Saturday, December 31, 2011

LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG

Jacques Demy’s wondrous film (restored to its original bubble-gum colours under the supervision of his widow Agnès Varda) is a unique entry in the history of modern cinema. For his third feature, the director created an original screen musical with entirely sung dialogue, closer to a sort of "film operetta" or a "teenage symphony to God" (to quote from Brian Wilson, who should know) than to traditional musical films, melding a European sensibility with a love and influence of the American screen musical.

     At heart, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is a tenderly told, heart-breaking story of puppy love gone sour, set in the French harbour town of Cherbourg between 1957 and 1963. Service station mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is desperately in love with Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), a romantic teenager who works at her mother’s umbrella shop. But Guy is sent off to Algeria for his two years of compulsory national service, leaving Genevieve miserable and pregnant, at the same time that a forgotten debt comes in for her mother (Anne Vernon) to pay. In steps wealthy diamond merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, reprising his role from Mr. Demy's earlier Lola), who is glad to help the family surmount the debt and secretly harbours the hope to marry the young girl, whom he loves from afar. Thus Genevieve is torn between waiting for a man who may not return from the war, or marry into security to ensure a future for their child, in a situation that shines a peculiar light on the mores of Gaullist French society in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

     The film's boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story may seem typical musical fare, but once you factor in the third act's desperately melancholy tone and ending, as well as the plot following the female character instead of the male, this turns out to be most certainly not your typical musical. Few films ask such suspension of disbelief from its viewers, due to every single word being sung rather than spoken (demanding that the soundtrack be entirely pre-recorded by professional singers, leaving the cast to mime the words and concentrate in the performances). It is, up to a point, an acquired taste: you're either charmed or turned off but wait until Mr. Demy’s smooth, gliding handling sweeps in, magnified by Bernard Evein’s brightly coloured fairy-tale production design, Jean Rabier’s gleaming photography and Michel Legrand’s sweepingly romantic, lyrical score. If by the first 15 minutes you’re not hooked, letting yourself in for a hyper-romantic hour and a half straight out of Hans Christian Andersen’s sad and beautiful fairy tales, then the film's stylized charms will probably elude you for good.

     Even so, taken on its own terms, this is such a creative success, such a superb achievement of Mr. Demy's desires, that Les Parapluies de Cherbourg has gone down in history as more than just a simple novelty. In fact, seeing as the director's previous Lola and La Baie des anges were hardly commercial successes, this was a huge gamble which producer Mag Bodard financed with money advanced by 20th Century Fox against the film’s distribution rights; but it became a huge commercial success, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes 1964, receiving three Academy Award nominations (best script, best score and best original song) and going down in history as an all-time classic. Sadly, it also marked the heights of the director's career; despite continued critical acclaim and a rollercoaster career, Mr. Demy never had a hit film again, forever trying to recapture the elusive magic of this unique achievement.

Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey; Harald Wolff.
     Director/writer, Jacques Demy; cinematography (colour by Eastmancolor), Jean Rabier; music, Michel Legrand; production designer, Bernard Evein; costume designer, Jacqueline Moreau; editors, Anne-Marie Cotret, Monique Teisseire; producer, Mag Bodard (Parc Film, Madeleine Films, Beta Film), France/Germany, 1963, 92 minutes. 
     Screened: Castro Theatre, San Francisco, December 29th 2011. 


LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG CLIP TRAILER DENEUVE... by kirivalse

Friday, December 30, 2011

DOLORES CLAIBORNE

It's reasonably easy to say Dolores Claiborne is an atypical Stephen King novel to be adapted for the screen. But, of course, some of the best films to have been made from stories by the prolific writer haven't necessarily been supernatural tales (Stand by Me for one). This story of a Maine live-in maid (Kathy Bates) suspected of murdering her employer of 22 years, and of the effect this has on the journalist daughter who fled the nest early (Jennifer Jason Leigh), turns out instead to be prestige family drama for tony audiences, complete with tasteful handling and high-powered star performances from a first-rate cast - and that isn't such a bad thing as it may seem, when the central plot, touching simultaneously on issues of class and gender in modern-day America, is so expertly laid out before your eyes.

     The other key thing that raises Dolores Claiborne above run-of-the-mill King-by-numbers is the sheer unvarnished unpleasantness of every single character in the tale, the female characters bonded in a sort of "sisterhood of bitches", every single one of them having to behave like one in order to simply make it through their daily lives in a world where men rule and don't often do so fairly (visible in Christopher Plummer's condescending mainland detective brought in to investigate Vera Donovan's death, who lets his prejudice take over the investigation). Behind the rustic aspect of a resort smalltown mystery, Taylor Hackford's film is a brittle, bitter tragedy of women forced to play by rules other than their own, with the cast relishing the lack of need to "behave" - Ms. Bates and Judy Parfitt are a perfect double-act, and even Ms. Leigh's performance, with her trademarked mannerisms present and correct, is perfectly judged within the film's tone. Mr. Hackford expertly manages the shifting timelines in a story that moves between three time periods, signaled by different colour schemes in Gabriel Beristain's cinematography (rich, golden tones for a past less than perfect, cold, damp grays and blues for the present), but doesn't always evade the sense that the film could have used a little trim; the double climax of the eclipse flashback and the present-day fake-courtroom push Dolores Claiborne slightly over the top, but not enough to make this solid piece go overboard.

Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh; Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Judy Parfitt, John C. Reilly; Eric Bogosian.
     Director, Taylor Hackford; screenplay, Tony Gilroy, from the novel by Stephen King, Dolores Claiborne; cinematography, Gabriel Beristain (processing by Film House, colour by Technicolor, Panavision widescreen); music, Danny Elfman; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; costume designer, Shay Cunliffe; editor, Mark Warner; producers, Mr. Hackford, Charles Mulvehill (Castle Rock Entertainment), USA, 1995, 132 minutes. 
     Screened: DVD, December 28th 2011.



Thursday, December 29, 2011

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

Seldom has a Hollywood film become so indelibly identified with its leading actor. Director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula (later a fine director in his own right) may have had honourable careers, but To Kill a Mockingbird is, from start to finish, remembered for Gregory Peck's towering, admirable performance as Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch, assigned to defend a black man accused of rape in the small town he's lived all his life in. Harper Lee's epoch-making 1960 novel, where the trial and all it revealed about class and racism in the American South of 1932 were framed through the eyes of Finch's six-year-old, tomboyish daughter Scout (played in the film by newcomer Mary Badham), was a call to the better angels of American values. Its resonance was amplified by this careful, modest adaptation and Mr. Peck's dignified portrait of Finch as a paragon of decency, compassion and justice, a man at peace with himself, a role model aware he is fighting a losing battle with the certainty a victory may be waiting further down the road.

     While screenwriter and playwright Horton Foote's adaptation necessarily leaves out most of the local colour that so bewitches the reader, focussing on the trial and on the mystery surrounding recluse neighbour Boo Radley (a brief, mute performance by then-beginner Robert Duvall), Mr. Mulligan's film is a model of sobriety and economy. This is a film that makes do with very little (an entirely studio-bound production and a small cast of character actors), aware that it's the story itself that carries it, and focusing all its energies in putting it on screen in a respectful manner. That may make it (and indeed does make it) a bit too solemn for its own good, but contextualisation is required to understand that both the book and the film came out at the height of the civil rights era, so the importance of the subject could not be escaped and production would itself have been a tricky balancing act.

     The key to the film, however, is the same one that worked for the book: the strength and humanity of the characters, and the power of the performances, especially that of Mr. Peck, who won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. It was to become his signature performance, even though it is unfair to dismiss all the careful work being done around him, from the chirpy performances from inexperienced newcomers Phillip Alford and Ms. Badham to the exquisitely self-effacing handling from Mr. Mulligan. Too often remembered outside the US (where the cultural importance of both book and film remains undimmed) as a prestige problem picture typical of early post-studio Hollywood, in its austere, functional economy To Kill a Mockingbird remains a surprisingly modern, gripping drama.

Gregory Peck; John Megna, Frank Overton, Rosemary Murphy, Ruth White, Brock Peters, Estelle Evans, Paul Fix, Collin Wilcox, James Anderson, Alice Ghostley, Robert Duvall, William Windom, Crahan Denton, Richard Hale; Mary Badham, Phillip Alford.
     Director, Robert Mulligan; screenplay, Horton Foote, from the novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird; cinematography, Russell Harlan (b&w); music, Elmer Bernstein; art director, Henry Bumstead; costume designers, Rosemary Odell, Seth Banks; editor, Aaron Stell; producer, Alan J. Pakula (Pakula-Mulligan Productions, Brentwood Productions), USA, 1962, 128 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, December 26th 2011. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS

Vincente Minnelli's warm piece of turn-of-the-century Americana has gone down in history as a holiday perennial - a somewhat unusual fate for this peculiarly shapeless yet fuzzily heartwarming collection of vignettes inspired by Sally Benson's loosely autobiographical short stories published in The New Yorker. It isn't a particularly Christmassy film, and it falls somewhat in between stools; it's neither a fully-fledged musical (despite the presence of two of MGM's most-loved musical numbers, "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") nor an outright comedy, melodrama or romance. What it is, instead, is a loose-leaf collection of episodes in the life of an average Saint Louis family in 1903, as the city prepares to host the World Fair, structured according to the passing seasons (from Summer to Spring), as the Smiths face a possible move to New York after the father is offered a promotion by the law practice where he works.

     What Mr. Minnelli does with this, though, is nothing short of outstanding, and a breathtaking affirmation of the power and craftsmanship of Hollywood studio film-making at its height. Only the director's third feature, and in many ways his "entry level" exam to MGM's big leagues, it's remarkable for many reasons. It was on the set that he met future wife Judy Garland, and his traditionally elegant, colourful style seems to arrive here fully formed, its gliding, nearly effortless pans and tracking shots immaculately following the story's lightly bittersweet arc, George Folsey's richly-hued Technicolor giving the film the air of a tinted family portrait.

     At its heart, that is exactly what Mr. Minnelli does - create a family on-screen that extends to the viewers and also to the idea of a family of performers. See, for instance, the scene where Ms. Garland and Margaret O'Brien perform for the guests at a house party, where the older actress follows her child partner with her eyes, making sure she has all the steps of the routine down pat, while at the same time being a doting sister lovingly looking over her younger sibling. In that articulation lies the key to the film - not only does the family on-screen truly look and feel like a family, that is the "glue" that sustains the whole film and makes it transcend the mere appeal of nostalgia for simpler, younger, earlier times (it must be remembered this, after all, was a wartime production). And the precise attention to detail that is so typical of the director's work is all here, as if Meet Me in St. Louis was a sort of "blueprint" of what was to come in its expert sequencing of laughter and tears, desires and disappointments. A "classic" it may be, but it is also a surprisingly modern film, and its ability to straddle so many different universes effortlessly is, in the end, what makes it such a perennial.


Judy Garland; Margaret O'Brien; Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main, Harry Davenport.
     Director, Vincente Minnelli; screenplay, Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, from the book by Sally Benson, Meet Me in St. Louis; cinematography, George Folsey (Technicolor); musical director, Conrad Salinger; art directors, Cedric Gibbons, Lemuel Ayres, Jack Martin Smith; costume designer, Irene Sharaff; editor, Albert Akst; producer, Arthur Freed (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Loew's Incorporated), USA, 1944, 111 minutes.
     Screened: Castro Theatre, San Francisco, December 26th 2011. 



Tuesday, December 27, 2011

THE LION IN WINTER

The Lion in Winter originated as a stage play taking medieval politics as the setting for a dysfunctional family jeu de massacre, set at an 1183 Christmas court where English king Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, scheme, squabble and plot over which of their three surviving sons will succeed him: blunt warrior Richard, scheming diplomat Geoffrey or pouting idiot John. James Goldman's exquisitely-written 1966 Broadway hit is extremely modern in its snappy dialogue, creating unusual but appropriate anachronisms with its period setting, even though its confluence of politics and personality devolves maybe a little too much and too often into upscale period soap opera.

     That the story revolves about the achingly difficult calls demanded of people by the power games required to survive at such rarefied, kingly heights (and that the plot itself is a purely fictional construct based on real-life characters) while at the same time transforming it into a very contemporary study of modern family dynamics merely underlines the soap opera aspects, expertly swept away by a stellar cast of theatre veterans - none of which involved in the original Broadway production.

     Peter O'Toole as Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor, in the roles originally created on stage by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, are a perfect match in wits and delivery, even though the advantage, of course, goes to an utterly divine Ms. Hepburn (who won an Academy Award for her pains). The supporting cast, including then young upstarts Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton and Nigel Terry, is as solid as they come; and the volley of one-liners exchanged by the characters expertly and minutiously managed by the performers. As filmed by Brit director Anthony Harvey, here in his sophomore feature after a career as an editor (notably on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove), it makes for magnetically fascinating drama, underlined by John Barry's haunting score.

     It is also, mysteriously, a somewhat clumsy, lopsided prestige picture, since Mr. Harvey's use of widescreen is rather non-descript and his sense of rhythm somewhat off-handed for someone trained as an editor (and a few of the blocky, abrupt cutting choices by John Bloom are rather unexplainable). But the sheer presence and commitment of the cast to the extraordinary dialogue of Mr. Goldman, as well as the all-too-realistic medieval sets by Peter Murton (shot on location in Ireland), raise The Lion in Winter above the prestige award fodder picture it may seem to be at first look.


Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn; Jane Merrow, John Castle, Timothy Dalton, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Terry; Nigel Stock. 
     Director, Anthony Harvey; screenplay, James Goldman, from his stage play, The Lion in Winter; cinematography, Douglas Slocombe (colour by Technicolor, Panavision); music, John Barry; art director, Peter Murton; costume designer, Margaret Furse; editor, John Bloom; producer, Martin Poll (Avco Embassy Pictures, Haworth Productions), USA/United Kingdom, 1968, 134 minutes. 
     Screened: DVD, December 25th 2011.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

HUGO

It all makes perfect sense. Of course Martin Scorsese was the one to adapt Brian Selznick's popular kids' book to the big screen. Of course it had to be shot in 3D. Of course this is the most unusual, strangest, least marketable of all kids' movies made in Hollywood for the past few years. It is a kids' movie meant for smart grown-ups, unlike most contemporary stuff that treats grown-ups as dumb kids that never grew up. Instead, Mr. Scorsese signs a touchingly enchanting throwback to family films of yore, and an utterly heartfelt love letter to cinema as a magic realm of dreams. It's a Rube Goldberg film of a fairytale that fits perfectly into the director's work both as a classics-inspired filmmaker and as a staunch defender of the preservation of film history and culture.

     If what you think Hugo is is the pratfalls and chocolate-box visuals of its rather poor trailer, well, think again. The chocolate-box visuals are a function of the fairytale aspect of the film, the story of the orphaned son of a master watchmaker seeking the heart-shaped key that will unlock a mysterious automaton's mechanism. That key, however, ends up being the entry to the wonderful world of cinema, for it will take the urchin Hugo Cabret (winningly played by Asa Butterfield) to the defeated and despondent silent-movie pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). The 3D effects suggest that the film is entirely set within a snow globe, its rich tones, swirling snowflakes and golden hues perfectly matched by the continuing sound of clockwork in the soundtrack.

     There is, of course, an inescapable irony in that a film awash in state-of-the-art digital effects celebrates the ingenuity, naïveté and silliness of those original, analog silent movies. But that is the exact point Mr. Scorsese is making, showing the through-line from the 1910s to the 2010s, the way that the enchantment of cinema then is the same as it is now, even if in different ways. It is also true that the Parisian colour is at times laid on a bit thick, that the slapsticky side-plot of Sacha Baron Cohen's cartoonishly villainous station inspector comes close to being perfunctory (though not because of the actor's performance, it should be said) and that Hugo risks at some point becoming somewhat overly didactic. Not to mention the somewhat self-conscious winks at the director's own past, from the opening whirl through the train station where Hugo lives that suggests a child's eye-level Goodfellas, to a couple of shots lifted directly from The Age of Innocence. But that is par for the course in this extraordinarily heartfelt film that fits right in with his interest in people searching for answers and redemption, aware at the same time of the transience of emotion and of the magic of film in capturing that. The result is by no means a vintage Scorsese film, but it is a wonderfully enchanting one.

     Oh, and please dismiss the trailer.


Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee; Jude Law.
     Director, Martin Scorsese; screenplay, John Logan, from the book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret; cinematography (prints by DeLuxe, digital intermediate by Technicolor), Robert Richardson; music, Howard Shore; production designer, Dante Ferretti; costume designer, Sandy Powell; editor, Thelma Schoonmaker; visual effects supervisor, Rob Legato; producers, Graham King, Tim Headington, Mr. Scorsese, Johnny Depp (GK Films, Infinitum Nihil, in association with Dean Street Productions, Future Capital Partners, Screen Partners International), USA/United Kingdom, 2011, 126 minutes. (US distributor and world sales, Paramount Pictures.) 
     Screened December 21st, 2011 (AMC Loews Metreon 11, San Francisco). 

Friday, December 23, 2011

MURDER BY DEATH

It's almost offensive to have such an embarrassment of riches in one movie and throw them away in such an off-handed, almost absent-minded way. One look at the awesome cast brought together for this original script by playwright Neil Simon, and at some of the choice repartee he is known for, and you wish someone like Richard Quine or Blake Edwards were in charge of this scathing spoof of murder mystery novels set in the spooky manor of the reclusive Lionel Twain (Truman Capote).

     Unfortunately, most of Mr. Simon's film work seldom had the good fortune of being handled by a genuinely inspired film director. Murder by Death was the debut feature of the late Robert Moore, a Tony-winning stage director with extensive television work behind him, but showing little or none comic flair in this flat, somewhat clumsy debut; as if the script and the cast merely required a functional director that would make sure everything was in focus. The irony, of course, is that Murder by Death was an original film screenplay rather than the stage play Mr. Moore's handling makes it seem like. (Before his death in 1984, he was only to direct two further features, both scripted by Mr. Simon.)

     The plot's inbuilt zaniness scathingly rips apart the codes of murder mysteries through thinly-veiled takes on five celebrated literary detectives (their names evidently changed) working together to solve a murder: Peter Falk and Eileen Brennan as Sam Spade and his secretary; David Niven and Maggie Smith as Nick and Nora Charles; Elsa Lanchester and James Coco as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Poirot; and Peter Sellers as Charlie Chan. The story, however, demanded a lighter, fleeter touch than Mr. Moore's heavy-handed, TV-level staging. That doesn't make Murder by Death any less enjoyable, as the inspired one-liners and game performances betray a love and knowledge of murder mysteries and are delightful enough to carry the movie. But these are not enough to overlook the film's disappointing lack of rhythm and the sense of an insufficiently developed script somewhat wasted - the plot moves forward in fits and starts that make a point of not making sense, and the climax suggests Mr. Simon might have backed himself into a corner he could only get out of by pushing the surreal to a maximum.

Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood.
     Director, Robert Moore; writer, Neil Simon; cinematography (colour), David M. Walsh; music, Dave Grusin; production designer, Stephen Grimes; costume designer, Ann Roth; supervising editor, Margaret Booth; editor, John F. Burnett; producer, Ray Stark (Columbia Pictures, Rastar Productions), USA, 1976, 94 minutes.
     Screened December 20th 2011.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

If you are wondering what Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, acclaimed for the teenage vampire classic Let the Right One In, is doing adapting John Le Carré's Cold War classic about the hunt for a Russian "mole" at the highest echelons of 1970s British intelligence, with a stellar cast of British actors, the answer is very simple. He is doing another ever-so-poignantly chilly period piece where violence suffuses the entire production but little to nothing truly happens on screen, where the temperature hardly ever rises above a wintery cold and silences speak louder than words. That Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn't as enthralling as Let the Right One In is less due to any sense of high expectations than to the difficulty in compacting a tricky novel whose only previous screen life was as a television series down to two hours.

     In fact, the key to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the same as it was for the previous film: the sense of normalcy and regular life that their nominal heroes yearn for but are routinely denied - everyone in the "Circus" of British intelligence services is awash in memories of "a better time" when things weren't so bloody confusing. And Mr. Alfredson's dull palette of gun-metal grays, ragged browns and rainy skies, crisply shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, underlines how sordid this entire underworld of espionage is, especially when contrasted with the deceptively innocent flashbacks of a "Circus" Christmas party that punctuate intermittently the central plotline. This party is an invention of the film's script that codifies the idea of the "Circus" as a once-loving family that has grown into dysfunction, showing how much the righteous mentality of these folk raised during WWII had deteriorated into callous, ruthless politicking - with power a cheap substitute for doing work that matters.

     In that sense, Mr. Alfredson, with his observant, coolly detached handling, turns out to be a director perfectly attuned to the piece, even if his cerebral chilliness ends up deterring the viewer from complete engagement with a film that proceeds at a stately but often remote pace, and whose cast is somewhat wasted. Other than Gary Oldman's impeccable George Smiley, most everyone else is reduced to supporting roles with little screen time - from mere one-scene walk-ons to insufficiently developed characters, only John Hurt, Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Toby Jones manage to make any impression. Still, that doesn't make it a worse movie - just one that manages the impossible feet of making an articulate, engaging film utterly faithful to its source material while somehow not quite reaching its full potential.


Gary Oldman; Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Colin Firth, Stephen Graham, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney, Mark Strong.
     Director, Tomas Alfredson; screenplay, Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, from the novel by John Le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; cinematography, Hoyte van Hoytema (colour, Nordisk Film processing, widescreen); music, Alberto Iglesias; production designer, Maria Djurkovic; costume designer, Jacqueline Durran; editor, Dino Jonsäter; producers, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo (Studiocanal, Karla Films, Paradis Films, Kinowelt Filmproduktion, Working Title Films), United Kingdom/France/Germany, 2011, 127 minutes. (World sales, Studiocanal.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9, Lisbon, December 5th 2011.



Sunday, December 18, 2011

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL

There's an inescapable irony in seeing a director celebrated by his unusually layered animation features take charge of a blockbuster franchise masterminded by its star and known for its bang-for-the-buck eye-candy coefficient. However, the fourth installment of the big-screen adaptation of Bruce Geller's fondly remembered TV series marks a distinct improvement in the franchise Tom Cruise is hanging his contemporary relevance on. The Incredibles and Ratatouille director Brad Bird, making his live-action feature debut, proves surprisingly adept at dealing with these contradictions; his sense of fluid motion, coming from a gravity-less discipline such as animation, guarantees that the suspension of disbelief required by the Mission: Impossible rulebook is handled with the requisite levity and a surprising clarity of staging that suggests a visual imagination at work.

     This is important because plot has never been the strong suit of the M:I films, being as they are a succession of highly elaborate illusions piled on a top of a thin storyline - here, a rogue nuclear terrorist that plans to detonate a nuclear war and blame it on the IMF, something that the Bond movies have already explored previously. Therefore, Mr. Bird focuses on the illusion to the detriment of everything else, to the risk of extending them for far too long (the Dubai and car silo episodes are stretched to the point of ridiculousness, and the director doesn't have John Woo's chops to pull it off as successfully). This reinforces the video-game aspect of the script by Alias writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, as well the finger of that series' mastermind J. J. Abrams, credited as producer here, who directed the third M:I film and whose narrative playfulness is much in evidence. But it also underlines just how cartoonish the whole thing are - and it's by playing along with the live-action cartoon angle that Mr. Bird gives the film the lightness of touch it needs to make it as an entertaining two hours.

    The film is also much helped by the fact that, for one, Mr. Cruise is not exclusively center stage - even though he is the nominal star, his is a lighter performance than his usual (the much unfairly derided Knight and Day seems to have done him some good), and the supporting cast is well-chosen, with series newcomers Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton fitting right in and a returning Simon Pegg providing stellar comic relief. It will be interesting to see just what Mr. Bird will do next with his San Francisco earthquake project, since the needs of a well-oiled franchise come first in a film such as this; but this is a surprisingly cheerful start.

Tom Cruise; Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov.
     Director, Brad Bird; screenplay, Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec; cinematography, Robert Elswit (colour, Panavision widescreen); music, Michael Giacchino; production designer, Jim Bissell; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; editor, Paul Hirsch; visual effects supervisor, John Knoll; producers, Mr. Cruise, J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk (Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, Tom Cruise Productions, Bad Robot), USA, 2011, 133 minutes. (US distributor and world sales, Paramount Pictures).
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), December 14th 2011. 



Friday, December 16, 2011

JODAEYE NADER AZ SIMIN

A SEPARATION

If you are the kind of casual filmgoer who never quite got why was everybody so taken with Iranian cinema from the late 1980s onwards, well, you are now in luck. A Separation is your film, but it is also one of the most outstanding and, yes, accessible productions to have come out of the Islamic Republic since the heyday of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In fact, it has also succeeded in reconciling mainstream audiences (both in its native Iran and abroad) and the critical contingent (with a truckload of awards started off by its triumphant Berlin win in February 2011). It's all well deserved, too, as A Separation smartly builds a bridge between global arthouse cinema and Iranian traditions; it blends the latter's preference for naturalistic acting, long takes, absence of music and unflinching look at social subjects with the former's tightening of narrative, ensemble structure and  will to communicate with wider audiences. This could actually be a sort of Iranian Crash or Babel (only smarter and better), as the events that bring into collision course two Teheran families in fromt of a magistrate snowball unpredictably from a single family issue whose butterfly effect unspools in unforeseen directions.

     Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to divorce Nader (Peyman Moadi) so she can move abroad with the couple's teenage daughter. When Nader refuses, Simin moves out, forcing him to hire a caregiver for his Alzheimer's-afflicted father while he's at work; but the pregnant, devout Razieh (Sareh Bayat), trying to make ends meet as her husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini) is long unemployed turns out to be a mismatch that will prove costly to both couples. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi mines the same ensemble feel of his previous but less assured About Elly (where a weekend outing for a group of Teheran friends is marred by the disappearance of a guest), as well as the minutely observed but off-handedly noted class tensions, heightened by religion and a sense of injustice in a country that is more divided than we tend to think. A Separation turns out to become a sort of murky whodunit in search of the truth in between the self-serving statements made by both the well-off couple and the struggling one; their behaviours are not so very distant from our own as we ponder what should be the balance between the society and the individual, a subject that gains an added gravity juxtaposed to the current Iranian society.

     And that is indeed the greatest triumph of A Separation, suffused with a political subtext that is never foregrounded or underlined; first and foremost, this is a story about people, about the truth and about family (and, yes, the kids ever-present in Iranian cinema are present here as well merely as witnesses to events they can't quite understand). Mr. Farhadi is not into the opaque austerity and occasional slip into unwitting miserablism of the "usual suspects" of arthouse Iranian cinema, even though he shares some of their preoccupations and ideas; what he delivers here is something much closer to a mainstream melodrama, and an astonishingly real one at that.


Leila Hatami, Peyman Moadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Babak Karimi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Kimia Hosseini; Merila Zarei.
     Director/writer, Asghad Farhadi; cinematography, Mahmoud Kalari (colour); production and costume designer, Kevyan Moghadam; editor, Hayedeh Safiyari; producer, Mr. Farhadi (Asghar Farhadi Productions in collaboration with Dreamlab Films), Iran, 2011, 123 minutes. (World sales, Memento Films International.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 11, Lisbon, December 2nd 2011. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

EFEITOS SECUNDÁRIOS

A former collaborator of João Pedro Rodrigues, as co-writer and editor in O Fantasma and Odete, Paulo Rebelo moves into a more mainstream direction with this slight but amiable directing debut, that has been bewilderingly awaiting commercial release since its 2009 completion and has already been screened at a few film festivals. The thrilling trio of central performances carry the film, allegedly inspired by the work of Douglas Sirk, well beyond its schematic, heavy-handed construction as a "problem picture". Mr. Rebelo has a sure hand with his actors that he lacks in the overly simplistic script, one that in different hands might have lapsed into television-grade melodrama.

     Suburban hairdresser Laura (a moving Maria João Luís), a widowed mother of two, takes in the misfit Carmo (Rita Martins), a runaway living in her second-hand car who hides a secret she won't share. While the older woman gains a new lease on life from accompanying Carmo on long nights out where she meets Rui (Nuno Lopes), a fisherman with a broken heart, the young girl gets the sense of home and family her own stubbornness often stops her from seeing. After an intriguing first act, the film slowly loses steam and becomes more conventional, as the apparent need to turn it into a drama with a message about a serious subject overwhelms the fragile plot. Thankfully, Ms. Luís, Ms. Martins and Mr. Lopes's outstanding turns help Efeitos Secundários stand up on its own two feet, more than making up for the film's narrative shortcomings and giving humanity and depth to stock characters the script signposts clumsily.

Maria João Luís, Rita Martins, Nuno Lopes, Nuno Gil.
     Director/writer, Paulo Rebelo; cinematography, Inês Carvalho (colour, processing by Tobis); music, Os Tornados; art director, João Rui Guerra da Mata; wardrobe, Tânia Franco; editor, Cláudia Bravo; producers, Christine Reeh, Isabel Machado, Joana Ferreira (CRIM Produções in co-production with Cinemate), Portugal, 2009, 97 minutes. (Portuguese distributor and world sales, CRIM Produções.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Teatro do Bairro (Lisbon), November 28th 2011.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

DRIVE

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's dazzling exercise in style over substance has become a love it or hate it proposition since its official selection at Cannes, where it won the Best Director award. This isn't entirely surprising. Mr. Refn's work has always pretty much been divisive, and Drive - an American-financed production that at one point was thought of as a possible blockbuster franchise-starter - takes that divisiveness to the next level; it applies the director's love of stylisation to a film noir perennial, the loner caught up in a plot where nothing is what it seems. But, in truth, the manic drive and energy that made Pusher such a remarkable debut has been slowly dissipated through Mr. Refn's follow-up films, congealing in Drive as a crisp, glowing, stand-alone facade of pulsing neons and hyper-real slow-motion soundtracked by Cliff Martinez's glacial, ambient electronics.

     You sense what Mr Refn - hand-picked by star Ryan Gosling to handle the project - was aiming at: a stylized update of classic thriller territory, echoing the urban neon cool of Michael Mann's modernist thrillers and the freshening up of its tropes that directors like John Boorman, Walter Hill or William Friedkin attempted in the 1960s and 1970s. Drive knowingly presents itself as a gloss on those films and as an admission of the impossibility of recapturing their magic; Mr. Gosling's almost morose silences are as much a classic element of detective and thriller fiction as a realisation you can no longer play hardboiled dialogue straight like you would 40 years ago.

     In a way, that makes this tale of a stunt driver (Mr. Gosling) whose interest in his next-door neighbour (Carey Mulligan) leads to an involvement in a heist that goes wrong a sort of ghost story, one whose hero is already dead from the first minute we lay eyes on him. Dead, both metaphorically (the driver is never named in the film, and such a chivalrous lone knight is possibly a remnant of an earlier age where innocence was still possible), and practically (we know from the very first frames that something will come to undo the smooth mechanics of the driver's life). The graphic, bloody violence the film introduces at the 60-minute mark is further evidence that Mr. Refn is playing precisely with that comprehension that the old codes of honour no longer apply - like a Jean-Pierre Melville thriller, brutally ripped from its original landmarks, had crash-landed in a Takashi Miike or Takeshi Kitano freakout.

     For all it plays with, Drive is an utterly fascinating, dazzlingly visualized object, down to the way Mr. Refn and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, revel in heightening the bright-lights-big-city visuals of a highly stylized Los Angeles. But it's style as substance, with the sleek, smoothly-running, almost Soderberghian cool of the visuals unable to hide the empty vacuum where its heart should be, utterly disposable and derivative where the films it tries to mimic were extremely idiossyncratic, personalised one-offs.


Ryan Gosling; Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman; Oscar Isaac; Albert Brooks.
     Director, Nicolas Winding Refn; screenplay, Hossein Amini, from the novel by James Sallis Drive; cinematography, Newton Thomas Sigel (colour, digital intermediate by Company 3); music, Cliff Martinez; production designer, Beth Mickle; costume designer, Erin Benach; editor, Mat Newman; producers, Marc Platt, Adam Siegel, John Palermo, Gigi Pritzker, Michael Litvak (Bold Films, Oddlot Entertainment, Marc Platt, Motel Movies in association with Newbridge Film Capital), USA, 2011, 100 minutes. (US distributor, Filmdistrict. World sales, Sierra/Affinity International.) 
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Campo Pequeno 2, Lisbon, November 30th 2011. 

Saturday, December 03, 2011

MELANCHOLIA

Leave it to maddeningly wayward Danish provocateur Lars von Trier to sabotage the chances of what is his best film in two decades (for my money at least, since 1990's Europa) through his infamous "OK, I'm a Nazi" tirade at Cannes 2011. True to form, said tirade threatens to overshadow the actual qualities of the film but is in line with Mr. von Trier's well-known taste for petulant provocation. And, in some way, the sublimely silly act of self-sabotage in Cannes is the equal of Melancholia's depressed heroine, Justine (a superb Kirsten Dunst), whose lavish wedding night at her sister's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) country estate is spent under the spell of a darkening cloud that renders her entirely unable to enjoy the proceedings.

     In fairness, there isn't much to enjoy: her separated parents (brief cameos from Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) don't get along, her materialist brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) keeps reminding her how much the evening is costing him, her loutish boss (Stellan Skarsgård) keeps badgering her for a tagline. It's the imperious mother that best sums it up while addressing her distaste of marriage: "enjoy it while it lasts". Because, in a short while, there won't be anything to enjoy: the mysterious red planet Melancholia is approaching fast and, indeed, may even collide with Earth, extinguishing life as we know it. And, according to Justine, "life is only on Earth, and not for long".

     So, yes, Melancholia is what Mr. von Trier defined as "a beautiful film about the end of the world", a micro-disaster movie entirely set in a lush country estate, playroom to the rich and powerful, where the disaster happens first inside the mind. Surprising as it may seem, it is also the director's most accomplished film since Europa, simultaneously naturalistic and fantastical, smartly combining the handheld visuals he brought into modern art film grammar through the Dogme 95 movement with lavishly hyper-romantic frames rendered with high-speed digital cameras. It is also, undoubtedly, his most personal and sincere - written in the throes of a dark depression, surrendering to nihilism, pointlessness, despair, it practically eschews his usual techniques of narrative manipulation and mischievous attachment to shock tactics. This is Lars von Trier as "what you see is what you get" filmmaker, putting people face to face with the imminence of death and letting the story play out from there.

     Granted, there isn't much of a story in the first place. Only the slow-burn awakening of Justine's depression on her wedding night as Melancholia first comes into sight, balanced in the film's second half by sister Claire's gradual surrender to panic as she realises the planet might be more than just a fly-by. The wedding half plays too much like a retread of Thomas Vinterberg's seminal Festen, the second wallows a bit too much in Scandinavian existential cliches, and both could use some trimming. But both Ms. Dunst and Ms. Gainsbourg turn in stunning performances, suggesting that the Danish director, for all his bad-boy reputation, remains a formidable director of actors capable of leading them to new heights (and Ms. Gainsbourg is on her second collaboration with Mr. von Trier after Antichrist). And, much as Melancholia might be an irresistible magnet for a sniggering intelligentsia desiring nothing so much as the provocative filmmaker's comeuppance, the truth is the film's obvious sincerity and nakedness bring out the best in a director whose work has been for far too long buried underneath self-sabotaging stunts. Here's hoping that the witless Cannes tirade won't turn people away from a real, if far from perfect, achievement.


Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Brady Corbet, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier; Kiefer Sutherland.
     Director/writer, Lars von Trier; cinematography, Manuel Alberto Claro (colour, widescreen, processing by Nordisk Film Shortcut); production designer, Jette Lehmann; costume designer, Manon Rasmussen; editor, Molly Malene Stensgaard; visual effects supervisor, Peter Hjorth; producers, Meta Louise Foldager, Louise Vesth (Zentropa Entertainments27, Film i Väst in co-production with Memfis Film International, Zentropa International Sweden, Slot Machine, Liberator Productions, Zentropa International Köln, DR, ARTE France Cinéma), Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, 2011, 134 minutes. (World sales, Trust Nordisk.) 
     Screened: screener DVD, Lisbon, November 29th 2011. 



Friday, December 02, 2011

ANONYMOUS

A word to the wise: there is little point in seeing Anonymous as a faithful depiction of British literary history, or any sort of history full stop. Its use of the theory that William Shakespeare was merely a boasting actor without any literary talent who put up a front for the work of Elizabethan nobleman Edward de Vere should be construed only as a narrative device to allow for a deliciously old-fashioned slab of pseudo-historical court intrigue, at the same level of Shakespeare in Love or Hollywood's historical pageants from the halcyon studio days. Which is to say: this is no more than high-grade hokum meant as spectacle not history, and as such stellarly presented by a director I've never seen less blustery and more quiet as here.

     German disaster movie veteran Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) has never put plausibility very high in his list of necessary elements, and whether he believes or not in the often debunked theory of Shakespeare as a mere front is irrelevant to this handsomely mounted period romance, shifting effortlessly between three different time-frames cleverly bookended as a play being performed in a NYC theatre, introduced by Derek Jacobi. Key to the tale is De Vere's (Rhys Ifans) desire to depose royal counsel Sir William Cecil (Edward Hogg), avoid King James of Scotland to take up the English throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) and thus take his revenge on the family that tutored him since the early death of his father, the Earl of Oxford, and gradually denied him his love of life, poetry and women.

     Of course, people might be shocked to see such respected British actors in the cast, but it is also their commitment and professionalism in what looks like a slumming turn that makes Anonymous such an enjoyable moment of Hollywood silliness. And Shakespeare's power, regardless of whoever wrote the words, remains undimmed, especially since the recreation of the plays' theatrical performances in a handsomely fake Elizabethan London is stunning, both in execution and performance, in what is probably the greater surprise of the film. Mr. Emmerich might not be be able to extend those theatrical recreations successfully into a feature length, but there is here a general competence and efficiency in the building blocks of a film that suggest the German director is more than just the soulless hack we've thought him to be all this time. Which, nevertheless, doesn't make the film any more than an entertainingly disposable time-passer.


Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg; Mark Rylance; Derek Jacobi.
     Director, Roland Emmerich; writer, John Orloff; music, Thomas Wander, Harald Kloser; director of photography (colour, prints by DeLuxe, widescreen), Anna J. Foerster; production designer, Sebastian Krawinkel; costume designer, Lisy Christl; film editor, Peter R. Adam; visual effects supervisors, Volker Engel, Marc Weigert; producers, Mr. Emmerich, Larry Franco, Robert Leger (Columbia Pictures in association with Relativity Media, Centropolis Entertainment in association with Studio Babelsberg, Anonymous Pictures, Vierzehnte Babelsberg, Siebente Babelsberg and Achte Babelsberg), USA/Germany, 2011, 130 minutes. (US distributor and world sales, Sony Pictures Entertainment.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, Lisbon, November 25th 2011. 



Thursday, December 01, 2011

PUSS IN BOOTS

It was really just a matter of time until the swashbuckling kitty introduced into the green ogre Shrek's upside-down fairytale universe in 2004's Shrek 2 would get his own moment in the headlights. Not surprisingly, this origin story of the latin lover swordscat is a notch above the three Shrek sequels, Dreamworks having carefully laid down the groundwork for a new franchise that would take up from the now defunct series. Part of its success, of course, lies in the sheer novelty effect, and the sense that the possibilities available to the heroic feline, hardly exploited during his supporting turns, are finally getting centre stage. Jeffrey Katzenberg's studio doesn't disappoint in that regard, much helped by a script that follows the company's recent move (seen also, for instance, in Kung Fu Panda 2) away from sitcom gag reels and into a proper narrative scaffolding.

     In this case, that translates into half origin story for Puss's heroism and outlaw status, half redemption tale (as he is revealed to be looking to make amends for a sorry episode from his past), but also into a smart, knowing take on classic Hollywood adventure cinema. First in the typecasting (Puss as the resourceful, gallant hero; shifty egg Humpty Dumpty as the helper with an agenda of his own; slinky Kitty Softpaws as the rebellious, and not entirely trustworthy, love interest); then in the general feel of backlot exoticism so well used by the stock studio adventures of the 1930s and 1940s (this fairytale Spain is closer to Mexico, in fact). Of course, part of the fun also lies in the clever voice casting, with Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek playing off each other beautifully as Puss and Kitty - putting one in mind of Mr. Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones' back-and-forth in Martin Campbell's The Mask of Zorro (itself an updated take on classic adventure films).

     Puss in Boots is certainly not the best Dreamworks feature in the the studios' 15-year output - that remains the original Shrek by a long mile - but its clever visuals (with a word for the excellent 3D work, less gimmicky and more integrated), its attention to plot and character and its generally cheerful mood go a long way towards making it one of their best.


Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris.
     Director, Chris Miller; screenplay, Tom Wheeler, from a story by Brian Lynch, Will Davies and Mr. Wheeler; music, Henry Jackman; production designer, Guillaume Aretos; costume designer, Isis Mussenden; film editor, Eric Dapkewicz; visual effects supervisor, Ken Bielenberg; producers, Joe M. Aguilar, Latifa Ouaou (Dreamworks Animation), USA, 2011, 90 minutes. (US distribution and world sales, Paramount Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9, Lisbon, November 25th 2011.