Thursday, November 29, 2012

CLOUD ATLAS

The great surprise about Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings' insane attempt at filming David Mitchell's reputedly unfilmable novel is not that they persevered against all odds at mounting it independently from the big studios, or that they managed to get it done at all. No, the surprise is just how good it is coming from a trio of filmmakers that had been pretty much counted out - Mr. Tykwer has had a few hits and misses but never recaptured the freshness of his breakthrough Run Lola Run, while the Wachowskis have never been able to repeat the knock-out punch of the magisterial The Matrix.

     Cloud Atlas is good rather than great - there is much that is misjudged or misbegotten throughout its three-hour running time, but it's remarkable how, despite all that, it all hangs together cohesively and coherently. It isn't merely a feat of editing (though Alexander Berner's smoothly dexterous cutting between six storylines in different time frames is an achievement in itself) but above all a feat of remarkable stylistic unity between three directors handling separately six plots that span centuries, and genres. Cloud Atlas flows from the 19th century Pacific to a distant post-apocalyptic future over a series of interconnected stories invoking the pursuit of love, liberty and happiness against a series of social and political struggles and obstacles (confirming just how much of British literature and art is about matters of class).

     In the 19th-century, lawyer Jim Sturgess stands up against racism during a long voyage home back to San Francisco; his diary is being read in the 1930s by ambitious, penniless British composer Ben Whishaw, attempting to make his name against all odds. His love letters end up in the hands of 1970s journalist Halle Berry, researching a political conspiracy in San Francisco; her adventures are fictionalized in a murder mystery whose manuscript is being read by London publisher Jim Broadbent, caught up between the rock of thuggish threats and the hard place of a vengeful brother, and his own story, turned into a film, serves as inspiration to 22nd-century clone servant Doona Bae, leading an unlikely uprising against a dystopian future government. Her sacrifice is raised to a god-like cult by a quasi-pre-historic post-apocalyptic civilisation seeking salvation. In the book, the six stories were nested within each other, but for the movie Mr. Tykwer and Ms. and Mr. Wachowski replace that structure with a constant shift between tales and eras that highlights the themes of hope and freedom, even if they do push the button a bit too hard by casting the same actors in all stories (occasionally in quasi-unrecognisable bit parts or walk-in cameos) - something that on principle isn't a bad idea but, in practice, devolves occasionally into pointless gimmickry.

     Yet there is a real unity of tone between the six stories, split between the three directors - Mr. Tykwer, who directs the three 20th century segments, handles with aplomb both the best (the 1930s Romantic melodrama) and the least-interesting (the contemporary farce of the publisher adrift), while Ms. and Mr. Wachowski overegg the futuristic-dystopian sci-fi piece (far too derivative from both Soylent Green and Speed Racer) but redeem themselves with both the seafaring drama and the post-apocalyptic segment. And despite the obvious individual fragilities in each of the episodes, Cloud Atlas really shines as something greater than a mere sum of its parts, the echoes and resonances between all six plots underlined with a welcome sobriety by directors usually known for putting form over function, and able to pull surprising about-faces from actors we haven't really seen in roles like this (notably Hugh Grant, surprising in a couple of villainous roles, and Tom Hanks, enjoying immensely the make-believe transformations that he undergoes, even if not all of them are entirely convincing).

     A remarkable shot at redemption whose lofty ambitions are smartly underlined by a sincerity that may be gauche but is never overbearing or affected, Cloud Atlas may be a grand, misunderstood experiment - but that is exactly what makes it moving and often successful.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James d'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

Directors: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Screenplay: Ms. Wachowski, Mr. Tykwer, Mr. Wachowski, from the novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Cinematography (colour, processing by Arri Film & TV, widescreen): John Toll, Frank Griebe
Music: Mr. Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil
Designers: Uli Hanisch, Hugh Bateup
Costumes: Kym Barrett, Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editor: Alexander Berner
Visual effects: Dan Glass, Stéphane Ceretti
Producers: Grant Hill, Stefan Arndt, Ms. Wachowski, Mr. Tykwer, Mr. Wachowski (Cloud Atlas Production, X-Filme Creative Pool and Anarchos Pictures in association with A Company, ARD Degeto, Dreams of Dragons Pictures, Media Asia Film Production Group and Ascension Pictures)
Germany/USA/Hong Kong/Singapore, 2012, 172 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), November 22nd 2012


Monday, November 26, 2012

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE

It doesn't take much to realise that, despite Robert Lorenz's directing credit, Trouble with the Curve is a Clint Eastwood film in all but name; not only does he star and produce, but his usual crew is staffing (DP Tom Stern, production designer James Murakami and editors Gary Roach and Joel Cox), with Mr. Lorenz himself being Mr. Eastwood's close associate for nearly 20 years now, first as assistant director then as producer. But this is no late-period Eastwood classic; more like one of his earlier mid-1970s-to-1980s crowd-pleasers aimed at heartland America.

     Randy Brown's formulaic script is set in the world of small-town baseball, with Mr. Eastwood as the ageing veteran scout Gus Lobel, whose diagnosis of glaucoma reluctantly leads him to team up with his estranged daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), a high-powered Atlanta lawyer, for a scouting trip to North Carolina. More than one reviewer has pointed out the film is a sort of reversed mirror image of Bennett Miller's Moneyball, rooting for the "human factor" and for the comeuppance of the careerist stats-cruncher (here divided between Gus' scouting nemesis and the smarmy lawyer threatening Mickey's accession to partnership at her law firm). But both films are about the second chances inbuilt in the American dream, seen from two different sides of the fence, with Trouble with the Curve being more of a paean to good old-fashioned American family values as opposed to a hollow, career-first life.

     And, sad to say, Moneyball was the better film; despite the hand-crafted look, Mr. Lorenz is mainly a sage, workmanlike illustrator of a by-the-book, predictable script, letting the film coast on the down-home, laid-back charms of the small-town setting and on the easy rapport between the well-chosen cast. Mr. Eastwood mainly plays off his cantankerous old coot image, Ms. Adams again proves what a great all-rounder she is, and Justin Timberlake (as her rookie scout love interest) becomes more of an actor with every new role. It all may be enough for a feel-good two-hour time-passer, but doesn't make it any more than another minor entry in the Eastwood oeuvre.

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, Robert Patrick, Matthew Lillard, John Goodman

Director: Robert Lorenz
Screenplay: Randy Brown
Cinematography: Tom Stern  (colour, processing by Technicolor, Panavision widescreen)
Music: Marco Beltrami
Designer: James J. Murakami
Costumes: Deborah Hopper
Editors: Gary D. Roach, Joel Cox
Producers: Mr. Eastwood, Mr. Lorenz, Michele Weisler (Warner Bros. Pictures, The Malpaso Company)
USA, 2012, 111 minutes

Screened: Cinema City Campo Pequeno 4 (Lisbon), November 25th 2012


Saturday, November 24, 2012

WEST OF MEMPHIS

Though by no means an American exclusive, there is something innately American in the figure of the crusading journalist, fighting wrongs and taking the side of justice. While West of Memphis is a documentary and does not have a crusading journalist at its centre, it is a peculiar iteration of that figure: a crusading documentary following the long-winded battle to clear the names of three Arkansas teenagers tried and convicted of the murder of three schoolboys in 1994 in the smalltown of West Memphis. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, the "West Memphis Three" as they became known, were swiftly condemned both by the court of justice and the court of public opinion, but there were serious misgivings about their culpability in the heads of many who knew them. As time went on, witnesses came forward to declare they had lied on the stand, and the idea that the convictions (death for Mr. Echols, considered the leader, life sentences for Messrs. Baldwin and Misskelley) had been a miscarriage of justice grew into a full-fledged fight to reopen the case and apply contemporary forensic techniques.

     Filmmaker Amy Berg's isn't the first documentary about the case - Joe Berlinger and Blake Sinofsky helped raise awareness of it with their 1996 HBO film Paradise Lost and explored different aspects in its sequels, Paradise Lost: Revelation and Paradise Lost: Purgatory - but is the more heavyweight one. The producers are the Kiwi husband-and-wife team of Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson (yes, them of The Lord of the Rings), active for the past ten years as backers of the WM3 campaign, and features statements from many of the most famous public backers, namely musicians Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins. West of Memphis purports to be a primer on the case's evolution, from the 1993 horrible murder case to the 2012 release of the three under a controversial legal arrangement that exonerates the state of Arkansas from any misdeeds, underlining its symbolic value as a struggle for true justice in the American South.

     This is particularly important, as the film brings to attention the notable divide between "red state" and "blue state" America. The conviction is suggested as a product of "red state" mob mentality scapegoating the "other", the "different", the three kids from the wrong side of the tracks, trailer park trash from whom nothing was ever expected; the freedom campaign is organised by "blue state" liberals with the help of public figures fighting for ideals and values but whose lives are remote from the reality on the ground. The film thus reveals the constant shifting balance at the heart of American society and politics, its polarisation between head and heart, city and country, tradition and innovation.

     This itself might be well enough for a great film, and could even rival Werner Herzog's masterful study of social tensions around a murder, Into the Abyss, but Ms. Berg is trying to fit far too much into a single film (and a long one at that, with a clearly overblown two and a half hour running time). West of Memphis seems to want to be a real-life murder mystery asking "whodunit" and a study of how a case like this affects a place and those who live through it. And while the activist-procedural angle of the film's first third (going through the crime, the trial and the follow-up steps) does all the right things and asks all the right questions, West of Memphis slowly slides into a unwieldy, hollow denunciation of a miscarriage of justice and a celebration of the rule of the law, carried by a determined certainty of being on the right side of the law that completely misses the forest for the trees.

     As interested as the filmmaker is on the effect of the case on the families of the victims, she never seems very interested in the people at its centre - Messrs. Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley remain vaguely drawn question marks, blanks who never appear much on screen, used merely as symbols caught up in a web of social and criminal injustice that transcends them from the beginning. When the subjects of your own film remain out of reach, there is not enough efficient storytelling and narrative proficiency, or acutely aware eye, that can raise West of Memphis above an effective but purely functional activist primer about a controversial murder case. But then, maybe that's all it ever wanted to be.

Director: Amy Berg
Screenplay: Ms. Berg, Billy McMillin
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti, Ronan Killeen (colour, processing by Park Road Post Production)
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Editor: Mr. McMillin
Producers: Ms. Berg, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Damien Echols, Lorri Davis (Wingnut Films in association with Disarming Films)
USA/New Zealand, 2012, 147 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), November 19th 2012


Friday, November 23, 2012

END OF WATCH

Screenwriter turned director David Ayer has been following in the footsteps of writer James Ellroy's modern hard-boiled pulp crime fiction for a while now, with his high point so far his script for Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, whose crooked cop/villain gave Denzel Washington a well-deserved Academy Award. Mr. Ayer has actually worked with Ellroy as well, in Dark Blue for Ron Shelton and in his own second directing job, Street Kings, but his work also owes much to the classic film noir of European stylists such as Jean-Pierre Melville or Jules Dassin. As a director, nevertheless, Mr. Ayer isn't exactly on that page as of yet, as End of Watch amply demonstrates.

     An Ellroy-light paean to the hard-working blue-collar police officers of the Los Angeles Police Department set in modern-day South Central (where the director grew up), End of Watch leans heavily on the macho heroics of the band of brothers fighting on the side of the law, following the daily routines of beat cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). But its mostly handheld pseudo-vérité fly-on-the-wall style, explained through Taylor's constant filming of these routines as a college project for his law degree, suggests a will to deconstruct those heroics that Mr. Ayer doesn't take all the way through. The director does not shy from showing the darker sides of a cop's life (Taylor wants to "make detective" but isn't beyond the occasional heavy-handedness), and is best when putting it up against the sense of fear and insecurity on the job - as seen in a visceral house fire sequence that stands head and shoulders as End of Watch's best moment: the central device of constant filming loses its show-off documenting of daily life to suddenly become an unself-conscious, natural record, unlike most everywhere else in the film.

     But Mr. Ayer doesn't take the device all the way to its final consequences, occasionally breaking the convention with a couple of scenes that remind far too much of a first-person shooter video-game, leading to a rather predictable, conventional ending, conventionally filmed. The film itself seemed to bode well from its initial scenes, with an almost plotless, scene-setting and character-building stretch, but the progressive reliance on cop movie tropes results in an awkward film that wants to have its cake and eat it too. The generally spot-on cast is not at fault; it probably required a more experienced director to pull off what Mr. Ayer was aiming for in End of Watch, but it's no shame to fail trying.

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Frank Grillo, David Harbour, Maurice Compte

Director and writer: David Ayer
Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov  (colour, processing by Efilm, prints by Deluxe)
Music: David Sardy
Designer: Devorah Herbert
Costumes: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Dody Dorn
Producers: John Lesher, Mr. Ayer, Nigel Sinclair, Matt Jackson (Exclusive Media, EFF Hedge Fund, Le Grisbi Productions, Crave Films)
USA, 2012, 108 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), November 16th 2012


Thursday, November 22, 2012

OPERAÇÃO OUTONO

There are any number of great ready-made stories in Portuguese history to be made into a film, and that of Portuguese general Humberto Delgado, who stood up against dictator Oliveira Salazar's regime and ran for president in 1958 knowing full well he would never be allowed to win, is one of them. Director Bruno de Almeida chose, for his third fiction feature, to tell the end of that story: general Delgado's death at the hands of the regime's political police in a Spanish clearing in 1965, and, after the 1974 revolution, the revelation of its perpetrators and their trial. And he tells it in a breathless, fast-moving narrative telescoping almost 15 years (up until the trial's conclusion in the early 1980s) of history in 90 minutes, veering between a 1960s European thriller and a courtroom drama with obvious influences of American genre and B-movies. The connecting thread is a sort of "procedural" cops-and-robbers style, following the preparation and carrying out of the "hit" on general Delgado.

     But that low-budget 1960s feel, down to the desaturated colours and evocative, moody score - works as much in favour of Operação Outono (Operation Autumn, the codename for the murder of Delgado) as it works against it: it prevents the film of ever alighting long enough on one genre, unhelped by the briskness with which everything happens and the sprawling cast that, for the most part, is given remarkably little to do. The Sopranos' John Ventimiglia is a dead ringer for general Delgado, but he is mostly a supporting role, unhelped by his abysmal dubbing into Portuguese; Carlos Santos is spot-on as the vicious police inspector in charge of the operation, with Nuno Lopes his usual solid self as the younger agent under his command and Manoel de Oliveira regular Diogo Dória an adequately oily presence as an informer with one great soliloquy. Everyone else is given short shrift and virtually no time to actually register, the presences of the name actors in the cast pulling the viewer out of the action and throwing away the film's genre playfulness and visual agility. While an interesting project and Mr. de Almeida's most coherent and cohesive fiction so far, Operação Outono is a likable but half-baked effort.

Cast: John Ventimiglia, Carlos Santos, Marcello Urgeghe, Nuno Lopes, Pedro Efe, Diogo Dória, José Nascimento, Adriano Carvalho, Camané, Ana Padrão, João d'Ávila, Carlos Paulo, Júlio Cardoso, Tiago Rodrigues, Luís Lima Barreto, Felipe Vélez

Director: Bruno de Almeida
Screenplay: Mr. de Almeida, Frederico Delgado Rosa, John Frey, from the book by Mr. Delgado Rosa, Humberto Delgado - Biografia do General sem Medo
Cinematography: Edmundo Díaz (colour, processing by Light Film)
Music: Dead Combo
Art director: Zé Branco
Costumes: Lucha d'Orey
Editor: Roberto Perpignani
Producer: Paulo Branco (Alfama Films Production Portugal)
Portugal, 2012, 93 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 4 (Lisbon), November 7th 2012


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

DESPUÉS DE LUCÍA (AFTER LUCÍA)

If there is one film you should warn viewers beforehand about, that would be Mexican director Michel Franco's disturbing sophomore effort, winner of Cannes 2012's sidebar Un Certain Regard and a film at moments so unbearable you may well ask whether the director worships at the shrine of Michael Haneke's clinical entomology. There's really no halfway about Después de Lucía: you either love it or you hate it, and most who do dislike it dislike it with a vengeance. Which is entirely understandable, since this is a film about bullying and there's no way to be nice about it or sweeten the pill. Bullying is hell, Mr. Franco makes no pretense it's otherwise and he just dunks the viewer headfirst into that hell in a gradual, sickening spiral of psychic violence, making you feel (or remember) just how much it hurts and just how unbearable the callousness and humiliation makes life.

     Yet bullying is not the only thing in Mr. Franco's mind, since the film is borne out of a place of hurt and mourning, as chef Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) and his teenage daughter Alejandra (Tessa Ia) move to Mexico City after the tragic death of the wife and mother. Roberto, starting a new job, tries valiantly the rise above the depression he is nursing since Lucía's death, and Alejandra becomes the rock of the household, the glue holding it all together, even integrating well with the new classmates. Then a thoughtless decision to have sex with one of them during a weekend outing throws her literally to the school gossip lions and into a slippery slope of daily humiliations that Alejandra will simply not tell anyone about, since someone's got to hold the fort at home and there's no one else but her.

     Mr. Franco's handling of the situation rejects any complacency but never falls into the trap of gratuitous voyeurism; he is merely placing us in the situation Alejandra is going through and making us realise what is at stake in an age where acceptance and social skills are everything. Once it all goes overboard during a class trip, Después de Lucía spirals into a devastating quasi-horror-film conclusion that is underlined by the director's rigorously geometric camera setips and the absence of music to let the dread sink in, down to making the final long-take shot mirror perfectly the long-take opening shot. A work of staggering formal and narrative control, Después de Lucía is one of the most unbearably powerful films I have seen in a very long time.

Cast: Tessa Ia, Hernán Mendoza

Director and writer: Michel Franco
Cinematography: Chuy Chávez  (colour)
Art director: Christopher Friessen
Costumes: Evelyn Robles
Editors: Mr. Franco, Antonio Bribiesca
Producers: Mr. Franco, Marco Polo Constandse, Elías Menassé, Fernando Rovzar, Alexis Fridman (Pop Films, Lemon Films and Filmadora Nacional in co-production with Stromboli Films)
Mexico/France, 2012, 102 minutes

Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival official competition screening, Medeia Monumental 1 (Lisbon), November 12th 2012



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

LAURENCE ANYWAYS

It's taken him a while, but Canadian wonderboy Xavier Dolan has finally proven he has what it takes to be a fully-fledged filmmaker with this sprawling, hyper-romantic tale of ten years in the life of writer and literature professor Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and film technician Fred (Suzanne Clément). There is, of course, a catch: as the film begins, the ruggedly masculine Laurence confesses to Fred that he wishes to transition to being a woman, a desire he has always had and had kept secret from her; and the story follows the couple's ups and downs, told in flashback as the now female Laurence is interviewed for a book launch.

     But, despite what it may appear, Laurence Anyways isn't a film about transsexuality or what it's like to be a woman trapped in the body of a man. Laurence's sexuality and gender are of no consequence to Mr. Dolan, who prefers to trace the arc of the relationship between Laurence and Fred, twin souls who go through a series of stages challenging what each of them believes and expects about relationships. Fred rallies initially around the bewildering decision but eventually both find themselves floundering, neither able to let go entirely of each other nor to continue living as if nothing had changed.

     That the film runs nearly three hours might suggest at first that the director's stylistic excesses from the disappointing Les Amours imaginaires might have been allowed to run amok, but it's quite the opposite. Though there are still many aesthetic flourishes that go hand in hand with the impeccable choice of 1980s pop hits on the soundtrack, and excess is the key word in several sequences that don't particularly advance the tale (namely Laurence's dalliance with a group of reclusive transvestites), these are all a lot more controlled and put to the service of the tale rather than front and center, in order to tell how two people can grow apart over time. Mr. Dolan's harnessing of style and growing maturity can also be seen in the extraordinary performances that anchor the film.

     Mr. Poupaud, in the title role, fully inhabits Laurence's energy and persona, contributing a measure of passion that suggests this is a perfect meeting of actor and material, to the point it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else in the role (originally written for Louis Garrel, who backed out a few weeks before shooting began). Ms. Clément, who'd worked previously with the director in his debut J'ai tué ma mère, gives as good as she gets as the long-suffering Fred, able to zero in instantly on her character's mood swings and rising to the challenge of a film where both actors are almost constantly on screen for its entire length. While Laurence Anyways could still use a trim, the fact that the film holds up brilliantly and that it reveals a filmmaker in greater control and awareness of his powers is enough to confirm that, yes, Xavier Dolan isn't a petulant one-off but a talented director.

Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye, Monia Chokri, Susie Almgren

Director, writer and editor: Xavier Dolan
Cinematography: Yves Bélanger (colour)
Music: Noia
Designer: Anne Pritchard
Costumes: Mr. Dolan, François Bateau
Producer: Lyse Lafontaine (Lyla Films and MK2 Productions in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma)
Canada/France, 2012, 167 minutes

Screened: distributor/Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival official competition advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 2 (Lisbon), November 8th 2012


Monday, November 19, 2012

DJECA (CHILDREN OF SARAJEVO)

It seems fairly unavoidable that any contemporary film coming from the territories that comprised the former Yugoslavia will reference the fratricidal Balkan conflict in some way. Muslim Bosnian director Aida Begić's sophomore work (co-produced by Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu and shortlisted for the Foreign Film Academy Award) is no exception. Though set in modern-day Sarajevo, like the films of her better-known compatriot Jasmila Žbanić, her bleak, doom-laden tale of two war-orphan siblings has roots in the fallout from the war and the resentment that still seethes under the surface.

     Rahima (Marija Pikić), an orphan who chooses to wear a head-covering scarf and works long shifts as a cook, and her schoolboy brother Nedim (Ismir Gagula), are fingered at every moment as "the other", tainted, bullied, exploited, picked upon, taunted, looked down upon, treated generally as second rate citizens. The film takes place during the run-up to Christmas and the New Year, with the eternally cash-strapped Rahima suddenly forced to find a way to pay for the expensive smartphone of a classmate that Nedim broke, and Ms. Begić slowly lets us know there are other reasons for her straits (a troubled past that is constantly being dragged out in front of her but never truly explained to the viewer.

     The director amplifies the feeling of fighting the world every single moment by taking a leaf out of the Dardenne brothers' playbook: her camera follows Ms. Pikić from the back as she walks to work or back home, looking over her shoulder as she cooks, shops, works or talks. Coupled with an interesting, constant usage of the long take, the many uninterrupted shots create a strong sense of discomfort and unpredictability, successfully placing the viewer in Rahima's shoes. However, despite the technical proficiency and the excellent performance by Ms. Pikić, Ms. Begić is really not bringing much new: the relatively slim narrative structure where mood trumps story, the bleakness of the worldview, the though-through handling are staples of contemporary social art-house cinema that the director employs intelligently but to no differentiating effect. Not a bad movie by any means, Children of Sarajevo simply doesn't bring enough to the table to earn its place.

Cast: Marija Pikić, Ismir Gagula

Director and writer: Aida Begić
Cinematography: Erol Zubčević
Designer: Sanda Popovac
Costumes: Sanja Džeba
Editor: Miralem S. Zubčević
Producer: Ms. Begić (Film House Sarajevo in co-production with Rohfilm, Les Films de l'Après-Midi, Kaplan Film and ZDF/ARTE)
Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany/France/Turkey, 2012, 90 minutes

Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival competition screening, Medeia Monumental 1 (Lisbon), November 10th 2012



djeca from Film House on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

POSLEDNATA LINEIKA NA SOFIA (SOFIA'S LAST AMBULANCE)

A ride-along with a paramedic ambulance during its shift is not anyone's idea of a fun ride. Yet, Bulgarian filmmaker Ilian Metev manages to create an enticing balance between light-heartedness and seriousness in this documentary about the daily lives of a medical crew on duty in the Bulgarian capital: veteran doctor Krassimir Yordanov, nurse Mila Mikhailova and driver Plamen Slavkov. Structured loosely like a fictional narrative with its succession of episodes but entirely created out of documentary footage (some of which shot by cameras attached to the ambulance's windshield), Mr. Metev's film is an attentive, thoughtful proposition whose apparent proximity to Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead isn't as unlikely as it may seem.

     This isn't about the patients (none of which are ever shown or identified) but about the tight-knit crew and how they respond and react to the cases they handle on a daily basis - and, especially, to the dismal conditions they have to work in, as theirs is one of 13 ambulances serving the whole two-million city. From malfunctioning radios to crank calls or relatives wanting to shift their family burdens on to the medical services, it's very clear that the genuine love they have for their job is the only thing keeping these people butting heads against the frustration they feel at the lack of acknowledgement and appreciation given to them and sacrificing their own personal lives.

     Alternating between the idle moments of chatter while cruising or waiting for a call (with fixed cameras looking in from the windshield) and the scenes of house or street call (mostly shot fly-on-the-wall handheld or with a camera looking out of the windshield), Sofia's Last Ambulance is a thoughtful film about the people inside the jobs, and about the value society as a whole attributes nowadays to such public-service work.

Director and camera: Ilian Metev  (colour)
Sound: Tom Kirk
Editors: Mr. Metev, Bettina Ip
Producers: Dimitar Gotchev, Siniša Juričić, Ingmar Trost, Mr. Metev  (SIA, Nukleus Film and Sutor Kolonko in association with Chaconna Films and Impact Partners, in co-production with WDR)
Bulgaria/Germany/Croatia/USA, 2012, 80 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition screener, Lisbon, October 26th 2012



Sofia's Last Ambulance from Nukleus film (Croatia) on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

DETACHMENT

With education reform being the hot-button topic it is nowadays, British maverick Tony Kaye throws fuel into the fire with this bleak portrait of the shortcomings of American public education, as seen through the eyes of a substitute teacher. Not just any substitute teacher, though. Henry Barthes, as portrayed by Adrien Brody, is a "hollow man" in the clearest sense of the word: a teacher who never talks down to his students and strives to make them aware of the world around them and the traps it has in store, he is however unwilling to commit to anything - whether in his professional status (he is a substitute by choice) or in his personal life (he lives alone in a blank, empty flat). But while his new month-long assignment to a decaying problem-area school highlights his reasons for detachment and disillusionment, life conspires against him to force decisions. First by throwing on his path teenage prostitute Erica (Sami Gayle), whom he takes in out of kindness after realising she's been raped, but also by allowing one of his new temporary colleagues, maths teacher Sarah (Christina Hendricks), close to him.

     What looks on paper to be a relatively straight-forward social melodrama, however, becomes something entirely different in the hands of Mr. Kaye, who is also cinematographer on the project: he fragments it in a thousand shards, disassembling the narrative structure to reassemble it around a through-line of after-the-fact, direct-to-camera interviews by Barthes and chalk-and-blackboard animations (by Rebecca Foster) representing the phantoms he releases into the composition books he carries with him everywhere. Mixing film stocks and camera techniques, moving from the grotesque to the sublime, Mr. Kaye manages to achieve a restless yet melancholy energy that propels the film and somehow glues the whole together emotionally if not always coherently.

     Just as he had allowed Edward Norton a career-making performance in the earlier American History X, so does the director do the same here for Mr. Brody, in a superbly modulated but quietly heartbreaking central performance; it's more the shame that Detachment falls prey to that indie-film plague of casting name actors in quasi-cameos as the faculty, though the assembled cast (among which Marcia Gay Harden, Blythe Danner, James Caan and Lucy Liu) manages to make their characters exist in the mere couple of scenes they have, serving mainly as unwitting examples of what public education shouldn't be. The bulk of the weight is strongly borne by Mr. Brody, Ms. Gayle and the director's daughter Betty Kaye (as an overweight student who develops an interest in Barthes).

     Ultimately, though, Detachment finds itself walking the same thin line Henry Barthes does between not caring enough and caring too much, pointing out the state of modern education but unable to offer an alternative. What it does do, and brilliantly, is make us look in the eye a few unpleasant and inconvenient truths, and for that alone it's well worth the look.

Cast: Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Tim Blake Nelson, Betty Kaye, Sami Gayle, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, James Caan

Director and cinematographer (colour): Tony Kaye
Screenplay: Carl Lund
Music: The Newton Brothers, Taylor Eigsti
Designer: Jade Healy
Costumes: Wendy Schecter
Editors: Barry Alexander Brown, Geoffrey Richman
Animation: Rebecca Foster
Producers: Greg Shapiro, Mr. Lund, Bingo Gubelmann, Chris Papavasiliou, Austin Stark, Benji Kohn (Paper Street Films in association with Kingsgate Films and Appian Way Productions)
USA, 2011, 98 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 11th 2012


Thursday, November 15, 2012

DESTE LADO DA RESSURREIÇÃO (THIS SIDE OF RESURRECTION)

Passionately taken up over the past year by a small coterie of American film critics, Portuguese helmer Joaquim Sapinho's fourth feature finally earns a local release, and turns out to be an evidently sincere, occasionally touching but ultimately flawed study of teenage existentialism. Form takes precedence over narrative in the tale of two siblings disconnected from the world around them since their father's death a few years earlier and dealing with the big questions of life. Twenty-something surfer Rafael (Pedro Sousa) has retreated into contemplative life in a Franciscan monastery; his teenage sister Inês (Joana Barata) feels out of step at her high school, especially since his boyfriend has exchanged her for another girl.

    The virtually wordless, loosely plotted story takes a backseat to Mr. Sapinho's desire to translate into images those complex feelings of faith, hope, love: Rafael's ecstasy while surfing the Cascais waves or praying underwater, Inês' retreat to the his brother's camper van while yearning to escape the strait-jacket of "normal" responsibility. But narration has never been the strong point of the director's work anyway, and the diffuse nature of the script here, stripped of everything else, boils down to a soap opera of teenage puppy existentialism given heft by the stylistic ambitions. And therein lies the problem: the highly variable quality of Leonardo Simões' image, going from the sublime to the inexcusably illegible, and the dismayingly amateurish performances from the teenage leads can either be taken as serious drawbacks or as some sort of stream-of-consciousness naïveté. But they're not compounded by an overload of religious symbolism, meaningful silences and pregnant pauses that seem drawn from a central database of stock elements for art-house cinema, and are here deployed earnestly to little return.

     Ultimately, Deste Lado da Ressurreição is an adolescent film not only thematically (a film about adolescence) but also stylistically (an adolescently made film), working much better as a sensory experience harking back to Nicholas Ray's heroes learning to face adult life - but for that you must abandon yourself to the unequal visuals and the atmospheric sound design and overlook the film's many fragilities. For me, that proved insurmountable.

Cast: Joana Barata, Pedro Sousa, Sofia Grillo, Pedro Carmo, João Cardoso, Mariana António

Director: Joaquim Sapinho
Screenplay: Mónica Santana Baptista, Rui Santos, Luís Araújo, Mr. Sapinho
Cinematography: Leonardo Simões (colour, processing by Tóbis)
Designer and costumes: Patrícia Ameixial
Editor: Mr. Santos
Producer: Maria João Sigalho (Rosa Filmes in co-production with RTP)
Portugal, 2011, 118 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), October 30th 2012


Monday, November 12, 2012

DUCH - LE MAÎTRE DES FORGES DE L'ENFER (DUCH, MASTER OF THE FORGES OF HELL)

Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh has made his name through his unflinching look at the bloody history of his country under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. After his acclaimed 2003 film about the infamous S21 concentration camp, Mr. Panh now zooms in on its head, Kang Guek Eav aka Duch, whom he interviewed in jail during his trial at the hands of Cambodian courts. It's certainly complicated to look at the aged man in front of us who quotes from Alfred de Vigny and reads Stéphane Hessel and recognize in him the cold, cruel, callous murderer responsible for some of the worst crimes in human history since the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. But that is indeed Mr. Panh's approach: by confronting Duch with his deeds (drawn from official reports and reconstructions), showing him as both man and torturer, he gives us a deeper, more troubling insight into the evil that men do and how it can be drawn out of them.

     Duch has since found God and reneges nothing he has done, preferring to portray himself as a pawn in a larger political game where the choices were not his to make, but his entire argument betrays just how much he was himself a master at playing such political survival games, how absolute the radicalism involved in the Khmer Rouge regime was: "to destroy an old world in order to build a new one", as is said at one point. There are no excuses and Duch does not present any, just a sense of lucid, terrible wrongdoings, of people sliding down that haunting slippery slope beyond simple humanity - and that is also what Mr. Panh's patient process creates, a portrait that is neither pointed-finger accusation nor compassionate defense, but rather a realisation that man and monster are inseparable and that it may be that exact kernel of humanity the root of his evil. As thought-provoking as it is heavy-going, occasionally even stomach-turning in its graphic descriptions and occasional disturbing period footage, Duch is an urgent, necessary historical record that never forgets it is first and foremost a film.

Director and writer: Rithy Panh
Camera: Prum Mesar, Mr. Panh  (colour)
Music: Marc Marder
Editors: Marie-Christine Rougerie, Mr. Panh
Producers: Catherine Dussart, Gérald Collas (CDP, INA, Bophana Production in co-production with France Télévisions)
France/Cambodia, 2011, 102 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012, Culturgest - Grande Auditório (Lisbon), October 21st 2012

Sunday, November 11, 2012

O CÔNSUL DE BORDÉUS

Director Francisco Manso and his regular collaborator, writer and playwright António Torrado, have been bringing to the screen little-known episodes of the Portuguese history for a while now, and find their highest-profile project in O Cônsul de Bordéus. It is a fictionalised take on the true story of Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who, as a consul in WWII France, challenged the orders of Portugal's fascist regime and signed travel documents for thousands of Jews wishing to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. Unfortunately, Sousa Mendes - who ended up dying in misery after the regime caught wind of his "treason" and was only rehabilitated decades later - didn't inspire either Mr. Torrado or Mr. Manso (here co-directing with the project's originator, Belgium-based Portuguese director João Corrêa) any more than his previous subjects did.

     As per their usual, O Cônsul de Bordéus is a flat and clumsy low-budget approximation of a historical epic, shot in the non-descript anonymous language of TV movies and scripted in the manichean shorthand of good vs. evil soap-opera heroics, minimizing the gravity of the actual events and unable to give its characters any depth beyond their pre-assigned roles as heroes and villains. Sousa Mendes himself, played with empathy and gusto by the ever-excellent Vítor Norte, even seems to be a secondary character in its own film; the story is told in flashback by world-famous maestro Francisco d'Almeida (Manuel de Blas), revealing to journalist Alexandra Schmidt (an unusually unconvincing Leonor Seixas) his true identity as Belgian Jewish refugee Aaron Apelman, who, as a teenager (João Monteiro), escaped through France with the help of Bordeaux rabbi Isaac Kruger (Carlos Paulo) and the good efforts of the consul. Even then, the film is poorly scripted: the story is constructed around the young Aaron's stay in Bordeaux, and mostly seen through his eyes, but the fact that he is nowhere to be seen in all the crucial moments that define Sousa Mendes' destiny, where he could obviously not have been present, creates serious plausibility problems; while the presence of the journalist in the modern-day interludes is so ill explained and under-scripted that her merely utilitarian presence quickly fades into irrelevance.

     Why this awkward plotting should be preferred to a straight-forward telling of the diplomat's life and tragic ending is unfathomable; there is a great story in here, but to frame it through somebody else's tale, especially in this form of cheap melodrama from an old-fashioned playbook, is bewildering to say the least. Plus, it's not enough to just frame it and film it as an earnest but instantly disposable TV movie, even if, on the whole, O Cônsul de Bordéus is a slightly better film than Mr. Manso's previous, mostly due to Mr. Norte's strong performance and to the inherent strength of the basic story. A less cobwebbed stylistic and narrative update would have been necessary for this to work; the tale of Aristides de Sousa Mendes remains to be told on the big screen as it should be.

Cast: Vítor Norte, Carlos Paulo, Manuel de Blas, João Monteiro, Leonor Seixas, Sara Barros Leitão, Joaquim Nicolau, Laura Soveral, Pedro Cunha

Directors: Francisco Manso, João Corrêa
Screenplay: António Torrado, João Nunes, from a screen story by Mr. Corrêa
Cinematography: José António Loureiro (colour)
Music: Henri Seroka
Designer: Fernanda Morais
Costumes: Marcelo Melendreras
Editor: Gonçalo Soromenho
Producer: José Mazeda (Take 2000 in co-production with Aiete-Ariane Films and Apus Productions)
Portugal/Spain/Belgium, 2011, 90 minutes

Screened: distributor advance screener, Zon Audiovisuais offices (Lisbon), November 2nd 2012


Friday, November 09, 2012

CHASING MAVERICKS

There's undoubtedly a template at work in Chasing Mavericks: that of the inspirational Hollywood sports movie, where a young man transcends his limitations and finds fulfillment in his triumph against the odds stacked up against him. The trick is to know when and how to use the template; no matter how old-fashioned it may be, in the right hands it can still work up a storm, and Chasing Mavericks is a case in point, showing just what an attentive pair of hands (or, in this case, two) can do for a purely functional script "based on a true story". Here, it's the tale of late Californian surfer Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston), who became known at 16 when he rode the scary monster waves known as Mavericks in a spot across from Monterey Bay, and of his "initiation" under older surf vet Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), who trained him rigorously to conquer such freak waves.

     Veterans Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted (who took over from Mr. Hanson at the tail end of filming due to health issues) hit all the right beats in their classic melodrama structure. They first do so by allowing their actors enough breathing space to fashion people rather than archetypes, and underlining but not overdoing the father-son bond that grows between Jay, whose own military father left the family when he was just a boy, and Frosty, who has unsolved issues of his own having grown up an orphan. And, then, by clearly and excitingly communicating the passion and commitment of these people to surf in ways that are usually very difficult or even impossible for non-surfers to capture and understand - since at its heart this is not exclusively a surf movie, but rather a melodrama that happens to take place within the surf community (who contributed wholeheartedly to the production).

     Granted, there is nothing new or groundbreaking in Chasing Mavericks, but the film's unassuming craftsmanship and quiet confidence, straight out of the classic era of studio filmmaking, suggest that there's nothing wrong about a well-told story - even if the music score by Chad Fischer can occasionally comment too heavily on the action.

Cast: Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston, Elisabeth Shue, Abigail Spencer, Leven Rambin

Directors: Curtis Hanson, Michael Apted
Screenplay: Kario Salem, from a story by Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper
Cinematography: Bill Pope (colour)
Music: Chad Fischer
Designer: Ida Random
Costumes: Sophie de Rakoff
Editor: John Gilbert
Producers: Mr. Hanson, Mark Johnson, Mr. Hooper, Mr. Meenaghan (Fox 2000 Pictures, Walden Media, Gran Via Productions and Deuce Three Productions in association with Dune Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 116 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), November 2nd 2012


Thursday, November 08, 2012

ARGO

A lot of what has (deservedly) pleased both critics and audiences in Argo, Ben Affleck's third directorial outing, is its elegant layering of unashamed Hollywood hokum, American history and cultural meta-references. This true story of an actual CIA operation that seemed out of - and actually was - a Hollywood script, at the same time outrageous and incisive in its assumption of American filmmaking's global reach and popularity, is also proof that Mr. Affleck has a lot more in his mind than his often stereotypical roles suggest and that he is aging into a fine film director in his own right, even if still a rather generic one.

     Which is not to say Argo, telling of the risky 1980 operation to bring home six staff who escaped the American embassy seizure in Teheran by passing them as a Canadian film crew searching for locations in Iran, is a perfect film. That screenwriter Chris Terrio has obviously tampered (particularly in the final act) with a tale that hardly needed tampering with is actually the least of its problems. Mr. Affleck disappointingly allows his surefire genre instincts (well displayed in his previous thriller The Town) to take precedence over what the actual human heart of the story and lets the initial shifting between different narrative levels and general tones disappear under a thick slab of by-the-books heroics.

     During its first two acts, Argo crosscuts niftily between three levels: first, the political thriller set at the CIA headquarters and government halls where overcautious bureaucrats deal with the hostage and escapees situations and CIA agent Tony Mendez (Mr. Affleck, self-effacing but still somewhat sleepwalking) is tasked with having "the best bad idea" to get the Teheran six out. Another is a smart mix of satire and heist movie, taking in the Hollywood backlots where Mendez sets up the "con" with the help of make-up artist John Chambers and producer Lester Spiegel (the superbly electric pairing of John Goodman and Alan Arkin). Finally, there's an ensemble drama back in Teheran, where the six embassy staff, taken in by the Canadian ambassador, live shuttered and waiting for word on how to escape their predicament, leading into the actual espionage mission, updated straight from a WWII movie.

     Balancing genre smarts, solid acting and a measure of suspense, Argo works a treat for most of its length. But then the final, unbearably drawn out act comes in, artificially extended for no good reason other than giving the tale a proper "movie" send-off in keeping with the "truth is stranger than fiction" motto. And yet, that breathlessly overextended surrender to cheap if classic manipulation pushes the limits of plausibility and disrupts the film's finely-tuned elegance, solid craftsmanship and confident ensemble playing - leaving Argo as a good movie that never quite fulfills the greatness it promises.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina

Director: Mr. Affleck
Screenplay: Chris Terrio, from the Wired magazine article Escape from Tehran by Joshuah Bearman and the book Master of Disguise by Antonio Mendez
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto (colour, processing by Deluxe, widescreen)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Sharon Seymour
Costumes: Jacqueline West
Editor: William Goldenberg
Producers: Grant Heslov, Mr. Affleck, George Clooney (Warner Bros. Pictures, GK Films, Smokehouse Pictures)
USA, 2012, 120 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), October 31st 2012 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

ARRAIANOS

There's a charming, painterly quality to Eloy Enciso Cachafeiro's Arraianos that reminds one of a painter or portraitist at work in its crisp, bucolic visuals. The director's brief feature (slightly over one hour) moulds documentary footage of Galician traditions and rural living from the North of Spain into a fantastical patchwork of magical realism, using as starting point the writings of the late local playwright Jenaro Marinhas del Valle.

     In a half-playful, half-whimsical proposition, the documentary footage is tied to a rather loose narrative framework suggesting these are the inhabitants of a lost village deep in the woods - which is sorely let down by the openly fictional moments (especially in the overture) where the locals find themselves having to perform for the camera, suggesting an amateurishness that is entirely absent from the film, with its richly constructed aural environment by sound designers Vasco Pimentel and Tiago Matos, and the dazzling visuals captured by DP Mauro Herce with a RED camera.

     There's something simultaneously very alluring and somewhat bewildering in the way Arraianos elegantly romanticizes a peaceful rural existence and the values of community and hard labour - it's no obvious ethnographic record, but neither is it a heightened fantasy, rather falling somewhere in between (suggesting occasionally some of the looser, more experimental work of Gus van Sant) without striking a proper balance. Yet there is a lot to be complimented in Mr. Enciso Cachafeiro's work, especially on the technical side and the exquisite richness of his stylistic worldview.

Cast: Eulalia González, Aurora Salgado, Celsa Araújo, Antonio Ferreira

Director: Eloy Enciso Cachafeiro 
Screenplay: José Manuel Sande, Mr. Enciso Cachafeiro, Mauro Herce, Manuel Muñoz, from the play O Bosque by Jenaro Marinhas del Valle
Cinematography: Mr. Herce  (colour)
Editor: Mr. Muñoz
Producers: Carlos Esbert, Mr. Enciso Cachafeiro (Ártika Films in co-production with Zeitun Films)
Spain, 2012, 66 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 21st 2012



ARRAIANOS - Trailer from Artika Films on Vimeo.

Monday, November 05, 2012

SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS

Nothing seems to be further from what LCD Soundsystem have done through their short five-year existence, whether live or in the recording studio, than just "playing the hits". New York producer, musician and label boss James Murphy's project shot up into the global consciousness own after the 2002 single "Losing My Edge" snowballed into a life of its own; for an almost 20-year-old veteran who had toiled in a series of little-known or niche-success projects to find himself suddenly a bona fide rock star required an adjustment that ended up being, in his own words, the reason to call LCD Soundsystem's career a day in 2011, with a final concert at the Madison Square Garden in April 2011.

     Shut Up and Play the Hits is the record of the final concert and of the final days in the actual existence of the project, told by British directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace in a smartly fragmented, off-centred visual form, intercutting selections from the concert with "behind the scenes" footage. "Behind the scenes", mind you, not from the run-up to the show but, rather, of its aftermath, as Mr. Murphy wakes up to the first day of his life post-stardom and has to deal with the comedown from the near four-hour-long concert, and also of an interview with writer Chuck Klosterman where the musician rationalizes his decision to get out while the going's good. While the concert footage is smart if uneventful (with camerawork from both Spike Jonze and François Ozon's regular DP Yorick le Saux), it's in the remainder of the film that Messrs. Southern and Lovelace's work rises high, painting an unexpectedly thoughtful portrait of the rock star as a normal man, of the complex forces pulling and pushing at you while traveling the world, navigating pressures and creativity.

     Just as there was very little that was rote about the brief, ten-year career of LCD Soundsystem, there's very little that is rote about this cleverly crafted film, whose self-deprecating title (quoting directly from special guests Arcade Fire's brief words before launching into "North American Scum") is almost a misleading declaration of intent.

Directors: Dylan Southern, Will Lovelace
Cinematography: (documentary footage) Reed Morano, (concert footage) Giles Dunning
Editor: Mark Burnett, with additional work from Mr. Southern and Leo Smith
Producers: Lucas Ochoa, Thomas Benski, James Murphy  (Pulse Films)
United Kingdom/USA, 2012, 108 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official selection advance screener, Lisbon, October 28th 2012


Sunday, November 04, 2012

LAWLESS

For an encore after their collaboration in the acclaimed "outback western" The Proposition, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter/musician Nick Cave go for broke with a gangster period piece based on writer Matt Bondurant's own family history of moonshine bootlegging during the Prohibition. On the surface, Lawless is a picture-postcard gangster movie that marks Mr. Hillcoat's ascent into the US indie major leagues: a solid cast of breakout character actors top-billed by Shia Labeouf, backing from Megan Ellison's Annapurna outfit and Hollywood big shots Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher. But in fact that ascent took place with his previous film, the harrowing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel The Road. 

     Lawless is more of a tonier update of Messrs. Hillcoat and Cave's previous collaboration, retaining its explosive violence and exploring both the screenwriter's fascination with the rural mythical Southern America and the director's interest in looking beyond the surface of lost worlds. In this case, perfectly recreated 1930s Franklin County, where the three Bondurant brothers run a successful moonshine operation under the eyes of the local law enforcement until a sadistic FBI man is sent in to either tame or shut down the bootleggers. However, what comes out is, surprisingly, a rougher, smarter yet pretty standard coming-of-age tale: Jack (an excellent Mr. Labeouf), the youngest of the three brothers, who idolizes both his older brother Forrest's (Tom Hardy) watchful, taciturn wisdom and Chicago mobster Floyd Banner's (Gary Oldman) insouciant flamboyance, attemps to navigate his own path between both while building his own place in the operation and finding himself attracted to preacher's daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska).

     Though the writing is solid, the handling strikes a delicate balance between sincere homage to and modern take on genre, and the performances are mostly nuanced, there's always a sense that a significant part of the film was left on the cutting-room floor. Most other characters are given short shrift to become mere archetypes (namely the other two Bondurant brothers) or exist as mere cameos (Mr. Oldman's gangster, present in only a couple of scenes, being the most egregious offender), becoming mere supporting players in what should by all accounts be an ensemble piece. It's true that it's through Jack's eyes that everything is seen - hence the glorious cinematography by Benoît Delhomme that suggests the golden hues of the last seasons of teenage life and the almost heroic looking up to the elders at a formative moment - but the wonderfully thoughtful ending and some of the better, atmospheric set pieces throughout unveil what could have been another movie. Not necessarily a better or worse one, but one where family and local colour aren't mere backdrops to the coming-of-age story.

Cast: Shia Labeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Dane de Haan, Guy Pearce, Noah Taylor, Lew Temple, Bill Camp

Director: John Hillcoat
Screenplay: Nick Cave, from the novel by Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World
Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme (colour, processing by Technicolor, widescreen)
Music: Mr. Cave, Warren Ellis
Designer: Chris Kennedy
Costumes: Margot Wilson
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Michael Benaroya, Megan Ellison (Benaroya Pictures, Red Wagon Entertainment, Annapurna Pictures, Blumhansonallen Film, Pie Films in association with Filmnation Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 116 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), October 25th 2012


Friday, November 02, 2012

CESARE DEVE MORIRE (CAESAR MUST DIE)

Winner of the Berlin film festival's 2012 Golden Bear, Caesar Must Die pretty much reinvigorated single-handedly the career of Italian veterans Paolo and Vittorio Taviani in the least expected way. On paper a mostly black-and-white documentary about a prison production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Caesar Must Die actually transcends that description by inserting the filmmaking process throughout from the very beginning of the play's rehearsals.

     Caesar Must Die uses the various prison areas as backdrops for the performance, as you witness the cast of hardened convicts of a high-security prison appropriate the words of Shakespeare in their own local, colloquial dialects, and find through art a way to transcend their imprisonment and condition. It's not unusual or unexpected to see some of the cast point out the similarities between the situations and dialogue and their own experiences as criminals; what is most affecting is seeing how, through rehearsing and performing, these men gain insights into their own lives and behaviour that resonate throughout the centuries, and find their horizons opened in the process (concluding in the remarkable final word of convict Cosimo Rega, who has actually written a book about the experience).

     Messrs. Taviani manage to be both truthful to that discovery process and to the theatrical essence of the narrative (the use of the prison settings actually highlights the claustrophobic, collectivist nature of the play), smartly blurring the border between documentary and fiction in such a way that it's the real life interludes that look staged and faked rather than the play excerpts. And Caesar Must Die gains its extraordinary power from the amazing bending of the lines.

Cast: Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano, Giovanni Arcuri, Antonio Frasca, Juan Dario Bonetti, Vincenzo Gallo, Rosario Majorana, Francesco de Masi, Gennaro Solito, Vittorio Parrella, Pasquale Crapetti, Francesco Carusone

Directors: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani
Screenplay: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani, Fabio Cavalli, from the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Simone Zampagni  (colour, black & white, processing by Technicolor)
Music: Giuliano Taviani, Carmelo Travia
Art directors: Laura Andreini Salerno, Sabrina Chiocchio
Editor: Roberto Perpignani
Producer: Grazia Volpi (Kaos Cinematografica in co-production with Stemal Entertainment, Le Talee and La Ribalta)
Italy, 2011, 76 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia King 2 (Lisbon), October 19th 2012


Thursday, November 01, 2012

A MORAL CONJUGAL

For his first feature film, Suicídio Encomendado (2009), writer/director Artur Serra Araújo started out with a great premise - a despondent man hires a suicide consultancy to help him kill himself - then turned what would have been a great black-comedy short into a bloated, unfunny feature. Now, on his sophomore effort, Mr. Serra Araújo proves again he has the necessary technical chops and a degree of ease with actors, and is yet again let down by his own scripting.

     Where before he'd extended a good short gag into an unwieldy 90 minutes, A Moral Conjugal looks like three different shorts hurriedly and haphazardly thrown together into a seriously flawed whole, bound to leave any viewer feeling bewildered and confused. The first sign something is not quite right comes at the end of the pre-credit sequence where an illicit affair is callously broken up and followed by a car accident; from that particular moment onwards, plausibility is out the window and the least of the writer/director's worries. A Moral Conjugal starts out as disquieting melodrama as hypochondriac doctor Octávio (Dinarte Branco) and sultry medical representative Manuela (São José Correia) enter an illicit affair, in what is undoubtedly the best section of the film. 40 minutes in, it shifts into a tiresome black comedy as Manuela and her sister Sara (Catarina Wallenstein) attempt to hide a dead body from her boyfriend Abel (José Wallenstein), whom she fears is involved in possible terrorist activities; finally, it morphs into bizarre Tales of the Unexpected-like satire before coming to an abrupt ending that fails to properly explain the whole plot.

     The shifting between genres wouldn't be a problem if Mr. Serra Araújo navigated it more smoothly, but nothing is ever properly reasoned through, simply asking the viewer to take at face value an outlandishly convoluted relay plot that pushes plausibility beyond the breaking point. The glossy veneer of artificiality seen throughout in the designer art direction, precise camera setups and cool cinematography merely underline just how whimsical and fanciful the entire enterprise is, its script hanging loose all over the place, giving its solid cast little to do with the one-note characters they're given. There's an obvious visual storytelling talent here - it's the writing that lets the side down, and it does so seriously.

Cast: Dinarte Branco, Maria João Bastos, São José Correia, Catarina Wallenstein, José Wallenstein

Director and writer: Artur Serra Araújo
Cinematography: Pedro Azevedo  (colour)
Music: Pedro Marques
Designer and costumes: Zézinha Araújo
Editor: Eugénio Marques
Producer: Francisco Bravo Ferreira (FBF Filmes in co-production with RTP)
Portugal, 2012, 99 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 10 (Lisbon), October 8th 2012