Tag: vincent cassel


Underwater (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Following the destruction of a massive underwater drill station, the remaining survivors (Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick) decide that their only hope for survival is to walk across the seafloor for about a mile and reach an abandoned station where escape pods can be employed to transport them to the surface. The goal is clear and the premise is straightforward, so it is no surprise that “Underwater” is able to capture the viewers’ attention right from the get-go. It proves to be another challenge, however, to keep our attention. It is most disappointing that the picture ends up adopting the usual tricks of modern horror movies in order to generate reaction: shaking the camera, obfuscating the action, turning the audio way up. It suffers from diminishing returns.

The funny thing is, an argument can be made that the elements cited above need not be utilized at all. There is already something inherently creepy about living and working in an underwater facility where is no day and night cycle. Hallways tend to look the same. At times the only thing that can be heard are the beeping of machines. When the movie plays it quiet, it is when its star, Kristen Stewart, who plays Norah the mechanical engineer, shines like a candle in the dark. It is without question that she shines in introspective roles. When we meet Norah, the sadness about her is almost palpable—despite an off-putting narration. Stewart’s approach is to play a dramatic character in a disaster movie that just so happens to be a monster flick, too. It could have been a killer amalgamation.

But the screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozard is only somewhat interested in our heroine’s inner turmoil. And so little connection, if any, is established between Norah and the dismantling of the drilling facility as well as Norah and the ancient, eye-less deep sea monsters with terrifying teeth and mini-talons along their tentacles. As expected in disaster flicks, the survivors perish one by one—dry, formulaic, tiresome. It also embraces a cliché that I find to be most intolerable: attempting to drag a useless, emotionally fragile character to the finish line. Nobody wants to watch a weakling take up space, especially when everyone around this character so desperately wishes to survive the ordeal.

Showing the station falling apart from the outside does not look impressive. Structures falling on top of one another, for example, appears to be made by a cheap computer program. Perhaps it is due to the presence of underwater debris; it is so thick that we are required to squint in order to appreciate finer details. Meanwhile, the monsters are hit-or-miss. There is a marginally effective sequence in which a creature is placed on a table and one of the survivors attempts to examine it. At one point, she actually touches it with her bare hands. But when these creatures are shown underwater, feelings of dread and horror are lessened. Maybe it is because the filmmakers decide to show them far too often to the point where mystery is no longer present.

There is a simplicity and a directness to the film that can be appreciated. But the longer one observes and peels through the layers, it becomes glaringly obvious there isn’t much there. Even its awkward attempts at humor is wan; there is not one memorable line. When the clownish character, who we are supposed to like, faces mortal danger, we feel nothing toward the threat; we simply accept the idea that characters must drop like flies before the third act. While tolerable overall, the movie fails to offer a consistently captivating experience.


Trance (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

The heist, needless to say, does not go as planned. During the chaos amidst toxic fumes and people rushing to the egress, Simon (James McAvoy) was supposed to peacefully hand a multimillion pound painting to Franck (Vincent Cassel). Instead, Simon attacks Franck which leads to the former being struck on the head with a gun. Meanwhile, the latter thinks he has gotten away with the painting, but when he actually opens the container in his hideout, it is empty. Simon, now considered a hero by the media for attempting to stop the thief, is not better off. Because of the hard blow to the head, he cannot seem to remember where he hid the painting.

“Trance,” written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, is surprisingly successful given that it has a myriad twists and turns where some of the answers remain vague for the most part. It could have been just another gimmicky heist picture where not one character can be trusted, but underneath it all is a passion for storytelling. Red herrings are aplenty but the material actually welcomes us to want to get to know the deceitful people on screen.

It runs from its cage at breakneck pace without being incomprehensible. It is a challenge to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle fit together but they are all there so we do not feel cheated. In particular, I enjoyed trying to figure out which courses of action the characters may regret later. It is an engaging thriller because it sticks with the template that when something is going right a little too much or if getting something seems too easy, you get an uneasy feeling that it will all fall apart in a matter of seconds. Even though we expect them, the pitfalls hold excitement.

The three leads—McAvoy, Cassel, and Rosario Dawson as a psychologist who has been hired to induce hypnosis on Simon in order to help him remember the location of the painting—look appealing on camera and share good chemistry. They play their respective characters with a level of mystique and sex appeal which makes them dangerous. And because we are made to understand that they each have an endgame, one relying on smarts over violence (or vice-versa) over others, we are curious who will come out on top. Who should is an entirely different question.

Some may be repelled with the director’s techniques. He has the tendency to put too much on screen that it ends up distracting at times. For example, there are scenes running together—one involves the reality of the hypnotherapy and the other takes a look into Simon’s fantasy—which are coupled with music that demands attention as well as a gamut of colors where certain shots look like they ought to be framed and put in an exhibit. While the director is no stranger to playing with kaleidoscopic media, sometimes simplicity is the best approach. There is merit to claims that the picture can be overwhelming at times.

Directed by Danny Boyle, “Trance” requires complete attention to be understood. Even so, that still may not be enough to see how all the pieces fit together. There is great energy emanating from and within the twisty events and so entertainment value remains consistent.

Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

“Jason Bourne,” written by Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, is like a mediocre greatest hits collection in that it plucks a few of the best elements from the excellent first three films and repackages them in a less inspiring way. While a smile was drawn on my face upon seeing Matt Damon playing the enigmatic title character after ten years, the writing does not offer enough good reasons to get viewers to invest once again in the bone-crunching journey of the amnesiac assassin.

The plot is propelled by an ally, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), hacking into U.S. government files and discovering that Bourne’s father was involved in establishing Operation Treadstone, CIA’s black ops program where recruits are trained to become highly effective assassins. Although Bourne has learned that he signed up for the program voluntarily, there is new evidence that perhaps Bourne, previously named David Webb, was in fact manipulated to join. Meanwhile, the CIA director, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), is preparing to launch a similar hitman program named Iron Hand and requires the help of a young entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) in order to spy on the users who use his technology.

There is only one standout action sequence and it is shown early in the picture. It takes place during a night riot in Athens, Greece where Parsons and Bourne decide to meet so the former can inform the latter what she has found. Great tension is eventually established because director Greengrass’ handheld technique is married with the increasingly violent protest while Bourne and company weave themselves in and out of tricky situations. We get the impression we are participants in, not merely viewers of, the action. The sequence reaches its peak when Parsons and Bourne, on a motorcycle, are chased by an assassin (Vincent Cassel) in a car. Extremely sharp turns, teeth-chattering stairs, and pedestrians appear to be everywhere.

I enjoyed that the hitman this time around is relevant from the beginning till the end of the picture. In previous films, they are disposed of during the second or right before the third act—and so we expect the same to happen here. Cassel has always had a knack for playing cold, lethal men—and he is rock solid here—but an argument can be made that the asset could have been a more effective and memorable villain given his role in the new information Parson has come upon. The duel between Bourne and the asset is appropriately brutal but expected.

The final action sequence in Las Vegas becomes more disappointing the longer one thinks about it because such lack of realism has no place in the Bourne movies where less is often more. The vehicular chase down the Strip is similar to that of the later “Fast and the Furious” films in terms of its excessiveness to the point of disbelief. While such an approach works for that franchise, it does not work here. Compare the Vegas chase to the Moscow chase in Greengrass’ “The Bourne Supremacy.” It is clear that latter is much better in framing the action and translating the balance between suspense and thrills.

While still classier than many action-thrillers to come out of Hollywood, being passably entertaining is not good enough for this franchise because the bar is set so high. The acting and technical elements like camerawork, use of score, and editing are in a good place, but the writing is a big disappointment, failing to inspire itself and despite itself.

Mesrine: Public Enemy #1

Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

A big commotion ensues when France’s most wanted criminal, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is shot to death in his BMW while on his way to leave the country with his girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier). Jumping back to 1973, Mesrine is apprehended for robbing two banks that happen to be right across from one another. For the sake of time, the plan is to rob only one. However, Mesrine just cannot overlook such a golden opportunity to hit the system, one he considers to be corrupt and evil, where it hurt.

“Mesrine: Public Enemy #1,” written by Abdel Raouf Dafri, turns its focus on robbing banks, chases, and narrow escapes which, in theory, should have provided a sense of excitement. While the material manages to deliver some thrills via reaching a synergy of imagery and score, these jolts of intense emotions are not enough for the film to stand on its own. It is unfortunate because the struggle in making Mesrine a complex figure is almost palpable.

On one hand, there are some interesting scenes which argue that despite Mesrine’s actions, he is very human and capable of feeling. A most moving scene is arguably the one shared between the imprisoned criminal and the daughter he never had the chance to raise and get to know. The way Mesrine looks her child, now on the verge of adulthood, after years of not laying eyes on her commands a power that goes far beyond a rain of bullets piercing through metals and body parts. When he looks at her, his gaze is so sensitive yet piercing, I felt as if he sees her very soul, their differences to be celebrated, and that he is almost proud she is not like him.

On the other hand, Mesrine’s personal politics is executed vaguely at its best and confusingly at its worst. Although we are given a chance to observe and listen to his fiery reactions when he is, for example, misrepresented on the newspapers or, worse, not mentioned at all, not once does the writing really delve into the psychology in terms of why he wishes to subvert the system so badly.

Although Cassel’s acting is sublime, the subtleties in the writing are not as consistently present so the performer is dragged down along with it. Instead, the priority seems to be on the colorful characters that work with Mesrine. For instance, there is François Besse (Mathieu Amalric), an inmate that Mesrine befriends to help him escape and eventual partner in stealing from banks. The duo are able to work together but since the scenes they share are choppy at times, there is very little dramatic build-up which then causes their schism to feel more like a device to advance the plot rather than a friendship or partnership that changes something in Mesrine as a person and a symbol of society’s id run amok.

Furthermore, I was at a loss on why Broussard (Olivier Gourmet), the police commissioner in charge of capturing Mesrine, is even introduced since the filmmakers decided to give him so little screen time. In the end, Broussard is shown running toward Mesrine as he is about to be shot to death. He comes across like a joke, similar to those cops in horror movies where they arrive a minute too late.

“L’ennemi public n°1,” directed by Jean-François Richet, could have been more effective and challenging if it had dug more deeply into Mesrine as a person. It is usually more difficult to make an audience to identify with a “bad person” than to get wrapped up in the sensationalized “bad things” he did. The film often rests on the latter just when things are about to get interesting.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

In 1979, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) and a woman he was with were ambushed and killed by the French police. Jumping to the 1950s in the middle of the Franco-Algerian War, we observe Mesrine partake in a violent interrogation in which he is eventually ordered to shoot a woman in the head. Once discharged, he returns to his hometown to live with his parents. Although his father has secured him a respectable job, Mesrine instead chooses to work for the local mob, led by a man named Guido (Gérard Depardieu).

Based on the book by none other than the subject of the film, although “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is occasionally elevated by nail-biting scenes, it is only partially successful in creating a portrait of a deeply complicated man. This shortcoming can partly be attributed to the mishandling of time jumps. A handful of them pass after a blink of an eye—without having a chance to build up, punch through, and show why that specific time in Mesrine’s life is a high point or a low point. I wrinkled my brows and wondered what the picture is attempting to communicate or achieve.

Conversely, certain time periods that seem to go on forever, aimless, its ideas are recycled continuously to the point of tedium. For example, there is a hold-up, followed by a quick celebration, then the attention turns to the negative aspect of the occupation. After, Mesrine feels the itch to do another job and steal more money. Rinse and repeat. When the pacing slows down, we cannot help but suspect that script has run out of ideas.

At times, the picture focuses on what makes Mesrine vulnerable through the women in his life. There is Sarah (Florence Thomassin), a prostitute with whom he considers his lover; Sofia (Elena Anaya), a gorgeous Spanish woman who gave birth to his three children; and Jeanne (Cécile De France), a woman not unlike himself, deeply connected to crime. Whenever the main character is next to the opposite sex, it is almost like watching an invisible wall melt. Whether the interactions take a form of flirtations in a bar, dancing to some spicy music, or just being at home, it feels refreshing to see because we feel his struggle between leading a life that is expected of him versus a life that quenches the thrill of being in a position of power.

His search for domination is nicely tethered to the way he sees his father (Michel Duchaussoy): a good man but is often a doormat. Unfortunately, for every scene that looks more into Mesrine’s personal life, there are four or five scenes of him being showcased as a tough guy with a gun accompanied by powerful glares.

Mesrine might not have been a lot of things, like a good father or a good husband, most might even consider him a bad person, but, as the film suggests, he is a man of his word. Somehow, even though it made me somewhat uncomfortable, I found myself respecting that part of him. I believe that admiration is one of the reasons why I constantly wanted to see him do good even though he is already neck-deep in criminal records.

Written by Abdel Raouf Dafri and directed by Jean-François Richet, “L’instinct de mort,” sometimes romanticized but often gritty, requires smoother transitions of its subject’s life events. At its worst, instead of the dramatic tension pouring over one another from one year to the next until the inevitable flood, tension is drained after each year and the material begins from scratch.


Irreversible (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Every once in a while a movie comes along and dares to ask what violence means to us. It is likely that my definition of the word–the broad, the specific, and its implications–will differ from yours and others’. Great movies does not define the word for you and me. Instead, it treats the subject in a serious manner–with insight and enough room to question and consider. Although “Irréversible,” written and directed by Gaspar Noé, is criticized for being morally reprehensible for not knowing where to draw the line in terms of showing different kinds of violence–threats, a murder, a woman being raped–it has artistic value because inflicting pain–physical, psychological, emotional–is never the final destination.

The story is told in reverse chronological order. We observe just above the Rectum, a gay sex club, where one man is arrested and the other is taken to the back of the ambulance in a stretcher. People throw profanities at them. We learn that Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) are together because they are looking for a man responsible for raping a woman named Alex (Monica Belluci). Earlier, they see her being taken away, covered in blood. One of the medical personnel says she is in a coma. Marcus is inconsolable and Pierre is barely able to keep the rabid dog in chains.

Noé’s camerawork has verve. In order to add to the immediacy of the mystery, the first third is comprised of rather dizzying movements. It is almost as if the camera is placed on a fly that is looking for something alluring to land on or on a leaf being carried by conflicting winds. When it is more settled, it mimics the movement we feel when floating on water. The decision to keep the camera moving allows us to absorb the mood of each scene.

Particularly impressive is the scene involving Marcus and Pierre looking for a man named Le Tenia inside a sex club. Their desperate search is almost like looking into a nightmare, a dungeon or a house of horrors where pain meets pleasure. As people inside engage in all sorts of sexual gratification, their faces and bodies are bathed in yellow, orange, and red against the black. While we can clearly hear the moans of hedonism against Marcus’ increasing anger (and Pierre’s increasingly desperate suggestions that they leave), we see only glimpses of the orgies and bizarre fetishes. It is meant to be an assault to the senses. We are supposed to be confused, like the naked people suddenly being pulled by Marcus to answer some questions, and, in a way, afraid, like Pierre recognizing that he and Marcus are out of their element.

The rape scene is meant to be ugly. Unlike the earlier technique that involves the camera moving about, this time it is as still as a corpse. When the woman is pinned to the ground on a ventral position and the assailant thrusts in and out of her, aroused by his power, the camera does not blink or flinch. The woman gets several kicks in the face and then on her body. She is then punched several times. Finally, he proceeds to smash her face on the floor. I wanted to look away but didn’t; the entire thing made my limbs feel weak. I felt sick about it. And angry–not because of what Noé chooses to show but due to what is happening to the woman. I found myself relating to Marcus’ rage. It took me back to a time where I would allow myself to get so angry, the more people I upset just so they could feel a smidgen of how I felt, the better. Yes, it is a choice.

What I admired most about “Irreversible” is the shift in the way we evaluate the characters. During the first half, we see and define them through what they do. In the second half, we understand them a little bit through the things they say and how they are like in good company. There is a shocking difference between the way a night starts and the manner in which it ends. The writer-director’s choice to tell his story backwards inspires us to think about our immediate reactions with respect to each scene and then later as a whole when we have all the facts.

Black Swan

Black Swan (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) was a ballet dancer who was chosen to play the lead role, the White Swan and the Black Swan, by the director (Vincent Cassel) in the upcoming performance of “Swan Lake.” However, although Nina had mastery in terms of technique and grace which were perfect in fully embodying the White Swan, she didn’t know how to let go of control so that, as the Black Swan, she could successfully generate enough anger and edge to leave the audiences breathless. Lily (Mila Kunis) had what Nina did not. Nina began to suspect that she was going to be replaced by the director and slowly she began her descent into madness. Darren Aronofsky fascinates me as a director. I know many disagree with me but I think he has yet to create a masterpiece. But this a good thing because I’ve noticed that he continues to evolve. Aronofsky does a wonderful job establishing a certain look and feel as he did in this film because he had concocted the right amount of realism and fantastic imagery. Blend it with a person on the verge of a psychological breakdown and we’ve got a chilling examination of a character physically pushing herself to her absolute limit. Nina wanted perfection and she had to pay a price. Portman should be commended for her dedication. I knew she was an actress of many talents with a chameleon-like approach in enveloping herself in her roles but I’ve never seen her so sensual and dangerous. Even with the complex dance sequences with booming music and dancers making their way across the screen, I was drawn to her face because the subtlety in her expressions made me wonder what was going on inside Nina’s mind. Sure, pain was involved but I wondered if she enjoyed it, too. The film reached its peak when Nina eventually couldn’t discern what was real and what wasn’t. Since we saw the story through her eyes, we also couldn’t tell reality from fantasy. It was a scary experience especially when she began to see paintings taunting her about her confusion and when she thought she had committed murder and felt the need to hide the body. The last few minutes were a barrage to the senses, completely in a good way, and I was left staring at the screen as the final shot fade to white. I was mesmerized and it left me wanting more. “Black Swan” was an intense experience but I wish it spent more time tying up loose ends between Nina and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey). There was an undercurrent of sexual repression inside their apartment which reminded me of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” It begged the question what really drove Nina off the edge: the endless hours of practice or the endless nagging from her mother. Most would say it was both but I believe one factor was more influential than the other. If the director had spent more time highlighting trends between the two worlds, “Black Swan” would have been his best work.

La haine

La haine (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★

“La haine” stars Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui as a Jew, an African and an Arab, respectively, who come from the nonglamorous side of Parisian neighborhood. The premise of the film was essentially following the three characters in a span of a day–after a riot in which one of their friends was sent to the hospital–so we could see how they juggled the internal and external violence that faced them. I was impressed with this film because it dealt with the characters in painfully realistic ways without being too heavy-handed or a stereotypical “being in one’s shoes for a day” story. The three friends were so angry to the point where they couldn’t help but stir trouble wherever they ended up. Their personalities were explosive and unpredictable but just when we thought we had them all figured out, the material surprised us. It then begged the question of whether they could rise above the place where they came from; I could see that they wanted to change and that they were tired of having to be (or trying to be) tough all the time. It was the subtle scenes in which the characters expressed their concerns and sadness about where their lives were heading that gripped me until the very intense and memorable final scene. Even though there were a lot of meaningless fights and funny scenes at someone’s expense, I enjoyed the quiet moments when they would just sit on the train and not talk to each other or when they would just visit an empty shopping mall in the middle of the night. As alienated as they were, their frustrations didn’t hinder them from trying to live even if the paths they’ve chosen were roads that we necessarily would not want for them to take. Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, he really had a knack for playing with the camera and delivering unique shots when something crucial was unfolding before our (and the characters’) eyes. He wasn’t afraid to take some risks and they paid off handsomely; the decision to shoot the film in simple black and white complemented the complex social problems (that we sometimes see in black and white) that the picture tackled head-on. Ultimately a movie about acceptance and corruption, “La haine,” also known as “Hate,” showed that a material does not need to be obvious or touching for it to teach a lesson about urban life. In some ways, the tone and focus somewhat reminded me of the unforgettable “Trainspotting,” only “La haine” was far less manic and more serious in its approach.