) - who spends much of his time stunt driving their Citroën C4 police car - there is of course plenty of screen time for the title character, played by Alane Delhaye.  As you may have noticed, he now goes by the name Coincoin - presumably as he's no longer a quinquin, or small child.  While many of the returning cast members look pretty much the same as they did before, the biggest change, predictably, comes in the appearances of the child actors, who in the space of four years have gone from kids just out of primary school to teens on the cusp of adulthood.  In these intervening years, Coincoin has separated from Eve (Lucy Caron) and over the course of the new series gets romantically involved with the flighty Jenny (Alexia Depret), daughter of the regional leader of sinister political party the Bloc.  Like Coincoin, Eve has also moved on to another partner, but it's clear that these childhood sweethearts still harbour some feelings for one another.

Although Coincoin and the Extra-Humans has one foot planted in slapstick, it does take the time to touch upon some serious concerns, such as the European migrant crisis and the rise of the far right - the Bloc clearly a proxy for Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement national, much like the fictional RNP were in last year's Chez nous (when Le Pen's party were still known as the Front national).  A disconcerting development occurs when some of the Bloc's foot soldiers talk about travelling to Calais for a "bonfire"; thankfully, this appears to be little more than bravado, although the group's walk through a tunnel which plays home to some migrants makes for a tense couple of minutes.  But these darker aspects are largely kept in the background, never getting in the way of an investigation which, if you know this director, is never likely to lead to much of consequence.  Rather, Dumont is fixed on his characters and their interactions, and the forensics of police work - just as in Slack Bay, Humanity or indeed Li'l Quinquin - prove to be of no real interest to the director.  As is usual for Dumont, the landscape of his own back yard here proves to be a character in its own right, and DP Guillaume Deffontaines - in his fifth collaboration with the director - serves up some wonderfully evocative widescreen cinematography.

While the vast majority of the actors seen here were in the first series, there are a couple of additions to the cast which will arouse interest among Dumont scholars: Nicolas Leclaire, whose performance in Jeannette was a comic highlight, turns up here as Jenny's uncle, but the real shock comes in the form of an appearance by Humanity's Emmanuel Schotté who plays, er, another of Jenny's uncles (or should that be "uncles"?)  Schotté's only screen role prior to Coincoin was in Humanity, for which he won the best actor prize at Cannes; you can't help but feel that he went into exile on account of the backlash afforded to the controversial Humanity, on which Cannes' David Cronenberg-led jury bestowed two other prestigious awards.  There's something quite touching about his reappearance here after nearly 20 years away from acting, and it seems only fitting that his second (final?) role is in something directed by Dumont.

Needless to say, Coincoin and the Extra-Humans comes highly recommended, and it's amazing how it follows Li'l Quinquin so seamlessly.  It's hard to pick which of the two series is better, but that all eight episodes could play as a single, fluid work is testament to the remarkable consistency on display here.  While the cast will all, presumably, go back to doing whatever it is they normally do (Pruvost is a gardener at a centre for disabled people), a third adventure with these characters would be extremely welcome, so let's hope it eventually materialises.  With much of the dialogue presented in undiluted ch'timi, Dumont proves to be as intransigent as ever; that said, who would have thought that the director and star of the bleak, severe and austere Humanity would one day reunite for a knockabout TV comedy?

Darren Arnold

Images: 3B Productions

Friday, 26 October 2018

What Happened to Monday? (Tommy Wirkola, 2017)

Toen ik de synopsis las van deze film, was ik ogenblikkelijk opgewonden, want het concept sprak me enorm aan. Toen ik exact één jaar geleden de film The Thinning bekeek, was ik ook benieuwd naar het eindresultaat omdat ik het basisidee magistraal vond. Spijtig genoeg was het in mijn ogen een mislukte poging om het te lanceren als pilootfilm om er nog enkele hersenloze vervolgen aan te breien. Ik vrees dat ze die plannen opgeborgen hebben. Ook in Seven Sisters (oftewel What Happened to Monday? zoals de film in de V.S heet) speelt de overbevolking de mensheid weer parten. Erger nog. Door de klimaatsveranderingen zorgen extreme droogtes ervoor dat er een schaarste heerst qua voedsel. Een genetische ingreep door de wetenschap brengt soelaas maar heeft één vervelende bijwerking. Het aantal meerlingen die geboren worden, neemt drastisch toe. De oplossing van het ene probleem is nefast voor het andere prangende probleem. Een nieuwe wet wordt gestemd waardoor het alleen toegestaan is om één kind te verwekken. De onwettige kinderen worden middels cryoslaap gestockeerd tot betere tijden aanbreken waardoor ze wel een toekomst hebben in deze wereld.

Zo verliep het dus niet bij de familie Settman. Daar is het de grootvader (Willem Dafoe) die ervoor zorgt dat de zeven zustertjes in groots geheim opgroeien. Uit praktische overwegingen geeft hij elk kind als naam een weekdag, zodanig dat ze op latere leeftijd weten op welke dag ze de woonst mogen verlaten. Op die manier leven ze als zevenling het bestaan van een individu. Het principe van de beruchte drie musketiers “Eén voor allen en allen voor één” vervalt in het niets. Ben je een fervent fan van Noomi Rapace, dan is deze film de vervulling van een natte droom. Ze speelt namelijk de rol van elk zusje in deze familie. Elk hun eigen uiterlijk, karakter, nukken en intellect. Verwacht je dan ook aan veelvuldige scènes waarbij ze duelleert met woorden tegen zichzelf. Een getrukeerde monoloog eigenlijk. Het deed me terugdenken aan de fratsen die Eddy Murphy al demonstreerde in The Nutty Professor, maar dan niet zo hilarisch en zonder flauwe moppen waar flatulentie bij komt kijken.

Noomi Rapace speelde een schitterende rol in Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, was innemend in Dead Man Down en maakte indruk op mij in Child 44. Hier is het niet haar acteren dat een voorname plaats inneemt. Het zijn de technische hoogstandjes die ervoor zorgen dat ze een gedenkwaardige rol speelt. De perfect gemonteerde dialogen en toch wel ingenieus in elkaar gestoken vechtscènes zorgen ervoor dat ze schittert op het grote doek (in zevenvoud). Spijtig genoeg is dit niet voldoende om er een indrukwekkende film van te maken. Het is uiteindelijk niet meer dan een thriller met sciencefiction elementen. Er was voor mij maar één fragment waar ik ademloos naar gekeken heb en dat is de eerste confrontatie tussen een deel zussen en diegenen die het lang bewaarde geheim willen elimineren. Verder was het een heel onderhoudende film maar indrukwekkend was het echt niet.

Het decor zag er futuristisch genoeg en deed me soms denken aan Blade Runner. De algehele aankleding was perfect verzorgd. Vanzelfsprekend staat Noomi Rapace grotendeels in de schijnwerpers waardoor de rollen van Glenn Close, als stuwende kracht achter het overheidsapparaat CAA, en Willem Dafoe als aanvulsel aanvoelen. Vooral Glen Close, die zich weeral als een rasechte Cruella DeVil gedraagt, is een nogal eendimensionaal personage. Voorts was het ook niet zo moeilijk om te raden hoe de film zou aflopen. Al bij al voelde het aan alsof de hele film gedrapeerd werd rond een ingenieus concept en een pienter uitgedachte gimmick.

Peter Pluymers

Images: Splendid Film

Based in Belgian Limburg, Peter Pluymers watches many movies and blogs about them here (in English) and here (in Dutch).  My sincere thanks go to Peter for his contribution here, and I hope to feature some more of his fine work in future.  Please note this article is copyright © 2018.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Etangs Noirs (Pieter Dumoulin / Timeau De Keyser, 2018)

Named after the Brussels Metro station (which you might know as Zwarte Vijvers), Etangs Noirs is a modest yet thoroughly absorbing movie which provides incontrovertible proof of how the journey can be infinitely more interesting than the destination.  This Belgian production features strong writing and well-judged performances, and although its London Film Festival performance today is currently showing as sold out, it might be worth checking just before the screening to see if any returns are available.

The premise is a simple one: Jimi, a rather earnest young man, receives a package at his Cité Modèle apartment; while the apartment number is correct, the parcel was actually intended for Sayenna, who lives in the next building.  Jimi attempts to deliver the parcel to Sayenna, but she's out, and her elderly neighbour isn't much help.  Most of us have found ourselves in a similar situation at one time or another, and our options are usually fairly straightforward: leave the parcel outside the door; find a neighbour who'll agree to take it; or leave a note with contact details.  Jimi doesn't exercise any of these options - he even has the chance to lob the parcel through an open window - but appears hellbent on delivering the parcel personally.  And that's his first mistake.

Obviously, if Jimi took the expected course (or if Sayenna was at home) then we wouldn't have much of a film, but his determination to literally deliver leads him on an odyssey across Brussels, where he spends plenty of time riding the Metro as he tries to track down the elusive Sayenna.  Does she even exist?  Does Jimi have some sort of relationship to Sayenna and/or the unknown contents of the box he ferries around?  Jimi is a polite, solemn but rather jumpy young man, and we start to wonder if this is all as routine as simply sorting out an incorrectly delivered package.  While in Sayenna's building, Jimi encounters the disconcertingly over-friendly Benny, who promptly enlists Jimi's help in catching his escaped canaries before offering to take care of the parcel.  Benny frequently sees Sayenna around in the hallways of the building - or at least that's what he says.

There's something in Jimi's plight that most of us will be able to relate to - the simple five-minute job which soon escalates into a major drama, and Jimi's obsession with his task soon takes over both his days and nights. There's something of Scorsese's After Hours at play here, although this is an altogether significantly more muted affair.  The filmmakers prove especially adroit when it comes to putting us in Jimi's shoes, yet the viewer will almost certainly feel a helpless frustration rarely betrayed by the rather inscrutable protagonist; it's an impressive balancing act which endures for the film's duration.  With its atmospheric shots of the endless subterranean corridors of the Brussels Metro, Etangs Noirs stands as a haunting, engrossing and frequently unnerving tale, told with refreshing economy.

Darren Arnold 

Images: Accattone Films

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018)

In Rambo II and Cobra, George Pan Cosmatos directed two Sylvester Stallone films which could hardly be more 80s; these movies stand as two of the more memorable examples from  that decade's glut of violent action cinema.  Cosmatos died in 2005, but with Mandy his son Panos revisits the era of his father's greatest successes (that said, many consider 1993's Tombstone to be his finest hour or two).  Mandy is set, quite specifically, in 1983 - a year in which much heavy metal still had a relatively threatening edge before being eclipsed by the silly excesses of hair metal.  Cosmatos Jr.'s film, somewhat surprisingly, opens with the sounds of King Crimson - not a metal act as such, but one whose prog stylings certainly influenced many a concept album (metal and otherwise) of the 80s and beyond.  And Mandy, with its simplistic story, overblown treatment and intricate, fantasy artwork-inspired tableaux, plays very much like a metal concept album.

Nicolas Cage's Red lives a quiet country existence with Mandy (Andrea Riseborough); the two are clearly besotted with each other, but their idyll is shattered when they're captured by order of Linus Roache's cult leader.  Mandy is the one they really want, but she refuses to play the cult's game and therefore meets a horrific fate, which the despairing, helpless Red is forced to watch.  The buildup to this is slow and deliberate, but after roughly one hour Cage - and the film - fizzes to life as Red sloshes a bottle of booze over his wounds and down his neck, all the while letting out a series of feral yells.  His plaintive cries have virtually nothing to do with his physical pain, but rather are all he can do in the face of a horror he can never unsee.  The scene is as disturbing as it is riveting, and it pretty much serves to demarcate the film's two very different halves.  The second half, as you will probably  have guessed, sees Red exact bloody, brutal revenge. 

Cage, as we all know, is a truly great and fearless performer, and in Mandy he gives as committed a performance as you'll see this year.  In the film's first half, he has very little to say or do, and he patiently sits on the sidelines until his moment comes; these early passages are largely dominated by British actors Riseborough and Roache, and, good as these two are, you can't help but find yourself marking time before the beast in Cage in unleashed.  A third British actor, Richard Brake, also appears, inviting comparisons with Rob Zombie's not entirely dissimilar films; Brake's memorable turn was the best thing about Zombie's most recent feature, the sloppy 31

Mandy's story may be nothing new, but Cosmatos is just as big a star of the film as Cage; he directs with such confidence as he creates this nightmarish, colour-saturated world (running these two mighty close, however, is late Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, whose score is a perfect fit for the unnerving, hallucinatory imagery).  Refreshingly, the director hasn't just set out to make a wink-wink 80s sendup; all too often, filmmakers can't help but ridicule the cheesier aspects of the decade, but there's a sincerity to Cosmatos' vision, albeit one which doesn't come at the expense of humour.  Before watching the film, I half expected something approximating a mirror of video game Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon - a ridiculously fun, tongue-in-cheek pastiche of 80s action movie tropes (featuring the voice of Michael Biehn, no less) - but happily both the director and his cast harbour somewhat loftier ambitions.  Cosmatos can even throw in a cameo from Bill Duke, known to so many for his roles in 1980s smashes Commando and Predator, without any risk of overplaying his hand.  

It's quite tough to convey just what it is about Mandy which gets under the skin.  It's certainly not a film for everyone, and at just over two hours it may prove off-putting as it initially looks as if it's the sort of thing that should run for a scant 80 mins or so.  Some will inevitably walk out, but make it to the end and it won't be long before you're itching to experience this one again.  It's already played to two packed houses at the London Film Festival, and has a third and final screening there today; it will also be available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray just in time for Halloween.

Darren Arnold

Images: RLJ Entertainment

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Dear Son (Mohamed Ben Attia, 2018)

The Dardenne brothers serve as co-producers on social realist drama Dear Son, with the influence of the esteemed Belgian auteurs very much in evidence; the film contains many features familiar from the Dardennes' work, such as natural, authentic performances, judicious editing, and a cinéma verité sensibility.  Likewise, the domestic crises which so often form the basis of the brothers' films are present here, and you wouldn't be too surprised if someone told you that Jean-Pierre and Luc were the film's actual directors; high praise indeed for Mohamed Ben Attia.

The film, which screens today at the London Film Festival, sees amiable dock worker Riadh edging towards retirement, while he and wife Nazli enjoy a fairly peaceful life in their modest Tunis apartment.  The only real worry they have concerns their son, Sami, who is nearing both the end of school and some critical exams.  Sami is a polite, studious but rather withdrawn boy, and his academic exertions appear to be taking their toll: migraines and vomiting are a regular occurrence, yet all medical tests come back clear.  He's not a loner by any means, and we see him attend a party with some school friends; however, the relative feebleness of Sami's smile in a group selfie is noticeable.  Much later on, Riadh will find himself in a similar situation: at the end of his rope while a celebration rages all around.

With Riadh and Nazli growing increasingly concerned, the situation takes a drastic downturn as Sami suddenly disappears.  His schoolmates can shed no light on where their friend may be, but it soon becomes clear to both us and Sami's parents where the youth is headed.  His destination is slightly too obvious - although there have been few, if any, explicit clues up until now that this was in the offing.  Riadh takes it upon himself to track down the errant Sami, selling the family car and scratching together enough money to fund a trip which we all - Riadh included - know is unlikely to end in success.

As Riadh, Mohamed Dhrif is note-perfect, with his careworn features conveying way more than his dialogue as the father's worries escalate.  It's as good a performance as you'll see this year; not remotely showy, but always completely believable  The film also has some subtle, interesting points to make about parent-child relationships, especially those where the offspring have left the family home.  At one point, a defeated Riadh says all he wants is for his son to be happy; the wise man he's engaged in conversation with claims that while all parents say that, in truth it's the parents' own happiness which matters.  This is a sad, poignant and moving work, yet one which unexpectedly ends on a quite lovely grace note.

Darren Arnold


Monday, 15 October 2018

Second Time Around (Dora Garcia, 2018)

If you're up for something niche today, you might want to head to the London Film Festival for Dora Garcia's "staged documentary", but be warned that this is the sort of film which punishes you should you let your attention wander in the slightest.  Lacanian psychoanalysis comes under the microscope here, as does its high-profile proponent Oscar Masotta and his "happenings", some of which are reenacted in this Belgian co-production.

Second Time Around basically consists of four segments, the first three of which feature re-staged Masotta pieces.  Proceedings kick off with To Induce the Spirit of the Image, a controversial work in which a score of actors are paid to stand around and be watched for an hour; you may very well be rightly thinking that this doesn't sound like anything out of the ordinary - after all, aren't actors paid to be watched?  However, when said thespians are almost invariably bourgeois and are pretending to be working class and impoverished for the sake of a living art installation, it's not hard to see why some find such an exercise to be distasteful.

Second up is The Everlasting, a lively discussion in a library in which politics and psychoanalysis are the dominant topics.  Despite brazenly flouting library protocol - you wouldn't want to attempt to engage in quiet study while this conversation's in full flow - the sequence is intermittently interesting and I did learn something about the finer points of Peronism; this sort of material certainly wasn't covered in Evita.

The Helicopter follows, and this segment - which remakes what is arguably Masotta's most famous happening - sees a helicopter flight witnessed by a group of people, who then have to relay what happened to another bunch who didn't see the event; the idea (I think) is that those who did see the copter have to process their knowledge so it becomes information, which can then be absorbed by the others.

Somewhat perversely, the last piece isn't based on Masotta's work, despite sharing its title with that of the film.  In Second Time Around, Garcia revisits Julio Cortazar's short story of the same name, and we witness citizens being interviewed by what are presumably government officials.  This improvised piece is highly effective, and succeeds in unnerving and engaging the viewer as it recreates the climate of Argentina's disappearance-strewn period of state terrorism.  Perhaps surprisingly, it actually proves to be the pick of the film's four scenarios, despite Masotta's Lacan-influenced work taking up much more of the running time.

Chances are you'll know if Garcia's experimental exercise is or isn't for you.  While it certainly is a hard film to tune in to, you don't have to have a PhD in Neo-Freudianism to navigate Second Time Around's admittedly choppy waters.  You can buy a special pass which allows you to sample any three of the LFF's Experimenta offerings for a discounted price.

Darren Arnold

Image: Auguste Orts