The Insult [L’insulte]

(Lebanon / Belgium / Cyprus / France / USA 2017)

“We live in the Middle East. The word ‘offense’ was born here.”

— Wajdi Wehbe

The plot of The Insult [L’insulte] [قضيةرقم٢٣‎] recalls the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Perhaps someone should have told Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a hothead Beirut mechanic in his forties (born about three weeks after me), and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the sixtyish foreman of a construction crew.

While tending to plants on his balcony one afternoon, Tony accidentally spills water on the guys in the crew working below him on the street. Yasser spots the problem: a sawed-off pipe is coming out of the balcony. He offers to fix it, but Tony declines. Rudely. Yasser directs the guys to fix it anyway. Just as they finish, Tony sees the new pipe — and he busts it up into pieces. Watching it happen, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”

This is where it all starts to snowball. Tony is a Lebanese Christian, a devotee of Bachir Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. Tony demands an apology. Yasser refuses. His boss (Talal El Jurdi), overwrought by the combustibility of the situation, persuades him to do so after he learns what happened.

When the two men approach Tony at his garage, he makes a vicious ethnic remark to Yasser, who punches him in the gut and cracks two ribs. Tony sues Yasser — involving the police in a small criminal investigation doesn’t quench his thirst for “justice,” which to Tony is more about putting Yasser in his place. Initially, both men represent themselves before a lower court. The judge (Carlos Chahine) dismisses the case in a huff, annoyed that neither man can articulate his position.

Infamous attorney Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who fancies himself a defender of the Christian perspective, takes a political interest in Tony’s case. He convinces Tony to appeal the dismissal. Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), an attorney from legal aid, offers to represent Yasser for her own political reasons.

Soon, the media gets wind of the case. Before the watchful eyes of reporters, the two attorneys, who have a relationship, drag personal and political wounds into the light of the courtroom. The trial ignites tensions and threatens to spark national unrest. Even the President is concerned.

The Insult is not perfect — I could’ve done with less time in the courtroom and none of Éric Neveux’s flimsy techno soundtrack. Still, director Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, hits the right notes here, diving right into the religious-cultural-political differences that do more than divide — they affront. The conflict is specific to Lebanon, but the outrage — consuming and exhausting everyone it its path — is the same that you see all over today, from Europe to South America to the United States.

With Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Julia Kassar, Rifaat Torbey, Georges Daoud, Christina Farah, Elie Njeim

Production: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Scope Pictures, Douri Films, Cohen Media Group, Canal+, Ciné+, L’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement International

Distribution: Cinéart (Netherlands), Diaphana Films (France), Cohen Media Group (USA), Distribution Company (Argentina), Filmarti (Turkey)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

I, Daniel Blake

(UK/France/Belgium 2016)

I Daniel Blake.jpg

Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake has gotten a lot of attention and praise. Good: it wrestles with a topic that’s timely on both sides of the Atlantic—and elsewhere, for that matter. A political and poweful message, Loach has touched many a nerve. Case in point: I, Daniel Blake won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it finished with a 15-minute standing ovation ( 15 whole minutes?! Wow.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a kind of antihero. He’s gruff, he’s private, he’s not handsome or young. He probably goes to church. A heart attack seems like the thing that would change his life, but what really does is a new neighbor (Hayley Squires) and her two kids (Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan).

I didn’t stand up, but I get it. Bureaucracy versus common sense is always fertile ground for storytelling. I applaud Loach for what he’s saying here, I really do. I, Daniel Blake is a good film: it’s engaging, brave, and relatable. The acting is good all around. So is the premise.

In my opinion, though, it just isn’t a great film. We’re talking shades of meaning here, so if you have five seconds to spare, I’ll tell you why. First, I’ve seen this device many times before—in the last year, even. A cranky old man meets a character that represents youth and hope, and it totally melts the icy facade and changes his life. Well, OK. This sense of hope is usually personified by the very person society looks down on. Next?

Second, I saw where the plot was going way before I got there. Again and again. Predictability is never groundbreaking.

Third, I can’t help but think that this film takes the easy way out. A heart attack in a movie ends only one way. And it’s only a sad ending. Yeah, I, Daniel Blake is emotionally manipulative.

So, my issues center on Paul Laverty’s writing. I wish I had a better way to tell this story. I don’t. For all its pluses and minuses, though, I’d rather watch something more intense. Overall, I, Daniel Blake is disappointingly soft.

With Kate Rutter, Sharon Percy, Kema Sikazwe, Steven Richens, Amanda Payne, Chris Mcglade, Shaun Prendergast, Gavin Webster, Sammy T. Dobson, Mickey Hutton, Colin Coombs, David Murray, Stephen Clegg, Andy Kidd , Dan Li, Jane Birch, Micky McGregor, Neil Stuart Morton

Production: Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, British Film Institute (BFI), BBC Films, Les Films du Fleuve, Canal+, Ciné+

Distribution: Entertainment One Films (UK), Le Pacte (France), Cinéart (Belgium/Netherlands), Cinema (Italy), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece), Prokino Filmverleih (Germany), Scanbox Entertainment (Denmark), Sundance Selects (USA), Transmission Films (Australia), Vertigo Média Kft. (Hungary), Canibal Networks (Mexico), Cine Canibal (Mexico), Imovision (Brazil), Mont Blanc Cinema (Argentina), Longride (Japan)

100 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

Raw [Grave]

(France/Belgium 2016)

“An animal that has tasted human flesh is not safe.”


To borrow a phrase from Morrissey, meat is murder, which is a lesson that goody-two-shoes strict vegan Justine (Garance Marillier) learns the hard way when she goes away to join her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), at veterinary college. Like a lot of young people away from home for the first time, Justine is lost and wants to fit in. She’s she’s got her work cut out for her: she’s nerdy, sheltered, and a total virgin.

Like a lot of other schools, the upperclassmen at this one have a hazing ritual to break in newbies. It’s pretty aggressive. Prompted by her sister, Justine goes along with it without objection—that is, until she’s pushed to eat raw rabbit kidney (never mind the blood splattered all over her and her “fresh meat” first year classmates). Alexia is the one who ultimately cajoles her to eat it; it’s nasty and it makes Justine sick. Not long after, she develops a gross and severely itchy rash brought on from food poisoning.

Soon, Justine finds herself craving meat. Her impulses are irresistible. First, she eats raw chicken. Then her own hair. Eventually, she works up to human flesh—after developing a fetish for car crashes, of course. As she gives in to her carnivorous urges, her lust for her cute and easygoing gay roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), gets stronger—and Alexia appears to be turning into a greater and greater adversary.

Screenwriter/director Julia Ducournau has a lot on her mind here: peer pressure, body image, sexuality, sibling rivalry, the food we eat. She’s gutsy, and for the most part her risks pay off. It’s not the same story, but Raw has something in common with Goat (, another histrionic college drama that gets at kids, tribalism, and cruelty. Raw is very Lord of the Flies. Ducournau paces the story well and picks interesting things—a bikini wax, a horse being sedated—to make us squirm.

I love Ducournau’s sense of humor: it’s dry, icky, and sadistic. The indignation of Justine’s parents over a piece of sausage in her mashed potatoes when they’re eating in a cafeteria as the film begins brilliantly sets up what follows. Marillier seems to have some fun with her role, playing Justine as a creepy, awkward junkie who maybe bites off more than she can chew. Rumpf has fun with her role, too, playing Alexia as a Heathers-like mean girl. They do a nice job working the love and the hate in their relationship. Smartly, they’re both restrained, carefully steering clear of camp.

Visually, Raw reminds me a lot of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, but it still has its own unique look and feel. There are a lot well done scenes here—one under Justine’s sheets, another on a campus plaza with a horde of students moving like zombies, and another at a rave in a morgue all stand out in my mind. Cinematographer Ruben Impens uses lots of bright colors that work nicely with all the dim light to make the school look like a nightmare or a drug trip. There’s a definite sense of this not being real.

Raw is bloody and gory, but nothing here made me want to pass out or call an ambulance  ( I liked it, but I have one beef: I wish it was a little less predictable.

With Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux, Thomas Mustin, Jean-Louis Sbille

Production: Frakas Productions, Petit Film, Rouge International, Wild Bunch, Canal+, Ciné+, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), La Wallonie, Bruxelles Capitale, Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF), VOO, BE TV, Arte/Cofinova 12, Torino Film Lab

Distribution: Wild Bunch (France), O’Brother Distribution (Belgium), Focus World (international), Canibal Networks (Mexico), Cinemien (Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), United International Pictures (UIP) (Singapore), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (UK), Monster Pictures (Australia)

99 Minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B-

The Brand New Testament [Le tout nouveau testament]

(Belgium/France/Luxembourg 2015)

Joan Osborne once posed the question, “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us?” In Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament, God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a sloppy, angry middle-aged white guy with a very plain wife (Yolande Moreau). They live in a dark apartment in Brussels, where He works from home (she’s a homemaker with a thing for collecting baseball cards). His job is pretty easy: to heap misery onto the human race, which He watches over on a computer in a room with a card catalog that stretches to the sky. God’s preteen daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne), is not impressed with Him or His arrogant, authoritarian, and sadistic ways. Inspired by her brother “JC” (David Murgia), who tells her how to get out of the apartment through the washing machine, Ea hatches a plan to revise the way things work and hopefully make the world a better place: while Our Father is asleep on the couch, she sends a text message to everyone on Earth that reveals the date and exact time of their death, locks God’s computer, and runs away from home in search of six apostles to tell their stories—the Brand New Testament.

This film could have made a weighty statement, but it doesn’t. Instead, The Brand New Testament, executed with a hefty dose of fantasy and fabulism, is a fluffy affair. While all six apostles lack something—love, passion, an arm—they’re comical despite their sadness. Some of their subplots are better than others, particularly Aurélie (Laura Verlinden), a beautiful woman with a secret, and Willy (Romain Gelin), a young boy with cancer who wants to be a girl. Catherine Deneuve plays a neglected and bored housewife, and it’s truly surreal to see her in a role where she gets fucked by a street gigolo (Bilal Aya) and ends up leaving her husband (Johan Leysen) for a gorilla (Kiko Mirales). That’s right, a gorilla. Clever Biblical references, especially to the numbers 12 and 18, are generously sprinkled throughout the script. There’s even a point in here about gender politics. For all its charms, though, The Brand New Testament is a much better concept than a finished product.

112 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) C

Strike a Pose

(Belgium/Netherlands 2016)

It’s no secret that Madonna’s Truth or Dare occupies a special place in my heart ( ). As ladies with an attitude or fellas that were in the mood, the dancers are a big reason why; all seven young guys proved to be more than incidental eye candy, each adding considerable spirit not just to the film but to the tour—and arguably Madonna’s persona. Strike a Pose shows where they are now, which isn’t necessarily pretty but certainly isn’t all that bad.

Directors Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan get into the past and even dig up a little dirt, like the lawsuits some of the dancers filed after Truth or Dare came out. Thankfully, they don’t spend a lot of time on either. Instead, they focus on what exactly working with Madonna during such a pivotal time in her career brought to each of their lives, for better or for worse. What each dancer ultimately ended up doing isn’t as interesting as the subtext, which suggests that it was all an illusion.

As one might expect, some of the dancers at least on the surface have done better than others. Salim “Slam” Gauwloos, Luis Camacho, and Kevin Stea are working choreographers (Stea also got into deejaying and recently even recorded an album). Carlton Wilborn, the only one who toured with Madonna again after Blond Ambition, published a biography and is now a life coach. Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza lives with his mother in her apartment in New York. Oliver Crumes is married and possibly disabled—it’s not entirely clear, but that’s what I deduced. Sadly, Gabriel Trupin died in 1995 (which I already knew). His mother, Sue, has a lot to say about his role in Truth or Dare.

As a huge Madonna fan, Strike a Pose did not reveal much that I didn’t already know. That said, one thing that blew me away was that three of the dancers knew they were HIV-positive during the tour, yet none of them said anything about it. I’m not judging—anyone who made it through the “crisis years” of AIDS understands why. Still, it’s sad that not even someone as big and unfazed as Madonna, who gave a poignant speech about Keith Haring and featured a gay kiss in her tour documentary, was capable of creating a safe space then. Things have changed.

It’s easy to write off Strike a Pose as a lame attempt by minor players to milk their 15 minutes of fame, but I didn’t find them to come off that way. Not at all. Each seems sincerely okay with where he is, which is great. None of them plug any current projects. If anything, the focus is on what one does after the lights dim. Each of them has faced demons—drugs, disease, career obstacles. In fact, Camacho suggests that they are all responsible in one way or another for forcing Madonna to back away from them.

None of the dancers are as fierce as they were 25 years ago; this didn’t bother me because frankly I’m not, either. Watching Strike a Pose feels like meeting up with some friends you haven’t seen in a long time. If there’s one thing I learned from this documentary, it’s that Truth or Dare touched a lot more people than I thought. The one thing that would’ve been nice: Madonna showing up.

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Carlton Wilborn.

83 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B-

Chicago International Film Festival

Two Days, One Night [Deux jours, une nuit]

(Belgium 2014)

Two Days, One Night—that’s all the time factory worker Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has to save her job. On the weekend before her return to work after a leave due to depression, she learns her coworkers are casting votes on Monday to decide her fate—management devised a scheme to eliminate her position. She makes a humiliating sojourn visiting each coworker one by one to persuade them to relinquish their bonuses so she can remain on the payroll. Along the way, Sandra sees the best and worst of humanity, herself, and the impact that one’s choices have on others.

For a simple story, Two Days, One Night is full of suspense and commentary on economics and class. It has a quiet way of keeping one on the edge of his seat.

(Music Box) A-