Sunday, January 29, 2012

PAÍS DO DESEJO

Creatively muddled and dramatically clumsy, Paulo Caldas' melodrama of love and religion in rural Brazil is an ill-advised take on an interesting premise. Starting off as a mosaic drama interweaving two different characters - an ailing concert pianist (Maria Padilha) and a progressive, humanist Catholic priest (Fábio Assunção) - Mr. Caldas and his co-writers make them collide through the inspired-by-true-events story of a teenage girl raped by her own uncle and excommunicated from the church for having aborted the resulting child. Despite that alone being enough for a full-length movie, the director never moves that story out of the background and it soon becomes obvious it's merely an excuse to focus on the unlikely meeting it engenders between the pianist and the priest.

     The result is a film whose desire for a transcendent romanticism is thwarted at every level: the acting is mostly indifferent (no one really has characters to develop, only archetypes), poor scripting (the dialogue is shockingly trite), clumsy handling and editing (wasting too much time setting up characters, like the nurse fascinated by Japanese pop culture, that never really serve any purpose), all of it wrapped up in the sense that Mr. Caldas never really decided which of the stories he really wanted to tell. The only saving grace is the music - impressionist piano pieces from Satie or Debussy that signpost the romanticism this ill-advised enterprise strives for without ever reaching.


Fábio Assunção, Maria Padilha, Gabriel Braga Nunes, Fernanda Vianna, Germano Haiut, Nicolau Breyner.
     Director, Paulo Caldas; screenplay, Amin Stepple, Pedro Severien, Mr. Caldas; cinematography, Paulo Jacinto dos Reis (colour, processing by Labocine do Brasil, widescreen); art director, Karen Araújo; costume designer, Bárbara Cunha; editor, Vânia Debs; producer, Vânia Catani (Bananeira Filmes in co-production with Fado Filmes, 99 Produções Artísticas, Cena 2 Produções), Brazil/Portugal, 2011, 88 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 5 (Lisbon), January 23rd 2012.

Friday, January 27, 2012

J. EDGAR

As endlessly fascinating as it is frustratingly flawed, J. Edgar is Clint Eastwood's latest left-turn and, probably, the best and most interesting of the oddly haughty prestige projects he has increasingly taken on as a director (Changeling, Invictus, Hereafter). An empathetic look at FBI mastermind J. Edgar Hoover, painted as a megalomaniac control freak who presciently foresaw information as power and a workaholic who sublimated his lack of social skills through his devotion to an unyielding self-propagandistic facade, J. Edgar is the sort of biopic that could not have been made when Hollywood routinely did this sort of thing. And yet, its sheer existence in this day and age, especially filmed with such exquisite, hushed classicism by Mr. Eastwood, is an unusual throwback to that earlier age of filmmaking. Piling irony upon irony is the fact the free-flowing structure of Dustin Lance Black's screenplay flits between Hoover's past and a 1960s/1970s present, showing us some of the key events in his life and career through his own, less than reliable eyes, in a non-linear structure that wouldn't have been tolerated in that age.

     Much has been made of the discreet intimations of homosexuality between Hoover and his right-hand man Clyde Tolson that were often suggested during his lifetime, but never confirmed, that Mr. Black wrote into the script, but neither he nor Mr. Eastwood are interested in sexualising the characters or in exploiting cheap sensationalism. They much prefer to flesh out a mystery that has remained so over Hoover's long life, someone whose devotion to job and country certainly hid deeper feelings and needs that have never been properly considered and remain tantalizing. It's a smart take, much helped by Leonardo di Caprio's subdued performance, his best since the underrated Blood Diamond and one where the actor all but disappears inside the character in a way he's seldom been able to do. The problem with J. Edgar lies elsewhere: in the sense that Mr. Eastwood's leisurely, economic style may be too laid back and stilted for the twisting, modern energy of Mr. Black's script. And yet, that may very well be part and parcel of the film's awkward, angular fascination: what better way to tell a story about someone who kept hanging on to a world long gone and marched to his own beat than by reinforcing that disconnect between past and present, modern and old-fashioned?


Leonardo di Caprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas.
     Director, Clint Eastwood; screenplay, Dustin Lance Black; cinematography, Tom Stern (colour and prints by Technicolor, Panavision widescreen); music, Mr. Eastwood; production designer, James J. Murakami; costume designer, Deborah Hopper; editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach; producers, Mr. Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Robert Lorenz (Warner Bros. Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, Malpaso Company), USA, 2011, 137 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), January 18th 2012. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

POLISSE

Following the daily life of a child protection unit of the Parisian police, Polisse has run the gamut of critical and audience reception since it was first unveiled at Cannes in its 2011 competition. It's not hard to see why: this third feature from iconoclastic actress and director Maïwenn (the eldest sister of actress Isild le Besco and a rather divisive figure in her own right) is basically a TV cop show extended to feature film length and transplanted to the streets of Paris.

     But therein lie Polisse's strengths and weaknesses, making it a more intriguing project that such a description might suggest. Its episodic structure, extending over a number of months of cases and experiences of the detectives assigned to the unit, is standard TV season fodder, but it somehow never feels lost on the big screen, thanks to Maïwenn's attention to her actors and their interplay as an ensemble. At the same time, the predictability of the narrative and character arcs prevent the viewer from fully engaging with them (except in the occasional moment) and can reduce their personal stories to cheap melodrama, despite the winning commitment and boundless energy of the ensemble cast.

     Ironically, the director herself is sadly the worst offender in that respect: her character in the film, a bourgeois photographer parachuted into the squad to make a photographic report, designed as a surrogate of the viewer to help ease him in into this obsessively self-contained world, is so lazily presented and drawn and its arc is so predictably plotted that it becomes cumbersome and pointless, detracting from Polisse's truly good aspects. These are the portrait of the daily dynamics of this most difficult of police jobs, depicted without undue glamour, exploitation or exaggeration - and it's precisely when she chooses to focus on the humanity of these people that the film soars above its TV procedural structure. Making it even more interesting that Maïwenn is not so much interested in the children as she is in the people who work these jobs - and people who, in some ways, may not be that different from the children they work with.

Karin Viard, Joeystarr, Marina Foïs, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Karole Rocher, Emmanuelle Bercot, Frédéric Pierrot, Arnaud Henriet, Naidra Ayadi, Jérémie Elkaïm, Maïwenn.
     Director, Maïwenn; writers, Maïwenn, Ms. Bercot; cinematography, Pierre Aïm (colour, processing by LTC); music, Stephen Warbeck; production designer, Nicolas de Boiscuille; costume designer, Marité Coutard; editors, Laure Gardette, Yann Dedet; producer, Alain Attal (Les Productions du Trésor, ARTE France Cinéma, Mars Films, Chaocorp, Shortcom), France, 2011, 127 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), January 17th 2012.




 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

THE DESCENDANTS

Alexander Payne's long-awaited return is a classic case of absence making the heart grow fonder. Not that the director's previous work has lost or gained luster with time, simply that expectations have somehow made people see in The Descendants an excellence it clearly hasn't achieved, solid and good as the film is. There isn't anything intrinsically wrong with its smart, affecting study of family issues set against the unlikely backdrop of paradisiacal Hawaii, and it's clearly of a piece with Mr. Payne's breakthrough films About Schmidt and Sideways - both of them about overwhelmed, clueless people going through life crises. There is even a superbly realised irony in casting George Clooney, possibly the closest modern Hollywood has got to a classic film star in the 1940s/1950s mold, in the role of an overwhelmed, clueless lawyer going through a mid-life crisis: dealing with his wife's possibly terminal coma and the surprise discovery that she was having an affair, with his teenage daughters' feelings about the situation, and with a family land decision affecting all of his close and distant relatives.

     Mr. Clooney, a smarter actor than most are willing to credit him as, acquits himself more than honorably and dims his star wattage accordingly to work the way he has always preferred, as a consummate ensemble player. But that only highlights just how much The Descendants is the least edgy and least challenging of the director's films. The sense of quiet desperation that always suffused Mr. Payne's quietly naturalistic, almost clinical studies of the modern American male is mostly absent, replaced with a sort of wearied acceptance, a sense that nothing can be done other than come to terms with what is, always was and forever shall be. With the director's sly satirical edge dulled, the film's generally well-observed look at family dynamics is blunted, and this exceedingly well-behaved melodrama ends up lacking the subterranean energy that made Mr. Payne stand out among the "Indiewood" crowd.

     Again, there is nothing wrong with The Descendants - everything is in its right place, and maybe there's the rub.


George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard.
     Director, Alexander Payne; screenplay, Mr. Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants; cinematography, Phedon Papamichael (colour by Fotokem, prints by Deluxe, Panavision widescreen); production designer, Jane Ann Stewart; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; editor, Kevin Tent; producers, Jim Burke, Mr. Payne, Jim Taylor (Fox Searchlight Pictures, Ad Hominem Enterprises, in association with Dune Entertainment, Little Blair Productions, Ingenious Entertainment), USA, 2011, 115 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Amoreiras 2 (Lisbon), January 13th 2011.


 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

It's to Hollywood's detriment that what passes for "originality" these days is adapting a best-selling thriller that was filmed only two years ago in its native Sweden, suggesting simultaneously that somehow non-American films don't cut it as they should in the US (it must be those darned subtitles), and that it takes Hollywood to do proper justice to a best-seller. Of course, the fact that it's David Fincher, the closest modern Hollywood has to an edgy auteur able to work within the system, directing is enough to suggest The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn't going to be a half-baked hack job.

     It isn't. Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 adaptation of the first book in the late Stieg Larsson's phenomenally successful Millennium trilogy had been originally conceived as a TV series before the book became a global hit, and looked like it, up to a point. In that sense, even though screenwriter Steven Zaillian's script follows mostly the same beats as Mr. Oplev's film - a possibly psychotic hacker and a disgraced journalist are hired to rummage around the past of a powerful industrial family searching for the solution to a 40-year old mystery - , this is a whole other beast. Mr. Fincher brings to it his cerebral slickness, turning it into a curious combination of Zodiac's slow-burn procedural intensity and Seven's disquieting moods; but there's also the feeling that the director isn't stretching by any means, merely finding new corners in a territory he has already staked out and knows pretty well.

     What he brings to it that the Swedish version lacks is a pervasive sense of skating on very thin ice that will at some point thaw, revealing a closet full of skeletons no one really wants dug up. This is coupled with the fluid omnipresence of technology throughout (people are constantly trying to keep secrets that technology prevents them from keeping), and with much help from the pulsing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and Jeff Cronenweth's icy cinematography, turns it into a more dystopian, Big-Brotherish, ominous mood that was mostly absent by the allegiance to the mystery plot that guided Mr. Oplev's film. It's almost as if Mr. Fincher couldn't care less about the plot as long as he could focus on the mood, and his usual sharp perfectionism proves him right.

     There is, however, one seriously bum note where Mr. Fincher's version is inferior to Mr. Oplev's, and that is in its female lead. Rooney Mara would have always had a hard time rising up to Noomi Rapace's career-making performance as hacker Lisbeth Salander, but hers is a disappointingly one-note performance that focuses too much on the character's anti-social nature and never pierces through to the character's humanity, making her more of a concept than a person. This is even more of a misjudgement when set against the uniformly excellent performances of the remaining cast (and Daniel Craig proves to be an excellent fit for Blomqvist) and the generally smart, disquieting mood of the film.

Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara; Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson, Geraldine James, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter, Ulf Friberg.
     Director, David Fincher; screenplay, Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; cinematography, Jeff Cronenweth (colour, digital intermediate by Light Iron Digital, widescreen); music, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross; production designer, Donald Graham Burt; costume designer, Trish Summerville; editors, Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall; producers, Ole Søndberg, Søren Stærmose, Scott Rudin, Ceán Chaffin (Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Yellow Bird, Scott Rudin Productions), USA/Sweden, 2011, 158 minutes. 
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), January 10th 2012. 



Wednesday, January 18, 2012

MONEYBALL

Baseball is a mere pretext to explore the tectonic shifts in business and the evolution of the American dream in Bennett Miller's follow-up to Capote. The lightly fictionalised true story of the Oakland Athletics' 2002 reinvention of baseball according to batting statistics rather than old-fashioned talent scouting, led by former second-tier ballplayer Billy Beane, is reframed by ace screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin as a quest for redemption and a struggle for the soul of the American pastime - with as little footage of the sport itself as possible. This is deliberate, not only because it diverts the film into the backroom deals and snappy dialogue where Mr. Sorkin's talent usually excels. It actually lasers in on the greater significance of the approach Mr. Beane and his right-hand man Paul di Podesta (here turned into Yale graduate Peter Brand) brought to bear on baseball: a surprise effect built entirely on numbers that, at the same time as it reduces humanity to a mere statistical algorithm, offers a second chance for the disenfranchised and underdog players.

     Although it's not exactly a traditional sports movie, Moneyball does work within the usual borders of the genre, with a hero that fights against all odds to prove his worth, and that of his ideas, to the world at large and eventually is vindicated. It's a traditionally uplifting underdog tale, only told through a perfectly struck balance between the cold logic of numbers and the human need to excel - and that is where Brad Pitt comes in, his exquisitely modulated performance as Beane signalling he has finally become the actor we always wished he would become. His film-star good looks work within the performance to bring out the vulnerability and desperation that underlines the personal story of a man wishing to make up for a life he sees as wasted and making sure nobody else has to go through the same thing as he did.

     Mr. Miller directs with a cool, smart hand, if more workmanlike than inspired, but that only underlines the wonderfully understated, classic sensibility at work that makes it an update on classic American tales; one can't help but wonder what Steven Soderbergh, who was set to direct before Columbia pulled the plug on his take on the material, would have done with it, but Mr. Miller's Moneyball stands on its own as a very good film.


Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright.
     Director, Bennett Miller; screenplay, Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, from a story by Stan Chervin and the book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball; cinematography, Wally Pfister (colour by DeLuxe); music, Mychael Danna; production designer, Jess Gonchor; costume designer, Kasia Walicka Maimone; editor, Christopher Tellefsen; producers, Michael de Luca, Rachael Horovitz, Mr. Pitt (Columbia Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Michael de Luca Productions), USA, 2011, 133 minutes.



Monday, January 16, 2012

L'APOLLONIDE - SOUVENIRS DE LA MAISON CLOSE


HOUSE OF TOLERANCE



You don't really need to see a roomful of grieving prostitutes slow-dance to The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" to understand French director Bertrand Bonello's film is not your average take on the world's oldest profession. Self-consciously, if passionately and no-holds-barred, artistic, this tale of the last few months in the life of the Apollonide, a 1900 Parisian brothel about to close down to make way for new (and not necessarily better) times, plays out as a deliriously gentle hallucination under the influence of a psychotropic substance. Jumbling time and space into dreamy flashbacks and flash-forwards, Mr. Bonello depicts daily life in the Apollonide (and, by extension, in old-fashioned «red light houses») as an improbable, cocooned haven where women could find a measure of freedom denied to them in the parochial, patriarchal outside society of turn-of-the-19th-century Paris. In doing so, he completely eschews any exploitative or titillating conception of the naked body to focus on prostitution as a job and on its practitioners as working girls following a specific set of rules.

     Exquisitely realised as a fever dream of lust and fancy inside a protected space, an erotic realm where fantasy can come true at a cost (and one that can occasionally turn out to be too high), Mr. Bonello's languid moodpiece slowly envelops the viewers in its poetic, poisonous charms, relying on Josée Deshaies' richly luxuriant photography, Alain Guffroy's cozy sets and elegantly tuned performances from a strong ensemble cast. The result is an intriguing, seductive collision between David Cronenberg's J. G. Ballard adaptation Crash (from which it retains the unholy attraction for the beauty of the uncanny and offbeat) and Abdellatif Kechiche's overpowering Vénus noire (with which it shares its desire to challenge traditional representations of the outcast and downcast), filtered through the director's own fascination with close-knit groups placed outside the rigid social boxes - not only of the period, but also of our own time.

Hafsia Herzi, Céline Sallette, Alice Barnole, Adèle Haenel, Jasmine Trinca, Iliana Zabeth; Noémie Lvovsky.
     Director, writer, composer, Bertrand Bonello; cinematography, Josée Deshaies (colour by Éclair); production designer, Alain Guffroy; costume designer, Anaïs Romand; editor, Fabrice Rouaud; producers, Kristina Larsen, Mr. Bonello (Les Films du Lendemain, My New Picture in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma), France, 2010, 125 minutes. 
     Screened: Medeia Monumental 2 (Lisbon), January 14th 2011. 




L' Apollonide trailer por Flixgr

Thursday, January 05, 2012

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

Could this be 2011's The King's Speech? Certainly its co-producer and distributor Harvey Weinstein is banking on it, since My Week with Marilyn bears all the hallmarks of the mainstream prestige pictures Mr. Weinstein's Miramax Pictures made its fortunes on. A little-known true-life episode involving well-known figures, the impeccable professionalism of British period recreation, an all-star cast - all ingredients are present and correct, making for the sort of film that not only delights mainstream filmgoers but also charms Academy Award voters. And, to be honest, they could do much worse than fall for this entertaining but utterly harmless film that marries the coming-of-age tale of 20-something Colin Clark while being a glorified gofer on the 1956 set of The Prince and the Showgirl. A stage hit for Vivien Leigh that director and husband Laurence Olivier convinced Marilyn Monroe to star in opposite him, it resulted in a chaotic shoot during which the stars did not get along at all and a film that has been all but forgotten by film history.

     Adapting Mr. Clark's memoirs, the debut feature of television director Simon Curtis is a perceptive look both at the daily, very unglamorous chores of a film shoot and at what it meant to come of age in 1950s Britain on the cusp of the rock'n'roll revolution. Essentially, My Week with Marilyn takes the shape of a fairytale where the young hero finds himself in the arms of a goddess, perfectly aware of her failings but still wanting to believe there can be a happy-ever-after ending. In doing so, however, Mr. Curtis and screenwriter Adrian Hodges remain within the safe confines of Ms. Monroe as a myth rather than as a person, since the story isn't really about her but about Colin's learning experience on the set, as a person and a filmmaker. Michelle Williams is engagingly fragile and vulnerable as Marilyn, capturing both her sexpot and her private personas, but the film is never really interested in her as a person, merely as a mythical figure; a breath of fresh air in post-war England, represented here by the backstabbing, self-appointed "guardians of tradition" in cast and crew.

     It is in that aspect that My Week with Marilyn is of interest - as a snapshot of a period in English history seen through the lens of a film shoot, rather than as the rather predictable tale of a young man's infatuation with a film star. The cast is universally excellent, with a magisterial Kenneth Branagh as Mr. Olivier (reminding us how good an actor he can be when he just focuses on acting) and regal turns by Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Michael Kitchen, with Eddie Redmayne wonderfully appealing as Mr. Clark. But it all never rises above the level of above-average British prestige drama, impeccably done and quite entertaining, but hardly more than that. And, in that respect, it is 2011's The King's Speech.

Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne; Dominic Cooper, Philip Jackson, Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones, Michael Kitchen, Julia Ormond, Simon Russell Beale, Dougray Scott, Zoë Wanamaker; Emma Watson; Judi Dench.
     Director, Simon Curtis; screenplay, Adrian Hodges, from the memoirs by Colin Clark, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn; cinematography, Ben Smithard (processing by Technicolor, widescreen); music, Conrad Pope, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Donal Woods; costume designer, Jill Taylor; editor, Adam Recht; producers, David Parfitt, Harvey Weinstein (The Weinstein Company, BBC Films, Trademark Films, in association with Lip Sync Productions), USA/United Kingdom, 2011, 99 minutes.
     Screened: AMC Loews Metreon 1 (San Francisco), December 31st 2011.