Tuesday, April 22, 2014

JEUNE & JOLIE (Young and Beautiful)

Few contemporary film directors can brag about a work ethic that sees them faithfully direct a film once a year in an unbroken run that seldom falls below a certain level of quality - something that happened much more often during the heyday of the studio system, but that nowadays, with no "safety net" to guarantee a continuous production. Frenchman François Ozon may benefit from the relatively stable French production system, but his films aren't always safe, straight-down-the-middle choices, even if his initial reputation as a sly provocateur has by now been superseded by a narrative and stylistic virtuosity that could be compared to a lower-key Steven Soderbergh.

     After the boulevard satire of Potiche, and the Chabrolian psychological mysteries of Dans la maison, Jeune & jolie applies Mr. Ozon's traditionally dispassionate handling to a coming-of-age tale that reminds of his earlier, brasher family-unit-defying work such as Sitcom or Swimming Pool. It's also a film that is doubly of its director: not only because of its stealthy, almost neutrally chilly, observational attitude, but because its lead character, well-off but bored middle-class teenager Isabelle, has herself a stealthy, observational attitude towards others that suggests her decision to take her own fate in her hands and to hell with the consequences could be construed as the director's own attitude towards choice of material. Marine Vacth's performance as Isabelle meshes to perfection with Mr. Ozon's determined pursuance of his own path as a filmmaker, as she loses his virginity during a Summer vacation and finds out that the same sexual instincts that too often turn women into subjects can also empower them to take control.

     Set over the course of the four seasons of a single year - Isabelle's last before crossing into adulthood - Jeune & jolie seems to take as its motto Arthur Rimbaud's celebrated poem On n'est pas sérieux quand on a 17 ans. What is striking, though, is how much Isabelle is so serious at 17, fearlessly moving into a borderline dangerous activity out of a combination of genuine youthful curiosity and mature empowerment, eschewing any sort of dishonesty or hypocrisy. Even her choice to hide this "sidebar" from her mother (Géraldine Pailhas), an over-bearing doctor who is betraying her second husband with a friend's husband, is her own decision, her own choice, and the consequences that will quickly spiral out of control will also eventually make her realize that her decision was a lot more thought out than what others want to make her out to be. It's a fascinatingly mature, utterly de-sexualized look at desire and lust as mere instruments of power, poignantly punctuated by the melancholy tunes of Françoise Hardy, as this preternaturally adult teenager learns the hard way some lessons about love and life.

JEUNE & JOLIE
France 2013
93 minutes
Cast: Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Charlotte Rampling, Johan Leysen, Fantin Ravat
Director and screenwriter François Ozon; cinematography Pascal Marti (colour, widescreen); composer Philippe Rombi; designer Katia Wyszkop; costumes Pascaline Chavanne; editor Laure Gardette; producers Éric Altmayer and Nicolas Altmayer, Mandarin Cinéma in co-production with Mars Films, France 2 Cinéma and FOZ
Screened April 10th 2014 (distributor press screening, Medeia Monumental 1)



Monday, April 21, 2014

TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM

In many ways, Twenty Feet from Stardom has become the 2013/2014 season's equivalent of Searching for Sugar Man: the uplifting, inspirational music documentary that brings to light an overlooked but important moment of musical history, giving unjustly forgotten performers their due. In this case, the performers are the backup singers that gave flavour, heft and distinctiveness to many classic rock, R&B and soul recordings by Phil Spector, the Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner, Joe Cocker and so many others. Mostly African-American, mostly female, and with extensive church music experience, these singers were often visceral, attention-grabbing presences that made those recordings stand out while being merely featured performers.

     However, they seldom managed to translate their acknowledgement and reputation within the industry into long-lasting solo stardom: Merry Clayton, Tata Vega or Lisa Fischer's solo careers never really took off, Darlene Love - the effective "star" in what is an ensemble movie -, who sang in many of Phil Spector's groundbreaking "wall of sound" recordings, was consistently denied a solo spot of her own for too long. And Claudia Lennear has completely retired from singing, after realising that moving into a solo career was a one-way-street from which there was no turning back. Today, all of them have been consistently reevaluated and have finally attained a measure of fame, and Twenty Feet from Stardom purports to give them their due.

     Despite the great music, though, and the gripping life stories here presented in a heartfelt way, Morgan Neville's piece is not a great film. It's more conventional and nowhere near as artful or as linear as Searching for Sugar Man, in many ways suggesting a blown-up long-form TV special that would find its true home at VH1, BET or HBO (you can even try to spot just where the commercial breaks are meant to go!): talking heads (though hefty ones such as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting or Mick Jagger) interspersed with archive footage and some reality-style interpolations. Mr. Neville's work is better when it delves into the history and context of each singer's life and career, but loses focus every time newcomer Judith Hill shows up; she is being presented as the contemporary equivalent of these veteran singers when it's clear the "model" that made Ms. Love, Ms. Clayton or Ms. Fischer's is no longer applicable, and there's a world of difference between her experiences and everyone else's, making her a somewhat bewildering intrusion.

     For all the good stuff that is going on here, musically and historically, there's a sense that Twenty Feet from Stardom never really does anything more than skim the surface of a fascinating subject. The music and the goodwill of the viewers are, however, not enough to paper over the film's slight if cheerful nature. And explain even less why, in a line-up that included a lot more worthier films, this was the one that got away with the Academy Award for documentary feature.

TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM
USA 2013
90 minutes
Director Morgan Neville; cinematographers Nicola Marsh and Graham Willoughby (colour); editors Kevin Klauber and Jason Zeldes, supervised by Doug Blush; producers Caitrin Rogers, Gil Friesen and Mr. Neville, Gil Friesen Productions and Tremolo Productions
Screened April 1st 2014 (DVD, Lisbon)


Friday, April 18, 2014

WHAT MAISIE KNEW

The idea of updating a story out of its original time period or setting is something to be taken seriously and carefully, to make sure the essence of the tale is not lost in translation. By moving Henry James' 1897 novel What Maisie Knew into modern-day New York City, screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright and directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel were playing with fire. But their lovely, attentive update keeps intact its melancholy, poignant look at privilege, justice and love, as the fate of a young girl hangs in the balance of her parents' divorce and custody battle. Though this may make it look as if Messrs. McGehee and Siegel are doing a sort of tony version of Kramer vs Kramer, it's not like that at all: it's a perfectly calibrated, beautifully discrete story of modern-day relationships, as seen through the eyes of the preternaturally grown-up six-year-old Maisie Beale.

     Maisie is aware she is being used as leverage in the messy battle between her rock star mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art gallerist father Beale (Steve Coogan), but she is never in doubt of how much they love her, and of their manoeuvres to win her allegiance while hurting the other partner. No wonder Maisie, in a scarily poised performance by the equally six-year-old Onata Aprile, feels more at ease with the other adults in her life, who are also collateral damage to the battle between Susanna and Beale: Margo (Joanna Vanderham), her former nanny who is being unwittingly used by Beale to gain the girl's custody, and Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), the sweet-natured bartender Susanna uses to get back at Beale. Maisie becomes, at the same time, cause and consequence; she is a weapon in a divorce and a catalyst for a rapprochement between Margo and Lincoln, cancelling out the pain.

     Ms. Aprile's guileless presence is well used by Messrs. McGehee and Siegel to keep the remainder of the cast on their toes at all time - even if it's Ms. Moore who has the "showiest" role and has more to work with (which she does with her trademark gusto), this is clearly an ensemble piece where everything is closely intertwined and one off note can risk bringing down the whole picture. Elegantly and intelligently, What Maisie Knew avoids all bum notes while never needing to raise its pitch and speaking with the audience rather than at them.

WHAT MAISIE KNEW
USA 2013
99 minutes
Cast Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham, Steve Coogan
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel; screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright; based on the novel by Henry James What Maisie Knew; cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (colour, widescreen); composer Nick Urata; designer Kelly McGehee; costumes Stacey Battat; editor Madeleine Gavin; producers William Teitler, Charles Weinstock, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Daniel Crown, Red Crown Productions, Weinstock Productions and William Teitler Productions in association with 120db Films, KODA Entertainment, Dreambridge Films, Image Entertainment and 10th Hole Productions
Screened March 26th 2013  (DVD, Lisbon)


Monday, April 14, 2014

NOAH

Darren Aronofsky has never been afraid of ridicule or of pursuing creative avenues that would scare off lesser directors. Think of the maddeningly over-reaching yet dazzlingly thought-provoking metaphysical treaty that is The Fountain, or of the overwrought giallo slasher that is Black Swan. Noah, his treatment of the biblical tale of the Flood, notches another ambitious, thoughtful take on risky material for Mr. Aronofsky, but this time it's clear that the director has bitten off a lot more than he can chew.

     Ponderous, bloated, over-stretched as much as it's intriguing, demanding and provocative, Noah engages with the substance of the religious message of Christ if not with the exact form in which it has been passed on, upending Hollywood's big-budget biblical epics into a dangerously personal, almost chamber-like claustrophobic blockbuster. It could be "the Flood for the Walking Dead generation", such is the dark, apocalyptic, survivalist tone Mr. Aronofsky and his co-screenwriter Ari Handel write into the tale; madness and visionarism co-exist in this world stripped raw of its nature, taken to the brink of extinction and cleansed by the deity's divine wrath. Russell Crowe's intense Noah is a haunted figure who is as much fundamentalist zealot as broken human being; the last of its line of respectful stewards of the Earth, he is pushed to a breaking point that would leave most men insane, taken to the extreme of wishing to leave no trace of his passage through life for the sake of the planet's survival.

     Yet, the director's traditional edginess is restricted to the conceptualization of the characters, dulled by a visual treatment of somewhat dim drabness (all dull browns and dark tones that need a really state-of-the-art projection to come off - it wasn't the case in the screening attended) and a portentous, elephantine sluggishness that pushes the film over the two-hour mark with little to no benefit to its story-telling. Though the film's theme is hardly lightweight, Mr. Aronofsky's desire to have his cake and eat it too means the bleak, adult, demanding nature of the script and the requirement to deliver a commercial, blockbuster picture either co-exist awkwardly or cancel each other out, resulting in a strangely unaffecting though intermittently powerful re-imagining that engages the mind rather than the eye. The director has thankfully never been afraid of believing in himself to the limit, but here he may be like Noah himself - too lost in his mission to be fully aware of all the mistakes he's making. Had it succeeded, it would have been yet another jewel in Mr. Aronofsky's crown; such as it is, it's an intriguing but obvious failure.

NOAH
USA 2014
138 minutes
Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Marton Csokas, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand
Director Darren Aronofsky; screenwriters Mr. Aronofsky and Ari Handel; cinematographer Matthew Libatique (colour); composer Clint Mansell; designer Mark Friedberg; costumes Michael Wilkinson; editor Andrew Weisblum; effects supervisor Ben Snow; producers Scott Franklin, Mr. Aronofsky, Mary Parent and Arnon Milchan, Paramount Pictures, Regency Enterprises and Protozoa Pictures
Screened April 8th 2014 (distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon)



Thursday, April 10, 2014

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Bienvenus, willkommen, welcome to Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel, a "grand illusion" of a mythical Mitteleuropa that never existed outside the silver screen, yet is suffused with enough of actual Europe between the two world wars to become a sort of "documentary of the imagination". Though at heart a stylized screwball burlesque rich in the director's wry, idiossyncratic humour, highly influenced by the classical Hollywood comedies of pre-WWII, The Grand Budapest Hotel is also Mr. Anderson's most grown-up confection. By letting in a wind of change - or, one might say, a wind of war - in his self-contained universes, he is merely amplifying his trademark melancholy nostalgia for an innocent time, better days gone by — though, this time, realising that you cannot truly hold on to it forever (even if his films seem to wish otherwise).

     Set in the fictional "Republic of Zubrowka" in the year 1932, with omens of war in the horizon as invading forces are at the border, Mr. Anderson's whimsical tale concerns the perfect concierge of the luxurious Grand Budapest Hotel, Monsieur Gustave H. (a pitch-perfect Ralph Fiennes) and his role in the strange case of aged wealthy millionairess Celine Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton unrecognisable under heavy prosthetics). Falsely accused of her murder, the effete but shrewd Gustave stages an elaborate prison escape with the help of his faithful lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) to find himself pursued by the conniving son of the deceased (Adrien Brody). This being a Wes Anderson picture, though, the tale unfolds in a series of nested Russian dolls, with the central tale of Gustave and Zero's struggle to uphold the impeccable reputation of the Grand Budapest told in flashback in 1968 by a now-aged Zero (F. Murray Abraham) to a renowned author (Jude Law); but this is also a flashback, as the now-aged author (Tom Wilkinson) writes it in 1985.

     Mr. Anderson's fastidiousness extends to shooting each of the temporal frames in a different screen ratio and colour scheme; but in this thrice-told narrative openly inspired by the work of Austrian raconteur Stefan Zweig, the director finally finds the "exit" from his self-containment that he failed to find in the charming but flyweight Moonrise Kingdom. More overly farcical yet no less moving than his best work, The Grand Budapest Hotel makes the director's quiet melancholia resonate at a higher frequency than usual in his precise intertwining of style and substance, form and function. An elaborate confection where everything is in its precise place, this tale of a fictional past coloured by the actual past seems to radiate a more acute sense of loss, both personal and social, than is usual in the filmmaker. The apparent excess of both stars (a veritable "who's who" of contemporary film actors, many of which returning from previous films) and style (Adam Stockhausen's meticulous production design and Robert Yeoman's tactile cinematography are stunning formal achievements), however, only seems to train the eye more on the essence of the tale.

     It's a tale of lonely people railing against "the dying of the light", attempting to hold on to a way of life that is doomed, expanding on Mr. Anderson's usual tales of dysfunctional families looking for a return to a more peaceful time (or "a more perfect union") into a greater sense of a whole lost world fondly remembered. That The Grand Budapest Hotel does so with wit and style in a clear homage to comedy stylists such as Ernst Lubitsch or Buster Keaton only makes it more appealing.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
USA, Germany 2014
99 minutes
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Tony Revolori
Director and screenwriter Wes Anderson; based on a story by Mr. Anderson and Hugo Guinness; cinematographer Robert Yeoman (colour, varying screen ratios); composer Alexander Desplat; designer Adam Stockhausen; costumes Milena Canonero; editor Barney Pilling; producers Mr. Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Indian Paintbrush and American Empirical Pictures in association with Studio Babelsberg and TSG Entertainment
Screened: February 5th 2014 (Berlinale 2014 official competition advance screening, Cinestar Cubix 5, Berlin) and April 4th 2014 (distributor advance screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon)


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

DIVERGENT

It has always been a fact: Hollywood is unable to see a formula without trying to milk it for all it's worth before disposing of it as yesterday's news. The latest examples - and particularly egregious since they're pretty much soaking up most of the big-studio money available - are the neverending super-hero tales that are now approaching saturation, and the young-adult-fantasy feeding frenzy kickstarted by J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels. In this latest trend, two other bona fide hits have surfaced in mid-tier studios: Summit's five-film take on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, and Lionsgate's four-film approach to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games.

     Of all the blink-and-you'll-miss-it failed attempts to ride the coat-tails of these phenomenon, Divergent, based on the first of Veronica Roth's dystopian-future trilogy, is the one that has resonated best at the box-office - though, to be honest, it merely comes across as another cookie-cutter coming-of-age metaphor that mixes and matches liberally from previous, better titles, despite the presence of up-and-coming young actress Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) in the lead. The adult world in which Ms. Woodley's Beatrice Prior has to make way is a futuristic Chicago sealed off from the outside world after an unnamed catastrophy, surviving by dividing itself into five "factions", five tribes embodying five basic "virtues" of human experience to which everyone is assigned at puberty.

     Divergent starts when Beatrice, raised in the pious, selfless Abnegation "tribe", finds she does not have one dominant trait and, as such, is a "Divergent", and a threat to the status quo if she ever reveals she does not conform to the standard. What follows, as she switches allegiance to the athletic, security-oriented Dauntless, is a combination of Harry Potter-ish public-school drama (learning to fit in your new surroundings and navigating the school cliques), Hunger Games self-empowerment (taking charge of your own life for the greater good) and breathtaking romance (finding the right man for you right there where you are, here Beatrice's training supervisor Four, played by Theo James). There's a bit of conspiracy-theory, paranoid-thriller thrown in for good measure, as she discovers a high-tech, genocidal plot to discredit and eliminate the Abnegation, led by the resident governing villainess in disguise (a cold-as-ice Kate Winslet).

     Divergent may brim with thoughtful, thought-provoking ideas, but the truth is it's not really interested in exploring them. The potential for political and satirical comment in the plot, the look at the birth of political consciousness and the fight against conformity for starters, are barely skimmed in Neil Burger's handsome but workmanlike take on the material. The irony of a picture whose central theme is self-determination and self-empowerment fitting so strictly into a pre-ordained formula is shattering; it's essentially a bloated B-movie designed under precise assembly-line specifications, where no "deviations" (or "divergences"...) from the agreed overall design can take place, fitting quietly into its own self-allotted box. The cast and the elegant visuals put together by DP Alwin Küchler and production designer Andy Nicholson certainly deserved more than this unexciting, overlong, teenage-oriented product: they deserved a proper dystopian science-fiction film.

DIVERGENT
USA 2014
139 minutes
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet
Director Neil Burger; screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor; based on the novel Divergent by Veronica Roth; cinematographer Alwin Küchler (colour, widescreen); composer Junkie XL; designer Andy Nicholson; costumes Carlo Poggioli; editors Richard Francis-Bruce and Nancy Richardson; effects supervisor Jim Berney; producers Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher and Pouya Shahbazian, Summit Entertainment and Red Wagon Entertainment
Screened March 28th 2014 (distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon)


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

RIO 2

After stumbling with a coldly received original story, Epic, Fox-affiliated CGI animation studio Blue Sky flies back to firmer ground with a tried-and-true property: the sequel to their cheerful 2011 crowd-pleaser Rio, continuing the screwball adventures of Blu and Jewel, the last remaining couple of Spix's macaws in the world. Or so they thought, as the new film posits the possibility of an unknown colony surviving in the deepest jungles of the Amazon, and has the fretful, urban Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) reluctantly following his sassy, spirited now-wife (Anne Hathaway) on an exotic vacation to look for their distant cousins.

     With Brazilian animator and studio mainstay Carlos Saldanha returning at the helm, Rio 2 thankfully extends the playful tone the first film took with the picture-postcard image of Brazil (samba, sun, sea and sex). It also tones down the initial formula of screwball romantic comedy, as Blu and Jewel are here a happily married couple with three kids that run the gamut of contemporary teenage mores, and the Amazon expedition, followed by Blu's buddies, becomes more of a "comedy of remarriage" once Jewel is reunited with her martinet father (Andy Garcia) and her teenage paramour (Bruno Mars).

     For all the breathtaking visual quality of the animation - and a couple more Busby Berkeley-goes-Samba 3D showstopper production numbers - Rio 2 can't quite shake the feeling of déjà vu. The idea of an urban prodigal son returning to a wild family had already been explored in Dreamworks' underwhelming Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Rio 2 doesn't set itself apart enough from other continuing tales such as Shrek or even Blue Sky's own Ice Age series. More worrisome is that the father-in-law angle of the plot is too close to the famously unfunny Meet the Parents for comfort, meaning the middle section of the film (overlong by at least a good 15 minutes) sags under its own weight.

     Thankfully, there's a Wile E. Coyote-ish mad villain available - Jemaine Clement's returning psychotic cockadoo Nigel, here channeling his inner Shakespearean diva - and a scene-stealing sidekick in Kristin Chenoweth's impossibly romantic, over-the-top poison frog Gaby. Mr. Saldanha again introduces gently a worthy ecologic message - here about over-exploitation of the natural resources - without letting it overwhelm the fun, and both the opening and final stretches (plus the showstopping production numbers) are well worth the ticket price alone. But, if Rio is to be extended into a third episode, someone should make more an effort on the story side.

RIO 2
USA 2014
101 minutes
Voice cast: Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, Jemaine Clement, Kristin Chenoweth, Will.i.am, George Lopez, Bruno Mars, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Rita Moreno, Tracy Morgan, Jake T. Austin, Andy Garcia, Jamie Foxx
Director Carlos Saldanha; screenwriters Don Rhymer, Carlos Kotkin, Jenny Bicks and Yoni Brenner; cinematographer Renato Falcão (colour, widescreen, 3D); composer John Powell; art director Thomas Cardone; editor Harry Hitner; producers Bruce Anderson and John A. Donkin, Twentieth Century-Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios
Screened March 27th 2014 (distributor advance screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12)