Wednesday, May 30, 2012

SEDMIKRÁSKY (DAISIES)

A truly original film yet a distinctly dated product of its time and place, Czech director Věra Chytilová's mid-sixties cause célèbre follows the non-linear adventures of two young girls through a series of nihilistic, absurdist episodes randomly sequenced in a quasi-experimentalist stream-of-consciousness, breathing the satirical tradition of Bohemian literature into utterly modern pop-art and subversive aesthetics.

     Full of arch optical tricks, surrealist/collagist non-sequiturs and a simultaneous fascination and derision for transgression, Daisies could not have been made at any other place or time other than in the mid-1960s Czechoslovakia. Yet, its nonsensical humour and cut-up visuals are of a piece with foreign contemporaries such as Monty Python's irreverent college humour, swinging-sixties pop-art and psychedelic counter-culture - its freedom of thought and expression earning it the wrath of the Czech cultural and political establishment, leading the film to be withdrawn and Ms. Chytilová (whose second full-length feature it was) to be banned from directing for another ten years. However, there is also an edgy, sinister undercurrent in the adventures of these roommates (non-pros Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová). Their bored nihilism results from their realisation that "everything is spoiled" and there's no point in behaving, even though they may have to pay the ultimate prize for it - suggesting that only through the powers of imagination and creative revolt could the grimness of modern life and of a "grey" society be transcended. (No wonder the film's crisp black-and-white photography explodes regularly into brightly coloured interludes.)

     The film's ending, as absurdist as what came before, suggests simultaneously, though, that nihilism and revolution can be pushed so far off the edge that they end up becoming counter-productive, but also that once off the edge there can be no going back to what was before. An endlessly inventive, freewheeling object, Daisies may be a little seen film but remains a landmark in the history of the post-1960 "New Waves", and traces of its DNA can be found in a lot of contemporary cinemas (the current Greek generation comes to mind).

Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová; Marie Cesková, Jirina Mysková, Marcela Brezinová, Julius Albert, Oldrich Hora, Jan Klusak, Josef Konicek, Jaromir Vomacka.
     Director, Věra Chytilová; screenplay, Ester Krumbachová, Ms. Chytilová, with Jaroslav Kučera, from a story by Ms. Chytilová and Pavel Juraček; cinematography, Mr. Kučera (colour with black & white segments, processing by Barrandov Film Studios); music, Jiří Šust, Jiří Šlitr; designer, Karel Lier; costumes, Ester Krumbachová; editor, Miloslav Hájek; production, Studio Barrandov, Czechoslovakia, 1966, 79 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012, Culturgest - Pequeno Auditório (Lisbon), April 28th 2012. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

BESTIAIRE

Québécois film critic Denis Côté has become a regular festival fixture with his cerebral, disquieting looks at human nature that freely mix and meld tropes from both documentary and fiction. For Bestiaire, his fifth feature, Mr. Côté works through a wholly documentary setup, as he takes a lengthy, contemplative look at the routines of a zoological park, alternating between the beasts in captivity, the park workers and a taxidermist at work.

     Contemplative Bestiaire may be, but it isn't necessarily peaceable: the early section, focussing on the animals in their concrete pens during winter time, installs a sense of anguish and apocalypse that the evolution of the film, through to the taxidermist's work preparing a duck for stuffing, and then the animals' springtime release as visitors start arriving in their own closed vehicles, suggests any number of thoughtful comparisons, from Noah's Ark to man's inhumanity to animal. Essentially a superb work of montage that asks who the beasts are in a shy, sly, abstract manner (the viewer is himself a "visitor" to this zoo), Bestiaire continues Mr. Côté's run of intriguing meta-filmic works, and is one of his most interesting and thought-provoking works.

Director/writer, Denis Côté; cinematography, Vincent Biron (color); editor, Nicolas Roy; sound, Frédéric Cloutier; producers, Mr. Côté, Sylvain Corbeil (Metafilms and Nihilproductions in collaboration with Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains), Canada/France, 2012, 72 minutes. 
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012, Castello Lopes Londres 2 (Lisbon), April 28th 2012. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

DRAGONSLAYER

Dragonslayer is one of the nicknames for has-been pro skater Josh "Skreech" Sandoval, a Californian self-appointed "skatepark bum" who threw his shot at the big time away in drugs and drink. Tristan Patterson's sympathetic but never hagiographic portrait of Mr. Sandoval follows him over the course of several months, as he travels across the US attempting to get his skateboarding career back on track while revisiting old haunts, seeing old friends and visiting his six-month-old baby from a relationship he has since walked away from. As someone says at some point, "Skreech"'s skateboarding prowess was "random chaos" and, by taking that definition literally, he threw away his life.

     Mr. Patterson uses it as not only a celebration of the skateboarding lifestyle - a kind of modern-day cowboy freedom - but also as cautionary tale about how life can go wrong. Divided into a number of thematically arranged chapters that end with a disappointing yet ambiguous conclusion that holds some hope for the future, Dragonslayer's short length flies by on the energy of Mr. Patterson's smart editing of footage shot by his DP Eric Koretz and by both Mr. Sandoval and pro skate photographer Josh Henderson using consumer cameras. The unshakeable energy of the footage, breathlessly edited by Jennifer Tiexiera and Leslie Calhoun, underlines simultaneously the attraction and pitfalls of the lifestyle, while never forgetting there is something truly glorious in the way "Skreech" turns its back deliberately on conventional society.

Director, Tristan Patterson; cinematography, Eric Koretz (colour), with additional photography by Josh Henderson, Josh Sandoval; music, T. Griffin; editors, Jennifer Tiexiera, Leslie Calhoun; producer, John Baker (Animals of Combat), USA, 2011, 73 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012, Castello Lopes Londres 2 (Lisbon), April 27th 2012.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

L

The current new wave of Greek cinema places strong emphasis on absurdism, abstraction, surrealism and allegory - at least as seen from the work of a generation of filmmakers that includes Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, ALPS) or Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg). To that list add now advertising director Babis Makridis, whose feature debut L (co-written by Mr. Lanthimos' regular collaborator Efthimis Filippou and sharing crew members with his and Ms. Tsangari's films) follows in the same absurdist path. L could probably be read as a metaphor of the social and political issues Greece (and, through a wider lens, Europe) face currently, even though Mr. Makridis is the first to say the film's original concept, developed with his friend Yorgos Giokas, predates by a number of years the current crisis.

     An attempt at explaining what goes on here might be something like this: a driver (Aris Servetalis) is replaced at his job and becomes a biker instead when he realizes his past and his driving experience count for nothing any more. But this nugget of plot is teased out at great length in between a series of surreal developments: none of the characters is ever given a name; the driver lives in his car and never leaves it; his job is only to go buy honey for a narcoleptic boss (Yannis Bostanizoglou), and so on. The performances are flat and dispassionate, the camera set-ups geometric and fixed; the film slowly becomes an abstract, apocalyptic parade of wry surrealism, which would be all good and dandy if L didn't suggest that this is fast becoming a "Greek house style" whose oddness becomes more and more a reason in itself. Its dry, affectless stylization makes the film heavy going (even at under 90 minutes) and the savagely satirical approach is somewhat off-putting, but there is no denying that the film stands out from the pack as something very much its own. L doesn't really bring anything new to the "Greek new wave" - not that it wanted to, though.

Aris Servetalis, Makis Papadimitriou, Eleftherios Matthaios, Nota Tserniafski, Stavros Raptis, Yannis Bostanizoglou, Thanassis Dimou, Christophoros Skamnakis, Pavlos Makridis, Natalia Tserniafski, Antonis Iaiakis, Kyriakos Zafeirilidis, Alesis Kanakis, Giannis Nikolaidis, Michalis Kostakos.
      Director, Babis Makridis; screenplay, Efthimis Filippiou, Mr. Makridis, from a story by Yorgos Giokas; cinematography, Thimios Bakatakis (color, processing by Kodak Cinelabs Greece); music, Costantino Kiriakos; designer, Dafni Kalogianni; costumes, Dimitris Papathomas; editor, Yannis Chalkiadakis; producers, Amanda Livanou, Mr. Makridis (Beben Films in co-production with Nova, Feelgood Entertainment, Faliro House Productions, Top Cut and Modiano, in association with Warp Films), Greece/United Kingdom, 2012, 87 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 14th 2012. 


L trailer por Flixgr

Saturday, May 26, 2012

MARLEY

Scot Kevin Macdonald was an award-winning documentarian before transitioning successfully to feature-length fictions with The Last King of Scotland and State of Play - enough to take over this long-awaited documentary on the life and times of the late reggae star Bob Marley from initially announced director Martin Scorsese (who went with ex-Beatle George Harrison instead). The result, supervised by three Marley insiders (son Ziggy, creative associate Neville Garrick and record boss Chris Blackwell), is however a disappointingly straight-forward rundown of the musician's life and career. Its sprawling two-and-a-half-hour length does shade and bulk up Marley's tale, but is somewhat unwieldy for a theatrical release, especially since there is little here that Marley fans don't already know and a lot that is left out (like his ill-fated period as backup to Johnny Nash).

     It isn't purely a hagiographic exercise, though; there are enticingly intriguing references to his polygamy and the bitter break-ups with original Wailers Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, while daughter Cedella doesn't hold back regarding the lack of interest she felt the musician displayed towards his children. But most of the controversial stuff is left off, and the most revealing moments, thanks to an extraordinary wealth of archival footage painstakingly researched and integrated, lie in both Marley's early and final days. While there's little at fault here, the classicism of form and structure suggest that either Marley is a condensed version of a longer, serialized film or an object whose proper place is the small screen (some of the fades to black look far too much like inbuilt advert breaks). Either way, there's a sense it could have been so much better.

Director, Kevin Macdonald; cinematography, Alwin Küchler, Mike Eley (colour); editor, Dan Glendenning; producers, Steve Bing, Charles Steel (Shangri-la Entertainment and Tuff Gong Pictures in association with Cowboy Films), USA/United Kingdom, 2012, 145 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), May 17th 2012. 



Friday, May 25, 2012

MEN IN BLACK 3

Did we really need to go back to the late-1990s sci-fi/comedy mash-up that helped make a star out of Will Smith? Truthfully, no, we didn't. And even if there have been (allegedly) constant demands for a third adventure of the NYC alien squad, that it finally appears ten years after the disappointing/obligatory sequel is proof enough of just how desperate Columbia must have been to restart a lucrative franchise.

     Since it exists, though, it must be said that Men in Black 3 is in fact an improvement on the second film, and a lively, unpretentious, fun movie in its own right, with many similarities to the original Terminator premise of a man sent back in time to prevent a disastrous future. Here, the time-traveller is Mr. Smith's Agent J, sent back to 1969 to stop the ruthless Boglotian killer Boris "The Animal" (Jemaine Clement channeling Tim Curry) from killing Agent K and invading Earth. Tommy Lee Jones' K thus mutates into a younger version of himself played by an uncannily mimicking Josh Brolin, who slides comfortably into pretty much the same rapport with Mr. Smith as his older co-star. But the script (credited solely to Etan Cohen, but in fact featuring uncredited polishes and revisions by David Koepp and Michael Arndt among others) pretty much glides through any fish-out-of-water possibilities for the sake of having the action zip along speedily. The idea of a black man is still problematic in late-1960s America, but Men in Black 3 only touches it in passing, and former Coen Brothers DP Barry Sonnenfeld (who also helmed both previous films) handles everything in a no-nonsense, hack job way, with a number of set pieces self-consciously echoing the previous entries (like the by now obligatory Will-Smith-in-the-maw-of-a-disgusting-alien scene).

     For all that, there are two really smart additions to the series' mythology: one is Andy Warhol's Factory as club for exiled aliens and the artist himself as a man in black under disguise (Bill Hader). The other is the "five-dimensional" Arcanian Griffin, who can see all possible futures in advance and see which one will become the definitive just before it happens, beautifully played by Michael Stuhlbarg as a deadpan, anxious nerd who looks constantly like a fish out of water. Factor in Mr. Smith's usual effortless charm and a lovely supporting turn from Emma Thompson (replacing Rip Torn as new agency chief O) and you have a recipe for an enjoyably disposable blockbuster that, strictly speaking, really wasn't necessary but is good fun while it lasts.

Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alice Eve, Bill Hader, David Rasche; Emma Thompson.
     Director, Barry Sonnenfeld; screenplay, Etan Cohen, based on characters created by Lowell Cunningham; cinematography, Bill Pope (color, processing by DeLuxe); music, Danny Elfman; designer, Bo Welch; costumes, Mary Vogt; editor, Don Zimmerman; visual effects, Ken Ralston, Jay Redd; 3D visual effects, Corey Turner; make-up effects, Rick Baker; producers, Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald (Columbia Pictures, Hemisphere Media Capital, Amblin Entertainment, P+M Imagenation), USA/United Arab Emirates, 2012, 106 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, Lisbon, May 16th 2012. 


Thursday, May 24, 2012

MICHAEL

They must put something very strange in the water up in Austria, for their cinema to be so chillingly descriptive and mundanely dispassionate, even when dealing with sensitive subjects. A lot has already been made about Michael, the feature debut of casting director Markus Schleinzer, and its proximity to the coldly provocative work of Michael Haneke (on whose films Mr. Schleinzer worked). The neophyte director certainly didn't make it easy on itself by evoking memories of the infamous Natascha Kampusch case in this tale of the final weeks in the captivity of the 10-year old Wolfgang (David Rauschenberger) by outwardly normal insurance agent Michael (Michael Fuith), told from the point of the view of the pedophile instead of the victim. But this is a more intrigued and less distant picture than Mr. Haneke would direct, with a curious common thread with another well-worthy Austrian debut, Sebastian Meise's Stillleben (also photographed by DP Gerald Kerkletz).

     Shot in precise, static, chilly setups, Michael refrains from faked outrage or voyeuristic contempt. Mr. Schleinzer isn't interested in judging Michael (it's always very clear the film does not condone his actions), but in probing what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil": how can a man who blends in effortlessly with the society around him, in line for a promotion at his office, going on ski trips with friends and having one-night stands with waitresses, be capable of such a deviation of morality? Mr. Schleinzer probes but never presumes to answer. And Michael works equally as a chillingly commonplace look at the darkest spots inside our own minds and as a desperate, black satire of family mores, in the way that Michael attempts to play at a "normal" (if hidden) family with the boy and in the none-more-dark final act where the disconnect between society and individual, community and isolation, becomes unwittingly desperate.

     It's a remarkably thoughtful, assured debut, carried by Mr. Fuith's superbly controlled performance, able to reveal the humanity that lies inside this tortured, disturbing psychopath without excusing him or whitewashing his horrid sins.

Michael Fuith, David Rauschenberger; Christine Kain, Ursula Strauss, Victor Tremmel, Xaver Winkler, Thomas Pfalzmann.
     Director/writer, Markus Schleinzer; co-director, Kathrin Resetarits; cinematography, Gerald Kerkletz (color; processing by Listo Film); designers, Katrin Huber, Gerhard Dohr; costumes, Hanya Barakat; editor, Wolfgang Widerhofer; producers, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Michael Kitzhuber, Mr. Widerhofer (NGF in co-production with ORF), Austria, 2011, 96 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Culturgest - Grande Auditório (Lisbon), April 17th 2012.


 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

O SOM AO REDOR

There is something seriously seductive about this flawed but intriguing debut fiction feature from Brazilian critic, writer and filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho. It's inevitable we'll be reminded of mosaic melodramas like Crash or Magnolia by the relay construction of the plot, following a few months in the life of a back street of closed condos in the Brazilian city of Recife. But Mr. Mendonça Filho isn't so much looking for strict narrative linearity; instead, for an accumulation of details that will leave a number of plot points unsolved while creating a distinctive sense of life being lived and people dealing with their surroundings as best they can.

     In many ways, O Som ao Redor is a study of class in modern day Brazil, of the disparity between the middle class that can afford to live locked behind their barred doors with live-in maids, and those who aspire to such comforts or resent those who have them. One revealing scene in a condo meeting reveals the degree of resentment some of these middle-class people even have towards each other, and is one of the more sharply observed moments in a film full of such tell-tale details, carefully layered to say something about Brazilian society in a sophisticated, smart way.

     The connecting thread - the arrival of a self-appointed private security team to watch over the streets - will eventually pay off in the film's conclusion; but the way there can often be full of winding turns that don't always make sense, and of superfluous, surplus interludes or characters, as if Mr. Mendonça Filho felt like cramming everything into his film afraid he might not get to do a second. That, however, is also a part of its charm, its unwieldy running time eventually allowing the viewer enough time to feel his way in and let himself be seduced by this tale of people who find themselves imprisoned in their own lifestyles.

Irandhir Santos, Gustavo Jahn, Maeve Jinkings, W. J. Solha, Irma Brown, Yuri Holanda, Lula Tena, Albert Tenorio, Nivaldo Nascimento, Clebia Sousa, Sebastião Formiga.
     Director/writer, Kleber Mendonça Filho; cinematography, Pedro Sotero, Fabrício Tadeu (colour, processing by Megacolor, Techniscope widescreen); music, DJ Dolores; art director, Juliano Dornelles; costumes, Ingrid Mata; editors, Mr. Mendonça Filho, João Maria; producer, Émilie Lesclaux (Cinemascópio in associate production with Estúdios Quanta), Brazil, 2012, 131 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, April 13th 2012. 



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

L'ESTATE DI GIACOMO

At first glance a charmingly slight ditty about the lazy Summer of two Italian teenagers in the countryside, Alessandro Comodin's debut feature only truly reveals its import with time, its layers opening up slowly as the viewer realizes the full extent of its writer/director's experimenting with conventional genre tropes. At first sight it's an immersive documentary following the Summer days of deaf teenager Giacomo and his friend Stefania, observing the way the boy navigates nature with his disability and making the viewer ask if Giacomo's deafness is his only disability.

     It turns out, though, that the apparently freeform assemblage of scenes is actually a fictional account, where Mr. Comodin has Giacomo - who is truly deaf and an old friend of his - and Stefania - his own sister - recreate his own Summer in the Italian countryside near where he was born, with Giacomo's disability adding an extra layer to the film. The resulting poetic sensibility - with the sun-dappled visuals suggesting a sensual seventies sensibility, a world being created as the two teenagers uncover it - has a lot in common with recent avant-garde experiments or the now customary cinéma du réel superimpositions between documentary, fiction and essay.

     It's tempting to think of recent Italian directors such as Michelangelo Frammartino and Pietro Marcello, but L'Estate di Giacomo's beauty is very much its own, and is also inseparable from its own sensory approach and from its deliberately ethereal slightness - it probably wouldn't support any lengthier running time, and that's all for the good.

Giacomo Zulian, Stefania Comodin, Barbara Colombo.
     Director/writer, Alessandro Comodin; cinematography, Tristan Bordmann (color, post-production by DeJonghe); editors, João Nicolau, Mr. Comodin; producers, Paolo Benzi, Mr. Comodin, Marie Géhin, Réjane Michel, Valérianne Boué (Faber Film, Les Films Nus and Les Films d'Ici in co-production with Wallpaper Production, Centre de l'Audiovisuel à Bruxelles and Tucker Film), Italy/France/Belgium, 2011, 78 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 12th 2012. 





Monday, May 21, 2012

FORMENTERA

It's entirely unfair to Ann-Kristin Reyels' sophomore film that her premise - a young German couple hitting a bump in their relationship while holidaying in the sun - has so much in common with Maren Ade's Everyone Else, as both films are very much their own beasts. Advantage, however, would always go to Ms. Ade's film, for no other reason that it's the better, more accomplished feature.

     Ms. Reyels' set-up has Berlin couple Nina (Sabine Timoteo) and Ben (Thure Lindhardt) traveling to the Balearic isle of Formentera to spend a vacation with his surrogate family, a tight-knit foursome of German expats still living the peace-and-love dream of their youth who have never returned home. The realization there may be something else in Ben's mind, as he is increasingly drawn back to the carefree lifestyle of his elders, disturbs Nina, who feels ill at ease with the laid-back mood, misses their child and resents what she sees as a seduction job on Ben by modern-day hippy Mara (Vicky Krieps). A sudden twist as Mara disappears after an all-night party introduces the tension that propels the film's second-half, a sense that, after feeling left out from Ben's family circle, Nina is now the one with a secret and with the power over Ben.

     But Formentera takes too long to get here and the path is somewhat under-scripted in the early scenes, making tricky for the viewer to identify who these people are, and undermining some of the narrative turns that follow. None of this affects the very fine performances of the cast nor the attention Ms. Reyels devotes to the actors and to the Formentera landscape, harshly but cleverly lensed by Henner Besuch, but her portrait of a flailing relationship is somewhat looser than it wants to be, and is ultimately too fragile to stand on its own two feet.

Sabine Timoteo, Thure Lindhardt, Ilse Ritter, Tatka Seibt, Christian Brückner, Geoffrey Layton, Vicky Krieps, Franc Bruneau, Finn-Henry Reyels.
     Director, Ann-Kristin Reyels; screenplay, Ann-Kristin Reyels, Katrin Milhahn, Antonia Rothe, Anke Stelling; cinematography (colour), Henner Besuch; music, Henry Reyels, Marco Baumgartner; art director, Peter Weiss; costumes, Manfred Schneider; editor, Halina Daugird; producer, Titus Kreyenberg (Unafilm in co-production with ZDF/das Kleinefernsehspiel, ARTE and The Post Republic), Germany, 2012, 92 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 12th 2012. 



Sunday, May 20, 2012

LE SKYLAB

The latest entry in the classic comedy sub-genre of family reunions, Le Skylab is also a slightly left field entry, coming as it does from French actress/director Julie Delpy, best-known for Richard Linklater's twinned travelogues Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but a director in her own right. Setting her somewhat autobiographical film in the Summer of 1979 when the Skylab space station was threatening to fall over Europe, Ms. Delpy tells the story of an extended family coming together over 24 hours in the family estate in Brittany to celebrate the birthday of matriarch Amandine (Bernadette Lafont) to which all of her children have travelled with spouses and grandkids in tow.

     It's a slight story, as seen through the eyes of 11-year old granddaughter Albertine (Lou Alvarez). It takes in her exposure to adult-themed films by her bohemian, left-leaning performer parents, her rowdy games with her cousins and her infatuation with a local, older youth, set against the family's political and personal squabbles, in particular the feminist chafing raised by Albertine's mum (Ms. Delpy herself), who is the most urbane and enlightened of the women, a committed lefty who gets in spitting matches with her ex-military brother-in-law Roger (Denis Ménichot). All of it is engagingly performed by an enlarged ensemble cast, minutely and delicately managed by the director so that everyone gets their moment to shine, with Lubomir Bakchev's golden-hued lensing perfectly recapturing the wondrous light of Summer vacations. There's also a moving passing of the torch in the cast's meshing of veteran performers: the elderly family members are played by Nouvelle Vague égeries Bernadette Lafont and Emmanuelle Riva, and by Ms. Delpy's own father Albert.

     But none of this warmth and sensibility truly makes up for the shortcomings of the film, awkwardly framed as a flashback to 1979 by the older Albertine, played by a grating Karin Viard in ill-advised and pointless contemporary bookends. The actual slightness of the narrative, where most of the sprawling cast doesn't have the time to actually develop their characters beyond one-note archetypes (and the ones that do have the time are usually lateral to the film's main thrust) means the film never truly coheres as more than a loose series of Summer souvenirs. Which is fine as far as it goes, but prevents it from becoming as memorable as that Summer of '79 must have been for the writer/director.

Bernadette Lafont, Emmanuelle Riva, Éric Elmosnino, Julie Delpy, Aure Atika, Jean-Louis Coulloc'h, Noémie Lvovsky, Candide Sanchez, Denis Ménochet, Valérie Bonneton, Albert Delpy, Vincent Lacoste, Sophie Quinton, Marc Ruchmann, Michèle Goddet, Luc Bernard, Lou Alvarez, Karen Viard, Léo Michel-Freundlich, Lily Savey, Maxime Julliand, Antoine Yvard, Anne-Charlotte Moquet, Pierre-Louis Bozonnet, Mathilde Bozonnet, Chloé Antoni, Angelo Sonny, Félicien Moquet, Sandrine Bodènes, Anthony Kimmerle.
     Director/writer, Julie Delpy; cinematography, Lubomir Bakchev (color, processing by Digimage); designer, Yves Fournier; costumes, Pierre-Yves Gayraud; editor, Isabelle Devinck; producer, Michael Gentile (The Film, Mars Films, France 2 Cinéma, Tempête Sous Un Crâne Production), France, 2010, 114 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance screener DVD, Lisbon, May 13th 2012. 


Saturday, May 19, 2012

THE DICTATOR

"In loving memory of Kim Jong-Il", states the opening card of British tightrope comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film. Appropriately, the new alter-ego from the creator of Ali G, Borat and Brüno is "admiral general sergeant" Aladeen, a megalomaniac Middle-Eastern dictator modeled after Muammar Kadhafi and Saddam Hussein who may be about to develop atomic weapons. But despite the topical satire in the way Mr. Baron Cohen has accustomed us, The Dictator isn't one of his shock-mockumentaries like Borat and Brüno; rather, a classically-scripted comedy where the actor's boundary-pushing strategy of full character immersion is scaled back into a more conventional framework.

     At its heart a sweet, Capraesque comedy of a naïf martinet having his eyes opened by New York City and the love of a good woman (Anna Faris as a supremely politically-correct vegan activist), The Dictator embellishes the formula with Mr. Baron Cohen's borderline offensive satire. Here he takes aim at the military-industrial complex, American exceptionalism and political correction, leading into a big climactic speech reminding in more than one way of Charles Chaplin's Great Dictator. But, for Mr. Baron Cohen, being "unscripted" is part of the act - it's what gives each new persona of his the edge that sets it apart from most other comedians, and here that edge is removed to show an inspired, risk-taking comedian at a crossroads. Granted, after the lingering bad after-taste of the ill-received Brüno, the candid-camera approach was pretty much exhausted, and The Dictator is a good deal more satisfying.

     But while Ben Kingsley and Jason Mantzoukas prove apt sidekicks for the actor's out-there performance, Larry Charles directs with no particular flair beyond underlining the usual strengths of Mr. Baron Cohen's, and seldom has a big Hollywood budget been used to look so thoroughly as if it cost next to nothing. What's in the cards for Mr. Baron Cohen next is a good question: unscripted is unlikely to work again, scripted blunts the edge.

Sacha Baron Cohen; Anna Faris, Jason Mantzoukas; Ben Kingsley; Adeel Akhtar.
     Director, Larry Charles; screenplay, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer; cinematography, Lawrence Sher (colour, processing by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen); music, Erran Baron Cohen, Deborah Lurie; designer, Victor Kempster; costumes, Jeffrey Kurland, Jason Alper; editors, Greg Hayden, Eric Kossick; visual effects, Eric J. Robertson; producers, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mr. Berg, Mr. Mandel, Mr. Schaffer, Scott Rudin, Anthony Hines, Todd Schulman (Paramount Pictures, Four by Two Films and Berg Mandel Schaffer), USA, 2012, 83 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), May 11th 2012.


Friday, May 18, 2012

TAKE SHELTER

For his sophomore effort, American director Jeff Nichols takes a giant leap forward with an enveloping, disquieting study of middle America at crisis disguised as a atmospheric take on genre thrillers. Returning to the small-town and rural environments of "heartland America" where his debut Shotgun Stories was already set, but shifting the stage from Arkansas to Ohio, Mr. Nichols uses the troubling visions of an average working-class father as a window into an unspoken, unsaid dread underlying contemporary American society (and, in fact, most of the world) since the 2008 Wall Street crash.

     Curtis LaForche, played with an engaging combination of steel and vulnerability by the great Michael Shannon, sees his apocalyptic daydreams of black clouds and thick, oily rain threaten to engulf everything he holds dear. But he can't shake either of the two equally troubling possibilities: either that he is hallucinating his way to a mental breakdown like his schizophrenic mother (Kathy Baker) or that his visions are truly premonitions of impending doom. Either way, Take Shelter creeps up slowly into a character study of a man unmoored from all the things that had so far tethered him to solid ground. Mr. Shannon's gangly body, reminding us of the uncomfortable growing pains of a too-tall teenager, becomes inextricably linked with his portrayal of Curtis as an adult afloat in a stormy sea, fighting forces he's not sure he can or knows how to take on, the state of the world challenging all the traditional ideas of masculinity and of the man as the provider for the family.

     A superbly realized meditation on the American dream, crisply lensed by Adam Stone and handled with enormous assurance by Mr. Nichols, Take Shelter takes Mr. Shannon in a quietly uncomfortable journey from the light into the darkness of the storm shelter he looks upon as the last hope for his family, community and society no longer valid words in a world where any burden ends up on the shoulders of a single man. And it is proof that a filmmaker has arrived for good.

Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon; Kathy Baker.
     Director/writer, Jeff Nichols; cinematography (color, processing by DeLuxe, widescreen), Adam Stone; music, David Wingo; designer, Chad Keith; costumes, Karen Malecki; editor, Parke Gregg; producers, Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin (Hydraulx Entertainment, REI Capital, Grove Hill Productions, Strange Matter Films), USA, 2011, 121 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, March 21st 2012. 



Thursday, May 17, 2012

BERLIN TELEGRAM

It's worth asking the question, given how little information is available about Leila Albayaty's debut feature: what exactly is this? A loosely fictionalized documentary, a based-on-truth fiction, a poetic reverie on real characters and events? Whatever it is, Berlin Telegram is an endearing, moody exploration of the director's worldview.

      Ms. Albayaty is a French artist/singer/songwriter of mixed Iraqi/French heritage, and she takes the lead as Leila, a Brussels-based singer who abandons her past life to move to Berlin after breaking up with her lover. Ostensibly a film about self-reinvention, Berlin Telegram follows her acclimatization to the German capital as she hangs around with fellow expats and musicians from all over, meets old friends like sound collagist Tarek or taxi driver Éric (all more or less playing themselves) and starts a new musical band while still licking her sentimental wounds.

     What saves Berlin Telegram from becoming an unusual vanity project is not only Ms Albayaty's unselfconscious, lovely presence, but also her gift to assemble and juxtapose images in order to create a mood; her slender narrative is a mere thread on which she hangs a series of seemingly improvised performances and random atmospheric shots of Berlin, as well as her seductive performances of songs whether by herself or others (a cover of Sonny Bono's "Bang Bang" being a good example. The inability to define easily what exactly this is ends up being one of the charms of Berlin Telegram, suggesting that, regardless of whether the film is fiction or therapy, Ms. Albayaty is now firmly in control of her voice.

Leila Albayaty, Hana al Bayaty, Éric Menard, Cristoforo Spotto, Alain Rylant, Maryam Najd, Sebastian Blomberg, Ivan Imperial.
     Director, Ms. Albayaty; screenplay, Ms. Albayaty, Marylise Dumont; cinematography, Christophe Bouckaert, Michel Balagué (colour); editor, Anne-Laure Guégan; producers, Julien Sigalas, Martin Hagemann, Pierre Walfisz (Stempel, Zero Fiction and Trompe le Monde), Belgium/Germany, 2012, 80 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 11th 2012.



Wednesday, May 16, 2012

STILLLEBEN

STILL LIFE


A punchy debut from Austrian director Sebastian Meise, Stillleben falls neatly in line with the cold, clinical work of renowned Austrian masters such as Michael Haneke or Michael Glawogger. Yet, it also offers a beating heart as it traces the emotional fallout in a small-town family as son Bernhard (Christoph Luser) finds out the secret desires of his woodworker father Gerhard (Fritz Hörtenhuber). It's somewhat of a spoiler to explain the nature of said secret - revealed a third of the way into the film's short but expertly paced running time - but suffice to say the nature of the revelation shakes the family to its core, and forces Bernhard and his sister Lydia (Daniela Golpashin) to completely reevaluate both their bond as siblings and the nature of the family exchanges.

     Mr. Meise is at its best when he is silently navigating the way things can turn on a dime; the scenes of the four relatives going about their lives with the world around them behaving as if nothing has changed are remarkable, as is the use of long, static takes and total absence of music. While all of this does fit in with the "Austrian house style", Stillleben doesn't succumb entirely to the distant theatre of cruelty present in the works of Mssrs. Haneke and Glawogger, as its choice of letting the emotions of all involved guide the story does wonders for the film's warmth and helps it sidestep the predictable courses the narrative might have taken.

Fritz Hörtenhuber, Christoph Luser, Daniela Golpashin, Roswitha Soukup, Anja Plaschg. 
     Director, Sebastian Meise; screenplay, Thomas Reider, Mr. Meise, from a story by Mr. Reider; cinematography, Gerald Kerkletz (color, processing by Listo Videofilm); music, Soap&Skin (Ms. Plaschg); designers, Katharina Wöppermann, Anja Ronacher; costumes, Ms. Wöppermann; editor, Julia Drack; producers, Oliver Neumann, Erich Lackner, Thomas Pridnig, Peter Wirthensohn (Freibeuter Film and Lotus Film), Austria, 2011, 77 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 11th 2012. 



Tuesday, May 15, 2012

BIR ZAMANLAR ANADOLU'DA

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan had shown over the past couple of years his status as a faithful member of the "world art house cinema guild", but good as some of them were, his films had always stopped short of greatness. Not anymore: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a quasi-masterpiece on the human condition, drawing both literally and thematically from Anton Chekhov to outstanding effect.

     We'll get to the qualifier "quasi" in a moment, but for now suffice to say that Michelangelo Antonioni's blank, troubled ennui, a regular motif noticed by observers in Mr. Ceylan's previous work, has never made more sense than here. Outwardly, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a decelerated police procedural, but it serenely doubles up a moral, existentialist odyssey involving three men caught in a long dark night of the soul while searching for a buried victim in the Turkish provinces. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), the city doctor officiating in this God-forsaken corner of Anatolia where his police driver (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan) says you should always be on the lookout, is the nominal "hero" of the piece, an outsider looking in. But he is no mere distant observer of the travails of police inspector Naci (Yılmaz Erdoğan) and public prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), each of them worried and worked up in their own way with man's (or woman's) inhumanity to man while searching all night long for the corpse of Yaşar, under the guidance of the shellshocked murderer Kenan (Fırat Tanış).

     Another possible reference, other than Chekhov's melancholy ruminations that are quoted at length during the film and Antonioni's stately slow pans (also quoted at length), could be Stanley Kubrick's meticulous formalism; Mr. Ceylan's lengthy takes and exquisitely framed camera setups, heightened by Gökhan Tiryaki's sensitive, crisp cinematography, lock the film in a stunningly realized and painstakingly ordered visual world. That, in fact, is where "quasi-" comes up, the one quibble that won't let me call Once Upon a Time in Anatolia a masterpiece: Mr. Ceylan is far too aware that this is a "serious", "meaningful" film (it is), and that conscience infuses it in such a way that everything becomes almost too programmed, almost too self-important, almost too clinically designed. Everyone is asking questions about why did this happen, whether there is a god, but the stealthy perfection of the puzzle can suggest that Mr. Ceylan is the master puppeteer playing god with his little tale.

     Still, this is such an extraordinarily composed and skillfully performed chamber piece (despite the extensive location work) that it can probably be dismissed as a really minor quibble about what is undoubtedly the director's masterwork so far.

Muhammet Uzuner, Yılmaz Erdoğan, Taner Birsel; Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan, Fırat Tanış, Ercan Kesal, Erol Eraslan, Uğur Arslanoğlu, Murat Kılıç, Şafak Karali, Emre Şen, Burhan Yıldız, Nihan Okutucu, Cansu Demirci, Kubilay Tunçer, Salih Ünal, Aziz Izzet Biçici, Celal Acaralp.
     Director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan; screenplay, Mr. Kesal, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan; cinematography, Gökhan Tiryaki (colour, widescreen); art director, Dilek Yapkuöz Ayaztuna; costumes, Meral Efe, Nildag Kılıç, Özlem Bator; editors, Bora Gökşingöl, Nuri Bilge Ceylan; producers, Mirsad Purivatra, Eda Arıkan, Ibrahim Şahin, Müge Kolat, Murat Akdilek, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Zeyno Film, Production 2006, 1000 Volt Post Production, Turkey Radio and Television Corporation, Imaj, Fida Film and NBC Film), Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2011, 157 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, May 12th 2012. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

A CASA

For his debut feature after half a dozen short features and a great number of commercials, Portuguese director Júlio Alves follows the building of a house from the ground up, purporting to accompany the rhythm and process of constructing it with a glimpse into the lives of those that are building it, turning it from concrete foundations and brick walls into a finished place, ready to receive its tenants.

     Sadly, Mr. Alves' stylish but brief documentary never really fulfills its intentions. It never investigates the whys and hows of this particular house (though the architect is occasionally glimpsed taking measurements), nor does it illuminate the life stories of the immigrant builders, told offscreen in first-person narration. Instead, Mr. Alves focuses on observing the interaction between the workers and the house as it grows into completion, doing so from impeccably framed, still setups, with an interesting sense of space and a visual eloquence that makes A Casa often a good-looking experience.

     Both the absence of any contextualising commentary and the many extended time-shifts make this seem like a half-finished project, able to find beauty in the shapes and forms of the house's barren geometry juxtaposed against the sky or in the scale of the humans next to it, but unable to make it cohere into a feature length statement.

Director, Júlio Alves; cinematography (color), Ricardo Costa; music, Rui Cunha; editor, Tomás Baltazar; producers, Pandora da Cunha Telles, Pablo Iraola, Mr. Alves (Ukbar Filmes, Midnight Express), Portugal, 2012, 67 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 19th 2012. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

DARK SHADOWS

It may be pretty obvious that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are the perfect team to bring back from the dead Dan Curtis' hit late-sixties "gothic soap opera" Dark Shadows. And the finished product does bear all the hallmarks from actor and director's usually successful team-ups - to the point of seeming as if they're exploiting the trademark universes they themselves have established throughout their career together. But the result is unlikely to go down in history as anything other than an autopilot rehash of Mr. Burton's regular theme of the misfit who must learn to find his own way in the world and his pop-gothic sensibility.

     The fault lies less in the absence of desire to push Mr. Burton and Mr. Depp's collaboration any further as it does in the formulaic, piecemeal script by Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The novelist seems at every possible juncture to think of Dark Shadows as a blown-up TV pilot, literally giving nothing to do to the many supporting characters (Helena Bonham Carter, Chloë Grace Moretz and Jackie Earle Haley are woefully underused); the director abandons early on any pretense that the films cares about anything other than letting Mr. Depp run riot with another one of his skewed, offbeat characterizations, his centuries-old vampire Barnabas Collins a foppish, determinedly out-of-time man tortured by the curse laid on him by villainous witch Angélique Bouchard (Eva Green).

     Mr. Depp, Ms. Green and a regal Michelle Pfeiffer as Barnabas' descendant Elizabeth are the only ones who fit right into the high-camp tone set up early on, with its garish early 1970s designs and fashions. But Mr. Depp is hardly stretching his range - this is yet another of his lovable weirdos in the vein of Jack Sparrow or the Mad Hatter - and since for all intents and purposes Ms. Pfeiffer has a supporting role, it's Ms. Green that comes off best, her sultry witch fatale who will have Barnabas' heart, one way or another, a star-making turn that shows what the movie could have been. Mr. Grahame-Smith's script is also peppered with the sort of pithy one-liners custom-tailored for sitcom usage, so complete within themselves that they do nothing either to advance the plot or work within the integrity of the movie, while the obligatory visual-effects climax that seems to be de rigueur these days in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking is sorely disappointing after all that's come before.

     What comes out of this is admittedly amusing - a lighter-than-air, frothy, candy-wrapper confection of a movie - but surplus to requirements, neither bringing anything new to the table nor standing on its own two feet as a welcome addition to the Burton/Depp cycle. Instead, it appears to be a jaded autopilot project in well-trodden territory for a filmmaker who's been treading water for a while now as the "token auteur" in Hollywood's bottom-line-dominated landscape.

Johnny Depp; Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Gully McGrath; Alice Cooper.
     Director, Tim Burton; screenplay, Seth Grahame-Smith, from a story by John August and Mr. Grahame-Smith and the TV series created by Dan Curtis, Dark Shadows; cinematography, Bruno Delbonnel (colour by Technicolor); music, Danny Elfman; designer, Rick Heinrichs; costumes, Colleen Atwood; editor, Chris Lebenzon; visual effects, Angus Bickerton; producers, Graham King, Mr. Depp, Christi Dembrowski, David Kennedy, Richard D. Zanuck (Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Infinitum Nihil, GK Films, The Zanuck Company), USA/Australia, 2012, 113 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), May 7th 2012. 



Saturday, May 12, 2012

WUTHERING HEIGHTS

Proving to be one of the most interesting of contemporary British film directors, Andrea Arnold brings a smart, unusual take on Emily Brontë's much-filmed classic novel that is not only faithful to the original text but also stunningly contemporary in its refusal to embellish or bowdlerize the love story between the daughter of a Yorkshire farmer (Shannon Beer as a teenager and Kaya Scodelario as a grownup) and the foundling he adopts (Solomon Glave as a teenager and James Howson as a grownup).

     Central to Ms. Arnold's stunning result is the ravishingly sensualist treatment of Catherine and Heathcliff's passions, with the Yorkshire landscapes becoming a fully-fledged character through Robbie Ryan's stunning, skin-deep cinematography, so tactile you can even smell the damp, the rain, the sweat, the wind. But equally as important is Ms. Arnold's decision to cross the color line and make Heathcliff black for the first time in the many adaptations of the novel; Ms. Brontë's novel always mentioned the character's dark skin and gypsy-like appearance, and while color is certainly irrelevant to both Catherine and Heathcliff, it is the heart of the matter for most everyone else. The sense of class distinction and class struggle that always shone through the novel and is a central tenet of most British cinema gains here a whole new dimension through the introduction of this disquieting element of racism, whether open in the case of Catherine's brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) or more disguised by new neighbors the Lintons.

     It's not the only startling choice about Ms. Arnold and her co-screenwriter Olivia Hetreed's take on the novel. Without letting go of is raw, heartfelt romanticism, the film also paints the doomed lovers as teenagers forced to grow up too fast and who have never grown up into their emotions, while Heathcliff, especially in the quiet, feverish rages both Mr. Glave and Mr. Howson give him, becomes a sort of prophet of doom or avenging angel, whose mere presence awakens an irrational sense of danger in everyone he meets. Told through a series of pregnant ellipses in a juggernaut of emotional and visual abandon, following nature's lead visually and narratively, Wuthering Heights confirms Ms. Arnold's talent as someone with a unique capability to subvert and rebuild the English traditions of the social picture and the period drama - both of which this film is without never really acknowledging so.

Kaya Scodelario, James Howson; Solomon Glave, Shannon Beer; Steve Evets; Nichola Barley.
     Director, Andrea Arnold; screenplay, Ms. Arnold, Olivia Hetreed, from a story by Ms. Hetreed and the novel by Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights; cinematography (color, processing by DeLuxe), Robbie Ryan; designer, Helen Scott; costumes, Steven Noble; editor, Nicolas Chaudeurge; producers, Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae, Kevin Loader (Ecosse Films for Filmfour and The UK Film Council in association with Goldcrest Film Production, Screen Yorkshire and Hanway Films), UK, 2010, 128 minutes.
     Screened: DVD screener, Lisbon, May 5th 2012. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

NANA

One of the most surprising, unexpected debut features in recent years, Valérie Massadian's Nana is a luminous, unhurriedly observational portrait of childhood, following a four-year-old girl living in rural France through a series of improvised tableaux blurring the lines between documentary and fiction. Short and narratively slight Ms. Massadian's film may be, but it contains a wondrous multitude of possibilities within its non-linear construction that sees Nana (Kelyna Lecomte) first with her farmer grandfather (Alain Sabras) following the farm work, then with her anguished mother (Marie Delmas) living in an outhouse in the woods, and finally by herself, left to her own devices after mum disappears, and able to go on as if nothing fazes her.

     Whether Ms. Massadian is creating a magical glimpse inside Nana's childhood or showing her coping, in her own untried way, with the blows of real life, the film weaves a potent spell through its crisp photography and the leisurely way in which the director follows the lead of her young star who is extraordinarily at ease in the presence of the camera. Moreover, Ms. Massadian manages to walk the very fine tightrope between the sacred and the profane, nature and nurture with an outstanding assurance for a first-timer, even if one with a strong background in image (a model, assistant to Nan Goldin and photographer in her own right). Nana is no guarantee that Ms. Massadian will repeat the performance, seeming as it is such a delicate one-off, but the way the director looks at the grace of childhood in such a transparently enchanted way is enough to make this a startling debut.

Kelyna Lecomte, Marie Delmas, Alain Sabras.
     Director and writer, Valérie Massadian; cinematography, Léo Hinstin, Ms. Massadian (color); editors, Dominique Auvray, Ms. Massadian; producer, Sophie Erbs (Gaïjin), France, 2011, 68 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 official screening, Culturgest - Grande Auditório (Lisbon), April 27th 2012. 



Thursday, May 10, 2012

HAYWIRE

By now, anyone who has been paying any attention will have noticed that, with Steven Soderbergh, things are not so much about the result as they are about the process, and about the ways he uses to rethink the process in order to arrive at a better, more efficient, more streamlined result. Every time Mr. Soderbergh has taken on a classic Hollywood genre, whether it is the heist movie (Ocean's Eleven), the social melodrama (Erin Brockovich) or the disaster movie (Contagion), the result has always brought genre down to its essential constituents, and Haywire is no exception.

     A stripped-down, fighting-fit action movie that is all movement, where genre tropes are pared down to their minimal building blocks before being reassembled into a non-stop kinetic action-painting, Haywire doubles as a launch vehicle for MMA fighter Gina Carano, demonstrating wonderful poise in a role designed to show her physical chops at her best. As concocted by recurring Soderbergh screenwriter Lem Dobbs, Haywire's plot - a double-crossed black-ops mercenary goes in search of those who framed her and left her out to dry - is a merely utilitarian excuse for a high-voltage sequence of action set pieces laid out end to end.

     What makes Haywire extraordinary is the way Mr. Soderbergh - again doing triple duty as director, cinematographer and editor - manoeuvres masterfully through them, playing at first with a flashback structure before ejecting any sort of superfluous exposition to leave only a continuous flow of superbly choreographed and edited action scenes that run against current Hollywood grain. Instead of the flashy effects and speedy editing of modern-day auctioneers, everything here is clearly legible and almost natural, hyper-classic in the way it's a throwback to classic Hollywood action set-ups and paradoxically modern in the way it breaks step with the way everybody else us doing it, in how it relishes the kinetic freedom it gains by stripping genre down to the basics. The result is breathtaking.

Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Mathieu Kassovitz, Michael Angarano; Antonio Banderas; Michael Douglas.
     Director, cinematographer (as Peter Andrews) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard), Steven Soderbergh (color, processing by Technicolor, Panavision widescreen); screenplay, Lem Dobbs; music, David Holmes; designer, Howard Cummings; costumes, Shoshana Rubin; producer, Gregory Jacobs (Relativity Media with the participation of the Irish Film Board), USA/Ireland, 2012, 93 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 10, April 10th 2012.



Wednesday, May 09, 2012

TOATĂ LUMEA DIN FAMILIA NOASTRĂ

EVERYBODY IN OUR FAMILY

The "new Romanian cinema" has always had a knack for creating that horrifically queasy sensation of butterflies in your stomach while you're watching an inexorable and all too human fight against the inevitable, whether in openly tragic or absurdly satirical mode. It's also taking the risk of falling in a trap of its own making, as practically all features seem to adhere to a series of unwritten rules that remind of the short-lived "Dogme" style: long, unbroken takes, naturalistic acting and lighting, absence of music.

     Radu Jude's sophomore feature after The Happiest Girl in the World follows the precepts - but takes them one step further by shifting gears halfway through. It starts as snarky satire, as divorced father Marius (Șerban Pavlu) heads to pick up his daughter for a weekend at the beach and has to deal with both his parents and his ex-wife's new lover. Then it turns up the pressure to push the tale into a fully-fledged, freewheeling meltdown that would be hysterical if the underlying desperation wasn't so strongly portrayed by Mr. Pavlu as the hapless Marius, a bit of a man-child who is obviously devoted to his daughter and oblivious to the juggernaut of trouble his short temper will get him in.

     Mr. Jude puts us from the start on Marius's side, but takes great care in not blinding us to his darkness, generating sympathy and understanding through a series of cleverly dropped clues that will only make sense with later plot developments, making sure to upend any easy categorizations. What Everybody in Our Family seems to be closest to is a boisterous, darker, Romanian version of Asghar Farhadi's A Separation gone wrong: as in that film, the storm is being whipped at the expense of little Sofia (Sofia Nicolaescu), a mere pawn in a much bigger game where the grown-ups are behaving more like children than the little 'uns. Mr. Jude ratchets the tension mercilessly until Everybody in Our Family threatens to explode in blood and violence - and the result is the next step or the next level that the "new Romanian cinema" deserves to move up to. An unreservedly great film.

Șerban Pavlu, Sofia Nicolaescu, Mihaela Sîrbu, Gabriel Spahiu, Tamara Buciuceanu-Botez, Stela Popescu, Alexandru Arșinel.
      Director, Radu Jude; screenplay, Mr. Jude, Corina Sabău, Andrei Butică; cinematography, Mr. Butică (colour, processing by Kodak Cinelabs Romania); designer, Elsje de Bruijn; costumes, Augustina Stanciu; editor, Cătălin F. Cristuțiu; producer, Ada Solomon (Hi Films, Circe Films, Abis Studio), Romania/Netherlands, 2012, 107 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 9th 2012. 

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

FROM NEW YORK WITH LOVE

A charmingly breezy, supremely accessible essay, From New York with Love traces Portuguese documentary filmmaker André Valentim Almeida's love-hate relationship with New York City and his own country throughout a period he spent in the US in 2009. Mr. Almeida handles smartly a toy box of ideas and effects to mirror the construction of this handheld paean to the Big Apple, shot with a Panasonic LX3 camera and edited on his laptop.

     The director meditates on love, home and the American dream by juxtaposing his thoughts on the city with those of thinkers such as Roland Barthes or Robert Bresson, in a multimedia sequence of epiphanies set to collages of self-shot footage and film excerpts. What makes From New York with Love more than just a charming bedsit oddity is Mr. Almeida's clever appropriation of techniques to illustrate the actual construction of the film - as his thoughts about the importance New York gained to him coalesce, so does the film, slowly gaining shape as he experiments with structure and style, introducing a narrator only after 15 minutes of subtitles and various attempts at commentary and written cards.

     That playfulness gives the film a touching, elegant personality that never avoids the sense that Mr. Almeida extends the film beyond what his concept allows, as it slowly becomes more rigid and less interesting after the 45-minute mark. It doesn't make From New York with Love less interesting, but suggests a tighter running time might have helped.

Director, writer, cinematographer (color), editor and producer, André Valentim de Almeida, Portugal, 2012, 71 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 19th 2012. 

Monday, May 07, 2012

EM SEGUNDA MÃO

Bouncing back from a disastrous sophomore effort Daqui p'rá Frente, director Catarina Ruivo serves up an intriguing, smartly played variation on classic film noir tropes in Em Segunda Mão. Moody and confidently handled, the film's ebb-and-flow plot is probably its least convincing element, but the deliberately stately handling and the understated final performance from the late Pedro Hestnes, who died during editing, go a long way towards making this a strong step forward for a helmer whose career hit a dead end after Daqui p'rá Frente failed to repeat the acclaim of her debut André Valente.

     Admittedly, having some knowledge of Mr. Hestnes' career helps much: a reluctant actor whose physical presence came to embody much of the Portuguese films from the 1990s, his performance here echoes many of his previous work and especially in Manuel Mozos' Xavier. It's uncanny just how much his character, Jorge, a jobbing writer of pseudonymous erotic fiction who says at one point he's in his late thirties and has never held a normal job, seems to reflect his own presence in Portuguese cinema as a "disappearing act" that surfaced at regular intervals.

     Yet Em Segunda Mão's slowly unfolding mystery is readable without any prior knowledge of the actor's past: the central conceit of a man who finds himself so irresistibly attracted to the life of a mystery man who disappeared without a clue that he ends up slipping into it is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. And it's also well played enough, among sophisticated, geometric surfaces of glass and mirror where everything is either reflected or exposed. The plot does creak and sag occasionally under a lot of unfilled holes - and scripting has always been Ms. Ruivo's weakness - but the fact that the film follows Jorge's POV throughout, and that he has never full knowledge of the trap he is being lured into, actually plays to the film's strength. It introduces a note of uncertainty and melancholy that keeps you wondering just what exactly is hiding under the impeccable surfaces.

Pedro Hestnes, Rita Durão, Vasco Apolinário; Marcello Urgeghe, Luís Miguel Cintra, João Grosso, Ricardo Aibéo; Joana de Verona, António Pedro Figueiredo, Diana Costa e Silva, Luís Lucas.
     Director and editor, Catarina Ruivo; screenplay, Ms. Ruivo, Mr. Figueiredo; cinematography (color, processing by Light Film), João Ribeiro; designers, Isabel Branco, Paulo Szabo; costumes, Ana Simão; producer, Fernando Vendrell (David e Golias), Portugal, 2012, 110 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance press screening, Castello Lopes Londres 1 (Lisbon), April 13th 2012. 

Sunday, May 06, 2012

POR AQUI TUDO BEM

There's a genuine sweetness and warmth radiating from Angolan director Maria Esperança "Pocas" Pascoal's debut feature. But that sweetness and that warmth aren't enough to make Por Aqui Tudo Bem into an accomplished film, despite the obvious sincerity and personal investment of Ms. Pascoal in a story inspired by the true-life experiences of many Angolan émigrés to Portugal and, to an extent, of her own and her sister's. The film follows the travails of Angolan sisters Alda (Ciomara Morais) and Maria (Cheila Lima), sent to Lisbon in 1980 ahead of her mother to escape the civil war then raging in their native country, but left to fend for themselves in the impoverished suburbs when she is unable to join them. In Ms. Pascoal's telling, their worst enemies are their own countrymen, from the teenage drug dealer (Willion Brandão) who tries to seduce Maria to the initially kind dressmaker (Vera Cruz) who turns out to resent them for surviving the war when her own son didn't.


     Por Aqui Tudo Bem is visually non-descript, with a few moments of flair let down by dull cinematography, and the plot never rises above a well-trod litany of melodramatic episodes indistinctly scripted. But the natural performances from Mss. Morais and Lima and the dry, matter-of-fact way in which the events unfold (with no musical accompaniment to give the game away) turn out to make the film into an amiable, if flawed enterprise. Personal though it may be - and it's very clear that this was a labour of love for its makers - Por Aqui Tudo Bem brings nothing new to the well-meaning social problem picture.

Ciomara Morais, Cheila Lima; Willion Brandão, José Carlos Cardoso, Vera Cruz; Catarina Avelar.
     Director, Pocas Pascoal; screenplay, Ms. Pascoal, Marc Pernet; cinematography, Octávio Espírito Santo (colour); music, Lulendu Mvulo, Mr. Pernet, Éric Lonni; art director, Fernanda Morais; costumes, Rute Correia; editor, Pascale Chavance; producer, Luís Correia (LX Filmes in associate production with Omboko), Portugal/France, 2011, 94 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 8th 2012. 

Saturday, May 05, 2012

TEXAS KILLING FIELDS

Texas Killing Fields is, above all, submerged in a problem of expectations: those surrounding the talent of Michael Mann's daughter Ami Canaan Mann, especially since this moody, richly atmospheric thriller inspired by true-life events is so clearly in the vein of Mann père's work. Therefore, that Ms. Mann acquits herself honourably, if somewhat anonymously, is no bad thing, even if for the time being it's hard to find a trace of personality not directly related to her father.

     What is trickier is clearly that she has been unable to transcend Donald Ferrarone's routine script, following the intertwined investigations of a missing woman and of a murder in Texas by a short-tempered local detective (Sam Worthington) and his devoutly religious transplanted New Yorker partner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). While Ms. Mann does her best to inject some welcome gravitas and successfully injects a sense of place and doom, greatly helped by the classy underplaying of a solid cast, the whole thing seems too much like a pilot episode for an upscale TV procedural, such is the predictability of the script and a score (by Tinderstick Dickon Hinchcliffe) that lays on the ruralisms and thriller clichés a bit too thick.

     Still, that Texas Killing Fields remains consistently engrossing, despite the absence of any distinctive feel, is pretty good these days, and on the strength of this sophomore feature after a little-seen debut it would be foolish to not keep an eye on Ms. Mann.

Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jason Clarke, Annabeth Gish, Sheryl Lee; Stephen Graham.
     Director, Ami Canaan Mann; screenplay, Donald F. Ferrarone; cinematography, Stuart Dryburgh (colour, processing by Technicolor); music, Dickon Hinchcliffe; designer, Aran Reo Mann; costumes, Christopher Lawrence; editor, Cindy Mollo; producers, Michael Mann, Michael Jaffe (Blue Light, Block/Hanson Productions and Watley Entertainment, in association with Infinity Media), USA, 2011, 105 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, April 29th 2012.  

 

Friday, May 04, 2012

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

Scottish director Lynne Ramsay doesn't make it easy on herself. For her comeback film, after an almost ten-year absence since Morvern Callar and an aborted attempt at adapting The Lovely Bones, she picks Lionel Shriver's somber novel about a mother whose teenage son is in prison for committing a cold-blooded massacre in his high school. Then, she goes ahead and shoots it in such a way that no viewer can take pleasure in this relentlessly bleak, almost unbearable film.

     And yet, We Need to Talk About Kevin is an impressive, remarkable achievement; a superbly controlled, if admittedly cerebral, experience where every single element of cinema is extraordinarily and loving laid out by Ms. Ramsay for maximum effect. From her masterful usage of a fragmented, shattered chronology to the impeccably geometrical setups and Seamus McGarvey's crisp, clinical widescreen framings, everything serves a single purpose: plunging the viewer inside the world of Eva Khachadourian (Tilda Swinton), a successful travel writer whose jet-setting ways are curtailed by her marriage and by her firstborn, Kevin. An eerie child who seems to exude some sort of malevolent energy from a young age, Kevin embarks quickly on an unnerving tug-of-war with Eva, a power game that runs throughout the film's 18-year timespan. And because everything is filtered through Eva's shellshocked, after-the-fact reappraisal, the viewer can never be sure of what is going on or of its ultimate truth - which adds a layer of disquiet to the tale's already edgy discomfort.

     Casting is pitch-perfect - Ms. Swinton is outstanding as the woman trapped in a mother's worst nightmare, Ezra Miller conveniently menacing as the older, teenage Kevin. Ms. Ramsay expertly lets the film see-saw queasily between a self-flagellating exploration of guilt and a hopelessly unattainable quest for a redemption that never comes, even though the film's final minutes open a glimpse of humanity that was very hard to come by beforehand. A ruthless, uncomfortable, utterly accomplished, strangely admirable film.

Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller.
     Director, Lynne Ramsay; screenplay, Ms. Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear, from the novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin; cinematography, Seamus McGarvey (colour, processing by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen); music, Jonny Greenwood; designer, Judy Becker; costumes, Catherine George; editor, Joe Bini; producers, Luc Roeg, Jennifer Fox, Robert Salerno (Independent Film Productions in association with Artina Films, Rockinghorse Films, Caemhan, Panaramic, Beryl Betty and Atlantic Swiss Productions for BBC Films and The UK Film Council), United Kingdom/USA, 2010, 112 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance screener DVD, Lisbon, April 29th 2012.

 

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

JESUS POR UM DIA

There's a good idea at work in filmmakers Verónica Castro and Helena Inverno's short debut feature, following the rehearsal and the performance of an Easter Passion play in the North of Portugal with the participation of inmates from the Bragança prison. Purely observational, without any voiceover, commentary, establishing information or interviews, that idea never really coalesces into a fully-formed film: there is little or no insight on who these inmates are, where they're coming from and why do they accept to be part of the play, the directors' approach focussing exclusively on a record of the rehearsals contextualised by the daily rhythms of the prison, and of part of the performance. The result is somewhat disheartening: the nicely observed, leisurely look at the rhythms of life inside the four walls never really gels with the amateur theatrics of the Passion rehearsals and performances, as if you're watching two disconnected films trying to become a single one but never managing the feat. There can be a good film in here, but it's not this slight, unconvincing one.

Directors/editors, Verónica Castro, Helena Inverno; camera (colour), Ms. Inverno; producers, Luís Urbano, Sandro Aguilar (O Som e a Fúria and RTP), Portugal, 2012, 71 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 16th 2012. 

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

HE WAS A GIANT WITH BROWN EYES

Swiss director Eileen Hofer's debut feature follows a 17-year old teenager from Azerbaijan who has been living in Switzerland with her mother for the past five years after the parents divorced, as she returns home for a Summer visit with her father and sister. Most interestingly and intriguingly, Ms. Hofer chose to make neither a traditional documentary, nor a narrative fiction, but rather preferred to inhabit a limbo where both forms intermingle freely, allowing the story of Sabina Aghmaliyeva's rekindled connection to a native country she no longer knows to suggest its own paths through a process of improvisation.

     Yet it is precisely that free-form approach that ends up undermining the film, too loosely shot to work as a traditional documentary, too diffuse narratively and thematically to make sense as a fiction, neither fish nor fowl as the director never truly gets a grip on the direction she wants the film to go. Sabina's return home and emotional reconnections with family, along with her belated realisation that she does not know that well the naval officer father she idolised from a distance, who is about to marry for a third time, are where the heart of the film lie. Yet Ms. Hofer lets them be thrown off balance by the mostly perfunctory segments dealing with her sister Narmina's own issues, as her boyfriend Karim is about to leave for his national service.

     He Was a Giant with Brown Eyes is enlivened by Javier Gesto's sensitive cinematography and a moody instrumental score attempting to bridge Western and Eastern Europe, but ends up suggesting a project taken up on a whim where things didn't quite turn out as Ms. Hofer - who is stepsister to the Aghmaliyeva girls - would expect.

Sabina Aghmaliyeva, Narmina Aghamaliyeva, Namik Aghamaliyev, Vagif Aghamaliyev.
     Director and writer, Eileen Hofer; cinematography, Javier Gesto (colour); music, Ladislav Agabekov, Julien Painot; editors, Andres Eris, Valentin Rotelli; producer, Ms. Hofer (5 to Five Team Production), Switzerland/Azerbaijan, 2012, 77 minutes. 
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 8th 2012.