Friday, January 23, 2015

NIGHT WILL FALL

Here's the thing that puzzles me about Night Will Fall: that the fascinating true story behind one of the most important motion pictures in the history of cinema is formatted as a "companion piece" to something you can't see. British producer André Singer's smooth retelling of the political and artistic backstory involved in assembling Allied footage of the Nazi concentration camps in WWII refers constantly to a piece that can only be seen in restricted and highly controlled circumstances: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.

     Originally code-named "the atrocity movie", the project was headed by producer Sidney Bernstein, then running the Allied film services, and aimed at being a hard-hitting revelation to the world audiences about the true nature of the Nazi regime, harnessing the specific powers of film to make its point as a document both for immediate effect and later memory. Bernstein and journalist Richard Crossman organised footage shot by the military cameramen that accompanied the Allied troops that liberated the camps, and Alfred Hitchcock dropped by with some suggestions and improvements towards the end of the process. (His contributions to the film have been greatly discussed over the years.)

     But the "atrocity movie" was quietly shelved when it became clear that there were disagreements between the British and the Americans regarding the nature of the film, and was never truly completed. Billy Wilder edited part of the footage into a shorter film called Death Mills at the behest of the US Army, and what was ready of the film surfaced in 1984 as Memory of the Camps. The film as intended by Bernstein and incorporating Hitchcock's suggestions was only truly finished to the original specifications in 2014 under the aegis of the Imperial War Museum - and cannot be commercially exploited nor screened without the presence of a member of the restoration team.

     As such, Night Will Fall, which tells the story of the film in roughly chronological order, from its inception as part of the Allied use of film as propaganda to the rediscovery and restoration of the original material, is a conundrum. It's a film that refers constantly to another film that remains unseen and truly "invisible", and does so in a traditional "talking-heads"-slash-"making of" format, professionally done and glossily presented.

     In a way, the original's invisibility is quite appropriate: Mr. Singer points out recurrently that exposure to the rough footage from the camps as it was arriving was a shocking, disturbing experience for the film processing and logging crews, something that could not be "un-seen" nor forgotten. The original 1944-45 material thus becomes a sort of real-life horror film, whose use could be devastating; no wonder the entire project eventually got bogged down in the politics and diplomacy of an overly cautious post-war world. What had started as a public service film for the historical record got buried for political reasons - like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the records of the Bletchley Park team.

     But precisely because the importance of the original footage remains undeniable and undimmed, and because the tale behind its slow reemergence is so compelling, it's a shame that Night Will Fall becomes so dependent on the film it can't show. The bribes of footage that are indeed shown are harrowing in and of themselves - and strong reasons to make sure the material is only used parcimoniously. But since there is a referential void at its heart - this is the tale of a film that cannot be seen - what we get is a lot less than what could be. And what we get is a sort of "historical whodunit" that seems formatted for the small screen's history programmes (you can almost notice the "commercial breaks" inbuilt in the narration), an enterprise that never quite reaches

     But, ultimately, maybe the fact that Night Will Fall - a perfectly decent, well-made if anonymous documentary in itself - falls short of what could have been is the best tribute there could be to the original "atrocity movie". Though it never really existed as it was meant to until now, its footage has survived beyond the original assemblage to become a historical record for future memory. And that is reason enough for this documentary to exist.

NIGHT WILL FALL
United Kingdom, USA, Germany, Israel, Denmark 2014
76 minutes
Director André Singer; screenwriter Lynette Singer; cinematographer Richard Blanshard (colour); composer Nicholas Singer; editors Arik Lahow and Stephen Miller; producers Sally Angel and Brett Ratner; production companies British Film Institute, Ratpac Documentary Films, Danish Film Institute, Spring Films and Angel TV in co-production with Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, ARTE, Cinephil, Final Cut for Real and GA&A
Screened October 10th 2014, Lisbon (Doclisboa 2014 screener)


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

REVOLUÇÃO INDUSTRIAL
Industrial Revolution

There is clearly much formal intelligence at work in Revolução Industrial, a documentary from Portuguese filmmakers Frederico Lobo and Tiago Hespanha, looking at the memories and realities of textile manufacturing in the Northern Portuguese river Ave. The directors clearly have an idea and a point of view on the issues they're dealing with, speaking of the long-term effects of the "industrialisation" of the area in an approach simultaneously detached and impressionistic - and if it seems like it's somewhat contradictory, you would be correct.

     That, in fact, is the major flaw at work in this occasionally infuriating, occasionally charming piece: the sense that Messrs. Lobo and Hespanha want to have their cake and eat it too, attempting to meld the dispassionate observation of things as they are of Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter with the subjective, poetic approach of someone like João Vladimiro (whose impenetrable Lacrau is a close relative of Revolução Industrial). Its approach to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization (with testimony from former factory workers) and the way that Nature has reclaimed some of the failed factories and installations in the area wants to be both a celebration of the spirit of human and natural resilience and an indictment of failed employment policies, clearly taking the side of the exploited working class.

     The problem is that this political subtext seems to sit oddly with the beauty of some of the footage and with the placid, almost stately quality with which the camera lingers upon the dilapidated factories it shoots. Its sense of lost possibilities echoes Manuel Mozos' lovely, sensorial moodpiece Ruínas, mourning for a place where the promised future never truly arrived, but then the film's temptation to editorialize dims some of that fascination and superimposes a somewhat restricting meaning on the images.

     Revolução Industrial works best as an abstract moodpiece that shows rather then tells the effects industrialisation had on this ravishing are - and every time it starts telling rather than showing it runs the risk of becoming yet just another documentary telling a story that has already been told innumerable times. Despite its many wonderful moments, the film never truly coalesces into a convincing whole.

REVOLUÇÃO INDUSTRIAL
Portugal 2014
72 minutes
Directors and cinematographers (colour) Frederico Lobo and Tiago Hespanha; composers Ghuna X and Phase; editors Federico Delpero Bejar, Mr. Lobo and Mr. Hespanha; producers Leonor Noivo, João Matos and Joana Gusmão; production company Terratreme Filmes
Screened April 17th 2014, Lisbon, IndieLisboa 2014 official competition screener


Monday, January 19, 2015

LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO
Black Sunday

Black Sunday was the first official director's credit for Italian cinematographer Mario Bava, and the film that launched his career as one of the master stylists of European genre film. Though he was by no means a neophyte and had quite a career as DP behind him, and had even stepped in to finish a couple of productions abandoned by their directors, Black Sunday is the foundation stone of his reputation, and what a foundation stone!

     Shot in gloriously expressionist black-and-white, and retaining merely a couple of starting points from a short story by Russian master Nikolai Gogol, Black Sunday puts a pair of travelling physicians in 19th century Eastern Europe crossing paths with the tomb of a 17th century witch burned at the stake, whose curse on her lineage has lingered on - and whose undead spirit is accidentally freed by the men of science. As the horror of two centuries ago is unleashed again on the remote countryside, Mr. Bava elicits a mesmerizing performance from British then-newcomer Barbara Steele, playing both Asa, the evil, unhinged witch, and her great-grandniece Katia, a gentle, melancholy girl caught unwillingly in the family curse.

     On paper, it all seems to be another piece of classic Gothic silliness - but plotting was never the forte of genre and exploitation, and any Gothic lives or dies mostly on the mood and handling. Mr. Bava's admirably visual, strikingly elegant compositions, as his camera roams the studio sets that remind nothing so much as Hollywood's concept of the "exotic", create just the eerie, ominous mood that the tale needs to work on-screen. The black-and-white cinematography (by the director himself) is a gorgeously rendered, almost tactile game of shadows and light; no wonder many observers put Black Sunday as a heir to the seminal Universal monster movies of the 1930s, though its sensual, garish tone is closer to Roger Corman's cycle of Poe adaptations.

     Mr. Bava's camerawork and staging is first-rate, with an attentive collaborator in veteran editor Mario Serandrei (who is also one of the credited writers), resulting in a film that so visually luxurious and rich that even non-genre fans will find themselves fascinated by its texture and perfectly judged rhythm. Exploitation cinema has never been so stylish and inspired as when Mr. Bava took care of it.

LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO
Italy 1960
86 minutes
Cast Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici
Director and cinematographer Mario Bava (b&w); screenwriters Ennio de Concini and Mario Serandrei; based on the story by Nikolai Gogol, "Viy"; composer Roberto Nicolosi; designer Giorgio Giovannini; costumes Tina Loriedo Grani; editor Mr. Serandrei; producer Massimo de Rita; production companies Galatea and Jolly Film
Screened April 9th 2014, Lisbon, DVD 


Sunday, January 18, 2015

LAGGIES

All the outward signs of Laggies suggest director Lynn Shelton is climbing the ladder of mainstream acceptance (or at least what passes for it in modern day America): recognisable film stars in the leading roles of a more structured script written by someone else, filmed with a more polished sheen than is usual in her shaggy-dog, semi-improvised modern comedies. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to dismiss Laggies as a "sell-out": this tale of a twenty-something's belated coming-of-age remains very Lynn-Shelton-like, in its leisurely plotting and its understanding look at the emotional issues of modern life.

     Megan (Keira Knightley) is still unemployed and unsure of herself at 29, but knows very well what she doesn't want (even if it takes her a wayward path to finally understand it). Terrified of conforming, of becoming just one more cog in the social machine, she's incredibly reluctant about having to fit in the pre-defined mold people are drawing for her. No wonder that, when faced with the wedding of hyper-straight BFF Allison (Ellie Kemper) and a marriage proposal from longstanding boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber), she goes into denial and runs away to hide at the place of new-found teenage friend Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), enjoying a sort of glorified sleepover while attempting to sort her life out under pretense of attending a self-help seminar.

     What follows isn't always properly resolved narratively, possibly because Andrea Seigel's script seems determined to hit any number of predefined romantic-comedy beats, while Ms. Shelton's method has always been to let things happen in a more organic, spontaneous way. Also, this is more a film about one specific person, where Humpday or Your Sister's Sister were more of ensemble pieces that dealt with a wider cast of characters - even if you can recognise the director's ease with actors in the way the supporting roles aren't just gratuitous and have distinct personalities, drawn in a few well-drawn strokes.

     But Ms. Knightley is utterly pitch-perfect as the girl that's looking to learn more about herself, and Ms. Shelton's strengths continue to shine through a more formatted, and admittedly more disappointing, outing than you'd wish for. Laggies is more of a holding pattern than a step forward (or backward) in the director's career.

LAGGIES
USA 2014
Cast Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Kaitlyn Dever, Jeff Garlin, Ellie Kemper, Mark Webber, Daniel Zovatto
Director Lynn Shelton; screenwriter Andrea Seigel; cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke (colour); composer Benjamin Gibbard; designer John Lavin; costumes Ronald Leamon; editor Nat Sanders; producers Steve Golin, Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Rosalie Swedlin, Myles Nestel, Kevin Frakes and Raj Brinder Singh; production companies Anonymous Content and The Solution Entertainment Group in association with Merced Media Partners, Palmstar Media Capital and Penlife Media
Screened January 11th 2015, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Friday, January 16, 2015

THE IMITATION GAME

The "Turing Test" posits that the answers to a small amount of questions would suffice to identify whether they were answered by a human being or by an artificial intelligence passing itself off as human. The irony seems to be that Alan Turing himself, one of 20th century Britain's most dazzling scientific minds, actually had to pass himself off as a "normal person" to fit within the strictly regimented British society of its time.

     And yet, without his jagged, almost autistic obsessions, it's highly likely that WWII would have gone wrong for the Allies; after having alienated pretty much everyone in the Bletchley Park cryptography unit of the British Army, it was Turing's out-of-the-box thinking that allowed the ultimate breakthrough in decoding German military cyphers. And without that incredible true story that the British government kept under wraps for half a century, Norwegian hand-for-hire Morten Tyldum would not have made The Imitation Game pass itself off as the war thriller it so clearly is not.

     Instead, what's told in this quasi-biopic of Alan Turing (a stellar Benedict Cumberbatch) is the tale of a "stranger in a strange land", to quote from Robert Heinlein; an "odd man out" whose wartime experiences taught him, for better or for worse, how to get by in a society totally uninterested in the concept of difference. And even though Turing was gay, and the chemical castration he was sentenced to for "indecent exposure" in a society that outlawed homosexuality played a part in his 1954 suicide, being gay is not the key at the heart of his singularity.

     Graham Moore's script, Mr. Cumberbatch's performance and Mr. Tyldum's handling combine to underline that the mathematician was a fish out of water, whose combination of guileless eccentricity and ruthless intelligence made him an odd duck in a post-imperial Britain so worried with "property" and "decency". No wonder that The Imitation Game suggests the person closest to him to be Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a co-worker and a first-rate mind that patriarchal Britain wants to condemn to being a prim young woman meant for marriage and homemaking, but who chafes at it and is inspired by Turing's bloody-mindedness to push back against that.

     Mr. Cumberbatch is exquisite as Turing, in a perfectly modulated and highly subtle composition where you can always see both the mental gears working behind the eyes and the uncertainty that comes from holding secrets. But this would mean nothing without Mr. Moore's scripting, which takes liberties with actual events to better underline the concept of "imitation" running through it, and Mr. Tyldum's no-nonsense decision to shoot the tale in classic, understated British period drama mode (though this is technically an American production).

     This allows the trappings of the war thriller to be suffused with the casual oddity of an angular alien struggling to survive in a strange, hostile planet, while not making it a masterpiece; just a better-than-average mainstream movie that throws a small wooden stick into a massive set of gears and ever so slightly changes its mechanism.

THE IMITATION GAME
USA 2014
114 minutes
Cast Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong
Director Morten Tyldum; screenwriter Graham Moore; based on the book Alan Turing - The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; cinematographer Óscar Faura (colour, widescreen); composer Alexandre Desplat; designer Maria Djurkovic; costumes Sammy Sheldon Differ; editor William Goldenberg; producers Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman; production companies Black Bear Pictures and Bristol Automotive Productions in association with Filmnation Entertainment
Screened January 7th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

UNBROKEN

If you showed Unbroken to a cinephile or critic without letting them know who directed it, odds are they would have a hard time identifying the name, but would clearly recognise it as a film strongly influenced by classic Hollywood war pictures. Especially in the early going, set on board an American bomber in a mission over the Pacific during WWII, the astute balance between no-nonsense action and the existential plight of young men in war together, gloriously lensed by the great Roger Deakins, is a throwback to the golden days of American studio cinema - and even reminded me of Michael Caton-Jones' sorely underrated Memphis Belle.

     That initial half-hour is enough to confirm that, as a director, Angelina Jolie - for it is she who directs Unbroken - is a different beast from other actors who step behind the camera. Her little-seen but genuinely promising debut, 2011's In the Land of Blood and Honey, set during the 1990s Balkan conflict, already suggested she was genuinely interested in telling stories about the resilience of human emotion and spirit in tough circumstances, and was willing to use her clout to get this kind of projects made. For the follow-up, she adapts Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling chronicle of the life of American Olympic athlete Louie Zamperini, played by rising young Brit Jack O'Connell, focusing on his WWII service and his gruesome, grueling survival story.

     After a rescue mission that ends with a crash in the ocean, Zamperini and two surviving crewmates spend over a month lost at sea with no food or water, only to be rescued by the Japanese and sent to a prisoner camp where the runner becomes the target for the ceaseless, sadistic bullying of commander Watanabe (Japanese singer Miyavi). The fact that he was a no-good son of Italian immigrants whose gift for running rescued him from a possible life of crime, and that his athletic achievements are skimmed over in the film's first act, though, seem to be of little or no interest to Ms. Jolie and her stellar but uninspired quartet of screenwriters (among which, yes, those Coen brothers).

     Instead, his track career is a mere set-up for Watanabe's great yet petty pleasure in humiliating him at every given opportunity, leading to heavy-handed and all but unavoidable religious symbolism of Zamperini as a martyr who embodies the suffering and pain at the heart of any violent conflict. The pile-up of tragedies turn Unbroken into ultimately uninvolving, seen-it-before drama, entirely missing the forest for the trees - it wants to be such an inspirational tale that it thinks nothing of over-playing that hand, which it does to effectively numbing effect.

     More's the pity because, at times, Unbroken reminds of other, better films that followed the paths this one chooses not to - the portrait of camp life under Japanese control as well-judged as Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, the strongly homoerotic currents thrown up by Watanabe's obsession with Zamperini intriguingly parallel to Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It's hard to imagine Ms. Jolie did not think of both films, since so much here suggests a clear storytelling intelligence and a genuine cinephile culture at work. That also makes it all the more disappointing that Unbroken fails to fulfill the promises of its first act and settles for being merely another WWII story, anonymously if handsomely made by what could pass for a director-for-hire but is in fact a smart director still finding her sea legs.

UNBROKEN
USA, Japan 2014
137 minutes
Cast Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock
Director Angelina Jolie; screenwriters Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard la Gravenese and William Nicholson; based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken; cinematographer Roger Deakins (colour, widescreen); composer Alexandre Desplat; designer Jon Hutman; costumes Louise Frogley; editors Tim Squyres and William Goldenberg; effects supervisor Bill George; producers Ms. Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Matthew Baer and Erwin Stoff; production companies Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures Productions, Jolie Pas Productions and 3 Arts Entertainment in association with Dentsu/Fuji Television Network
Screened January 6th 2015, São Jorge 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

ADIEU AU LANGAGE
Goodbye to Language

Goodbye to Language is the official translation of the title of Jean-Luc Godard's newest film. In the original French, though, Adieu au langage becomes Ah Dieu, oh langage - ah God, oh language - in the polyssemic intertitles that the director consistently throws out throughout his work. The question could be: is Mr. Godard teasing the viewer, playing around with his head?

     Maybe the question should be: when isn't he teasing, when hasn't he teased? He is no longer making "traditional" narrative cinema, but, really, when did he ever do it? Even when his films could still be framed within the traditional confines of storytelling, they were still, always, colouring outside the lines; now that he is essentially creating abstract, philosophical film-essays, he manages to extract more cinema from each shot than most people manage in entire careers.

     Goodbye to Language gains an added formal weight - a dimension, even, if that's not sounding too pithy - from its usage of stereoscopic 3D. If his films have become dazzling, mind-blowing collages of pictures, ideas, quotes and concepts made all the more sophisticated by digital technology, the 3D merely heightens the idea of "palimpsest" underlying his current works: superimpositions, masks, layerings that create entirely new assemblages out of pre-existing elements gain an added depth from the technology. But Mr. Godard also uses it to disconnect and disassociate the traditional viewing experience. (And it should be pointed out that watching Goodbye to Language in 3D and in 2D is like seeing two different versions of a same film.) Image and sound, form and meaning, idea and action - all is irregularly and briefly disconnected before returning to a semblance of normality that has gained a whole other meaning.

     Disconnected, fragmented, dissolved, such is Goodbye to Language, taking the director's usual conceptual and linguistic playfulness to a new level; while criticising the multiplication of screens and visual languages that are impoverishing written languages and thought processes, he is also showing how these apparently "stupid" technologies can open new paths and new possibilities for thinking and seeing the world. The rise of technology and efficiency as enemies of art and love is an old refrain for Mr. Godard (Alphaville anyone?), but he has no qualms about subverting it and distort it into things of beauty and creativity - the new "opium of the people" can enslave as much as free.

     In many ways, it's a film of and about extremes - all and nothing, infinity and zero, sex and death, positing the physical body as the moment where we all are equal and suggesting the trivial domestic disputes and chit-chat of modern marriage are as important as conceptual thought. For all that, Mr. Godard never ever forgets that emotion is at the heart of everything, and has Roxy the dog be the actual star of the film - the simple act of being and existing as the greatest answer and counterpoint to all the complexity of life, underlining the film's incredible generosity of spirit.

     To be sure, we're not sure what language the 84-year old director is saying goodbye to, or if he is just replacing an old one with a new one, or opening up new pathways. Whatever it is he is doing, he is doing it right and saying something, at an age where so many others have nothing more to say.

ADIEU AU LANGAGE
France 2014
69 minutes
Cast Héloïse Godet, Kamel Abdelli, Richard Chevallier, Zoë Bruneau
Made by Jean-Luc Godard, Fabrice Aragno, Jean-Paul Battaggia
Producers Brahim Chioua, Vincent Maraval and Alain Sarde; production company Wild Bunch
Screened December 31st 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)