Tuesday, July 31, 2012

RED LIGHTS

Spanish helmer Rodrigo Cortés may have bitten off more than he could chew for his follow-up to the much-talked Buried. Moving upwards into an attempt at a stylish adult chiller with a top-flight cast, the director helms confidently a genre exercise that is undeniably well done but comes off as cynical and soulless.

     For all intents and purposes, Red Lights appears to be an American production but is in fact an all-Spanish film except for the cast, and Mr. Cortés does quadruple duty as director, writer, editor and co-producer. He acquits himself very honourably in most of them, but ends up letting the side down at the end of what had, until then, been a reasonably assured and engrossing tale set in the world of psychic studies: the story of a university scientist (ever-reliable Cillian Murphy) and professional debunker of paranormal allegations who becomes obsessed with a recluse psychic (Robert de Niro) staging a comeback tour against his boss' (Sigourney Weaver) better judgment.

     It would all be good if Mr. Cortés showed himself able to resist misleading the viewer throughout, allowing the story to be undercut by a last-act twist that is evidently signposted but turns out to be fundamentally dishonest in the way it destroys the plausibility of everything that came before. Clearly, the idea was for Red Lights to follow on the footsteps of sleight-of-hand tales such as Christopher Nolan's The Prestige; instead, though, we get the infuriatingly overstretched filmmaking bravado of late-period Brian de Palma, wasting in the process both the director's impressively confident handling and a game cast whose supporting players are given practically nothing to do. Mr. Cortés remains a clearly talented director, but Red Lights seems a case of too much too fast.

Starring Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver; Robert de Niro; Toby Jones, Joely Richardson, Elizabeth Olsen, Craig Roberts


Director/writer/editor: Rodrigo Cortés
Cinematography: Xavi Giménez (colour, processing by Image Film, widescreen)
Music: Victor Reyes
Designer: Antón Laguna
Costumes: Patrícia Monné
Producers: Adrián Guerra, Mr. Cortés (Nostromo Pictures in association with Cindy Cowan Entertainment, Antena 3 Films, Televisió de Catalunya)
Spain/USA, 2011, 113 minutes


Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 8, Lisbon, July 18th 2012

Monday, July 30, 2012

HORS SATAN (OUTSIDE SATAN)

Crabs are known for their wayward way of walking: one step forward, two back. French auteur Bruno Dumont does the same with Hors Satan, taking a step back on the heels of the complex and assured Hadewijch. Again dealing with faith, Mr. Dumont follows the aimless days of a mysterious homeless wanderer (David Dewaele) in the French provinces, and the uneasy relationship built up between him and a local abused girl (Alexandra Lemâtre).

     It's very clear that the director is aiming at a Christ allegory, emphasized by the absence of names for any of the characters, as well as the constant communion with nature both characters feel through their long walks through the countryside (with the exception of four interior scenes, the entire film takes place outdoors). But Mr. Dumont likes to throw spanners into the machine and, in this case, this Christ figure doesn't shy from criminal acts: he refuses the come-on attentions of the girl, but stops at nothing to murder and rape those that stand on his and their way.

     But could there be a method to this madness? This being a Bruno Dumont film, you suspect so, though the director enjoys covering up its tracks through the deliberately detached, arid handling, its minimalism definitively influenced by the mystical austerity of Robert Bresson or Carl Th. Dreyer. In fact, the non-professional cast's wonderfully inexpressive performances are Bressonian to a T, figures in a beautifully shot landscape stuck in a vague, almost non-existant plot that suggests occasionally a bleakly twisted romantic comedy of unrequited attractions or a surreal serial-killer film.

     It's none of this, of course: merely a painstakingly realised abstract, a meditation on faith and transcendence that seems to underline the amount of work and toil that faith demands (see the exquisite sound design of breathing, struggling people in nature), but one that Mr. Dumont renders so stilted and opaque that it becomes a slog to wade through it. That may have been the director's intention all along, in which case it is a rousing success. You can't help but think that Mr. Dumont is basically thinking out loud rather than having an idea where his path is heading; fascinating as it can be, theoretically, it doesn't make it artistically engrossing, and there is a sense that he may be treading water after the more focussed and unnerving Hadewijch.

Starring David Dewaele, Alexandra Lemâtre; Christophe Bon, Juliette Bocquet, Aurore Broutin, Sonia Barthélémy, Valérie Mestdagh, Dominique Caffier


Director/writer: Bruno Dumont
Cinematography: Yves Cape (colour, widescreen)
Costumes: Alexandra Charles
Editors: Mr. Dumont, Basile Belkhiri
Production: 3B Productions, in co-production with CRRAV Nord Pas-de-Calais and Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains, in association with Cinemage 5
France, 2011, 109 minutes


Screened: DVD, Lisbon, July 28th 2012



Sunday, July 22, 2012

TED

On paper, Ted is high-concept heaven: imagine having to deal with a foul-mouthed, party-loving, rabble-rousing teddy bear. Ted came to life by magic when his owner, a lonely boy named John, wished he could be real, but what director and co-writer Seth MacFarlane (he of Family Guy) is interested in is what happens after the magic, after the "happy ever after" that usually puts a full stop to fairy tales. Once everyone has grown up, can you still hang on to that kernel of your childhood you used as a security blanket? If it sounds like a recipe for a Judd Apatow-like bromance between men who miss their teenage years, you're only half right.

     Behind the crowd-pleasing gimmick of the plush Boston bruin, Mr. MacFarlane orchestrates a surprisingly smart if highly seesawing mash-up of R-rated Apatowian comedy, sweet-natured 1980s family film, modern romantic comedy and crackerjack politically incorrect sitcom. It's probably too much to fit in one single movie, but kudos to Mr. MacFarlane for making such an unwieldy concoction work despite its obvious flaws. The key is that Ted, voiced by the director himself, isn't a gimmick or a cartoon: he's an actual character, given the role of the odd man out in the relationship between John (an endearing Mark Wahlberg) and Lori (Mila Kunis, who in all honesty hasn't much to do). He is the proverbial slacker brother from current bromances that has to grow up and confront adulthood (or as close to it as a plush toy magically come to life can be), just as his best friend and "thunder buddy" John has to.

     At heart, this means the essence of the mash-up is a romantic comedy (John and Lori have to deal with the rift Ted creates) and a 1980s Spielbergian fantasy (a toy come to life by magic turns out to be both problem and solution), wrapped up in a cheery celebration of cheesy 1980s pop culture (Mike Hodges' quirky 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon earns center stage). It's not a love letter to the past like J. J. Abrams' Super 8 was; it's less concerned with recreating that magical feeling as it is in just enjoying it, while simultaneously paying homage to it and affectionately parodying it. When Mr. MacFarlane centres the film in that dichotomy, Ted works. When he doesn't, the film stumbles: despite the technical brilliance of the bear effects (an amazing bedroom fight sequence is surprisingly tough), the director is more of an illustrator than a stylist, he throws in far too many blink-and-you'll-miss-it quirks that suggest there's still a lot of television at work here (as in fact does the somewhat halting rhythm of the film), and there are rather facile and somewhat pointless subplots involving a sleazy townie boss (Joel McHale) and a Ted-stalking psycho (Giovanni Ribisi). Still, it is the underlying subtext of everyday magic that connects Ted directly to its 1980s influences, revealing a soft-centred, sweet-natured core at the heart of a comedy that is only apparently transgressive.

Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane; Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi.

Director, Mr. MacFarlane; screenplay, Mr. MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild, from a story by Mr. MacFarlane; cinematography (colour, prints by Technicolor), Michael Barrett; music, Walter Murphy; designer, Stephen Lineweaver; costumes, Debra McGuire; editor, Jeff Freeman; visual effects, Blair Clark; producers, Jason Clark, John Jacobs, Mr. MacFarlane, Scott Stuber (Media Rights Capital, Fuzzy Door Productions, Bluegrass Films, Smart Entertainment), USA, 2012, 106 minutes.


Screened: UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon, July 19th 2012. 



Saturday, July 21, 2012

DARLING COMPANION

It's been about ten years since Lawrence Kasdan stepped behind a camera; having helped usher in the era of modern Hollywood blockbusters in the early 1980s with his scripts for The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi, he really can't get a job these days, even despite his role as writer for the box-office bonanza that was The Bodyguard. The irony is heightened by the fact that Mr. Kasdan's own work as writer/director from 1981's Body Heat on has always been about celebrating classic, script-driven American filmmaking; since then, studios have either proved unwilling or uninterested in backing his ensemble pieces about the modern American middle-class, and his last directing job was as a hack-for-hire in an underwhelming adaptation of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher that proved a sorry mismatch.


     Darling Companion, billed as the third in a loose trilogy about the trials of modern baby-boomers after The Big Chill and Grand Canyon, is a perfect fit for Mr. Kasdan's sensibility: a bitter-sweet ensemble comedy about people realising the ways their lives have changed, with exquisitely tuned dialogue expertly performed by a cast to die for who relish this type of well-written characters that seldom come their way. The difference, here, is Mr. Kasdan has gone low-budget - and it shows in the generally underwhelming handling and, more disturbingly, in the slippage in quality control. Not necessarily when it comes to the performances; this tale of a Denver family reunion where the disappearance of the matriarch's rescued dog brings to light the extent of sore feelings opts for some really facile choices especially coming from such a talented writer. (The gypsy caretaker Carmen is the most egregious offender, even though Ayelet Zurer is perfectly fine and rounds her off nicely.) Worse, there is a sense of weariness that was absent in the director's previous work; Mr. Kasdan never was much of a stylist, but here there is an unexpected creakiness that mars the good ensemble work.

     It's not enough to spoil the film, carried by the director's usual stellar dialogue and the meaty performances from an ever more radiant Diane Keaton and the woefully underused Dianne Wiest, though there really isn't a bum note in the cast. While not a classic by any stretch, Darling Companion shows Mr. Kasdan can still do well what he does best. If only people would let him do it more often.

Mark Duplass, Richard Jenkins, Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Elisabeth Moss, Sam Shepard, Dianne Wiest, Ayelet Zurer.


Director, Lawrence Kasdan; screenplay, Meg Kasdan, Mr. Kasdan; cinematography, Michael McDonough (colour, widescreen); music, James Newton Howard; designer, Dina Goldman; costumes, Molly Maginnis; editor, Carol Littleton; producers, Anthony Bregman, Mr. Kasdan, Elizabeth Redleaf (Werc Work Works, Likely Story, Kasdan Pictures), USA, 2011, 102 minutes.


Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon screening room, Lisbon, July 17th 2012. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

MAGIC MIKE

"Don't talk, just be beautiful", asks psychology graduate student Joanna (Olivia Munn) from the slightly hungover Mike (Channing Tatum), star male stripper at Florida club Xquisite, signalling loud and clear the disconnect between image and identity hyphenate director Steven Soderbergh exploits in his latest dramedy. Magic Mike is closer to one of the "works for hire" Mr. Soderbergh accepts regularly to bankroll his more offbeat, personal projects - in this case, the film was developed by its star and co-producer, Mr. Tatum, and written by his producing partner, Reid Carolin, inspired by the actor's own experiences as a male stripper.

     But it is still a Soderbergh picture through and through, working as a companion piece to his earlier The Girlfriend Experience. In that low-budget film, he explored sex as a commodity and pleasure as business through the parallel lives of an NYC call girl and her personal trainer boyfriend. Here, he looks at it from the male side, showing Mike as a sweet, well-meaning man that is a mere cog in a system beyond him. In Mr. Tatum's endearing portrayal, Mike is a man stripping merely as a means to an end until he can get his furniture business off the ground, who may lack the killer instinct that would make him a grade-A hustler such as his boss at the club, the shameless Dallas (a spot-on Matthew McConaughey). That lack of killer instinct and his underlying good nature conspire to keep him falling just short of his ambitions and talents, leading the film into a classic "changing of the guard" melodrama, only set in the male strip-tease world, as Mike welcomes layabout Adam (Alex Pettyfer) into the strip community and watches him take off almost instantly.

     The story gains an extra layer through Mr. Soderbergh's dispassionate observation of the social mechanisms that keep Mike on his toes throughout, as smart and cruel as those he set in The Girlfriend Experience, only refracted through the framework of melodrama. However, there is a general sense that the director, again doing triple-duty as cinematographer and editor, isn't stretching by any sense beyond his comfort zone, and his usual knack for performances hits a brick wall in the indifferent performance of Cody Horn as Adam's sister Brooke, a nurse who becomes the official romantic interest in the film.

     For all that, Magic Mike confirms Mr. Soderbergh as one of the smartest directors working nowadays within American filmmaking, able to craft an obvious crowd-pleaser such as this while planting a little nugget in the background for the viewer to mull over afterwards.

Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Matt Bomer, Riley Keough, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias; Matthew McConaughey.


Director, cinematographer (colour, processing by Foto-kem, widescreen; under the alias Peter Andrews), editor (under the alias Mary Ann Bernard), Steven Soderbergh; screenplay, Reid Carolin; designer, Howard Cummings; costumes, Christopher Peterson; choreography, Alison Faulk; producers, Nick Wechsler, Gregory Jacobs, Mr. Tatum, Mr. Carolin (Nick Wechsler Productions, Iron Horse Entertainment, Extension 765), USA, 2012, 109 minutes.


Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon screening room, Lisbon, July 3rd 2012. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

All you need to know about this latest reboot of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's comic-book creation, so soon after Sam Raimi's successful post-9/11 trilogy, is very simple. It exists only as a purely profit-guided exercise for Columbia Pictures, due to the higher salaries commanded by Mr. Raimi and his stars and the need the keep the franchise humming for future reference. Having said that, there is nothing intrinsically offensive or awkward about this new reset, playing up the lighter pop-culture aspect of the character, who is now just another high school nerd from suburban NYC (an appealing Andrew Garfield) suddenly given free rein by his new-found, accidentally obtained powers, that may or may not derive from a revolutionary genetic breakthrough achieved by his now-deceased, long absent father (Campbell Scott in a brief cameo) and taken advantage of by his associate Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans). Key to the film is still the eternal identity crisis of a young man finding his way into adult life and responsibility, but director Marc Webb underplays any overt seriousness, preferring a speedier, lighter touch and adroitly managing an estimable group of actors. For all this, though, The Amazing Spider-Man really has no reason to exist other than studio politics, there being no need for a different take on the character so soon after the Tobey Maguire incarnation.

Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan; Martin Sheen; Sally Field.


Director, Marc Webb; screenplay, James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves, from a story by Mr. Vanderbilt and characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; cinematography, John Schwartzman (colour, processing by DeLuxe, widescreen); music, James Horner; designer, J. Michael Riva; costumes, Kym Barrett; visual effects, Jerome Chen, Rob Engle; producers, Laura Ziskin, Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach (Columbia Pictures and Marvel Entertainment), USA, 2012, 136 minutes.


Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 7, Lisbon, June 29th 2012. 



Friday, July 06, 2012

MOONRISE KINGDOM

Could this be "backlash time" for Wes Anderson? The director's return to live-action filmmaking after the stop-motion animation interlude Fantastic Mr. Fox has critics and observers split along the meaning of "more the same"; the director's unmistakably stylized universe remains as uncompromising as ever, and 2007's The Darjeeling Limited already suggested the law of diminishing returns might be setting in on his clearly defined territory. Moonrise Kingdom does bring in new elements to that universe: a location shoot for starters, and a bunch of new additions to his repertory company of actors (the most successful of which an unexpectedly moving Bruce Willis, effectively undermining his usual action-man typecasting).

     The key to the new film, though, lies in its unapologetic contrast between youth and age, disappointment and hope, experience and anticipation. As most of Mr. Anderson's films, there are a lot of adults bemoaning the wrong turns in their lives and wishing they could make up for it, but there is also a sunnier, more lyrical disposition, a desire to not make the same mistakes as everyone else, in the central plot: two teenagers (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) make a go of escaping their dysfunctional families (whether actual or adopted) and build their own magic refuge (the title's "Moonrise Kingdom") in a secluded cove in a fictional Maine island.

     Simultaneously self-deprecating Boy's Own adventure and melancholy meditation on the paths taken or not taken, Moonrise Kingdom still has a sense of a director chafing against a system of his own devising, of an archly theatrical style being again deployed to maximum effect, but there is really no point in complaining about Mr. Anderson being who he is and doing what he does, as that is part of what makes him so interesting. And the film is a charmingly realised tale of people facing choices and ready to take risks doing so, giving Moonrise Kingdom a more hopeful, uplifting mood - as if Mr. Anderson had left some fresh air inside his stuffy doll's house.

Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton; Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward; Jason Schwartzman; Bob Balaban.


Director, Wes Anderson; screenplay, Mr. Anderson, Roman Coppola; cinematography, Robert Yeoman (colour by Technicolor); music, Alexandre Desplat, Mark Mothersbaugh; designer, Adam Stockhausen; costumes, Kasia Walicka Maimone; editor, Andrew Weisblum; producers, Mr. Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson (Focus Features, Indian Paintbrush, American Empirical Pictures), USA, 2012, 93 minutes. 


Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon screening room, Lisbon, May 26th 2012. 

Thursday, July 05, 2012

MY LITTLE PRINCESS

By now, the sublime Isabelle Huppert has created an indelible image as the reigning transgressive ice queen of art cinema, and My Little Princess gives the French actress a role that fits that picture like a glove: that of Hanna Giorgiu, an aspiring artist in mid-seventies Paris who achieves a succès de scandale with artistic, if borderline sexual, photographs of her teenage daughter Violetta (Anamaria Vartolomei). The plot may ring some bells and, indeed, My Little Princess (in English in the original) is openly inspired by director and co-writer Eva Ionesco's own experiences as the underage model for her mother Irina's risque shoots in mid-seventies Paris. And while it's clear that the film makes no attempt to whitewash anything or assign blame, it's obvious that casting Ms. Huppert as the mother opens the door to an exploration of the limits and needs of motherhood, since she is always able to find the nugget of humanity at the heart of an apparently heartless woman.

     The actress makes Hanna a volatile, fiery diva looking for love in all the wrong places, the child of a rural, repressed Romanian society who wants to assert her femininity and be taken seriously as an artist. But she is genuinely fond of her daughter, and her own ambitions blind her to the fact that using Violetta as a model may not be a good decision for either of them. Ms. Vartolomei as Violetta more than holds her own up against Ms. Huppert, and together they create a believable, push and pull rapport between mother and daughter where you find yourself asking, at some point, who in fact is the mother and who is the daughter, who is mature and who is immature. While Ms. Ionesco focuses on this relationship, in the fanciful world of make-believe they both share, all is well; but the film needs to balance it with the real world outside their bubble, to build a narrative (and a cautionary one) from such a story.

     And there is where My Little Princess fails to hold up, because the film loses its ominous, sinister charm, the characters stop being utterly believable and begin behaving in that irrational way of the overwrought family drama; the transformation is so abrupt and the change of mood so sudden that all becomes just another movie. It's a shame, since both the commitment of the actresses and the ever-so-slightly off-key recreation of that special bond between mother and daughter suggest the kernel of a provocative, insightful melodrama.

Isabelle Huppert, Anamaria Vartolomei, Georgetta Leahu, Denis Lavant, Jethro Cave; Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Pascal Bongard.


Director, Eva Ionesco; screenplay, Ms. Ionesco, Marc Cholodenko, Philippe le Guay; cinematography, Jeanne Lapoirie (colour, widescreen); music, Bertrand Burgalat; designer, François-Renaud Labarthe; costumes, Catherine Baba; editor, Laurence Briaud; production, Les Productions Bagheera, France 2 Cinéma, Love Streams Agnès B. Productions, France, 2011, 107 minutes.


Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, June 22nd 2012. 

Monday, July 02, 2012

ICE AGE 4: CONTINENTAL DRIFT

By the time a series of films - any series of films - gets to number four, chances are whatever qualities have led it that far have by now been completely left by the wayside, overcome by the cash-register-obsessed diminishing-return mentality of Hollywood studios. Yet there is always an exception to the rule and the Ice Age franchise reaches its fourth instalment without losing its many charms, even if it doesn't necessarily improve on the splendid third episode (Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, 2009). The pre-historic odd-couple critters created by Chris Wedge at the Fox-owned computer animation studios Blue Sky can no longer be seen as poor cousins to Pixar and Dreamworks' blockbuster creations, having become the foundation on which Fox's animation efforts  have been built.

     The combination of family-friendly plot and nonsensical sight gags straight out of Warner Bros. territory have made the Ice Age series unusually long-lasting in its own right, progressively improving on the cheerful first episode; this fourth feature follows the usual blithe disregard for actual historical or scientific references, in favour of another ode to the importance of family, suggesting the whole series is by now a sort of anthropomorphized version of The Flintstones. In Ice Age 4: Continental Drift, Manny the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) has to deal with the teenage tantrums of his daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer), born at the end of the previous instalment, while dimwitted sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) gets saddled with his toothless, curmudgeonly grandmother (a hilarious Wanda Sykes stealing the show). All of this takes place while the continental drift gets going through the efforts of Scrat's endless quest for the ultimate acorn, triggered in the film's hilariously deadpan opening.

     Just like the third film was enlivened by the delirious performance of Simon Pegg as one-eyed wild weasel Buck, number 4 gets a wonderfully low-key Peter Dinklage as the fearsome primate pirate Captain Gutt, putting the film on the road to take in both Pirates of the Caribbean and Moby Dick while the attempt to reunite the separated families reminds both of the initial Ice Age film and of the Steven Spielberg-produced Land Before Time series of the 1980s. It's a snazzy, fast-moving, over-before-you-know-it riot of pitch-perfect sight gags and effortlessly, falsely casual story-telling, even if (as is the wont for most contemporary animations) everything does sag a little bit in the middle and the need to keep it family-friendly keeps it just below the free-for-all anarchy it's always itching to get to. Still, that's precisely the bullseye sweet-spot the Ice Age films have specialised in hitting, and there's really not much to complain about when the result is so enjoyable and fun.

Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Peter Dinklage, Wanda Sykes; Jennifer Lopez; Queen Latifah.


Directors, Steve Martino, Michael Thurmeier; screenplay, Michael Berg, Jason Fuchs, from a story by Mr. Berg and Lori Forte; cinematography, Renato Falcão (colour by Deluxe, widescreen); music, John Powell; art director, Nash Dunnigan; character design, Peter de Sève; editors, James C. Palumbo, David Ian Salter; producers, Ms. Forte, John C. Donkin (Blue Sky Studios for Twentieth Century-Fox Animation), USA, 2012, 88 minutes. 


Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 1, Lisbon, June 25th 2012.