Loveless [Nelyubov]

(Russia 2017)

With his 2014 film Leviathan [Leviafan] [Левиафан] (, director Andrey Zvyagintsev presented a glum picture of a city in decline. He continues on that trajectory with Loveless [Nelyubov] [Нелюбовь], a glum picture of a family falling apart.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in the midst of a nasty divorce. Still winding down their marriage, both have moved on: Zhenya spends nights with her boyfriend (Andris Keišs) and Boris is expecting a baby with his girlfriend (Marina Vasilyeva). The problem of their introverted and sad 12-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), their only child, prevents them from turning the page. Neither wants custody, and they bicker over it. Constantly. He hears it all.

One morning when she gets home, Zhenya gets a call from Alexey’s teacher: he hasn’t been to school in two days. No one has seen him. He seems to have vanished. The police aren’t helpful, dismissing the matter as a case of a runaway who will be back in a few days. Frankly, Zhenya and Boris have been absobed by their own affairs and haven’t noticed Alexey much lately. They hire a group of volunteers to trace his steps and find him.

Loveless is an improvement over Leviathan, which was also a good film. Partnering again with Oleg Negin on the screenplay, the pace here is better and the story is a lot more engaging. No love is to be found here, and the adults are why. Shallow and selfish, they’re incapable or maybe just uninterested in seeing how their own toxicity adds to a bad situation. I have the impression that nothing changes at the end of the ordeal.

Spivak’s coldheartedness is chilling, and it’s hard to listen to her admit in one scene that having Alexey was a mistake and she should’ve had an abortion. Her mother (Natalya Potapova) — Alexey’s grandmother — is even worse. Novikov is another standout, bawling quietly behind a bathroom door or letting a tear stream down his cheek as he doesn’t eat his breakfast. Cinematograpger Mikhail Krichman, who gave Leviathan its crisp gloomy grey, does the same here, but somehow makes the whole thing look even bleaker.

With Aleksey Fateev, Sergey Dvoinikov, Artyom Zhigulin, Evgeniya Dmitrieva, Natalia Vinokurova, Djan Badmaev, Yanina Hope, Maksim Stoyanov, Denis Tkachev, Yuriy Mirontsev, Oleg Grisevich, Aleksandr Sergeev, Varvara Shmykova

Production: Non-Stop Productions, Why Not Productions, Fetisoff Illusion, Senator Film Produktion, Les Films du Fleuve, Arte France Cinéma, Eurimages, ARTE France, Canal+, Cine+, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Wild Bunch

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics (USA), Altitude Film Entertainment (UK), Pyramide Distribution (France), Academy Two (Italy), Golem Distribución (Spain), Alpenrepublik Filmverleih (Germany), Wild Bunch (Germany), Cinemien (Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Against Gravity (Poland), Albatros Film (Japan), The Klockworx (Japan), Star Channel Movies (Japan)

127 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

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


(USA / UK / France / Netherlands 2017)

I have mixed feelings about Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Dunkirk, a World War II military drama that has very little to do with battle. Told from three perspectives — land (“the mole”), sea, and air — the story here centers on an evacuation, that of British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, a fishing village in northern France at the Belgian border, over a ten-day period in late Spring 1940 (

I have to admit ignorance here: I knew nothing about the Dunkirk evacuation going into this film. Nolan doesn’t spend any time on background or what led to this point; instead, he just picks up with British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) fleeing German fire outside the beach. I wish I had known ahead of time because I would have done some research. I thought a better job could have been done telling the story.

The structure, jumping between the three perspectives, takes a little work to follow. What exactly is going on is unclear and confusing, and it creates a nice sense of claustrophobia and panic in many scenes — especially that boat scene. This is good. However, keeping track of the characters is a tough task not made any easier by giving all the soldiers the exact same black hair dye. I found it hard to relate to or care much about any of them because I was kept at arm’s length. I couldn’t get invested. While definitely not the same story, Dunkirk is a kind of a big budget Son of Saul — just not as good.

As a spectacle, though, Dunkirk is magnificent. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot it on 70 millimeter film, and he packs this picture with gorgeous wide shots of the beach, the sea, and throngs of desperate soldiers. He beautifully captures the hopelessness of the situation with a drab palette of only a few army colors: greens, greys, blues, and cold whites that convey a chill I could see and feel. The sound is over the top loud. If nothing else, Dunkirk is total sensory overload. It’s worth seeing for that alone.

Side note: I’m not sure which is the bigger surprise here — that 1D’s Harry Styles actually isn’t terrible, or that Tom Hardy is hidden under aviator goggles for the entire film. The latter is a bummer. He’s so hot!

With Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine

Production: Syncopy, Warner Brothers, Dombey Street Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Canal+, Ciné+, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)

106 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Music Box) C+

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

Mulholland Dr.

(USA/France 2001)

“No hay banda, il n’est pas d’orchestra. It is all an illusion.”

—The Magician at Club Silencio

The perfect opener for a retrospective on its director, Mulholland Dr. is an inimitable film that’s really hard to write about. You can look for answers online all you want, but even after seeing it multiple times you still don’t know what happens in it.

Not unless you’re David Lynch. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, though.

I’ve seen Mulholland Dr. maybe three times, and I’m not sure. I have my theories. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. Who cares? As with any of Lynch’s best films, the draw to Mulholland Dr. is that it’s a puzzle. He makes you work to solve it, or at least try to. He gives you just enough to go on but leaves the whole thing open to interpretation. At points, he gets you so frustrated, you lose patience and you hate him. But you don’t want him to stop. It’s artistic sadomasochism.

What began as a project for television is a mystery mindfuck tailored to the big screen. Dreamlike, hypnotic, and erotic, Mulholland Dr. is visually demanding and aesthetically worth every minute. The premise is deceptively simple: perky and wide-eyed blond actress Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood and bumps into beautiful young brunette Rita (Laura Harring), who can’t remember who she is after a car accident on Mulholland Drive.

As the two set out looking for clues to Rita’s identity, Lynch throws in a bunch of random characters, muddled subplots, and perplexing events. The narrative arc he puts us on comes to an abrupt halt with a small blue box the girls acquire at a night club. This is where Lynch pulls the rug out from under us.

Mulholland Dr. is definitely a love story—one fraught with competition, petty jealousies, one-upmanship, and ultimately murder. Lynch’s trademark sense of humor flickers here and there, but this is still dark stuff. I see Mulholland Dr. as a denouncement of Hollywood and all its ruthless superficiality. It’s a town that eats you up and spits you out.

Motifs of filmmaking, commerce, ego, vision, and of course the color blue stand out. Rebekah Del Rio’s performance of “Llorando” is beautifully forlorn and eerie. I would be remiss not to mention Peter Deming’s cinematography, which makes Mulholland Dr. shine.

Sadly, Lynch hasn’t done a proper film since 2006. He’s the one living filmmaker whose work I miss the most. Mulholland Dr. is a testament to why: like the street where it takes its name, this film is twisting, treacherous, and ultimately breathtaking.

With Jeanne Bates, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe, Patrick Fischler, Michael Cooke, Bonnie Aarons, Michael J. Anderson, Ann Miller, Angelo Badalamenti, Dan Hedaya, Daniel Rey, Justin Theroux, David Schroeder, Robert Katims, Marcus Graham, Tom Morris, Melissa George, Mark Pellegrino, Vincent Castellanos, Rena Riffel, Michael Des Barres, Lori Heuring, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tad Horino, Missy Crider, Melissa Crider, Tony Longo, Geno Silva, Katharine Towne, Lee Grant, Lafayette Montgomery, Kate Forster, James Karen, Chad Everett, Wayne Grace, Rita Taggart, Michele Hicks, Michael Weatherred, Michael Fairman, Johanna Stein, Richard Green, Conti Condoli, Lyssie Powell, Scott Coffey

Production: Les Films Alain Sarde, Asymmetrical Productions, Babbo Inc., Canal+, The Picture Factory

Distribution: Universal Pictures

147 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

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-


(France 2016)

Director Paul Verhoeven’s Elle doesn’t sound like a comedy: the central event of the film is a rape—a bloody, violent one at that. In fact, it’s the very first scene. Strangely, the opening credits warn us that what we are seeing is “a French comedy.” Really? I guess that explains it!

Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her dining room by a man in a ski mask while her green-eyed cat watches, detached and seemingly bored. China is smashed, furniture is toppled, blood is shed. After he leaves, Michèle cleans up the mess and resumes her life, ordering sushi delivery—a “holiday roll,” no less.

As the film proceeds, we learn a lot about Michèle. She’s the daughter of a famous mass murderer approaching parole. She’s a ballbusting owner of a video game company. Her staff, entirely young and male, either wants to sleep with her or murder her. Her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), is totally whipped by a shrew (Alice Isaaz) who’s pregnant with a baby that clearly isn’t his. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is involved with a younger yoga instructor (Vimala Pons). Her mother (Judith Magre) is a high maintenance piece of work who carries on with men a third her age. Meanwhile, Michèle is having an affair with with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her business partner (Anne Consigny).

Things get dicey when Michèle develops a thing for her neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a handsome banker married to a devout Catholic (Virginie Efira) who apparently won’t fuck him. Their flirtation messes with her head as she tries to figure out who raped her. She’s surrounded by men, and every one of them is suspect.

David Birke’s screen adaption of Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… is, in a word, warped. Elle plays with power, desire, sex, and of all things sympathy. Consistent with its character—a constant switcheroo you don’t know whether to trust or look away from—it’s not a sad affair. To the contrary, it’s daring, thrilling, irreverent, and totally fun. It shouldn’t work—I found myself questioning whether I should enjoy the film as much as I did—but it does. The execution of both the plot and the characters is clever—and Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography, which nicely illustrates the psychological drama here, is flawless. If nothing else, Elle is a visually stunning film.

Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” plays at various points in Elle, suggesting a lot of contradictory things. I took it as ironic more than anything. Elle is not for everyone, but it’s a powerful statement for those who can handle it—the perfect film for Valentine’s Day.

With Lucas Prisor, Raphaël Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Hugo Conzelmann

Production: SBS Productions, Pallas Film, France 2 Cinéma, Entre Chien et Loup, Canal+, France Télévisions, Orange Cinéma Séries, Casa Kafka Pictures, Proximus, Centre National de la Cinématographie, Filmförderungsanstalt

Distribution: SBS Distribution

130 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+