Tuesday, March 03, 2015

HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS

A crap film doesn't necessarily follow from a crap premise; the commitment of a cast or a director can go a long way toward rectifying a course mis-set or mis-handled by the writer. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Brit Peter Chelsom's screen version of French psychiatrist François Lelord's self-help pop-psychology best-seller.

     Hector and the Search for Happiness is one of those cases of an entirely misguided, tone-deaf production where even the best efforts of all involved are unable to save it from disaster - even though there's an intriguing playfulness in the film's premise as laid out in a curious opening stretch. Utterly bland, non-descript London psychiatrist Hector (Simon Pegg) has a perfectly ordered, laid-out life in front of him, with the perfect job, the perfect flat, the perfect wife (a note-perfect Rosamund Pike). It's all so perfect, in fact, he reaches some sort of (ever so proper) nervous breakdown, and self-medicates by going on a trip around the world to distill the essence of what makes people happy.

     What follows, sadly, is a mystifyingly interminable and incredibly clueless succession of episodes trading on all sorts of cultural stereotypes, as the well-meaning Hector, a sort of modern Candide traveling in first class and always able to make the most of even the most frightful experiences, is waylaid through Asia, Africa and America. None of this is the fault of the immensely likeable Mr. Pegg, a truly talented and sympathetic comedian whose commitment to Hector's bungling Britishness is irrepressible. In fact, his performance is one of the very few reasons to sit through this ragged, endless collection of uninspired self-help platitudes, handsomely shot on location by Kolja Brandt but so anonymously handled that it seems to be merely a film designed by commitee to hit as many offensive stereotypes as possible.

     Mr. Chelsom seems to be totally unable to hit the correct tone of whimsy such a fable would require to work; his deliberate reliance on a realist tone highlights the chasm between the airbrushed grittiness of the real world and the airheaded bubble of clueless, blind privilege Hector lives in. Cloying when it should be poignant, heavy-handed when it should be subtle, signposting from a distance with a thick black marker every single "uplifting" moment, Hector and the Search for Happiness fails to follow its very own pop psychology advice: it's not about the destination, it's about the journey. The journey, though, is a pain.

HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS
Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates 2014
120 minutes
 Cast Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, Rosamund Pike, Stellan Skarsgård, Jean Reno, Veronica Ferres, Barry Atsma, Ming Zhao, Togo Igawa, Christopher Plummer
 Director Peter Chelsom; screenwriters Maria von Heland, Mr. Chelsom and Tinker Lindsay; based on the novel Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord; cinematographer Kolja Brandt (colour, widescreen); composers Dan Mangan and Jesse Zubot; designer Michael Diner; costumes Guy Speranza; editor Claus Wehlisch; producers Judy Tossell, Klaus Dohle, Christine Haebler, Trish Dolman, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross and Christian Angermayer; production companies Egoli Tossell Film, Erfttal Film- und Fernsehproduktion and Screen Siren Pictures in co-production with Wild Bunch Germany and Construction Film, in association with Head Gear Films, Star Gate Films, Metrol Technology, Film House Germany, ARD-Degeto, Movie Central and The Movie Network
 Screened February 20th 2015, Lisbon


Monday, March 02, 2015

ESCOBAR - PARADISE LOST

Back when European film production had a neat line in no-frills exploitation movies to ride the topical wave of an issue of the moment, a project like Escobar - Paradise Lost would be custom-tailored for that market of neighborhood theatres: a sensationalist, fanciful thriller built on a ripped-from-the-headlines theme and with a true-crime figure. Italian actor Andrea di Stefano's feature directing debut is clearly a fiction, positing a young Canadian surfer's (Josh Hutcherson) unwitting entry into the extended family of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro), through a casual meet-cute and follow-up lightning-fast romance with his niece María (Claudia Traisac).

     It's nice to see Mr. di Stefano and his veteran co-screenwriter Francesca Marciano actually take the story seriously enough instead of playing up the tongue-in-cheek aspect, to try and create a plausible framework within a genre structure - yes, it's narratively signposted and hackneyed, though not much more than a Hollywood film on the same topic would be. But what makes it stand out is its openly operatic, high-strung melodramatic feel, underlined by Max Richter's slyly Morricone-like score and by the script's refusal to tie up its loose ends with a happy ending.

     Of course, since the Escobar Mr. di Stefano creates is a drug lord-as-rock star character, Mr. del Toro plays him as a larger-than-life, magnetic, whimsical personality, simultaneously playing God and mindful of God; the actor may be slumming it, but he slums it in a gloriously over-the-top fashion, while gradually injecting heft and darkness in a cartoon menace that becomes more scary as the film moves forward. Still, this is pretty much a game of two halves: the first hour is a dreamy, potentially naïve romance and the second a tense spaghetti-thriller, resulting in a somewhat schizophrenic piece whose tone veers all over the place and has a curious overlay of guilty pleasure all over it.

ESCOBAR - PARADISE LOST
France, Spain, Belgium 2014
119 minutes
 Cast Benicio del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Claudia Traisac, Brady Corbet, Carlos Bardem, Ana Girardot, Micke Moreno
 Director Andrea di Stefano; screenwriters Mr. di Stefano and Francesca Marciano; cinematographer Luis Sansans (colour, widescreen); composer Max Richter; designer Carlos Conti; costumes Marylin Fitoussi; editors David Brenner and Maryline Monthieux; producer Dimitri Rassam; production companies Chapter 2, Orange Studio, Pathé Production, Roxbury Pictures, Paradise Lost Film, Nexus Factory and Jouror Développement in co-production with Umedia
 Screened February 19th 2015, Lisbon


Sunday, March 01, 2015

UMA HISTÓRIA DE AMOR E FÚRIA
Rio 2096

It's reasonably unusual these days to see an animated feature film that is primarily aimed at adult audiences, so kudos to former Brazilian journalist and screenwriter Luiz Bolognesi for stepping into that particular breach with Uma História de Amor e Fúria - retitled internationally as Rio 2096 probably to highlight the "exoticism" of a feature animation from Brazil meant for grown-ups instead of kids.

     Mr. Bolognesi's script highlights the idea of Brazil as a country that has always been stuck between a rock and a high place, between the desire for self-determination of its people and the submission to outside influences and power. Shifting between fantasy and reality, the tale is seen through the eyes of 16th century native warrior Abeguar (voiced by Selton Mello); we first meet him attempting to lead his tribe against the treacherous ways of the colonists who manipulate the "heathens" for their own ends. Abeguar's failure leads him to lose everything and dooms him to walk his tribe's native grounds for eternity, searching for the next opportunity to try and push back the wave of evil - the native grounds being what would become the city of Rio de Janeiro.

     The film follows Abeguar's "rebirth" in three different eras of Brazilian history, always pushed into action by the "reincarnation" of his late wife Janaína (Camila Pitanga) and siding with the popular Davids against the ruling Goliath: as a 19th century farmer fighting the injustice of slavery, as a 20th century student fighting the military dictatorship, and in a future world against capitalist control of the water supply. As Mr. Bolognesi is a writer by trade, little wonder it's in the scripting that Rio 2096 stands out, despite the somewhat didactic aspects of the tale and the sense that the film could be "chopped up" into episodes; there is a clear ambition of creating a specifically Brazilian tale that can resonate globally in our days.

     However, the animation doesn't really soar, its general trait and movement too close to standard television work, competent and functional rather than inspired. There is a definitive effort from co-directors Jean de Moura, Marcelo de Moura and Bruno Monteiro to differentiate the specific eras through texture and line, as well as a very clear influence from someone like Frank Miller in the stylization of the violence. But despite the technical proficiency, the look of Rio 2096 is too "international" and not distinctive enough to set it apart; look at the superb closing credits sequence as a suggestion of how the film could have been a lot more striking and match its ambitions. As it is, Rio 2096 is a step above the mere curio, best seen as a first effort that can and will be improved on.

UMA HISTÓRIA DE AMOR E FÚRIA
Brazil 2012
75 minutes
 Voice cast Selton Mello, Camila Pitanga, Rodrigo Santoro
 Director and screenwriter Luiz Bolognesi; co-directors Jean de Moura and Marcelo de Moura; animation director Bruno Monteiro; additional script material by André Moreira Forni, Anna Caiado, Mr. Monteiro, Camilla Loyolla, Marcos Cesana, Paulo Crumbim and Sílvia Lourenço; composers Rica Amabis, Tejo Damasceno and Pupillo; art director Ms. Caiado; film editor Helena Maura; producers Caio Gullane, Fabiano Gullane, Laís Bodanzky, Mr. Bolognesi, Marcos Barreto, Débora Ivanov and Gabriel Lacerda; production companies Buriti Filmes and Gullane Entretenimento in co-production with Europa Filmes, Lightstar Studios, Mondo Cane Filmes, Estúdio Luno, HBO and Tele Image
 Screened February 17th 2015, Lisbon


Saturday, February 28, 2015

YVONE KANE

For her second fictional feature in ten years after the well-remembered A Costa dos Murmúrios (2004), Portuguese director Margarida Cardoso is yet again rummaging through the memories of mid-20th century Portugal and its colonial involvements in Africa.

     Whereas the previous film had the advantage of adapting an acclaimed novel by Lídia Jorge about a young woman's introduction to the colonial world during the 1960s African wars, here Ms. Cardoso moves ahead in time to present-day Mozambique (though the country itself is actually never named in the film). Yvone Kane is an original script, more meandering and less narratively streamlined, but shot in a fascinatingly moody and atmospheric way that makes clear what the director is actually trying to get at.

     At heart, it's a film haunted by what was, what could have been and what never will be, using the past as a jumping-off point to deal with the present. Reeling from the accidental death of her young daughter, the grieving writer Rita (Beatriz Batarda) returns to the African country where she spent her childhood with two things on her mind.

     One is to reconnect with her mother Sara (Irene Ravache), a European who was involved with the revolutionary movements of the colonial period and who stayed on as a doctor after independence. The other is to find out the truth about what really happened to Yvone Kane (Mina Andala), a revolutionary leader whose mysterious death in London was never truly solved but has since become a founding truth of the independence movement; Yvone just happened to be a friend and colleague of her mother in those days.

     What's truly interesting about Yvone Kane, as already in A Costa dos Murmúrios, is how much the director shifts the balance and burden of the colonial tales to women - whereas in the previous film men were noted by the absence to go out and fight, here they're pretty much lateral figures unable or unwilling to deal with the issues women have to face. Ms. Cardoso's approach has the traditional warmth and sunshine we associate with Africa be subsumed into a stifling, grey, overcast fog that is more than just the fog of war and history (it's certainly not casual that it's only towards the ending that sunlight returns to the film's landscape).

     Rita's investigation, patiently piecing together loose strands from the past, is not just about Yvone but also about the world she lived in, the world Sara lived in and the world she herself lives in; and it's about the way these women navigated and still navigate a world where they're supposedly the "weak ones". Keepers of secrets caught in historical events that pretty much stopped them from leading the lives they had dreamed of, they're a sort of living - or even dead - conscience of the demands of the world around them. Haunted by the ghosts who aren't present but still seem to be visible at every turn of the way, Yvone Kane is a film refracted, seen as if through glass panes, windows, mirrored surfaces, a mystery that unfolds as slowly as it unravels and one that is never truly solved to anyone's content.

     As so often, Ms. Cardoso is more interested in the journey rather than the destination, even though it also seems as if she wants to follow all of the possible ramifications underlying the plot. This means Yvone Kane becomes somewhat unfocussed, a bit unwieldy, too diffuse and undecided. And yet there's so much about its attention to actors and quiet confidence that is so enticing and involving that it's hard to ignore it or dismiss it. It takes hold of you in a way that makes you want to see more and understand more.

YVONE KANE
Portugal, Brasil 2014
118 minutes
 Cast Beatriz Batarda, Irene Ravache, Gonçalo Waddington, Samuel Malumbe
 Director and screenwriter Margarida Cardoso; cinematographer João Ribeiro (colour, widescreen); art director Ana Vaz; wardrobe Nádia Henriques; editor João Braz; producers Maria João Mayer, François d'Artemare, Luciana Boal Marinho and Alberto Graça; production companies Filmes do Tejo II in co-production with MPC & Associados and Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian - Programa Próximo Futuro
Screened February 10th 2015, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



YVONE KANE de Margarida Cardoso TRAILER from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.

Friday, February 27, 2015

BIG EYES

"Subtle doesn't sell" - that's the motto of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), shameless self-promoter and marketer extraordinaire in 1950s San Francisco. You'd think Tim Burton, by now, wouldn't need to follow that particular piece of advice; he's made a pretty good career out of getting people to accept his skewed, slightly off-key sensibility.

     And Big Eyes, telling the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the real artist behind the big-eyed waifs that became an art sensation in 1950s/60s America, would be just the perfect to film to assert it again. After a series of uninspired, Burton-by-numbers big-budget spectacles coasting on his reputation, a smaller-scale, low-key drama like this could be just what the doctor ordered.

     Alas, no such luck. There's nary a hint of subtlety or a trace of personality in this parable of media frenzy and unrecognised stifled talent. The mousy Margaret, a commercial artist with a lousy taste in men and a daughter to feed, allows the charming but ruthlessly scheming Walter to pass off her paintings as his own then ride the wave as his gift for (self-)promotion builds up a veritable cottage industry.

     There are all sorts of ideas swirling around in the script by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, but at heart this isn't a story about the drive to succeed, rather about the strength to survive. Here, Margaret was fending for herself in a patriarchal society where being a single woman raising a child on her own was not yet socially acceptable; her sensibility seemed to highlight the menace and pain underneath suburban conformity, but was misunderstood and misappropriated to the point of becoming a whole new conformism in itself. The success of her paintings, discredited by serious artists and critics but selling by the thousands to the average, art-illiterate consumer, also points out how art is a distinctly treacherous ground for absolutes.

     But, for all that, Mr. Burton never seems to truly choose one of these possible paths and instead merely passes them by, preferring to take the least interesting road: that of the abused woman who allowed herself to be taken advantage of and suffered in silence until she could no longer take it. It's a choice that requires a kind of more grounded, direct, realist filmmaking than Mr. Burton usually does and where his strengths tend to lie; whereas the beauty in his masterful Big Fish was in the liberties that embellished the actual truth of the facts, there's nothing of the sort here, just a rather dull trudge through melodrama leading to a rather run-of-the-mill courtroom drama finale.

     There's no lack of talent in front of and behind the camera in Big Eyes, but there seems to be no hunger nor brio (even the typically professional Ms. Adams and Mr. Waltz seem more subdued than usual, and the star supporting cast is basically wasted in glorified cameos). And while it's true that what Mr. Burton has been doing lately hasn't really been challenging (him or us) at all, this seems like the wrong sort of challenge for him to take on.

BIG EYES
USA 2014
106 minutes
 Cast Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
 Director Tim Burton; screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (colour); composer Danny Elfman; designer Rick Heinrichs; costumes Colleen Atwood; editor J. C. Bond; producers Lynette Howell, Mr. Alexander, Mr. Karaszewski and Mr. Burton; production companies The Weinstein Company, Tim Burton Productions and Electric City Entertainment
Screened February 2nd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

AMOR, PLÁSTICO E BARULHO
Love, Plastic and Noise

Amor, Plástico e Barulho could be construed as a tropical take on A Star Is Born about a star on the way up and another on the way down - only nobody in its tale could actually be called a proper star outside the reasonably small scene where everything happens. It could also be a less cruel version of King of Comedy, except these resolutely small-time rural singers never really make it to the big time.

     Sort of a rags-to-rags story whose stars never really reach the riches they're aiming for, the feature debut from Brazilian director Renata Pinheiro is actually something else - That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks' tale of the meteoric rise and fall of an American pop band in the early sixties, reconfigured for the world of Northern Brazilian rural bands peddling cheap, bawdy, backing-tape titillation at local dances and daytime television. Success, here, isn't measured nationally or globally, but just at regional levels, with everyone working hard and struggling just to stand still.

     Ms. Pinheiro's project never condescends, pities or makes fun of its two lead characters, competing singers in one such band who cross paths at different stages of their careers. Jaqueline (Maeve Jinkings) has reached "the top" and has a recognisable hit on her hands, but soon finds out there's really nowhere else to go, unable to parlay that small popularity into bigger, more solid gigs. Shelly (Nash Laila), on the other hand, is the new backing dancer whose big break comes at the expense of Jaqueline and seems all set to groom her to follow her up.

     The director shows just how much work goes into making it even to a rickety, improvised stage at a derelict warehouse, and uses it to highlight both the allure and the disappointment of such ambitions. "Fame", here, is merely an endless treadmill of wannabes that replace each other in a never-ending assembly line, feeding on dreams that are seemingly bound to be dashed. Jaqueline and Shelly are working girls vying for the preferences of the small time DJ or band leader, aspiring to make it out of the circuit but in truth never realising that, if they do, they'll just get to a new level of the very same circuit.

     Ms. Pinheiro's camera never loses sight of the big picture surrounding the two women, while playing it straight as a character study about people making do with the raw hand they've been dealt. And she does so with a bitter-sweet yet vibrant, colourful energy that is respectful of both characters and background. Amor, Plástico e Barulho finds the exact sweet spot between giving up and moving forward, critiquing and understanding, shedding light on a small microcosm that turns out to be very significative of the world that surrounds it. It's yet another stellar example of the vibrant new cinema coming out of Brazil.

AMOR, PLÁSTICO E BARULHO
Brazil 2013
83 minutes
 Cast Nash Laila, Maeve Jinkings, Samuel Vieira, Leo Pyrata
 Director Renata Pinheiro; screenwriters Ms. Pinheiro and Sérgio Oliveira, with collaboration from Ezequiel Peri and René Guerra; cinematographer Fernando Lockett (colour); composers DJ Dolores and Yuri Queiroga; art director Dani Vilela; costumes Joana Gatis; editor Eva Randolph; production company Aroma Filmes in co-production with Boulevard Filmes
Screened April 20th 2014, Lisbon (IndieLisboa 2014 official competition screener)