Friday, August 26, 2011

CONAN THE BARBARIAN

USA
2011
112 minutes

It's always worth asking what should be the rationale for a reboot of any film franchise – in the case of mythical warrior Conan, risen from Robert E. Howard's pulp stories of the 1930s to become Arnold Schwarzenegger's breakthrough role in 1982 under the guidance of gung-ho “new Hollywood” man John Milius, box-office seems to be the only reason, since neither can Hawaiian wrestler Jason Momoa claim the charisma of the Governator, nor does German ad maestro turned B movie director Marcus Nispel bring anything new to sword-and-sorcery fantasies.

     The script by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood sets up a new origin story for the character – as the son of a Cimmerian chief who grows up to seek revenge on Khalar Zym, the man who killed his father and destroyed his village while searching for a mystical mask whose dark powers will give him control of the known world. Resolving itself into a series of action battle setpieces thinly threaded together, Conan the Barbarian does boat an appropriate color palette of drab, copperish hues (translating very dimly into the 3D effects) and the occasional impressive scene (namely the sand warrior sequence, with mr Momoa fighting warriors conjured out of pure sand by Rose McGowan's evil witch). But it never rises above the standard of a B-level movie punching above its pay grade (it's the biggest budget ever from poverty-row studio Millennium Films, even though it's nowhere near the current asking price for a self-respecting Hollywood blockbuster). Whether it will truly relaunch the character as a viable franchise depends purely on its box-office reception; artistically, it doesn't give any reason as to why it is worth relaunching.

Starring Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Saïd Taghmaoui, Leo Howard; and Ron Perlman.
     Directed by Marcus Nispel; produced by Fredrik Malmberg, Boaz Davidson, Joe Gatta, Danny Lerner, John Baldecchi, Les Weldon, Henry Winterstern; screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood, based on the character created by Robert E. Howard; music by Tyler Bates; director of photography (colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen), Thomas Kloss; production designer, Chris August; costume designer, Wendy Partridge; film editor, Ken Blackwell; visual effects producer, Scott Coulter; special make-up and make-up effects supervisors, Shaun Smith, Scott Wheeler.
     A Lionsgate/Millennium Films presentation of a Millennium Films production in association with Emmett-Furla Films Productions and Conan Properties International. (US distributor, Lionsgate. World sales, Millennium Films.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), August 18th 2011.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS

USA
2011
109 minutes

At a moment when romantic comedies seem to be a dime a dozen and most of them turn out to not be worth even that dime, here comes one that actually returns the genre its good name. What's more, Friends with Benefits does so shortly after Ivan Reitman's amiable No Strings Attached exploited the same premise with generally good results. Junior league director Will Gluck's third feature, though, towers above its predecessor in practically every respect, starting with the on-screen chemistry of former boy-band singer Justin Timberlake and Black Swan revelation Mila Kunis. He is L. A. art director Dylan and she is Jamie, the New York headhunter who convinces him to move to the Big Apple to work for GQ. Both are commitment-phobes scarred by family issues, both enjoy each other's company enormously, both agree to extend it into a carefree sexual relationship, even though it's obvious to everyone but themselves that they're the perfect couple.

     Mr. Timberlake, growing into his own as a fine actor with every new project, and ms. Kunis, finally finding her breakthrough rule, literally bounce off each other, making the most off the smart, wise-cracking dialogue. Moreover, mr. Gluck actually knows how to grasp the essential lightness of touch that makes a good romantic comedy, taking a leaf from the Hollywood genre rulebook (there's a nod to It Happened One Night, but thankfully the ambition is only to follow on its footsteps, not to be as good as it). The smartest element in the script by Keith Merryman, David Newman and mr. Gluck is actually its playful way with that formula, as it has tons of fun keeping up a running commentary on the rules to which it faithfully adheres. Factor in stellar work from a first-rate supporting cast (Patricia Clarkson as Jamie's ditzy mother; Jenna Elfman as Dylan's pragmatic sister; Woody Harrelson as a gay sportswriter; and the ever reliable Richard Jenkins as Dylan's debilitated father) and you have a romantic comedy like they're not doing them anymore.

Starring Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Bryan Greenberg, Nolan Gould; with Richard Jenkins; and Woody Harrelson.
     Directed by Will Gluck; produced by Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, Jerry Zucker, Janet Zucker, mr. Gluck; screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and mr. Gluck, based on a story by Harley Peyton, mr. Merryman and mr. Newman; director of photography (colour, prints by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen), Michael Grady; production designer, Marcia Hinds; costume designer, Renee Ehrlich Kalfus; film editor, Tia Nolan.
     A Screen Gems presentation of a Castle Rock Entertainment/Zucker Productions/Olive Bridge Entertainment production. (US distributor and world sales, Sony Pictures Entertainment.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), August 17th 2011.

Friday, August 19, 2011

COWBOYS & ALIENS

USA/India
2011
119 minutes

Yes, on paper it sounds like a terrible idea to have Wild West cowboys battling mischief-minded aliens from another planet – it's the sort of things that seems tailor-made for a comic-book (which is where it actually originated) or a spoofy cut-rate, budget-minded rip-off. Instead, at the behest of Steven Spielberg, whose Dreamworks studio part-funded it, we get a serious, star-studded major-studio blockbuster boasting a truckload of producers and a handful of screenwriters. And the resulting mash-up is... actually not that bad, as long as you adjust your expectation level and realise this would work so much better as the second-tier B-movie it so clearly wants to be.

     The trick is Jon Favreau's execution of the premise as an honest-to-goodness (and rather solid) western, only with aliens intent on conducting ghastly experiments on humans while stripping us of our gold rather than Indians as the villains, writing in as well the abduction scenarios mr. Spielberg is so fond of. Lo and behold, it does make sense together thanks to the earnest (but not overly earnest) conviction all involved bring to the table, starting with Daniel Craig's brooding presence as Jake Lonergan, the outlaw that wakes up without his memory and with a strange iron shackle on his wrist, only to ride into the desert town of Absolution and band together with its upstanding citizens in a posse set to rescue a kidnapped party from the marauding aliens.

     Playing it straight is exactly what saves Cowboys & Aliens from falling down the mineshaft of ill-advised high-concept blockbusters, with a few eerie, neat touches coming clearly from the twisted minds of J. J. Abrams alumni Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who shaped the final script into production. It still doesn't rise above the mindless silliness of the premise (nothing could); but even if it's too "out there" for audiences other than fanboys and pop culture observers, it is a smartly done, cleverer-than-average blockbuster.

Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford; Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown.
     Directed by Jon Favreau; produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg; screenplay by mr. Orci, mr. Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, based on a story by mr. Fergus, mr. Ostby and Steve Oedekerk, and on the graphic novel by mr. Rosenberg, Cowboys & Aliens; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; director of photography (colour, Panavision widescreen), Matthew Libatique; production designer, Scott Chambliss; costume designer, Mary Zophres; film editors, Dan Lebental, Jim May; visual effects supervisor, Roger Guyett; special make-up and animatronic effects, Shane Mahan. 
     A Dreamworks Pictures/Universal Pictures/Reliance Entertainment presentation, in association with Relativity Media, of an Imagine Entertainment/K/O Paper Products/Fairview Entertainment/Platinum Studios production. (US distributor, Universal Pictures. World sales, Paramount Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), August 16th 2011. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

GREEN LANTERN

USA
2011
114 minutes

Ah, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer – so much to answer for when it comes down to super-hero movies. By setting up their comic-book super-hero adaptations in a recognisable reality and grounding them in human emotions and frailties, these directors set a standard not all super-hero movies can – or should – measure up to. This big-screen version of DC Comics' second-tier character, reconfigured here as daredevil test pilot Hal Jordan (a game, engaging Ryan Reynolds), unexpectedly recruited into an intergalactic police force as a fearsome evil power known as the Parallax menaces the universe, suffers from trying too hard to be grounded and realistic when it really should stick to adolescent fantasy.

     No matter how hard the veteran crew under director Martin Campbell and surprisingly blue-chip cast try, it's all simply too slight and unconvincing to engage the viewer beyond the disposable eye candy on view for two hours. The bounty of character actors summoned to provide support (including Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Angela Bassett, and, voicing two CGI-animated aliens, Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan) suggests either the paycheck was too good to be resisted or they saw something in the project that got lost along the way. That was probably the cookie-cutter but always effective motif of sons having to face the long shadows of their fathers: mr. Reynolds' flyer is haunted by his dad's death in a test flight gone awry, mr. Sarsgaard's dweeb villain is aware his senator father (a suitably creepy Tim Robbins) thinks little of him.

     But that motif ends up taking a backseat to (and sitting very awkwardly along) the richly imagined but terminally shallow schoolboy sci-fi of the Green Lantern myth in a way mr. Campbell, a veteran known for his no-nonsense actioners (and responsible for rebooting the James Bond franchise not once but twice), probably salvaged as best he could. And, in fact, the film never overstays its welcome, moving along with a firm grasp of rhythm and tempo, showing both the director's and master cutter Stuart Baird's expert genre chops. It's fair to say the sequel a brief mid-credits sequence blatantly sets up is unlikely to materialize anytime soon, judging from the low rate of return Warners got on its expensive investment.

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Angela Bassett, Temuera Morrison, Jay O. Sanders, Jon Tenney, Taika Waititi; and Tim Robbins.
     Directed by Martin Campbell; produced by Donald de Line, Greg Berlanti; screenplay by mr. Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, based on a story by mr. Berlanti, mr. Green and mr. Guggenheim; music by James Newton Howard; director of photography (colour by Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Dion Beebe; production designer, Grant Major; costume designer, Ngila Dickson; film editor, Stuart Baird; visual effects supervisors, Jim Berney, Kent Houston, Karen Goulekas.
     A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a De Line Pictures production. (US distributor and world sales, Warner Bros. Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), August 11th 2011. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

SHLICHTO SHEL HAMEMUNE AL MASHABEI ENOSH

THE HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER


Israel/Germany/France/Romania
2010
102 minutes

There are two films vying for space in Israeli director Eran Riklis' muddled dramedy. One is a pretty good, melancholy satire of modern society, the other a tiresome comedy of comeuppance that skates perilously close to thin ice. At heart, it's a well-meaning piece, following what happens when an Eastern immigrant to Israel dies in a bomb attack without anyone noticing; she is found to have worked at an industrial bakery and, as he tracks back the case in an intriguing quasi-detective mystery in reverse, the human resources manager finds she had been let go by a compassionate supervisor who didn't report the dismissal. Forced to accompany the repatriation of the body to her native Eastern European village as a PR stunt, the HR manager, going through a rough patch of his own, finds in his trip full of surreal events the fire he needs to get back on his feet.

     Once it moves into Eastern Europe (Romania, actually, though the country is never named), though, the film's subdued melancholy gives way to boisterous ethnic comedy of a genre that only Emir Kusturica (and even so only for a brief period in the late 1990s) managed to pull off successfully, resorting far too much to stereotyping and exotic local colour that can be unwittingly borderline offensive. It's all the more mystifying since the film itself (adapted from A. B. Yehoshua's novel A Woman in Jerusalem) is meant as a well-meaning plea against stereotyping but fails to even keep pace – unlike the dead woman, none of the principal characters are ever given a name, but none other than the HR manager are given any shot at character development to become fully-fleshed out persons (see Gili Alfi's caricatural muck-raking journalist).

     Mark Ivanir's committed, brilliant performance as the despondent, conflicted executive, holding the entire film together, and the stately if Kafkaesque conclusion to his road trip, do reclaim some of the gravitas suggested by the opening stretch and lost as the film moves forward - but, ultimately, aren't enough to make up for the shortcomings of its well-meaning proposition.

Starring Mark Ivanir, Gili Alfi, Noah Silver, Rozina Cambus, Julian Negulesco, Bogdan Stanoevitch; and Gila Almagor.
     Directed by Eran Riklis; produced by Haim Mecklberg, Estee Yacov-Mecklberg, Elie Meirovitz, Thanassis Karathanos, Karl Baumgartner, Tudor Giorgiu, Talia Kleinhendler; screenplay by Noah Stollman, based on the novel by A. B. Yehoshua, A Woman in Jerusalem; music by Cyril Morin; director of photography (super 16 film, processing by FDK, Kodak Cinelabs Romania), Rainer Klausmann; production designers, Dan Toader, Yoel Herzberg; costume designers, Li Alembik, Adina Bucur; film editor, Tova Asher.
     A 2-Team Productions production, in co-production with Pallas Film, EZ Films, Hai Hui Entertainment, Pie Films, ZDF/ARTE; with support from the Yehoshua Rabinovich Fund for Film and Television, Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung and Romanian National Centre for Cinematography. (World sales, Pyramide International.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia King 1 (Lisbon), August 4th 2011.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

USA/Great Britain
2011
105 minutes

Marketing oblige, here comes another unnecessary prequel as Fox resurrects its post-apocalyptic saga set in an Earth overrun by civilized apes (last seen in Tim Burton's ill-fated 2001 reboot) for a pre-apocalyptic “origin story”. Yet, what seems unnecessary on paper turns out to be a smart, no-nonsense B-movie, playing with the time-honoured precepts of science fiction as a cautionary Frankenstein tale that could almost be independent of its genealogy.

     Set in a near-future San Francisco, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's script has bright scientist James Franco struggle to find a cure for Alzheimer's before his father (John Lithgow) succumbs to it, only to find the medication he's developing creates unexpected side effects on his primate trial subjects. The outcome is Caesar, a chimp whose development and intelligence mimic that of a human teenager and lead to disaster once he is old enough to realise he isn't human like everyone else. Created as a CGI-animated shell over a superb live-action performance by Andy Serkis (who is used to this after having been Peter Jackson's Sméagol and King Kong), Caesar is a magnificent creation that British director Rupert Wyatt shows off to extraordinary effect.

     Mr. Wyatt breezes confidently through what is essentially a standard B-movie genre adventure, eschewing (other than for the apes, digitally created by WETA) visual effects and grounding the plot on character development and actor performance. Fans will have a ball with the many clever, discreet references to the original saga; but there are a number of inexplicable plot inconsistencies that seem thrown in at the behest of the number-crunchers just for the sake of justifying further franchise instalments. It's a shame, since the bucking of the current blockbuster trend that Rise of the Planet of the Apes proposes would only be heightened by a tighter scripting – though it's heartening to see, for once, a Summer movie that is neither mindless nor feckless.

Starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo; and Andy Serkis.
     Directed by Rupert Wyatt; produced by Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver; written by mr. Jaffa, ms. Silver; music by Patrick Doyle; director of photography (colour, processing by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen), Andrew Lesnie; production designer, Claude Paré; costume designer, Renée April; film editors, Conrad Buff, Mark Goldblatt; visual effects supervisors, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon.
     A Twentieth Century-Fox presentation, in association with Dune Entertainment, of a Chernin Entertainment production; produced in association with Ingenious Media; made in association with Big Screen Productions and Ingenious Film Partners. (US distributor and world sales, Twentieth Century-Fox.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 9 (Lisbon), August 3rd 2011.

Friday, August 05, 2011

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

USA
2011
124 minutes

In the midst of the current onslaught of super-hero-themed visual effects extravaganzas, director Joe Johnston's take on Captain America comes across as a cheerful, refreshingly old-fashioned throwback to an earlier, kinder, simpler era. Yes, Captain America: The First Avenger is another piece of the Avengers puzzle – the marketing agenda is firmly in place and the film is peppered with a number of clues and links to the other heroes of the Marvel universe (its bookend prologue and epilogue linking it to the 2012 super-hero “mash-up” directed by Joss Whedon). But the saving grace lies in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's scripting decision to have the star-spangled hero's “origin story” remain in the World War II-era US, when the character was originally created.

     In keeping with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's original set-up, the film has scrawny Brooklyn kid Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) turned into a super-soldier, but then promptly sent off into... a war effort propaganda tour from which he longs to break free, and actually does as he takes a leading role in the battle against Hydra, the Nazi occult science division led by the megalomaniac villain Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Yes, it's all very derivative from both 1940s adventure serials and its post-modern recreations – there's a strong whiff of cut-rate Raiders of the Lost Ark (G. I.s and Nazis struggling for unspeakable magic powers). But it's that deliberate throwback to a simpler morality (good vs. bad, right vs. wrong) directly brought from the comics' original incarnation, and its lean, B-grade storyline (Captain America and the US Army take on Hydra), told efficiently with a number of sly meta-fictional digs (the Cap himself is a comic-book hero at the same time as an actual living warrior), that win the movie.

     Well, that and the wondrous retro-futuristic production design from Rick Heinrichs, rendered in pitch-perfect period patine by d. p. Shelly Johnson and Christopher Townsend's visual effects team. That's not surprising, since the highpoint in the career of mr. Johnston, a former visual effects man turned competent if unimaginative director, has so far been 1991's endearingly retro Rocketeer, a cult movie based on Dave Stevens' graphic novel, with which the world of Captain America has more than a few similarities. Even if it didn't have to fit in so tightly with the remainder of the Marvel comic-to-film universe, its charms would be enough to raise it above the current super-hero assembly-line and make it into an unpretentious, enjoyable adventure.

Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke; and Stanley Tucci.
     Directed by Joe Johnston; produced by Kevin Feige; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the comic-book character created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; music by Alan Silvestri; director of photography (colour, DeLuxe processing, Panavision widescreen), Shelly Johnson; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; costume designer, Anna B. Sheppard; film editors, Jeffrey Ford, Robert Dalva; visual effects supervisor, Christopher Townsend.
     A Paramount Pictures/Marvel Entertainment presentation of a Marvel Studios production. (US distributor and world sales, Paramount Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), August 2nd 2011. 

Thursday, August 04, 2011

ANGÈLE ET TONY

France
2010
84 minutes

On paper, Angèle et Tony seems like yet another of the resolutely downbeat, socially-conscious dramas of a certain Francophile school (Robert Guédiguian, for one, comes to mind). Or, even worse, like a generically heart-tugging drama ripped from the newspaper headlines for the greater glory of American arthouse patrons or upscale true-life weepies. All credit, then, to first-time writer/director Alix Delaporte and her cast, ably led by a mesmerising Clotilde Hesme cast against type, for avoiding all traps and pitfalls of either approach. Instead, the tale of the stop-start courtship between an elusive, brusque woman with a secret and a big-hearted but equally brusque fisherman in a Normandy fishing village is perfectly attuned to the halting rhythms of its female lead.

     Angèle is someone who is still learning to stand up on her own two feet after a two-year stint in prison (for reasons ms Delaporte never makes clear, but instead merely suggests). There's no “once upon a time” nor “happily ever after” here, just one long “now” where the writer/director's discreetly unobtrusive camera seems to catch raw moments of truth from a cast that disappears under the skin of their characters. The key to ms. Delaporte's film lies in ms. Hesme's evolution from tightly wound coil of seething animal tensions into a nervously but growingly confident woman finally reclaiming her right to happiness.

     Whether she gets it or not is beside the point; it's not the destination that matters but the journey, and that journey is sensitively and smartly presented, even if Angèle et Tony is very visibly a debut film. I, for one, would have liked to see more of Grégory Gadebois' laconic, conflicted Tony and his family - it's clear it's in Angèle that ms. Delaporte's interest lies - and there's a certain redundancy to some of her narrative. But those are quickly overlooked by the strength and determination of what remains a rather impressive debut, whose commitment and confidence make it transcend the sum of its parts.

Starring Clotilde Hesme, Grégory Gadebois; Evelyne Didi, Jérôme Huguet, Antoine Couleau, Patrick Ligardes, Patrick Descamps, Lola Dueñas.
     Directed and written by Alix Delaporte; produced by Hélène Cases; music by Mathieu Maestracci; director of photography (colour, processing by Eclair, Panavision widescreen), Claire Mathon; production designer, Hélène Ustaze; costume designers, Bibiane Blondy, Julie Couturier; film editor, Louise Decelle. 
     A Lionceau Films presentation/production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cinécinéma, French National Centre for Cinema and the Animated Image, Sofica Cofinova 6. (French distributor, Pyramide Distribution. World sales, Pyramide International.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 2 (Lisbon), July 28th 2011.