Monday, February 08, 2016

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Some films just have to be seen more than once for the full effect and, in the case of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, you really have to see it on the biggest screen you can find (knowing full well not everyone will have access, alas, to the 70mm prints that seem to be one of the film's raisons d'être). It's one of these cases where a film literally opens up on a second viewing, even if The Hateful Eight is far from being the director's masterpiece and carries a whiff of "look ma, no hands!" showmanship.

     Basically a remake of Reservoir Dogs as a grand-guignol And Then There Were None murder mystery disguised as western, it's yet another of Mr. Tarantino's alternate takes on history as rewritten by genre movies, connecting both to Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained's period tropes and to Kill Bill and Death Proof's exploitation smarts. Above all, it's an extraordinarily fetishistic film, probably the most ever in the director's career, in line with the texture and feel of a lost Golden Age of popular cinema; Robert Richardson's masterful work explains why he is one of the most consistently underrecognized American cinematographers around, the gloriously tactile, crisp grain of the 70mm stock coming through even in digital projection. And Mr. Tarantino, ever the master of the grand dialogue tease, knows exactly what he's doing with his virtuoso writing that throws all sorts of verbal and physical violence into the mix, simultaneously honouring and subverting all of the codified genre elements he calls upon.

     While there is hardly a flaw in the spot-on casting, it's Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson that anchors the film with the performance of a lifetime as bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (no disrespect meant to anyone else). And if you do feel that the director isn't stretching as much as he is merely exploring a few more back roads of a territory he knows by now as the palm of his hand, you won't be wrong. That is what you get from the film on the first viewing. But, once you settle in for a second time and start paying attention to all the craft details hidden in the tapestry, The Hateful Eight unfolds as such a love letter to cinema, from its lovingly calibrated camera set-ups to the meticulously constructed scripting, that it becomes utterly irresistible.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT
US, 2015, 168 minutes (standard print)
CAST Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Channing Tatum
DIR, SCR Quentin Tarantino; DP Robert Richardson (Ultra Panavision 70); M Ennio Morricone; PROD DES Yohei Taneda; COST DES Courtney Hoffman; SP Gregory Nicotero, Howard Berger; ED Fred Raskin; PROD Richard N. Gladstein, Stacey Sher, Shannon McIntosh
A Weinstein Company production/presentation

Sunday, February 07, 2016

JOGO DE DAMAS

The mid-range adult drama is a tricky one to pull off these days in a Portuguese film scene that seems squarely divided between hardcore auteurism or rank soap-opera-level commercialism. Though made by a crew with extensive television experience, Jogo de Damas doesn't want to be a simplistic blown-up TV movie of the week, and it hasn't a single auteurist bone in its body.

     But Patrícia Sequeira's theatrical debut never finds the foothold it looks for, nor does it settle on an identity. Its female-centred Big Chill-ish tale of five long-term friends spending the night before the funeral of the friend that brought them all together stumbles on the shorthand of soap-opera characterisation and plotting: they're all well off ladies whose only issues are first-world problems and emotions, they all have big secrets that will come out before the allotted 90 minutes run out, the dialogues are less actual back-and-forth conversations than statements. This is rather glaring when so much of the film is anchored in the serious subject of how to deal with death.

     Ultimately, Jogo de Damas never truly rises above the tastefulness of upscale TV drama, down to a length that seems have been carefully programmed to accommodate a two-hour slot's commercial breaks. It's a shame, because there's the kernel of a good movie in here, and the talent to support it in its well-chosen cast and in Ms. Sequeira's functional if anonymous handling. It just isn't enough to make Jogo de Damas more than a well-meaning and ultimately forgettable ersatz of a soulful object.

JOGO DE DAMAS
PT, 2015, 87 minutes
CAST Ana Nave, Ana Padrão, Fátima Belo, Maria João Luís, Rita Blanco
DIR Patrícia Sequeira; SCR Filipa Leal; DP Renato Falcão (widescreen); M David Rossi, Paula Sousa; AD Anabela Santos, Lu Barradas, Ruca Nunes dos Santos; COST DES Rita Lameiras; ED Nuno Santos Lopes
A R. I. Filmes production in co-production with Master Dream Digital Movie; released by Leopardo Filmes


JOGO DE DAMAS, um filme de PATRÍCIA SEQUEIRA from Leopardo Filmes on Vimeo.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

SPOTLIGHT

Much has been - rightly - made of Spotlight's pleading for the noble calling of journalism as a public service that sheds light in dark or unexplored corners and improves society in the process. For me, though, what's really most interesting in Tom McCarthy's retelling of the Boston Globe's 2001-2002 investigation on the child abuse cover-ups in the Boston diocese is how it all boils down to selfless teamwork. Spotlight is neither a star vehicle or a vanity project, rather an ensemble piece where no one stands above the rest, where the individual contributions of cast and crew are absorbed into the whole.

     It was the teamwork of Boston Globe's Spotlight team of investigative reporters that made the story happen - Spotlight points out that American theme of community, of everyone joining in and working together for a common cause. Though the film is openly retelling a true story that deals with child abuse and church cover-ups, the opposition between business and morality, the modern crisis in journalism's business model, and the swirling ethics that surround all of these, what Spotlight essentially does is move the conversation forward.

     In the shape of a shoe-leather procedural that moves slowly through trial and error, one-step-forward-two-steps-back, eschewing big stars in favour of a stellar ensemble cast headlined by reliable actors like Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber and Michael Keaton, Mr. McCarthy's patient, unassuming film is all about remembering that behind the headlines and scandals are actual living, breathing, feeling people who have to deal with these things daily. And it's about them deserving that we deal with their story in a level-headed, non-sensationalised way.

     That also makes it mirror the ideal (and idealized) studio system we identify with the Golden Age of Hollywood; it turns it into a reminder of the solidly crafted quality of a certain type of storytelling that has been left behind in the quest for "four-quadrant" films that will ensure global returns, based on high-paid stars and flashy visual effects. That Spotlight has in the meantime become a serious Oscar contender is not a surprise in this modern climate; it's the only avenue a "small" film such as this has left to reach an audience that is underserved, when not ignored, by the teen-oriented marketing machines of the studios. (In fact, Spotlight was not released in the US by any of the majors, but by Open Road, the independent distributor set up by the AMC and Regal theatre chains. I rest my case.)

SPOTLIGHT
US, 2015, 129 minutes
CAST Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup
DIR Tom McCarthy; SCR Josh Singer, Mr. McCarthy; DP Masanobu Takayanagi; M Howard Shore; PROD DES Stephen Carter; COST DES Wendy Chuck; ED Tom McArdle; PROD Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, Blye Pagon Faust
An Anonymous Content and Rocklin/Faust Productions production, presented by Participant Media and First Look Media

Thursday, February 04, 2016

ANOMALISA

The anomaly is Charlie Kaufman's stock in trade. All his films are about the outward manifestation of singular anomalies, that become visible or tangible in equally singular and bewildering ways. Yet it's worth asking if the acclaimed screenwriter's stock in trade has become a crutch or a refuge. Not that Anomalisa is a sleepwalking effort; it's merely an underachieving one, recycling a "radio play" that Mr. Kaufman wrote ten years ago for composer Carter Burwell's "Theater of the New Ear" series of staged readings. Its strengths and weaknesses both derive from the ingenious device that anchors it: the story of a man looking for that elusive human connection in a world of conformity and sameness has all characters - bar the two leads - voiced by the same actor.

     For the film version he co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, Mr. Kaufman doubles down on this device, by making the film in stop-motion animation, using puppets that all are eerily, implacably identical, all voiced by Tom Noonan. Mr. Noonan reprises his role from the 2005 readings as do the two other actors voicing the leads: David Thewlis as customer service guru and travel warrior Michael Stone, from whose point of view everything is seen, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, the customer service rep he becomes entranced with during a Cincinnati overnight stay.

     Lisa is the escape from conformity and dull routine that Michael has been looking for, the promise of a fresh start or a new day. For the short length of the film they're the only ones who truly stand out from the crowd - but for how long can this be? After all, Messrs. Kaufman and Johnson's puppets all look the same, whether it's Mr. Thewlis, Ms. Leigh or Mr. Noonan voicing them, and the film works on that thin razor's edge between hope and disappointment. The beautifully realized stop-motion animation (with an attention to visual detail and craft that many live-action productions don't have) becomes a smart and high-concept device that makes literal the screenwriter's concept.

     But once that device hits peak cruise, the film effectively goes nowhere with it and starts circling in a holding pattern. That doesn't make Anomalisa any less thoughtful, even if surprisingly restrained coming from a writer known for his narrative fireworks. It just means it never truly clicks as you hope it would; at some point I found myself thinking that it might have been punchier as a half-hour short. There's much to admire here, but I came away from it disappointed that I didn't like it more.

ANOMALISA
US, 2015, 90 minutes
VOICE CAST Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, David Thewlis
DIR Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson; SCR Mr. Kaufman; DP Joe Passarelli (widescreen); M Carter Burwell; PROD DES John Joyce, Huy Vu; COST DES Susan Donyun; ED Garret Elkins; SP Derek Smith; PROD Rosa Tran, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos
A Starburns Industries and Snoot Films production; released by Paramount Pictures


Wednesday, February 03, 2016

THE REVENANT

What shall we do with Alejandro González Iñárritu? A clearly talented filmmaker, the Mexican director remains the most troubling and troublesome of the trio of fellow countrymen that have made their way in/to Hollywood. Neither a gleeful genre stylist like Guillermo del Toro nor a thoughtful dramatist like Alfonso Cuarón, Mr. Iñárritu is a great maximalist, a more-is-more, look-at-me showman with auteurist aspirations. But the problem, for me, is not in his talent itself, rather in the (in)discipline he applies to it. His work is never subtle or discreet, tending instead to hammer home a point until it's bludgeoning you in the head.

     The Revenant's two-and-a-half-hour length is a good example of that. Though breathtakingly shot (by the master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) and handsomely mounted, what starts out with to-the-point directness as a survivalist western quickly gets bogged down in fuzzy mysticism and over-ponderous ruminations, once trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo di Caprio) is left for dead by the treacherous, grudge-bearing Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a member of his own party. At the exact point at which Mr. Iñárritu's film should have taken off, from a gritty quasi-western shot in Herzog-like-conditions into a gripping tale of survival in the wild, it collapses instead, into a dullish collection of son et lumière visuals entranced by its own virtuoso aspects.

     This is not to say there is insincerity in The Revenant, which is for me Mr. Iñárritu's best work since his striking debut with Amores Perros. It's a quieter, less frantic work - the long stretches of silence in the wilderness and the restrained score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto help enormously. But the director's recurrent theme of men taking a shot at redemption while aware that there is no possible grace to be found, only sacrifice, remains stubbornly overbearing. Mr. Di Caprio really has nothing to do other than play the silent martyr, as his actions do not give us a doorway into a character that remains a cypher throughout and the film seems to require of him nothing but his mere presence (see Leo be mauled by a bear!). Mr. Hardy fares better with his curled-moustache villain, but he too has nothing to play against.

     And Mr. Iñárritu, too concerned with making everything "look real" or even "feel real", ends up turning the film into pure diorama in a nature shot with all the awe of Terrence Malick's ecstasies, a mere pageant taking place in front of us in which we never become involved. If much of the media narrative for The Revenant revolves around its you-are-there visuals, it also implies that became the film's sole reason for existing, while diverting attention from the many shortcomings at its center. Someone should tell Mr. Iñárritu to stop indulging so much.

THE REVENANT
US, HK, TW, 2015, 156 minutes
Leonardo di Caprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard, Arthur Redcloud
DIR Alejandro G. Iñárritu; SCR Mr. Iñárritu, Mark L. Smith, novel The Revenant by Michael Punke; DP Emmanuel Lubezki (widescreen); M Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, Bryce Dessner; PROD DES Jack Fisk; COST DES Jacqueline West; ED Stephen Mirrione; SP Rich McBride; PROD Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Mr. Iñárritu, Mary Parent, Keith Redmon, James W. Skotchdopole
New Regency Pictures, Anonymous Content, M Productions and Appian Way Productions, in association with Alpha Hong Kong and Catch Play; a Regency Enterprises presentation in association with Ratpac Entertainment, released by Twentieth Century-Fox


Monday, January 18, 2016

THE BIG SHORT

Do you remember the immortal scene in Sidney Lumet's Network where Peter Finch breaks down live on air and screams "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"? The Big Short works on that same level of cathartic release, only adapted to the American housing bubble that led to the financial crisis of 2008 and from then on a global recession we're still not exactly free from.

     It's a film that comes from a righteous and entirely understandable place of anger, indignation, rage, frustration, injustice, channeled by director Adam McKay into a tongue-in-cheek, freewheeling satire of modern day class struggle and capitalist greed. The Big Short essentially follows a small of group of investors and fund managers from 2005 to 2008, as they realize just how busted, corrupt and unmanageable the American financial system has become, but it excuses no one and its heroes are hardly squeaky clean. Nobody is innocent in this sorry tale of credulity, high hopes and dreams of profit, not even the fund manager who effectively gambled on what would eventually be the apocalypse of a whole socio-financial structure.

     The film seems structured as an ensemble mosaic narrative, cross-cutting between three sets of leads: first, quasi-autistic pattern analyst Michael Burry (Christian Bale); then, perpetually apoplectic idealist fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his crew, and smug, ambitious shark Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling); finally, small-town "garage fund" managers Jamie Shipley and Vinny Peters (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) and their neighbour and consultant Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). But, in a nice, smart touch, they never actually meet; and there is no connection between them other than serendipitous hearsay that brings it all home.

     Starting from Michael Lewis' non-fiction best-seller, Mr. McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph distill it into a no-holds-barred screwball satire that is unashamedly accessible and populist but trusts its audience to think for themselves, propelled by an utterly manic velocity that seems to have internalized the non-stop rhythms of a trading floor (a virtuoso feat of editing by Hank Corwin). It's an ADD-fuelled rollercoaster ride that leaves your stomach feeling queasy from all the apparent sugar rush - but that candy coating is why you'll sit through The Big Short grinning like a fool only to come out with whiplash from the constant twists and turns you've just witnessed.

THE BIG SHORT
USA. 2015. 130 minutes
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei
Directed by Adam McKay; written by Charles Randolph and Mr. McKay; based on the book The Big Short by Michael Lewis; cinematography Barry Ackroyd (widescreen); music by Nicholas Britell; production designer Clayton Hartley; costume designer Susan Matheson; film editor Hank Corwin; produced by Mr. Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Arnon Milchan; a Plan B Entertainment production, presented by Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises


Saturday, January 16, 2016

BROOKLYN

I really, really, really wanted to like Brooklyn more than I did. I loved the almost casual sense of life happening in front of your eyes, achieved by Irish director John Crowley by always placing the irrepressible Saoirse Ronan in the middle of places, streets, events, rooms - hardly ever alone, but always on her own, a young woman making her way in the world on the way to a new world.

     I loved how Yves Bélanger's cinematography imperceptibly shifts from the cold landscapes of closed-off rural Ireland to the vibrant "you've never had it so good" pastel colours of bustling New York. I loved how Nick Hornby's streamlined adaptation of Colm Tóibín's book of 1950s Irish immigration to the US focuses on the small things Eilis grabs on to, as she finds herself a stranger first in a strange land and then in what was supposed to be her home land; how Mr. Crowley and Mr. Hornby devise the narrative arc as a mirror of how growing up happens in real life. And, especially, I loved Ms. Ronan, a wonderfully sensitive actress here perfectly cast and perfectly poised as Eilis Lacey, a young woman torn between past and future, both wise beyond her years and too innocent to understand the ramifications of her choices.

     And yet, I was mystified as to why, despite all these wonderful contributions, Brooklyn somehow became less than the sum of its parts. A perfectly correct, well made, sensible, sensitive drama that never takes its audience for granted nor condescends to it. But its many qualities never truly coalesce into the transcendent, transcending melodrama it could have been - maybe because it maintains that well-known reserve of British quality drama, making everything too much about class and breeding and keeping everything simmering along lid but never truly bringing it to a boil (or eventually fizzling out before it gets to explode). It's still a lovely film, and Ms. Ronan alone is worth the ticket.

BROOKLYN
United Kingdom. Ireland. Canada. 2015. 112 minutes.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters
Directed by John Crowley; written by Nick Hornby; based on the novel Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín; cinematography Yves Bélanger; music by Michael Brook; production designer François Séguin; costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux; film editor Jake Roberts; produced by Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey; a Wildgaze Films, Finola Dwyer Productions, Parallel Films and Item 7 production, in association with Ingenious Media, RTE and Hanway Films, presented by BBC Films, Téléfilm Canada, Irish Film Board, SODEC and the British Film Institute
Screened January 4th 2016, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon