Friday, June 29, 2012


All art can contain multitudes, it is said, and what Lech Majewski does in The Mill & the Cross is to lift the veil on the multitudes contained in Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. On paper, admittedly, the idea may come across as a bit of a dry art-history lecture; Mr. Majewski, himself an artist with a long career in the New York art world, expands on art historian Michael Francis Gibson's interpretive essay by deconstructing the painting into smaller elements, decoding the significance of their usage by Brueghel both in artistic and historical terms.

     But there isn't anything dry, dull or remotely opaque about Mr. Majewski's sweepingly visualized feature. Blending live action shot on location in with digitally created landscapes mimicking Brueghel's style, the director painstakingly creates a masterful, pictorial puzzle that is also an entrancing polaroid of medieval times. He elaborates simultaneously on the demiurgic power of art, its ambiguity of interpretation, its capacity to stop time; by doing so, he focuses the viewer on what really matters, on every single little detail that enriches the whole picture, and makes his effort not merely a flight of fancy but a richly presented portrait of a time and a space.

     Our guides throughout are Rutger Hauer as Brueghel and Michael York as his friend and patron Jonghelinck, discussing in classical, Socratic dialogues the Flanders of the 16th century that gave rise to the work while we follow people going about their daily lives. Thus does a telling of Jesus' "way to the calvary" become a metaphor of the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, as well as an erudite circle of life that is simultaneously profoundly pagan and deeply religious; thus does Mr. Majewski open a richly imagined, wondrously detailed window on the past that carries a particularly important message for our times. This is that time rewards art in a unique way; patience is key, the need to "stop and smell the roses" is a door that ought to be opened and is often left unopened.

     On paper, The Mill & the Cross seems like a Peter Greenaway-esque arty puzzle; on screen, despite its similarity to the British director's alluring Nightwatchingit's anything but, a seductive, enveloping experience thar draws its viewer in without ever condescending to him. 

Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling.

Director, Lech Majewski; screenplay, Michael Francis Gibson, Mr. Majewski, inspired by the painting by Pieter Brueghel The Way to Calvary; cinematography, Mr. Majewski, Adam Sikora (colour); music, Mr. Majewski, Józef Skrzek; designers, Kataryzna Sobańska. Marcel Sławiński; costumes, Dorota Roqueplo; editors, Eliot Ems, Norbert Rudzik; visual effects, Páweł Tybora, Mr. Rudzik; producer, Mr. Majewski (Angelus Silesius with co-financing from the Polish Film Institute, in co-production with Polish Television, Bokomotiv Filmproduktion, Odeon Film Studio, Supra Film, Arkana Studio, Piramida Film, 24 Media and Silesia Film), Poland/Sweden, 2010, 92 minutes.

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 4, June 21st 2012.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


A smart, engaging but ultimately unsatisfactory oddity, director Rodrigo Areias' second feature takes its lead from Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience essay to stage a sparse, laconic revenge western set in early 20th century rural Portugal: a man returns from America to avenge his brother's death only to find his ethics are out of sorts with a country he no longer recognises as the one he left. Unfolding in stately, beautifully photographed tableaux punctuated by fades to black and soundtracked by the wonderfully evocative score by rock musicians Paulo Furtado and Rita Pereira, Estrada de Palha moves with unusual clarity of vision and determination. The film cleverly uses the codes of the western to wrap up a disenchantment with society and politics that isn't exclusively contemporary, while also suggesting an ethical, philosophical odyssey through modern society (a Westernised Pilgrim's Progress, if you will).

     Mr. Areias' highly polished, undoubtedly earnest but occasionally playful handling finds a perfect echo in the steely performance of Vítor Correia as Alberto, the failed priest who returns home to honour the family name and finds his homeland beyond redemption; he's a hero in the best manly tradition of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, though the way the film's breathtaking rural locations and mr. Correia's own craggy good looks knowingly play with the “spaghettisation” of the American western in the 1960s suggests the director is thinking more of either Eastwood or second tier stars such as Lee van Cleef.

     However, mr. Areias' scripting is less assured than his laidback control of tempo and rhythm, suggesting he may have bitten off more than he could chew in trying to pool so many influences into a single script. While in line with the general theme of the movie, the payoff may eventually seem underwhelming, and comes off as inexplicably rushed after the leisurely rhythm of what has come before. By the same token, most of the supporting characters remain tantalisingly one-dimensional and underdeveloped — corrupt officer Bacelo (appropriately if excessively played over-the-top by Nuno Melo) and escaped black prisoner Américo (a quietly bewildered Ângelo Torres), who speaks in an unsubtitled African dialect no one understands, come off as conceptual additions that bring nothing to the table.

     Still, even though the film never rises to its full potential, there is a lot in Estrada de Palha that will endear it to adventurous viewers, and much to admire in mr. Areias' impressive visual storytelling talents. The film received its world premiere at a special event Vila do Conde International Short Film Festival in July 2011 where the soundtrack was performed live while the film was being projected.

Vítor Correia, Nuno Melo, Inês Mariana Moitas, Ângelo Torres, Adelaide Teixeira.

     Director/writer, Rodrigo Areias; cinematography, Jorge Quintela (colour); music, The Legendary Tigerman (Paulo Furtado), Rita Redshoes (Rita Pereira); art director, Ricardo Preto; costumes, Susana Abreu; editor, Tomás Baltazar; producer, Mr. Areias (Bando à Parte in co-production with Oktober, in association with Cinemate, Cimbalino Filmes and Tráfico Audiovisual), Portugal/Finland, 2011, 94 minutes.

     Screened: Curtas Vila do Conde 2011 advance DVD screener, Lisbon, July 3rd 2011, and Curtas Vila do Conde 2011 special presentation, Teatro Municipal de Vila do Conde, July 9th 2011. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012


There's nothing inherently wrong with a revisionist/alternate history narrative that the appropriate handling can't make right. That is the exact reason Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov's adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's best-selling history/vampire mash-up is such a disaster. There was a real flair in Mr. Bekmambetov's international breakthrough, the supernatural twist on modern-day Russia Night Watch; and his American big-budget debut, Wanted, resolved itself into a delirious actioner on turbo-charged steroids.

     And yet, the frisson of fun that the director's visual, commercial-based dexterity had brought to those smart modern takes on genre is totally absent from this stodgy, rote fantasy that posits Abraham Lincoln (an earnest Benjamin Walker) as an 18th century vampire slayer whose commitment to end slavery was a proxy for the real fight against the eternal evil of vampires looking to take over the USA. (There's a really neat, political-goading twist here: the vampires are all Southern slave-owners, equivalent in a way to the contemporary military-industrial complex, though we may be seeing far too much into it than the filmmakers intended and it's a reading likely to fly over everyone's heads but those of the most partisan commentators.)

     To work on the big screen, the plot needed a light, supple, tongue-in-cheek touch like the guilty pleasure of Wanted displayed. Despite a couple of hints that the film might go that way in the early going, it turns out that Mr. Bekmambetov follows a more serious, character-based road once Lincoln decides to move into politics. His unsuccessful attempts to make us care about these characters' dilemmas never really manage to flesh them out as more than archetypes, and the resulting po-faced attitude kills Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter stone dead. Worse, the bag of camera tricks the director impressively used in his previous features are by now neither impressive nor appropriate - we've all seen varispeed combats and digital period landscapes so much that we're inured to it, and the climactic train fight is so haphazardly shot and edited that it's a miracle that anyone will manage to understand what exactly is going on. The result is a waste of time and talent in a film that could have been a mindless guilty pleasure but is instead just mindless.

Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson.

Director, Timur Bekmambetov; screenplay, Seth Grahame-Smith, from his novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; cinematography, Caleb Deschanel (colour, prints by Deluxe, widescreen); music, Henry Jackman; designer, François Audouy; costumes, Carlo Poggioli, Varya Avdyushko; editor, William Hoy; special make-up, Greg Cannom; visual effects, Michael Owens, Craig Lyn; producers, Tim Burton, Mr. Bekmambetov, Jim Lemley (Twentieth Century-Fox in association with Dune Entertainment), USA, 2012, 105 minutes.

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 1 (Lisbon), June 18th 2012. 

Friday, June 15, 2012


"You can't go home again" could likely be the motto of many of the classic noir thrillers - and of their French counterparts, the stoic, laconic polars that Jean-Pierre Melville raised to an iconic art form and, today, survive merely as a distant memory. Cop turned filmmaker Olivier Marchal, though, seems haunted by that heritage, and in Les Lyonnais he delves back into it through an adaptation of the memoirs of Edmond Vital, the gypsy boss of the redoubtable Lyons gang that made French headlines in the early 1970s. It's that impossible nostalgia for a heroic era of honour among thieves, coloured by far too many quotes of The Godfather, that suffuses the entire worldview of Les Lyonnais, along with the dramatic realisation that that world is never, ever, going to return.

     Set in modern times, the film exploits precisely the chasm between past and present as a retired Vidal (Gérard Lanvin) is pulled back in when his former right-hand man (Tchéky Karyo) reappears and brings the "old days" back, justifying the constant back-and-forth between the 1970s (with Dimitri Storoge and Olivier Chantreau taking over the roles) and the modern-day setting. The "holy virile friendship" at the heart of the story seems more and more a relic of the past, maybe even a fiction, an illusion that never was except in Vidal's mind - too many films and novels, too many idealisms set against a dodgy, crummy reality. In that sense, Les Lyonnais, with its schematic plot points, stolid belief in gang brotherhood and signposted climaxes, conforms to what is expected of a modern gangland thriller while, at the same time, critiquing it as impossible. Nothing in real life is ever that simple, things are always messier and clumsier than they seem.

     Clumsy indeed: Les Lyonnais is reasonably non-descript, with a dash of TV crime series thrown in (look at the perfectly inadequate credit sequence, the way the flashbacks and flashforwards are constantly intercut) - but then Mr. Marchal is also behind current French TV hit series Braquo. Nevertheless, even though the film falls clearly short of its own ambitions, it's an amiable, sincere enterprise carried by Mr. Lanvin's effortless, dignified presence.

Gérard Lanvin, Tchéky Karyo, Daniel Duval, Lionnel Astier; Dimitri Storoge, Patrick Catalifo, François Levantal, Francis Renaud, Valeria Cavalli, Estelle Skornik, Olivier Chantreau, Stéphane Caillard, Florent Bigot de Nesles, Nicolas Gerout, Olivier Rabourdin; Étienne Chicot.

     Director, Olivier Marchal; screenplay, Mr. Marchal, Edgar Marie, from the memoir by Edmond Vidal with Mr. Marie, Pour une poignée de cerises; cinematography, Denis Rouden (colour, processing by Éclair, widescreen); music, Erwann Kermorvant; designer, Ambre Sansonetti; costumes, Agnès Falque; editors, Raphaëlle Urtin, Élodie Codaccioni; producers, Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste Dupont, Sylvain Goldberg, Serge de Poucques (LGM Films, Gaumont, France 2 Cinéma, Hatalom and Rhône-Alpes Cinéma in co-production with Nexus Factory and Ufilm, in association with Ufund), France/Belgium, 2010, 102 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 6th 2012. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012


By now, Hungarian director Béla Tarr has staked his claim and defined his territory as one of the last great visionaries of contemporary cinema, an auteur in the ultimate, irreducible sense of the word, and one of the few contemporary directors whose work is so distinctive as to stand in a category of its own. Announced as his final film, The Turin Horse is a none-more-bleak, hauntingly oppressive nightmare, an apocalyptic metaphor of life and death that takes its starting point from a real-life episode: philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's witnessing of a Turin coachman whipping his tired horse. What follows, though, has nothing whatsoever to do with said episode: over the film's two and a half hours, we accompany the ever-repeating rituals of a coachman and his daughter in a remote rural hut, as outside the world seems to be prey to unspeakable forces that are bringing its end nearer.

     Tarr's methodical, merciless, unyielding structure of lengthy tracking shots, minimal dialogue and obsessively repeating music hinges upon a ritualistic, almost atavistic concept of repetition and recurrence, evoking simultaneously the glory days of silent and early spoken cinema (though Fred Kelemen's luminous black-and-white is closer to the work of later cinematography stylists such as Henri Alekan or William Lubtchansky) and the desperate absurdism of Samuel Beckett's theatre. A gloomy one-way journey into the heart of darkness of mankind, The Turin Horse is not so much a film as a sensory experience - you go in expecting a conventional movie, you come out disturbed, anguished, confronted with your own mortality made physical in ways you are unlikely to have ever felt inside a cinema. Enter at your own risk.

Erika Bók, János Derzsi, Mihály Kormos.
     Director, Béla Tarr; co-director/editor, Ágnes Hranitzky; screenplay, Lászlo Krasznahorkai, mr. Tarr; cinematography, Fred Kelemen (b&w); music, Mihály Vig; designer, Sandór Kallay; costumes, János Breckl; production, TT Filmméhely, MPM Film, Vega Film, Zero Fiction, Werk Werck Works (Hungary/France/Switzerland/Germany/USA, 2010, 147 minutes).
     Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2011, official competition advance press screening, Cinemaxx Potsdamer Platz 9 (Berlin), February 14th 2011. 

Saturday, June 09, 2012


If ever a film has wanted to have its cake and eat it too, it's Ridley Scott's long-awaited return to the universe of Alien, in a "quasi-prequel" designed to explain where the mysterious "space jockey" in that 1979 film's early stages came from. Despite Mr. Scott's insistance that Prometheus spins off into a separate "mythology", it's clear from the finished product just how much this is an Alien prequel passing itself off as a brand new film - which it also is, hence the somewhat schizophrenic yet alluring end result.

     Prometheus is a thoughtful, oblique meditation on metaphysical matters wrapped up in a thinly disguised repeat of the original Alien structure, following a scientific expedition travelling to a distant moon where, according to archaeological digs, life on Earth may have originated, and finding itself face to face with an implacable, horrifying foe. With a number of smart winks at the original film and a structured script (extensively revised by J. J. Abrams sidekick Damon Lindelof) that leaves just enough unsaid to make its dynamics believable, Prometheus is also Mr. Scott's least mannered, more direct film in a while; the director seems here to be working more as a glorified, functional hack for hire, whose only personal touch lies in the meticulously designed and realized environments.

     But the thoughtful ideas of the script - from the concept of mankind as a species "engineered" by creatures with the power to destroy as well as create, to that of David (Michael Fassbender), the robot valet onboard the spaceship Prometheus who is also playing God, in a way, with his corporate overlords - raise cleverly structured parallels to the key confrontations in the previous Alien movies between man (or woman) and alien(s). And, again, it's woman who saves the day, putting to good effect the series' reliance on slasher/horror movie tropes and the classic "final girl" rule (here, again, doubled up with Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace on opposite sides of the "daddy's girl" divide - one who wishes her daddy dead, the other wanting him alive).

     Smarter than it appears to be at first sight but hopelessly muddled in its desire to cover all possible bases, Prometheus is ultimately a thrillingly realised teaser of a movie that remains somewhat tantalizingly out of reach, but one that is well worth the trip.

Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green; Charlize Theron. 
     Director, Ridley Scott; screenplay, Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof, inspired by a story by Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon; cinematography, Dariusz Wolski (colour, processing by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen); music, Marc Streitenfeld; designer, Arthur Max; costumes, Janty Yates; editor, Pietro Scalia; visual effects, Richard Stammers; producers, David Giler, Walter Hill, Mr. Scott (Twentieth Century-Fox, Dune Entertainment, Scott Free, Brandywine), USA, 2012, 124 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 9 (Lisbon), June 1st 2012. 

Friday, June 08, 2012


For his sophomore feature, Oren Moverman builds upon and enlarges The Messenger's study in masculinity by taking up the stereotype of the lawless, corrupt cop that novelist James Ellroy placed at the heart of his novels, and drilling down deep inside it with the help of a superb performance from Woody Harrelson. Rampart was an original script by Mr. Ellroy revised by Mr. Moverman, who originally came on board only as a writer, into a film that is simultaneously faithful to the essence of the novelist's characters while keeping its distance from its more obvious characteristics.

     The 1999 disintegration of LAPD beat cop Dave "Date Rape" Brown (Mr. Harrelson) into a mess of hallucinations and paranoia after he becomes a scapegoat for the Rampart Division's corruption problems is a judicious, methodical deconstruction of the police procedural that trims Mr. Ellroy's script of all excess fat while retaining its key element of burrowing down into the headspace of flawed heroes. Rampart thus becomes an Ellroy fever dream stylized into random chaos by Mr. Moverman's highly formalist, burned-out visuals and his ejection of all unnecessary plot points; all that remains is almost a dark parody of cop movies, a sad-clown take on all the movie cop cliches (the inability to hold a relationship, the family struggles, the boozing, the smoking, the whoring, the violence) transcended by the commitment of both director and lead actor to making this paranoid thug a human being put up against a wall. Mr. Harrelson's tour de force performance confirms him as a resourceful, under-appreciated actor, one that Mr. Moverman seems to be able to guide to places he's never been to.

     Ultimately, Rampart may be disappointing as a straight-forward mystery or procedural, but it's quite clear that was never what the director was aiming at - and the finished film is a lot better for it.

Woody Harrelson; Ned Beatty, Francis Capra, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Brie Larson, Audra McDonald, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Wisdom, Robin Wright; Steve Buscemi.
     Director, Oren Moverman; screenplay, James Ellroy, Mr. Moverman; cinematography, Bobby Bukowski (colour, digital intermediate by Foto-kem, widescreen); music, Dickon Hinchcliffe; designer, David Wasco; costumes, Catherine George; editor, Jay Rabinowitz; producers, Lawrence Inglee, Clark Peterson, Mr. Foster, Ken Kao (Lightstream Pictures and Waypoint Entertainment in association with The Third Mind Pictures), USA, 2011, 108 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), May 30th 2012. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012


Last we saw French director Robert Guédiguian, he was following the dissolution of a working-class friendship of former leftist activists in the disappointing polar Lady Jane. The director has become known for his recurring focus on the working-class streets of Marseilles, his repertory company of actors and technicians based out of that port city underscoring his belief in an old-fashioned communal utopia of class solidarity and common-sensed decency. For The Snows of Kilimanjaro, however, Mr. Guédiguian takes precisely that belief as its starting point and makes it collide headfront with modern-day social tensions. The film tells of the rude awakening of laid-off unionist Michel (a wonderful Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his wife Marie-Claire (Ariane Ascaride), whose own belief in trade unionism and class solidarity is shaken to its core when a break-in robbery for their life savings turns out to have been the work of younger laid-off worker Christophe (a seething Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), resentful of their comfortable bourgeois lifestyle now shut off to him.

     Mr. Guédiguian smartly questions the point of working-class honour when up against a broken social contract in a classicist, often leaden style; since the director has never been known as a stylist, the writing and performances are what usually carry the film, and it's the case here again. But there's in The Snows of Kilimanjaro a bitter taste of disenchantment, the realisation that something has indeed broken somewhere along the line as the belief in the power of the union and of the worker is no longer enough to ensure future generations will enjoy the same rights. When simple decency and common sense face headlong nihilism and desperation, when ideology collides with pragmatism, things are bound to shatter and what is timely and moving in the film is precisely the way its cast (combining Guédiguian regulars and some new additions) makes that existential awakening visible and understandable.

     While still visually non-descript, The Snows of Kilimanjaro never stoops to caricatural characterisations and is smart in its refusal to countenance an easy way out - whether ideological or pragmatic - of the dilemmas Michel and Marie-Claire are facing. That is perfectly crystallised in a wonderful bar scene where an observant bartender (Pierre Niney) asks Marie-Claire what is wrong and she answers "Life. It's life."

Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Gérard Meylan, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Maryline Canto, Anaïs Demoustier, Adrien Jolivet, Robinson Stévenin, Karole Rocher, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Pierre Niney, Yann Loubatière, Jean-Baptiste Fonck, Émilie Piponnier, Raphaël Hidrot, Anthony Decadi, Jeanine Gevaudan, Frédérique Bonnal.
     Director, Robert Guédiguian; screenplay, Jean-Louis Milesi, Mr. Guédiguian, inspired by the poem Les Pauvres gens by Victor-Hugo; cinematography, Pierre Milon (colour); designer, Michel Vandestien; costumes, Juliette Chanand; editor, Bernard Sasia; production, Agat Films & Cie, France 3 Cinéma, La Friche Belle de Mai, France, 2011, 107 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, May 19th 2012. 

LES NEIGES DU KILIMANDJARO- Bande-annonce por diaphana

Sunday, June 03, 2012


Pursuing his transformation from a director of "body horror" films into one of "soul horror" films, David Cronenberg follows up his exquisite A Dangerous Method with a more experimental, offbeat adaptation of Don de Lillo's opaque novel of economic crisis. Taking place in a single day within an armoured limousine, Cosmopolis tells of the monetary apocalypse as seen through the eyes of millionaire trader Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), caught in a citywide traffic jam on his way to a haircut as hangers-on, advisers and friends climb in and out of the limousine. The parade of visits, with the characters played by a distracting all-star ensemble effectively doing little more than cameos, suggests a symbolic pageant of life parading in front of a hollow, superficial, soul-less person that is trying so hard to comprehend what is happening that he ultimately fails to see what is going on - but the film ends up itself being a mirror image of the quandary at its heart.

     Mr. Cronenberg is trying so hard to make Mr. de Lillo's smart, opaque dialogue the centre of the film that he fails to inject any breeze in his claustrophobic, airless world, making Cosmopolis into a bracing, heavy-going philosophical dialogue that not even the director's evident smarts can make it work. Part of it falls squarely on Mr. Pattinson's shoulders - on first sight perfect for the role (a younger, less experienced actor than everyone else on the star-studded cast, portraying a character clearly out of his depth), he fails to imbue it with the necessary gravitas once the story shifts up a gear in the climactic third act opposite a wonderfully no-sweat Paul Giamatti as Packer's nemesis.

     Part of it is also the sense that Mr. Cronenberg is aiming essentially at an abstract construct, its subdued dystopian overtones making it seem more like the grandiose conceptual experiences of 1970s cinema passing themselves off as upscale prestige entertainments - but such abstraction effectively shuts off the film from any meaningful connection with the audience, turning it into an impressive block of ice you admire from a distance but feel unable to connect with. Intriguing and daring it may be, but it's a clean break in Mr. Cronenberg's recent run of great movies.

Robert Pattinson; Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric, Jay Baruchel, Kevin Durand, K'naan, Emily Hampshire; Samantha Morton; Paul Giamatti.
     Director, David Cronenberg; screenplay, Mr. Cronenberg, from the novel by Don de Lillo, Cosmopolis; cinematography, Peter Suschitzky (colour, processing by Deluxe and Éclair); music, Howard Shore; designer, Arv Greywal; costumes, Denise Cronenberg; editor, Ronald Sanders; producers, Paulo Branco, Martin Katz (Alfama Films Production and Prospero Pictures in association with Kinologic Films, France 2 Cinéma, Téléfilm Canada, Talandracas Pictures, Jouror Productions and Leopardo Filmes), Canada/France/Italy/Portugal, 2012, 109 minutes. 
     Screened: Zon Lusomundo Amoreiras 3, Lisbon, May 31st 2012.