Thursday, September 03, 2015


No matter what you think of Jonathan Demme as a filmmaker - and I tend to generally enjoy his music documentary work much better than his narrative films - one constant throughout his career has been the generosity he shows towards his characters, the space he allows them to find and explore around them to exist as people outside any boxes you'd want to fit them in.

     That's probably the best thing you can say about the reasonably lukewarm but not uninteresting Ricki and the Flash, a film entirely predicated on individuality and respect for the other, on being your own person and chasing your own truth, stifled under a half-baked collection of family-drama clichés. While these are themes that have always underlined as well the work of screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), they're given a somewhat perfunctory gloss in a strongly unbalanced script, an effective "game of two halves" that don't necessarily coalesce as they should.

     The theme of a woman realising she's not getting her lost time back and deciding to deal with it is stronger on the second part, which turns out to be a bit too much of a less edgy take on Mr. Demme's previous Rachel Getting Married. The first half, on the other hand, suggests a middle-aged comedy of almost-remarriage, as never-was rock singer Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) returns home to Indianapolis to help her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Ms. Streep's actual daughter) overcome a traumatic separation, and reacquaints herself with her since remarried ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline in bumbling auto-pilot). It's all the more disappointing that both halves don't really gel as much, doubly so because with this cast it wouldn't take much to get the movie going - as shown by the remarkably performed and shot stand-off between Ricki and Pete's current wife Maureen (Audra McDonald), spine-tingling in the adroit management of its tension and territory.

     At its heart, Ricki and the Flash is really about broken families that never got over their original rift. Ricki left behind a husband and three young children for the dream of rock stardom, and when that didn't pan out she stayed in California, eking out a living at odd jobs while performing with a workaday band at an Orange County roadhouse; the only family she now has is her band, but she will not commit to the open advances of her guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) for fear of spoiling things again. Back home, though, Pete may have regrouped and got the family going as normal as possible, but everyone still resents Ricki for having gone off with no thoughts for them, and for all we know Julie may be just repeating the pattern, especially since her brother is himself engaged to be married very soon.

     Interestingly enough, the film also works in a neat little inversion of the stereotypes it trafficks in: Ricki, the California dissolute full of tattoos and piercings, turns out to be a Bush-voting blue-collar rocker still believing in the healing power of rock and roll, while it's the Indianapolis liberals she married into that end up having more of a haughty prejudice against those unlike them. But even though there could be something interesting in this shuffling of ideas of respectability and rebellion, this acceptance that America's current social and political polarization doesn't take account reality, Ricki and the Flash settles into a mild and entirely predictable life-lessons comedy-drama, much enlivened by Mr. Demme's deft hand with actors and the energy both he and the cast bring to the stage scenes.

     Ms. Streep as a blue collar rockin' mama (doing her own singing and playing her own guitar) may be a piece of stunt casting. But the actress gives such a rounded, heartfelt performance, expertly shifting between bravado and vulnerability, that it never comes off as "Meryl does rock". And Ms. Gummer more than holds her own, though, as with much of the supporting roles, there isn't as much there for her as there is for the film's star to do.

     Ricki and the Flash could have been a lot more trenchant and have a lot more to say about contemporary America than it turns out to; it may be entirely representative of the way counter-culture has been gradually assimilated by the mainstream and turned into a staid archetype of Americana - old rebels always become the epitome of conservatism - but ultimately the film accepts this status quo without much questioning. Mr. Demme fine-tunes his compassionate approach to his characters, and hands the stage to Ms. Streep without further ado, but there's really not much more to say about this perfectly civilized but under-achieving entertainment.

USA, 2015
101 minutes
Cast Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Rick Springfield
Director Jonathan Demme; screenwriter Diablo Cody; cinematographer Declan Quinn (widescreen); designer Stuart Wurtzel; costues Ann Roth; editor Wyatt Smith; producers Marc Platt, Gary Goetzman, Ms. Cody and Mason Novick, Tristar Pictures, Marc Platt Productions and Badwill Entertainment in association with Lstar Capital
Screened August 5th 2015, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno, festival press screening

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet

There is a very inspired line early on in The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet that perfectly captures a glimpse of the magic this fascinating misfire aims at. "What if imagination started where science ended?" The words are uttered by a tired old British scientist (Mairtin O'Carrigan) giving a perfunctory lecture to a bunch of bored high-schoolers in Butte, Montana; it's the old story of endless optimism vs. backward-looking conservatism, progress vs. stasis, as seen through the eyes of 10-year old scientific whiz-kid Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) who just happened to stumble on it and decides there and then to solve the conundrum of perpetual motion.

     That opposition may also be that of the vanguard and the mainstream, and what makes it all the more intriguing is that it's being aired in a film by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose own work has often traded in nostalgia and retro whimsy visualized through state-of-the-art effects and techniques. For someone whose work is so grounded in a mythological past, his films have always been about moving on into your own story and learning to live in your own skin; this adaptation of Reif Larsen's 2009 novel may see him move from a folkloric idea of mid-century Paris to mid-century picture-postcard Americana, but there's more of an emptiness behind the facades here than in any of Mr. Jeunet's previous work.

     Running away from the Montana ranch where he lives with his family, T. S. literally "rides the rails" to reach Washington, where he has been awarded a prestigious scientific prize by the Smithsonian (with no idea the winner is in fact a precocious boy wonder from the heartland). And the ten-year-old installs himself for the duration in an all-American RV carried on a flatbed car - the perfect materialisation of a certain American dream of modern freedom, shiny and picture-perfect, but in fact simply a showroom model inhabited by a cardboard family where nothing works as advertised, and that is traveling backward to the train's direction.

     It's as if this backward-looking dream is carrying T. S. out of his comfort zone, though, refreshingly, he isn't so much a bullied or unloved kid as a boy whose resourcefulness allowed him to carve out his own world in an off-kilter family where everyone seemed to find refuge in their own worlds: an absent-minded entomologist mother (Helena Bonham Carter), a cowboy rancher father (Callum Keith Rennie), a gadfly celebrity-obsessed sister (Niamh Wilson). It's hard not to think of the Spivets' refuges as an escape and underlining of their own inabilities to deal with the void brought on by the tragic accidental death of T. S.' twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies, seen only in flashbacks), but thankfully the film avoids lazy editorialization.

     I have to admit that, on a first try, I couldn't quite wrap my head around The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet - it seemed a strange tonal misfire, a film that veered far too wildly from visual busy-ness to a strangely heightened lyricism while running free with an adoring Americana as seen through the eyes of a European fan. (Not unsurprisingly, the film performed below par in France, was barely released elsewhere and was blackballed by the Weinstein Company in America, where it finally came out two years later on a perfunctory, unpromoted opening.)

     On closer viewing, though, it dawned on me that it wasn't so much a problem of the film itself as of the viewer and of the expectations he brings into the film knowing it's from the director of Amélie and Delicatessen. It is an unmoored, all-over-the-place object whose open descent into satire in the third act (wasting the considerable talents of the all-too-rare Judy Davis as a conniving Smithsonian media handler) seems to be parachuted in from an entirely different movie. But at its heart lies a gentle story of a kid learning to deal with life the best way he can, shot with intelligence and a touching sincerity. The fact that T. S. Spivet was conceived in 3D probably explains why the film isn't as visually baroque and super-charged as the director's usual, which is all for the better, and its picture-postcard visuals are integral to the story's unfolding.

France, Canada, US, 2013
105 minutes
Cast Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie, Kyle Catlett, Niamh Wilson, Jakob Davies, Rick Mercer, Dominique Pinon, Julian Richings, Richard Jutras, Mairtin O'Carrigan, Michel Perron, Dawn Ford, Harry Standjofski, Susan Glover, James Bradford
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; screenwriters Mr. Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant; from the novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen; cinematographer Thomas Hardmeier; composer Denis Sanacore; designer Aline Bonetto; costumes Madeline Fontaine; editor Hervé Schneid; effects supervisor Alain Carsoux; producers Frédéric Brillion, Gilles Legrand, Mr. Jeunet and Suzanne Girard, Épithète Films, Tapioca Films and Filmarto in co-production with Gaumont and France 2 Cinéma, in association with OCS, France Télévisions, Téléfilm Canada, CBC, Movie Central and The Movie Network
Screened August 24th 2015, Lisbon, DVD

Friday, August 28, 2015


Cheap, I know. But I can't help go back to the Spice Girls' "girl power" motto-mantra, and that initial rush of "tell me what you want what you really really want" the-world-is-yours-teenage-empowerment, as a starting point to talk of French director Céline Sciamma's wonderful third feature. Girlhood is all about "girl power", whether absent, latent or present, refusing to perpetuate the idea of what a film about the "disaffected project youths" should be, giving it the finger at every possible occasion. (Or almost.)

     Girlhood undercuts viewer expectations from the start - with an American football game that turns out to be played by an all-female team from a Paris suburb - and its centre piece scene features four black girls, dressed up to the nines, letting their flags fly to the sound of Rihanna's "Diamonds". In between, our heroine Marieme (the great Karidja Touré) must run the gauntlet of what it means to be a black girl living in the Parisian suburbs that turn out to be ghettos in all but name. She is condemned by the world around her to a pre-ordained social position, destined to be a second-class citizen with little to no say on her fate - not only by the strictures of a society that would box her in with little regard to her actual desires, talents and ambitions, but even by her own blood kin, duplicating those same strictures within their own sub-culture.

     Even the haven Marieme finds with the sassy schoolyard rebels she begins to hang out with - Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré), who talk back and take charge in what end up being equally masculine kick-ass stuff - turns out to be temporary. It's just another set of obstacles to overcome as each new experience propels this inquisitive, restless girl, yearning for a "normality" that the world seems to refuse her, towards adulthood. In the superb "Diamonds" sequence, Girlhood captures perfectly the defiance and the desires of a generation left to fend for itself, growing up without a light at the end of the tunnel, and yet still dancing on the edge of an abyss.

     Ms. Sciamma does so by refusing to victimize the girls, over-play the "problem picture" card or pretend there can be a magic exit for all this. Instead, she prefers to treat Marieme and the others as complex, full-bodied young women stuck in complex circumstances, learning about themselves and how to navigate their surroundings as best they can. Even if the narrative progression is occasionally hackneyed due to its obligatory passages (almost like rituals for this sort of film), the way Ms. Sciamma articulates it is extremely alluring - in "blocks" centred on the girls' experiences, interspersed with fades to black that leave out what is unnecessary, focussing on what really matters with an intensity, a clear-eyed look and a generosity that avoid boxing them in and reducing them to mere archetypes. It's always shot with a cool, intelligent eye, taking into account that this is an empowering film about standing up to the world around you and owning up to your decisions.

     It's what's inside that counts, not the colour of your skin, what gender you are, who do you hang out with, where do you come from. What Marieme really, really wants is to be herself - and this wonderfully generous film about her, and her friends, lets her be herself.

France, 2014
113 minutes
Cast Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré
Director, screenwriter and costume designer Céline Sciamma; cinematographer Crystel Fournier; composer Jean-Baptiste de Laubier; designer Thomas Grézaud; editor Julien Lacheray; producer Bénédicte Couvreur, Hold-Up Films & Productions and Lilies Films in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma
Screened August 22, 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Arabian Nights

Less than six months after its unveiling at Cannes' Director's Fortnight, it's clear that Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights has become one of the - if not the - major cinephile events of 2015. A madly ambitious, endlessly playful object that deliberately blurs reality and fiction with little regard for narrative conventions, Arabian Nights is an attempt at a mosaic portrait of a specific time and place: Portugal in the 2010s, a country in the throes of a brutal economic recession and damaging austerity policies that shake social foundations to its core. It becomes, thus, simultaneously a political and artistic statement, a film pressed to be "of its time" while also meant to remain valid for "the time to come". The artistic statement is propelled by the urgency of capturing the social mood of the country in a specific period before it dissipates, through an attempt at finding a way to frame and represent it beyond basic agit-prop terms. (Not that Mr. Gomes would ever stoop to those.)

     The artistic choices made by the filmmakers also influence the way the politics are discussed and represented, however, to the point Arabian Nights itself becomes a protean shape-shifter that never stops long enough to get a fix on any one form: from laughter to tears, from reportage to fantasy, all organised under the aegis of storytelling as a way to record and make sense of time and history. It's storytelling as a (pre-)requisite for survival, as was the case with Scheherazade in the original collection of Persian tales. Hence, Arabian Nights as seen as Mr. Gomes and his team of regular collaborators is a way to make sense of and appropriate that which cannot be appropriated in any other way, but without betraying either those whose stories are being told, or the filmmaker's own identity.

     This is crucial to the success of the project, because Arabian Nights' origin lies in a series of true stories representative of the effects of austerity in Portugal, researched by a small team of journalists hired by the production. These reports were then cherry-picked and reworked by Mr. Gomes and his screenwriters, long-standing collaborators Mariana Ricardo and co-editor Telmo Churro, eventually reaching the screen as neither straight documentary nor pure fiction, but instead as individual elements of a greater mosaic that blends both modes. What's "true" and what's not takes a back seat to capturing truthfully the mood and thoughts of "the people". (It's all true. And yet...)

     The film's gargantuan structure, hit upon during the editing phase, derives from this urgency to bear witness: what started out as a single feature contractually bound to two and a half hours morphed into a six-hour statement divided in three two-hour films. Mr. Gomes is a music fan and the first thing that came to my mind after a full viewing of the triptych was the Clash's sprawling 1980 triple album Sandinista!. Like that record, Arabian Nights gains full relevance and significance as a whole greater than the sum of its parts and seen in the intended sequence of its three "volumes", regardless of the quality of its stand-alone elements.

     That each of the three episodes is very different in tone, and that even within each of them there are ups and downs, is par for the course. And it's also part of the challenge that Arabian Nights poses to the modern-day viewer. Even if the whole is presented as easily digestible two-hour morsels, these work simultaneously with and against the current ADHD mode of viewing a film - on a tablet, on a computer, on the home television, as a DVD, as a streaming file, in small mouthfuls. While each of the three episodes is itself sub-divided into further instalments (in the manner of a continuing feuilleton or serial), it's extremely important to follow the series in its proper order to get the full effect. Not for nothing are the most alluring and "accessible" episodes of the lot front-loaded in Volume 1, The Restless One, a film that also conceptualizes the project as a wide-eyed adventure in reality, full of possibilities and opportunities, shifting more openly between "documentary" and "fiction", "us" and "them".

     It starts out almost autobiographically (or as much as it can be in the work of a director that has made a point of always saying nothing is ever, only, what it seems): by setting Mr. Gomes himself as a clueless, ambitious filmmaker who may have bitten off more than he could chew in pursuing this project, and is entirely unsure as to how to make a movie out of the materials reality has handed to him. Behind this, in fact, lies a filmmaker laying his cards out in the open and seducing his audience with a disarming combination of braggadocio and virtuosity, before beginning to juggle his pins with outrageous ease and a very real sense of responsibility.

     The Arabian Nights concept turns out to be Mr. Gomes' way of adjusting to the tonal and modal shifts inherent to the project, by presenting each tale as self-contained in tone and narrative yet part of an over-arching, fluid structure. The Scheherazade so enchantingly portrayed throughout the three Volumes by Crista Alfaiate is, both in her confidence and her doubts, an alter-ego of Mr. Gomes: a master storyteller dealing with the repercussions and the consequences of her storytelling choices, and her own learning process of what it means to be a storyteller. That is, to let the story take over and lead you wherever it may, relinquishing control of it in the very same process of harnessing it.

     Moving from satirical burlesque to poignant melodrama while deftly balancing reality and invention, Arabian Nights might give you whiplash in the constant shifting of style and genre, none more so than in the first of the three films, where the rules of the game are laid out and beautifully explained. As a viewer, it's important to note how the cumulative effect works: the dazzling Volume 1, with its effortless segue from off-colour humour to popular fable coloured by the urgency of desperation, leaves you hungry for more as you admire both the conceptual daring of the project and the apparent ease with which it's all so expertly laid out. This first episode is also the one where the lines are more blurred - from an openly fictional, outlandish narrative performed by professional actors to a fictional drama that integrates real life elements into its narrative thread, having non-professionals play themselves alongside actors playing invented roles.

     Like in all of Mr. Gomes' previous features, this only confirms Mr. Gomes' realization that the classic forms of storytelling have become quaint throwbacks that fail to take into account how life and the narrative conventions we use to make sense of it have changed. The main difference is that, where A Cara que Mereces, Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu worked roughly in two-part structures, Arabian Nights blossoms into a sort of polyphonic chorale, each tale a "voice" that changes and colours its surroundings.

     The slighly desperate, progressively darker tone of Volume 2, The Desolate One, with the roundelays of a surreal trial that seems to indict all of society and a suburban apartment block where everybody struggles, suggests a fiendish carousel that digs deeper into the mud with each new turn. But that sense of getting stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea would make little sense without the quirky defiance of Volume 1, and only after the apparent fork in the road of Volume 3, The Charmed One, does everything reveal itself a whole.

     Mostly given out to what seems at first a bewilderingly overlong tale about amateur songbird trainers, Volume 3's detour into a more straight-forward documentary record of a blue-collar, underground reality also highlights the resilience and escape valves that the less fortunate Portuguese seem to cling to in the worst of times - the hope of beauty and possibility found in even the smallest, darkest of places. That this is also the bittersweet final tale of the film, juxtaposed to Scheherazade's own acceptance of the destiny she has been dealt and her full awareness of her role, is extremely significant.

     To make sure his Arabian Nights reflect accurately the experience of living in a crisis-ridden country, Mr. Gomes could not make his film other than in the process of making it, of telling his story/stories - just as the viewer does not truly understand it other than during the process of seeing it and letting it sink in. In fact, it's one of those cases where the work seems to open endless possibilities and readings as the three Volumes become a single film in the viewer's memory, sinking in slowly as a sprawling yet intimate epic transmogrification of "modern life as rubbish". Even this piece, intended initially as a capsule review of Volume 1, changed and evolved into what it is now - and I'm pretty sure I might just come back to it later and add as Arabian Nights continues weaving invisible webs of connections inside my mind.

Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland, 2015
VOLUME 1, O INQUIETO: 125 minutes
VOLUME 2, O DESOLADO: 132 minutes
VOLUME 3, O ENCANTADO: 125 minutes
Cast Crista Alfaiate, Rogério Samora, Maria Rueff, Adriano Luz, Dinarte Branco, Américo Silva, Diogo Dória, Bruno Bravo, Carloto Cotta, Basirou Diallo, Fernanda Loureiro, Aníbal Fabrica, Paulo Carvalho, Francisco Gaspar, Luísa Cruz, Margarida Carpinteiro, Gonçalo Waddington, Teresa Madruga, João Pedro Bénard, Joana de Verona, Bernardo Alves, Jing Jing Guo
Director Miguel Gomes; screenwriters Mr. Gomes, Mariana Ricardo and Telmo Churro; cinematographers Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Mário Castanheira and Lisa Persson (widescreen); designers Bruno Duarte and Artur Pinheiro; costumes Sílvia Grabowski and Lucha d'Orey; editors Mr. Churro, Pedro Filipe Marques and Mr. Gomes; producers Luís Urbano and Sandro Aguilar, O Som e a Fúria in co-production with Shellac Sud, Komplizen Film, Box Productions, ARTE, ZDF, RTP, RTS SSG SSR, Agat Films and Michel Merkt
Screened July 3rd 2015, Teatro Municipal de Vila do Conde, Curtas Vila do Conde 2015 opening screening

As Mil e Uma Noites, Volume 1, O Inquieto - TRAILER from O SOM E A FÚRIA on Vimeo.

Monday, August 24, 2015


This isn't the first time that French novelist and filmmaker Christophe Honoré attempts to update a classic piece of writing for modern days. But his take on Ovid's epic of mythology and love Metamorphoses is nowhere near as successful as his 2008 version of Madame de Lafayette's epistolary novel La Princesse de Clèves - for my money, that film, La Belle personne, remains Mr. Honoré's best work so far by a mile, whereas Metamorphoses is a wasteful misfire.

     It's nice to see the flop of his 2011 Demy homage Beloved hasn't curtailed his artistic ambitions, but neither does it seem to have taught him any lessons; if anything, the new film is as sprawling and episodic as its predecessor, and its tone as sharply misjudged. In effect another tale of the causes, effects and consequences of love, Metamorphoses never truly holds together as a film, with Mr. Honoré unable to give Ovid's tales the light, ethereal touch they need to make sense transposed to modern days.

     In this version, the 15 books of mythical stories are reduced to a handful of tales as witnessed by or told by others to Europa (Amira Akili), a sulky, unhappy teenage taken away by the dashing Jupiter (Sébastien Harel). Jupiter first appears as a truck driver to take her with him to a magical reality just underlying our own, and he's the first of three storytellers she follows (the remainder are Damien Chapelle's passive-agressive Bacchus and George Babluani's possessed Orpheus).

     Thus the film becomes a "greatest hits" album of the book's tales set in and around contemporary French locations, given the occasionally witty, spot-on twist (Narcissus as a self-possessed skater), aiming at a sort of hipster pastoral midway between the 1970s' "free love" psychedelia and contemporary post-modernism. Reminding immensely of Pasolini, it's a work too poseur and superficial to reach the Italian filmmaker's pagan energy. Mr. Honoré's film comes off more as a sort of half-baked idea that seems to have never been properly thought out, which is pretty surprising for a director who began his career as a novelist.

     André Chemetoff's lovely widescreen lensing and the spot-on modern Romantic quotes on the soundtrack (Debussy, Ravel, Webern and so on) aren't nearly enough to make up for Metamorphoses' gauche, naïf attempts at magical realism and the director's tendency to over-signify everything. It's a film in need of a lightness of touch that Mr. Honoré has proved to own in the past but that seems to have been misplaced somewhere he can't find.

France, 2014
102 minutes
Cast: Amira Akili, Sébastien Hirel, Mélodie Richard, Damien Chapelle, George Babluani
Director/writer: Christophe Honoré; based on the poem Metamorphoses by Ovid; cinematographer André Chemetoff (widescreen); designer Samuel Deshors; costumes Pascaline Chavanne; editor Chantal Hymans; producer Philippe Martin, Films Pelléas in co-production with France 3 Cinéma and Le Pacte
Screened: August 21st 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener

Friday, August 21, 2015


The title of American director David Robert Mitchell's film is a literal summary of its simple premise: "it" is an invisible supernatural force of unexplained origin and motive, and "it" "follows", ie, "it" doesn't let go of those "it" touches until they either pass "it" on or "it" kills them. But "it follows" can also be seen as a literal description of the film's own inscription in, and reflection of, the canon of modern American horror cinema.

     Mr. Mitchell's sophomore feature works both as a piece of no-nonsense, "lowbrow" genre entertainment within a classic framework, à la John Carpenter, and as a meticulously thought-out, stylishly shot exercise in mise en scène, à la Stanley Kubrick - Halloween meets The Shining, if you'd like. And both influences are visible all over the film: Mr. Carpenter's use of fluid camera movements and pulsing, minimalist electronic soundtracks, Mr. Kubrick's perfectly geometric camera setups and implacable sense of a vise tightening around the characters, married to Mr. Mitchell's determination to leave entirely unexplained where and how this indefatigable, supernatural force comes from.

     It Follows thus become a sleek, streamlined missile of a film that, in a third possible meaning of its title, emulates its own villain by dispassionately "following" its characters - suburban Detroit high-schooler Jay (Maika Monroe), who "catches" "it" through sex with a casual acquaintance, along with her sister and their best friend neighbours - through a purposely opaque thrill ride entirely composed of impeccably staged set pieces. Behind all of that, the film also works as a meta-commentary of horror movies themselves, by using all the standard elements of a modern-day teen-oriented genre entry and stripping them down to the essence of tension and atmosphere, in a continuous, ominous loop of tension and release.

     The sexually transmitted curse of "it" is no surrogate for any sort of disease or contamination, but instead a metaphor for coming of age, for growing up, losing your innocence and freedom once the threshold of adulthood is crossed and responsibility rears its ugly head. Not for nothing is the film's suburban setting straight out of classic mid-eighties Spielberg (and shot with the same combination of dread and possibility).

     But, in fact, It Follows opens as many interpretations as you want to read, without ever losing touch of what makes a horror film truly scary: the sense that you can relate to the characters, that it could be you dealing with all this (and, in some way, it is you). Add the fact that Mr. Mitchell refuses to have his teenagers behave stupidly just for the sake of plot development - quite the contrary, in fact - and shoots everything with an overarching, if occasionally glib and clinical, sense of style. It's a breathtakingly packaged exercise in horror style that may be a bit too abstract to please everyone but that shows real talent and real intelligence.

US, 2014
100 minutes
Cast Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
Director and screenwriter David Robert Mitchell; cinematographer Michael Gioulakis (widescreen); composer Disasterpeace (aka Richard Vreeland); designer Michael T. Perry; costumes Kimberly Leitz-McCauley; make-up effects Robert Kurtzman; editor Julio C. Perez IV; producers Rebecca Green, Laura D. Smith, Mr. Mitchell, David Kaplan and Erik Rommesmo; production companies Northern Lights Films and Animal Kingdom Films in association with Two Flints
Screened August 20th 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener

Thursday, August 20, 2015


You should be forewarned: South Korean-born, US-based self-defined "film essayist" Soon-mi Yoo is not trying to cash in on the ever-present fascination with the secretive, isolated pariah state of North Korea. Songs from the North is no hard-hitting exposé, nor does it seek any sort of definitive truth on the subject. She is much more interested, and genuinely so, in the country itself and in the people who live there, and in the chasm that self-evidently lies between personal reality and collective rhetoric in a place where individualism is permanently subsumed into groupthink and devotion to the Kim dynasty.

     Over the course of her brief, slight "poetic essay", Ms. Yoo strives to capture unguarded moments of North Koreans in the carefully managed group tours and arranged photo opportunities she ran into during three separate visits, as if she's trying to understand how much of "us" we can see in "them". Songs from the North asks more questions that it really wants to answer, preferring to let them hang there, unanswered, over the footage the director has tantalizingly assembled. Part of it is material shot during her trips, and there are Aldo excerpts of an interview with her own father talking about the heady days of the Korean War and the country's carving, but most of the short running time is taken with a deftly researched wealth of archival material. Much of that comes from North Korean film, ceremonies and stage spectaculars, staggering in their openly propagandistic tone and heavily old-fashioned melodrama.

     By shifting between the three modes of footage, Ms. Yoo creates a kaleidoscope whose connecting thread is a strange nostalgia of an idealized, pre-separation past, as manifested in the sweepingly romantic popular songs (many of which composed by the country's founder Kim Il Sung) that serve as the film's motif and title. If the director didn't necessarily mean for her gently kaleidoscopic assemblage to offer any sort of answer or explanation, neither does it really shed light on that "other" she wants to find "us" in. Her decision to avoid any sort of voiceover, replacing it with discrete title cards, seems to be entirely in tune with the film's realization that there's enough going on in the footage that nothing more is necessary, but at the same time it creates a rational, analytical distance from it that keeps the viewer at a remove, unable to truly connect with what is being shown.

     Wafting with the breeze or the tide without truly aiming for a specific arrival point, letting the wind carry it so to speak, Songs from the North becomes a sort of unfinished quilt where you can notice traces of the underlying design before wondering what led its artisan to change direction. A cabinet of curiosities, if you will, that unveils some of what is going on in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea but makes you none the wiser as to what it all means. Not that you could, of course.

US, Portugal, 2014
73 minutes
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor Soon-mi Yoo; producers Ms. Yoo and Haden Guest; production company Rosa Filmes
Screened August 8th, 2014, La Sala, Locarno (Locarno Film Festival Cineasti del Presente official screening) and August 20th, 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener)

Songs From the North, a film by Soon-Mi Yoo - Trailer from Rosa Filmes on Vimeo.