Monday, September 01, 2014

LOVE IS STRANGE

The first triumph of Ira Sachs' follow-up to his acclaimed award-winner Keep the Lights On is that Love Is Strange is neither a stereotypical "problem picture" nor a stereotypical "queer film". In fact, there is very little stereotypical about its unashamedly classic melodrama dressed in contemporary trappings. While, yes, it is a film about life in modern-day New York City, and yes, it does feature a same-sex relationship at its centre, this is not a flag-waving, fist-pumping standard-bearer for gay rights, but a remarkable story about growing old. Mr. Sachs, whose previous work ran the gamut from exciting to middling, seems to have hit the bullseye with this touching, heartbreaking tale of an aging couple who realize time has passed and left them behind, discarded like old heirlooms people don't really look twice at.

     Somewhere between Yasujiro Ozu's delicate miniatures of everyday living and the unabashed handkerchief quality of classic Hollywood - the clearer reference is Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow - Love Is Strange posits what happens when a happily partnered couple of 40 years find themselves in financial hardship and have to move in with friends and relatives. Music teacher George (Alfred Molina) is fired from his job at a Catholic school for having married his partner of 40 years, retired artist Ben (John Lithgow), meaning they can no longer afford their central New York flat - or, for that matter, any other flat. But neither can they find a place to stay together unless they move to the outer boroughs - impossible for George because of his private students - and the couple ends up separating. George moves in with the (stereotypically gay) couple of much younger police officers next door, creating an unspoken generation gap collision; Ben moves out with his nephew Elliott (Darren Burrows) and his family, becoming the "odd man out" in a household facing internal problems of his own, especially with Elliott's son Charlie (Charlie Tahan), an ill-at-ease teenager whose coming-of-age issues end up as the catalyst for the film's heartbreaking finale.

     That Love Is Strange is such a resonatingly moving experience is, in great part, due to Mr. Sachs' stellar casting and the ensemble's exquisitely tuned performances: Mr. Lithgow turns in a career-best role as Ben, who finds himself utterly lost apart from his other half, and Marisa Tomei, as Elliott's wife Kate, is in fine form as a character that works in some ways as the viewer's surrogate, the relative whose patience and kindness is stretched when dealing with a situation she has no control over. But, beyond that, it's a minutely judged and remarkably controlled melodrama where the same-sex relationship takes a complete backseat to the simplicity and restraint with which it takes up its premise; quaintly old-fashioned in its decision to tell a simple story simply, shockingly modern in its refusal to settle for easy clichés. Love Is Strange is nothing short of a masterpiece.

LOVE IS STRANGE
USA, Greece, Brazil 2014
94 minutes
Cast Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez, Christine Kirk, Marisa Tomei
Director Ira Sachs; screenwriters Mr. Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias; cinematographer Christos Voudouris (colour); designer Amy Williams; costumes Arjan Bhasin; editors Affonso Gonçalves and Michael Taylor; producers Lucas Joaquin, Jay van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Mr. Sachs and Jayne Baron Sherman; production companies Parts and Labor in co-production with Faliro House Productions, Film 50, Mutressa Movies and RT Features, in association with the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation
Screened February 6th 2014, CineStar 3, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama press screening)



Friday, August 29, 2014

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR

We have, literally, been here before - not just in the "hardboiled" crime thrillers whose hold on contemporary imagination persists since its 1940s/1950s introduction and heyday, but also in the stylized, chiaroscuro paneling that acclaimed/controversial artist Frank Miller created on paper with his Sin City series of graphic novels in the early 1990s and Robert Rodriguez impeccably transposed to the big screen nearly ten years ago. There's no doubt Mr. Miller managed to distill the essence of disenchanted, cynical post-war film noir in his visually striking work; there's even less doubt that Mr. Rodriguez's use of modern technology to bring the comics' vision to vivid, graphic life in his 2005 Sin City was an inspired gambit. His use of state-of-the-art technology to recreate the stylized artifice of the stories, having the all-star ensemble cast play against a green screen and placing it in digitally rendered sets straight out of Mr. Miller's artwork, developed into a truly artistic approach at once faithful to the origin material and extraordinarily cinematic.

     But this belated return to the universe of Basin City seems to have lost the "magic touch" of 2005. Though Mr. Rodriguez has always been at his best working within the restraints of "pulp fiction", revelling in the energy and in the tropes of disposable low-grade cinema (as seen in his Grindhouse contributions Planet Terror or Machete), there is a sense both he and Mr. Miller (again co-directing and contributing two new storylines for the film as well) are trying too hard to recapture the drive of the original film and end up not really succeeding.

     Part of it comes from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For being essentially more of the same; it's another set of visually stunning pulp noir tales within the well-codified universe of the genre, but with no discernible difference in approach or storytelling from the previous film. These could very well be "out-takes" from the 2005 production, heightened by the presence of returning cast members that are seriously underused, such as Mickey Rourke's good-hearted lug Marv or Bruce Willis' now ghostly incorruptible police officer (the use of 3D doesn't really add much either).

     Part of it is the creaking narrative: the four stories included aren't really interwoven, turning A Dame to Kill For into a portmanteau of isolated tales connected by the occasional common character and setting, and spending most of its running time on the titular storyline, adapted from one of the earliest Sin City comics. That tale of a Barbara-Stanwyckian femme fatale who seduces men for her own devious ways but makes the mistake of deciding to use the one man who truly loved her is, however, the saving grace of this sequel. Not only a smart riff on the hardboiled genre, it's the most cohesive and most fully realized of the four stories, also features another blisteringly stellar villain performance from the great Eva Green, ably backed by a coiled, moody Josh Brolin as her patsy.

     While there's no denying this is not so much a sequel determined by box-office expectations as it is a film borne out of the genuine desire of its makers to further explore the universe created in 2005, there is also no denying that A Dame to Kill For doesn't really go any further than the original went. It becomes a predictable, over-familiar thrill ride that no longer excites you as it did the first time around.

FRANK MILLER'S SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR
USA, France, India 2014
102 minutes
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Stacy Keach, Jaime King, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Meloni, Juno Temple, Marton Csokas, Jude Ciccolella, Julia Garner
Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller; screenwriter Mr. Miller; based on his stories "A Dame to Kill For" and "Just Another Saturday Night"; cinematographer and editor Mr. Rodriguez (b&w with colour elements, 3D); composers Mr. Rodriguez and Carl Thiel; designers Steve Joyner and Caylah Eddleblute; costumes Nina Proctor; co-editor Ian Silverstein; effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier; special make-up Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger; producers Mr. Rodriguez, Aaron Kaufman, Stephen L'Heureux, Sergei Bespalov, Alexei Rodniansky and Mark Manuel; production companies Aldamisa Entertainment, Troublemaker Studios, AR Films and Solipsist Films in co-production with Davis Films Productions, in association with Dimension Films, Prescience, Altus Media and Prime Focus Films
Screened August 22nd 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 6, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

JACK

Belief in one's work, the overarching desire to tell this story to the best of one's abilities, an almost irrepressible need to share a tale with the world; all of these are excellent reasons to invest yourself in a film, but are no guarantee that the results will be at the height of the ambitions. Such is the case with veteran German director Edward Berger's return to the big screen after a decade working in television: this well-meaning tale of a ten-year-old who pretty much runs the household while his mother is out and about carousing looks much like a rehash of earlier, better films, halfway between the social problem picture and the small-scale, art-house drama.

     Jack reminds you alternately of the urban, working-class grittiness of the Dardenne brothers, of the poetic look at a child's ability to blend in with her surroundings in Valérie Massadian's Nana, or of the Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda's tender, clear-eyed look at children caught in family affairs. In fact, Mr. Berger's film, developed over a few years and co-scripted with actress Nelle Mueller-Stöfen (who is also on-screen) is clearly indebted to Mr. Kore-eda's Nobody Knows while being far too close narratively to Swiss director Ursula Meier's more affecting Sister. As in Ms. Meier's film, the centre of the tale is a young man, Jack (the preternaturally confident Ivo Pietzcker), who lives in Berlin pretty much on his own and takes care of his younger brother Manuel (Georg Arms) while mother Sanna (Luise Heyer), who seems to have no fixed job and is prone to leaving the two kids on their own for days on end. Here, though, Ms. Mueller-Stöfen and Mr. Berger lead the story into a welcome absence of moral judgements, as Jack, taken into a social care center and missing the self-reliance and freedom of his previous life, eventually goes in search of his mother and tries to recapture what he once had.

     Presented as a sort of precocious, speeded-up coming of age tale about a boy forced to grow up way too fast and about to learn the hard way what taking responsibility means, Jack benefits strongly from the dry, matter-of-fact presentation of the narrative and Mr. Berger's attention to his actors, as well as a very strong sense of place. Unfortunately, the overly demonstrative score from Christoph Kaiser and Julian Maas tends to bring out the sentimental whimsy the director is trying to evade, and the general story arc comes out as overly schematic, hitting a number of apparently preset narrative beats that seem to format the film so it can fit in a specific festival, television and/or arthouse slot. It's honest, well-meaning, but ultimately utterly anonymous.

JACK
Germany 2014
102 minutes
Cast Ivo Pietzcker, Georg Arms, Luise Heyer, Nelle Mueller-Stöfen
Director Edward Berger; screenwriters Mr. Berger and Ms. Mueller-Stöfen; cinematographer Jens Harant (colour); composers Christoph M. Kaiser and Julian Maas; designer Christiane Rothe; costumes Esther Walz; editor Janine Herhoffer; producers Jan Krüger and René Römert; production companies Port-au-Prince Film und Kultur Produktion in co-production with Cine Plus Filmproduktion, Mixtvision Filmproduktion, Neue Bioskop Film and Zero West Filmproduktion, in association with Hessischer Rundfunk and ARTE
Screened February 7th 2014, Berlinale Palast, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)

Monday, August 25, 2014

'71

"Oh no, not another film about the Troubles!" You'll be forgiven for thinking this when faced with the synopsis for Brit television veteran Yann Demange's debut feature: a British squaddie just assigned to Belfast in 1971 finds himself lost and alone in the city after an operation goes wrong. But Mr. Demange's dynamic, driven film manages to successfully evade the cliches that lurk throughout Gregory Burke's script, much thanks to an electrifying opening act that throws the viewer right into the heart of the matter and goes a long way towards making up for any later frailties.

     Following the training and deployment of soldier Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) to Belfast, the film then throws him immediately out of his depth in an urgent run for his life through the back alleys of a city ruled by hate and fear. By looking at it from the point of view of a rank private thrown in way over his head and finding himself alone in enemy territory with no one to trust or look to for help, Mr. Demange immediately sets the film in a zone of constant surprise where anything can happen, much helped by an expert treatment of tempo, pacing and rhythm, lenser Tat Radcliffe's driving visuals moving the tale forward effortlessly. It's quite a start, and as the plot starts developing, involving the complicated shifting of allegiances back and forth, it's evident the director is looking at '71 as a sort of urban western or contemporary resistance movie, with Mr. Radcliffe making the most out of his handheld camera and of the oppressive, claustrophobic warrens of dank corridors, aging pubs and cinder block emptiness where the tale takes place.

     In Mr. Burke's script and Mr. O'Connell's constantly dazed performance, Hook is probably the one true innocent caught up in a corrupt system where he is merely a "useful idiot" and out for a rude awakening about his role as a soldier - as colourfully said early in the movie, it's all about "posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts". '71 thus becomes as well an indictment of a period in British society that was trying to hold on to its imperial, colonial mindset without truly realising how much the world had moved on from it.

     For all that, as Hook becomes a lonely prey attempting to survive a full-on predator hunt, the film also relaxes into a more standard thriller mode, even if better handled and more dynamic than usual, before the climax ramps up again the driving energy to match a remarkable first 30 minutes. For most of its length, then, '71 it's a surprisingly accomplished debut, melding together thoughtfulness and action in a way few recent films have done. Don't be surprised if Hollywood comes knocking on Mr. Demange's door.

'71
United Kingdom 2014
99 minutes
Cast Jack O'Connell, Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Martin McCann, Charlie Murphy, Sam Reid, Killian Scott, David Wilmot
Director Yann Demange; screenwriter Gregory Burke; cinematographer Tat Radcliffe (colour, widescreen); composer David Holmes; designer Chris Oddy; costumes Jane Petrie; editor Chris Wyatt; sound designer Paul Davies; producers Angus Lamont and Robin Gutch; production companies Filmfour, British Film Institute, Screen Yorkshire, Creative Scotland, Crab Apple Films and Warp Films
Screened February 6th 2014, Cinemaxx 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)


Friday, August 22, 2014

LUCY

The film star as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-dazzling deity - now there's a metaphor for super-heroes if there ever was one, which makes it all but unavoidable for a bona fide film star to be the only possibility to play the title character of French "vulgar auteur" Luc Besson's latest attempt at marrying high art and lowbrow genre film. Lucy is a surreal, breathless speed-of-light sugar rush through a series of enticing but half-baked sci-fi concepts that seem to have barely been sketched before the director jetted off to Taiwan to shoot. In the process, Mr. Besson wastes an intriguing premise with legs and a confident, assured performance from Scarlett Johansson, adding another earring to her jewel box of varied, sensual roles.

     Her Lucy is an American party girl enjoying her stay in Taipei until a one-week-stand boyfriend (Pilou Asbæk) forces on her a mysterious briefcase to deliver to a tony hotel. Hijacked against her will into being a courier for crime boss Jang (a woefully underused Choi Min-sik), Lucy accidentally absorbs a huge dose of the crystals into her blood stream; the compound literally storms open the "doors of perception", speeding up the normal evolution of the human brain a billionfold until she can use all of its powers and, in effect, becomes the first of a new species. The name is, of course, not accidental - Lucy is also the name of the Ethiopian fossil skeleton that became the most complete earliest human ancestor ever found.

     Mr. Besson has always been more of a visceral, visual director than a narrative filmmaker, so you'd be forgiven for expecting Lucy to reach a destination, but while he has here decided to go back into the toy box of eye-popping visuals that made him famous in the 1980s, you end up coming out of the film with a slight nausea from too much (eye) candy - it's merely a journey pretty much to nowhere. In the process of becoming a new kind of human being, Lucy has to face off Jang's ruthless henchmen, cueing up a series of spectacularly mindless and often shockingly brutal action setpieces that exist solely as manifestations of the director's visual stylings, obfuscating the lofty ideas that the script espouses.

     In effect, Lucy is a take on 2001 under the guise of a live-action super-hero comic-book, grandiose in its intellectual scope, kick-ass in its visual approach. The idea of your average party girl becoming, in many ways, omniscient and all-powerful works wonderfully as metaphor for the transcendental power of film (let's not forget that Mr. Besson's favourite go-to heroines are strong female leads, from Anne Parillaud's Nikita to Milla Jovovich's Leeloo in The Fifth Element or Marie Bourgoin's Adèle Blanc-Sec).

     But, as always, the director prefers to use story as scaffold instead of throughline; despite a couple of truly moving moments as Lucy realises what fate has in store of her, despite the admiration you may feel for Mr. Besson attempting to deal with serious concepts and philosophical meditations in the framework of a big-budget action film, it all collapses in the director's sensory, indigestive overload of visual tricks, under the weight of long-term accomplice Éric Serra's pompous, overbearing, entirely inappropriate score. It's the work of a clearly talented visual storyteller director having fun with his toy box for the greater glory of an actress at her peak, but it's the cinematic equivalent of fast food: comforting while it lasts, but ultimately unfulfilling.

LUCY
France 2014
90 minutes
Cast Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbæk, Analeigh Tipton
Director and screenwriter Luc Besson; cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (colour, widescreen); composer Éric Serra; designer Hugues Tissandier; costumes Olivier Beriot; editor Julien Rey; effects supervisor Nicholas Brooks; producer Virginie Besson-Silla; production company Europacorp in co-production with TF1 Films Production and Grive Productions, with the participation of Canal Plus, Ciné Plus and TF1
Screened August 6th 2014, Piazza Grande, Locarno (Locarno Film Festival opening ceremony)


Thursday, August 21, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Guardians of the Galaxy is a welcome (but possibly short-lived) breath of fresh air among the cookie-cutter, marketing-driven filmic universe of Marvel super-heroes that has become the de facto standard model of modern Hollywood blockbuster entertainment. Treading a very fine line between fitting in inconspicuously among the Marvel line-up and reintroducing a breathless, juvenile idea of sheer fun in an output that has become far too serious and predictable, this lively adaptation of a second-tier series in the comic-book potentate's universe benefits from having been handed over to a hungrier, edgier director: former Troma alumnus James Gunn, a screenwriter-for-hire and practitioner of genre cinema (Slither).

     Mr. Gunn is the right man for the job, bringing in a breezy, cheeky B-movie feel, a self-deprecating, wink-and-nod quality that melds together Joss Whedon's pop-cultural sensibility, Joe Dante's satirical bite and the wide-eyed wonder of Steven Spielberg's mid-1980s Amblin productions; Guardians of the Galaxy is in fact closer to a twin of Mr. Whedon's space-western TV/film combo Firefly/Serenity. The title's "guardians of the galaxy" are an opportunity to insert some character-driven comedy in the usually super-serious Marvel universe: a series of outcast space losers that fate pulls together around a sphere of unimaginable power, the Infinity Stone, that can destroy the universe in the wrong hands. There's Peter Quill (a star-making performance by TV actor Chris Pratt), a Missouri boy abducted as a kid and raised by space outlaws, genetically modified warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), wisecracking raccoon bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his sidekick, sentient tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and the totally unironic, un-self-conscious brute Drax (Dave Bautista).

     This motley crew of misfits comes together first chasing the Stone for their own ends and then eventually ganging up to make sure it doesn't fall in the hands of the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace), thrown headfirst into an unpretentious, entirely derivative space opera that wears its tongue clearly in its cheek. Meaning that Guardians of the Galaxy can be seen by those unfamiliar with the constant interconnectedness of the Marvel universe, and will be best enjoyed by those with a knowledge of the tropes of science fiction and exotic Hollywood pulp fiction, since it so clearly is a sort of love letter to classic studio adventures (closer in tone to some of the comic-book minor entries like The Rocketeer, for instance).

     For all that, though, Guardians of the Galaxy still has to comply with the demands of the Marvel universe; hence Mr. Pace's somewhat dullish villain and the truly "super-heroic" final visual effects blow-out that seems designed to appease the studio but seems to pretty much drown the previous lightness of touch with a strong dosage of destruction and catastrophe. Yet, it's everything else - the lively, light-hearted banter between its geeky, nerdy underdog heroes, the expertly-judged combination of fast-paced action and anachronical wisecracks - that sets Guardians of the Galaxy apart from the remainder of the studio's assembly-line super-heroes. Maybe not for long; there's a sequel in the works already, and it seems as if these characters are going to "cross over" into the other Marvel series. For now, though, this will more than do, and will even make you wish all Summer entertainment was as breezy as this.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
USA 2014
121 minutes
Cast Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro
Director James Gunn; screenwriters Mr. Gunn and Nicole Perlman; based on the Marvel comic book characters created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning; cinematographer Ben Davis (colour, widescreen); composer Tyler Bates; designer Charles Wood; costumes Alexandra Byrne; editors Craig Wood, Fred Raskin and Hughes Winborne; effects supervisor Stéphane Ceretti; producer Kevin Feige; production company Marvel Studios
Screened August 1st 2014, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

BA MA BU ZAI JIA (Ilo Ilo)

Singaporean director Anthony Chen's debut feature has been showered with the acclaim reserved by critics to that elusive first feature from an exotic origin, proof of the existence of cinematic life in some hitherto unexplored country, and not just cinematic life but the "right sort" of it: a hybrid of mainstream storytelling and auteurist approach that gets the best of both worlds. It's a description that can be unfair to the film itself - Ilo Ilo is undoubtedly not as calculated as that! - but the acclaim of this lovely but slight debut reflects not so much its intrinsic qualities as what others see in it and how it can fit an increasingly fragmented world cinema landscape.

     Allegedly inspired by Mr. Chen's own memories of growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, Ilo Ilo is for all intents and purposes a period piece, set in 1998 on the brink of the Asian economic recession, with a middle-class household hiring a Filipino maid to take care of the house and pick up the young son while the parents are away at work. What Mr. Chen does really well is trace the broken web of relationships in the Lim family: for the overbearing mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), an administrative assistant in a shipping company, social status is everything; the weak father, glass salesman Beng Teck (Chen Tianwen), has lost his zest for life and feels trapped in a hamster wheel; and grade school kid Jiale (Koh Ja Ler) has no steady hand nor role model to guide him, as the parents are always away at work, eventually holding on to his OCD study of prize lottery numbers and acting up at school to find the attention he doesn't get at home.

     Into this broken family comes a broken woman of her own, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), who left her young son at home with her sister to earn money abroad. And despite being able to only communicate in broken English and being effectively treated as a second-class citizen and a virtual live-in slave by Hwee Leng (as, indeed, all other Filipino maids around), Teresa becomes the centre of the Lim household, the rock around which everyone revolves as the personal and financial issues come to a head: Beng Teck is fired and hides from his family that he's found a low-paying job as a security guard, Hwee Leng finds herself lured in by a motivational speaker, and Jiale gets into serious trouble at school.

     Mr. Chen's film is at its best in the way he passes no judgement on people who are not necessarily pleasant or perfect, depicting human beings with all their frailties and strengths. But, just as his heroes are neither pleasant nor perfect (much helped by the nicely judged performances from the cast), neither is Ilo Ilo, its narrative somewhat predictable and derivative, its exploration of emotional redemption in a socioeconomical context neither entirely contrived nor entirely convincing, and without any particular personality in the handling and style. It's hardly a flaw to make a first feature that is good without being great, and Ilo Ilo is certainly an assured debut that reveals a director with evident talents; it's just that the film is too fragile and modest to be worthy of the praise lavished on it, which is by no means its fault.

BA MA BU ZAI JIA
Singapore 2013
99 minutes
Cast Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tianwen, Angeli Bayani, Koh Ja Ler
Director and screenwriter Anthony Chen; cinematographer Benoît Soler (colour); art director Michael Wee; costumes Nelson Lee; editors Hoping Chen and Joanne Cheong; producers Ang Hwee Sim, mr. Chen and Wahyuni A. Hadi; production companies Singapore Film Commission, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Fisheye Pictures
Screened July 31st 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 14 (distributor press screening)



ILO ILO - TRAILER from Memento Films International on Vimeo.