Thursday, January 27, 2005


1983, Denmark, directed by Bille August

As coming-of-age stories go, Zappa is far more bitter than sweet: it's nothing like the heartwarming Swedish My Life As A Dog, made a year later and set a few years earlier. Zappa follows an odd trio of boys in early 1960s Copenhagen: rich kid Steen, a manipulative bully who has everything but the love of his high bourgeois parents; middle-class Bjorn, with whom we're invited to identify most closely; and good-hearted working-class Mulle, the reliable gag-man. From such unpromisingly clichéd raw materials, Bille August fashions a very affecting series of snapshots, as Bjorn in particular navigates the shoals of adolescence and figures out how best to free himself from the malign influence of Steen. The sense of time and place is perfectly judged, with the class tensions of post-war Europe (even in reputedly egalitarian Denmark) in clear relief. The young actors are spot on, as is so often the case in Scandinavian cinema: from their work, you'd assume they all went on to long careers in the movies, but you'd be mistaken. A little patience is needed to let this movie work its spell, but it's worth the investment.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Infernal Affairs

2002, Hong Kong, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak

This one is a real find. While Hong Kong cop/robber flicks tend to be wall-to-wall action (not a bad thing if it's well done), Infernal Affairs quickly reveals itself to be a far more interesting creature as it explores the trials and tribulations of two moles, one an undercover cop in the Triads, the other a Triad who kept his nose clean and went through the police academy. If that sounds far-fetched, the directors do a skilful job of making it seem perfectly logical, helped enormously by the quality of the acting, from the stars to the supporting parts (it's a huge improvement on some similar HK flicks, with their inane comedy interludes). The directors have a great eye for detail, whether the planning of a drug trade or a police bust, and there's one fabulous scene that brings cops and crims together for a face-off in the police station. Since this is HK cinema, the bullets still fly now and then, but the plot is the real action here.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Intimate Strangers

2004, France, directed by Patrice Leconte (original title: Confidences trop intimes)

One of those movies that seemed to split the critics, I was surprised by both the raves and the pans. While Fabrice Luchini hasn't been this good in a long, long time (partly because no-one gives him a decent part), the film does drag in sections. There's a degree of repetition that allows you to reflect too long on the basic unlikeliness of the scenario (a woman walks into an accountant's office under the impression he's a psychologist and once her mistake is discovered, continues to show up for conversations with the nebbish tax expert). Still, as an exercise in style as much as anything else, the movie doesn't really care about suspension of disbelief, for it constructs its own very self-contained world, within which these characters make sense. Sandrine Bonnaire is rather pallid here; she can be fierce at times but here that fire is largely hidden by an underwritten role. Ultimately, a slight sense of disappointment hinges on the fact that Leconte has made at least a half-dozen very fine movies, and this one doesn't quite measure up.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

It All Starts Today

1999, France, directed by Bertrand Tavernier (original title: Ça commence aujourd'hui)

It All Starts Today is the tale of Daniel, a schoolteacher in the northern part of France, an area devastated by decades of economic decline. His little village school struggles under every imaginable strain: lack of resources, grinding poverty, occasionally abusive parents, and an administrative system so dysfunctional it can barely assist with the most fundamental needs of the school. Daniel, however, is almost tirelessly engaged in improving the school, for its teachers and its students, trying everything possible to involve and revive the community. Although parts of the film are quite devastating in their documentary feel (reminiscent of Tavernier's L.627; Didier Bezace, star of that film, pops up in a key small role here), there are rays of hope, too: the film is a kind of cry for help, but it's also one that makes you want to become involved, rather than simply hoping that someone else will deal with the problem. Philippe Torreton is superb in the lead role, and there's no shortage of able support. Bruno Dumont and others have made several deeply depressing movies about this part of France in recent years, and Tavernier's humanist alternative is a refreshing corrective.


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About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States