Thursday, January 31, 2013

LINCOLN

There are really three films struggling silently among themselves for precedence inside Steven Spielberg's true-life drama about President Abraham Lincoln's struggle to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865; each of them is masterminded by one of the three key creative contributors to Lincoln. One is the film Mr. Spielberg designed and directed in his "prestige" mode: an impeccably made but somewhat lifeless historical pageant, with name actors impersonating real-life figures, carefully but distantly presented. As usually when the director handles this sort of "lofty" project, it comes off as an emasculated Spielberg film, mostly shorn of his bravura visual storytelling, constrained by the heftiness of the "serious" subject matter, in a way his purely fictional narratives seldom do.

     Another is the film that playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner has written: a smartly structured but ultimately highly theatrical succession of Socratic dialogues on the form and substance of politics, a chamber piece set mostly in offices and enclosed spaces. Mr. Kushner's film unfolds in a series of dramatic tableaux that underline the nature of politics as a highly ritualized form of theatre, where everything is presented for the purpose of an audience; essentially a chamber piece with little action, which it makes it an unusual fit for a director who has seldom attempted this sort of historical piece. Finally, there is the film Daniel Day-Lewis stars in as President Lincoln, beyond a simple impersonation of a historical figure and into an actual flesh-and-blood human being, completely disappearing inside it in the process. It's a role that would give any actor leeway to showboat, except Mr. Day-Lewis goes the exact opposite way, opting for subdued discretion instead, while we can't look at most of the all-star cast without seeing the actors rather than the characters, no matter how good they are in their roles.

     What comes out of the combination of these three films is a consummately professional but strangely bloodless object that, for all its great moments and Mr. Day-Lewis' striking performance, never rises above the level of an earnest and important history and politics lesson (and one that resonates intriguingly with modern American politics).

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Tony Kushner, partly based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski (colour, Panavision widescreen)
Music: John Williams
Designer: Rick Carter
Costumes: Joanna Johnston
Editor: Michael Kahn
Producers: Mr. Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy (Twentieth Century-Fox, Dreamworks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment and the Kennedy/Marshall Company in association with Participant Media and Dune Entertainment)
USA/India, 2012, 150 minutes

Screened: distributor private screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), December 20th 2012


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN

There is a good reason as to why Malik Bendjelloul's documentary on the rediscovery of lost 1970s Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez has become such a feel-good hit. It's the real-life version of an inspirational Hollywood story, with our hero overcoming adversity and injustice through a somewhat miraculous and entirely unexpected set of circumstances, all the more remarkable for being absolutely true. And Mr. Bendjelloul does it in shameless fan mode, as an admirer of the man and his music who knows that this true story too good to be true just has to be seen and spread to be believed. So spread it he does, in a carefully pieced together film that weaves its spell efficiently while leaving out informations irrelevant to the story at hand (such as Mr. Rodriguez's Australian popularity), in a knowing, cautious realisation of the legendary concept behind John Ford's classic The Man who Shot Liberty Valance: print the legend.

     The legend, granted, is not that different from the real story: a singer-songwriter whose sole two US albums bombed becomes, through word-of-mouth, a million-selling star in mid-1970s, apartheid-era South Africa, while being reported dead or missing; two decades later, two South African fans launched an investigation to find the truth. Mr. Rodriguez's actual rediscovery took place in the late 1990s, over a decade before Mr. Bendjelloul's film, so we are not following the investigation in real time (neither does the film pretend otherwise), but Searching for Sugar Man retraces the search in such a cheerful, uplifting way that it sweeps you along in its stranger-than-fiction storytelling. The director is clearly more concerned with giving its still-humble, still working-class star his due and making sure he gets another second wind - and an entirely deserved one, since the songs are truly remarkable and its absence of recognition at the time head-scratchingly inexplicable.

     Rock documentaries are traditionally a mixed bunch, but this is a tightly-paced, more interesting and more intriguing entry than most of its comrades. It is also a testament to the underlying strength of the story and to Mr. Bendjelloul's approach of keeping it grounded in the human element and maintaining the fans front and center throughout. This is, after all, a film that confirms just how much music is in the hands of the fans, and by placing the story square on the shoulders of the fans, it introduces a dimension in the documentary genre that is usually left out: that of the connection of its subject to real people, to those it is about and to those it talks to.

Director, writer and editor: Malik Bendjelloul
Cinematography: Camille Skågerström  (colour)
Producers: Simon Chinn, Mr. Bendjelloul (Red Box Films and Passion Pictures in association with Canfield Pictures, The Documentary Company and Hysteria Film)
United Kingdom/Sweden, 2012, 86 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, January 24th 2013


Saturday, January 26, 2013

LO IMPOSIBLE (THE IMPOSSIBLE)

Proof positive that modern Spanish filmmaking is now on a par with the Anglo-American mode of mass-market entertainment, The Impossible adapts the true story of a Spanish family that survived the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand into a disaster melodrama with an international cast meant for a world audience. Despite being only the second feature from Catalan helmer Juan Antonio Bayona after the well-regarded chiller The Orphanage (also scripted by writer Sergio Sánchez), The Impossible is also proof of what a filmmaker can lose when he trains his sights onto a wider audience. The new film is a supremely accomplished example of anonymous, purely functional storytelling aimed at extracting the maximum amount of emotional response from the biggest audience possible - in short, an efficient calling card for major studio work. Nothing wrong with that, but it's ultimately an annoyance: The Orphanage suggested there was something more at work in Mr. Bayona, and there are also moments in The Impossible hinting at an entirely different, more emotionally honest film that never really materializes.

     The Bennetts, a family of British expats in Japan holidaying in Thailand for Christmas, are here stand-ins for the real Belón Alvárez family, with mother María supervising Mr. Sánchez's script for accuracy. The director's reliance on the cast suggests an interest in getting at the vulnerability of human emotions when confronted with inimaginable disaster that the film's conventionally melodramatic narrative arc and syrupy orchestral score marking the big emotional moments never really do justice to. The narrative structuring doesn't really help either: after a first half following the travails of Maria (an impressive Naomi Watts) and the eldest son Lucas (a revelatory performance from Tom Holland) that piles on thickly if effectively the expansive, visual-effects melodrama, The Impossible shifts gears to father Henry (a typically understated Ewan McGregor) and the two youngest sons's parallel search for Maria and Lucas, in a more subdued storyline that, sadly, ends up being more signposted than truly explored. The cast perform with admirable restraint and earnestness, but their valiant efforts are unable to extricate The Impossible from the tropes of a standard disaster-movie melodrama done with proficiency but little personality.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Marta Etura, Sönke Möhring, Geraldine Chaplin

Director: J. A. Bayona
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sánchez, from a story by María Belón
Cinematography: Oscar Faura  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Fernando Velázquez
Designer: Eugenio Caballero
Costumes: Sparka Lee Hall, Anne Bingemann, María Reyes
Editors: Elena Ruíz, Bernat Vilaplana
Visual effects: Félix Bergés, Pau Costa
Make-up effects: David Martí, Montse Ribé
Producers: Belén Atienza, Alvaro Augustín, Enrique López-Lavigne, Ghislain Barrois (Apaches Entertainment and Telecinco Cinema in association with Canal Plus and La Trini)
Spain, 2012, 113 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5 (Lisbon), January 17th 2013


Friday, January 25, 2013

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Judging from the controversy surrounding its release, it would seem that Quentin Tarantino's sprawling spaghetti-western homage has, unlike his previous exercises in revisionist genre mythology, hit the wall of political correctness head-on. A simultaneously gruesome and cartoonish revenge fantasy set just before the US Civil War within the strict codes of westerns regardless of their garden variety (traditional, spaghetti, revisionist), Django Unchained tells of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) become righteous African-American avenger of the evil of slavery done by Southern white men, as the right-hand of men of German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). All of it is, as usual in Mr. Tarantino's work, played simultaneously "for real" and "for laughs", with the writer/director's dazzling command of language, knowledge of genre tropes and love of garish, climactic set-pieces constantly present.

     And, yet, the new film feels curiously stilted, shapeless, lacking the vibrant energy that propelled his earlier work, though thematically and stylistically it is the reverse twin of the previous Inglorious Basterds: a fanciful actioner rewriting history in keeping with the bowdlerization of classic American genres by 1960s and 1970s low-budget European productions, shifted from the WWII mission movie to revenge-western mode. Django takes its title from a Sergio Corbucci western of the 1970s, and the blood-red title cards, ochre-tinted cinematography by the ever-wondrous Robert Richardson and clumsy fast zooms that pop up regularly reveal the depth of detail the director puts in its pastiche of period popular cinema. But just as Inglorious Basterds was a sort of dialogue-as-action movie, Django Unchained takes that concept one step further, in such a way that distends the film into a bulky, unjustified nearly three-hour length, so enamored and self-aware of its writing and of the number of clever ideas and similes it gives birth to that it stops cold far too often for no obvious reason.

     Wagnerian references to Twilight of the Gods mesh with blaxpoitation classics and low-budget cult entries - Django is out to save his beloved Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), a slave taught German by her former masters, to the idiosyncratic sounds of modern hip-hop or Morricone-like instrumentals, while supporting stalwarts such as James Remar, Bruce Dern or Franco Nero show up in bit parts - but there is a sense of bloated excess at work here. Part of it probably comes from the more linear structuring of the narrative, unusually straight-forward for Mr. Tarantino's back-and-forth scripts; the non-linear storytelling of previous films like Jackie Brown or Kill Bill worked better for the constant tonal shifting of the story's episodic momentum than a more traditional narrative, where a lot of it is presented as lateral sidetracks that flesh out but are not essential to the main narrative thrust. It should probably not be forgotten that Mr. Tarantino is here working for the first time with a new editor, Fred Raskin replacing the director's long-term associate Sally Menke, who died unexpectedly after Inglorious Basterds; this could probably explain the lack of "bounce" in the film's more conventional rhythm, as well as the almost entire reliance of the film on the dazzling power of words to create their own world.

     The director's appropriation of genre for his own ends is as fascinating and impressive as it has always been - he is effectively rewriting the history of slavery as he rewrote the history of WWII in the previous film, under the cover of a pitch-perfect genre homage - and the cast throws himself with relish into the serious playacting asked of them. Tarantino regulars Mr. Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson (the piece's real villain, playing a powerful head slave at a plantation) come off best, giving the director's choice dialogue perfect intonation, but Leonardo di Caprio as an effete but ruthless slaveowner gives as good as he gets, and Mr. Foxx has only to look cool to pull off a role that seems somewhat underwritten, for all of his centrality to the plot. And, as daring and unexpected as a lot of the film seems, what is most unexpected is that Django Unchained suggests a director let loose in his toy box without actually having a tight, taut idea what he wanted to use it for. For all the choice moments, there's a sense that Mr. Tarantino never really found the true film he wanted to make - and that, more than anything else, is probably why so many people are decrying his chilling depictions of the brutality of slavery and his exhilarating approach to revenge.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christopher Waltz, Leonardo di Caprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen, Dane Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, Miriam F. Glover, Don Johnson, Franco Nero, James Russo, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Lee Horsley

Director and writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cinematography: Robert Richardson (colour, widescreen)
Designer: J. Michael Riva
Costumes: Sharen Davis
Editor: Fred Raskin
Make-up effects: Gregory Nicotero, Howard Berger
Producers: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone (The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures)
USA, 2012, 160 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), January 4th 2013


Monday, January 21, 2013

ZERO DARK THIRTY

As events on the ground moved into directions no one could have predicted, what started out as a film about the elusiveness of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden by The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal shifted, halfway through pre-production, into a film about the ten-year-long chase and killing of Bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty also became the single most controversial film of the 2012/13 season, at the heart of a political firestorm around the depiction of the torture techniques the CIA used after 9/11, and around whether those depictions either endorse or denounce it. Mr. Boal, who scripted based on extensive personal research, calls Zero Dark Thirty a "political Rorschach test" as to where any given viewer stands on the debate, but the fallout has pretty much sidestepped the film's extraordinary cinematic qualities and the way it slots neatly into Ms. Bigelow's oeuvre both thematically and stylistically.

     Retaining her fascination with the ritual, masculine bonds of men of action, while putting front and center a female heroine (Jessica Chastain) who is regularly made aware covert action is a man's world, the film asks hard questions about sacrifice and humanity; it portrays the raw adrenaline and tingling sensation of being on the right track, as well as the queasy moments of doubt when you start asking whether all of this is worth it. And through the character of Maya, the leading case officer who admits at one point she has done nothing else since she joined the CIA but hunt Bin Laden, Ms. Bigelow also presents a chilling insight into the American heart of darkness, the biblical "eye for an eye", a need to make things right by vowing revenge, by needing payback. The intensity with which the laser-focussed Maya hunts her prey can also be seen as the borderline-obsessive behaviour demanded of a filmmaker aiming to set up a project she believes in against all odds.

     Maya's stubborness and belief in herself, remarkably portrayed by Ms. Chastain, the current "it actress" of American cinema, could be construed as making the character an equal or double of Ms. Bigelow, especially in her no-nonsense, best-tool-for-the-job attitude towards her chosen trade. And the director frames this tale of revenge and obsession as a singularly streamlined missile of a movie, not so much edited or structured but precision-machine-tooled with minimal means to maximum effect. A model of economical filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty does not feature one scene, one plan, one cut, one frame that isn't strictly necessary to propel forward the director's vision. Because it is a vision, and one that builds relentlessly, gaining speed along the way, from the initial stumbles and false starts of the investigation to a progressively busier, tenser chase, in a sort of blown-up procedural taking place in a global scale and shot with a quiet but resilient professionalism that never draws attention to itself and gets the job done magnificently.

     Complex but never confounding, never reducing its subject to pithy soundbites or trite generalisations, Zero Dark Thirty is the work of a master filmmaker perfectly at ease with the tools of her trade; take away the politics and, regardless of where you stand on the debate, this is a lesson in filmmaking whose specifics are very likely to go sadly unheralded.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramírez, James Gandolfini

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: Mark Boal
Cinematography: Greig Fraser  (colour by Deluxe)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Jeremy Hindle
Costumes: George L. Little
Editors: Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg
Producers: Mr. Boal, Ms. Bigelow, Megan Ellison (Annapurna Pictures, First Light Productions, Mark Boal Productions)
USA, 2012, 157 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), January 10th 2013


Friday, January 18, 2013

REALITY

Andy Warhol once said that in the future everyone would be entitled to her/his 15 minutes of fame. Reality is a film about what happens when someone doesn't get them: Neapolitan fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena), who gets bitten by the bug when he auditions for the Italian edition of Big Brother at his daughters' insistance. Luciano, who makes ends meet with a shifty kitchen-appliance reselling coup, is so convinced that he will make it into the show's next season that, when the break fails to materialize, he grows increasingly delusional and paranoid, falling deeper into a conspiracy theory of his own devising.

     While Reality has a lot to say about the reality-show culture, the Italian working class and the effects of instant fame, Matteo Garrone's superb follow-up to the masterful Gomorrah is also a harrowing look at a man in the process of unravelling. Luciano, outstandingly inhabited by Mr. Arena — a real-life mafioso that is incarcerated for life and got prison-release to perform in the film — is a man who throws away all he has built for his family just for the sake of a fleeting moment of happiness. That happiness is what he thinks he sees in Enzo, the local Big Brother contestant whom he half-stalks, and whose personal appearances in wedding halls, shopping malls and discos he sees as external signs of a better life.

     Instead, Mr. Garrone's smart handling makes sure that the viewer is not fooled by Luciano's optimistic view, treating his daily life as worthy of a full-fledged cinematic treatment with sweeping dolly shots and making sure that the camera never truly goes inside his dream. It's a somewhat cruel but utterly lucid understanding that this is, in fact, one dream Luciano will not be allowed to fulfill, no matter what he thinks, pointing out as well that his real life has all that he seeks inside the Big Brother house in much larger quantities. Bookended by two stunning tracking shots that perfectly contrast reality and illusion, Reality does have traces of the humanity, generosity and boisterousness of classic Italian comedy, coupled with Federico Fellini's laser-focused fascination for the grotesque that is hidden inside (even in Alexandre Desplat's very Nino Rota-ish soundtrack).

Cast: Aniello Arena, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone, Nunzia Schiano, Claudia Gerini

Director: Matteo Garrone
Screenplay: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Mr. Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, from a story by Mr. Garrone and Mr. Gaudioso
Cinematography: Marco Onorato  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Paolo Bonfini
Costumes: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: Marco Spoletini
Producers: Domenico Procacci, Mr. Garrone (Archimede, Fandango, Le Pacte and Garance Capital in association with Rai Cinema)
Italy/France, 2012, 116 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, January 7th 2013


Thursday, January 17, 2013

THE SESSIONS

Ben Lewin's hybrid of sex comedy, romantic melodrama and inspirational true story is the rare beast that actually evades most of the pitfalls of the three genres it draws upon. Doubly so because it is a film that deals with the sexual initiation of a severely disabled man yet is utterly repulsed by any thought of pity or condescension. Any doubts that The Sessions might be an exercise in bad taste or shameless tearjerking is quickly defused by both Mr. Lewin's confident scripting and efficient handling, and nuanced performances from a great cast that is less interested in grandstanding than in being truthful to its characters.

     It's the true story of poet and journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a polio survivor paralysed from the neck down and requiring an iron lung to survive, who insisted on living as normal a life as possible and decides to lose his virginity and explore his sexuality through engaging with a "sex surrogate", therapist Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), over a series of sex sessions limited to six to avoid any emotional entanglement. Mr. Lewin never plays the tale either for cheap laughs in the initial clumsiness of bodily engagement, nor goes for the easy pathos of O'Brien's disabled condition. Instead, he intertwines the plot with the role of religion in O'Brien's life, since he was a practicing Catholic who asked for the advice of his local priest (a garrulous William H. Macy) before doing the deed. And by focusing the film on the sexual initiation, the director actually defuses the matter of its lead character's disability and steers the story towards an adult exploration of sexuality as a perfectly normal, natural aspect of human relationships, albeit one that is regularly clouded by a guilt that must be taken out of the equation.

     That said, Mr. Lewin doesn't entirely control the tone of his narrative all the way through: the script still follows a rather traditional arc of fulfillment and resolution that belies its status as a fictionalization of a true story, while the realisation that both Cheryl and Mark have begun harbouring feelings for each other colours too much the film's second half as upscale romantic weepie. But the concept of love as a journey that should and does involve sex is a refreshing presence in contemporary American drama, done in a sweet yet clearly nuanced way, and benefitting immensely from the self-effacing, colourful performances of the leads. None more touching than Mr. Hawkes' tour-de-force as Mark, in a demanding yet effortlessly brilliant performance that focuses exclusively on his face and voice as conduits for the inner life of the character. If there weren't any other reasons, Mr. Hawkes alone would be worth the admission. Thankfully, there's a lot more.

Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert, Adam Arkin

Director: Ben Lewin
Screenplay: Mr. Lewin, based on the magazine article "On Being with a Sex Surrogate" by Mark O'Brien
Cinematography: Geoffrey Simpson (in colour)
Music: Marco Beltrami
Designer: John Mott
Costumes: Justine Seymour
Editor: Lisa Bromwell
Producers: Judi Levine, Stephen Nemeth, Mr. Lewin (Fox Searchlight Pictures in association with Such Much Films, Rhino Films and Dune Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 95 minutes

Screened: distributor private screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), December 21st 2012

Friday, January 11, 2013

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

It's the story of the prodigal son in a sports-obsessed working-class family, returning home and attempting to rebuild his life while evading the demands of an overbearing, boisterous extending clan. It may sound like The Fighter, director David O. Russell's welcome back into the Hollywood fold after a couple of rather public controversies; in actual fact, it's Silver Linings Playbook, his follow-up to that Oscar-winning hit masterminded by star Mark Wahlberg. The new film adapts Matthew Quick's novel into a skewed romantic comedy whose plot does in fact work as a dead ringer of The Fighter, down to the familial cocoon that pushes the "hero" to struggle against it. Mr. Russell substitutes American football for boxing, Philadelphia for the Boston exurbs, and mental illness for drug addiction - the film's hero, Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), is a bipolar substitute teacher just out of a lengthy stay in a mental hospital but still obsessing about recapturing the wife he scared away with his jealous antics.

     This being a David O. Russell film, everything in it is amped up to eleven into a sort of surreal, hysterical take on screwball comedy, with the tale's mental-illness and sports-nut background giving the writer/director freedom to exercise his talent for perfectly controlled out-of-control rants. But this being a David O. Russell film, it's pretty much an actor's piece as well, since it's where the director's strengths lie, with Mr. Cooper finally getting a chance to do something beyond his usual comedy shtick, and Jennifer Lawrence proving yet again why she is one of the best young American actresses of the moment as Tiffany, the young widow with whom Pat bonds. The remainder of the blue-chip cast, though, remains sorely underused (Jacki Weaver and Robert de Niro as Pat's parents have little to nothing to do), while, for all of the raucous energy and offbeat humour of the tale, Silver Linings Playbook is at its core a rather simple, sweet tale about getting back on your own two feet.

     It's precisely the film that a young director should make to find a way into the Hollywood mainstream - a gently offbeat all-star comedy; not much of an ambition, true, but it's amiable, cheerful, often funny and generally surprising, even if not deserving of the cascade of Oscar nominations it has received.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, Jacki Weaver, Anupam Kher, Chris Tucker

Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: Mr. Russell, from the novel by Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Judy Becker
Costumes: Mark Bridges
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen, Jonathan Gordon (The Weinstein Company)
USA, 2012, 122 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), January 3rd 2013


Thursday, January 10, 2013

FLIGHT

At the heart of Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action filmmaking after a disappointing interlude devoted to motion-capture technology is a provocative moral quandary: what if your addiction can explain your greatest feat? Airline pilot Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington) manages to land a malfunctioning airliner safely if spectacularly, but he did so after an all-night bender of sex, booze and drugs and a liquid breakfast of orange juice and vodka.

     Alas, that provocative moral quandary is pretty much left undeveloped by Mr. Zemeckis' rather generic drama of an alcoholic struggling with his demons as his comeuppance looms on the horizon. Flight pretty much follows the standard Hollywood boiler-plate for addiction dramas, almost like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's description of five stages of grief, applied to a lead character who is also a hero. What is so disappointing about Flight is that both John Gatins' by-the-book script and the resulting film tantalizingly dangle the suggestion that this utterly unrepentant, totally unlikeable hero struggling with his conscience retains his ability to be fully functional in his appointed line of work, but never really follow up on it. Instead, Mr. Zemeckis and Mr. Gatins take a step back into a more comfortingly conventional, reassuring position of moral rectitude, never truly accepting the moral and human complexities of the situation, erring on the side of caution, decorum and Hollywood playbooks.

     This is all the more disappointing because Mr. Washington, often an electric, convincing performer, seems to be strictly on auto-pilot here; take one look at his Oscar-winning performance in Training Day, in an equally morally shifty role, to see what seems to be missing here. And virtually nobody else on the solid cast - not even Don Cheadle or Melissa Leo find ways to soar with their seriously underwritten roles: for a glimpse of what could have been, look no further than John Goodman's winning hurricane of walk-in as the pilot's drug dealer, and James Badge Dale's scene-stealing turn as a dying cancer patient to feel exactly what this sprawling, dullishly generic lacks: a sense of inner life.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, Melissa Leo

Director: Robert Zemeckis 
Screenplay: John Gatins
Cinematography: Don Burgess (colour, widescreen)
Music: Alan Silvestri
Designer: Nelson Coates
Costumes: Louise Frogley
Editor: Jeremiah O'Driscoll
Visual effects: Kevin Baillie
Producers: Walter F. Parkes, Laurie Macdonald, Steve Starkey, Mr. Zemeckis, Jack Rapke (Paramount Pictures, Imagemovers, P+M Imagenation)
USA/United Arab Emirates, 2012, 138 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), December 27th 2012


Thursday, January 03, 2013

LES MISÉRABLES

A long time in the making, the film version of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel set in early 19th-century France reaches movie theatres in a wave of acclaim for its cast, performing the songs live on camera, and for its faithfulness to the original stage play. Yet, Tom Hooper's follow-up to The King's Speech falls flat in its face precisely due to that faultless, faithful presentation of below-par material.

     Extraordinarily dull in its overblown, non-stop, in-your-face attempt at epic-ness, Les Misérables basically follows all of the play's beats without really adding anything of its own, other than replacing the stage's necessary stylization with a more traditionally British period-realist (though still stylized) production design. But that more realistic framework demands a less rushed, more evenly-paced rhythm that is never even in play here: Les Misérables is essentially an all-sung operetta with non-existant respite, eventually becoming numbing over an almost three-hour length.

     Mr. Hooper knows precisely what the material demands - and also knows it most clearly does not demand subtlety or elegance, shooting it with the frenzied, jagged hurry of an action movie, all frantic cuts and handheld racing camera. Everything is urgent (surprisingly so for a plot that covers nearly three decades), while the score is so uninspired and by-the-numbers that everything meshes eventually into a non-stop sludge of forgettable music and over-emphatic lyrics, further burdened by a libretto that reduces Victor Hugo's tome to a central narrative core of high-end, basic soap opera, focusing on ex-con Jean Valjean's (Hugh Jackman) attempts at forging a new life while evading the ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), and then on his god-daughter Cosette's (Amanda Seyfried) puppy romance with dashing idealist Marius (Eddie Redmayne).

     All fine and dandy - musical conventions may demand such whittling down for convenience - but once blown back up into film, such concentration becomes a hindrance rather than help. There is but one true narrative arc in the whole film, Valjean's, with all other characters reduced to walk-ins and walk-outs as needed to move the plot forward - such as Mr. Crowe's despondent, bullying Javert, Anne Hathaway's dejected martyr Fantine, or Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen's weaselly innkeepers Thénardiers as comic relief. Their presences are limited to a couple of scenes of which Ms. Hathaway's showstopping "I Dreamed a Dream", smartly shot as a one-take performance, is the most high-profile one and makes her an instant shoo-in for Oscar glory.

     But in so reducing the plot, the musical also drowns the novel's sociological background - something that might even be seen as relevant in our day and age - and ensemble nature into an all-star extravaganza that neither Mr. Hooper's understanding of the requirements to turn it into a successful film nor a game cast manage to overtake. As it pummels the viewer into submission to its ostensive tear-duct manipulation presented with stiff-upper-lip British professionalism, Les Misérables sheds slowly whatever interest it might have until all that remains is the overblown, pompous carcass of a musical that totally fails to bring anything even remotely new to the continuous questioning of the genre's viability in this day-and-age. It is a purely cynical commercial operation to extend the reach of a pop-culture phenomenon that, as so many of these phenomenons, has become unavoidable though not necessarily unmissable.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Isabelle Allen, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Tom Hooper
Screenplay: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Hubert Kretzmer, from the stage musical with lyrics by Mr. Boublil and Mr. Kretzmer, music by Mr. Schönberg, libretto by Mr. Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and James Fenton and additional work by Trevor Nunn and Dan Caird, Les Misérables, based on the eponymous novel by Victor Hugo
Cinematography: Danny Cohen (colour, digital intermediate by Company 3, processing by Technicolor)
Lyrics: Mr. Kretzmer, from the original French lyrics by Mr. Boublil
Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Music director: Stephen Brooker
Additional music: Anne Dudley
Designer: Eve Stewart
Costumes: Paco Delgado
Editors: Melanie Ann Oliver, Chris Dickens
Choreography: Liam Steel
Visual effects: Richard Bain
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh (Universal Pictures, Working Title Films and Camack International in association with Relativity Media and Dentsu)
USA/United Kingdom/Japan, 2012, 158 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), December 28th 2012