Monday, October 31, 2011

A ARCA DO ÉDEN

EDEN'S ARK


Portugal/Italy
2011
80 minutes

The first few minutes of A Arca do Éden make you fear the worst: consisting mainly of a reasonably lengthy shot of a camera being set up and focusing on a tree in a garden, they suggest we may be about to enter the rarefied area of experimental cinema. But once these initial moments pass, though, Marcelo Félix's thoughtful debut slowly unfolds its ambition as a sort of film essay or tone poem on memory and forgetting, alternatingly reminding the viewer of the works of directors as different as Werner Herzog, Sandro Aguilar, José Luis Guerín or Christoph Hochhäusler.

     Isabel Machado's enveloping voiceover initially narrates the fictional tale of a ship escaping some sort of cataclysm, carrying inside one specimen each of all the world's plant species - a narrative that, revealed as such at one point, is used as a springboard to create an interlinked series of meditations about the persistence of memory, the importance of history and the structure of remembrance and forgetting, drawing on real-life places and situations such as the genetic seed archive in Svalbård or the discovery of an original copy of Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc in the ruins of an Oslo psychiatric hospital.

     But while Mr. Félix's aim and methodology may seem both high-minded and ponderous, the film is anything but: it's constructed very carefully as a sort of metaphysical mystery bent on seducing its viewers into going along with the questions it asks. It doesn't offer any proper answers of its own, and that didn't seem to be the original aim anyway; it is to the director's credit that the myriad source materials (period and archival footage, both real and false, as well as a number of purposefully-shot images), influences and concepts are seamlessly integrated into one hypnotic, comfortable whole, set at just the right length. It is unlikely that A Arca do Éden will receive a full-fledged theatrical release - it seems tailor-made for the festival and arthouse circuit - but it's a surprising and very rewarding debut.

Narrated by Isabel Machado.
     Directed, written and edited by Marcelo Félix; produced by Christine Reeh, Isabel Machado, Joana Ferreira; camera (colour), Miguel Amaral; sound design and editing, Ricardo Sequeira.
     A CRIM production, in co-production with Refinaria Filmes and Kine' - Home Movies, with funding from the Portuguese Culture Ministry/Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual and Radio and Television of Portugal.
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance screener, Lisbon, October 20th 2011. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

GANGSTERLÄUFER

GANGSTER RUNNER


Germany
2011
89 minutes

German director Christian Stahl's debut feature can be seen as a real-life variation on Jacques Audiard's acclaimed prison drama Un Prophète - like that film, Gangsterläufer follows the awakening of a small-time Arab criminal in prison. But unlike Mr. Audiard's hero, Yehya el Achmed does not get out of his three-year jail sentence transformed into a mob godfather: instead, he finds himself facing the very real possibility of expulsion to the land of his father. Yehya is one of the many wannabe gangsters of Berlin's notorious Neukölln area, son of hard-working but rootless Palestinian-Lebanese immigrants whose life was upended by the Lebanese war of the 1930s and found refuge in Germany.

     Mr. Stahl's feature begins as an attempt to understand what would draw such a personable young man - a neighbour of his in the Sonnenallee section of Neukölln - to a life of crime, and soon expands its view to take in his immediate family - two young brothers who seem ready and willing to follow in his footsteps, a kid sister bewildered by all the events, a law-abiding father who does not understand why his children drifted into lawlessness. Gangsterläufer avoids any easy answers, and in fact doesn't really solve or settle the question on what will happen to Yehya from now on; there is the feeling that Mr. Stahl's somewhat unfocused handling, his sense of not quite knowing where the project will take him, wastes part of what is so good about his long-term all-access footage. But at the same time, thouse doubts are also part of the charm of this piece, explaining its spontaneity and warmth as it ends up looking over a period of time into the El Achmed family dynamics. That more than makes up for some ill-advised choices, such as the widescreened, colourful interludes of youths running parkour in Neukölln, whose adrenaline may unwittingly glamourise the criminal lifestyle. Regardless, Gangsterläufer is a promising debut that asks some important questions.

Directed and written by Christian Stahl; produced by Andrea Ufer; music by Tilmann Dehnhard; camera (colour), Ralf Ilgenfritz; sound, Matthias Kreitschmann; film editors, Johannes Fritsche, Gines Olivares.
     A Hanfgarn & Ufer Filmproduktion production, in co-production with RBB and ZDF/Das kleine Fernsehspiel, in collaboration with ARTE, with funding from Filmförderungsanstalt.
     Screened: DocLisboa 2001 advance screener, Lisbon, October 19th 2011. 



Saturday, October 29, 2011

CARTAS DE ANGOLA

Portugal/Angola
2011
64 minutes

There is a good film hidden somewhere in Dulce Fernandes' middlingly infuriating hour-long debut Cartas de Angola, but it seems as if the director didn't quite know how to get there. The core of the piece is an intriguing, little-known nugget of information from the Angolan independence wars: after the 1974 Portuguese revolution that put an end to the country's rule over its African colonies, Cuban soldiers and doctors were sent to help Angolan movements against the US-backed forces struggling for control of the newly liberated country.

     Ms. Fernandes travels to Cuba to interview some of them, finding people who had no idea why they were in Angola but who fought and healed through this forgotten war. Her mistake is in attempting to superimpose it with her own experience as a son of Portuguese colonists forced out by the liberation, as a child who was too young when she left to have any memory about Angola. This has little to nothing to do with the Cuba footage, despite the forced attempts by the voiceover commentary to connect both, resulting in a schizophrenic project where two independent stories are shoehorned into one film without any rhyme or reason, wasting in the process two solid ideas.

Directed and written by Dulce Fernandes; produced by Rui Simões, António dos Reis; music by Manuena Kodjovi; director of photography (colour), Ricardo Filiaci; film editor, Francisco Costa. 
     A Real Ficção presentation of a Real Ficção/Dread Locks production, with funding from the Portuguese Ministry of Culture/Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual and Radio and Television of Portugal, with the support of the European Commission's MEDIA Programme. 
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance screener, Lisbon, October 16th 2011.

Friday, October 28, 2011

CRAZY HORSE

France/USA
2011
128 minutes

It's fairly impossible to look at the latest work from master documentarian Frederick Wiseman and not see it as the reverse of 2009's La Danse. Where that was set within the sacred halls of the Paris Opera Ballet and followed the creation of a whole ballet season, Crazy Horse goes down the velvety stairs that lead into the world-famous Parisian nude-show cabaret to follow the creation of a new revue supervised by celebrated choreographer Philippe Decouflé. Crazy Horse is, though, a minor work - and this isn't meant as a comment on its subject, rather as the realisation that Mr. Wiseman's traditional method of reflecting a particular community through his highly impressionistic camera is not as finely tuned here.

     Slighter and less focussed than usual, the film spends far too much time on the actual performances and not enough on the backstage - though when it does is when the film truly soars, showing the actual compromises involved in getting such a revue up and running. It has always been on the "in between" moments where nothing seems to happen that Mr. Wiseman's work truly stands out, and there aren't simply enough of them here to make Crazy Horse more than a cheerful but second-rung addition to the filmmaker's illustrious body of work.

Director, sound recordist and film editor, Frederick Wiseman; produced by Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Mr. Wiseman; camera (colour), John Davey.
     An Idéale Audience/Zipporah Films production, in association with Crazy Horse Productions; with support from Canal Plus, Planète Plus and the French National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image. (World sales, Celluloid Dreams.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 official opening night, Culturgest (Grande Auditório), Lisbon, October 20th 2011. 



Thursday, October 27, 2011

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN

USA/New Zealand
2011
102 minutes

Typical: no news from Steven Spielberg for three years and, just like buses, two films come along at the same time (with two more on the pipeline). His live-action adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse comes in time for Christmas in the US and UK, while this performance-capture big-screen outing for Belgian artist Hergé's much-loved comic-book character opens in Europe in late October, two months ahead of its US release. Makes sense: Tintin and his canine sidekick Snowy are, after all, icons in most of the non-English speaking world and have barely travelled across the Atlantic. But this is nevertheless the director's riskiest project in a long time, seeing him join forces with Peter Jackson to bring to life in the big screen the cartoon universe of Tintin, through extensive CGI animation and performance-based digital renderings of the series' iconic characters.

     The script, by writer Steven Moffat (current showrunner for Doctor Who) and writer/directors Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), sets up the timeless mid-century, Old-European world of the comics, with the adventurous cub reporter (Jamie Bell) whisked around the world by the fiendish Sakharine (Daniel Craig) in search of three pieces of parchment that signal the location of a lost treasure. It follows faithfully the spirit of the books and the plotline of the diptych The Secret of the Unicorn/Red Rackham's Treasure, while introducing episodes and references to other stories. And Mr. Spielberg, much aided by his regular collaborators, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, displays an extraordinary control of rhythm, tempo and tone, keeping the film moving along briskly and, occasionally, even exhilaratingly.

     It's the visuals that are the problem here. Well, maybe not exactly a problem: this sort of entirely CGI-created universe is probably the only way the books could be adapted so faithfully (standard live action wouldn't work, as a couple of previous, French-made attempts proved). But the photo-realist perfection of digital animation clashes with the curvy, elastic features of the characters, resulting in an often awkward mixture of styles that never truly gel together or find common ground. The performers try their best, but Mr. Bell's earnest Tintin is totally defeated by the stunning animation work done on Snowy and, especially, by Andy Serkis' embodiment of the grouchy sidekick sailor, Captain Archibald Haddock, explaining perfectly why the British actor has become the go-to guy for performance-capture acting after his previous collaborations with Mr. Jackson in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong.

     Bringing Tintin to the big screen and doing justice to the original stories was a pet project of Mr. Spielberg's for years. But it's clear that while he greatly enjoyed dipping his toe in the "virtual cinema" framework that has been well explored previously by filmmakers such as Mr. Jackson, James Cameron and his friend and former protegé Robert Zemeckis, The Secret of the Unicorn is unlikely to go down as one of his most inspired works; it's an enjoyable, technically dazzling picture, but creatively a tantalizing failure that is likely to draw sharp lines in the sand between his fans (and Tintin's as well).

Starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones.
     Director and lighting consultant, Steven Spielberg; produced by Mr. Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy; screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, based on the graphic novels by Hergé (Georges Rémi), The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure and The Crab with the Golden Claws; music by John Williams; visual effects supervisors, Joe Letteri, Scott E. Anderson; animation supervisor, Jamie Beard; film editor, Michael Kahn.
     A Columbia Pictures/Paramount Pictures presentation, in association with Hemisphere Media Capital, of an Amblin Entertainment/Wingnut Films/Kennedy-Marshall Company production. (US distributor, Paramount Pictures. World sales, Sony Pictures Entertainment.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), October 13th 2011. 


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

É NA TERRA, NÃO É NA LUA

IT'S THE EARTH, NOT THE MOON


Portugal
2011
182 minutes

The title of Gonçalo Tocha's epic, freeform diary of four years living on and off the Azorean island of Corvo is significant because of the myriad ways it reflects its own form and structure. Neither a classic documentary nor a straight-up video diary, though both at the same time, É na Terra, Não É na Lua is more of a house where we're invited to stay for three hours, expecting us to take our time in discovering it and settling down. Mr. Tocha is a reluctant filmmaker whose only previous work, 2007's Balaou, already defied easy classification, involving both documentary and film-essay tropes in a sort of "sea road movie" following his own attempt to come to terms with his mother's death.

     For É na Terra..., Mr. Tocha and his soundman Dídio Pestana lived in the island of Corvo for months at a stretch over a period of four years, and assembled a sort of "video diary" of their stays that morphs slowly into a sort of "work in progress" that constructs itself in the process of being seen. Using as a throughline the knitting of a traditional cap for Mr. Tocha by local craftswoman Inês Inez, the director hangs together a loose series of "chapters" portraying life in a 300-strong community in the middle of the Atlantic, connected to civilisation by three-times-a-week flights and infrequent boat service, seen through the eyes of a non-judgmental stranger who grows to love and be part of the island.

     In essence, the filmmaker is showing us one way to live in the present and savour the beauty of what surrounds us through this shapeshifting film that veers between scrapbook, souvenir, meditation, documentary, essay and video diary, all of them by turns or at the same time. Its austerity of means, leisurely length and gentle observational eye remind us of the great minimalist documentarians of modern China like Wang Bing or Li Xan; but there is also a playfulness that is very much Mr. Tocha's and helps the viewer to connect with this deeply personal project that only asks of people that they sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Directed, produced and photographed (colour, processing by Tóbis Portuguesa) by Gonçalo Tocha; written by Mr. Tocha, with the assistance of Rui Guilherme Lopes, Rui Ribeiro; soundtrack and sound by Dídio Pestana; edited by Mr. Tocha, Mr. Ribeiro, Catherine Villeret; narrated by Mr. Tocha, Mr. Pestana.
     A Gonçalo Tocha production.
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance DVD screener, Lisbon, October 15th 2011. 


"É NA TERRA NÃO É NA LUA"_trailer 01 from Gonçalo Tocha on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

WADANS WELT

WADAN'S WORLD


Germany
2010
101 minutes

The group of Russian investors that bought Wismar's Aker shipyards and renamed them Wadan probably didn't read all the way through the Norse mythology they plucked the name from: the myth of Wadan involves the world's fall from grace and balance into chaos, and shortly after this Russian takeover the worldwide economic collapse forced the yards into insolvency, restructuring, forced layoffs and pay cuts for the workers lucky enough to recover their jobs. German documentarian Dieter Schumann, a Wismar native himself, started shooting his documentary on modern-day blue-collar work before the event's dramatic unfolding. His presence throughout allows him to paint an accurate and often moving portrait of the effects of globalisation on the actual lives of regular workers, while asking the question posited on the film's subtitle ("on the dignity of work").

     However, engaging as it is, Wadans Welt ties its loose ends far too neatly and imposes too much order on the chaos of the proceedings, seemingly in search of some sort of narrative closure that works against the film's testimonial structure. Also, the director's insistence to lay on a cloying music score at inappropriate moments is a cheap manoeuvre of emotional manipulation that is utterly unnecessary, since his access to the workers and their heartfelt statements says all that needs to be said. By signposting the emotions he wants his viewer to feel, Mr. Schumann undermines and devalues what would otherwise be a solid, affecting piece on the current state of the world.

Directed by Dieter Schumann; produced by Christian Beetz; written by Mr. Schumann, Jochen Wisotzki; music by Nils Kacirek; director of photography (colour), Rainer M. Schulz; film editor, Gudrun Steinbrück.
     A Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion production, in co-production with Basthorster Filmmanufaktur; with funding from the German Federal Government for Culture and Media, Mecklenburg Vorpommern Economic Film Fund, German Film Fund and Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein Film Fund. (World sales, Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance DVD screener, Lisbon, October 15th 2011. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

VOL SPÉCIAL

Switzerland
2011
99 minutes

Swiss documentarian Fernand Melgar's latest film, on a prison centre for detained illegal immigrants awaiting their expulsion from Switzerland, has become a magnet for controversy since its unveiling - both in competition at the Locarno film festival and upon release in its native country. If generating passionate public debate over Swiss immigration policies was Mr. Melgar's main purpose, the mission has been largely accomplished, but there is a lot more to Vol Spécial than just that.

     A son of immigrants himself, the director has been studying the contradictions of the Swiss system for years now. This is his third film on immigration (following on from 2008's La Forteresse, shot among asylum seekers), diving headfirst into the Kafkian situation of illegal immigrants kept under "surveilled freedom" at the Frambois prison, waiting for a final decision from the Swiss authorities on their status — some are asylum seekers fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries, some long-term paperless residents who have contributed to society throughout years and decades in Switzerland. Many of them will eventually be repatriated in "special flights" chartered for the sole purpose of sending them back, as if they were menaces to society.

     Mr. Melgar focuses both on the despairing inmates, who try to keep their spirits up only to have them brutally cut down when they least expect it, and their jailers who attempt to treat them humanely knowing full well the policies they are required to enforce make a mockery of any attempt at humane treatment. It's clear whose side he is on - the way the film is structured, in a crescendo rising from the introduction of a new inmate to a final "special flight", follows the daily routines and the attempt at maintaining a pretense of normality - but the camera is always coolly observational, distant to the point of being clinical, while Karine Sudan's editing steadily unfolds a narrative of hopes raised and dashed.

     The director never shies away from the complexity of the situation, but thankfully neither does he reduce it to easily digestible, manichean bromides; refusing any sort of editorialising (there is no voiceover at all), Mr. Melgar simply lets the stories speak for themselves, showing how the smallest attempt at humanising the system is destroyed by each new departure from Frambois. And it's not the individual stories of these people who are treated like "second class citizens" that make Vol Spécial a harrowing, gripping experience — it's the mirror it holds up, not just to Switzerland but to the whole wide world.

Directed by Fernand Melgar; music by Wandifa Njie; camera (colour), Denis Jutzeler; sound, Christophe Giovannoni; film editor, Karine Sudan with the collaboration of Claude Muret.
     A Climage presentation/production, in co-production with Swiss Radio Television, SRG SSR, ARTE G. E. I. E.; with the support of the Swiss Federal Office of Culture, Fonds Régio Films, Succès Cinéma, Suissimage Cultural Foundation, Succès Passage Antenne, Vaud Foundation for Cinema. (World sales, Climage.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance DVD screener, October 14th 2011.




Sunday, October 23, 2011

SONNENSYSTEM

SOLAR SYSTEM


Germany
2010
99 minutes

Ten minutes elapse in Sonnensystem before a human figure enters the frame; fifteen more before a single word is uttered, though it is left half-heard and untranslated. What follows, over slightly over 90 minutes, is a wordless tone poem on a remote indigenous community threatened by the encroaching "civilized world" outside - its title, Solar System, a fitting description of the self-sustaining ways of life depicted throughout, seemingly coming from a whole other planet.

     What is striking is that the name credited as director is German veteran Thomas Heise, whose previous work was the mesmerising found-footage epic Material (2008), dealing with the fall of the Berlin Wall as a dividing line in modern German history, and who is usually more attuned to subjects "closer to home", so to speak. Yet, transplanted to the Argentine province of Salta (where acclaimed helmer Lucrecia Martel has set all her features) to follow the daily rhythms of the Kolla Tinkamaku community, Mr. Heise creates a meditation on society and civilization that seems a million light years away but, in fact, extends the concerns of his previous work through different means, apparently more modest in scope but no less thought out for that.


     Sonnensystem may not be as staggering as Material, but it is an equally wondrous piece, given added resonance by its astounding coda - a nine-minute tracking shot on a moving train that seems to underline the challenges faced by the community, previously shown watching a generator-run TV and travelling by bus out of Salta. That Godardian tracking shot, a stately equivalent of the celebrated traffic jam in Weekend, works as a combination of requiem and elegy for what the world is losing without being able to replace, and lifts Mr. Heise's film into a whole new galaxy.

Directed, produced and written by Thomas Heise; camera (colour), Robert Nickolaus, Jutta Tränkle, René Frölke; film editor, Trevor Hall.
     A Thomas Heise production, supported by the Goethe Institute Buenos Aires and HfG/ZKM Film Institute.
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance DVD screener, Lisbon, October 13th 2011. 



Sonnensystem/Solar System Trailer HD from Thomas Heise on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

THE LAST BUFFALO HUNT

USA
2011
74 minutes

Hardly recommendable to sensitive people, director Lee Anne Schmitt and producer Lee Lynch's intriguing but half-baked essay has too much on its mind to be able to communicate it properly. At its centre lies a managed bison hunt in Utah's Antelope Park, as hunting guide Terry Albrecht and his crew of local cowboys give big-city greenhorns a taste of the Old West shooting at buffalos. But it also delves into the mystique of the wide open skies, the callous disregard of modern hunters for nature, the commodification of hunting and of Western history and its place in modern society. 

     It's a lot to ask of a single short feature length, unhelped by the director's own monotone voiceover and a middling sound mix that betray the film's shoestring, homemade production. Individually, many of the episodes caught on film by Ms. Schmitt and Mr. Lynch would make for an interesting piece in their own right, but as they search for a connecting thread between them, the filmmakers never truly find the film they're looking for, kept out of sight among the footage. 

Directed by Lee Anne Schmitt; produced by Lee Lynch; created by Mr. Lynch and Ms. Schmitt; music by Rogier Pijpers; filmed by Ms. Schmitt, James Laxton and David Fenster; post-production by Ki Jin Kim.
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance screener, Lisbon, October 11th 2011. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

DE ENGEL VAN DOEL

AN ANGEL IN DOEL


Netherlands/Belgium
2011
76 minutes

It's clear why Dutch filmmaker Tom Fassaert called his debut feature “an angel in Doel”. There is in fact one person standing guard over that Belgian village about to be razed to make way for an expansion of the Antwerp harbour, though Emilienne Driesen, an elderly widow who stolidly refuses to leave the only house she's ever known, is hardly a patron saint, let alone an angel: she likes her pint and her cigarette even though her health issues preclude both. 

     Mr. Fassaert's film, shot over six years as Doel dies slowly, is starkly stylized – filmed in black and white, it focuses on Emilienne's kitchen and the emptying streets of the village as she has her regular visits from and with friends, occasionally setting up “angelcam” plans from above a light fixture. Elegantly avoiding any sort of narration or timeline, it unfolds as a portrait of an aging world raging against the dying of the light, a poignant reminder of the silent eroding and erasing of history and memory as the world turns and life goes on. Mr. Fassaert seems to be saying you really can't go home anymore, even as he defiantly records Emilienne's last stand as a way of making sure that, at least, that lost home will be remembered. 

Directed and written by Tom Fassaert; produced by Digna Sinke; music by Tobias Borkert; directors of photography (b&w, processing by Studio L'Équipe, Cinéco), Daniël Bouquet and Diedrik Evers; film editors, Mr. Fassaert, Thabi Mooi, Axel Skovdal Roelofs.
     An SNG Film production/presentation, in co-production with Cinété, with support from the Dutch Film Fund, Mediafonds, Flemish Audiovisual Fund, Omroep Zeeland, VRT-Canvas. (World sales, SNG Film.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance screener, Lisbon, October 11th 2011. 


De Engel van Doel | An Angel in Doel (trailer offline version) from Diderik Evers on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

DEMAIN?

France/Portugal
2011
104 minutes

Six years after her last film, French hyphenate and regular Jacques Rivette collaborator Christine Laurent returns to feature helming with this intriguing arthouse piece inspired by the life story of early 20th-century Uruguayan poetess Delmira Agustini, who died in 1914 at 27 at the hands of her ex-husband after only four published books. Demain? - a title that comes from one of the film's last, if not the actual last, sentences of dialogue - follows Delmira's, known as "Nena", final years, as she struggles with her status as a woman writer in a patriarchal society, but its ethereal, stylized mood steers it well clear of any traditional biopic tropes. As played by Laure de Clermont, this is one young woman fighting for affirmation, both within a literary community whose actual centre is far away in Buenos Aires and her claustrophobic if well-meaning family cocoon. Her overbearing, aristocratic mother (Teresa Madruga) indulges Nena's art and revels in the attention it gives the family while disapproving of her engagement to ranch foreman Enrique Reyes (Marc Ruchmann), just as she disapproves of husband Santiago's (Adriano Luz) love of "low music" such as tango. And Nena herself veers wildly between feverish rushes of poetic creation and devastating lust for Enrique and listless, silent period where she locks herself in her room.

     Elegantly straddling the worlds of theatre (where Ms. Laurent has extensive experience as a stage director) and cinema, Demain? begins as a classic narrative but it disintegrates progressively into an oneiric tone, mirroring Nena's growing inability to simultaneously resist her lustful desires and create what she considers as valid work. There is a lot of theatricality in the way that the Agostini's mansion (designed, as all the sets, by the director herself) is laid out as a series of "boxes" or "stage sets" meant to be as expressive as the performances, but Ms. Laurent never allows Demain? to become merely filmed theatre. Instead, she strives to find a mid-point that will work to her advantage in creating a piece that is defined more as a creative interpretation of a real person rather than as a traditional biography. It doesn't quite get there: there's much to admire in the film's determined, deliberate stillness, André Szankowski's crisp lensing, and the cast's solid performances. But, probably like poetry itself, the actual grasp of both the character and Ms. Laurent's approach remain furiously elusive.

Starring Laure de Clermont, Marc Ruschmann, Teresa Madruga, Adriano Luz; Luís Miguel Cintra, Vladimir León, Beatriz Batarda, Diogo Dória, Lolita Chammah, Vladimir Consigny.
     Director and art director, Christine Laurent; produced by Martine de Clermont-Tonnerre; written by Ms. Laurent and Georges Peltier; director of photography (colour, processing by Light Film, 1:1.85), André Szankowski; wardrobe, Ana Simão; film editor, Sandro Aguilar.
     A MACT Production/O Som e a Fúria presentation/production, with the support of the French National Centre for Cinema and the Animated Image. (World sales, Wide Management.)
     Screened: Festa do Cinema Francês advance press screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), October 12th 2011. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

MARTI, DUPA CRACIUN

TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS


Romania
2009
99 minutes

What is genuinely astounding in the work that keeps coming out of the so-called Romanian New Wave is the stunningly high average quality of the films – that I have seen, there hasn't been a blunder out of the lot so far, and Radu Muntean's third feature, a devastatingly clear-eyed look at the dissolution of a middle-class marriage, doesn't let down the side. Though shot in the usual long takes without any musical illustration, Tuesday, After Christmas introduces a welcome change of setting – we are now in the affluent urban middle-class where everyone owns iPhones, lives in comfortable flats and drives last-model station-wagons, and the social aspect of many Romanian films is ejected to focus on the personal, emotional side. 

     Mr. Muntean's film follows the run-up to Christmas Eve as the milquetoast bank manager Paul (Mimi Branescu) struggles whether to tell his wife he is in love with someone else and realises belatedly he can't really have it both ways – a slender storyline that is given substance and gravitas by the stunning central trio of performances, with the director training his camera on the actors and letting them run for as long and as fast as they can in a series of complicated real-life situations. Mr. Branescu gives a nuanced portrayal of his unassuming, slightly faded middle-class guy who finds himself stuck between one woman he loves and lives with and another he loves and lusts after, but it's Mirela Oprisor (Mr. Branescu's wife in real life) as his career professional, loving wife that steals the movie with two superb scenes. Tuesday, After Christmas is more solid than inspired, but its unflinching look at the complexity of modern relationships chalks up another success for the home team. 


Starring Mimi Branescu, Mirela Oprisor, Maria Popistasu.
     Directed by Radu Muntean; written by Alexandru Baciu, Mr. Muntean, Razvan Radulescu; director of photography (colour, processing by Magyar Film Laboratorium, widescreen), Tudor Lucaciu; production designer, Sorin Dima; costume designer, Giorgiana Bostan; film editor, Alexandru Radu.
     A Multi Media Est production with support from the Romanian National Centre for Cinema; co-financed by McCann Erickson, Optimedia, Mindshare Media, Next Advertising. (World sales, Films Boutique.)
     Screened: distributor advance DVD screener, Lisbon, October 8th 2011. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

CONTAGION

USA/Abu Dhabi
2011
107 minutes

Steven Soderbergh's latest left-turn harnesses an all-star cast and a horror movie premise to a cool, calculated, almost hushed formalist tone: it's a medical thriller about a global pandemic set off by a deadly, highly contagious virus, shot with the detached, clinical distance of a scientist methodically working on the cure — or of the virus itself as it runs its unstoppable course. And, in doing so, Mr. Soderbergh effortlessly communicated that stunned, dazed, faintly surreal feeling of having lost all your landmarks and reference points, as the fabric of society slowly unravels while the disease gains ground.

     The director's modus operandi is to eject all the hysteria and heroics of standard Hollywood disaster movies or horror thrillers, and focus instead on an hyper-realistic look at how such a pandemic would spread, focusing on the emotionless process of finding a solution rather than the emotional histrionics of following the human arc of the catastrophe. Ironically, it is that precise detachment, that formalist, methodical approach to the script, halfway between the narrative latticework of his earlier Traffic and the coldness of 1970s dystopian sci-fi (Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain comes to mind), that prevents Contagion from becoming a truly disquieting movie. Despite the occasional moments of empathy the all-star cast achieves (honours should go to Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle as members of the Center for Disease Control team trying to get a grip on the virus), the film becomes a sort of cerebral whodunit that moves briskly forward without ever raising its heartbeat above a tightly controlled, invariable metronome. Contagion is an admirably intelligent, smartly done, thought-provoking picture — but one that keeps the viewer at arm's length.

Starring Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet; Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Chin Han, John Hawkes, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Josie Hu, Sanaa Lathan, Demetri Martin, Armin Rohde, Enrico Colantoni, Monique Gabriele Curren. 
     Directed and photographed (colour, digital intermediate by Fotokem, prints by Technicolor) by Steven Soderbergh; produced by Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Gregory Jacobs; written by Scott Z. Burns; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Howard Cummings; costume designer, Louise Frogley; film editor, Stephen Mirrione.
     A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in association with Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, of a Double Feature Films/Gregory Jacobs production. (US distributor and world sales, Warner Bros. Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), October 3rd 2011. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

UN AMOUR DE JEUNESSE

GOODBYE FIRST LOVE


France/Germany
2011
110 minutes

The third feature from acclaimed French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve, Un Amour de jeunesse is a frank improvement on her endearingly sensitive but ultimately underwhelming breakthrough picture, 2009's Le Père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children). Defined as the final instalment in a semi-autobiographical trilogy began with 2007's Tout est pardonné, the new film is a leisurely coming-of-age tale that follows young Parisian Camille (Lola Créton) full-circle over an eight-year period. It starts in 1999, as her first love Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) leaves to journey through Latin America and breaks up with her from a distance, and her own gradual blossoming into a woman searching for an ideal for living, before a casual meet brings the two back into contact in 2007.

     Set in three acts divided in urban and countryside settings, Un Amour de jeunesse can be infuriatingly slight, especially in its early going, as Camille behaves like a petulant, tantrum-prone teenager convinced there's no love like the first love. But that is part and parcel of Ms. Hansen-Løve's method: her characters are people, not conceits. They are flawed and unlikeable, their emotions are far from perfect and there is, indeed, no love like the first love, as the film winningly underlines. As Camille grows up and, literally, comes of age before our eyes in Ms. Créton's deceptively effortless performance, only to realise the love of her life hasn't grown up as much as she has, the film gains strength, speed and gravity, and blossoms, like Camille herself, into a fully-fledged work — even if the plot is still too slight to fully justify a two-hour running time.

Starring Lola Créton, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Magne Håvard-Brakke; Valérie Bonneton; with Serge Renko; and Özay Fecht.
     Directed and written by Mia Hansen-Løve; produced by Philippe Martin and David Thion; director of photography (colour, processing by Eclair), Stéphane Fontaine; production designers, Mathieu Menut, Charlotte de Cadeville; costume designer, Bethsabée Dreyfus; film editor, Marion Monnier.
     A Les Films Pelléas/Razor Film production, in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, WDR/ARTE, Rhône-Alpes Cinéma, Jouror Productions; with the participation of ARTE France, Canal Plus, Cinecinéma, French National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image, Filmförderunganstalt, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg; with the support of the Île-de-France and Rhône-Alpes regions; in association with Cinémage 5 and Cofimage 22. (French distributor, Les Films du Losange. World sales, Films Distribution.)
     Screened: Festa do Cinema Francês 2011 advance press screening, Institut Français du Portugal - Philippe Frydman Theatre (Lisbon), October 4th 2011. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

LOLA

France
1960
87 minutes

Before his groundbreaking, all-singing Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), the late Jacques Demy had already toyed with the idea of the musical film in his feature debut Lola - a stylized, fresh take on Max Ophüls' La Ronde following a group of unwittingly interconnected characters in his hometown of Nantes. But this most freeform of melancholy romances is actually music-free, though it retains a unique musicality in its step, evoking clichés of the American musical (sailors on shore leave, cabaret hookers with a heart of gold, boy-meets-girl structures) and displacing them into the heady, speedy, streetwise naturalism of the French Nouvelle Vague (Lola was shot in black and white widescreen by the movement's key DP Raoul Coutard, though Mr. Demy never actually belonged to its main stream).

     More interesting is how the slender plot of criss-crossed encounters in the streets of Nantes is magically woven by Mr. Demy's fearless style, all roving handheld cameras, and his effortless mastery of the various plot relays centred around nominal heroine Lola (Anouk Aimée), portrayed as a symbol for all the illusions each and every character believes in. Additionally, Lola is a sort of matrix, both narrative and stylistic, of all of the director's later work, in its carefree combination of the contagiously joyous and the heartbreaking melancholy, with many of the film's scenes being echoed in later works (not least in the re-emergence of the central star-crossed lovers and their performers, Ms. Aimée's Lola and Marc Michel's moody childhood friend Roland, as characters in, respectively, Model Shop and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg). Lola is a superb, moving classic that is simply not seen enough.

Starring Anouk Aimée, Marc Michel, Jacques Harden, Alan Scott; and Elina Labourdette.
     Directed and written by Jacques Demy; music by Michel Legrand; director of photography (b&w, Franscope widescreen), Raoul Coutard; production designer, Bernard Evein; film editors, Anne-Marie Cotret, Monique Teisseire. 
     A Carlo Ponti/Georges de Beauregard production for Rome-Paris Films. (Original French distributor, Unidex. World sales, Ciné-Tamaris.)
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Felix Ribeiro Theatre (Lisbon), October 7th 2011. 

Sunday, October 09, 2011

THE ARTIST

France/Belgium
2011
100 minutes

A precious little diamond that apparently comes out of nowhere to sweep you off your feet, The Artist (in English in the original, mind you) is a tender, dazzling tribute to classic Hollywood that follows the time-honoured tradition of showbiz melodramas while injecting a healthy sense of meta-fiction in its story. In effect, French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius' film quotes liberally from classic Hollywood tales such as A Star Is Born, Chaplin's Limelight and Donen & Kelly's Singin' in the Rain in its tale of a silent film star (a note-perfect Jean Dujardin, Best Actor at Cannes 2011, channeling Douglas Fairbanks by way of Gene Kelly) whose career falls on hard times when the advent of sound passes him by, as a young protegée he helped gain a foothold (Bérénice Béjo) becomes a runaway star.

     So far so good, but the trick in Mr. Hazanavicius' project, set between 1927 and 1932, is that The Artist is actually a silent movie, with intertitles replacing the spoken dialogue and a continuous music score by Ludovic Bource, and shot in black and white in the 1:33 Academy ratio. It could very easily fall in the trap of a mannered ersatz silent, especially because it's impossible to perfectly duplicate the grain and tone of 1920s film, but it miraculously becomes a soulful elegy for a simpler, cleaner, classier way of moviemaking where everything was simultaneously more expressive and more sophisticated than most of what passes today as cinema.

     That is where Mr. Hazanavicius wins his wager: The Artist is never about the technical proficiency of the illusion, but about the use of that illusion in the service of the narrative and the emotion. Yes, the story is a hodge-podge of references (and there's even a bit of a wink to Jerry Lewis in one scene), and the film isn't the only modern-day attempt at updating the silent movie (Mel Brooks and Aki Kaurismäki have done so among others). But this lovingly assembled throwback is a film with the heart in the right place - a love letter to cinema whose easy-going nostalgia never feels gratuitous and instead celebrates its transforming power.

Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Béjo; James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller; and John Goodman.
     Directed and written by Michel Hazanavicius; produced by Thomas Langmann; music by Ludovic Bource; director of photography (b&w), Guillaume Schiffman; production designer, Laurence Bennett; costume designer, Mark Bridges; film editors, Anne-Marie Bion, Mr. Hazanavicius.
     A Thomas Langmann presentation of a Studio 37/La Petite Reine/La Classe Américaine/JD Productions/France 3 Cinéma/Jouror Productions/uFilm production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cinécinéma, France Télévisions. (French distributor, Warner Bros. Pictures. World sales, Wild Bunch/Studio 37/La Petite Reine.)
     Screened: Festa do Cinema Francês 2011 opening night, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), October 6th 2011. 



Wednesday, October 05, 2011

SANGUE DO MEU SANGUE

Portugal
2011
139 minutes / 192 minutes (long version)

Contemporary Portuguese cinema finds another potential breakout film in João Canijo's eighth theatrical feature - a remarkable dive into a struggling working-class family that extends the director's fascination with the structure of classical tragedy into what is possibly his masterpiece. Undoubtedly, some will look at the convoluted comings and goings of this family drama as high-end soap-opera miserablism with a side order of voyeurism; but that doesn't take into account both Mr. Canijo's poised handling of the scenes (mostly captured in long takes unfolding before a discreetly moving camera), and the astoundingly naturalistic performances of the ensemble cast, who had a hand in structuring and developing the shooting script through a series of workshopped improvisations à la Mike Leigh. (A companion documentary released on DVD simultaneously, Trabalho de Actriz, Trabalho de Actor, traces the characters and the script's construction through the workshops.)


     Sangue do Meu Sangue actually exists at the crossroads of Mr. Leigh's usual relationship dramas and French director Abdellatif Kechiche's ensemble performances captured in extended one-take scenes, but taken one step further: Mr. Canijo often shows two separate conversations in the same frame with overlapping dialogue, then closes in on just one of them but lets the other's dialogue remain on the soundtrack. This is something no television producer (and even a less risk-taking film producer) would allow, even though Sangue do Meu Sangue actually exists in a three-episode version for television. Also, Mr. Canijo has prepared a longer, limited-release theatrical cut with 50 minutes of additional material that fleshes out the relationships between the various characters and develops fully a few plot points, though most of it reinforces, rather than just adding to, the central story arc brilliantly presented in the shorter length version.

     Centre stage is the headstrong Márcia (Canijo regular Rita Blanco, in the performance of a lifetime), a forty-something diner cook who raised two now grown children as a single mother and is adamant that her twenty-something daughter, nursing student Cláudia (Cleia Almeida), should pull out of the suburban slum the family lives in. Sharing the cramped house is also her troublemaking younger son João Carlos (Rafael Morais), who works as a low-level drug courier, and Márcia's lonely hairdresser sister, Ivete (Anabela Moreira, also a Canijo regular), the boy's self-appointed protector. When João Carlos attempts to swindle drug boss Telmo (a terrifying Nuno Lopes) and the mother finds out the daughter is having an affair with a married teacher (Marcello Urgeghe, in an unexpectedly nuanced performance), all hell breaks loose, leading these two desperate women to extremes, like lionesses protecting their cubs, willing to sacrifice themselves so the children can survive - though there are no certainties, not even in the limited future their social condition can promise. But are they genuinely saving the younger generation - or saving themselves while condemning their children to the same future as them?

     Mr. Canijo's elliptical way into the story, through an apparent side plot that turns out to be key to the film's graphic dénouement, is one of the strengths of this powerful, claustrophobic and occasionally harrowing film; another is the outstanding balance between the many different narrative strands, meshing and mingling with virtuoso dexterity, much helped by João Braz's nimble editing in both cuts. Best of all, though, is the director's clear-eyed, close attention to its cast's performances, keeping the camera always at just the right distance to capture the essence of these characters' lives without falling into the trap of voyeurism. And while it's unfair to single out just one performer in a superb ensemble cast, Ms. Blanco deserves special praise for her total, complete inhabiting of Márcia down to the simplest detail — a step, a look, a gesture, a nod. Her performance alone would be worth the price of admission; still she is but one of the many reasons that make Sangue do Meu Sangue an admirable work, and one that, properly nursed, has everything to become a global arthouse sensation on the level of Mr. Kechiche's equally admirable La Graine et le mulet.

Starring Rita Blanco, Anabela Moreira, Cleia Almeida, Rafael Morais; Marcello Urgeghe, Nuno Lopes, Beatriz Batarda, Fernando Luís, Teresa Madruga, Teresa Tavares, Francisco Tavares, Wilma de Brito.
     Directed by João Canijo; produced by Pedro Borges; written by Mr. Canijo, with the collaboration of the cast, João Braz, Tiago Rodrigues and Vera Barreto; director of photography (colour), Mário Castanheira; art director, José Pedro Penha Lopes; costume designer, Ana Simão; film editor, Mr. Braz.
     A Midas Filmes presentation/production, with financial support from the Portuguese Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual and Radio and Television of Portugal; with financial investment from the Portuguese Investment Fund in Cinema and Audiovisual; with the support of Lisbon City Hall. (Portuguese distributor, Midas Filmes. World sales, Abril Filmes.)
     Screened: 139-minute cut - distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 9 (Lisbon), September 27th 2011; 192-minute cut - distributor technical test screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), September 30th 2011.


Tuesday, October 04, 2011

LE DEUXIÈME SOUFFLE

France
1966
149 minutes

Few film directors have become so entwined with a genre as French hardboiled auteur Jean-Pierre Melville, whose short directing career saw him work with the legendary Jean Cocteau and Paul Vercors before entering a breathtaking cycle of progressively more austere and stylized crime thrillers that have become lodestars of the French crime drama known as polar. Adapted from a novel by ex-convict José Giovanni, Le Deuxième souffle is a perfect example of Mr. Melville's masterful take on the genre: at heart a tale of revenge among Marseille criminals involving an escaped convict's last heist before leaving the country, it is deftly transformed by the director into a zen ode to honour among thieves that shares the post-war sense of disillusion that permeated the Hollywood films noirs. The heist itself, superbly assembled by Mr. Melville, is a mere MacGuffin - the film hinges on something as intangible as the reputation of old-fashioned hoodlum Gu Minda (Lino Ventura), caught in a maelstrom of events in a world where honour and friendship are no longer meaningful concept.

     The last of the director's films to be shot in claustrophobic black-and-white, often set under steel grey skies or stark night scenes, Le Deuxième Souffle respects on the surface all the genre conventions while slowly dilating and distorting them into an abstract, fatalistic game of chess moves whose result seems to be preordained by fate. Its precisely laid out cat-and-mouse chase between Gu and the Machiavellian detective Blot (a mesmerising Paul Meurisse) anticipates the geometric perfection of the stone-cold classic Le Samouraï, which Mr. Melville would direct the following year, and laid the foundations for the director's valedictory lap of final crime films, all completed before his untimely death at 56 in 1973: Le Samouraï (1967), L'Armée des ombres (1969), Le Cercle rouge (1970) and Un Flic (1972).

Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Raymond Pellegrin, Christine Fabréga; with Marcel Bozzuffi, Paul Frankeur, Denis Manuel, Jean Négroni, Michel Constantin, Pierre Zimmer, Pierre Grasset.
     Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; screenplay by Mr. Melville and José Giovanni, based on the novel by Mr. Giovanni, Le Deuxième souffle; music by Bernard Gérard; director of photography (b&w), Marcel Combes; art director, Jean-Jacques Fabre; wardrobe, Michel Tellin; film editors, Monique Bonnot, Michèle Bohem.
     A Charles Lumbroso/André Labay presentation/production. (Original French distributor, Prodis.)
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Félix Ribeiro Theatre (Lisbon), October 1st 2011.