Friday, December 19, 2014

MOMMY

Canadian director Xavier Dolan is on his fifth feature, so the "newcomer" tag is no longer applicable to a talent that is as undeniable as it is infuriating. While it's fair enough that his career so far has been entirely built on the sheer youthful, voluntary arrogance of his work, five films in you would expect a little more maturity and a little less show-off than the sprawling yet consistently intriguing Mommy projects.

     To be sure, that rebellious, pop-filmmaker irreverence is part and parcel of what has made following Mr. Dolan's work so interesting. For all the virtuoso or demonstrative stylistic flourishes, there is no denying the sincerity of the films, the fact that he is going all out on screen with little or no restraint, as if they were all borne out of a unquenchable desire to do something and do something now, his way.

     Mommy comes full circle with his promising 2009 debut I Killed My Mother, being another dysfunctional tale of mother and son, again with the remarkable Anne Dorval in the mother role. But this love/hate relationship is here set in a more fully realised and less entropic universe: in a small French Canadian town, Diane (Ms. Dorval in a powerful characterisation) gets by as best she can in a low-paying job until suddenly becoming saddled with her psychologically unbalanced teenage son.

     Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) has just been expelled from the state facility he was committed to for yet another violent incident, and it won't take long for the viewer to realise just how seriously unhinged the initially charming, fast-talking boy is, and how much of a fight it is for Diane just to be able to deal with him.

     In throws Mr. Dolan the neighbour across the street, the fragile Kyla (Dolan regular Suzanne Clément), who is also reeling from her own personal tragedy (suggested but never truly explained); what follows is the construction (and subsequent destruction) of a possible nuclear family, Diane and Kyla pooling their strengths to try and build a normal life for Steve despite the fact that every single thing around them seems to be conspiring to prevent them from it.

     In so doing, Mommy becomes an highly-strung, unrestrained modern-day version of classic melodramas, like a Douglas Sirk film with all the containing restrictions of the studio system removed and the volume blown up to 11.

     For all that, though, you can't help but think that the always-on exuberance, the constant pop culture references, the "look-at-me" flashiness of the film play against it. There's a sense that Mr. Dolan lets himself be carried away by the stylistic choices and technical flourishes just for the hell of it; a good example is the film's highly constrained aspect ratio, a 1:1 square almost like a cellphone lens, that widens to standard 1:85 framing and back depending on whether the narrative developments open up or close down possible pathways.

     It's a perfectly defensible option, but one that becomes somewhat tiresome and overexploited during the film's sprawling length (reiterating to excess points better made before).

     Coming after the somewhat calculated (and not entirely successful) attempt at a more restrained work that was 2013's Tom at the Farm, Mommy suggests a "two-steps-forward one-step-back" return to Mr. Dolan's comfort zone, but with less artistic ambition than in what remains, to me, his most accomplished film, 2012's Laurence Anyways.

     For the actors alone, though, and for what the director manages to pull from them with enormous generosity, making sure that for all the histrionics there's a relatable, identifiable person dealing truthfully with the unpredictable mood-swings of the delusional Steve, Mommy is definitely worth seeing.

MOMMY
Canada 2014
138 minutes
Cast Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Patrick Huard, Alexandre Goyette
Director, screenwriter, costume designer and editor Xavier Dolan; cinematographer André Turpin (colour); composer Noia; art director Colombe Raby; producers Nancy Grant and Mr. Dolan; production companies Metafilms and Sons of Manual
Screened December 10th 2014, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)


Thursday, December 18, 2014

EAU ARGENTÉE - SYRIE AUTO-PORTRAIT
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is a kind of paradox. Is it an experiment? An installation? A documentary? An essay? An assemblage? An art work? A document? The answer would be: all of the above. Or none of the above.

     It's by no means a conventional, traditional film work; its mere existence is extraordinary, and that it is gaining release in several territories, outside the festival circuit, is even more extraordinary. But its subject cannot be contained in a conventional structure: Silvered Water is a film that asks what does it mean to film, to make cinema, today, in a world where the concepts of civilization and society are being constantly attacked from all sides. What can a film mean to the world in which it exists?

     Almost impossible to describe or summarize, very difficult to sit through due to the graphic nature of many of its images, Silvered Water is, however, vital and urgent, both as a topical document of the horrors of the civil war in Syria and as an essay on how can the moving image best bear witness to them. The conflict is seen both from a distance and from within: the first "act" reflects the powerlessness of Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed, who travelled to France in 2011 to attend the Cannes festival but did not return after learning his presence in a "black list" of undesirables back home. Watching Syria crumble from afar, unable to do anything other than despairing, he collects and assembles images shot in the heat of the moment by "1001 Syrians" (as the credits put it) using cellphones and consumer cams, updated to the internet in real time.

     At that point, an e-mail dialogue opens - with Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a Kurdish teacher in the besieged city of Homs, who contacts Mr. Mohammed to ask what to film, what to record from the city around her. The director pretty much cedes the film from then on to her footage, to her voice; from putting the viewer in the same position of powerlessness and despair as Mr. Mohammed, Silvered Water allows him now a glimpse into a need to bear witness and offer hope to what comes next (not surprisingly since Ms. Bedirxan is a teacher, children feature prominently).

     But what raises the project above a simple assemblage of pre-existing footage is the very nature of the enterprise, its constant questioning of form and function. Mr. Mohammed, who assembled the film in Paris, is not interested in proposing a mere record of cruelty and war; he is also interested in what can these images mean and how they are going to be interpreted and articulated, in how they fit within the narratives of history, culture, the world around him.

     The Arabian Nights are a constant reference, in the concept that, as Scheherezade kept spinning yarns to stay alive, so do these images. But their story is also articulated in terms of the essay film as predicated by Jean-Luc Godard's progressive entwining of history and film or as begun by the explosion of the Nouvelle Vague and its emphasis on the experimental: caméra-stylo, cinéma-vérité, Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais' "you have seen nothing at Hiroshima", Akira Kurosawa's Dodes-ka'den, Mr. Godard's regular confluence of the political and the personal in his current post-narrative essays, all of this and more collides throughout the short but intense length of Silvered Water.

     It's a demanding, adventurous object, certainly one that does not work within the framework of traditional film. But that cannot be used as an excuse to ignore one of the most undeniably powerful cinematic essays of recent years.

EAU ARGENTÉE, SYRIE AUTOPORTRAIT
France, Syria 2014
92 minutes
Directors Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan; screenwriter Mr. Mohammed; cinematographer Ms. Bedirxan (colour); composer Noma Omran; editor Maisoum Asaad; producers Serge Lalou, Camille Laemlé, Orwa Nyrabia and Diana el Jeiroudi; production companies Les Films d'Ici and Proaction Film in association with ARTE France La Lucarne
Screened November 5th 2014, Lisbon (Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival competition screener DVD)


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

I would hope it's not just wishful thinking that leads me to wish Exodus: Gods and Kings would pretty much close shut the mini-revival of the biblical saga that Hollywood flirted with this year. At least, Darren Aronofsky's intriguing but flawed Noah truly engaged with the issues raised by the tale of Noah's Ark. But this version of The Ten Commandments is a misfire from start to finish - a film that engages nothing other than director Ridley Scott's most lavish, decorative instincts.

     To be sure, Mr. Scott's mastery in (re)creating lived-in universes, whether past or future, has been a constant in his films ever since his debut The Duellists. But while that painstaking creation of an environment fits here with the current desire for "realistic grittiness" in the reinterpretation of classic tales (see not only Noah but also, for instance, Mr. Scott's own take on Robin Hood), it also becomes painfully evident that there is not much here for the director, or any other storyteller for that matter, to bite into.

     As recast in what seems to be a script written by committee, the tale of Moses (a dour Christian Bale) and his transformation from an Egyptian captain into the prophet who led the Jews to the Promised Land becomes a stop-start mash-up of genres that aim at meshing political allegory, existentialist soul-searching, war adventure and biblical spectacle. The Jews are an oppressed people engaging in asymmetrical guerilla warfare against their cruel, sadistic enslavers; Moses is a born leader of men who has doubts about his place in the world, thrown off by his love/hate relationship with foster brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton), whose accession to power changes him for the worst.

     The mash-up, however, never really comes together; merely as a series of self-contained "acts" or "episodes" meant to move plot from A to B that seem to have been glued together from different films and don't really hang as a whole. And there's a woeful sense of miscasting hanging over the entire enterprise. Mr. Bale's doubting Moses is nothing the actor hasn't done before and often with more energy and commitment than here; the estimable Mr. Edgerton's earnest performance is undone by his shaven-headed effete look; and a number of esteemed film stars are trotted out for the mandatory blink-and-you'll-miss-it "truly this man is the Son of God" moment. And, to make it worse, there's not even that much grandiosity in Mr. Scott's admittedly dazzling digital landscapes or luxurious indoor decorations (the pharaoh's palace is a little too much Blade Runner-ish for comfort).

     It turns out that, for all the eye-catching attempts at creating a believable biblical past, the one thing all involved never really do is creating believable, relatable characters or narrative arcs. There is not even awe-inspiring spectacle here; just a bloated display of digital trickery in search of a soul.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
USA, Spain 2014
151 minutes
Cast Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley
Director Ridley Scott; screenwriters Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian; cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (colour, widescreen); composer Alberto Iglesias; designer Arthur Max; costumes Janty Yates; editor Billy Rich; effects supervisor Peter Chiang; producers Peter Chernin, Mr. Scott, Jenno Topping, Michael Schaefer and Mark Huffam; production companies Twentieth Century-Fox, Scott Free Productions and Chernin Entertainment in association with TSG Entertainment, in co-production with Producciones Ramses
Screened December 4th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor advance screening) 


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY?

"If you're willing to be puzzled, you learn", says linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky at one point in Michel Gondry's admiring, unconventional documentary. It's an appropriate phrase to summarize Is the Man who is Tall Happy?, as this latest proof of the French director's endless curiosity and willingness to stretch is a very puzzling entry in a filmography that has been unconventional itself.

     For what he terms, with perfectly apposite tongue-in-cheekness, "an animated conversation with Noam Chomsky", Mr. Gondry illustrates excerpts from a number of interview sessions he made with the linguist - but he does so not with traditional "talking-head" or archival footage, other than the occasional "insert" shot using an old-fashioned, hand-cranked super-8 camera. Instead, the director uses painstakingly hand-drawn animations, of the type he has often used in his stubbornly analogue trick work both in music videos and feature films.

     It's that handcrafted ingenuity of his special effects that made his reputation as a visual magician over the past 20 years, but to make it work over a feature length it requires a strong plot or through-line - something Mr. Gondry has not always had. Especially ever since the masterful Charlie Kaufman-written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there has been a sense that the more he relies on that trickery the less successful the films are - case in point being the "diptych" formed by his latest two fiction features: the almost effects-free New York ensemble piece The We and the I, probably his best film since Eternal Sunshine, and the oneiric, undercooked French whimsy of L'Écume des jours, its plot and outlandish visuals seeming at odds with one another

     Is the Man who is Tall Happy? , a project that was into production for a good three years, belongs to the parallel track of Mr. Gondry's more personal projects that also includes the acclaimed documentaries Dave Chappelle's Block Party and The Thorn in the Heart, with its start-to-end animation approach attempting a visual translation of Mr. Chomsky's thought process. But the surreal, free-association visuals, and its haphazard, deliberately amateurish quality, turn out to throw the project out of balance and set it off in counter-intuitive parallel paths. Instead of supporting and illustrating the thinker's ideas, they become a distraction, clutching at straws that disappear in the process of being made visible; it's as if Mr. Gondry is chasing a rainbow to try and crystallize it in pictures, but loses its elusive magic in the process.

     Though technically impressive for its patient, hobbyist tone, and fascinating as a glimpse into the minds of both its subject and its maker, Is the Man who is Tall Happy? is an oddly lifeless film, an idea whose realization does not match its premise.

IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY? AN ANIMATED CONVERSATION WITH NOAM CHOMSKY
France 2013
89 minutes
Director and screenwriter Michel Gondry; animations Mr. Gondry, Valérie Pirson and Timothée Lemoine; composer Howard Skempton; editors Adam M. Weber and Sophie Reine; producers Georges Bermann, Mr. Gondry, Raffi Adlan and Julie Fong; production company Partizan Films
Screened December 2nd 2014, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)



Monday, December 15, 2014

BAI RI YAN HUO
Black Coal, Thin Ice

"Forget it, Zhang... it's coal country". Forgive me for the pithy reference to Chinatown, but to be fairly honest Black Coal, Thin Ice, the third feature from Chinese helmer Diao Yi'nan, pretty much begs for it, being all about classic film noir tropes moved to the last place you'd expect to find them: China in the shift from the 20th to the 21st century.

     It's not as far-fetched as it may seem, as modern China and its boomtown economic build-up mean the rules of the genre don't look much out of place, with Mr. Diao, also scripting, adapting them to fit the specifics of the setting. But, if you remove the exotic background, would Black Coal, Thin Ice still be convincing?

     In point of fact, this story of an alcoholic ex-cop (the great Liao Fan) pulled back into the unsolved case that made him leave the force five years earlier is a solid, if unimposing and slightly anonymous, drama. Mr. Diao's rather neutral stagings and Dong Jingsong's glare-filled, sickly photography, catching these characters like flies under the harsh fluorescent lighting, point out how everyone seems to be all submissive to the bright lights of economicism. (The more appropriate original Chinese title is Daylight Fireworks.) And the director does pull off a few truly inspired visual moments - like the much celebrated credit sequence tracking shot that bridges the five-year interval between the prologue and the main thrust of the plot, or the clumsiest, most amateurish gunfight in the history of film thrillers ever.

     But Black Coal, Thin Ice is essentially a Chinese take on a Western genre film, and without that clever usage of genre tropes it probably wouldn't have received the attention it has had from Western press and critics. (It was the least interesting of the three Chinese entries in the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, and yet it was the event's winner, taking home the Golden Bear for Best Picture.) As in classic noirs, and unlike what the trailer below suggests, it's not really about solving a crime, in this case the identity of the body parts being found all around the province - it's about what the process of investigating it reveals, what it says about the people involved and the society they live in.

     Mr. Liao is outstanding as the jaded, weary man who's seen too much, and Gwei Lun Mei is equally strong as the femme fatale that seems to lie at the heart of the mystery. They're broken people looking for a glimmer of warmth but probably too far down the social scale to deserve it, and it's for the best that Mr. Diao's script avoids any semblance of easy redemption.

     Black Coal, Thin Ice is more than just an exotic curiosity, but it's also a little bit too derivative to be entirely convincing; its interest lies precisely in trying to bridge genre and a more traditionally observational drama. It doesn't quite succeed, but it's no less interesting for trying.

BAI RI YAN HUO
China 2014
106 minutes
Cast Liao Fan, Guei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei
Director and screenwriter Diao Yi'nan; cinematographer Dong Jingsong (colour); composer Wen Li; art director Liu Qiang; editor Yang Hongyu; producers Vivian Yu and Wan Juan; production companies Omnijoi Media Corporation, Boneyard Entertainment China and China Film Company
Screened February 11th 2014, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 competition press screening) and December 14th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Friday, December 12, 2014

MAPS TO THE STARS

"Things happen for a reason", someone says at one point in David Cronenberg's latest film. It's very likely that reason is actually "mapped out in the stars" - or by the stars that people Maps to the Stars, film stars and assorted hangers-on whose insecurity, neediness, bad judgement and general sense of debt condemn them to pay for their sins.

     Mr. Cronenberg has come up with another morality play, in short, and it should be useful to keep in mind that Maps to the Stars follows the underwhelming Don de Lillo adaptation Cosmopolis. Despite the different results - Maps to the Stars is as disturbing and thought-provoking as Cosmopolis was a misfire - they're complementary works, sly satires of modern capitalism and celebrity culture painted as a limbo its inhabitants are desperately hoping to hang on to, with a fallen angel making a sudden reappearance to save this rotten system from itself.

     The "chosen one", here, is Agatha (a mysterious, alluring Mia Wasikowska), newly arrived in Hollywood from Florida, her apparent easy-going, tag-along actions hiding a carefully designed agenda. Is her sidling to washed-up film actress Havana Segrand (a superb Julianne Moore), whose assistant she ends up being, and child star Benji Weiss (Evan Bird) mere coincidence? Or is it part of a greater plan that Bruce Wagner's script slowly unfolds as we dive deeper under the surface and start finding the skeletons hiding in the closet?

     Mr. Cronenberg's gift, ever since his work shifted from what came to be described as "body horror" to a more psychological, disquieting take on the world (a shift discreetly announced by The Dead Zone and Dead Ringers), has been to give normalcy an eerie sheen, a strangeness that tilts it in such a way that the regular landmarks of "real life" suddenly seem out of focus. Hollywood's facade economy is a textbook case of warped reality that Mr. Wagner's script gleefully skewers (though some of his creations in Maps to the Stars seem to recycle some of what he wrote 20 years ago for the cult television serial Wild Palms, such as the mystical cult surrounding therapist to the stars Stafford Weiss, played connivingly by John Cusack).

     But within this universe of delusional people who think money, power and status excuses all behaviours, Mr. Cronenberg insists on creating characters that are seriously grounded in reality, and are merely looking for ways to cope with the world around them. Delusional they may be, but they're also undeniably human and carrying a burden of sins of the body that have twisted and soiled their mind and must be atoned for.

     In the process, it's worth pointing out just how much Mr. Cronenberg is unrecognised as an actor's director, able to focus, laser-sharp, on what each character requires and how best to get his performers there. Maps to the Stars has that in buckets, with a glorious Ms. Moore proving yet again how she is her generation's finest screen actress, her Havana so consumed by her obsession with her dead mother that she veers between haughty spite and moving vulnerability with nary a blink.

     As with most of the director's latest work, Maps to the Stars does not reveal itself easily; it's a poison arrow of slow-release effect, unfolding gradually as the layers of ghosts at its heart make themselves visible and evoke the general sense of a corrupt system wafting through the world right now. But it proves, without the shadow of a doubt, that if you choose to dismiss Mr. Cronenberg's current work as minor or irrelevant, you do so at your own peril.

MAPS TO THE STARS
Canada, France, Germany 2014
112 minutes
Cast Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson
Director David Cronenberg; screenwriter Bruce Wagner; cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (colour); composer Howard Shore; designer Carol Spier; costumes Denise Cronenberg; editor Ronald Sanders; producers Martin Katz, Saïd ben Saïd and Michel Merkt; production companies Starmaps Productions, SBS Productions and Integral Film, in co-production with VIP Cinema/Axone Invest, in association with Prospero Pictures, with the participation of Téléfilm Canada, Canal Plus, Orange Cinéma Studio, The Howard Greenberg Fund, The Movie Network and Movie Central
Screened November 25th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, December 11, 2014

CASANOVA VARIATIONS

There isn't anything much wrong per se with the premise of Austrian director Michael Sturminger's riff on the life and times of 18th century libertine Giacomo Casanova, melding his much-celebrated memoirs with excerpts and arias from operas by Mozart. What is wrong with the end result, however, could possibly have been settled by passing it on to somebody else to direct and tighten.

     Instead, Mr. Sturminger allows this "variation" on his own stage creation The Giacomo Variations to lose itself in a maze of metafictional layers that, more often than not, seem to be a mere vanity project for its star John Malkovich. Which is somewhat unfair both to the director and Mr. Malkovich, as, at its core, Casanova Variations is about performance, and life as performance.

     To be sure, it's the sort of multi-layered, multi-media project that the late Werner Schroeter would have loved to direct, and that restless actors like Mr. Malkovich tend to gravitate towards for all the thoughtfulness about their own trade they key into. But Mr. Sturminger's hyper-stylized approach is nowhere in the same league, bringing everything down to the level of a flashily packaged amuse-bouche or after-dinner mint for upscale audiences, spinning the on-stage/off-stage connections with much fireworks but little originality.

     In the tale's central layer, courtisane Elisa van der Recke (Veronica Ferres) visits the ailing Casanova with mysterious intents as he is putting the finishing touches to his memoirs, wherein he presents himself as little more than a trained monkey performing for his supper and for his reputation. Mr. Sturminger then zooms out to an opera stage where Casanova and Elisa witness themselves, as played by opera singers Florian Boesch and Miah Persson, watching the playing out of selected episodes of the libertine's life; and then zooms further out as Mr. Malkovich plays himself playing (and occasionally singing) Casanova on stage and interacts with his agent, the stage manager and even an audience member.

     The constant mise en abîme is held together by the director's decision to film everything with a restless, handheld camera; but what could have been a clever way to tie together the various layers of commentary on performance turns out to be the last drop that throws the entire concept over the top and sands the edges out of the sculpture. The playfulness of the "all the world's a stage" back-and-forth, and the clever transitions between levels (a door, a window, a curtain), required a nimbler, more assured hand than Mr. Sturminger's, who basically exploits both the premise and the handheld approach to the point of overkill.

     It's peculiar how Casanova Variations seems to play out in a constant "right now" that flattens and loses sense of time, and how that leads into the progressive deflating of the film's balloon. Halfway through its two-hour length, the game is up, the viewer is aware of the different layers of reality and of how they connect to each other, and all that remains is to watch its pieces fall predictably and at length into its proper place, robbing the film of any further interest or sense of surprise. And even despite Mozart's glorious music and some fine performances from the assembled cast of singers and actors, Casanova Variations seems destined for that half-hidden corner in the cabinet where you put away curious oddities that are not devoid of conceptual interest but whose realisation is not as successful as its premise.

CASANOVA VARIATIONS
Portugal, Austria, Germany 2014
119 minutes
Cast John Malkovich, Veronica Ferres, Florian Boesch, Miah Persson, Lola Naymark, Kerstin Averno, Tracy Ann Obermann, Maria João Bastos, Kate Lindsey, Anna Prohaska, Barbara Hannigan, Topi Lehtipuu, Christopher Purves, Ana Maria Pinto, Maria João Luís, Victória Guerra, Daniel Schmutzhard, Fanny Ardant, Jonas Kaufmann
Director Michael Sturminger; screenwriters Mr. Sturminger and Markus Schleinzer; based on Mr. Sturminger's stage production The Giacomo Variations, using material from the memoir Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova and operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte; cinematographer André Szankowski (colour); musical director Martin Haselböck; production and costume designers Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser; editor Evi Romen; producers Paulo Branco, Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu and Bady Minck; production companies Alfama Films Production and Amour Fou Filmproduktion in co-production with X-Filme Creative Pool and Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion, with the collaboration of ZDF/ARTE, ORF and RTP and co-financing from Leopardo Filmes
Screened November 29th 2014, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)