Tuesday, October 13, 2015


We get it. For once, a dramatic film not only demands to be shot in stereoscopic 3D, it actually makes the most of the technique and shows how and for what it should be used. But there's a long stretch between using smartly a technique and making a great movie, and The Walk is not a great movie by any measure.

     True, only a fraction of those who will see Robert Zemeckis' film have heard of, let alone seen, James Marsh's 2007 documentary Man on Wire. Both films tell exactly the same story: that of French daredevil acrobat Philippe Petit's transcendentally insane feat of laying a wire between the two World Trade Center towers, over 400m in the air, and walk it with no safety net. Both Mr. Marsh's and Mr. Zemeckis' films trade in wide-eyed marvel, in the awareness of one singular, apparently off-centre element can modify completely your view of the world. Mr. Petit's feat of ingenuity is one such poetic gesture that rekindles one's faith in the power of magic and in the greatness of human nature. While Man on Wire explored the poignancy of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with those who lived through it, The Walk is a bowdlerized "novelization" - a lightly fictionalized, narratively compressed take, designed as a technologically peerless thrill ride, but one that, as so often in the work of Mr. Zemeckis, mistakes wonderment and spectacle for grace and emotion.

     Though Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pitch perfect as the maniacally, annoyingly irresistible Mr. Petit, the film often confuses cheekiness with intrusiveness, wit with whimsy. The result is a workaday drama about an overachieving egotist that only truly soars in the final half-hour, as Mr. Gordon-Levitt takes on the wire stretched tautly in the Manhattan skies: here, Mr. Zemeckis' state-of-the-art technology truly finds a sense of grace and wonder, fueled by the actor's almost levitating physicality and by the you-are-there immediacy of the pictures. But it's too small a pay-off for the investment asked of the viewer, and it only confirms how overrated the director's filmmaking has become ever since Forrest Gump. The Walk never goes as high as it wants to, and that is a shame.

US, 2015, 123 minutes
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte le Bon, James Badge Dale
Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Mr. Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, based on the memoir To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit; cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (widescreen); music by Alan Silvestri; production designer Naomi Shohan; costume designer Suttirat Larlarb; editor Jeremiah O'Driscoll; effects supervisor Kevin Baillie; produced by Steve Starkey, Mr. Zemeckis and Jack Rapke, for Tristar Pictures and Imagemovers in association with Lstar Capital
Screened October 2nd 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Monday, October 12, 2015


Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it would have been a thinly veiled insult - or at least a dismissive reference - to say a movie looked like television. The tables have since turned, though; the renaissance of long-form serial television means it's now a compliment of the highest order to say a movie looks like a television. It's a back-handed compliment to be sure, and one that should very ambiguously be meted out to Black Mass, Scott Cooper's abridged adaptation of Boston newsmen Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's tale of infamous Southie mobster Whitey Bulger's decades-long collaboration with the FBI - a film with so many good things going for itself it's a shame it never really gets where it wants to go. It seems to hark back to Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese's new-Hollywood mobster classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas, but also to David Chase's groundbreaking Sopranos, in its desire to transcend the archetype and give actual flesh-and-blood humanity to its characters. Mr. Cooper has the cast to do it, starting with a seething Johnny Depp's brooding turn as Bulger; the director also has the wherewithal to create strong, starkly shot setpieces. What he doesn't have, weirdly enough - or doesn't give himself enough of - is time.

     Clocking in at two hours sharp, Black Mass's sprawling plot is being constantly cut short or pulled back to the central relationship between Bulger and Joel Edgerton's John Connolly, the ambitious FBI agent bewitched by the gangster's larger-than-life status. Most of the parallel threads seem to be there just to be ticked off in a perfunctory checklist; the story supposedly takes place over 20 years, but everything seems to flash by in a matter of months, while allegedly key characters are briefly introduced only to be discarded as quickly. Mr. Cooper is good enough that he allows his ensemble cast enough time to explain why they're cast (none more than Peter Sarsgaard's unhinged Brian Halloran), but not so good that he can wrestle the film into more than an underachieving gangster story, compressing a whole season of a TV series into a two-hour movie. We often complain a film goes on for too long; for once, this one doesn't go on for long enough.

US, UK, 2015, 123 minutes
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Juno Temple
Directed by Scott Cooper; screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based on the book Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill; cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (widescreen); music by Tom Holkenburg; production designer Stefania Cella; costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone; editor David Rosenbloom; producers John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Mr. Cooper, Patrick McCormick and Tyler Thompson, for Warner Bros. Pictures and Cross Creek Pictures in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Le Grisbi Productions, Free State Pictures, Head Gear Films and Vendian Entertainment
Screened September 25th 2015, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Friday, October 09, 2015

João Bénard da Costa - Others Will Love the Things that I Loved

My self-evident love for Manuel Mozos' enveloping essayistic homage to the late João Bénard da Costa (1935-2009), cinephile extraordinaire and one of the most important figures in the history of the Portuguese Cinematheque, goes hand in hand with a strange, uneasy malaise about it. Basically, João Bénard da Costa - Outros Amarão as Coisas Que Eu Amei is a cinephile love letter that will make all the sense in the world if you know who its subject is. But if you don't know, will you still allow yourself to be enveloped by its lovingly assembled trip through memory lane?

     My doubts arise from the film itself, and from its avowed anchoring in the life and personality of Bénard da Costa, prolific writer, columnist and critic, as well as occasional actor in films by his longtime friend Manoel de Oliveira, rather than just director and programmer at the Cinematheque for over 25 years. Mr. Mozos' film is an exquisite, golden-hued collage built around a voiceover narration patiently compiled from Bénard da Costa's myriad writings on film, art and life (the voice reading them belongs to his son João Pedro); it studiously avoids any and all traditional biographical timelines to chart a impressionistic flyover of his life and artistic worldview, in a loosely chronological way.

     Outros Amarão as Coisas Que Eu Amei is also an inscrutably poignant requiem for a time and a culture that is now gone. In a progressively fragmented, atomised visual culture like the one we live in right now, the sort of "monomania" that the film presents can come off as quaint and old-fashioned. Bénard da Costa was very distrustful of the digital revolution, and thought it was a 35mm projection on a big screen of the theatre that gave cinema its true raison d'être; Mr. Mozos underscores his fetishisation of 35mm film through its use in moviolas used to view material from the programmer's favourite films (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Ordet, Portrait of Jennie, Johnny Guitar).

     "Welcome into his world", the film seems to say, before letting you loose inside it with scant regard for anchor points (no contextualization, not even identification of the film and music extracts used until the end credits). It's the sort of "inside job" that will be immediately identifiable by those who knew him or of him. If you don't, chances are you'll either be interested enough to want to know more about him, or be left bewildered and asking what all the fuss is about.

     Still, it is a stunningly realized evocation/invocation of its subject - and how lovely would it be for all great cinephiles to be remembered with such a tribute! - by a director who has found his groove as a sensitive assembler of filmic essays on the passage of time (with the great, mid-length Ruínas as the lodestar by which everything else is measured), with an uncanny ability to get "under the skin" of his subjects.

Portugal, 2014, 76 minutes
Directed by Manuel Mozos; archival research by Mr. Mozos and Luís Nunes; voiceover spoken by João Pedro Bénard; cinematographer Inês Duarte (colour); editor Mr. Nunes; produced by Rui Alexandre Santos, for Rosa Filmes
Screened October 17th 2014, Lisbon (DocLisboa 2014 screener) and October 3rd 2015, Lisbon (distributor advance screener)

Thursday, October 01, 2015


The Martian is a curious beast: a throwback to the can-do optimism of the American pioneer spirit wrapped up in a pachydermian rat's race of bureaucracy and PR spin, an ingenious B-team sci-fi drowned in an all-star big-budget extravaganza, a film that asks serious questions about what we want to do about outer space and wants to give serious answers to it while keeping it light-footed and spirited.

     It's also yet another film in British director Ridley Scott's post-Gladiator renaissance as Hollywood's reliable go-to blockbuster auteur - never mind that his artistic track record since that impressive, gritty return to the halcyon days of the sword-and-sandal epic has been seriously spotty. To ease your minds with no further ado: The Martian is an efficient time-passer, a likeable, wholesome entertainment for the entire family, but hardly in the same league of Mr. Scott's earliest classics such as Alien and Blade Runner (it's closer in league and tone to the intriguing misfire that was The Counselor, but it's no Prometheus - and that wasn't a classic either).

     The key issue seems to me very simple: the adaptation of Andy Weir's best-seller, smartly scripted by Drew Goddard (he of Cloverfield and The Cabin in the Woods), is an avowed exercise in genre tropes that posits what Robinson Crusoe on Mars could be with a wholesome, all-American tinkerer and pioneer, a sort of futuristic MacGyver, as the star. Matt Damon's Mark Watney, left behind for dead on the surface of the red planet when a freak storm forces the abort of a month-long research trip, has to deal with being alone and surviving until he can find a way to make contact with Earth and let them know he's still around.

     And that is exactly the film's sweet spot: having a relatable, easy-going film star with a guy-next-door vibe and acting chops carry the "last-man-on-planet" adventure. The problem is that, for that film to emerge, a more fleet-footed, easier-going director was required; Mr. Scott is by his own nature a careful framer who is at his best when deploying the whole gamut of artistic universe creation, and something as small-scale as The Martian is less about precision and more about spontaneity. That is also why, despite the narrative requirement of regular cutaways to the team back on Earth who is setting up a rescue mission or to his fellow mission survivors on their long trek home, these scenes are mostly bloated and surplus to requirements, wasting a perfectly fine cast of character actors in supporting-role archetypes.

     It's in Mr. Damon's nicely calibrated cheerfulness, his resourcefulness and determination to survive at any cost occasionally marred by the realization of his immense loneliness, that resides the beating heart of this overlong but not unpleasant film.

US, United Kingdom, 2015, 140 minutes
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel The Martian by Andy Weir; cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; composer Harry Gregson-Williams; designer Arthur Max; costumes Janty Yates; editor Pietro Scalia; visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers; produced by Simon Kinberg, Mr. Scott, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood and Mark Huffam, for Twentieth Century Fox, Kinberg Genre Films and Scott Free Productions in association with TSG Entertainment Finance
Screened September 28th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Monday, September 28, 2015


Anton Corbijn's unmistakable stylings have made him one of the few rock photographers who has become as well known as the stars he photographs. But, after a long list of striking music videos and a superb theatrical debut with the Ian Curtis biopic Control, Mr. Corbijn has lined up a series of intriguing, leftfield filmmaking choices, of which Life is only the latest.

     On paper, it seemed to be right up the director's alley: it's the tale behind the 1955 photo shoot photographer Dennis Stock made with James Dean, eventually printed on Life magazine, at a time when East of Eden had not opened yet and the young actor was about to hit the big time. But both the script (by writer Luke Davies) and Mr. Corbijn's take on the story are not so much about pictures and photography as they are about fame and the media circus, something the director knows first-hand from his work with major music stars and which also played a part in Control. 

     The conceit of Life is that that iconic photo shoot - showing a moody Dean walking through a rainy Times Square and goofing around the family ranch in Indiana - was a direct result of a yearning for both actor and photographer to leave behind their salad days and move to the next level. For Stock, tired of the shooting-stills and red-carpet circuit and wanting to be taken seriously as a photo-reporter, capturing correctly the actor's charisma could be the golden ticket; for Dean, an Actors Studio alum uneasy about being groomed as just another teen idol, the photo shoot could kickstart things outside the studio orbit and allow him to be seen as a serious actor and not just another cog in Warner's PR machine.

     Stock and Dean are too different to effectively be friends; no bromance for Messrs. Corbijn and Davies, but a push-pull dynamic where the two young men recognise each other's talents but are too anxious about themselves to actually open up to the other. It's in that subterranean dynamic that Life makes sense and works best. Mr. Corbijn, who has proved before to be very attentive to his actors, effectively and adroitly directs Robert Pattinson and Dane de Haan. Mr. Pattinson is particularly strong in the less flashy role of Dennis Stock, smartly balancing ambition and insecurity; Mr. De Haan gets the short end of the stick as Dean, but still manages to capture well the mythical actor's shuffling attitude and presence. (Australian all-rounder Joel Edgerton also registers strongly as Stock's Magnum agent.)

     For all that, Life is strangely "lifeless", even listless - for a work directed by a photographer, it does tend to fall back all too often into the prestige-period-feel trap, especially since the 1950s are such an iconic era. But maybe that was Mr. Corbijn's bait-and-switch all along: if you come to Life expecting a photographer's film or another take on the Dean Myth, you'll be surprised that it's not quite that. It's a tale about breaking free of the system - while still playing its game.

Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, US, 2015, 111 minutes
Starring Robert Pattinson, Dane de Haan, Joel Edgerton, Alessandra Mastronardi, Stella Schnabel, Ben Kingsley
Directed by Anton Corbijn; written by Luke Davies; cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (widescreen); music by Owen Pallett; designer Anastasia Masaro; costumes by Gersha Phillips; editor Nick Fenton; produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Christina Piovesan, Benito Mueller and Wolfgang Mueller, for Téléfilm Canada, Filmfour, Screen Australia, Filmförderung Schleswig-Holstein, See-Saw Films, First Generation Films and Barry Films in association with Filmnation Entertainment, Cornerpiece Capital, Entertainment One, The Harold Greenberg Fund, Cross City Sales and The Movie Network
Screened September 18th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Friday, September 25, 2015


If you had a hankering to climb to the top of Mount Everest as a symbol of the "human adventure" at its greatest, you probably won't anymore after you've seen Baltasar Kormákur's film - its retelling of the tragic 1996 expedition that left five dead is possibly the best ad for not going there ever made. But, peculiarly enough, that's probably the reason why the latest big-studio endeavour by this Icelandic director is a more satisfying film than the initial reviews made it seem.

     Everest makes good use of state-of-the-art technology not as an end in itself but as a means to an end - that is, as a way to tell its story of human drama at the very edge of physical endurance, and to make the spectacular visuals a mere backdrop to its characters' issues and experiences. It helps that Mr. Kormákur has eschewed the proverbial film-star stunt casting and instead goes for solid ensemble players: the narrative is anchored around the ever-reliable craftsmen that are Jason Clarke, John Hawkes and Josh Brolin, with the great Emily Watson as equally great backup. Also, not for nothing is Everest originally a British project, shepherded by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner's stalwart prestige boutique Working Title: its adherence to no-nonsense realism over widescreen heroics is an apparently throwaway element that becomes crucial to the film's harrowingly stoic descent into tragedy, as the teams of Rob Hall (Mr. Clarke) and Scott Fischer (an underused Jake Gyllenhaal) overshoot their summit and are caught by a monstrous storm on their way down.

     In that sense, Everest follows on the footsteps of other directors who overlay the basics of melodrama onto hyper-realistic state-of-the-art backgrounds (see Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity and hopefully Robert Zemeckis' upcoming The Walk). But Everest does not offer the saving grace of a happy ending; there's no triumph of the human spirit to celebrate here. Instead, we have a "true-story" drama that follows the rules pretty faithfully but gains gravitas and strength as it moves forward, as Salvatore Totino's crisply breathtaking cinematography and the discretion with which 3D is used take a backseat to the carefully modulated set-up of a warm-hearted, eventually heart-breaking ensemble piece. A model of efficient, intelligent "B-team" journeyman filmmaking like Hollywood seldom cares about doing these days, Everest may not be the event masterpiece some expected, and that's actually a very good thing.

US, UK, Iceland, 2015, 121 minutes
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Martin Henderson, Elizabeth Debicki, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Jake Gyllenhaal
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur; written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, from the book by S. Beck Weathers and Peter G. Michaud Left for Dead and the Men's Journal article by Peter Wilkinson The Dead Zone; cinematographer Salvatore Totino; music by Dario Marianelli; designer Gary Freeman; costumes by Guy Speranza; editor Mick Audsley; effects supervisor Dadi Einarsson; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson, for Universal Pictures, Walden Media and Working Title Films in association with Cross Creek Pictures, RVK Studios and Free State Pictures
Screened September 15th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


If you didn't know that Turbo Kid started life as a short, you would probably still suspect something as the film unfolds: this is the first feature from a Quebecois trio of filmmakers (the husband-and-wife team of François Simard and Anouk Whissell, and her brother Yoann-Karl Whissell, collectively known as Roadkill Superstar) who already have a number of shorts under their belt, and at times you feel as if the plot is running on fumes. But that's also part and parcel of the charm of this avowed future-retro throwback to low-budget and direct-to-video eighties post-apocalyptic sci-fi: it's a cinephile's blink-and-you'll-miss-it spot-the-reference delight.

     Set in a futuristic wasteland where transport is done by bicycle due to lack of petrol, the film follows the orphaned teenage Kid's (Munro Chambers) coming-of-age, as he finds out that the old super-hero whose comic-books he collects ravenously, Turbo Rider, actually existed, and that the region's villainous overlord Zeus (Michael Ironside) is the man responsible for the death of his parents. If you dig deeper than just the obvious Mad Max and early Peter Jackson homages (the practical gore effects are Braindead to the hilt), as well as the jokey shoutouts to Soylent Green, The Terminator and early computer technology (ah, the analogue-synth-pulse soundtrack!), you'll find Turbo Kid invokes a lot more than that. There's 1980s American offbeat sci-fi like Nick Castle's The Last Starfighter or W. D. Richter's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, exploitation fare such as BMX Bandits, European western-spaghetti, post-apocalyptic manga such as Akira and some of Takashi Miike's post-modern free-for-alls. (And it does so with a lot more panache and ingeniousness than David Sandberg's much-ballyhooed but ultimately dispiriting Kung Fury.)

     The key about Turbo Kid is not so much its inscription in a long tradition of low-budget genre filmmaking, but the affection and genre smarts with which it does so, the pure genre-fan wide-eyed "I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this!" adrenaline of the project. It's turbo-charged (ahem) cliché all the way, but redeemed by its own awareness and celebration of derivativeness, its wish to recapture an earlier, "purer" way of filmmaking, unencumbered by focus groups or studio diktats. (Ironically, Turbo Kid started out as a short submitted on spec but not retained for the horror anthology The ABCs of Death. But we won't hold that against Roadkill Superstar.)

Canada, New Zealand, 2014, 93 minutes
Starring Munro Chambers, Laurence Leboeuf, Aaron Jeffery, Edwin Wright, Romano Orzari, Michael Ironside
Directed and written by Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell; cinematographer Jean-Philippe Bernier; composers Le Matos (Mr. Bernier and Jean-Nicolas Leupi); art director Sylvain Lemaitre; costumes Éric Poirier; make-up Olivier Xavier; effects supervisors Jean-François Ferland and Luke Haigh; editor, Mr. Haigh; producers Anne-Marie Gélinas, Ant Timpson, Benoît Beaulieu and Tim Riley, for EMA Films and T&A Films with the participation of Téléfilm Canada, New Zealand Film Commission and Super Channel 
Screened September 6th 2015, Lisbon, MOTELx screener