Wednesday, October 31, 2012

CATIVEIRO

There is a very interesting question at work in André Gil Mata's highly personal film essay: just how much is too personal for public exposure, and where do you draw the line? It's a question Mr. Gil Mata asks in his own voiceover; filming his ailing grandmother's daily routines as a kind of live-action portrait of a dear relative was the original plan, but in the process the director hits the wall of his own doubts and questions, aware of the risks involved in this level of public visibility.

     The answer for the whys and hows of Cativeiro is simply enunciated by Mr. Gil Mata halfway through its short length: he simply wanted to record for posterity his view and his experience of his grandmother, but, as he himself admits, comes to realise a chasm has since opened between the reality of her daily existence and the image he had created of her, heightened by the deterioration of her health in between the initial idea and the actual start of shooting. What comes out of Cativeiro is, then, an equal parts morose and affecting exercise with an evidently personal meaning and identity and a few charming ideas and sequences, yet unknowing how to articulate them into a coherent, cohesive film. The film spends most of its running time looking for a structure and a vision that it fails to find.

Director, writer, cameraman: André Gil Mata
Editor: Tomás Baltazar
Portugal, 2012, 64 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 14th 2012

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

PEOPLE'S PARK

China has, in the past few years, become a true breeding ground for modern documentary cinema, its sheer size, sociopolitical struggles and contradictions a measure of the treasure trove of stories and views directors have found there. Though most of the great documentaries that have come out of China recently have mostly been home-bred, even if with help from foreign financing, People's Park is something else: it's a production from Harvard's experimental film laboratory ran by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and a much less politically activist work, more concerned with recording the mood and behaviours of a peaceful Summer Sunday in a Chinese park, in a quasi-ethnographic take.

     Yet People's Park ends up sending that ethnography to the back seat by virtue of its formal construction: a 75-minute single take roaming through the park at child's eye-view, taking in everything that's happening around the camera. And that's the problem: halfway through you realise the approach has taken over the project, since everywhere they go many people can't help but stare at the camera, its  sheer unusual presence unable to render it invisible and suggesting a reverse voyeurism that simultaneously underlines and undermines the technical prowess.

     Unlike Aleksander Sokurov's Russian Ark, where a narrative thread helped the camera move along, there is a sense of amiable, contemplative rambling here, letting the park speak for itself, as it were. But the aimless wandering only really focuses in occasional scenes where the camera manages to mingle unattended with the crowd, resulting in an intriguing but ultimately flawed exercise.

Directors, cameramen, editors: Libbie Dina Cohn, John Paul Sniadecki
Production: Harvard Film Study Center, Sensory Ethnography Lab, Cohn & Sniadecki Productions
USA, 2012, 77 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 13th 2012


Monday, October 29, 2012

THE ANABASIS OF MAY AND FUSAKO SHIGENOBU, MASAO ADACHI AND 27 YEARS WITHOUT IMAGES

As far as documentaries go, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years without Images wields a quite unwieldy title and a highly conceptual premise, only to smartly defuse it: it's a disarmingly accessible and fascinating film, part of the current strand of so called documentaires de création that apply experimental narrative frameworks and visual textures to standard documentary subjects. In this case, American-raised, French-born multimedia artist Éric Baudelaire delves into the troubling memories of two people involved with infamous 1970s Japanese radical activists the Japanese Red Army to create a poignant discourse on the loss of one's personal life involved in committing to a cause.

     Mr. Baudelaire juxtaposes the personal and the political in order to grasp an approximation of the price you pay for joining an activist group, by separating sound and image. The pictures are mostly newly-shot images of Tokyo and Beyrouth, while the story is told in voiceover by the two protagonists who actually lived through it: May Shigenobu, the daughter of Japanese Red Army leader Fusako, who grew up on the run and lived clandestinely for 27 years until her mother was apprehended by the Japanese police, and Masao Adachi, art-house filmmaker and collaborator to Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu who abandoned his career to become spokesman and cameraman for the group. There are no pictures of Ms. Shigenobu for the first 27 years of her life, while Mr. Adachi's treasure trove of footage was destroyed in a bombardment. Therefore, the juxtaposition of the duo's memories with Mr. Baudelaire's fake period footage leads The Anabasis of May and Fusako... into a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on memory and storytelling, opening up a self-referential hall of mirrors where the absence of any visual proof and the need to rely on the survivors' memories cast a playful yet serious shadow over things we usually take for granted. An engrossing, enveloping exercise.

Director, producer, writer, cameraman: Éric Baudelaire (colour, processing by Retro Enterprises)
Sound: Diego Eiguchi, Philippe Welsh
Editors: Mr. Baudelaire, Laure Vermeersch, Minori Akimoto
France, 2012, 66 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 13th 2012


Friday, October 26, 2012

SKYFALL

"Youth is no guarantee of innovation" and "age is no guarantee of efficiency". As these significant lines in the 23rd film adventure of Ian Fleming's super-spy James Bond attest, Skyfall treads (successfully) a fine line between reinventing the franchise anew for the modern era (after the inspired reboot of Casino Royale and the disappointing, water-treading Quantum of Solace) and keeping the faith in the old days. Simultaneously sophisticated and spectacular but never merely throwaway, the new film introduces in the Bond tradition a meta-narrative about how to find your own path while upholding past values, by asking repeatedly the question: can a Cold War spy successfully remain relevant in these post-9/11 days, when nothing is what it used to be when they first trained? Is Bond a heirloom from days long gone or can he still find his place in our time?

     The script itself, by series regulars Neil Purvis and Robert Wade and Gladiator and Coriolanus scribe John Logan, begs the question throughout, as an aged, ailing Bond (Daniel Craig) faces the possible collapse of MI6 when a mysterious cyber-criminal with a huge chip on his shoulder towards department boss M (Judi Dench) comes into possession of a hard drive with the identities of British undercover agents. That technology is no substitute for some of the "old-fashioned ways" is embedded in the film's own fabric (and is made clear in the quotes at the top of this piece, taken from a playful conversation between Bond and the Department's new gadget master Q, played by Ben Whishaw).

     But Skyfall never succumbs to cheap nostalgia, since it smartly plays with the series' shorthand in casually elegant winks; it's also a more serious film as it recentres the character within an English tradition of thoughtful spy thrillers, while never losing sight part of the Bond films' charms is that they don't take themselves overly seriously. Current "keepers of the flame" Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson (Albert R. Broccoli's daughter and son-in-law) have been betting on bringing outside directors and writers, and that pays off brilliantly in what is probably the series' most exquisitely crafted film in years, with two classic action set-pieces: a dazzlingly fluid fight in a Shanghai glass-walled high-rise and a magnificently fiery climax in the Scottish highlands, both masterfully lighted by DP Roger Deakins and edited by Stuart Baird, and staged by director Sam Mendes with an effortlessly precise, coolly clinical professionalism that fits the film's hybrid nature like a glove.

     Both the script and Mr. Mendes' approach demand more range from the actors than the series usually asks; Mr. Craig steps up to the plate with gusto, though it's Ms. Dench who steals the spotlight with her M moving centre stage in a series of expertly modulated scenes. The surprising soft spot lies in the film's villain: Javier Bardem's wonderfully manipulative master criminal is another great performance by the Spanish actor that also has form within the series' tradition, but on one hand he seems to be channeling far too much his award-winning killer from No Country for Old Men, while on the other his over-the-top flamboyance seems a distracting sideshow from the film's heart.

     What really matters, in fact, is James Bond's own voyage of self-discovery, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, in a narrative arc that brings to a close the cycle started with Casino Royale and sets up the tables for the future episodes in an avowed throwback to the early Sean Connery days. Agent 007's mission number 23 is probably the most layered and resounding film in the series, and it does so by building upon all that came before it.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Judi Dench

Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Cinematography: Roger Deakins  (colour, digital processing by Company 3, widescreen)
Music: Thomas Newman
Designer: Dennis Gassner
Costumes: Jany Temime
Editors: Stuart Baird, Kate Baird
Special effects: Steve Begg, Chris Corbould
Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia Pictures, Eon Productions, B23 Ltd) 
United Kingdom/USA, 2012, 144 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 10 (Lisbon), October 18th 2012


Thursday, October 25, 2012

BELLAMY (INSPECTOR BELLAMY)

French master Claude Chabrol's final theatrical feature comes under the shadow of the "two Georges" to whom it is dedicated: acclaimed crime novelist Georges Simenon, a particular favourite of Mr. Chabrol's whose works he occasionally adapted, and singer/songwriter Georges Brassens, one of the masters of French post-war chanson. Bellamy borrows liberally tone and structure from Simenon and important plot points from a Brassens song, in an alternately poignantly tragic and wryly satirical tale of metaphorical doppelgängers set in the provincial France Mr. Chabrol was so fond of, its twisted and curved plot triggered when Parisian police detective Paul Bellamy (a wonderful Gérard Depardieu) comes to Nîmes for a family vacation.

     What follows is another one of the director's elegantly written poison-pen letters dissecting provincial bourgeoisie, with inspector Bellamy being sucked into a case of insurance fraud where nothing is what it seems as his shifty half-brother (Clovis Cornillac), with whom he has a turbulent relationship, arrives for a visit. But this one is given an added lease of life over the later Chabrol films by the perfect relationship between film, director and star: this was the sole collaboration between Messrs. Chabrol and Depardieu, and by the looks of it it was a match made in heaven, with the actor pulling off one of his finer performances in years (and, what's more, an entirely subdued one). Also, Mr. Depardieu and Marie Bunel as his wife navigate the director's twists and turns and rolling dialogue as they were born to it - something that not every Chabrol film in the last few years had.

     As always, plot is entirely secondary to the elaborate web of relationships the director effortlessly draws out from the darkest corners of the story, resulting in a film that seems to bring nothing new to the director's heritage on the surface but, with the hindsight of a second or third viewing, reveals unsuspected and inspired layers underneath its economy of means and structure and obfuscating mirror-image plot. Probably the best of the director's works since the masterful The Ceremony, and a more than worthy concluding chapter to a long, illustrious career.

Cast: Gérard Depardieu, Clovis Cornillac, Jacques Gamblin, Marie Bunel, Vahina Giocante

Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Odile Barski, Mr. Chabrol
Cinematography: Eduardo Serra (colour, processing by GTC)
Music: Mathieu Chabrol
Designer: Françoise Benoît-Fresco
Costumes: Mic Cheminal
Editor: Monique Fardoulis
Producer: Patrick Godeau  (Alicéleo, Alicéleo Cinéma, France 2 Cinéma, DD Productions)
France, 2008, 110 minutes

Screened: Berlin International Film Festival press screening, Cinemaxx 9 (Berlin), February 7th 2009; distributor advance press screening, Medeia Nimas (Lisbon), October 16th 2012


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

THE RADIANT

Proof that it often takes a director that doesn't come from the film world to uncover fresh looks at overly seen tropes, British-based art collective The Otolith Group venture into the tricky world of documentary filmmaking with this thoughtful, thought-provoking look at (literally) the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Commissioned by and for the 2012 Documenta exhibition in Kassel, The Radiant is alternately a meditation on the invisibility of major changes to culture and society and a warning against the dangers of nuclear energy.

     Conjuring a 1950s science-fiction feel as it evokes the shining promise of the atom (notably in the stunning archival footage from the building of the Fukushima facility), the hour-long feature slowly moves into a post-modern take on the 1970s paranoid thriller in its denunciation of Japan as a "guinea-pig" for the human effects of nuclear radiation in daily life. The general concept is that of Fukushima as a new Chernobyl, introducing a disquieting brave new world whose flaws and dangers can be invisible and will not be felt for years to come (making the footage of the resident that decides to stay and live in the outskirts of the plant as determined living proof of the consequences), a mutation whose consequences are as unpredictable as were those when the plant was constructed. 

     Though The Radiant began life as an art project, the end result is very recognizably a documentary, even if its roundabout paths into the subject and its slightly off-kilter approach indicate just how much this isn't a straight-forward genre entry. The power of art to intervene in the world is never overbearingly underlined but, instead, seems to grow out of the film's own construction as a relay between pre-existing and newly-shot footage, assembled together with a view to look at things in a fresh new way. Mission successfully, and disquietingly, accomplished.

Directors: The Otolith Group (Kodwo Eshun, Anjalika Sagar)
Camera: Sebastian Meyer, Anjalika Sagar, Jonas Mortensen
Music: Tyler Friedman
Sound: Vicente Gutierrez
Editor: Simon Arazi
Sound design: Mr. Arazi, Mr. Friedman, The Otolith Group
Producers: The Otolith Group in co-production with Blood Mountain Foundation, Project 88 and Zavod Projekt Atol, commissioned by Documenta 13 Kassel
United Kingdom/Germany/Hungary/India/Slovenia, 2012, 64 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 12th 2012


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

BAKOROMAN

Simplice Ganou's documentary look at the life of street children on the road to Burkina Faso's capital is an intriguing, but shifting, object. Mr. Ganou follows a small group of kids who survive as the best they can on a long walk to the capital Ouagadougou, where they hope to find more money and more comfort than they do in Koudougou. No longer children, even though they're very young, the half dozen boys tell their stories for the camera - most of them having run away from home over familyabuse or poverty issues, only to find more poverty on the streets where they gravitate naturally towards each other and find some camaraderie in other kids living just like them. They're not particularly happy with the designation "street children" they are usually handed, but it is what they are, maintaining the respect for their elders but as playful and devious as any street children can be, sniffing glue as a way to forget their daily hardships.

     Mr. Ganou's illustrative sincerity is underlined by the strength of the images as well as by the urgency of the subject; but there's an element of queasiness introduced by the scenes of the kids getting high on glue, begging the question of the documentarian's position towards its subjects. Ultimately, though, Bakoroman (local for "street children") fails to rise above its sincerity and remains an important but strict document, its television-grade visuals unable to raise it above the average documentary about African children's hardships.

Director/writer: Simplice Ganou
Camera: Michel K. Zongo (colour)
Sound: Moumouni Sodré
Editor: Annie Waks
Production: L'Atelier Documentaire and Diamprod in collaboration with TV Rennes 35 and Africalia
France/Burkina Faso/Belgium, 2011, 62 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 11th 2012



Monday, October 22, 2012

AMANHECER A ANDAR (WALKING AT DAWN)

Portuguese director Sílvia Firmino's look at the improvised community living in Mozambique's  derelict Grande Hotel da Beira - a luxury hotel that was only open ten years and never quite fulfilled its promise - is a remarkable feat of immersive filmmaking in the way it captures the ebbs and flows of the daily life in the second city of that African country, following a number of inhabitants, from storekeepers to security guards and Muslim clerics. And yet, for all the magnificent footage Ms. Firmino shot, her feature-length documentary turns out to be a hypnotic yet extremely dry piece of work.

     Her long-take approach (mistaking duration for significance) creates serious problems with the film's rhythm and tempo, not helped by a sense of lopsided structuring in the way the camera's attention is divided between the main "characters" she follows and by the complete absence of commentary or identification in the print screened. Despite a couple of strong moments, Ms. Firmino has a problem finding the film in the treasure trove of material she shot, even throwing away the interesting concept of the "guide" that shows us into the film at the beginning then shows us out at the end. There is a great film somewhere in here, just not in this particular shape.

Director, writer, cinematographer: Sílvia Firmino
Sound: Olivier Blanc
Editor: Hugo Santiago
Producers: Christine Reeh, Isabel Machado, Joana Ferreira  (CRIM Produções)
Portugal, 2012, 96 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 9th 2012


Sunday, October 21, 2012

FOGO

Somewhere in between a Werner Herzog mind trip, an ethnographic documentary and an oblique fiction, Mexican director Yulene Olaizola's third feature arose from her artistic residency at the Canadian island of Fogo, off the coast of Newfoundland. Essentially, it's a dazzlingly shot, opaquely moody tone poem, loosely fictionalizing a possible resettlement of the island's inhabitants to the mainland, and following a couple of locals who decide to remain behind and reminisce about their hard lives. Ms. Olaizola frames it as a sort of poignant farewell to a harsh, unforgiving frontier, and as the end of an era, employing local residents and their patchwork of accents and traditions to record the demanding conditions of the island and the desolately wondrous landscape, breathtakingly photographed by Diego García.

     Much like the snowy, empty landscape itself, the residents are stoic, craggy rocks, but the film gently and genuinely reveals their fragility and their doubts, wondering how much stoicism can a man take, asking what's the point of staying in a place where there's nothing worth staying for. Fogo doesn't really answer the questions it poses (it's worth asking if it ever meant to), and its shifting, floating lack of definition (neither entirely immersive documentary nor openly fictional) can play against it. But even if there's not much of an idea where the film wants to go, it's a journey well worth taking.

Cast: Norman Foley, Ron Broders, Joseph Dwyer, Louise Broders, Tim Wilson, Mayles Penton

Director: Yulene Olaizola
Screenplay: Ms. Olaizola, Rubén Imaz, Diego García, with Messrs. Foley, Broders and Dwyer
Cinematography: Mr. García (colour, processing by Labo Digital)
Sound: Samuel Larson
Music: Pauline Oliveros
Editor: Mr. Imaz
Producers: Ms. Olaizola, Mr. Imaz (Malacosa Cine in co-production with the Mexican Film Institute and the Fogo Island Arts Corporation)
Mexico/Canada, 2012, 61 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 8th 2012


Friday, October 19, 2012

POULET AUX PRUNES (CHICKEN WITH PLUMS)

It's to be expected that the follow-up film to a widely acclaimed debut will find itself stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. Comic-book artists Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud pretty much embraced that challenge head-on after their animated adaptation of Ms. Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran after the Islamic revolution, Persepolis. By moving to live action filmmaking in adapting another of her graphic novels, they did not make things any easier for themselves - and Ms. Satrapi and Mr. Paronnaud come out bruised but having earned our respect, and clearly better, more accomplished filmmakers.

     Chicken with Plums is not in the same league as Persepolis, but neither is it the misfire many reviewers pointed out after its debut in the 2011 Venice competition. It is a wondrously idiosyncratic film whose uneasy balance between whimsy and gravitas is pulled off more often than not, taking more chances in its slim length than most films do and mostly getting away with them. Structured as a multi-layered Persian tale being told to the audience by Azraël (Édouard Baer), the Angel of Death, Chicken with Plums dissects the ties between love, life and art, as the dying musician Nasser Ali (a splendid Mathieu Amalric) looks back on his life and traces the source of his joys and miseries to the love of his life, rhyme and reason of his art. As portrayed by the ever amazing Mr. Amalric, Nasser Ali is an artist lost in a world too harsh for his sensibility, surrounded by well-meaning people who fail to grasp what truly moves him.

     Ms. Satrapi and Mr. Paronnaud handle the telling with aplomb and occasional clumsiness, much helped by Christophe Beaucarne's virtuoso work with colour and Udo Kramer's playful production design, especially in some of the nested tales that peel away further layers of the musician's past (the sitcom flash-forward isn't particularly happy, and the double cameo by Jamel Debbouze is somewhat distracting). But, in many ways, that construction as a nested series of tales actually suggests that the duo are actually essaying a lot more in terms of term and mood in a single film than most directors try in a full career; and the grandiose, superb finale's impassioned romanticism and scope alone cancels out any misfires. Not enough to raise Chicken with Plums to the level of Persepolis, but enough to make it into an admirably honest and risk-taking film.

Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Édouard Baer, Maria de Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani, Éric Caravaca, Chiara Mastroianni, Jamel Debbouze, Isabella Rossellini

Directors and writers: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, from the graphic novel Chicken with Plums by Ms. Satrapi
Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne  (colour, processing by Arri Film & TV Services, widescreen)
Music: Olivier Bernet
Designer: Udo Kramer
Costumes: Madeline Fontaine
Editor: Stéphane Roche
Visual effects: Damien Stumpf
Producer: Hengameh Panahi (Celluloid Dreams Productions in co-production with Themanipulators, uFilm, Studio 37, Le Pacte, ARTE France Cinéma, ZDF/ARTE, Lorette Productions and Film[s])
France/Germany, 2011, 92 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), October 10th 2012


Thursday, October 18, 2012

FRANKENWEENIE

On paper, the fact that Tim Burton has remade as a feature his little-seen 1984 debut short, done at Disney while he was a contract animator at the studio, seems to be a clear sign the director is essentially trading lazily on his reputation as a fine purveyor of whimsical pop-gothic entertainment. Yet, this expanded remake of the short that pretty much set Mr. Burton's aesthetic and thematic foundations turns out to be his sweetest, most heartfelt and - dare one say? - personal film since, at least, the underrated Big Fish.

     Part of it is due to Mr. Burton's decision to shoot Frankenweenie as a stop-motion animated feature, returning to the technique successfully explored by The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride; the handcrafted quality and lush textures of Mackinnon & Saunders' puppets and Rick Heinrichs' exquisitely minute production design render the film a pleasure to behold. But there is also the sheer pleasure of a simpler, easier tale more in tune with Mr. Burton's offbeat sensibility and closer to his own experiences as an awkward teenager, set in late 1950s suburbia as lonely high school nerd Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) plays with fire by resuscitating his dead dog Sparky, inspired by his substitute science teacher's classes.

     The original story owed a lot to classic horror movies and creature features, and regular Burton collaborator John August's script super-sizes the in-joke references as well, ranging from the Hammer Dracula films to the original Universal Frankensteins (look for the clever way Bride of Frankenstein is woven in) and throwing in Japanese monster movies, atomic horror and even Batman into the fray. (The film is also, understandably, in black and white, which makes its 3-D incarnation even more of a throwback to 1950s horror.) None of this, however, would make any sense if Mr. Burton and his animation director, Trey Thomas, were unable to give these angular, surreal characters the essential sparkle of life, and therein lies Frankenweenie's key charm. The design and animation of Sparky, Victor's electrically undead best friend, is such a wondrous, awesome achievement that makes this zombie a worthy heir of Disney's many animal heroes, in a tale of teenage resilience and self-reliance that wouldn't be amiss in the studio's many classic productions.

     Yes, it seems as if Mr. Burton is hedging his bets by remaking Frankenweenie for an audience that probably never even saw the original short, and it doesn't bode well that it is coming in such a short time after Paranorman and its junior-horror-movie concept. But if all of the director's bet-hedgings were as smart as this, we wouldn't be grumbling so much about his recent auto-pilot run.

Voice cast: Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Winona Ryder

Director: Tim Burton
Animation director: Trey Thomas
Screenplay: John August, from the screenplay by Lenny Ripps for Mr. Burton's Frankenweenie short, based on a story by Mr. Burton
Cinematography: Peter Sorg  (b&w, digital intermediate by Company 3, DeLuxe prints)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Rick Heinrichs
Puppet designs: Mackinnon & Saunders
Editors: Chris Lebenzon, Mark Solomon
Visual effects: Tim Ledbury
Producers: Mr. Burton, Allison Abbate (Walt Disney Pictures)
USA, 2012, 87 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 1 (Lisbon), October 9th 2012



Saturday, October 13, 2012

ELLES

A film so gloriously misguided it almost begs to be seen, Polish director Malgoska Szumowska's fourth feature has a lot on its mind and a few flashes of style, but absolutely no idea what to do with it, other than look at prostitution in contemporary Paris with a dispassionate gaze that occasionally stumbles into voyeurism. In fact, there's more than a hint of Michael Haneke's chilly matter-of-fact elegance in Ms. Szumowska's presentation, preference for long, nervous takes, and in Michał Englert's crisp lensing; but the Polish director is utterly unable to imbue her admittedly interesting way of filming and framing with any sort of relevance towards the tale she is telling.

     In a nutshell, Elles is about a working mother (Juliette Binoche) dealing with a number of family and personal crises as she works on a magazine story about students prostituting themselves to make a living. Why this would require sex scenes with full frontal nudity where Charlotte and Alicja (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) service their clients is fathomless, as is why the script makes such an effort to make the harried Anne feel like a feminist who sold her soul to the condescending male devil. There is an interesting kernel of story here - the fact that, for the two young women, prostitution is a choice as natural as any other, thus upending the journalist's (and many of the viewers') prejudices. But Ms. Szumowska prefers to focus on Anne's hellish day (in a direct but misguided lift from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway), thus opening herself to accusations of bourgeois first-world guilt as Anne (portrayed by a characteristically great Ms. Binoche as a genuinely confused woman) feels her gilded cage closing in on her. What comes out of this is a spectacularly ill-conceived, disastrously barmy drama that seems to make no obvious point.

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, Krystyna Janda, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Andrzej Chyra

Director: Malgoska Szumowska
Screenplay: Tine Byrckel, Ms. Szumowska
Cinematography: Michał Englert  (colour, processing by Arri Film & TV Services, widescreen)
Music: Pawel Mykietyn
Designer: Pauline Bourdon
Costumes: Katarzyna Lewińska
Editors: Françoise Tourmen, Jacek Drosio
Producer: Marianne Slot (Slot Machine in co-production with Zentropa International Poland, Zentropa International Köln, Canal Plus Poland, ZDF, Shot Szumowski and Liberator Productions)
France/Poland/Germany/Denmark, 2011, 99 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, October 6th 2012


Friday, October 12, 2012

LOOPER

By now, it's become self-evident that writer/director Rian Johnson isn't much interested in doing films "the Hollywood way" - strange, since he so obviously has a love and a feel for the codes of genre. Brick was a hardboiled crime thriller transplanted into a high school movie, The Brothers Bloom a screwball comedy turned upside down and posing as a dramatic heist movie. Now Looper, Mr. Johnson's first bona fide commercial success at the box-office, comes off as a dystopian sci-fi thriller but is in fact a tale of adult responsibility and owning up to your decisions.

     Borrowing liberally from The Terminator and La Jetée (both in its original Chris Marker creation and in Terry Gilliam's reimagining 12 Monkeys), Mr. Johnson creates a glorious mash-up of populist and art-house references that can only described, in Bruce Willis' words halfway through, as "a precise description of a fuzzy mechanism". And you can't get any more fuzzier in a story full of paradoxes, set in 2044, when a small cadre of men in an impoverished society divided between the have and the have-nots work as "loopers", contract killers for the mob of 2074, disposing of victims sent 30 years back in time. Sometimes the victim is the "looper"'s future self - and when the future self of hotshot Joe (a smartly against-type Bruce Willis) shows up, young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fails to eliminate him and the future begins changing slowly, as "old" Joe goes on the run trying to discover the real identity of the boy who will grow up to become a ruthless crime boss.

     Too much is going on in Looper for it to properly make sense on paper - some of it doesn't even quite make sense on screen either - but that is of no consequence, since Mr. Johnson keeps driving the film into tight corners he always gets out of by changing the playbook: by the time the telekinetic destructive powers a la Fury or Scanners come in, you've already understood why the director claims Peter Weir's Witness as a key influence. The miracle, however, lies in the manner Mr. Johnson writes into his film every single cliché of the genre movie while making it appear fresh in context. Some have already claimed Looper goes as deep into the rabbit hole as The Matrix did in its time, and while the claim is reasonably far-fetched, it is indeed something quite different from what Hollywood is now pushing out: something that moves close to delivering a studio-marketable film but retains all of its maker's identifiably quirky, offbeat personality (not to mention part of his usual crew and returning actors from Brick). Rian Johnson is no sellout and Looper is a gem.

Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Summer Qing, Jeff Daniels

Director/writer: Rian Johnson
Cinematography: Steve Yedlin (colour, digital intermediate by Efilm, Panavision widescreen)
Music: Nathan Johnson
Designer: Ed Verreaux
Costumes: Sharen Davis
Editor: Bob Ducsay
Visual effects: Karen Goulekas
Producers: Ram Bergman, James D. Stern (Ram Bergman Productions for Endgame Entertainment in association with DMG Entertainment and Filmnation Entertainment)
USA/China, 2012, 117 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon screening room (Lisbon), October 4th 2012


Thursday, October 11, 2012

O GEBO E A SOMBRA (GEBO AND THE SHADOW)

Manoel de Oliveira's stately, highly theatricalised cinema may be an acquired taste. But the latest work from the venerable 103-year old Portuguese auteur pulls his archaic style straight into the modern day without losing an inch of its antique, baroque characteristics. This abridged adaptation of writer Raul Brandão's 1923 play follows Mr. de Oliveira's usual process of static-camera long takes, almost like immobile tableaux, focusing on dialogue that unfolds like a theatre play. But, here, veteran Renato Berta's lush, tactile cinematography and the committed performances from a stellar cast manage to lift O Gebo e a Sombra above any stagey theatrics into a moving tale of people hemmed in by their social status.

     The action takes place in the impoverished household of pitiful clerk Gebo (a wonderful Michael Lonsdale), whose wife (Claudia Cardinale) and daughter-in-law (Leonor Silveira) pine for the return of wayward son and husband João (Ricardo Trêpa); his absence, we will learn, is due to his refusal to countenance the poverty the family lives in, preferring to seek a better life for himself by whatever means necessary. While not entirely surprising - Mr. de Oliveira has always been a fan of moral tales - the choice does seem to fit like a glove our times of economic crisis and open revolt of the "99%", though the theme is never overly underlined.

     While the director has previously drawn good work from unlikely casts, what Mr. Lonsdale and Ms. Cardinale here achieve is simply mesmerizing, to the point that Ms. Silveira, a muse to the filmmaker for the past 20 years, rises above herself in what may be her finest performance ever. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Mr. Trêpa, the director's grandson and another regular of his repertory company, who has done good work previously but is here merely struggling, unable to rise to the level of the cast around him (completed by brief cameos from a playful Jeanne Moreau and Luís Miguel Cintra). Mr. Trêpa's wooden presence does not entirely throw away the film, probably Mr. de Oliveira's finest of his later works, but does bring it down a notch.

Cast: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale, Jeanne Moreau, Leonor Silveira, Luís Miguel Cintra, Ricardo Trêpa

Director: Manoel de Oliveira
Screenplay: Mr. de Oliveira, from the play O Gebo e a Sombra by Raul Brandão
Cinematography: Renato Berta (colour, processing by Kodak Cinelabs Greece)
Designer: Christian Marti
Costumes: Adelaide Trêpa
Editor: Valérie Loiseleux
Producers: Luís Urbano, Sandro Aguilar, Martine de Clermont-Tonnerre (O Som e a Fúria, MACT Production)
Portugal/France, 2012, 95 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 1 (Lisbon), August 1st 2012



O GEBO E A SOMBRA TRAILER from o som e a fúria on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

JOURNAL DE FRANCE

For once, acclaimed French photojournalist and film director Raymond Depardon turns his camera on himself: with Claudine Nougaret, his trusty sound engineer, producer and life partner of 30 years, by his side, Mr. Depardon documents his method of taking pictures but also his history as a filmmaker in this ingeniously devised look at the past 50 years of French and world history. In many ways, Journal de France is taking stock of a career where the personal and the political, the public and the private, moving and static pictures, go hand in hand.

     The film is effectively constructed out of two intertwining strands, like DNA. On one side, Mr. Depardon is filmed criss-crossing France in his van, stopping to take photographs (or, rather, recreating the taking of some of his photographs of French urban landscapes), documenting his method of shooting only one frame of film for exactly one second only with an large-format plate camera - a recreation that pushes Journal de France into the current documentaire de création concepts but demanded by the lonely nature of the photographer's work. On the other, Ms. Nougaret (who is only seen in archival footage) narrates a selection of previously unseen out-takes from Mr. Depardon's many reportage and feature projects rendered chronologically, opening up the photographer's archives to show tantalizingly brutal pictures of forgotten wars like Biafra, or the observational fallout from the Russian invasion of Prague.

     The end result slowly melds into a complete whole, looking at Mr. Depardon's career as indissociable from his life, two sides of the same coin: the quiet contemplation of the photographs and the urgency of the news reporting, the appeal of the stillness of the desert and the quick-reaction times of the news cycle, complementing each other and leading eventually into a combination of both in the observational portraits of paramedics, judges, lawyers or defendants in more recent feature work. It is true that, towards the end, the biographical/archival side loses some steam suggesting some awkwardness in marrying the strands - at which point an extraordinary symphony of out-take plans wraps up perfectly a film that never beats its own drum and simply contemplates the extraordinary work of a long career without false modesties or puffed-up chest-beating.

Directors/writers: Claudine Nougaret, Raymond Depardon
Cinematography: Mr. Depardon (colour, processing by Éclair, Panavision widescreen)
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Producer: Ms. Nougaret  (Palmeraie et Désert, France 2 Cinéma)
France, 2012, 101 minutes

Screened: Festa do Cinema Francês 2012 advance DVD screener, Lisbon, October 7th 2012


Saturday, October 06, 2012

BABETTES GAESTEBUD (BABETTE'S FEAST)

There are two main reasons why Babette's Feast became such a loved heartwarmer during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One was undoubtedly its win of the Oscar for Foreign Language Film, and everything in Danish veteran Gabriel Axel's film screams "perfect Oscar voter fodder", in that well-behaved, well-meaning, well-made, uplifting, effortlessly classical-European mode Americans fall for easily.

     But there is another, more intriguing one: Babette's Feast adapts a short story from Danish writer Karen Blixen, who had been portrayed by Meryl Streep in Sydney Pollack's wildly successful biographical romance Out of Africa. Essentially, Mr. Axel's film was in the right place in the right time - but reducing its worth to the circumstantial evidence of awards and context does a disservice to this lovely, moving little film with a lot to recommend it.

     Ms. Blixen's story is set in a remote fishing village on the coast of Jutland where French refugee Babette (Stéphane Audran) works as servant to Filippa and Martine (Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel), the spinster daughters of a now deceased puritanical minister. Also scripting, Mr. Axel perfectly embeds the nested storytelling at the tale's heart as he weaves the three flashbacks that explain how Babette, who in her previous life was an acclaimed chef, first came to the village, and how she is connected with the two men who unsuccessfully court the sisters, a dashing cavalry officer and a French opera singer, eloquently intertwining the film's central theme of the many different shapes of faith, generosity, kindness and love. The handling by Mr. Axel (close to 70 when he shot the film and whose only significant international success this was) is hyper-traditional and self-effacing, so confident in its awareness that the narrative structure is down pat and the performances can back it up that what might easily become cumbersome or plodding in other hands becomes quietly powerful here.

     Although the film is called Babette's Feast, it's actually the sisters who are at the tale's heart, with Ms. Audran's passionate cook being a mere "enabler", whose grand meal brings out the slow awareness by Filippa and Martine as well as by their reluctantly puritan guests of the precise grace they have been skipping by refusing the outside world. A perfect example of how a good story can be turned into a fine film, and of how classicism can be a boon.

Cast: Stéphane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Bibi Andersson

Director: Gabriel Axel
Screenplay: Mr. Axel, from the short story Babette's Feast by Karen Blixen
Cinematography: Henning Kristiansen (colour, processing by Johan Ankerstjerne)
Music: Per Nørgård
Designer: Sven Wichmann
Costumes: Annelise Hauberg
Editor: Finn Henriksen
Producers: Just Betzer, Bo Christensen (Panorama Film International in association with Nordisk Film and the Danish Film Institute)
Denmark, 1987, 107 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, October 3rd 2012


Friday, October 05, 2012

PREMIUM RUSH

It's currently fashionable - but inevitable - to bemoan the current lack of imagination in Hollywood blockbuster actioners. And, lo and behold, here comes a smart, nifty, efficient example of what the studios should be doing more often: a non-nonsense, old-fashioned over-before-you-know-it thrill ride, co-written and directed by A-lister David Koepp, whose bevy of produced scripts include work for Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds), Brian de Palma (Snake Eyes) or David Fincher (Panic Room). As a director, Mr. Koepp has usually been on the side of these linebacker programmers that every Hollywood studio put out but that have now been consigned to the oblivion of independent or vanity productions (though, on this case at least, major Columbia put up the money).

     Essentially, Premium Rush is a chase thriller set in New York in near real time, with bicycle messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being forced to evade a corrupt cop (Michael Shannon) who is chasing the package he must deliver to a Chinatown address hoping its contents will pay off a sizable gambling debt. High-concept as it may be (archaic bicycle messenger against the chaotic New York traffic), it is also a refreshingly modest and unpretentious, fast-moving thriller that substitutes actual human effort and relatable characters for the visual effects and outlandish plot points that pass for action films these days. Not that Mr. Koepp and his co-writer John Kamps's script is watertight: my advice would be to not try to reverse-engineer it too much in case the plot holes start showing. But the director's gusto in staging his near-constant action setpieces against a  beat-the-clock tempo masterfully maintained by editors Jill Savitt and Derek Ambrose, as well as his smart decision to cast character actors rather than stars in the main roles, paper over any flaws in the premise so effortlessly that you ought not to worry whether it makes sense.

     Mr. Gordon-Levitt's wisecracking hero and Mr. Shannon's broody villain may be stereotypes, but that cartoonish elegance is inbuilt in the script, suggesting Premium Rush as a highly effective pop movie-cum-thrill ride that Hollywood can still come up with infrequently (think the original Speed, for instance). Also, Mr. Koepp hasn't delivered this effectively as a director since his undervalued, moody Stir of Echoes - we need only remember the hackneyed Secret Window - and he is here much helped by the urban steeplechase setting, turning Premium Rush into a giddy sugar high that maintains its rush for well longer than you would expect.

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Jamie Chung, Wolé Parks, Aasif Mandvi

Director: David Koepp
Screenplay: Mr. Koepp, John Kamps
Cinematography: Mitchell Amundsen (colour by Deluxe, Panavision widescreen)
Music: David Sardy
Designer: Thérèse Deprez
Costumes: Luca Mosca
Editors: Jill Savitt, Derek Ambrose
Visual effects: Paul Linden
Producer: Gavin Polone (Columbia Pictures, Pariah)
USA, 2012, 91 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), September 26th 2012


Thursday, October 04, 2012

LINHAS DE WELLINGTON (LINES OF WELLINGTON)

You can't catch lightning in a bottle twice except for some freak stroke of luck - producer Paulo Branco might have been going for it when, after the worldwide acclaim of Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon, he announced the Chilean director would take over a previous project from the same writer, Carlos Saboga, also set in early 19th-century Portugal, dealing with the late days of the third French invasion of the country and the retreat of the Anglo-Portuguese allied troops to the Torres Vedras fortifications known as the "lines of Wellington." Sadly, Mr. Ruiz died during pre-production, and Valeria Sarmiento, his wife and regular film editor and a director in her own right, took over the project, retaining the script, cast and crew already decided on, plus the original proviso that - as Mysteries of Lisbon - it would exist both as a feature film and a longer TV version.

     Linhas de Wellington's lineage with Mysteries of Lisbon is thus unmistakeable: the same mosaic structure of interconnected personal stories set against a momentous historical event. But, unlike the previous film (an adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's 19th century novel), this is an original script by a writer with good work to his credit that is left somewhat hanging by its unambitious handling. Ms. Sarmiento does not have the same knack as her late husband to work elaborate narrative framings; her film is more classically and conventionally structured, which wouldn't be much of a problem if the project didn't so openly call for the regular dreamy, free-form stylings Mr. Ruiz liked to apply to this sort of historical projects. To her credit, Ms. Sarmiento does not try to make herself into an ersatz Ruiz, but neither does she manage to instil much of a personality in the finished film.

     There are many individual elements that strike the viewer - Ms. Sarmiento's adroit use of dolly work, her almost constant use of smooth gliding cameras to catch the dynamics of conversations and moments, the uniformly excellent performances of the principal cast. But there is a sense the film never really comes together as a whole, ending up as a series of atomized, independent stories set around a central event, unleashing an episodic dimension that may be better suited to television than cinema (something we'll have to wait for the small-screen cut, titled Linhas de Torres Vedras, to ascertain). None of this is helped by the sprawling and distracting all-star cast, some of which are positively wasted in blink and you'll miss it cameos such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Chiara Mastroianni and Michel Piccoli, that take away from the main narrative thrust and seem to be there just for the sake of it (though production puts it as homages to the well-esteemed director, to whom the film is dedicated).

     There is much to admire in this unwieldy but not entirely unpleasant film, but it's a clear case of a project that aims for ambitions it is clearly unable to fulfill. Lightning has definitely not been caught in the bottle twice.

Cast: Miguel Borges, João Luís Arrais, Melvil Poupaud, Mathieu Amalric, Nuno Lopes, Afonso Pimentel, Marcello Urgeghe, Gonçalo Waddington, Jemima West, Soraia Chaves, John Malkovich, Vincent Perez, Carloto Cotta, Marisa Paredes, Victória Guerra, Filipe Vargas, Adriano Luz, Albano Jerónimo, Joana de Verona, Manuel Wiborg, Elsa Zylberstein, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli, Chiara Mastroianni, Malik Zidi, Maria João Bastos, Paulo Pires

Director: Valeria Sarmiento
Screenplay: Carlos Saboga
Cinematography: André Szankowski (colour, processing by Light Film and Éclair Group, Panavision widescreen)
Music: Jorge Arriagada
Art direction and costumes: Isabel Branco
Editors: Ms. Sarmiento, Luca Alverdi
Producer: Paulo Branco (Alfama Films Production, France 3 Cinéma)
France/Portugal, 2012, 152 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 4 (Lisbon), September 15th 2012



Linhas de Wellington - Trailer Oficial (Legendado em Português) from Cosmopolis on Vimeo.