Monday, November 30, 2015


That the former whiz kid who helped usher in the age of the modern effects-heavy blockbuster adventure is now settling in peacefully into the role of elderly statesman seems to underlie just how much yesterday's rebels become tomorrow's conservatives. And, indeed, Steven Spielberg has actually gone on to say (in a recent New York Times interview) that he would have enjoyed working within the constraints of the old-fashioned studio system.

     None of this is surprising especially if you take into account how much Mr. Spielberg was always the "odd man out" in the New Hollywood generation he was a part of - rising through the ranks of television and B-movies within Universal, enjoying the role of a director capable of churning out mass-media entertainment and prestige pictures in the manner of the old Warners war-horses like Michael Curtiz. For all that, Mr. Spielberg's work has always seemed to me to struggle between the heart and the brain, the energy and the though, and one that usually is better when the director leads off with his emotions and his innate, almost Hitchcockian sense of what will get an audience to tick, rather than in the stodgier serious dramas that tend to weigh him down needlessly.

     Bridge of Spies seems, on first sight, to follow in the footsteps of the constrained theatrics of Lincoln - a worthy history lesson bogged down by its own sense of bloated self-importance - rather than in the ravishing storytelling gestures of the flawed but heartfelt War Horse. But it turns out that, despite the odd longueur, the new film proves to be a smart addition to his canon, so to speak "bridging" his desire for fast-paced entertainment and his interest in serious issues.

     Set at the 1960 height of the Cold War, as the Berlin wall is being built, Bridge of Spies dramatizes the real-life exchange of NYC-based Russian spy Rudolf Abel for captured spy-pilot plane Gary Powers, as negotiated by a civil-law attorney roped in somewhat against his will. This man, Jim Donovan, is the real hero in Mr. Spielberg's film, and is portrayed as the ideal of the stand-up American guy, the member of the "Greatest Generation" whose patriotism is unimpeachable.

     Initially called on to provide the trial defense of Abel, Donovan's sense of morality prevents him from giving his own government a carte blanche in the name of security, refusing to provide a semblance of due process and acquiesce to higher political interests that are ultimately not in the interest of the society he fought for. His steadfast integrity makes him a beacon, a moral, immobile compass at the heart of a system that is beginning to swerve far too much with the storms outside; no wonder Donovan is played by Tom Hanks, the closest contemporary American film has to the "common American" of the 1940s and 1950s like James Stewart and Henry Fonda portrayed, the one actor that could successfully pull off such a "guy next door" today.

     And, of course, through this real-life story set in an America awash in the fear-mongering of the Red Scare and atomic war, it's the modern-day America and its contradictory impulses of protectionism and exceptionalism that Mr. Spielberg is slyly mirroring and indicting, mustering through Mr. Hanks the folksy, common-sense smarts of the average Joe that served Frank Capra's activist melodramas of the post-Great Depression so well. He does so at the heart of a cracklingly realised spy yarn that plays like a light-hearted take on something like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold - "the lawyer who flew into the cold", if you will.

     It is a parlour game of sorts; the real decisions in the spy game are made at length in distant head offices, the script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers portraying espionage as a calculated chess game of influences where the actual men on the field are disposable pawns at the mercy of the political needs, not unlike the backroom horse-trading going on in Lincoln. But, because there is a suspense element of secrecy and unpredictability involved in the plot development, Mr. Spielberg masters the film's tempo very slyly. His deft use of handheld camera in important moments of surprise and action, interwoven with the more classical, unobtrusive storytelling he is known for, is proof enough of his ability to move on with the times - despite Janusz Kaminski's very eighties stage-light-silhouetting and the script's over-egging of folksiness in the final act.

     Yet, while this is not Mr. Spielberg's finest hour - it does feel like an old-fashioned studio movie he could have made in his sleep - neither is it as stodgy as Lincoln or as shameless as War Horse. It's, just, Steven Spielberg doing well what he knows best how to do.

US, India, UK, Germany, 2015, 141 minutes
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda
Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; cinematography Janusz Kaminski (widescreen); music by Thomas Newman; production designer Adam Stockhausen; costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone; film editor Michael Kahn; produced by Mr. Spielberg, Marc Platt and Kristie Macosko Krieger, for Fox 2000 Pictures, Dreamworks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Afterworks Limited, Studio Babelsberg, Amblin Entertainment and Marc Platt Productions in association with Participant Media and TSG Entertainment
Screened November 18th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon

Friday, November 27, 2015


Remaking - or "reimagining", in contemporary parlance - a much-loved classic isn't problematic per se, if the end result actually brings something new to the table. It's not the case in producer/director Leonel Vieira's ill-advised remake of O Leão da Estrela, second in a series of three modern-day updates of fondly-remembered Portuguese comedies from the 1940s; the first, O Pátio das Cantigas, released five months ago, was as critically panned as it was wildly successful, its 600 000 admissions making it the biggest Portuguese-produced box-office hit ever.

     Much like that first film, O Leão da Estrela is a crass, embarrassingly unfunny farce purely aimed at the money-making end of the market, borrowing elements from Arthur Duarte's 1947 original to fashion them into a dispiritingly dumb, desperately cynical project with no semblance of logic in its plotting, narrative or characterisations. As in the original, the story revolves around soccer fanatic Anastácio (Miguel Guilherme standing in for António Silva), whose die-hard support for his team requires him to attend an away game and take the family along for the weekend, forcing the middle-class suburbans to pose as people of means to stay under false pretenses with a well-off family.

     Here, though, Anastácio is no longer a fan of Sporting, one of the "big three" Portuguese teams, but instead of a small-town, bottom-feeding team, the Lions of Alcochete, rendering his supporter fanaticism somewhat inexplicable. And it's the youngest daughter Joana (Sara Matos) who becomes the plot's engine, well-versed as she is in passing herself off as someone else through the Photoshopped pictures in her Facebook profile. While this idea could have given the film something to stand on as a satire of modern social-media mores, it becomes a mere excuse to see some not very smart characters acting dumb and dumber for no other reason that the plot requires it, suggesting not only that is it OK to lie, cheat and deceive but that everyone does it so nobody minds.

     It's an incredibly cynical posture, typical of the current audience-baiting reality-show thinking, amplified by the fact nobody in the preposterous plot seems to be using their head to actually think things through. This mires O Leão da Estrela in slapdash TV-level escapism, where it doesn't matter if things make sense as long as they provide some relief from daily life, making it the filmic equivalent of a throwaway junk food meal, full of salt and sugar, only without even the saving grace of flavour. The original's humour was at least based on the characters' imperfections and choices; the new one merely strings along tired jokes trying to pass them off as new ones.

     What makes all it worse is the sense this was a rushed job done by a slumming crew whose heart was not in it - from scene cutting that seems timed by shot length instead of dialogue to flat TV-level lighting, through characters that are introduced just because and plot lines that are never followed up on, the only thing that seems to be lacking here is a laugh track to point out the gag beats. It's all the more bewildering coming from a crew who regularly do much better work, though not so much from a director who has traded in the promising genre work of his debut for a lowest-common-denominator audience-chasing formula.

Portugal, 2015, 110 minutes
Starring Miguel Guiherme, Sara Matos, Ana Varela, Dânia Neto, Manuela Couto, André Nunes, Aldo Lima, José Raposo, Alexandra Lencastre, Vítor Norte, Manuel Marques
Directed by Leonel Vieira; written by Tiago R. Santos, based on the original screenplay by João Bastos, Félix Bermudes and Ernesto Rodrigues for the film O Leão da Estrela by Arthur Duarte; cinematography José António Loureiro (widescreen); music by Nuno Maló; art director Rui Alves; costume designer Teresa Sousa; film editor Pedro Ribeiro; produced by Mr. Vieira, for Stopline Films and Skydreams Entertainment in co-production with RTP
Screened November 12th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon

Thursday, November 26, 2015

My Mother

Where does everything go? All the memories, the experiences, the studies, the knowledge, the heartbreak, the happiness, everything that fits inside a lifetime - where does it all go when life ends? That's what's troubling Margherita, the film director at the heart of Nanni Moretti's superb My Mother, as her own life seems to unravel while her mother is in hospital with death on the horizon.

     Margherita, wonderfully played by the great Margherita Buy, is starting to shoot a new film whose production is proving more complicated than she anticipated; also, there's a romantic break-up with her current partner who is one of the actors in the film to deal with, plus a temperamental American star (John Turturro) whose demands threaten to derail things even further. In some ways, Margherita is the exact opposite of the lead character in Antonello Grimaldi's Quiet Chaos: in that film (which he also co-wrote), Mr. Moretti played an executive still reeling from his wife's death who retreats into a sort of limbo, a refusal to commit to anything for fear it may disappear. Here, Margherita (who, as a film director, can't help but recall the director himself) throws herself headlong into work and life, juggling everything to see if she can avoid dealing with the obvious until she can't take it anymore.

     The film's connection to death creates a peculiar triptych with Quiet Chaos and the majestic The Son's Room (still Mr. Moretti's best film for my money), all of them dealing with the loss of a close family member. But while both those films dealt mostly with the consequences "after the fact", My Mother takes place almost entirely "before the fact", with Margherita and her brother Giovanni (Mr. Moretti) having to come to terms with a death that is announced and predicted. But, while Giovanni is somehow pro-active, the sister is essentially reactive; she is running to stand still, pretending to be in control but knowing full well she can't control what really matters. Hence, what seems at first to be a requiem for Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a former teacher who still has a twinkle in her eye, also becomes a requiem for a time in Margherita's life that has to be left behind; a quiet admission that you need to start again and leave a heavy load behind. Ada may be the centre of the film, but more because of the way she affects all other characters rather than by her physical presence at its heart.

     My Mother hinges on a delicate balance between laughter and tears, comedy and melodrama, that Mr. Moretti has not always been able to pull off at this level. It's a tenderly realised, marvelously detailed carousel of emotions that has no problem about appropriating classic genre tropes when needed only to discard them when they are no longer necessary instead of sticking to them; it's also a return to the director's best form after the less inspired The Caiman and Habemus Papam. 

Italy, France, 2015, 107 minutes
Starring Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini, Nanni Moretti, Beatrice Mancini
Directed by Mr. Moretti; screenplay by Mr. Moretti, Francesco Piccolo and Valia Santelli, based on a story by Gaia Manzini, Mr. Moretti, Ms. Santelli and Chiara Valerio; cinematography Arnaldo Catinari; production designer Paola Bizzarri; costume designer Valentina Taviani; film editor Clelio Benvenuto; produced by Mr. Moretti and Domenico Procacci, for Sacher Film, Fandango and Rai Cinema in co-production with Le Pacte and ARTE France Cinéma
Screened October 30th, 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Net

One of the most disappointing objects I got to see in this year's DocLisboa line-up (even though it was a ten-year old film picked up for the representations of terrorism in cinema I Don't Throw Bombs, I Make Films sidebar), German director Lutz Dammbeck's The Net is the sort of lurid but ultimately confused would-be exposé that doesn't really know how to deal with all the material it assembled.

     By connecting the writings of the infamous Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, with the history of the internet and the post-WWII desire to create a better world, the director is looking at unveiling an "alternate history" of the past half century, suggesting our technological society results from a combination of utopian and dystopian elements put into place by folk in high places. Mr. Dammbeck's approach creates a fascinatingly interlinked (hyperlinked, maybe?) view of world history as an interconnected living organism - a sort of non-stop butterfly effect that a few visionary, secretive elements may have attempted to guide.

     In cheerier hands, this would be the "alternate dimension" explored in Brad Bird's utopian Tomorrowland, but in Mr. Dammbeck's hand suggests a disquietingly totalitarian result, an investigative attempt to "keep the populace under control". The problem is that the director never truly solidifies those connections, leaving them -  either by default or by design - as mere thought-provoking allusions that, at their most outlandish, come across as outlaw conspiracy theories.

     That The Net slips slowly into Twilight Zone or X-Files territory isn't necessarily a problem; what is, though, is that the director maintains throughout an approach of dogged documentarian searching for the truth while what he is actually doing is speculative investigation. The sense is that the film changed direction somewhere in between the filming and the editing, in an almost Herzogian way but without his determination. And the interviews shot with figures like Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Unabomber victim David Gelernter or the late cybernetics pioneer Heinz von Foerster have an exploitation element involved, as if Mr. Dammbeck was hoping for a "gotcha" moment that never really arrives.

     Eventually, the theory Mr. Dammbeck is trying to uphold seems to be created on the fly, and that we are watching its creation - especially since Kaczynski himself remains elusively out of frame, quoted from the correspondence he exchanged with the director but without any possible measurement of the veracity of his statements. As a result, the film amasses a wealth of intriguing information that is never explored beyond its face value, leaving the viewer in no position to judge its reliability, and with a film that is as genuinely thought-provoking as bewilderingly misguided and under-cooked.

Germany, 2003, 119 minutes
Directed and written by Lutz Dammbeck; camera, Thomas Plenert, István Imreh and James Carman; music and sound design by Jörg U. Lensing; film editor, Margot Neubert-Marić; produced by Lutz Dammbeck Filmproduktion in co-production with Südwestrundfunk and ARTE
Screened October 26th 2015, São Jorge 3, Lisbon - DocLisboa sidebar screening 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


That remakes are generally pointless seems to be the corollary of this latest attempt at redoing a foreign-language film for domestic American consumption. That said remake is still a perfectly decent, solid piece of work, while remaining pointless, is in itself worth pointing out - even if it's highly unlikely that Secret in Their Eyes will ever be as fondly remembered as the original film, 2010's foreign-language film Oscar winner from Argentina. Yet, writer/director Billy Ray is smart enough to maintain the complicated emotional threads of Juan Jose Campanella's original mostly intact while making it relevant to our days of security paranoia.

     The heart of the film remains a former official's obsession with an unsolved case dating back years, leading him to reconnect with the prosecutor who dealt with the affair at the time to reopen it after new information comes up. Here, the retired official is a former police detective (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn, and the prosecutor a junior DA transplant from tony Philadelphia (Nicole Kidman); the cold case involves not the murder of a woman, as in the original, but that of a young woman who happened to be the daughter of an FBI agent (Julia Roberts). The remake takes place in present day Los Angeles instead of 1990s Buenos Aires, changing the timing of the cold case from the unstable Argentina of the 1970s to the first few weeks immediately after 9/11 - a smart update that maintains the moral undertones of the plot, asking whether the greater picture justifies the personal sacrifice.

     That the romantic obsession present in the plot survives almost intact is the first credit to Mr. Ray's thoughtful update; the second is the reliance on a cast that has form in this kind of serious roles. But there is also a loss in the process. What was so rewarding in Mr. Campanella's film was its shape-shifting qualities - the sense you were watching a chaste, complex love story developing under the guise of a detective thriller with a political angle. Secret in Their Eyes, on the other hand, resolves itself into a political thriller with a strong whiff of seventies throwback and a love story on the side. In that, it can't help but lose something of what made the original special, a loss compounded by the lack of chemistry between a glacial Ms. Kidman and an earnest Mr. Ejiofor. It's not enough to throw Secret in Their Eyes in the waste basket as a write-off, since regardless of its affiliation this remains a well-made, well-crafted adult thriller that would have been a solid mid-range studio film in earlier times. But, for all the intelligence that Mr. Ray has brought to the task, this will never escape comparisons to its original, and on that level it simply can't rise to the standard.

US, Spain, South Korea, UK, 2015, 111 minutes
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, Joe Cole, Zoe Graham, Alfred Molina
Directed and written by Billy Ray; based on the screenplay by Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri for Mr. Campanella's film The Secret in Their Eyes; cinematographer Danny Moder (widescreen); music by Emilio Kauderer; production designer Nelson Coates; costume designer Shay Cunliffe; film editor Jim Page; produced by Mark Johnson and Matt Jackson, for Gran Via Productions, SITE Productions, Willie's Movies and Moot Point Productions in association with Route One Entertainment, Union Investment Partners, Ingenious Media and Elipsis Capital 
Screened November 13th 2015 at NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon

Monday, November 23, 2015


More was originally shot and released in full view of the "come down" from the 1967 Summer of Love, not long after the convention-shattering Bonnie & Clyde and on the cusp of the counter-cultural celebration of Easy Rider; leading many to think of it (often without actually having watched it) how it was very much a film "of its time". Yet, it's staggering to see how Barbet Schroeder's debut feature was actually so critical of the scene it depicted - critical not in the judgmental sense of the word, since the director's later work has proved him to be no black-and-white moralist.

     Instead, More refuses to follow blindly the period's idealism, and prefers to recognise the traps and pitfalls of the psychotropic-fuelled hedonism de rigueur for those who were looking to voyage into their selves as new-fangled manifestations of an old-fashioned idea. Klaus Grünberg's newly-graduated German student Stefan is looking for the contemporary equivalent of the "grand tour" young men would take around the world before beginning their real life of contributing to society. Only this one leads him into the warmer pastures of the Mediterranean South - all the way to Ibiza via Paris, in the wake of Estelle (Mimsy Farmer), an American waif who turns out to be a femme fatale in disguise.

     The couple's apparent search for a way to coexist with traditional society without having to deal with seems to end at a remote seaside villa in Ibiza (ironically owned in real life by the director's mother), but it's a mirage lying in plain sight at the heart of the script written with regular Claude Chabrol collaborator Paul Gégauff. No wonder the intimations of a film noir in the blinding sun (made all the more blinding by DP Néstor Almendros' use of natural lighting) come fast and furious: Estelle is in cahoots with a mysterious German expat-cum-drug dealer (Heinz Engelmann), Stefan is only the latest in a line of patsies who fall head over heels for her.

     What's mostly "of its time" in More is the almost documentary portrait it makes of the a new generation looking for its own approach to the world, as well-meaning as it may be misguided; in so doing, it merely underlines just how much the idealism of young age is a cyclical response to a growingly cynical system, inseparable yins and yangs that keep each other in perpetual but unchanging balance. That it all comes down to petty drug deals, even if in the Ibiza sun instead of ill-lit urban back alleys, is just simple proof that even as a debutante Barbet Schroeder was not interested in doing a quick hipster cash-in.

France, Spain, 1969, 112 minutes
Starring Mimsy Farmer, Klaus Grünberg, Heinz Engelmann, Michel Chanderli, Henry Wolf, Louise Wink
Directed by Barbet Schroeder; screenplay by Paul Gégauff and Mr. Schroeder, with Mimsy Farmer, Eugene Archer and Paul Gardner; based on a story by Mr. Schroeder; cinematography Néstor Almendros; music by Pink Floyd; art directors Fran Lewis and Mr. Almendros; film editors Denise de Casabianca, Monique Giraudy and Madeleine Grimberg; produced by Mr. Schroeder, for Jet Films and Doric Films
Screened November 6th 2015, Lisbon

Friday, November 20, 2015


Amnesia appears to bring Barbet Schroeder's career full circle. The latest film from the eclectic French-based polymath who has done everything, from Bukowski (Barfly) to a Mad Men episode, from Hollywood psycho-thriller (Single White Female) to cult Euro-psychedelia (More), from staged documentary (General Idi Amin Dada) to Oscar-winning drama (Reversal of Fortune), was shot in the exact same Spanish seaside villa where parts of More were filmed in 1968.

     The house near San Antoní, in the island of Ibiza, was actually owned by Mr. Schroeder's German-born mother Ursula, who is also the loose inspiration for Martha Segall (Marthe Keller), the central character of Amnesia. The film's title refers both to one of the key clubs in Ibiza's dance music scene boom of the 1990s, when the film takes place, and to Martha's deliberate refusal to address the past. She has rejected her native country and her native language, and has put as much distance as possible between herself and the Germany she left as Hitler came to power, but it's the country that keeps getting close to her: first in the shape of a family estate that needs to be settled, then through Jo (Max Riemelt), the young German who moves in next door with a view to become the next big international DJing star, dreaming of making the roster at Amnesia.

     Despite the DJ angle (essentially a script convenience that is treated with some clumsy, throwaway naïveté), Amnesia is essentially the story of a woman coming to terms late in life with her choices and their consequences. It's a suggestively, subtly told piece, to which the too rare Ms. Keller brings a graceful yet intensely layered performance, attentively directed by Mr. Schroeder; it's almost a love letter from a director to an actress who has seldom been better.

     Unfortunately, that story and that performance are wrapped up in an awkward tug-of-war, where the attentive, intelligent woman's picture struggles with a sincere but redundant re-stating of Germany's own need to come to terms with its nazi past. The lunch scene where Jo introduces his mother and grandfather to Martha, leading to a serious conversation about Germany's responsibility, avoids the trap of redundant didacticism by a whisker, but even if the issue is essential to the truth of Martha's character the way, Mr. Schroeder risks making it surplus to requirements; there's nothing in here that hasn't been told before, much unhelped by some occasionally awkward cutting from veteran Nelly Quettier.

     That those are not the central, or even the most interesting, aspects of Amnesia end up being the film's saving grace: the sheer breathtaking beauty of the Ibiza landscapes as shot in bursts of blunt colour by DP Luciano Tovoli, perfectly capturing the starkness of its seaside light as a reflection of Martha's own blunt attitude towards life, help define and present the heart of the film as the story of her reawakening, so movingly captured by Ms. Keller. She alone is reason enough to watch Amnesia.

Switzerland, France, 2015, 96 minutes
Starring Marthe Keller, Max Riemelt, Corinna Kirchhoff, Joel Basman, Marie Leuenberger, Fermí Reixach, Bruno Ganz
Directed by Barbet Schroeder; written by Emilie Bickerton, Peter Steinbach, Susan Hoffman and Mr. Schroeder; cinematographer Luciano Tovoli; music by Lucien Nicolet; production and costume designer Franckie Diago; film editor Nelly Quettier; produced by Ruth Waldburger and Margaret Ménégoz, for Vega Film and Films du Losange in co-production with SRF/SRG/SSR, Téléclub and ARTE France Cinéma
Screened October 28th 2015, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon