Thursday, June 30, 2011

THE WAY BACK

United Kingdom/USA/United Arab Emirates/Poland
2010
132 minutes

A rare mis-step for Australian classicist Peter Weir, The Way Back, the true story of a group of political and war prisoners that escape a Siberian gulag in 1940 and walk across Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet to freedom, is a surprisingly dull odyssey. Inspired by the supposed memoir of Polish officer Slawomir Rawicz (later found to be an embellished account of the real experiences of an unknown fugitive), the film eschews overt dramatisation of the events to focus on survival pure and simple, with breathtaking real locations in Bulgaria, Morocco and India framing the harrowing endurance test of the characters' long walk to freedom.
     However, despite fine work all around from the cast and a welcome sobriety in mr. Weir's handling, The Way Back feels more like a worthy slog through a real-life docudrama than an edge-of-your-seat nailbiting adventure. It's true that it's unusual to see such a tale stripped to its bare minimum, without any action scenes to relieve the drudgery of stubborn survival. And it's worth comparing The Way Back to Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff or Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing to understand that mr. Weir's expansive lensing is part of the problem, its visuals practically conditioning the viewer to expect a more conventional epic than the intimate chamber drama of men caught in a treadmill that lies at its heart. Hardly a bad film, but certainly a flawed one.

Starring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan; and Colin Farrell; with Mark Strong.
     Directed by Peter Weir; produced by Joni Levin, mr. Weir, Duncan Henderson, Nigel Sinclair; screenplay by mr. Weir and Keith Clarke, based on the book by Slawomir Rawicz, The Long Walk; music by Burkhard Dallwitz; director of photography (color by Deluxe, Panavision widescreen), Russell Boyd; production designer, John Stoddart; costume designer, Wendy Stites; film editor, Lee Smith.
     An Exclusive Media Group/National Geographic Entertainment/Imagenation Abu Dhabi presentation of an Exclusive Films production; co-financed by the Polish Film Institute and Monolith Films; Point Blank Productions; Super Crispy Entertainment. (US distributor, Newmarket Films. UK distributor, E1 Films. World sales, Exclusive Media Group.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), June 22nd 2011. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

USA
2011
153 minutes

If there's a director that can be said to be virtually critic-proof, it's Michael Bay and his wildly over-the-top, visual effects-driven, action extravaganzas that bring in truckloads of money at the box-office and look spectacular but have little or no substance behind the eye candy. Which is fair enough, since nobody goes to a Michael Bay film expecting gravitas, depth of human feeling and ponderous drama. Mr. Bay's boys-with-toys juvenilia found a perfect outlet in the Transformers franchise, essentially a thinly veiled excuse to reboot a popular 1980s toy line and accompanying merchandising bonanza. But the director's kinetic, busy sensibility went into meltdown after the mindless but fun 2007 original, resulting in a bloated and dull second episode (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) in 2009.
     Seen as key to the maintenance of the franchise, this third iteration on the franchise doubles down by committing to native 3D filming (using the system James Cameron developed for Avatar, no less) and setting up a climactic monster battle on the streets of Chicago where the combination of manga, wrestling and sci-fi stylings reaches a ridiculously exquisite level of technical expertise at the service of... nothing much. The script is, as usual, a shoddy excuse to set up robot kick-ass, but it does have a neat alternate history/conspiracy theory premise (the whole of the 1960s space race was merely a ruse to make contact with an alien ship that crash-landed on the Moon), and a surprisingly enjoyable series of slumming turns from serious actors added to the cast. Besides a returning John Turturro over-the-top as a manic ex-CIA agent, John Malkovich shows up as an unlikely computer mogul and Alan Tudyk is an effete former NSA operative, but it's Frances McDormand that steals the show as a no-nonsense head of intelligence.
     What Transformers: Dark of the Moon also has is possibly the most natural use of 3D technology in a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster since Avatar, to the point where you actually forget you're watching a 3D movie. And, if anything, the technology has managed to slow down mr. Bay's usually manic editing a few notches, thus making the new film probably the most visually enjoyable of the series so far. Which, mind you, isn't saying much anyway.

Starring Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Ken Jeong; with John Malkovich; and Frances McDormand.
     Directed by Michael Bay; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Tom de Santo, Don Murphy, Ian Bryce; written by Ehren Kruger; music by Steve Jablonsky; director of photography (colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen, digital 3D), Amir Mokri; production designer, Nigel Phelps; costume designer, Deborah L. Scott; film editors, Roger Barton, William Goldenberg, Joel Negron; visual effects supervisor, Scott Farrar.
     A Paramount Pictures presentation, in association with Hasbro, of a Don Murphy—Tom de Santo/Di Bonaventura Pictures/Ian Bryce production. (US distributor and world sales, Paramount Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 10 (Lisbon), June 27th 2011.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN' (NESFARSIT)

California Dreamin' (Endless)

Romania
2007
154 minutes

The quandary put to anyone writing about California Dreamin' is unusual: what are you supposed to say about an unfinished debut film released “as is” after its director's tragic death? It's impossible to compare it to previous, non-existant features, or to gauge what would have been corrected or reworked in post-production. Certainly, the sprawling length and sidebar plots that bloat Cristian Nemescu's sole feature to its unwieldy 150-minute length could have been trimmed – but by how much, or how tightly?
     Still, it's undeniable that the late director, tragically killed at 27 in a car accident shortly after starting on the editing of California Dreamin', was a talent worth following, and his film one of the most personal visions in the remarkable new wave of Romanian cinema let loose by Cristi Puiu's harrowing, masterful The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Working in the same roving, hand-held camera mode and expertly performed long takes of most of his compatriots, mr. Nemescu relied on more conventional editing while expanding his story, co-written with Tudor Voican and based on actual facts, well beyond anecdotal satire. Inspired by the tale of a NATO convoy to Kosovo held up at a Romanian village in 1999, mr. Nemescu runs with it as a rowdy, edgily funny denunciation of petty grievances, mindless bureaucracy and institutionalised corruption in Capalnita, a small village left to fend for itself and pretty much run by the venal stationmaster (a superb Razvan Vasilescu), until his greed has him stop a military train to Kosovo with a small company of US Marines led by a martinet captain (a surprising Armand Assante) and things spiral out of control.
     The bleak, disenchanted clarity of the satire and the cast's ability to nuance their characters, however, are offset by a clumsy construction full of needless diversions into side plots to nowhere; for all his formal control, mr. Nemescu had most likely not yet found the final tempo and structure of his film, making this posthumous release a fascinating, if insufficient, glimpse into a talent tragically cut short before it reached its full measure.

Starring Armand Assante, Razvan Vasilescu, Jamie Elman, Maria Dinulescu, Ion Sapdaru, Alex Magineanu, Ardi Vasluianu, Gabriel Spahiu, Catalina Mustata, Radu Gabriel, Marco Assante. 
     Directed by Cristian Nemescu; produced by Andrei Boncea; written by mr. Nemescu, Tudor Voican, with additional dialogue by Catherine Lindstrum; director of photography (colour, processing by Kodak Cinelabs Romania, widescreen), Liviu Maghidan; production designer, Ioana Caciora; costume designer, Ana Ioneci; film editor, Catalin Cristutiu. 
     A Mediapro Pictures presentation/production, supported by the Romanian National Film Centre. (Romanian distribution and world sales, Mediapro Pictures. US distributor, IFC Films.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

TOKYO!

France/Japan/Germany/South Korea
2008
111 minutes

An oddly engaging curate's egg, this angular compendium has three acclaimed directors using the Japanese capital as backdrop and inspiration for three unconnected half-hours. It's not exactly surprising to see the end result gaining an exotic Twilight Zone ambiance, since both French pop promo whiz-kid Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind) and Korean sensation Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host) are better known for their smart, fantastical twists on reality.
     The strongest of the three segments, however, comes from French enfant terrible Léos Carax (Mauvais Sang, POLA X). Merde furiously and gleefully using the Godzilla movies as template for the emergence of a hallucinatory man-beast (Denis Lavant) come from the sewers, his apparently methodless madness raising havoc in the streets of Tokyo. It's the most compelling, surreal, opaque and fascinating of the stories, not in the least because mr. Carax is rarely given a chance to film.
     Mr. Bong, meanwhile, offers Shaking Tokyo, a magnificently shot meditation on love and loneliness through the story of an agoraphobic recluse (Teruyuki Kagawa) who finds himself smitten with a pizza delivery girl (Yu Aoi), enough to actually brave the outdoors to go after her – only to realise the city around him has changed in the ten years he's been inside. It's a masterful exercise in formal storytelling, with the director inserting oddly disquieting dystopic touches throughout, and its glossy elegance holds its own against mr. Carax's cackling intensity.
     The third wheel, though, is opener Interior Design, another underwhelming effort from mr. Gondry, confirming that the magic of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a fluke. His indifferently directed tale of a young out-of-town girl (Ayako Fujitani) arriving in Tokyo with her artist boyfriend only to find herself adrift and unable to fit in, adapted from a graphic novel by Gabrielle Bell, seems somewhat aimless and ends in a grace note of cuddly surrealism that would make wonders in a three-minute video but is too thin to be stretched over 30 minutes.

     Interior Design: Starring Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase. Directed by Michel Gondry; screenplay by Gabrielle Bell and mr. Gondry, based on the graphic novel by ms. Bell, Cecil and Jordan in New York; music by Étienne Charry; director of photography (colour by Imagica), Masami Inomoto; production designer, Yuji Hayashida; costume designer, Takako Hamai; film editor, Jeff Buchanan; visual effects supervisor, Cédric Fayolle.
     Merde: Starring Denis Lavant, Jean-François Balmer. Directed and written by Léos Carax; director of photography (colour, post-production by Mikros Image), Caroline Champetier; production designer, Toshihiro Isomi; costume designers, Céline Guignard, Miwako Kobayashi, Consuelo Forero, Isabelle Boiton; film editor, Nelly Quettier.
     Shaking Tokyo: Starring Teruyuki Kagawa, Yu Aoi. Directed, written and edited by Bong Joon-ho; music by Lee Byung-woo; director of photography (colour, processing by Imagica and HFR), Jun Fukumoto; production designer, Mitsuo Harada; costume designer, Mizue Ishibashi. 
     Produced by Masa Sawada and Michiko Yoshitake.
     A Comme des Cinémas presentation/production, in co-production with Kansai Telecasting Corporation, Sponge Entertainment, COIN Film, Bitters End, ARTE France Cinéma, WDR/ARTE; in association with Backup Films, Wild Bunch, Champion Top Investment, Vap, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Wowow, Asahi Broadcasting Corporation, Picnic; with the participation of Partizan Films; executive production, Eurospace, Offscreen, Bitters End; with the collaboration of Barunson Company. (French distributor, Haut et Court. World sales, Wild Bunch.)
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 23rd 2011. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

AS HORAS DO DOURO

Portugal
2010
98 minutes

Eschewing the classic documentary concept of both voiceover narration and speaker identification, filmmaker Joana Pontes and sociologist António Barreto's feature-length documentary As Horas do Douro elegantly weaves an oral history of the winemaking region by the Douro river in Northern Portugal, overlapping the memories and experiences of its social, historical and technical progress with the tale of the yearly grape harvest. Neither strictly observational nor fussily historical, the film develops as a langorous, enveloping experience, soundtracked by Henryk Gorecki's sweeping strings; it aims to seduce the viewer into embracing the seasonal rhythms of the hard work required to make wine, but also to warn quietly that the local specificities of land and experience that make this particular region so special may be in danger.
     Ms. Pontes and mr. Barreto have collaborated previously on a number of acclaimed television documentary series about Portugal's development and progress, but there is nothing “televisual” or openly educational about As Horas do Douro, even though it inexplicably sidestepped a theatrical release to go straight on to DVD. Beautifully photographed by João Ribeiro (even though the occasional grain of the high-definition digital format shows), it's a handsome, smart, heartfelt paean to the river and its surroundings that, nevertheless, never looks away from its problems.

     Directed by Joana Pontes; produced by Maria João Mayer, François d'Artemare; written by António Barreto, ms. Pontes, inspired by the book Douro by mr. Barreto; director of photography (colour), João Ribeiro; film editors, Rui Branquinho, Catarina Mourão, ms. Pontes.
     A Maria João Mayer/François d'Artemare presentation of a Filmes do Tejo II production, supported by the Portugese Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual, Cinema and Audiovisual Investment Fund and Radio and Television of Portugal.
     Screened: IndieLisboa festival advance press screening, Cinemateca Portuguesa - Sala Dr. Félix Ribeiro (Lisbon), April 21st 2010; DVD, Lisbon, June 19th 2011.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A SINGLE MAN

USA
2009
100 minutes

What is so breathtaking about fashion designer Tom Ford's exquisite, devastating adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's acclaimed novel isn't merely that Colin Firth gives the performance of a lifetime. It's that a first-time filmmaker with no prior experience can come roaring out of the gate with a near-flawless masterwork such as this, a perfect match of style, substance, sense and sensibility. What is even more astounding is how mr. Ford manages to pull his affecting threnody of love and loss out of the gay-interest ghetto it could very easily fall into, and turn it into a near universal experience about loneliness, despair, mourning and hope.
     It's not just that every single frame is art directed to within an inch of its existence; it's how Eduard Grau's lush widescreen cinematography imperceptibly bleeds or blooms with colour, depending on the mood required. It's how Leslie Shatz's intrincate sound design fades the passing of time in and out. It's how mr. Ford precisely articulates the tempo and rhythm of his storytelling to release the emotion in the tale of a day in the life of a despondent college professor (mr. Firth) still mourning the death, months earlier, of his lovcr (Matthew Goode, seen in flashbacks). It's how the director manages to ellicit uniformly rich, detailed performances from his cast: Julianne Moore's best friend would be a scene-stealer in any movie, but this is mr. Firth's film, and the bottomless depths of reserve and emotion he brings to the role are the sign of a talent untapped in most of the standard-issue roles he has taken on.
     Even if there wasn't anything else in mr. Ford's elegant, moving film, mr. Firth's performance alone would be worth the admission; thankfully, A Single Man is in the image of its lead's generous, heartbreaking performance.

Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult.
     Directed by Tom Ford; produced by mr. Ford, Chris Weitz, Andrew Miano, Robert Salerno; screenplay by mr. Ford, David Scearce, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man; music by Abel Korzeniowski; additional music by Shigeru Umebayashi; director of photography (DeLuxe, widescreen), Eduard Grau; production designer, Dan Bishop; costume designer, Arianne Phillips; film editor, Joan Sobel.
     A Fade to Black Productions presentation/production, in association with Depth of Field and Artina Films. (US distributor, The Weinstein Company. World sales, IM Global.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), January 22nd 2010; DVD, Lisbon, June 18th 2011. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

HÉLAS POUR MOI

France/Switzerland
1992
83 minutes

A rare misfire in Jean-Luc Godard's admittedly idiossyncratic career, Hélas pour moi was the iconoclastic director's second 1990s feature, and his second in the post-Histoire(s) du Cinéma “essay-film” phase, as well as his second meeting with a bona fide film star – after Alain Delon in 1990's Nouvelle Vague, here it's Gérard Depardieu, playing the double role of smalltown investor Simon Donnadieu and God, come to Earth to understand love in the shape of Simon's wife Rachel (Laurence Masliah).
     Sumptuously photographed by Caroline Champetier on Swiss lakeside locations, Hélas pour moi is an intermediate step in mr. Godard's progressive deconstruction of his cinema from formalist exercises into dense, layered feature film essayism. But it's an embryonic, half-baked step, feeding gleefully on its own tentativeness, with overlapping dialogue and recurrent title cards playing into the idea of a metaphysical detective mystery unfolding before our eyes from many different viewpoints, as the enigmatic Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley) asks around town for the “lost pages” of the time when, supposedly while away on a business trip, Simon returned just to kiss Rachel.
     Yes, it sounds like Rashomon rewritten by Barthes, and that's probably why it doesn't work as well as later filmic essays such as the masterful Notre musique, and why the director moved away from narrative frameworks into pure essayism. Still, Hélas pour moi isn't a waste: mr. Godard is still capable of coming up with transcendent moments of cinema and with his trademark sly wit (on the poster, he underlines the names as GODard and DeparDIEU, in keeping with the film's underlying theme), but this is a laboured, uncertain concept that gets mired in the multiple levels the director can usually navigate more successfully.

Starring Gérard Depardieu, Laurence Masliah, Bernard Verley, Aude Amiot.
     Directed, written and edited by Jean-Luc Godard; produced by Alain Sarde, Ruth Waldburger; director of photography (colour, processing by Schwarz Film and LTC), Caroline Champetier; art director, Anne-Marie Faux; costume designer, Valérie de Buck. 
     A Les Films Alain Sarde/Vega Film/Périphéria co-production, in co-production with TSR, with the participation of the Swiss Federation Interior Department, Cofimage 4, Investimage 4 and Canal Plus. (Original French distributor, Pan-Européenne. World sales, Studiocanal.)
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 17th 2011. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

PRÉNOM CARMEN

First Name: Carmen


France
1983
84 minutes

Jean-Luc Godard's dazzlingly witty twist on the celebrated opera, set to Beethoven string quartets rather than Bizet's symphonic arias, is probably the biggest shot in the arm for the director's 1980s, pre-essay renaissance while showing the way that led him there, and remains one of the most playful entries in his idiossyncratic catalogue. Simultaneously a no-holds-barred study of lust, an erudite treatise on love and a self-deprecating, prescient look at filmmaking, Prénom Carmen transforms Bizet's feisty cigarette seller Carmen into an aspiring terrorist about to kidnap an industrial (Maruschka Detmers), and Don José into Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffé), a grunting junior beat cop mad with love and jealousy.
     Into this maelstrom sumptuously photographed by regular DP Raoul Coutard, mr. Godard throws himself as a curmudgeonly filmmaker uncle of Carmen's, his figure cutting a scathingly burlesque figure in the midst of all the alternately brusquely romantic and carelessly violent goings-on. In fact, one of the keys to the film's disconcerting shifts lies in the book mr. Godard carries under his arm in one of his scenes – a coffee-table treatise on Buster Keaton. And it is hard indeed not to see the connection being underlined between mr. Keaton's deadpan slapstick and the playacting, deadpan quality of many of the film's devices – not least the constant cutting to pictures of waves rolling into shore, suggesting the “new wave” that revealed the director continues to roll along, flowing back in with added weight and a newfound self-referentiality.
     For all the burlesque references, though, Prénom Carmen achieves some genuine moments of poignance and emotion, and mr. Godard's ability to conjure magic with the basic elements of cinema remains undiminished.

Starring Maruschka Detmers, Jacques Bonnaffé, Myriem Roussel, Christophe Odent, Pierre-Alain Chapuis, Bertrand Liebert, Alain Bastien, Hippolyte Girardot, Odile Roire, Valérie Dréville, Christine Pignet, Jean-Michel Denis, Jacques Villeret, Jean-Luc Godard (uncredited).
     Directed by mr. Godard; written by Anne-Marie Miéville; directors of photography (colour by LTC), Raoul Coutard, Jean-Bernard Menoud; costume designer, Renée Renard; film editors, Fabienne Alvarez, Suzanne Lang-Willar.
     An Alain Sarde presentation of a Sara Films/JLG Films/Films A2 co-production. (Original French distributor, Parafrance Films. World sales, Studiocanal.)
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 14th 2011. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

ALPHAVILLE - UNE ÉTRANGE AVENTURE DE LEMMY CAUTION

Alphaville


France/Italy
1965
99 minutes

Jean-Luc Godard has never been better as when he is deconstructing and subverting classic narrative formulas for his own deviant purposes – and the stunning dystopian noir sci-fi of Alphaville is proof enough. Shot entirely on Paris locations carefully selected for their modern architecture and artfully edited to suggest a disembodied, futuristic city, Alphaville appropriates the narrative codes of B-pictures and the character of private eye Lemmy Caution, created by novelist Peter Cheyney and immortalised by American expat Eddie Constantine in a series of French 1950s potboilers. Then, it sets them loose on a cerebral variation on George Orwell's 1984, set in the computer-controlled, logical city of Alphaville, where secret agent Caution is sent to find out what happened to a long-ago banished scientist.
     Mr. Godard and his regular DP Raoul Coutard's use of neon and high-contrast black and white film gives the film a strong noir sheen, while the total absence of visual effects and reliance on dialogue and assemblage to create the background give it an otherworldly, retro-futuristic effect. But what clenches the film's genius is the prescient, almost prophetic way it posits emotion and love as the antidote to the cold, calculating inhumanity or a rigid, programmed system. In a way, Alphaville replays the central fights of World War II – freedom versus tyranny – and the Cold War – individualism versus statism — under the guise of a tongue-in-cheek and yet deadly serious pulp fiction, evoking Paul Éluard and the Terrytoons at the same time. That unlikely encounter between high and low culture is what has always propelled mr. Godard's finest work – of which, needless to say, Alphaville is one of the high points.

Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff.
     Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard; music by Paul Misraki; director of photography (black & white), Raoul Coutard; production designer (uncredited), Pierre Guffroy; film editor, Agnès Guillemot.
     An André Michelin/Filmstudio presentation/production. (Original French distributor, Athos Films. World sales, Studiocanal.)
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 13th 2011.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

VALHALLA RISING

Denmark/Great Britain/Norway/France
2009
91 minutes

Somewhere between Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog, Danish maverick Nicolas Winding Refn melds both directors' quest for transcendence in this bloody, brutal reinvention of medieval adventure movies as a largely dialogue-free, deliriously stylized sucker punch of a film. Mr. Refn's confrontational sensory overload and take-no-prisoners approach, well known to those who have followed his career since his landmark 1996 debut Pusher, are pushed to the max in the story of mute, unbeatable warrior One-Eye (a brooding, physical Mads Mikkelsen). Living for years as a bare-knuckle brawler in servitude to a Caledonian clan, he eventually escapes and agrees to join a motley band of Christian crusaders heading for the Holy Land.
      That's about as comprehensible as the story gets, and that's OK because what matters to mr. Refn is the blank canvas it allows him to go all out on his immersive sensory approach, constructing a bewildering head trip of Herzogian proportions into a heart of darkness that also suggests a heavy-handed metaphor for the sticky end of all attempts at conquest in the name of a cause or a faith. There is, granted, a somewhat demiurgic quality at work here, not least because the “saviour” aspects of the tale are played up throughout, and it's certainly a hugely pretentious, madly overreaching film. But that's part and parcel of mr. Refn's visceral, love-it-or-leave-it work, of which Valhalla Rising is a very good example.

Starring Mads Mikkelsen; Alexander Morton, Stewart Porter, Maarten Stevenson, Matthew Zajac; Gordon Brown, Andrew Flanagan, Gary Lewis, Gary McCormack, James Ramsey, Jamie Sives, Ewan Stewart.
    Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; produced by Johnny Andersen, Bo Ehrhardt, Henrik Danstrup; written by mr. Winding Refn, Roy Jacobsen, with additional material by Matthew Read; music by Peterpeter (Peter Schneidermann), Peter Kyed; director of photography (colour by Technicolor, widescreen), Morten Søborg; production designer, Laurel Wear; costume designer, Gill Horn; film editor, Mat Newman.
     A Nicolas Winding Refn presentation of a Nimbus Film Production in association with La Belle Allée Productions; produced by One Eye Production in association with Blind Eye Productions, La Belle Allée Productions and Scanbox Film; supported by the Danish Film Institute, Scottish Screen, Nordisk Film and TV Fund, Glasgow Film Office, South West Scotland Screen Commission, MEDIA Programme of the European Community; in association with Wild Bunch, Wild Side Films, Scanbox Entertainment, The Wales Creative IP Fund, DR, BBC Films, Vertigo Films Distribution. (Scandinavian distributor, Scanbox Entertainment. World sales, Wild Bunch.) 

Friday, June 17, 2011

THE EAGLE

USA/GB
2010
114 minutes

If there can be such a thing as a revisionist western, then why not a revisionist swords & sandals epic? That, at least, seems to be the rationale behind Kevin Macdonald's dour, moody adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's mid-fifties Boy's Own adventure novel about a young Roman soldier (American beefcake Channing Tatum) who ventures into Northern Britannia to restore honour to his family name by finding the long lost standard of the legion his father commanded into oblivion. What mr. Macdonald, known for his award-winning documentaries and his acclaimed debut fiction The Last King of Scotland, does with it is hardly anyone's description of a commercial property, its hyper-serious, virile tone and deliberately slow-paced rhythm suggesting he's aiming at more than just mid-range thrills.
     But what makes it intriguing is just how much the director and his screenwriter, Jeremy Brock (also a writer on The Last King of Scotland), stretch the film's genre boundaries while trying to maintain a high-wire uniformity of tone. What starts out as a junior Gladiator shifts into a lyrical, ersatz western (cavalry to the rescue and all) coloured by a survivalist drama feel. There is no denying mr. Macdonald's pitch-perfect feel for period, atmosphere and location, much helped by Anthony Dod Mantle's widescreen lensing (golden hued and luminous for Rome, crisp and gloomily oppressive for the outdoors). But The Eagle's figures-in-a-landscape ambitions almost suffocate a plot that hasn't been stylized enough to support it.
     It's obviously a much more personal endeavour than the director's previous Hollywood-endorsed State of Play, and has a sensual, strong flair for its story, but it lacks the cohesion and coherence that could make it a stronger, more adventurous film.

Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell; Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Denis O'Hare, Dakin Matthews, Douglas Henshall.
     Directed by Kevin Macdonald; produced by Duncan Kenworthy; screenplay by Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth; music by Atli Orvarsson; director of photography (colour by DeLuxe, widescreen), Anthony Dod Mantle; production designer, Michael Carlin; costume designer, Michael O'Connor; film editor, Justine Wright.
     A Focus Features/Filmfour presentation/production, produced in association with Twins Financing. (US distributor, Focus Features. World sales, Focus Features International.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 9 (Lisbon), June 2nd 2011. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

THE BEAVER

USA/United Arab Emirates
2010
89 minutes

Jodie Foster's third directorial effort is, like its predecessors Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays, a tale of a broken family trying to mend itself. In shooting Kyle Killen's widely praised but pegged-as-unfilmable script, though, ms Foster may have bitten off slightly more than she could chew – which is not to say that she goes about it the wrong way. She doesn't: her straight-forward presentation of the tale of suicidally depressed toy executive Walter Black (Mel Gibson), brought back from the brink by a tough-love hand puppet that allows his id a free pass, mirrors mr. Killen's Charlie-Kaufmanesque approach of treating the absurd as a normal presence.

     The trick lies in finding the correct balance between eccentricity and convention, and at times there's not enough of one and/or too much of the other. This is unhelped by mr. Killen's device of juxtaposing Walter Black's return from the abyss with his older son Porter's (Anton Yelchin) coming-of-age tale, struggling with his own demons as he graduates from high school. The idea that salvation – any salvation – may be yet another crutch resonates poignantly all through mr. Gibson's gutsy performance as Walter (shot well before the recent media meltdown) but it echoes throughout ms. Foster's smart, attentive handling of her cast, unafraid to either look their failures in the eyes or avoid passing any sort of moral judgment. Life is hard enough for things to be boxed simply in clear-cut drawers – such is the message of this wonderfully layered character piece.
     The Beaver does wallow a little bit too much in pat self-help analogies and its narrative arc is somewhat predictable. But ms. Foster avoids any sense of definite closure in favour of a hopeful open-endedness, and deals level-headedly, seriously and provocatively with a serious theme. While not a perfect film, it's a brave, worthy one. 


Starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster; Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones, Riley Thomas Stewart.
     Directed by ms. Foster; produced by Steve Golin, Keith Redmon, Ann Ruark; written by Kyle Killen; music by Marcelo Zarvos; director of photography (colour, DeLuxe digital intermediate, Panavision widescreen), Hagen Bogdanski; production designer, Mark Friedberg; costume designer, Susan Lyall; film editor, Lynzee Klingman. 
     A Summit Entertainment/Participant Media presentation, in association with Imagenation Abu Dhabi, of an Anonymous Content production. (US distributor and world sales, Summit Entertainment.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo screening room (Lisbon), May 31st 2011. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME

A Woman Is a Woman

France/Italy
1961
83 minutes

Jean-Luc Godard’s third feature is another exquisitely subversive variation on classic cinema typical of France’s early-sixties nouvelle vague — this time inspired by Hollywood musicals, although the film is neither a full-fledged comedy (although very funny) nor a proper musical (though there is music everywhere). Describing Une Femme est une femme at the time as the “idea of a musical”, mr. Godard openly invokes Ernst Lubitsch in its romantic comedy structure of a woman being led astray by her desire to have a child. However, the script was improvised daily on-set, allowing the director, ably supported by his usual cinematographer Raoul Coutard, to move into an astoundingly formalist use of colour and widescreen compositions that invoke Minnelli and Hitchcock as well as prophetically anticipating later experiences by Antonioni.
     The film's visible artificiality (a cabaret act where the musical backing is taken out of the soundtrack every time the singing begins, or the indoor quarrels shot in virtuoso long takes with descriptive subtitles) mirrors its era of possibilities like few others. It exhales joie de vivre and captures the unbearable lightness of traditional musical comedy while simultaneously delivering its clichés in a knowing, sarcastic way.
     The story revolves around stripper Angela (a ravishing Anna Karina, then mrs. Godard-to-be), who teases and taunts her two suitors, sullen husband Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) and dazzled conman Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), in order to desperately be impregnated tonight, regardless of which one will be the father. This frothy tale allows mr. Godard to rummage in a bottomless bag of tricks, deconstruct the conventions of romantic comedy as much as it heightens them, decompose the story into a number of setpieces which play with the idea of cinema as a language all its own. A good example is the use of Michel Legrand's score, a traditionally swinging musical-comedy soundtrack that is used in a stop-start fashion to underline the “beats” of the sight gags and aural puns, but also to give the viewer an unwitting masterclass in the building blocks of genre cinema.

Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo.
     Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard; produced by Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti; music by Michel Legrand; director of photography (colour by Eastmancolor, Franscope widescreen), Raoul Coutard; production designer, Bernard Evein; costume designer (uncredited), Jacqueline Moreau; film editor, Agnès Guillemot.
     A Georges de Beauregard—Carlo Ponti presentation of a Rome Paris Film/Euro International Film production. (Original French distributor, Unidex. World sales, Studiocanal.)
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 12th 2011. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

LES AMOURS IMAGINAIRES

Heartbeats


Canada
2010
101 minutes

It seems that the general acclaim given Québécois boy wonder Xavier Dolan's intriguing debut J'ai tué ma mère rose to the now 21-year-old's head. For an encore performance, mr. Dolan takes full control of the form (acting, directing, writing, editing and designing production and costumes) and crafts an elaborately glossy construct that is appropriately superficial – since surface is its theme. Fashionista best friends Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (mr. Dolan) find themselves falling hard, over heels, for the ridiculously charming Nicolas (Niels Schneider), but as their own depth of feeling is revealed they find their love is not corresponded by a youth who is as shallow as they are, only in a different fashion – and, in their judgmental, “too-cool-for-school” attitude, are they any better? And are they really in love with Nicolas or only with the image they have constructed of him?
     Sadly, mr. Dolan fails to capture lightning in a bottle twice in a row: there is more of everything in Les Amours imaginaires – more style, more insouciance, more pizzazz, more colour, more pop culture – except substance. It's essentially a throwaway puppy love story given a bright, shiny wrapping that completely drowns whatever emotion mr. Dolan may have wanted to invoke – and, as Francis and Marie begin to realise how deep the hook of their infatuation has gone, the film also gains a stronger gravitas reminding of its predecessor. But that gravitas is brutally deflated by the film's juvenile, snarky epilogue, a misguided misstep that suggests, for all its his undeniable talent as a visual stylist and as a director (ms. Chokri's performance as Marie is a fully realised anchor to the film), the maturity suggested in the debut was misplaced somewhere along the way.

Starring Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider, Xavier Dolan.
     Director, writer, production and costume designer and film editor, mr. Dolan; produced by mr. Dolan, Daniel Morin, Carole Mondello; director of photography (colour by Technicolor), Stéphanie Weber-Biron. 
     A Mifilifilms production with the financial participation of Radio Canada. (Canadian distributor, Remstar Films. World sales, Rezo Films.)
     Screened: distributor DVD screener, Lisbon, June 10th 2011. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

J'AI TUÉ MA MÈRE

I Killed My Mother


Canada
2009
96 minutes

The selection of J'ai tué ma mère for Cannes 2009's Directors Fortnight heralded the splashy arrival of Canadian 20-year-old wonderboy Xavier Dolan – a Québécois former child actor who directed, wrote, designed the costumes and starred in this coming-of-age tale positively brimming with adolescent swagger. Implausible as it may seem, it is the revelation of a real filmmaking talent, even if one that hasn't yet harnessed all of its energy – and it isn't difficult to see why mr. Dolan became a magnet for divisive reactions.
     J'ai tué ma mère, loosely suggested by the director's own convoluted relationship with his mother, swings wildly between the teenage arrogance of someone who wants everything right now and a surprising maturity for someone this untried, veering between “look at how cool I am” puffed up pride and genuinely affecting emotion. Even so, you simply can't help feeling that was exactly what mr. Dolan himself wanted all along – even on his spot-on performance as the impossibily spoilt 16-year old at the center of the film, an arty gay type at loggerheads with the harried single mother (the magnificent Anne Dorval) he berates for not understanding his “difference”.
     At the centre of J'ai tué ma mère is a simple tale of miscommunication between two people who have grown apart without really understanding how or why. It would be easy for mr. Dolan, as ringmaster of this circus, to blame everybody but his character – and that is where the maturity kicks in: in its fair-minded apportioning of blame, culminating in an amazing scene where ms. Dorval has had enough and cuts down to size a smug headmaster over a phone line with a dazzlingly funny tirade. Yes, slight and juvenile this may definitely be, but there is a real poignancy at the heart of mr. Dolan's debut feature that suggests there's definitely a talent at work here, even if one that isn't yet fully harnessed.

Starring Anne Dorval, Xavier Dolan; François Arnaud, Suzanne Clément; Patricia Tulasne, Niels Schneider; and Monique Spaziani.
     Directed and written by mr. Dolan; produced by mr. Dolan, Daniel Morin, Carole Mondello; music by Nicholas Savard-L'Herbier; director of photography (Technicolor processing), Stéphanie Weber-Biron; art director, Anette Belley; costume designer, Nicole Pelletier; film editor, Hélène Girard.
     A Mifilifilms production with the financial participation of SODEC. (Canadian distributor, K-Films Amérique. World sales, Rezo Films.)
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 9th 2011. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

AKVANAVTY

USSR
1979
80 minutes

A proper curio from the other side of the Iron Curtain, Akvanavty isn't interesting so much for its technical aspects as for its singularly utopian, humanist approach to science-fiction, highly typical of classical Russian genre writing – and, indeed, this was based on a novel from sci-fi writer Sergei Pavlov, though director and co-scripter Igor Voznesensky changed it so radically that mr. Pavlov removed himself from the production. In the near-future where Akvanavty takes place, it is possible for men to be trained and modified to swim underwater without the need to breathe air for long periods of time, the resulting aquanauts work under a world organisation and scientists experiment with downloading their souvenirs into “memory matrixes”.
     What the film does with this, however, barely rises above the level of 1970s American TV or cut-rate Euro rip-offs, with rushed plotting and over-expository dialogue demanding narrative leaps the script is unable to support. The convoluted plot has Russian aquanaut Igor Sobolev (Herman Polokov) falling in love with scientist Lotta Karem (Irina Azer), only for her name to reappear regularly during his investigation of a series of strange happenings in an underwater power station. Some of the underwater footage is pretty good, and there is a certain kitsch pleasure to be had from the very seventies low-budget sets and cheesy trick effects. But there isn't really much to be recommended here for the casual viewer; only for completists or students of Russian filmmaking.
     The print screened, on a commercial DVD from German editor Icestorm's collection of Russian-made sci-fi, is the German-dubbed version produced for release in East Germany by state studio DEFA in 1981.

Starring Herman Poloskov, Alexander Iakovlev, Irina Azer, Vaclav Dvorzhetsky, Paul Butkevich, Elena Valaeva, Nikolai Kryukov, Yuri Sarantsev, Artyom Karapetyan, Vladimir Nikitin.
     Directed by Igor Voznesensky; screenplay by Sergei Pavlov with mr. Voznesensky, based on the novel by mr. Pavlov, Akvanavty; music by Eugen Krylatov; directors of photography (colour, widescreen), Alexander Filatov, Georgi Selenin; underwater director of photography, Vladimir Karpitzhev; production designer, Felix Rostotsky; film editor, G. Dmitrieva; visual effects, V. Losovsky, V. Glaskov.
     A Maxim Gorki Film Studio Third Artistic Workshop film. 
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 7th 2011. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

HADEWIJCH

France/Germany
2009
105 minutes

A controversial acquired taste, even among hardcore auteurists, French director and philosophy expert Bruno Dumont pulls off a beauty with his fifth feature, a disturbing look at misguided religious devotion. Hadewijch does feature all the hallmarks of mr. Dumont's elliptical, opaque austerity, but his usual bloody-mindedness is harnessed to excellent effect in the story of the “stations of the Cross” of Céline (newcomer Julie Sokolowski), a postulant nun whose search for absolute devotion and surrender to God delivers her into the hands of Muslim terrorism.
     One of the essential problems with mr. Dumont's work is that his conceptual approach often works against traditional narrative conventions – you really have to see the film to “get it” - and while Hadewijch has a stronger narrative construction, a lot of what makes it stand out lies in the treatment. That is to say, in the way the absence of music (other than two reinterpreted Bach pieces), mr. Dumont's unhurried setups and imperceptibly slow zooms, his painterly framings and close attention to detail convey the description of Céline as a child of privilege whose faith isn't so much a quest as a demand, whose hunger for the absolute love (in keeping with her inspiration, 13th century Belgian mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp) becomes a need to melt into the all.
     Heady stuff, to be sure, and the director's exacting approach only reinforces the demands it makes on the viewer and the core of darkness and light at its heart, not least in the elliptical leaps the film makes between its “stations” and in the reasonably unequal performances that aim for spontaneity and emotion rather than perfection. But Mr. Dumont believes in film's power to challenge the viewer, and the moving and powerful Hadewijch is proof enough of that.

Starring Julie Sokolowski; Karl Sarafadis, Yassine Salime, David Dewaele; Brigitte Mayeux-Clerget, Michelle Ardenne, Sabrina Lechêne, Marie Castelain, Luc-François Bouyssonie. 
     Directed and written by Bruno Dumont; director of photography (colour by GTC), Yves Cape; production designer, Jean-Marc Tran Tan Ba; costume designers, Annie Morel-Paris, Alexandra Charles; film editor, Guy Lecorne.
     A 3B Productions production, in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, CRRAV Nord-Pas de Calais, Le Fresnoy National Studio of Contemporary Art; with the participation of ZDF in collaboration with ARTE and Herbstfilm Produktion; in association with Cofinova 5; with the support of the French National Centre for Cinema, Île-de-France Region, Nord-Pas de Calais Region; with the participation of Canal Plus, Cinécinéma, Canal Horizons, Contact Films. (French distributor, Tadrart Films. World sales, Pyramide International.)
     Screened: distributor advance DVD screener, Lisbon, June 4th 2011. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

KUNG FU PANDA 2

USA
2011
90 minutes

A rare case of a sequel that lives up to its original, the second installment in what Dreamworks Animation expects (box-office helping) to turn into a long-running series is a highly enjoyable action comedy bucking the studio's trend of tying up flimsily a run of pop-culture sitcom jokes to a thin plot thread.
     On Kung Fu Panda 2, returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (a story artist on the first film) deftly navigate the Dragon Warrior title ursine Po (again voiced by Jack Black) through a journey of self-discovery. His trek to Gongmen City to stop the dastardly plans of evil peacock ruler Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) and his all-conquering firework-cannon weapon is also a trek to find out the truth about himself as an adopted child - especially since his and Shen's destinies have long been inextricably linked, as the kind, wise and very determined Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) reveals.
     But this serious narrative strand is more than lightened up by the lively, playful quality of the deft physical comedy invoked by the script (smartly voiced by the entire returning cast of the original) and ms. Nelson's team of expert animators, making Kung Fu Panda 2 into the animated equivalent of one of the classic Jackie Chan action comedies of the 1980s. Above all, the film's biggest strength lies in the dazzlingly fluid, exquisitely rendered animation, simultaneously delicate and dynamic, even within the many fleet-footed action sequences. The confidence and quality levels are such that they even allow for a lovely prologue presented in orientalised animated cutouts and a series of recurring flashbacks in stylised Japanese-type animation. Kung Fu Panda 2 turns out to be a stronger, more solid film — and a much better one — than its predecessor.

With the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh; and Jackie Chan.
     Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson; produced by Melissa Cobb; written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger; music by Hans Zimmer and John Powell; production designer, Raymond Zibach; film editor, Clare Knight; visual effects supervisor, Alex Parkinson.
     A Dreamworks Animation presentation/production. (US distributor and world sales, Paramount Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), June 3rd 2011. 

Thursday, June 09, 2011

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

USA/Great Britain
2011
132 minutes


It's fairly self-evident that, nowadays, the furthering of a film franchise has really little reason to exist other than to prop up the studios' balance sheets. With X-Men: First Class, Marvel and Fox's X-Men series about genetically mutated super-heroes reaches its fifth episode, after two strong entries and two middling ones. Bryan Singer's foundational stones X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003) respected Stan Lee's design of the original comic-books as a metaphor of teenage alienation, by anchoring it in a recognisable reality where mankind has begun to evolve into a mutated species and framing that alienation as a direct result of xenophobia and intolerance. But Brett Ratner's underwhelming X-Men: The Final Stand (2006) and Gavin Hood's Wolverine spin-off (2009) steered the series towards a more standard, less interesting visual-effects-oriented superhero movie.

     For this prequel designed as an early-sixties “origin story” detailing the start of the X-Men adventures, mr. Singer is back in the fold with producer and story credits, having recruited British hot property Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Kick-Ass) to direct it. Ironically, mr. Vaughn (who also worked on the script with his usual screenwriting partner Jane Goldman) was supposed to have helmed The Final Stand, but it was his untimely bow-out shortly before shooting started that led to the blah end result.
     The director injects the right sense of 1960s insouciance into what turns out to aim for a glossy ersatz Bond-caper, with a pre-Magneto Erik Lehnsherr (an intense Michael Fassbender) and a pre-Professor X Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) jet-setting the world chasing Nazi war criminal Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, relishing an unusual mad villain turn), the man who developed Lehnsherr's powers at Auschwitz and is now behind the Cuban Missile Crisis. That Bond-like frothy silliness is what's so enticing about the whole concept, and it's consciously played up throughout (down to the highly stylized, Maurice Binder-like title sequence). But despite what Martin Campbell did with the Bond series recently, that kind of 1960s black-on-white spy caper doesn't mesh very well with the series' roots in nuanced plot twists and existentalism, and mr. Vaughn literally loses the plot as the film careens towards an over-egged visual-effects-heavy climax. So the fifth X-movie ends up an honourable but less than essential entry – not as strong as the two Singer-directed episodes, not as disposable as the lesser films. 


Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi; and Kevin Bacon.
     Directed by Matthew Vaughn; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Gregory Goodman; screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and mr. Vaughn, based on a story by Sheldon Turner and mr. Singer; music by Henry Jackman; director of photography (colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen), John Mathieson; production designer, Chris Seagers; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; film editors, Lee Smith, Eddie Hamilton; visual effects designer, John Dykstra.
     A Twentieth Century-Fox presentation, in association with Marvel Entertainment and Dune Entertainment, of a Bad Hat Harry/The Donners' Company production; made in association with Ingenious Media, Big Screen Productions and Ingenious Film Partners. (US distributor and world sales, Twentieth Century-Fox.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 11 (Lisbon), June 1st 2011. 

Saturday, June 04, 2011

THE HANGOVER PART II

USA
2011
101 minutes

A stellar example of the pointlessness and cynicism of contemporary Hollywood, and of its blatant disregard for its audience's expectations, The Hangover Part II is an exercise lesson in how to devalue a currency by trivialising a fondly remembered original. Not that that aren't funny gags and the occasional inspired moment in this sequel that reunites all of the principal cast and crew of the 2009 blockbuster comedy (but not, pointedly, original screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore). It's just that the option to make this practically a step-by-step retread of the original Hangover comes across as a lazy, calculated way to follow up the original, assuming that people will shell for exactly more of the same. Sadly, that may be true, judging by the blockbuster box-office the film has already reaped in only one week on general US release.
     But the law of diminishing returns demands that, once the surprise effect of the premise is gone, whatever's left loses the original luster and comes across as laboured and tiresome. Thus, the Vegas odyssey of three men searching for a fourth after pulling an all-night bender they can't recall anything of is transplanted to Bangkok, and screenwriters Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong and writer/director Todd Phillips busy themselves finding the Thai equivalents of the outrageously raunchy adventures of their waylaid heroes. Despite the game cast, the occasional inspired idea (the lookalike Tyson tattoo, the street-savvy monkey, the cameo from Paul Giamatti as a growly criminal) and the generally smart visuals (given here an added exotic, day-glo sheen by returning DP Lawrence Sher), it all lacks the drive of the original and suggests the alchemy that turned the original into a phenomenon has been lost in this soulless exercise in profit maximization.

Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Jeffrey Tambor; with Justin Bartha; and Paul Giamatti.
     Directed by Todd Phillips; produced by mr. Phillips, Dan Goldberg; written by Craig Mazin, Scot Armstrong and mr. Phillips, based on characters created by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore; music by Christophe Beck; director of photography (colour, Technicolor digital intermediate, widescreen), Lawrence Sher; production designer, Bill Brzeski; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; film editors, Debra Neil-Fisher, Mike Sale. 
     A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in association with Legendary Pictures, of a Green Hat Films production. (US distributor and world sales, Warner Bros. Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), May 24th 2011. 

Friday, June 03, 2011

GET LOW

USA/Germany/Poland
2009
102 minutes

There is something comfortably Coen-like about Aaron Schneider's debut feature. Maybe it's the wry, laconic humour of the piece, based upon a real-life story of 1930s Tennessee, maybe it's the matter-of-fact presentation of its eccentric tale: country hermit Felix Bush (a regal Robert Duvall), after 40-odd years as a recluse, reengages with the world by hiring the local funeral parlour, run by Chicago transplant Frank Quinn (a deliciously wry Bill Murray), to organise his funeral... while living.
     Still, it's unlikely Get Low, as a first film, could ever hope to catch up to the Coens – there are a number of conventional, clumsy framings and edits (especially towards the film's third act) that should mostly be attributed to inexperience. Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell's script also succumbs in its third act to an overly melodramatic reveal, not helped by the thick laying on of folksy rural charm mr. Schneider can't help himself evoking. 
     But these are all minor quibbles when faced up, first, with the period-perfect feel for mood and location and relaxed, easy-going rhythm the neophyte director demonstrates; and, second, with the stunning performances that anchor the film. Not only messrs. Duvall and Murray's, but also Sissy Spacek as an old flame of Felix's, Bill Cobbs as an old friend, and Lucas Black as the young local assistant to Frank Quinn that acts as the viewer's surrogate, all of them deftly balanced by mr. Schneider's tempo (he doubles up as director and editor).  It's a film more intuitive than technical, whose charms overcome its achievements, but also a promising debut feature revealing a director perfectly attuned to his cast.  


Starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs.
     Directed and edited by Aaron Schneider; produced by Dean Zanuck, David Gundlach; screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, based on a story by mr. Provenzano and Scott Seeke; music by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek; director of photography (colour, Efilm digital intermediate, Panavision widescreen), David Boyd; production designer, Geoffrey Kirkland; costume designer, Julie Weiss.
     A K5 International presentation of a Zanuck Independent production, in association with David Gundlach Productions, LARA Enterprises, TVN, Butcher's Run Films. (US distributor, Sony Pictures Classics. World sales, K5 International.) 
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Castello Lopes screening room (Lisbon), May 23rd 2011. 

Thursday, June 02, 2011

CARLOS

France/Germany
2010
163 minutes

Epic in scope yet unusually up close and personal in its nuts and bolts, Olivier Assayas' ambitious, biographical deconstruction of infamous 1970s terrorist Carlos "The Jackal" has been in the news ever since its unveiling at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Steered by producer and former investigative journalist Daniel Leconte as a prestige miniseries for French pay-cable channel Canal Plus but shot on widescreen 35mm film, Carlos was denied a competitive berth at the fest in its full, nearly six-hour version due to its origin as a television project. A mere technicality if ever there was one, since what is so outstanding about mr. Assayas' work is how distinctly cinematic and un-televisual it is (rather than presented as a series of episodes, it was broadcast as three 100-minute films). To confuse matters further, mr. Assayas also created this 163-minute big-screen version — not a "chopped down" edit of the series as often these things are, but an autonomously constructed film meant for theatrical release both in France and internationally (although the US, for example, actually released theatrically both cuts).
     Either way, though, mr. Assayas has really delivered the goods: Carlos not only stands up well next to the best American genre competition has to offer, it also works as a smart, urgent distillation of the French director and former Cahiers du Cinéma critic's own work over the years. His interest in genre cinema and his desire to work within conventions all the better to deconstruct them (Dreamlover, Irma Vep), his fascination with the shifting borders of our globalized world (Boarding Gate, Summer Hours) and his portrayal of characters that are somehow maladjusted within this world (Clean, Boarding Gate) all come to a head in his take on Carlos, superbly inhabited by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez, as a narcissist looking not for power or a cause, but for fame, recognition and status.
     From the film's early scenes, where we see Carlos caress his own body and playfully use weapons as sex toys, to the later refusal to acknowledge his time is past (like a film star that lingers on beyond his prime), mr. Assayas paints the portrait of someone who wanted not to ride or tail the wave but be the wave. In the process, the director also paints a disenchanted picture of 1970s European revolutionary ideologies and movements as inhabited mostly by naïve bourgeois seduced by the thrill of the forbidden fruit - a quest even Carlos himself, as shown in mr. Ramírez's uncanny performance, could not escape despite his adamant denials.
     Nervously, urgently shot (by cinematographers Yorick le Saux and Denis Lenoir) in a self-effacing yet impeccably controlled style, Carlos shows what can happen when you let an intelligent, motivated left-of-field director loose within the confines of a work-for-hire. Not only an admirable synthesis of his traits as a director but also mr. Assayas' best film in years, if not ever, this is an extraordinary achievement.

Starring Edgar Ramirez; Fadi Abi Samra, Ahmad Kaabour, Christoph Bach, Nora von Waldstätten, Rodney el-Haddad, Julia Hummer, Alexander Scheer, Talal el-Jordi.
     Directed by Olivier Assayas; produced by Daniel Leconte; screenplay by mr. Assayas and Dan Franck, based on a story by Daniel Leconte; directors of photography (Arane Gulliver processing, Panavision widescreen), Yorick le Saux, Denis Lenoir; production designer, François-Renaud Labarthe; costume designer, Jürgen Doering; film editor, Luc Barnier. 
     A Daniel Leconte presentation of a Film en Stock production in co-production with Egoli Tossell Film; with the participation of Canal Plus, ARTE France Cinéma, Centre National de la Cinématographie, Deutscher Filmförderfonds, TV5Monde, Cinécinéma, BE TV, PROCIREP, ANGOA. (French distributor, MK2. World sales, Studiocanal.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo screening room (Lisbon), April 19th 2011.