Friday, October 24, 2014

FURY

War is hell, goes the saying we've all heard so many times. But screenwriter David Ayer's fifth - and finest - feature as director is intent on saying it in a more visceral, blunt way, without pulling any punches just because there's a Hollywood star top-lining its cast.

     Entirely set in and around an American tank in the final stretch of World War II, as the Allied push into Berlin meets fanatical, desperate resistance, Fury is part classic platoon picture about men under pressure, part acute character study of men in war, but is notable for refusing the standard war-movie heroics, replaced by a disenchanted, downbeat tone.

     Mr. Ayer, who served in the American Navy submarine service, is clearly fascinated by the dynamics of male bonding and the pressure involved in snap decisions on edgy situations, blurring the line between right and wrong; he came to prominence with his script for Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, and his work as both screenwriter (The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue) and director (Street Kings, End of Watch) betrays his fascination with the close-quarters push-and-pull of men on a mission.

     Fury encapsulates all of his recurring themes in a script that is very redolent of Training Day, with a newcomer being taught the ropes of a job that turns out much harder and tougher to swallow than he could have expected. Here, it's the coming of age of Norman Ellison (an excellent Logan Lerman), a pool typist parachuted into a veteran tank crew who has just lost one of its gunners and who has survived against all odds in a branch with a high death rate due to the many structural weaknesses of American tanks, especially when up against the technically superior German vehicles.

     For the inexperienced Norman, the next few days are going to be a rude awakening, the realities of violent conflict encroaching on him as Mr. Ayer telescopes the experience of war into a heightened, dazed, bloody blur. Only base survival instincts and nimbleness will keep you alive, but Norman also has to prove himself to a crew that has been hardened and numbed by war.

     The director is particularly attentive to the group dynamics between the crew, led by the tough, no-nonsense Don Collier aka "Wardaddy" (Brad Pitt), one of those leaders men will follow into hell in the knowledge he will do his damnedest to bring them back alive. Mr. Pitt is excellent here in the elegant ballet between toughness and vulnerability the part requires, as a man who will stop at nothing to fulfill his mission but works hard at not letting the desperation and fear show, even though he will occasionally let his guard down when no one - except maybe his enemies - is looking.

     The relationship between Collier and Norman develops as a sort of "tough love" upbringing of an innocent, naïf young man by a father wanting to prepare him for the worst. Mr. Pitt's performance anchors the film with a rich, protean multiplicity of readings: parent, best friend, confessor, leader, tyrant, boss, savior, huckster.

     Fury is at its best in the claustrophobic but intense close-quarters scenes where the crew — Collier, Norman, latino "Gordo" (Ayer regular Michael Peña), Southern redneck Grady (Jon Bernthal) and devout evangelical Boyd (Shia LaBeouf) — shares more than even they would like to; the film becomes a sort of WWII version of Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, where the tank becomes a microcosm of the world outside in all its contradictions and humanity.

      One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that Mr. Ayer has no interest in either sugarcoating or apologizing for the violence meted out to enemies during World War II. The "Greatest Generation" so often lionized for their role in fighting for freedom is here portrayed, quite realistically, as men dealing with unspeakable horrors and attempting to make sense of the apparent randomness and futility of war, finding what respite they could in the rough camaraderie enjoyed in the few moments of calm between storms.

     That the film has a Fullerian, almost browbeating intensity is a very good thing and a credit to Mr. Ayer. But the writer/director may have over-reached in Fury's final stretch; by drawing the climactic battle out the way he does, what until then had been a punishingly backbreaking sense of workaday resilience gains an overly heroic, symbolic significance that seems to be there to give the audience a respite, and a reason for the all the mayhem that has come before.

     It's a shame, because what makes Fury such a fascinating work to come out of modern Hollywood - even though it was financed independently - is precisely its reluctance to go with standard good-vs-evil fireworks and give a more down to earth, realistic spin to the traditional hero narrative. The ending makes it seem as Mr. Ayer did not find the strength to take it all away; but there's still enough strength left to make sure it was not in vain. And with Fury, David Ayer proves he's more than just a smart screenwriter with a directing jones.

FURY
USA 2014
135 minutes
Cast Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs
Director and screenwriter David Ayer; cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (colour, widescreen); composer Steven Price; designer Andrew Menzies; costumes Owen Thornton; editors Dody Dorn and Jay Cassidy; visual effects Jerome Chen; producers Bill Block, Mr. Ayer, Ethan Smith and John Lesher; production companies QED International, Le Grisbi Productions and Crave Films in association with LStar Capital
Screened October 15th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, October 23, 2014

FADO CAMANÉ

Here's the thing. When you film the recordings of a music album, capturing the doubts, the questions, the essays, the stop-start attempts, the rehearsals, the conversation, how do you make it into an actual, fully-fledged documentary worthy of theatrical presentation and not just one of the standard industry-issue "making of" pieces offered as enticing bonuses to get you to buy the physical disc?

      In the case of Portuguese filmmaker Bruno de Almeida, that difference lies in his visual eye, in his clearly defined vision of a recording session as a group of workers assembling something.

     Fado Camané's grainy, black and white textures and the director's attention to eyes, faces, bodies, physical presences are all about the push and pull of people coming together to manufacture art, though this is manufacture as handicraft, artistic creation as a decision tree that whittles down possibilities.

     Fado Camané is, thus, a singer recording an album - the outstanding Portuguese Fado singer Camané and his 2008 studio album Sempre de Mim - and finding it as he goes along, with the help of the musicians, the recording engineer, the lyricists, the journalists who interview him during the recording, the producer, the cameramen who also interviews him.

     It's also a different beast than the original version of these images as - there you go - a 30-minute "making of" piece included in a limited edition release of the record. The six-year interval between the album's release and the film's completion means this is no shameless plug but rather an exploration of a creative, artistic process as exemplified in a series of recording sessions, a quest for artistic meaning that focuses on personalities and relationships.

     But, for all that, there's a sense that its timelessness is not enough to let Fado Camané carry its weight as a theatrical feature, that the attempt at interspersing theory (the sitdown interview segments) and practice (the actual recordings) is an acknowledgement that there's only so far you can go with this sort of material and you can't really bring nothing new to the table unless you completely reverse the approach - something that wouldn't work with an artist as sober and serious as Camané is.

      Fado Camané is thus a fascinating portrait of the way Camané records, of the way he approaches the songs and of how his musical director and producer José Mário Branco helps him get where he wants to be, smartly if unobtrusively handled by Mr. de Almeida; it is certainly more than just DVD bonus or late-night-slot television, but that doesn't make it more than just a solid, well-made music documentary.

FADO CAMANÉ
Portugal 2014
71 minutes
Director, producer and editor Bruno de Almeida; cinematographer Paulo Abreu (b&w); production companies BA Filmes and Museu do Fado in association with Warner Music Portugal
Screened October 14th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



FADO CAMANÉ de Bruno de Almeida Trailer from Arco Films on Vimeo.

Monday, October 20, 2014

XI YOU (Journey to the West)

The old adage "it's not the destination, it's the journey" is scrupulously followed to the hilt by acclaimed arthouse director Tsai Ming-liang in the series of short- and medium-length films he expanded from ill-received online short Walker, itself inspired by a monologue he staged in Taipei with his acting alter ego Lee Kang-sheng. In all of them, Mr. Lee moves in ultra-slow-motion along bustling city centres, creating a series of haunting and arresting images that follow exactly the director's self-admission that he is a creator of images more than a story-teller, and his desire to produce work that stands in sharp contrast to the speed of modern film and modern life.

     The hour-long Journey to the West is the sixth in the Walker series and takes its title from a classic of Chinese literature about the travels of a Buddhist monk into "the Western regions". The setting for Mr. Lee's zen feat of walking is now the streets of Marseille, and Mr. Tsai gives him a peculiar doppelgänger in the always cinematic presence of French actor Denis Lavant, who becomes a sort of "apprentice" or disciple, their choreographed movements developing into a sort of poetic zen burlesque, halfway between Buster Keaton, Andy Warhol, performance art and Jacques Tati. This analogue slow motion is framed in a suggestive, exquisitely realised series of trompe l'oeil and group long takes (there are only 14 shots in the entire hour-long film, a tour de force by DP Christophe Heberlé) that pretty much require an entirely different approach to the act of viewing — as was indeed the director's concept all along.

     It's worth asking if we're still in the realm of cinema as we knew it - the fact that the Walker series developed from a stage performance and is "travelling" through different places in films of varied length that deliberately shatter the classic story-telling format makes it closer to an artistic project, an art installation, maybe a mixed-media adventure - but either way, there's a glimpse of mischief and of playfulness in the film that you don't always find in Mr. Tsai's more structured features, suggesting his heart may now be in these less conventional works.

XI YOU
France, Taiwan 2013
56 minutes
Cast Lee Kang-sheng, Denis Lavant
Director and screenwriter Tsai Ming-liang; cinematographer Antoine Heberlé (colour); composer Sébastien Mauro; costumes Wang Chia Hui; editor Lei Zhen Qing; producers Vincent Wang and Fred Bellaïche; production companies House on Fire Productions, Neon Productions, Résurgences and Homegreen Film with the participation of ARTE France/La Lucarne
Screened February 9th 2014, Cinestar am Sony Center 3, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama press screening)


Friday, October 17, 2014

THE BABADOOK

First film that came to my mind while watching The Babadook: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay's utterly uncomfortable adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel about a mother trying to deal with an unwanted, unloved son. Second film that came to my mind: Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, because Essie Davis channels almost effortlessly the same fragility and overwhelmed nature as Mia Farrow did in that classic.

     Both are horror stories where the horror is not so much physical or present as it is suggested; they're films where what matters is ambiguous, unspoken, eerily ominous. For most of its length, Australian actress Jennifer Kent's feature directing debut is just such an expert exercise in mood-swinging, about the dark sides of motherhood, straddling a fine line between actual unexplainable phenomena and the hallucinatory manifestations of a troubled mind (or a guilty conscience?).

     Ms. Davis is terrific as Amelia, a frenzied, frazzled nurse at an old people's home who has never truly recovered from the death of her husband in a car crash, just when he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their child. Samuel, now six years old and played with preternatural poise by Noah Wiseman, is needless to say a problem child: he sees monsters all the time, builds monster-destroying weapons for fun, has problems fitting in with kids his age, whether at school or with the few relatives he still sees every now and then.

     Amelia's well-meaning, if ineffective, protectiveness seems to be doing no good to either of them, and a particularly acute crisis is awakened by an eerie book they find at home unaware of its provenance: the dark tale of a bogeyman called The Babadook. And as Samuel starts seeing the Babadook everywhere, an exhausted Amelia, already close to breaking point, starts behaving so oddly and assertively that the strange goings-on in the household become ambiguous. Is there really a sinister presence stalking Amelia and Samuel, or is it just the projection of a mother unable to deal with her demanding child?

     Either way, Ms. Kent handles it with great aplomb, winding the tale with measured, attentive confidence, expertly directing her excellent performers in what is essentially a two-hander, developed from a previous short film where she laid out the concept. The image of a helpless mom who just wishes her loud child would leave her alone for a moment may not be everyone's idea of motherhood, but it's probably closer to the truth than most would admit it - which is precisely why it's a shame that the Babadook as a metaphor for a fear there to be conquered loses its ambiguity in a spectacularly flattening ending that manages to be simultaneously utterly truthful and somewhat treacherous to what's come before (and about which no more shall be said). Not enough to spoil for good the enormous intelligence of Ms. Kent's very auspicious debut, but certainly enough to regret she did not take it as far as it could go.

THE BABADOOK
Australia 2013
93 minutes
Cast Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear
Director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent; cinematographer Radek Ledczuk (colour, widescreen); composer Jed Wurzel; designer Alex Holmes; costumes Heather Wallace; editor Simon Njoo; producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere; production companies Screen Australia and Causeway Films in association with South Australian Film Corporation, Smoking Gun Productions and Entertainment One
Screened October 9th 2014, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, October 16, 2014

LA CHAMBRE BLEUE (The Blue Room)

Blue is definitely not the warmest colour in Mathieu Amalric's fourth theatrical feature as a director. Quite the opposite: it's a cold, insidious, ominous hue that, from the hotel room where everything begins to the courtroom where it all ends, chills Julien Gahyde's life to the bone, chews him up then spits him out into darkness and suffering. All this provincial French maroon did was simply to let himself be seduced by the hypnotising Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), his (now unhappily) married old schoolmate he lusted after in his teens but that only now finally answers to his desires, with deadly results.

     It's film noir, yes, after a fashion, but then again not really; rather, it's Mr. Amalric, probably the finest French actor at work nowadays, exploring the mystery that lies between men and women, the chasm that separates their world views, deployed in a different, less welcoming way that in the previous On Tour (a much more generous movie, but one where his leading character was also struggling, lost in a world seemingly made for women). Here, Julien, played with a sort of shocked disbelief by the director himself, is literally manipulated, buffeted back and forth by the women around him and by the ever greying, windy, wintry weather, without even being aware of (or realising only too late) the equivocal web of deceit being woven around him.

     Woven by whom? That's Mr. Amalric's trick, by using a non-linear, fragmented narration that moves back and forth in time, each new jump revealing a little more of the puzzle in a judiciously planned and highly economical fashion, without wasting a single moment (The Blue Room comes in at a sharp, B-movie-like 75 minutes.) In so doing, the actor/director maintains a strong connection to the source material by celebrated mystery writer Georges Simenon, keeping true to his miniatural, observational style of letting an accumulation of small, apparently minor details slowly build the tale like a foundation inexorably constructed from the bottom up. That also means, however, the film becomes somewhat too clinical and deliberate.

     Unlike, say, David Fincher's much discussed Gone Girl, where the cynicism and disenchantment are at the heart of the plot and perfectly mirrored in the handling, here Mr. Amalric gives us a baffled, cerebral tale anchored in a passive hero that seems only too happy allow himself to be boxed in by fate (not surprisingly, DP Christophe Beaucarne frames it in the old "boxy" Academy ratio); its story of the flaws and faults of provincial bourgeoisie would have been straight up Claude Chabrol's alley, but lacks the gleefully savage satirical twist the late director would have given it. Aiming at the doomed romanticism of traditional noir but never really reaching it, The Blue Room is still a smart, thoughtful film, though not entirely successful.

LA CHAMBRE BLEUE
France 2014
75 minutes
Cast Mathieu Amalric, Léa Drucker, Stéphanie Cléau, Laurent Poitrenaux, Serge Bozon, Blutch
Director Mr. Amalric; screenwriters Ms. Cléau and Mr. Amalric; based on the novel The Blue Room by Georges Simenon; cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne (colour); composer Grégoire Hetzel; designer Christophe Offret; costumes Dorothée Guiraud; editor François Gédigier; producer Paulo Branco; production companies Alfama Films Production, Film(s) and ARTE France Cinéma
Screened October 7th 2014, Medeia Monumental 2 (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN

A film star will never make only great films. That is a given, and it's also one of the consequences of stardom and career management in an industry as dependent on perception and typecasting as Hollywood is. For some reason, the late Robin Williams, one of the most impressive and challenging American stand-up comedians, tended to be typecast in redemptive, saccharine roles that muzzled his quasi-anarchic, free-form comedic talent and underused his range; but when he was given free rein or cast against type in edgier works like Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King or Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo, you glimpsed another, more interesting actor exploring in a virtuoso way the darkness that underlies every comedian.

     His last starring role to open publicly before his death, though barely released without much fanfare, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is an all-star dud that makes ill use of not just Mr. Williams' talents but also of a remarkable cast that includes the great Melissa Leo and Peter Dinklage and brief guest cameos from the likes of Louis CK or James Earl Jones. The problem with this remake of the little-known Israeli film The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum does not lie in the premise: sour, cranky Brooklyn curmudgeon Henry Altmann (Mr. Williams) is diagnosed with a life-threatening condition and decides to make up to his family and friends for his hurtful ways, only to find he may in fact be beyond forgiveness. The problem is that this well-meaning but cringe-inducing riff on A Christmas Carol, with Mr. Williams in the Scrooge role and Mila Kunis as the harried doctor who, flustered by his unpleasantness, blurts out he only has 90 minutes to live, never finds the correct tone to work as either black comedy or family drama.

     Daniel Taplitz's sketchy, unfunny screenplay is signposted by any number of platitudes and mawkish twists that a "he said/she said" voiceover alternating the inner voices of Ms. Kunis and Mr. Williams only makes more banal. But what's most striking is how director Phil Alden Robinson, a screenwriter on his own and the man behind the well-remembered Field of Dreams, handles the whole thing: clumsily, desultorily, as if he was merely a hack-for-hire with no special attraction nor interest in the production. Even the actors seem to be in auto-pilot, seemingly in strictly for the paycheck or as a favour to somebody - and Mr. Williams himself is curiously subdued and one-dimensional in a role that seemed to call for his apoplectic fireworks. Everything in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn suggests a cast and crew going through the motions, unable to salvage an ill-advised enterprise but ploughing through it with whatever dignity they can muster - or whatever dignity the film allows it. And it adds one more film to the list of works that underused the many talents of a superb comedic actor.

THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN
USA, France 2013
83 minutes
Cast Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Peter Dinklage, Melissa Leo
Director Phil Alden Robinson; screenwriter Daniel Taplitz; based on the film The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum written and directed by Assi Dayan; cinematographer John Bailey (colour); composer Mateo Messina; designer Inbal Weinberg; costumes Emma Potter; editor Mark Yoshikawa; producers Bob Cooper, Daniel J. Walker and Tyler Mitchell; production companies Landscape Entertainment, Films de Force Majeure and Prominent Media Group in association with MICA Entertainment and Vedette Finance
Screened October 5th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Monday, October 13, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

A Walk Among the Tombstones could have been - indeed, should have been - one of those great 1970s B-series thrillers Don Siegel knew so well how to do, since that is so clearly where veteran screenwriter Scott Frank's heart is at. I, for once, am glad of it; I pretty much grew up watching them and it's a genre that has gotten in short supply over the years, and it's the sort of film that Mr. Frank goes for here, working in the type of noir-ish, disenchanted detective stories that made his name as a screenwriter (like Kenneth Branagh's underrated Dead Again and Steven Soderbergh's career rebirth Out of Sight). A Walk Among the Tombstones carries that sort of blue-collar grittiness, a downbeat masculinity and no-nonsense attitude that uses genre tropes as its strengths, using them as a narrative shorthand that avoids redundant or superfluous exposition.

     It's the second Hollywood attempt to bring to the screen novelist Lawrence Block's damaged private eye Matt Scudder after an ill-fated 1985 adaptation transplanted to California and scripted by Oliver Stone and directed by the late Hal Ashby. Mr. Frank returns the hero to the novelist's New York setting and has Scudder, an ex-alcoholic who left the NYPD and survives as an off-the-books, unlicensed investigator, hired to find out who killed the wife of a drug dealer, discovering it was the work of psychotic killers who are targeting drug dealers by kidnapping their wives and demanding ransom with no intention of releasing the women alive. The film thus becomes a morality play centred around a questioning private investigator: does the immorality of making your money selling drugs to innocent people trump the punishment meted out by self-appointed guardians of morality that are targeting innocents as well? (It's certainly no accident that, in Mr. Frank's telling, there are absolutely no women in sight; this is a purely male universe where women enter at their own peril.)

     That the dilemma is acutely felt by a man with moral failings of his own, and underlined by Mr. Frank's measured, serious tone, makes A Walk Among the Tombstones more layered than most standard thriller fare, as well as occasionally more heavy-handed: confirming what his previous directing job, 2006's The Lookout, suggested, what works in the written page as necessary exposition or process doesn't necessarily provide a motion picture with consistency of rhythm and tone, the director's moody, greyish tone and workmanlike illustrative handling occasionally dragging a bit too much, unable to propel the plot forward with the urgency demands. What Mr. Frank is, though, is a very fine director of actors, and Liam Neeson, a fine actor in his own who has become one of the most unlikely action heros of the last few years after the success of Taken, dons Scudder's world-weary coat to perfection, anchoring the film with a measured, expertly judged performance that helps make up for the longueurs. 

     Still, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a fine example of a mid-list genre film like they don't make anymore - and it leaves you asking why is it they don't.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES
USA 2013
113 minutes
Cast Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Brian Bradley, Mark Consuelos
Director and screenwriter Scott Frank; based on the novel A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block; cinematographer Mihai Malamare Jr. (colour, widescreen); composer Carlos Rafael Rivera; designer David Brisbin; costumes Betsy Heimann; editor Jill Savitt; producers Danny de Vito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Brian Oliver and Tobin Armbrust; production companies Exclusive Media Group, Jersey Films and Double Feature Films in association with Cross Creek Pictures, Manu Propia Entertainment, 1984 Private Defense Contractors, The Traveling Picture Show Company and Free State Pictures
Screened October 3rd 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)