Friday, September 30, 2011

LES BIEN-AIMÉS

THE BELOVED


France/United Kingdom/Czech Republic
2011
136 minutes

Novelist-turned-director Christophe Honoré may be one of the most intriguing and consistent young filmmakers in modern French cinema. But with Les Bien-aimés he turns out both his most ambicious work, and his greatest misstep. Returning to the musical framework of his most successful film, Les Chansons d'amour (2007), here paired with the sentimental gravity of his finest work, La Belle personne (2008), Mr. Honoré attempts an updated, lovelorn family saga in a Jacques Demy-meets-François Truffaut style that, despite its stellar cast, never really gels.

     At heart, this is the tale of forty years in the life of Madeleine, who starts out in 1964 as a frothy shoe store salesgirl played by Ludivine Sagnier and finds love with a handsome Czech doctor (Rasha Bokvic) whom she marries and has a daughter with. But his philandering and the Prague spring break up the marriage, leading her to return and become the wife of a military man while keeping up an on-and-off affair with the ex-husband. The story moves forward in irregular increments, and by the 1990s Catherine Deneuve has taken up the role of Madeleine and Milos Forman that of the ex-husband, with their daughter Véra having grown up into Ms. Deneuve's own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni. Véra seems fated to repeat her mother's mistake of falling in love with a man who doesn't love her back while spurring the one who does.

     And while there is nothing inherently wrong with the premise, it's Mr. Honoré's approach that rankles: Alex Beaupain's songs, seemingly inserted at random intervals, never truly fit the narrative and bring a misjudged frothiness into what is essentially a progressively darker and melancholy study of love. This worked on Les Chansons d'amour but doesn't here, with the effect of underlining the inability of the director in sustaining a cohesive tone throughout the film - best-seen in the unfortunately tone-deaf Canadian interlude set on 9/11, whose well-meaning attempt at juxtaposing global and personal tragedy is shockingly banal coming from someone we have known much more sensitive and attentive. The film's inexplicably leisurely construction, as a series of disjointed episodes stitched together to make a particular point, is also rather surprising coming from a writer.

     To be sure, there is good stuff here - the dialogue is often very sharp, the cast performs admirably (with a touching Ms. Deneuve front and center), and there are flashes of visual inventiveness (especially in the earlier, period sections) that suggest there's not much wrong with Les Bien-aimés that couldn't have been sorted out. But instead we have a sprawling, overlong wisp of a film that seems to have gotten lost on its way to the big screen.

Starring Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier, Louis Garrel, Paul Schneider, Milos Forman, Rasha Bokvic; and Michel Delpech.
     Directed by Christophe Honoré; written by mr. Honoré with Adam Thirlwell; music and songs by Alex Beaupain; director of photography (colour, processing by Éclair, widescreen), Rémy Chevrin; production designer, Samuel Deshors; costume designer, Pascaline Chavanne; film editor, Chantal Hymans.
     A Why Not Productions presentation of a Why Not Productions/France 2 Cinéma/Sixteen Films/Negativ co-production, with the participation of Canal Plus, France Télévisions, Orange Cinéma Séries; with the support of the Île-de-France Region, Sofica Soficinéma 7, Czech Motion Picture Support Fund, SACEM Support Fund. (French distributor, Le Pacte. World sales, Celluloid Dreams.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia King 1 (Lisbon), September 21st 2011.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

OS FAMOSOS E OS DUENDES DA MORTE

THE FAMOUS AND THE DEAD


Brazil/France
2009
102 minutes

Some films are just too singular to fit neatly into well-defined shelves, and Brazilian director Esmir Filho's feature debut is striking enough to stand on its own two feet outside any and all sort of genre categorisations. A sensory, atmospheric take on the teenage movie that transplants late-period Gus van Sant's free-floating high-school anomie and Antonio Campos' formalist aesthetics into the sparse rural territories of Lucrecia Martel, Os Famosos e os Duendes da Morte can be infuriatingly solipsistic and tends to take refuge far too often in navel-gazing (there are a couple of family scenes straight out of Canadian whizkid Xavier Dolan's petulant tantrums). But all is redeemed through Mr. Filho's heart-on-sleeve sincerity and, especially, his outstanding formal control in widescreen lensing and editing, creating an otherworldly feel for this small town tale of moody adolescence set in rural Brazil.

     Although based in the loosely autobiographical book by Ismael Caneppele (whom Mr. Filho actually cast in one of the lead roles, all of them filled by locals with no previous acting experience), there's little to no plot in the wanderings of lonely high-schooler Henrique Larré through his Rio Grande do Sul small town, obsessed with both the music of Bob Dylan and the online photos and videos left behind by a morbid local girl. The film touches at the same time on the obsessive desire to leave your small town for the big city and the need to feel accepted and belong somewhere, and on the deceiving sense of proximity that the internet has brought: most everyone in this film is connected by modern technologies that leave them as lonely as ever, if not more so.

     Mr. Filho's dazzling visual talents, however, aren't yet extended to narrative, and are not enough to sustain interest in a wispy plot for a feature film length. But this is most definitely an unusual debut for a filmmaker clearly attuned to the leading edge of contemporary arthouse cinema from Latin America and the USA; and the sense of a director in control of his material is all there.

Starring Henrique Larré, Ismael Caneppele, Tuane Eggers, Samuel Reginatto, Áurea Baptista.
     Directed by Esmir Filho; produced by Sara Silveira and Maria Ionescu; screenplay by mr. Filho and mr. Caneppele, based on the novel by mr. Caneppele, Os Famosos e os Duendes da Morte; music by Nelo Johann; director of photography (colour, widescreen), Mauro Pinheiro Jr.; art director, Marcelo Escañuela; costume designer, Andrea Simonetti; film editor, Carolina Leone.
     A Petrobrás Cultural Programme presentation of a Dezenove Som e Imagens/Sara Silveira—Maria Ionescu production in co-production with Umedia, with financing from the Brazilian National Cinema Agency; with support from the Cultural Action Programme of the State Government of São Paulo Culture Secretariat; with the participation of Fonds Sud Cinéma, French National Centre for Cinema, French Ministries of Culture and Communication and Foreign and European Affairs. (Brazilian distributor, Warner Bros. Pictures Brazil. World sales, Umedia.)
     Screened: distributor advance DVD screener (Lisbon), September 11th 2011. 


Monday, September 26, 2011

XAVIER

Portugal
2002
94 minutes

"What if?..." is one of the central tenets of most narrative fiction. However, applied to what should have been estimable Portuguese director Manuel Mozos' debut theatrical feature, the possibilities of "what if" gain an entirely different understanding: "what if" Xavier had been finished and opened in due time? Because it didn't, and only a few films carry their production troubles with them like Xavier does: it was shot in 1991 but only completed eleven years later, by which time Mr. Mozos had already finished and premiered his second film, Quando Troveja. The story of Xavier Alves, a twenty-something aimlessly wandering through Lisbon looking for something to change in his life, was written for the poised presence of its lead Pedro Hestnes, and the fact that practically everything important that befalls him takes place off-screen is, more than a sign of production troubles, the theme itself of the picture: the passive stasis that even the simplest change in Xavier's life is unable to alter, as if he is fated to always be waiting for something to happen.

     Photographed by José António Loureiro with a deliberate, coloured artificiality that suggests a morality play about modern-day Portugal, the film seems to have waited as long as its hero for something to change. When the original producer ran out of money in 1991 on the very last day of shooting, with the final scenes yet to film, Xavier was shelved, waiting for the funds to come in to finish it. It was only in 2002 that veteran Paulo Rocha stepped in to finance all the post-production work (Mr. Mozos usually describes the film as "possible" rather than "definitive"). That explains the film's odd, halting rhythms but also its peculiar feeling of a time capsule that captures the moment it was made in, in ways that were probably unforeseen during the filming; a snapshot of a country still waiting, still unable to make the most of what it had - and also of a generation of actors that would mostly find their work on television in the following years, while Mr. Hestnes ended up retiring from acting.

     It's obvious that, had the picture been completed on schedule and released in the early 1990s, its portrait of a disenfranchised generation might have been received differently, though by then Portuguese films were facing dwindling public interest; as is, unavailable on DVD and seldom seen in the nearly ten years after its brief 2003 theatrical release, Xavier became one of the great lost films of a cinema that is sadly not short on them.

Starring Pedro Hestnes; Cristina Carvalhal, Sandra Faleiro, José Meireles, Canto e Castro, Isabel de Castro, Isabel Ruth, Rogério Samora, José Pedro Gomes, Alexandra Lencastre, David Cotter, Celeste Rodrigues; and with Manuela de Freitas.
     Directed by Manuel Mozos; produced by Paulo Rocha; written by Jorge Silva Melo, Mr. Mozos, Manuela Viegas; music by Mariana Ricardo; director of photography (colour, processing by Tóbis), José António Loureiro; art director, Jeanne Waltz; costume designer, Ms. Viegas; film editors, Mr. Mozos, Nuno Carvalho, Pedro Marques.
     A Paulo Rocha presentation of a Suma Filmes/Portuguese Radio Television co-production, with financial support from the Portuguese Institute for Film, Audiovisual and Multimedia. (Portuguese distributor, FBF Filmes.)
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Félix Ribeiro Theatre (Lisbon), September 22nd 2011. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.

USA
2011
118 minutes

It is fair to say that screenwriting team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's sophomore directing effort, after their much-talked-about I Love You Philip Morris, looks a lot like a studio assignment: handling a romantic comedy they did not write, masterminded by its producer/star Steve Carell. But it turns out that Crazy, Stupid, Love. is quite something else: though posing as a mosaic romantic comedy following three generations of Los Angeles resident's mishaps with the big L, this is in fact a bittersweet roundelay of people blindsided by the strength of feelings they can't quite explain.

     Hence, kind-hearted schlub Cal Weaver (Mr. Carell) is still in love with the insecure wife who just asked for a divorce out of the blue (Julianne Moore); smooth ladies' man Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling) finds himself madly in love with the one girl who resists him (Emma Stone); and Cal's tween son (Jonah Bobo) indulges in mad pining for his babysitting teenager neighbour (Analeigh Tipton) who is pining herself for an older man. Men, seemingly, are dumb when it comes down to love - but women aren't really any better as Dan Fogelman's perceptive script posits love as an equal-opportunity offender, regardless of age and sex.

     Messrs. Ficarra and Requa's film manages to respect the surface requirements of a romantic comedy (down to the pat ending that restores some semblance of normality to the events that came before), effortlessly crosscutting the various stories to reach a fine head of steam in a surprise reveal that ties together in the third act the several plot lines. Better yet, nearly every character comes across as a real person rather than just an archetype, with real issues and real feelings behind the glossy facade of Andrew Dunn's lensing, though the sheer amount of characters does mean some of them end up getting short shrift even at two hours' length. Mr. Carell confirms his spot-on choice of bittersweet material after The 40-Year Old Virgin and Dan in Real Life, gently underlining Cal's faults and his kindness. Marisa Tomei runs away with her two scenes as a sex-starved teacher who is one of Cal's attempts at one-night-stands, while Ms. Moore does the best she can with one the few underwritten parts in the film, but it's Mr. Gosling and Ms. Stone that effectively run off with the movie in their crackling back-and-forth.

     It is pretty much Mr. Gosling's film, actually - his smooth operator masking a desperate need to please and belong is a stunningly effortless performance that should propel him to Hollywood's major league. But there is a lot more to Crazy, Stupid, Love than just the acting - there's a pleasing, unpretentious quality to it, and the fact it never really shies away from the complexity of love stories is quite unusual coming from a major studio these days. Not a masterpiece, but certainly the best Hollywood romantic comedy in a long time - even if it isn't quite a romantic comedy.

Starring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Jonah Bobo, John Carroll Lynch, Analeigh Tipton, Josh Groban; with Marisa Tomei; and Kevin Bacon.
     Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; produced by mr. Carell, Denise di Novi; written by Dan Fogelman; music by Christophe Beck, Nick Urata; director of photography (colour, Panavision widescreen), Andrew Dunn; production designer, William Arnold; costume designer, Dayna Pink; film editor, Lee Haxall.
     A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Carousel/Di Novi Pictures production. (US distributor and world sales, Warner Bros. Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), September 16th 2011. 


Saturday, September 24, 2011

LOS OJOS DE JULIA

JULIA'S EYES


Spain
2010
117 minutes

Again co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, Los Ojos de Julia attemps to recreate the conditions that made Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage an international success: the same producers and most of the same crew, the same leading lady (the wondrous Belén Rueda), even the same premise of a distressed woman haunted by inexplicable events no one else but her witnesses. Yet director and co-writer Guillem Morales steers his sophomore feature away from a supernatural mystery into a smartly handled update of the Italian shockers known as giallo, only one bled of all garish colour, as befits the story of a woman slowly going blind.

     Mr Morales structures the film as a game of two halves. In the first, he builds a crime thriller around astronomer Julia (Ms Rueda) as she learns of the apparent suicide of her sister, gone blind from the incurable, progressive eye disease passed on to both women, and investigates the circumstances much to the displeasure of her psychiatrist husband Isaac (the ever reliable Lluís Homar). The events lead her own sight to deteriorate to the point she must undergo an eye transplant to restore her vision, and in the second half Julia is now effectively "in the dark" while recovering from the surgery. This is where the film switches gears into a psychological two-hander that puts the viewer in the disorienting footsteps of Julia herself, as she learns to navigate her condition with the help of kind home nurse Iván (Pablo Derqui).

     The director takes great pains to keep us as much in the dark as her, though it's fairly obvious to genre connoisseurs that something is not quite right; there is nothing original either in the premise or in the scripting, with a couple of hoary reversals thrown in for good measure throughout, but Mr Morales' flawless execution effectively removes all objections to the steady deployment of genre tropes. Especially significant are his quiet control of rhythm and tempo - though the film seems overlong by at least 20 minutes, that is also because the director grounds the narrative arc around his characters rather than the need to build regular shocks. Unlikely as it may be, Los Ojos de Julia is in fact a hyper-romantic story about people who are desperately in need of love and comfort in an increasingly cruel world, as seen in Ms Rueda's note-perfect portrayal of Julia as a devastated woman whose world changed in a heartbeat, through no fault of hers, into a living nightmare - all out of love for her estranged sister and for her long-suffering husband. And the blustering, Grand-Guignol final 20 minutes, handled with brio and conviction, actually make clear just how much of an emotional, romantic story the film is.

Starring Belén Rueda, Lluís Homar, Pablo Derqui, Francesc Orella, Joan Dalmau; and with Julia Gutiérrez Caba.
     Directed by Guillem Morales; produced by Joaquín Padró, Mar Targarona, Guillermo del Toro, Mercedes Gamero; written by mr. Morales, Oriol Paulo; music by Fernando Velázquez; director of photography (colour, processing by Image Film), Óscar Faura; art director, Balter Gallart; costume designer, María Reyes; film editor, Joan Manel Vilaseca.
     A Universal Pictures International/Guillermo del Toro presentation of a Rodar y Rodar production, in co-production with Antena 3 Films; in associate production with Televisió de Catalunya; with the participation of Mesfilms, Canal Plus, Universal Pictures International, Antena 3; with the collaboration of the Spanish Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual Arts, Catalan Institute for Cultural Industries, Catalan Films & TV; with financing from the Spanish Official Credit Institute, MEDIA Programme. (Spanish distributor, Universal Pictures. World sales, Planeta.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), September 12th 2011.

Friday, September 23, 2011

TROLLJEGEREN

TROLL HUNTER


Norway
2010
103 minutes

The greatest disservice that can be done to André Øvredal's deceptively entertaining debut feature is to neatly file it as a novelty genre item, next to all the other fake documentary horror thrillers spawned by The Blair Witch Project. It may be unavoidable, as Troll Hunter does work within those very narrow perimeters of the "unearthed footage" shot by a now-disappeared crew of college students; but what the Norwegian helmer does within those parameters plays up as much as it deflates standard genre tropes, on its way to a heroic attempt to snatch them back from the standard-issue formula that's been overused lately.

     Mr Øvredal does it by downplaying the outlandish quirkiness of a premise that sees the mythical Scandinavian trolls gain actual existence as a living animal: the bear attacks that have randomly plagued the Norwegian countryside are actually troll episodes, and the secretive poacher the crew latches on is in fact a state-sanctioned "troll hunter".

    As portrayed by comedian Otto Jespersen in a performance of surprising depth, Hans is ex-military, has spent far too much time on the trail of trolls and is tired of his lonesome life, particularly when up against his petty bureaucrat of a boss (the spot-on Hans Morten Hansen); it's a fully rounded character and a superb performance, and it tips the film from lo-fi thriller into an insightful drama of disappointment and disillusion - and that is par for the course for this constantly surprising production.

     Troll Hunter does seem to sag and lag for long stretches but that is actually part and parcel of its jack-in-the-box approach to narrative construction, presenting one predictable fork on the plot road ahead only to reveal it as a decoy that masks the actual direction the film takes. It becomes, by turns and sometimes all at the same time, a wry comedy of modern society, a moving portrait of a lonely man, a deadpan satire of bureaucracy and politics, and a thrilling monster movie, without ever alighting for long enough in any of these places to risk being tagged as just one thing.

    Not perfect by any means - the student crew is an underdeveloped series of stock genre characters, and are overshadowed at every turn by Messrs Jespersen and Hansen - it is nevertheless a dazzlingly inventive enterprise, one that is technically impressive (the CGI visual effects perfectly melding with the convincingly shaky handheld visuals) and unexpectedly moving. Troll Hunter fully deserves to be discovered as more than just the genre item most people will dismiss it as.

Starring Otto Jespersen; Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck, Tomas Alf Larsen, Urmila Berg-Domaas; Hans Morten Hansen; Robert Stoltenberg; Knut Nærum.
     Directed by André Øvredal; produced by John M. Jacobsen, Sveinung Golimo; written by André Øvredal with the collaboration of Håvard S. Johansen; director of photography (colour, processing by Nordisk Film Short Cut), Hallvard Bræin; production designer, Martin Gant; costume designer, Stina Lunde; film editor, Per Erik Eriksen; visual effects producer, Marcus Brodersen; visual effects supervisor, Øystein Larsen.
     A Filmkameratene production, in association with Filmfondet Fuzz and Svensk Filmindustri Norge, with support from the Norwegian Film Institute and Sogn og Fjundane City Hall. (Norwegian distributor, Svensk Filmindustri Norge. World sales, Svensk Filmindustri.)
     Screened: MOTELx official opening screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), September 7th 2011. 


Thursday, September 22, 2011

A MORTE DE CARLOS GARDEL

Portugal
2011
85 minutes

For her first feature in eight years, director Solveig Nordlund adapts a 1994 novel from acclaimed (and difficult-to-adapt) writer António Lobo Antunes. Usually more at ease with strong book material (as per her sympathetic 2002 adaptation of J. G. Ballard's Low Flying Aircraft) than with original scripts, A Morte de Carlos Gardel is a welcome return to form for the Swedish-born director after the disappointment of 2003's A Filha.

     Taking as its central strand the coma of twenty-something drug addict Nuno, the film floats between three different timelines without ever losing its narrative thread nor the viewer in what is essentially a requiem for a broken family that never really fit together. The true heart of A Morte de Carlos Gardel lies in the way ms. Nordlund actually describes the sense of lives wasted – both Nuno's, an avowed drug addict who admits he isn't planning to do anything with his life, and his family's, always looking back to an idealised past as a refuge from a disappointing present.

     The story moves back and forth between Nuno's troubled childhood as the son of divorced parents, the earlier awkward courtship between his egotistical father Álvaro and the foreigner Cláudia, and the present where the family realises, as the son slips away in his hospital bed, how irretrievably beyond repair their relationships are. There is nothing particularly outstanding in any of the many separate elements, but it's to the writer/director's credit that the film is more than just the sum of its parts, mostly thanks to a very steady hand with rhythm and especially with the actors. In a very solid cast (with the exceptions of Elmano Sancho, too rigid as the younger Álvaro, and mr. Malvarez, whose fecklessness as the adult Nuno is more shallow than heartfelt), honours must go to the usually reliable Rui Morisson in a career-best performance as the selfish but heartbroken present-day Álvaro.

Starring Rui Morisson, Teresa Gafeira, Celia Williams, Carlos Malvarez, Miguel Mestre, Joana de Verona, Elmano Sancho, Ida Holten Worsøe, Albano Jerónimo, Maria João Pinho; and Ruy de Carvalho.
     Directed by Solveig Nordlund; produced by Luís Galvão Teles and Gonçalo Galvão Teles; screenplay by ms. Nordlund, based on the novel by António Lobo Antunes, The Death of Carlos Gardel; music by Pedro Marques; director of photography (colour), Acácio de Almeida; art director, Ana Paula Rocha; film editor, Paulo Milhomens.
     A Fado Filmes presentation/production, with financial support from the Portuguese Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual, Portuguese Ministry of Culture and Radio and Television of Portugal. (Portuguese distributor, Zon Lusomundo Audiovisuais. World sales, Fado Filmes.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), August 10th 2011.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

Spain/USA
2011
93 minutes

It's been a long while since any Woody Allen film has captivated audiences as much as Midnight in Paris: it's his biggest US box-office hit ever and one of his best-received recent films worldwide. The latest stopover in an ongoing European tour started in London in 2005 with Match Point that has since been to Barcelona (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and will next land in Rome (The Bop Decameron, currently in post-production), this Paris fantasy is also mr. Allen's best picture since that first London-set film. It isn't difficult to see that its whimsical premise is the reason that grasped people's attentions: an American writer holidaying in Paris with his fiancee (Owen Wilson as the latest Allen surrogate and Rachel McAdams) is magically, inexplically transported to the 1920s "golden age" of artistic bohemia, meeting Ernest Hemingway (a career-making turn by Corey Stoll), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) or Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and learning important life lessons from them in the process.

     Hardcore Allenians will recognise the tale as a variation on some of his absurdist short stories and sketches of the 1960s and 1970s, or on the earlier whimsy of The Purple Rose of Cairo. But what is noteworthy is that the bitterness and cynicism that has percolated through mr. Allen's films since Celebrity has given way to a serene acceptance of life's setbacks and pleasures, in a glamorous love letter to the French capital that plays freely with its picture-postcard fascination for the city, all the better to dismantle the illusions of the golden past it projects while taking cheap but undeniably amusing potshots to his favourite targets (ignorance, pedantry, the right-wing). The central idea of the film is that the past is never what we believe it to be - a warning about cheap and easy nostalgia, and a point made simultaneously to himself (who continues to soundtrack his films exclusively with the same type of 1920s jazz that he himself plays weekly) and to all those who have been quick to denounce him as a director well past his prime.

     Nevertheless, Midnight in Paris is in fact a much smarter and accomplished film than most of his recent output, recapturing many of the charms of the lovely Paris-set Everyone Says I Love You and showing Match Point wasn't a one-off. There's still life in the old man yet. 

Starring Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody, Carla Bruni, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Owen Wilson.
     Directed and written by Woody Allen; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Jaume Roures; director of photography (colour, processing by Quinta Industries, digital intermediate by Technicolor), Darius Khondji; production designer, Anne Sobel; costume designer, Sonia Grande; film editor, Alisa Lepselter.
     A Mediapro/Versátil Cinema/Gravier Productions presentation of a Pontchartrain production; in collaboration with Televisió de Catalunya; with support from the Spanish Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual Arts and the Catalan Institute for Cultural Industries. (World sales, Imagina International Sales. US distributor, Sony Pictures Classics.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo screening room (Lisbon), September 6th 2011. 


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TEMPOS DIFÍCEIS

Portugal/United Kingdom
1988
95 minutes

It's not the most obvious decision to update Charles Dickens' 1854 novel Hard Times to mid-1980s Portugal, then shoot it in chiaroscuro black-and-white as a highly stylized morality play. Yet that was exactly what Portuguese director João Botelho did for his third feature, confirming him as one of the most intriguing and idiossyncratic filmmakers revealed in that key decade. Giving free rein simultaneously to his highest aesthetic ambitions and to a dry, deadpan wit that would come to the fore in later (and less successful) works, mr. Botelho adapts mr. Dickens' tale of a fictional industrial town to a modern-day Portugal still getting back on its feet after a fifty-year totalitarian regime. At the same time, he strips the story of any precise temporal settings, so that it can also function as an allegory of the growing pains of a country moving into large-scale manufacturing at any time during the 20th century.

     Centred around the purely utilitarian friendship between two martinets, benefactor Tomaz Cremalheira (Ruy Furtado) and self-made-industrialist José Grandela (Henrique Viana), and the arranged marriage of the latter with the former's much younger daughter Luísa (Julia Britton), the film develops in a mesmerising series of stately, austere monochrome tableaux that often remind of classic silents. António Pinho Vargas' melodious score and Elso Roque's breathtaking camerawork underline the stylish melancholy of the film, constantly subverted and simultaneously heightened by the small cruelties that all the wealthy characters perform on their unlucky underlings; the film's attention to the divide between rich and poor, thought in the throes of disappearance when it was made in 1988, makes it seem clearly prescient seen 25 years on. A more perfect mastery of style and substance was not to be found again in mr. Botelho's work, and Tempos Difíceis remains one of the high points of his career, even if a little seen one.

Starring Henrique Viana, Julia Britton, Eunice Muñoz, Ruy Furtado, Isabel de Castro, Joaquim Mendes, Isabel Ruth, Lia Gama, Inês Medeiros, Luís Estrela, Pedro Cabrita Reis, Maria Alice Pereira, Pedro Hestnes, Maria José Oliveira, Beatriz Moreno, Vasco Letria, Pedro Dias Macedo, António Peixoto, Fernando Cabral Martins, António Sequeira Lopes, António Salgueiro, Dinis Neto Jorge, Francisco Nascimento, Francisco Botelho, António Botelho, Mónica Lopes, Maria Rosa Pereira, Armanda Cardoso, José Paiva, Helder Rainha, Manuel Paiva, Luís Lucas.
     Directed, produced and edited by João Botelho; screenplay by mr. Botelho, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, Hard Times; music by António Pinho Vargas; director of photography (b&w), Elso Roque; production designer, Luís Monteiro; wardrobe, Virgílio Leitão, Jasmim de Matos, Paula Ferreira, Nadia Baggioli, José Faria. 
     A João Botelho/Artificial Eye Productions presentation/production, with financial support from the Portuguese Film Institute, Portuguese Television and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. (Portuguese distributor, Filmes Lusomundo.)
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Félix Ribeiro Theatre (Lisbon), September 8th 2011. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

THE WARD

USA
2010
89 minutes

It's no secret times are tough for veteran film directors unwilling to fit into Hollywood's current blockbuster mentality - and that is why John Carpenter withdrew from feature filmmaking after the poor reception awarded 2001's Ghosts of Mars. His nearly ten-year sabbatical broken by his two contributions to the Masters of Horror TV series, mr. Carpenter decided to try his luck further by taking on an "assignment" - a low-budget feature he neither wrote nor scored.

     And while the lukewarm response granted to The Ward certainly confirms times remain tough for off-Hollywood veterans, mr. Carpenter has certainly lost none of his verve and zest, even while handling a derivative script that reminds me simultaneously of two very different recent films. One is James Mangold's 2003 thriller Identity - people brought together in an isolated location begin to disappear one by one without a trace; the other is Zack Snyder's 2011 box-office misfire Sucker Punch, with five female madhouse inmates banding together to survive. The references are certainly coincidental (The Ward was finished before Sucker Punch, even though it opened after it in the US), but are indeed a bit too close for comfort.

     The ward of the title is a security area in an Oregon psychiatric hospital where Amber Heard's arsonist Kristen is sent to in the mid-sixties to undergo some sort of experimental psychiatric therapy under dr. Stringer (an appropriately ambiguous Jared Harris). The ward is shared with four other girls also being treated the same way - all of them hiding a secret Kristen is seemingly unable to pry out until mysterious supernatural events intrude.

     Mr. Carpenter's hand is comfortingly all over The Ward. First, in his trademark roaming steadycam pans through the dark corridors of the hospital; then, in the leisurely, steady hand with which he lets the plot unspool, his shrewd direction of the all-female cast (giving sturdier performances than is usual in this sort of genre item). Above all, it is visible in the way he almost imperceptibly revs up the action to make the viewer dismiss the basic implausibilities involved, creating a full head of steam that raises the film above the hokum it would be in a less experienced pair of hands. The Ward may not be a vintage Carpenter, but since all involved treat this piece of genre with respect and dignity, the result is a solidly crafted thriller that harkens back to the golden age of B-filmmaking. Mr. Carpenter has certainly lost none of his considerable talents - he just needs to find material more worthy of it.

Starring Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mika Boorem; and Jared Harris.
     Directed by John Carpenter; produced by Doug Mankoff, Peter Block, Mike Marcus, Andrew Spaulding; written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen; music by Mark Kilian; director of photography (colour, processing by Alpha Cine Labs and Deluxe, widescreen), Yaron Orbach; production designer, Paul Peters; costume designer, Lisa Caryl; film editor, Patrick McMahon; special make-up effects, Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger.
     A Filmnation Entertainment presentation, in association with Premiere Picture, of an Echo Lake Entertainment production in association with A Bigger Boat. (US distributor, ARC Entertainment. World sales, Filmnation Entertainment.)
     Screened: MOTELx Festival - Serviço de Quarto official screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), September 7th 2011.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

DIE LIEBESBRIEFE EINER PORTUGIESISCHEN NONNE

LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN


Germany
1977
94 minutes

The true test of a trashy exploitation movie lies in whether its title makes any sense compared to the plot. If it doesn't, you're good to go – and this mid-seventies effort from Spanish schlockmeister Jesús Franco, shot in handsome Portuguese locations for a German producer, is so gloriously unrelated to its title and source material that it beggars belief how anyone could take this for what it so obviously isn't.

     Though the title is drawn from the allegedly real-life correspondence between a 17th-century Portuguese nun and the French officer who promised to rescue her from her seclusion, mr. Franco and his German producer Erwin Dietrich, scripting under the alias “Manfred Gregor”, go for an all-out orgy of softcore depravity and mild Satanism in their reworking of the plot. Mariana Alcoforado becomes Maria Rosália (Susan Hemingway), an innocent peasant girl whose virginal beauty is coveted by the lecherous Father Vicente (William Berger), who succeeds in locking her up in the isolated convent where he is a confessor – a mere facade for a coven of satanic nuns devoted to the pleasures of the flesh.

     No prizes for guessing that mr. Franco and his crew go for soft-core titillation: naked female bodies with sweat and blood running over them writhing in unholy lesbian embraces, inverted crucifixes and thorny punishments. The script, a mechanical variation on the classic “let's make Susan believe she's mad” conspiracy, serves merely as a line on which to hang the various lustful setpieces, with a resolution so rushed and ill-thought that it seems to have been written in a hurry just to give the film the requisite happy ending.

     Still, Love Letters from a Portuguese Nun looks positively and surprisingly handsome, with crisp colour photography from DP Peter Baumgartner making the most from the stately locations and a couple of stylish stylistic flourishes that confirm mr. Franco as a better filmmaker than most people tend to give him credit for. Mention should also go to the unexpectedly solid performances from the cast, ably led by ms. Hemingway, whose innocence perfectly matches her character's, and especially Ana Zanatti as the villainous, satanic Mother Superior.

Starring Susan Hemingway, William Berger; Herbert Fux, Aida Vargas, Ana Zanatti, Vítor Mendes, Hermann Krippahl, Isa Schneider, José Viana, Patrícia da Silva.
     Directed by Jess Franco; written by Manfred Gregor, Christine Lembach; music by Walter Baumgartner; director of photography (colour), Peter Baumgartner; film editor, Marie-Louise Buschke.
     An Avis/Ascot release of a Cinemec Zweite Filmproduktions/Ascot Film production. (World sales, Elite Film.)
     Screened: MOTELx DVD screener, Lisbon, September 4th 2011. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

RUBBER

France
2010
81 minutes


It's pointless to search for a rhyme or a reason in French techno musician Quentin Dupieux's third feature: Rubber isn't a conventional story, but a bewilderingly inventive exercise in audiovisual deconstruction, using the tropes of exploitation horror movies and the distancing techniques of mise-en-abyme to create a sort of arthouse funfair – a thinking man's horror movie whose nonsensical premise deflates any attempt at seriousness, only for the film itself to go all serious on us. 

     Rubber develops as an absurdist film-within-a-film about the exploits of a psychopathic, telekinetic, murderous tire, named in the end credits as “Robert”, that goes on a rampage for no good reason (as so many good exploitation-film villains). Mr Dupieux then pulls back to reveal an audience following the action in real time in the Californian desert, waiting for the tire to put on a “show” that takes its sweet time in happening. This audience, seriously mistreated by the event's absent producers (represented by a weaselly office drone identified in the credits only as “the accountant”) is also the raison d'être of the adventure of “Robert” itself – the story finds itself forced to continue for as long as there's one single audience member still standing, still wanting his money's worth of entertainment, painting a peculiar portrait of the uneasy connection between artist and audience, creation and reception: just how much of the piece is created by its author and how much by its audience? 

     Mr. Dupieux tries too hard to have his cake and eat it too; the film aims simultaneously for an absurdist homage to exploitation movies and a critique of narrative fiction, taking the pivotal “suspension of disbelief” to its absurd if logical limits, but despite the many clever conceits and surprise developments, the premise is not developed creatively enough to withstand feature length. Still, the dazzling combination of 1970s exploitation film's solar, burnt-out colours and the recursive metafictions of the French nouveau roman makes for a challenging, entertaining object that aims squarely for cult movie status. 


Starring Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick; with Wings Hauser; and Roxane Mesquida.
     Directed, written, photographed (in colour) and edited by Quentin Dupieux; produced by Julien Berlan, Gregory Bernard; music by Gaspard Augé and Mr. Oizo (mr. Dupieux); production designer, Pascale Ingrand; costume designer, Jamie Bresnan; special visual effects, Tom Talmon, Zach Bargne, Valek X. Sykes, Barzoff #14, Malakoff Studios. 
     A Gregory Bernard presentation of a Realitism Films production, in co-production with Elle Driver, ARTE France Cinéma, 1.85 Films, Rubber Films, Sindako Dokola, Backup Films; with the participation of Canal Plus, ARTE France; in association with Orange Sky. (French distributor, UFO Distribution. World sales, Elle Driver.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia King 1 (Lisbon), September 1st 2011. 

Friday, September 09, 2011

CISNE

SWAN


Portugal
2011
102 minutes

Cisne is probably the greatest leap of faith in Portuguese arthouse mainstay Teresa Villaverde's leisurely career; only her sixth feature in twenty years, this was entirely self-produced with a minimal budget, which is probably appropriate for this most oblique of dramas about Vera (Beatriz Batarda), a night-owl singer who returns home in search of herself and finds more than she bargained for in both the musician she is madly in love with (Israel Pimenta) and the infatuted orphan she takes as her valet (Miguel Nunes).

     Ms. Villaverde's intensely personal, free-floatingly heightened universe finds the perfect interpreter in ms. Batarda, whose haunting performance as Vera seems to find some sort of shamanic communion with her director. Ms. Villaverde is known for drawing superlative performances from her female leads, but never in the previous five features has an actress achieved such a degree of empathy with both character and director, suggesting that Cisne is probably a lot more personal, maybe even cathartic, than even she realises. At the same time, the director's recurrent interest in endangered children and lost innocence – brought centre stage in 1998's Os Mutantes but present throughout her entire oeuvre – shows up awkwardly in a vaguely paedophile subplot that seems either tacked on to make an unrelated point or a remnant of an earlier script draft left for sentimental reasons; it's too present to be one of her trademark poetic digressions, but too slight to fit into the loosely structured portrait of a woman who unwittingly finds herself on the road to happiness.

     And, really, that is what Cisne is – an intermittently glorious, always intriguing portrait of a woman, sensitively if starkly handled and outstandingly performed by a superb actress. Altogether that's more than most arthouse films can claim these days, even if ms. Villaverde hasn't yet created the masterpiece she has been tantalising us with.

Starring Beatriz Batarda; Miguel Nunes, Israel Pimenta, Sérgio Fernandes, Tânia Paiva.
     Directed, produced and written by Teresa Villaverde; director of photography (colour, processing by Tobis Portuguesa), Acácio de Almeida; production designer, Zé Branco; costume designer, Sílvia Grabowski; film editor, Andrée Davanture.
     An Alce Filmes presentation/production, with the financial support from the Portuguese Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Lisbon City Hall. (Portuguese distributor and world sales, Alce Filmes.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 2 (Lisbon), August 30th 2011. 

Thursday, September 08, 2011

LA NOSTRA VITA

Italy/France
2010
101 minutes


Contemporary Italian cinema remains thoroughly haunted by its post-WWII “golden era” of comedy, melodrama and auteur film, an era lost in a speedy decadence from which national cinema has taken quite a lot of time to get back up on its two feet. The mere presence of said haunting is enough to stunt any honest attempts at putting a little bit of order in the house. 

     This is where La Nostra Vita comes in, as Daniele Luchetti's controlled melodrama of quiet working-class tragedies and victories manages to update those early classics without surrendering to soggy clichés, effete aesthetics or small-screen convention. A mainstream veteran, mr. Luchetti injects instead a strong sense of edginess by shooting mostly handheld and focussing his camera on the faces of its cast, giving the film the feel and rhythms of a ride-along through the life of Roman builder Claudio (Elio Germano). Heartbroken after his wife unexpectedly dies in childbirth, Claudio is left with three young children to take care of and decides to work himself hard to make money to give them a better life. 

     Scripted by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli (current go-to guys for well-crafted melodrama since Marco Tullio Giordana's superb La Meglia Gioventù), La Nostra Vita does suffer from some by-the-book, rote narrative choices. But they are transfigured by mr. Luchetti's smart handling, always attentive to the stellar work of an ensemble cast that does wonders with what little they're given (no need to go further than Stefania Montorsi, whose couple of scenes say all that needs to be said about Claudio's sister). The key player, here, is Elio Germano, whose indelible performance as Claudio earned him best actor at Cannes 2010 and is a stunning show of strength that anchors the entire movie, never falling into the histrionics that might lure a lesser actor, returning mr. Luchetti's unflinching gaze with equal steeliness. Impressively dry and smart, it's a solid example of how classic genre tropes can be updated for our days.   


Starring Elio Germano, Raoul Bova, Isabella Ragonese, Luca Zingaretti, Stefania Montorsi, Giorgio Colangeli, Alina Madalina Berzunteanu, Marius Ignat, Ahmed Hafiene, Awa Ly, Emiliano Campagnola.
     Directed by Daniele Luchetti; produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz; written by Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli, mr. Luchetti; music by Franco Piersanti; director of photography (processing by Technicolor), Claudio Collepiccolo; production designer, Giancarlo Basili; costume designer, Maria Rita Barbera; film editor, Mirco Garrone.
     A Cattleya/Raicinema presentation of a Cattleya production in co-production with Babe Films, in collaboration with Raicinema, with the support of the Office for Cinema of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Goods and Activities. (Italian distributor, 01 Distribution. World sales, Celluloid Dreams.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), August 29th 2011. 

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

ZEMLYA

USSR
1930
87 minutes


Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko's silent-era paean to agricultural progress has gone down in film history as one of the all-time great movies – and no wonder. Its by now timeworn but then positively modern imagery of rolling wheat plains under wide open skies and backlighted square-jawed brave peasants, or its skill in the assemblage of said imagery to make a point both simultaneously narrative and ideological would be enough, but there's also an unusually nuanced approach to politics in it – which is the reason Earth most often confused the Party whose exploits the film supposedly sings. 

     At heart a propaganda piece in favor of the collective exploitation of the Ukrainian agricultural fields, under the guise of a class drama pitting the poor tenant farmers against the land-owning “kulaks”, the film takes its sweet time in getting there. Mr. Dovzhenko, directing, writing and editing, much prefers to place nature and its rhythms at the forefront, treating its characters as mere archetypes who draw their wisdom and reason from those ancestral habits marked by the roll of the seasons. Despite the final message of the “singing tomorrows”, with the entire village's youngsters singing at slain tenant Vassili's funeral, or the rousing scenes of the newly-acquired village machines toiling the fields, it's very clear that progress is there to heighten and serve nature, a new way of making sure its rhythms remain eternal.
  

Starring Stephan Shkupat, Semion Svashenko, Yulia Solntseva, Elena Maximova, Nikolai Nademsky, Ivan Franko, Piotr Masokha, Vladimir Mikhailov, Pavel Petrik, P. Umanets, Elena Bondina, P. Pyashenko. 
     Directed, written and edited by Alexander Dovzhenko; director of photography (b&w), Daniel Demutsky; art director, Vassili Krichevsky. 
      A VUFKU (All-Ukrainian Photo & Cinema Administration) presentation/production.
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Luís de Pina screen (Lisbon), September 3rd 2011. 

Sunday, September 04, 2011

LA RAGAZZA CHE SAPEVA TROPPO

THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH
US recut version title: EVIL EYE


Italy
1963
90 minutes (original Italian version)
92 minutes (US recut version)


There is a supreme irony in finding that the film generally regarded as the foundation stone of giallo, Italy's garish, trashy thrillers of the 1960s and 70s forever identified with Dario Argento or Mario Bava, was actually shot... in black and white. Otherwise, though, all of the genre's conventions are present and correct in the what is an exemplary model of giallo at its best: a slightly preposterous premise that pushes a classic mystery plot to its limits into slightly supernatural, oneiric territories, shot with a glorious sense of style as a titillating thrill ride aiming at keeping the viewer on the edge of their seats. 

     Though directed by one of the genre's master stylists, Mr. Bava, La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo is actually much more demure and chaste than later genre entries: it is the tale of an American tourist (Letícia Román) in a Rome holiday crying wolf after a series of unnerving brushes with crime, with everyone around her thinking her experiences are the product of a hyper-active imagination fed on murder mysteries. Obviously it's nothing of the sort, even though the screenwriting committee usual on Italian films (six credited writers) makes it very clear that story takes a backseat to the prodigiously stylish visuals, overlooking the plot's basic but really rather charming implausibilities. Mr. Bava's effortless mastery of space and setup always leads the viewer precisely where he needs to be, the elegance of his compositions allowing for a teasing series of witty visual gags that underline the film's double duty as a romantic comedy (John Saxon playing the bumbling suitor who is the only person to believe there's something to Nora's experiences than meets the eye). 

     One of a series of Italian productions bought by the celebrated American International Pictures for US release, this ended up being distributed in many countries in an English-spoken version retitled Evil Eye, with a new score by Les Baxter (no Morricone he, but with some inspired moments) and a series of trims and inserts that resulted in a more lightly comedic touch to the film. The print caught at this particular screening was a period release print of the American version.  

Starring John Saxon and Letícia Román; with Valentina Cortese; and Dante di Paolo.
     Directed and photographed (black & white) by Mario Bava; written by Ennio de Concini, Enzo Corbucci, Eliana de Sabatar, with the collaboration of Mino Guerrini, Franco Prosperi, Mario Bava; music by Roberto Nicolosi (original Italian version), Les Baxter (US version); production designer, Giorgio Giovannini; costume designer, Tina Loriedo Grani; film editor, Mario Serandrei.
     An American International Pictures release; a James H. Nicholson/Samuel Z. Arkoff presentation of a Galatea/Coronet production. (Italian distributor, Warner Bros.) 
     US version screened at Cinemateca Portuguesa - Dr. Luís de Pina screen, Lisbon, September 1st 2011.

 Trailer for the US version:

 Trailer for the original Italian version:

Thursday, September 01, 2011

BEGINNERS

USA
2010
104 minutes

There has to be something wrong with a film that is literally stolen by a cuddly Jack Russell terrier that speaks in subtitles. Yet that is probably by design rather than by default, since Mike Mills' second feature is a deliberately off-centre attempt at autobiographical therapy. Set in 2003, mr. Mills' amiably emotional film, punctuated by deliberately scrambled chronology and regular pop culture history interludes, has graphic artist Oliver (Ewan McGregor) dealing with the coming out of his 75-year-old widowed father (Christopher Plummer) as gay, and then, three years later, falling in love with a charming French actress (Mélanie Laurent) while still mourning his father's death from cancer.

     What is so good about Beginners is mr. Mills' ease with his actors, and the way he harnesses his deceptively easy-going, shapeless handling to bring to life the small details that turn out to be the key moments of happiness in our own lives. This results in a series of affecting, emotionally spot-on moments as Oliver, perfectly portrayed by mr. McGregor as bewildered and overcome by all that surrounds him, learns to deal with his father's disease and his own failings. The price to pay for that is a general lack of structural focus and an odd, disjointed rhythm, making the film more of a slow-burn series of details accreting on top of each other rather than a cohesive narrative.

     It should be underlined how personal the film is to its writer/director – the father/son plot is directly based on mr. Mills' real life experiences with his own father, while the love story is entirely fictional. But while it certainly explains how spot-on the film is emotionally, you can't help but wish it could stand up as well narratively, its emotional drive overcoming everything else to exclusion.

Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent; Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos.
     Directed and written by Mike Mills; produced by Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech, Miranda de Pencier, Jay van Hoy, Lars Knudsen; music by Roger Neill, David Palmer, Brian Reitzell; director of photography (colour by Offhollywood), Kasper Tuxen; production designer, Shane Valentino; costume designer, Jennifer Johnson; film editor, Olivier Bugge Coutte. 
     A Focus Features/Olympus Pictures presentation/production, in association with Parts & Labor. (US distributor, Focus Features. World sales, Focus Features International.) 
     Screened: distributor private screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), June 21st 2011.