Thursday, April 16, 2015

PHOENIX

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, went the words welcoming the viewer to the seedy night haunts of pre-WWII Berlin in John Kander and Fred Ebb's popular musical adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories, Cabaret. This came to mind because the crux of German director Christian Petzold's latest film lies in a seedy night haunt in post-WWII Berlin, a cabaret by the name of Phoenix, where a woman in search of the husband she lost track of (but really in search of herself) will come and find more than she bargained for.

     In that cabaret, Mr. Petzold has both Cole Porter and Kurt Weill be performed by the resident singers and players; and just as in Mr. Isherwood's stories, the cabaret is both a respite from the world outside and a constant reminder of it. This is Berlin just after the war has ended, rationing cards, checkpoints, buildings reduced to rubble, people getting by as best they can and just wanting to leave behind the past. But not Nelly (Nina Hoss), the woman Mr. Petzold follows into Phoenix: if anything, she is hanging to the past, to the life she led before, before she had to hid from the authorities for being Jewish, before she was found and caught and taken to a concentration camp, before she survived and had to undergo plastic surgery.

     Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), her friend who works at the Jewish Agency and who is helping Nelly get back on her feet, finding her a surgeon, an apartment, wants her to make a clean break and move to Palestine to start anew, away from all the bad memories. But Nelly is hanging on to the memory of Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband she lost track of, the man Lene suspects of having given her location to the nazis.

     As Nelly walks through Berlin in search of him, Phoenix unfolds in front of our eyes as a dazzling but not pointless exercise in cinephilia: a film that evokes simultaneously the darkness and doubt of the American post-war film noir but also the testimonial aspect of the Italian neo-realism (Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero come both to mind), the double-cross, morally equivocal feel of something like Carol Reed's The Third Man and the carefully stage-managed back-and-forth twisting of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Because, yes, Nelly, superbly portrayed by Ms. Hoss like a blank slate looking to regain its shape, allows herself to be buffeted by those around her, by a Lene that wants her to start from scratch and a Johnny that doesn't recognize her and wants her to pass herself off as Nelly as she was then.

     Mr. Petzold's script is as difficult to summarize without giving away its many layers as it is crystallinely presented and filmed: it's all about love, about people looking for love in an era when love is apparently impossible, about losing it and recovering it and letting it go and holding on to it. Following on from the already excellent Barbara, Phoenix takes the director's cool, clinical approach to storytelling one step further, its constant referencing of previous films existing not as show-off or crutch but as the presentation of a lineage the film deliberately invokes while defining itself as its own film - very much like Ms. Hoss' equally minutely detailed performance reminds of Ingrid Bergman or Kim Novak yet stands out as its own beast, confirming the unique relationship that the actress and Mr. Petzold have forged over 15 years and half a dozen features. She is the film's true phoenix, who rises reborn from the flames but, in wanting to recapture her own past, realises how much of it she has to let go of for good - and all of it is felt and shown rather spoken.

     Everything in Phoenix lies openly unspoken, but you will understand all of it.

PHOENIX
Germany, Poland 2014
98 minutes
Cast Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Director Christian Petzold; screenwriters Mr. Petzold with Harun Farocki; inspired by the novel by Hubert Monteilhet Return from the Ashes cinematographer Hans Fromm (colour, widescreen); composer Stefan Will; designer K. D. Gruber; costumes Anette Guther; editor Bettina Böhler; producers Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Michael Weber; production companies Schramm Film Koerner & Weber in co-production with Bayerischer Rundfunk, Westdeutscher Rundfunk and ARTE, in association with Tempus Film
Screened April 7th 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

QUEEN AND COUNTRY

Though people mostly remember him for his breakthrough American films, Point Blank and Deliverance, British veteran John Boorman's first feature was the Dave Clark Five's A Hard Day's Night equivalent Catch Us if You Can, done at the height of the Swinging Sixties. There's always been a very British mischievousness in his eye, a desire to do things his own way that has made him a more interesting director than most but also a highly uneven one.

     For Queen and Country, working under the understanding this would be his final feature, the 82-year old director brings his career full circle with a sequel to 1987's fondly-remembered Hope and Glory, the lively comedy about a young schoolboy growing up in WWII London that fictionalised Mr. Boorman's own childhood. Queen and Country picks up nine years later, as the 18-year old Bill Rohan (now played by Callum Turner, looking like a younger Benedict Cumberbatch), living with his family next door to the Shepperton film studios, is conscripted into military service.

     But whereas there was a sense of wide-eyed buoyancy in Hope and Glory, while portraying a situation where all normal rules of society were suspended for the duration of the war, the new film has to deal with the post-war blues, the sense that the world was changing into something else and nobody quite knew what to expect. Bill and his fellow squaddies are forced to try to fit in into a society that seems by now pretty fusty and old-fashioned - the Army is here presented as a metaphor for the "old England" WWII had pretty much dismantled but to which the country was still hanging on by a thread, while Bill and his best mate Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) are the first seeds of the "new", "pop" Britain that the Beatles came to epitomize. Not by nothing does Mr. Boorman end his film with Bill's first attempts at filmmaking - and those in on the joke will no doubt bring it full circle to Catch Us if You Can. 

     Even granting that by its very nature this isn't a story as light as Hope and Glory - since it deals with the moment in life where the freedom of childhood gives way to the demands of adulthood - Queen and Country comes off as a perfectly nice but rather unmemorable five o'clock tea. Though always warm-hearted and sincere, the film never seems to find the balance it aims for between broad service comedy and bitter-sweet Bildungsroman: the puppy love between Bill and the too-good-for-him Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton) takes a backseat to the underwhelming series of barracks episodes that bring no new particular insight to the genre and seem to essentially overly belabour the issues.

     Maybe the issue is that Queen and Country extends for nearly two hours when it could have very well made its point in 90 minutes - there are certainly worse sins than that. Or maybe it's just that, in following up such a fondly remembered film, it could have used a bit more zip. Or, ultimately, it's just that this is a film Mr. Boorman made mostly for himself, more than for the world at large. Which would make it an even more fitting ending to a certainly idiossyncratic but never less than intriguing career, even if an underwhelming one.

QUEEN AND COUNTRY
France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Romania, 2014
110 minutes
Cast Caleb Landry Jones, Callum Turner, David Thewlis, Pat Shortt, Brían F. O'Byrne, Tamsin Egerton, Vanessa Kirby, Aimée-Ffion Edwards, Sinéad Cusack, David Hayman, Simon Paisley Day, John Standing, Richard E. Grant
Director and screenwriter John Boorman; cinematography Seamus Deasy (colour); composer Stephen McKeon; designer Anthony Pratt; costumes Maeve Paterson; editor Ron Davis; producers Kieran Corrigan and Mr. Boorman; production companies Le Pacte, the British Film Institute and Merlin Films in association with the Irish Film Board
Screened April 6th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)


Monday, April 13, 2015

THE SALT OF THE EARTH

The excellent result of German veteran Wim Wenders' film about Pina Bausch, 2011's visionary 3D experience Pina, certainly helps expect the best from his take on the life and work of acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Yet, no such luck: while this is still a cut above Mr. Wenders' latest below-par fictions, this film co-directed with Mr. Salgado's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, seems to be a compromise work, a sort of "relay race" where the directors pass the "baton" back and forth but never really make the most of what they have at hand.

     There's a sense that Mr. Wenders wanted to delve deeper into the personal connection between photographer and subject, as seen in the interview sequences where Mr. Salgado is shot head-on through a "scrim" where his pictures are being projected; and that Mr. Ribeiro Salgado was more interested in a straight biographical narrative. The connecting tissue between both is the photographer's powerful black & white work, presented in chronological order, and punctuated by his own comments, as a sort of "witness" or "register" of the "social condition".

     What's interesting about The Salt of the Earth is that it aims at being journey into an unheralded "heart of darkness", as if Mr. Salgado was a still-photography, more contemplative equivalent of Werner Herzog, looking at the underside of contemporary civilization - and that is in fact how Mr. Wenders seem to look at him at times, like a messenger from the other side of life. But that approach never truly gels with the smoother, more traditional biographical aspect that goes from A to B to C; if the film is always beautiful to look at (and yes, it is), it is also somewhat unsatisfactory as an exploration of Mr. Salgado's mind and work, preferring to dwell on the

     The result is a never-less-than-interesting documentary, for sure, done with all the technical polish expected (high marks for Laurent Petitgand's evocative, ambient score), but where you feel an unresolved push-and-pull between its directors (and, in interviews, both directors have stated the film took a long while to "find"). It's less than the sum of its parts.

THE SALT OF THE EARTH
France, Brazil, Italy, 2014
106 minutes
Directors Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado; screenwriters Mr. Ribeiro Salgado, Mr. Wenders and David Rosier; cinematographers Hugo Barbier and Mr. Ribeiro Salgado (colour and black & white); composer Laurent Petitgand; editors Maxine Goedicke and Rob Myers; producer Mr. Rosier; production companies Decia Films in co-production with Amazonas Images and Fondazione Solares delle Arti
Screened April 4th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener) 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

KAGUYA-HIME NO MONOGATARI
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Let's call it what it is - a devastating one-two punch that marks both the actual end of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli and the official retirement of its master craftsmen, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. And though Mr. Miyazaki remains the most acclaimed of the pair, and his swan song The Wind Rises is a moving, perfect summation of his career and aesthetics, it's hard not think that Mr. Takahata's Tale of the Princess Kaguya - 15 years in the conception and eight years in the making - is the actual masterpiece of the two.

     A sweeping zen epic of simple yet exquisitely detailed hand-crafted animation, this take on a traditional Japanese fairy tale turns what seem to be its apparent weaknesses into its greatest strengths, requiring the viewer more attuned to a fuller, more precise type of animation to adjust its expectations as the film moves on at a stately, dreamlike pace. More painterly and evocative than properly descriptive, yet impeccably structured and narratively flawless, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya unfolds as quietly as a budding flower, like the beautiful little baby that sprouts fully-formed from a bamboo stalk in a forest and is taken in by a bamboo-cutter and his wife, only to start growing into a young girl at alarming speed.

     The film's delicate visuals, switching almost imperceptibly between colourful impressionism and dark expressionism, lull you gently into the essence of the universal lessons of its fairy tale narrative about the pursuit of truth and happiness. The inexorability of the circle of life is touchingly rendered as we watch Kaguya literally come of age and learn what it's like to be human, understanding that nobility is not something you buy but something you are born with regardless of your origins.

     What makes its tale even more touching is the refusal of Mr. Takahata to whitewash any of the pain and any of the doubts that Kaguya feels throughout, and to reduce it all to the mere level of a fairy tale for kids. Instead, the director treats it as a classic, universal coming of age tale whose delicate stylings never hide the truth or the strength of the underlying emotions but rather bring them out into the open - something that you would be hard-pressed to do in any other visual form.

     It's the fact that Mr. Takahata has made it as an animated feature that makes The Tale of the Princess Kaguya resonate in such a way: its disarming visual poetry, the quiet watercolour backgrounds and the hand-drawn characters unlock the viewer's emotions by appealing simultaneously to the wide-eyed child and to the thinking, feeling adult that co-exist inside him. To call it a melancholy masterpiece - even if its sprawling length can occasionally seem excessive or unnecessary - is faint praise indeed, even if it takes more than just one viewing to fully understand it.

KAGUYA-HIME NO MONOGATARI
Japan, 2013
137 minutes
Original Japanese voice cast: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto, Atsuko Takahata, Tomoko Tabata, Shinosuke Tatekawa, Takaya Kamikawa, Hikaru Ijuin, Ryudo Uzaki, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Isao Hashizume, Yukiji Asaoka, Tatsuya Nakadai
Director Isao Takahata; animation director Kenichi Konishi; screenwriter Riko Sakaguchi; based on a story by Mr. Takahata and on the Japanese fairy tale «The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter»; cinematographer Keisuke Nakamura; composer Joe Hisaishi; art director Kazuo Oga; animation designer Tanabe Osamu; producers Seiichiro Ujiie, Koji Yoshino and Yoshiaki Nishimura; production companies Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network, Dentsu, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Walt Disney Japan, Mitsubishi Corporation, Toho Company and KDDI Corporation
Screened April 4th 2015, Lisbon


Friday, April 10, 2015

CARLOS DO CARMO - UM HOMEM NO MUNDO

One of the most important figures in the history of Fado, Lisbon's native song, and the son of one of its greatest practitioners, Lucília do Carmo, Carlos do Carmo's 50-year career certainly deserves a documentary victory lap that underlines the role he played in opening up the genre and renovating it in a period (the 1970s) when it was openly unpalatable and dismissed out of hand. After all, Mr. do Carmo's career has been well documented from his beginnings in the 1960s, and he has arguably been the genre's most visible male practitioner in the past half-century, after the death of the legendary Alfredo Marceneiro and the rise of the remarkable Camané.

     Unfortunately, Um Homem no Mundo sidesteps pretty much all of these aspects to become a self-congratulatory and highly complacent home movie of Mr. do Carmo's travels and of the honours that surrounded the celebration of his 50-year career and his reception of the Grammy Latino award in Las Vegas. Director Ivan Dias, who was one of the producers of Carlos Saura's underwhelming Fado showcase Fados, seems to be attempting to make for the singer what Miguel Gonçalves Mendes did for the late Nobel-winning writer José Saramago in the vastly superior José & Pilar - a film where the personal side of Mr. do Carmo sheds light on his creative practice - but fails miserably.

     There is no possible insight gleaned from a meal with his grandsons that is shown at great length, nor from the extended footage from the Grammy Latino pre- and post-ceremony - and there's precious little period footage that explains just how long his career has been and how important it's been. And the interviews with friends and admirers - like artist Júlio Pomar, Mr. Saramago's widow Pilar del Rio or musicologist Rui Vieira Nery - reveal little or nothing either about Fado or about Mr. do Carmo's artistry.

     For an international audience that has little to no knowledge of Fado or of the artist, Um Homem no Mundo comes off as worthless hagiography; for the locals who know of him, the film may be diverting but is a mere fluff piece, lacking rhythm or direction, that would make more sense as a DVD extra or as segments in a celebrity gossip programme - as underlined by the embarrassing post-credits footage of the Las Vegas wedding where he renewed his marriage vows with his wife during the Grammy Latino trip, something that makes little to no sense to be shared with a wider audience. Which is a shame: Mr. do Carmo does deserve a documentary homage. But this is neither homage nor documentary.

Originally meant for a December 2014 theatrical release in Portugal, the film was delayed at the last minute until April 2015 over what the distributor claimed were legal issues related to some of the music included. This review is based on the original 109-minute cut shown at the time; the final version released in April 2015, which was not screened for the press, is according to the distributors exactly the same with a few shots trimmed in length. 

CARLOS DO CARMO - UM HOMEM NO MUNDO
Portugal, 2014
109 minutes
Director and producer Ivan Dias; cinematographers Carlos Mendes Pereira and Gonçalo Falé; editor Jorge Carvalho; production companies Duvideo Filmes in co-production with Vanya Films, RTP, Fado Património da Humanidade, EGEAC and Lisbon Fado Museum
Screened December 17th 2014, Lisbon (DVD press screener)


Thursday, April 09, 2015

FAST & FURIOUS 7

At some point in Fast & Furious 7 somebody evokes, half-jokingly, "a bad TV series from the 1970s" - and probably without even realizing it, that's precisely what the Fast & Furious series turns out to have become in this long-awaited, utterly disappointing instalment.

     The TV reference is particularly appropriate: the film's insistence in implausible but spectacular action setpieces, while tying up loose ends from previous episodes, practically demands the suspension of disbelief that stuff like Wonder Woman or The A Team churned out week after week. And the scripting (by Chris Morgan, in charge of writing since film # 3) is pretty much at the same level of spoon-fed homilies about the importance of family against a backdrop of simplistic good-vs-evil heroics. 

     In itself nothing to worry too much about; we shouldn't forget the franchise pretty much started back in 2000 like a throwback to the old-fashioned drive-in exploitation movies of the 1960s and 1970s, where what really mattered were cool cars, cool chicks, cool heroes. The problem is, by now Fast & Furious have probably become the most expensive exploitation movies ever, and that comes with its own set of issues; hence, 7 is basically a series of outlandish, gravity-defying car stunts hung out to dry from a narrative clothesline that is so almost thin as to be almost non-existent, going for broke with all the elements of cheap melodrama hoping its excess will eventually propel it into meta-narrative heaven. 

     No such luck, alas: the series' crew of daredevil thrill-chasing drivers, led by the ever-muscular Vin Diesel, must now confront the almost invincible villainy of Jason Statham, seeking revenge for their elimination of his kid brother in episode 6, but are also sidetracked by an operation commissioned by a US black-ops agency in exchange for its help in tracking down Statham. There's a 007-ish undercurrent here, but one that never manages to invoke the Bond series' tongue-in-cheek humour that winked at the viewer and asked him not to take any of this seriously. 

     Furious 7 takes the exact opposite road, awash as it is in the certainly sincere but overly po-faced sentimentalism of "the family that drives together stays together", made worse by the realisation that the series' other anchoring regular, Paul Walker, died tragically halfway through the shoot. It's worth asking how much of this mawkishness was already in the original script and how much of it was added after Mr. Walker's death - all reports say the film was extensively overhauled - but it's also worth pointing out that family has been a recurring theme for director James Wan. 

     The Australian creator of Saw, one of the most interesting contemporary horror-movie directors, moves up in the Hollywood pecking order by helming here his first big-budget blockbuster, but it's clear that the old-school, less-is-more approach that made his films so interesting has all but been discarded here. The entire Furious franchise has been built on excess, so there's a sense that for all the streamlined efficiency Mr. Wan brings to the film, he is clearly here as a mere assembly-line foreman tasked with executing a pre-ordained, pre-approved blueprint according to specifications. 

     In many ways, Fast & Furious 7 fulfills its desire to be the greatest film spectacle a Hollywood big budget can buy; but why does a great film spectacle have to be so bereft of originality or imagination other than in finding out ways of making bigger and better car stunts?

FAST & FURIOUS 7 aka FURIOUS 7
USA, China, Japan, 2015
137 minutes
Cast Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Jordanna Brewster, Djimon Hounsou, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham
Director James Wan; screenwriter Chris Morgan; cinematographers Stephen M. Windon and Marc Spicer (colour, widescreen); composer Brian Tyler; designer Bill Brzeski; costumes Sanja Milkovic Ways; editors Christian Wagner, Dylan Highsmith, Kirk Morri and Leigh Folsom Boyd; effects supervisors Michael J. Wassel and Kelvin McIlwain; producers Neal H. Moritz, Mr. Diesel and Michael Fottrell; production companies Universal Pictures, Original Film and One Race Films in association with MRC, China Film Company, Dentsu and Nippon Television Network
Screened March 31st 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, April 08, 2015

HUNGRY HEARTS

Is what you see actually what you get? A good question when it comes to Italian director Saverio Costanzo's mysterious, oblique cinema, full of intriguing twists and turns that build up to a world, a mood, rather to a neatly tied story. Hungry Hearts starts off with a one-take tour de force that forces Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher to share a bathroom in a Chinese restaurant where they find themselves stuck as he's coming out and she's coming in; it's a meet cute straight out of a romantic comedy, but one that is subverted by the unpleasant nature of the event.

     And even if it signposts that Jude (Mr. Driver) and Mina (Ms. Rohrwacher) are about to become a couple, what follows, adapted by Mr. Costanzo from a novel by Marco Franzoso, is as far away from a romantic comedy as possible. Pregnancy changes Mina, who becomes unhealthily obsessed with the baby's health, as if she wants to protect the yet unborn child from the New York City surrounding them; "depression is a flaw of chemistry", can be read on a sign painted on the side of one of the buildings Mina can see from their own place's roof, in a shot that is somewhat reminding of the rooftop suicide in Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth.

     While we're on the subject of references, many have pointed out how much Hungry Hearts evokes Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby; I'd extend that Polanski reference to the Polish director's claustrophobic huis-clos works (Repulsion, The Tenant, Death and the Maiden, even Venus in Fur) but also invoke Todd Haynes' Safe and the "urban allergies" developed by Julianne Moore. Because Ms. Rohrwacher is effectively channeling something of Mia Farrow's uneasiness, playing a woman whose behaviour seems at some point to cross over into the seriously strange and unexplainable, while defending against all evidence that "mother knows best".

     What if she doesn't? That's the question Mr. Costanzo dangles throughout Hungry Hearts, as the film swings between the stubbornness of Mina and that of Jude's overbearing mother Anne (Roberta Maxwell) - both letting the primal "mother knows best" attitudes kick in when it comes to defending the health of the newborn baby. Ultimately, the film becomes a struggle for the soul of the couple, as embodied in the young baby that is supposedly the consummation of their love; will he take after the mother or the father? Hungry Hearts revels in the claustrophobic cocoon it envelops itself in (hence the Polanski reference), DP Fabio Cianchetti's camera unafraid of becoming intrusive and obtrusive to best capture the unspoken aggression and questioning that starts to undermine the couple's relationship.

     Less distant and more relatable than the previous In Memory of Me and The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Mr. Costanzo's fourth feature still doesn't reveal its secrets easily, but its disquieting exercise in tunnel-vision, in making things seem different than they are, confirms the director's skill at adapting his style and form to the film he wants to make. Whether it's the film we want to see is something else entirely.

HUNGRY HEARTS
Italy, USA, 2014
113 minutes
Cast Adam Driver, Alba Rohrwacher, Roberta Maxwell
Director and screenwriter Saverio Costanzo; based on the novel Il Bambino indaco by Marco Franzoso; cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti (colour); composer Nicola Piovani; designer Amy Williams; costumes Antonella Cannarozzi; editor Francesca Calvelli; producers Mario Gianani and Lorenzo Mieli; production companies Wildside and Rai Cinema in association with Atlantic Pictures
Screened March 30th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)