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)


Monday, April 07, 2014

L'IMAGE MANQUANTE (THE MISSING PICTURE)

In his work as a documentary filmmaker, Cambodian director Rithy Panh has been facing head-on "the evil that men do", and creating a searing, disturbing record of the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime, whose genocidal politics his films have often discussed. For The Missing Picture, though, Mr. Panh moves into a more accessible sphere for the viewer as well as more challenging, by combining elements of documentary, autobiography and essay-film. Here, he puts his own personal experience as a regime survivor front and center of a meditation on the power of the moving image to transform reality and reveal or hide truths.

     The central device in The Missing Picture is the absence of actual footage of the regime, other than the rigidly controlled propaganda images produced by the Khmer Rouge; these, however, cannot render the actual experience of living under fear in a country ripped apart. Since there are no pictures, Mr. Panh creates his own - by shooting elaborate clay-figurine dioramas representing the places and people he knew, both before and after the rise of the Khmer Rouge, interspersed with actual period footage and soundtracked by a moving commentary by writer Christophe Bataille. These recreated images are substitutes for "the missing pictures" of Cambodian history in this period, as well as for those of Mr. Panh himself and of his family, most of which lost in the "killing fields", and ultimately of these "stolen years". But they're also a realisation of how much, in our modern days, history and memory are shaped by the pictures that surround us. That alone would make The Missing Picture a pressing, utterly contemporary piece of work in the way that it questions and affirms the power of the image to hold within itself multiple readings.

     There's more, though. Godardian in the way it engages the moral questions of filmmaking and the value of the image, this is also a chilling portrait of the impossible utopias that so many regimes seem to have in mind but that merely reverse the roles of opressed and opressors, a searing indictment of the tendency to put politics above simple human dignity, a cathartic release of a personal experience turned into a symbol and example of pure human resistance. As affecting as Mr. Panh's previous work but with an added layer of personal involvement that makes it more relatable for the common viewer, The Missing Picture suggests the France-based filmmaker is creating an oeuvre that is in many ways the equal of Claude Lanzmann's groundbreaking work on the Holocaust.

L'IMAGE MANQUANTE
France, Cambodia 2013
96 minutes
Director, screenwriter and designer Rithy Panh; commentary written by Christophe Bataille and narrated by Randal Douc; cinematography Prum Mésa (colour); composer Marc Marder; sculptor Sarith Mang; editors Mr. Panh and Marie-Christine Rougerie; producer Catherine Dussart, Catherine Dussart Production, ARTE France Cinéma and Bophana Production
Screened March 26th 2014 (distributor press screening, Medeia Monumental 4)

Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival
Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary


Friday, April 04, 2014

SEI LÁ

Some stories are so much things of their time that, once removed from the particular context that generated them and in which they resonated with people, they all but lose meaning and dissolve in thin air. Such seems to be the case of Portuguese columnist and writer Margarida Rebelo Pinto's debut novel, Sei Lá, a phenomenal success upon its 1999 publication but a late-comer to the big screen in 2014, despite having been originally optioned in 2000.

     Shot and released in 2013/2014, when Portugal remains in the throes of economic recession and austerity, when film production and reception is at its lowest point in decades, Sei Lá is a competently made but instantly forgettable production without a single iota of personality or even investment from its helmer, the estimable Joaquim Leitão. It's the perfect example of an idea of filmmaking that assumes that stunt casting (like that of well-known TV personality Ana Rita Clara), soap-opera-level scripting with a story about how the well-off are unlucky at love and limited production values are enough to make a theatrical picture, though the end result proves to anyone that this is much more of a small screen proposition. Worse: its throwback to an affluent mid-to-late 1990s era of conspicuous consumerism and aspirational social climbing (the film remains set in 1999), with the rise of reality television and "people" magazines that would literally flatten the local pop culture over the following decade seems, nowadays, either a bad joke or, at least, a clueless one.

     Essentially, Sei Lá is a pale Sex and the City rip-off about the romantic issues of four well-off Lisbon friends who are part of the "beautiful people" circles, centred around the romantic Madalena (Leonor Seixas), the Carrie Bushnell equivalent, who dreams of being a serious journalist but has to make do with working for a gossip magazine. She is also in love with a mysterious Spaniard (David Mora) who, early on, is revealed to be a Basque terrorist, and lets herself be seduced by a mysterious Lisboner (António Pedro Cerdeira) who, in fact, is a secret agent investigating the terrorist. Ms. Rebelo Pinto's script, a saddening piece of high-concept derivative fluff, has all the (non-existent) depth of a bad Sex and the City episode with none of the wit, spewing out a staggering series of platitudes about the relationships between women and men that are passed off as profound and borne out of personal experience but end up being more risible than anything.

     There's really little worth critiquing in the cast and crew's correct yet anonymous professionalism, something that only undermines how the project seems to be rather pointless: Mr. Leitão is one of the few local directors working for the general-audience mainstream, but Sei Lá is so anonymous that it becomes painfully clear his heart is not in it, and the cast has nothing to work with in the archetypal, soap-opera characters whose arc is exclusively restricted to their romantic involvements. Nothing wrong with that by itself; it's just that even derivative fluff needs a certain conviction and lightness of touch to work, and there is none of either to be found here, ending in one of the least convincing and most hilariously unbelievable dénouements ever seen in a mainstream picture. Why this was ever a successful book is hardly understandable from this mish-mash of a film.

SEI LÁ
Portugal 2014
110 minutes
Cast: Leonor Seixas, António Pedro Cerdeira, Ana Rita Clara, Gabriela Barros, Patrícia Bull, Pedro Granger, Rita Pereira, Renato Godinho, Rui Unas, David Mora
Director Joaquim Leitão; screenwriter Margarida Rebelo Pinto; based on Ms. Rebelo Pinto's novel Sei Lá; cinematographer Luís Branquinho (colour, widescreen); composer José M. Afonso; art director João Torres; costumes Paulo Gomes; editor Pedro Ribeiro; producer Tino Navarro, MGN Filmes in association with Zon Audiovisuais
Screened March 20th 2014 (distributor press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 4, Lisbon)


Friday, March 28, 2014

POZIȚIA COPILULUI (Child's Pose)

Meet the mother of all mothers from hell: Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu), the controlling, overbearing, overpowering well-off Bucharest "lady who lunches", obsessed with running the life of her grown son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) - to the point of alienating him and, in the process, eliciting disgruntled comments even from her husband. Cornelia, an architect turned set designer and interior decorator, won't stop at anything to make sure Barbu lives up to her expectations for him, even if he himself doesn't want to.

     As the unfortunately-titled but otherwise smart Child's Pose starts, she is about to have her opportunity to regain control over Barbu after he is involved in a tragic car accident in the countryside resulting in the death of a young boy. Cornelia immediately starts working the phones and her list of connections at the upper echelons of Romanian society to make sure Barbu's life is not destroyed by a jail sentence or even an admission of guilt, her protecting instinct meshing to perfection with her knowledge of all the backslapping alleys and handshake ways to get things done. But is this leftover way from the olden Communist days a one-off remnant or an atavistic, unshakeable character trait?

     Though directed by sophomore helmer Călin Peter Netzer with the traditional attention to actors that we have come to expect from the "Romanian New Wave", the true author of Child's Pose is screenwriter Răzvan Rădulescu, also responsible for scripting the films that made modern Romanian cinema's international reputation, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days. Child's Pose shares much with those films' blunt, merciless looks at a society whose present remains haunted and in the shadow of its dramatic past, but also offers some hope going forward as Cornelia and Barbu's relationship attempts to find some common ground as everything falls by the wayside to leave only the mother's incontrovertible, if misguided, love for her only son.

Retaining the tradition of strongly naturalistic acting and handling (with no original music score and a preference for character-driven tales), Mr. Netzer's film is however a more composed and more "edited" piece, depending less on long or one-shot takes. Yet another proof of the excellent filmmaking talent hiding in Romania, what raises Child's Pose above the competition is the superb performance from Ms. Gheorghiu, a veteran actress who here runs the entire cycle of emotions from cold-hearted control and hateful cynicism to pure and simple motherly despair with an almost uncanny precision. After all, hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned.

POZIȚIA COPILULUI
Romania 2013
112 minutes
Cast: Luminița Gheorghiu, Bogdan Dumitrache, Natașa Raab, Ilinca Goia, Florin Zamfirescu, Vlad Ivanov
Director Călin Peter Netzer; screenwriters Răzvan Rădulescu and Mr. Netzer; cinematographer Andrei Butică (colour); designer Mălina Ionescu; costumes Irina Marinescu; editor Dana Lucretia Bunescu; producers Mr. Netzer and Ada Solomon, Parada Film in co-production with Hai-Hui Entertainment
Screened March 14th 2014 (distributor advance screening, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon)