Monday, February 25, 2013

A BATALHA DE TABATÔ

A new name joins the current generation of Portuguese filmmakers in the person of João Viana, former assistant to the late Paulo Rocha and author of a handful of shorts, making his feature debut with an endearingly offbeat project. Set in the African country of Guinea-Bissau and invoking the ghosts of colonial Portugal in its tale of conflict between tradition and modernity, A Batalha de Tabatô grew out of Mr. Viana's original plan for a short film suggested by a chance conversation with a European musician seeking to visit the titular Guinean village, known for its rich musical traditions. The plan grew to accomodate not only the short and this feature - a more narrative, fleshed-out version of the short - but two others dealing with the many issues that surrounded the production.

     Entirely shot in location in Tabatô, a sort of musical capital of traditional rhythms and music, closely entwined with the mystical traditions of the local ethnic Mandinkas, the loose storyline has the elderly Baio (Mutar Djebaté) return from exile in Lisbon to attend his daughter Fatu's (Fatu Djebaté) marriage to local itinerant musician Idrissa (Mamadu Baio). Baio is, in fact, a former musician whose involvement in the colonial wars cut him off from his roots, suggesting his absence of touch with music has made him vulnerable to possession by evil spirits; the titular "Battle of Tabatô" is, then, that between good and evil, light and dark, music and noise, symbolised in Baio's surrendering to the spirits of war and need for music as a healing spirit reconnecting him to his roots. Mr. Viana does it through a peculiarly, almost deliberately naïve combination of documentary tropes, improvised acting from non-professionals and low-budget guerilla filmmaking, unhelped by the peculiar circumstances in which the film was produced: the production lost all of its lighting equipment in a ferryboat accident and had to make do with location shooting using natural light.

     But these shortcomings are overcome by the genuine warmth and meandering nature of the loose, mysterious plot, and by the attention paid to sound and, especially, music throughout the film's short length. How much of it was deliberate and how much a happy accident isn't quite understandable from the end result, but it doesn't really matter since A Batalha de Tabatô is such an enjoyable, intriguing debut.

Cast: Mutar Djebaté, Fatu Djebaté, Mamadu Baio
Director and writer: João Viana
Cinematography: Mário Miranda (black & white)
Music: Pedro Carneiro
Art director: Filipe André Alves
Costumes: Luís Buchinho
Editor: Edgar Feldman
Producer: Mr. Viana (Papaveronoir Filmes in co-production with Radio and Television of Portugal)
Portugal, 2013, 79 minutes

Screened: producer private screening, Medeia King 1 (Lisbon), January 31st 2013



THE BATTLE OF TABATÔ teaser from PAPAVERONOIR on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

TAKE THIS WALTZ

An intriguingly discreet performer in her own right, Canadian actress Sarah Polley has made a point of never making the obvious film choices - something that she does as well as a director. Her directing debut, Away from Her, gave Julie Christie an Oscar nomination in an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story about love among the elderly set against the initial onset of Alzheimer's disease. Her follow-up Take This Waltz, an original screenplay titled after a Leonard Cohen song, also upends the traditional narrative logic of romantic movies.

    This tale of an unhappily married woman (Michelle Williams) who feels trapped in a loving but routine marriage and allows herself to be seduced by a neighbour out of fear of being stuck in a rut refuses all of the predictable, self-evident plotting such films usually follow. Instead, Ms. Polley introduces a number of spiky, confrontational elements to question the conventional notions of love and happiness. Margot is a pretty normal woman, one who is undoubtedly in love with her cookbook-writing husband Lou (Seth Rogen), but who feels under-appreciated by him while deathly afraid of committing and of making the wrong choice - so much so that her every decision is blocked and paralysed by her fear of being unfair, either to herself or to others. Hence her affair with handsome but unpredictable neighbour Daniel (Luke Kirby) is a challenge, and one she is not entirely sure she will be able to overcome; not only does she want, she also needs to let go and be less wound-up, but she's almost physically unable to do so, resulting in her sense of being merely a passive observer as things happen in her own life she is unable to have proper control of.

     Ms. Williams, who has become something of an expert in meaty, challenging roles of women, proves again how much she thrives in these less obvious roles, and Ms. Polley knows exactly how to draw the best out of her. But if there is one serious problem in Take This Waltz, it's the sense that Ms. Polley takes far too long to get to her central point, by allowing events in the first two thirds of the film to weave and meander out of focus. That is, to be sure, part and parcel of her strategy, in order to make the events of the third act all the more heartfelt and emotional. Key to this is the absolutely magnificent scene where Margot and Daniel enjoy a fairground ride, where the contrast between the elation and release of the ride and the brutal comedown once it ends abruptly is made thrillingly exciting.

     That determination in avoiding the obvious makes up for the occasional sophomore stumbles of Take This Waltz, mostly symbolised by the over-reliance on pop songs to make overly obvious that which self-evidently does not need it (with the added bonus of diminishing the impact of Jonathan Goldsmith's sensitive score). Regardless, it's a step up from the honest but occasionally overly cloying melodrama of Away from Her and proof that here is a director worth following.

Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman
Director and writer: Sarah Polley
Cinematography: Luc Montpellier (colour)
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
Designer: Matthew Davies
Costumes: Lea Carlson
Editor: Christopher Donaldson
Producers: Sarah Cavan, Ms. Polley (Joe's Daughter and Mongrel Media, in association with TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, The Movie Network, Movie Central, Super Écran and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
Canada/France, 2011, 116 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, January 26th 2013


Friday, February 22, 2013

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

"Once was a Hushpuppy who lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub" - this sentence alone is more than enough to explain where Benh Zeitlin's debut feature, the tale of a small, impoverished community surviving disaster, is coming from: the mythical poetry of American rural story-telling, the tradition of strong, self-reliant pioneers struggling against all the odds stacked against them. Beasts of the Southern Wild also invokes, among many other references, Scout Finch's first-person narration in another tale of childhood, To Kill a Mockingbird: the story (adapted from a stage play by Lucy Alibar) is told squarely through the eyes of a child, precocious six-year-old moppet Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), living with his erratic, alcoholic father (Dwight Henry) in a makeshift riverine Louisiana community vulnerable to the weather. When a once-in-a-lifetime storm (with intimations of hurricane Katrina) swamps and razes the Bathtub, the film sees it and the follow-up events through her wide-eyed, fanciful transfigurations of reality, punctuated by the mythical aurochs released from the eternal ices to rumble towards the Bathtub.

     Placing a whole film on the shoulders of an untried child actress (the remarkable Ms. Wallis was five when she auditioned and nine when the film was released) was risk enough, but Mr. Zeitlin, an East Coast man working within a loose collective of artists and filmmakers based in Louisiana, piled it on by opting for a style that could be defined as fabulist, magical realism, invoking at the same time the innocence of early Spielberg films, the bleak, brutal ruralism of younger filmmakers such as David Gordon Green or Lance Hammer, and the lyrical poetry of Terrence Malick. The latter's trademark of quasi-mystical communion with nature is prominently displayed here, only matched to an oppressive sense of Old South doom, giving Beasts of the Southern Wild an odd push-pull dynamic.

     At heart, though, this is - like To Kill a Mockingbird, only writ larger and more fanciful, couched in a surreal catastrophe mode - a film about growing up and facing reality. Hushpuppy has to deal with a changing world around her and with the potentially fatal illness of her father, with Mr. Zeitlin shooting it as a rite of passage in the heightened mode of an ADD-afflicted child discovering the world around her; the poster image of fireworks is therefore particularly apt to the film's sweeping, quasi-epic mood of constant, over-wringing emotional climaxes. Among all that has been said and written about it, though, there's one thing not many people have noticed: just how much Mr. Zeitlin is in control of his work and of his message. Whether you like the film or not, it's undeniable that what you see here is exactly what the director was aiming at - a simultaneously dark and celebratory film about the end of childhood. Whether Mr. Zeitlin will ever do something as powerful as this is besides the point: Beasts of the Southern Wild exists in its own sphere, in its own universe. In its own Bathtub.

Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Screenplay: Lucy Alibar, Mr. Zeitlin, from the stage play by Ms. Alibar, Juicy and Delicious
Cinematography: Ben Richardson
Music: Dan Romer, Mr. Zeitlin
Designer: Alex di Gerlando
Costumes: Stephani Lewis
Editors: Crockett Doob, Affonso Gonçalves
Producers: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald (Cinereach Productions and Court 13 in association with Journeyman Pictures, The San Francisco Film Society and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation)
USA, 2012, 93 minutes

Screened: Distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 1 (Lisbon), January 24th 2013


Thursday, February 21, 2013

HITCHCOCK

One of the recurring questions asked of ambitious filmmakers is just how far can you go on your path while trying to have your cake and eat it too. After his well-regarded documentary Anvil!, British director Sacha Gervasi stumbles right at the outset with his debut fiction feature, an undeniably enjoyable but somewhat tawdry take on the making of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, using the biographical monograph by Stephen Rebello as a starting point to develop a study about the ultimate importance of this "nice, clean, nasty piece of work" on the director's career.

     John J. McLaughlin's script posits Psycho as a deliberate departure from Mr. Hitchcock's comfort zone, precisely engineered to deploy all his tools of the trade in order to prove he could remain a relevant filmmaker at a time when he was being seen as an entertainment impresario past his best days, but creating at the same time a mid-life crisis of insecurity that sees him nearly lose the farm he bet on the film. Hitchcock touches on many of the known foibles of the director's oft-explored and oft-quoted biography, putting first and foremost his desire to mold his female stars to exacting standards and his dependance on long-suffering wife and creative accomplice, Alma Reville.

     All fine and dandy, but despite the impeccable production there is really something ultimately intrusive about this humanization of the artist, a look under the surface that asks far too many questions than it has any right to and answers them in strictly melodramatic ways - suggesting "there's always a great woman behind a great man", and that Hitchcock wasn't able to pull off his magic without the presence of his wife. Anthony Hopkins, as Hitchcock, and Helen Mirren, as Alma, give their best and a very good best it is as well, despite the obvious lack of physical resemblance to the real-life models. Mr. Hopkins is very good as the invariably British-reserved, vulnerability-hiding man, Ms. Mirren is great as the stoic, pragmatic wife, and their performances aren't merely mere impersonations of the originals (as indeed isn't Scarlett Johansson's as a surprising Janet Leigh).

     But there's a sense that it's ultimately a wasted effort in trying to humanize what would otherwise essentially be a movie-of-the-week dramatization about the "lifestyles of the rich and famous", unhelped by the constant cheap cinephile winks at Hitchcock's cameos or TV series intros, or by the somewhat clumsy attempt at using Ed Gein, the true-life inspiration for Robert Bloch's original novel, as a "phantom" presence throughout the shooting. None of this is sacrilegial, in and of itself - there's always a natural curiosity about the backstory of popular classics - but there's a sense that, unlike the original Psycho, Hitchcock merely shines light into corners that weren't truly that dark to begin with. Mr. Gervasi seemed as if he wanted to please both film buffs and the casual filmgoer with his tale, but the end result is really too pedestrian for connoisseurs and too anecdotal for novices, leaving you to wonder whom exactly this was made for.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James d'Arcy, Michael Wincott, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Portnow

Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenplay: John J. McLaughlin, based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho
Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth (colour, widescreen)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Judy Becker
Costumes: Julie Weiss
Editor: Pamela Martin
Make-up: Howard Berger, Gregory Nicotero
Producers: Ivan Reitman, Tom Pollock, Joe Medjuck, Tom Thayer, Alan Barnette (Fox Searchlight Pictures, The Montecito Picture Company and Barnette/Thayer Productions in association with Cold Spring Pictures, Dune Entertainment, Ingenious Media and Big Screen Productions)
USA/United Kingdom, 2012, 98 minutes

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


Thursday, February 07, 2013

THE MASTER

Much has been said about the "snub" the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave to Quentin Tarantino and Kathryn Bigelow, by not nominating them in the director category despite nominating their pictures for best film. It's something that could be seen as a rejection of sorts over the controversial stature of Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty as films that deal frankly and in an adult manner with uncomfortable things about slavery and war. However, a lot less has been said about the equally significant snub given to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, nominated only for the acting awards. While not surprising, given the film's cool, bewildered reception it got from audiences and critics alike, it is the equal of Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Tarantino's snubs, as The Master is also a film about an uncomfortable truth of the American dream and the American experience - though one couched in Mr. Anderson's traditionally opaque and wayward allegories.

     Here, the director experiments with the glowing, "we've never had it so good" façade of the post-war United States, deploying through its brightly coloured, 70mm compositions (lovingly shot by DP Mihai Malaimare Jr.) the visual classicism and seductive optimism of the golden age of modernism, to schizophrenic, subversive ends. Behind this façade lies the tale of a fractured soul, an aimless WWII veteran with no particular skill other than concocting bizarre alcohol mixtures, finding this new era of affluence seems to be off-limits to him. Freddie Quell, as portrayed in an angular, teetering way by Joaquin Phoenix, is less a complete human being than a enigma that can never be truly understood, in search of that which will make him complete, thinking it may lie in the peculiar creed of "The Cause", a mysterious, elusive cult peddled by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.

     Whether Dodd, given a seductive, poignantly human depth by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is making it up as he goes along or truly believes in what he is saying, is ultimately of no importance; what matters is trying to understand what makes Freddie Freddie or Dodd Dodd. The Master reduces itself to the meeting of two men whose paths converge for a brief while, both of them yearning for something the other one has (or thinks that he has) and realising the impossibility of ever truly stepping outside themselves, particularly in the context of an America where community and individualism were about to split into not necessarily contiguous paths through consumerism.

     It is, to be sure, a cerebral, often opaque picture, which is entirely in keeping with Mr. Anderson's constant separation of form and content; and his novelistic, writerly take on film is an attempt to put into purely visual storytelling something that is more attuned to the leisurely rhythms of reading. And yet, the sheer mystery and questioning raised by The Master (starting with its own rather puzzling title - who exactly is the master and who is the follower here?) keeps you on your toes, tantalizing you to go back and try to understand more and more about this dissonant, utterly fascinating mind trip. No wonder the Academy couldn't make heads or tails of it.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

Director, writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematography: Mihai Malaimare Jr. (colour)
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Designers: Jack Fisk, David Crank
Costumes: Mark Bridges
Editors: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty
Producers: Joanne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Mr. Anderson, Megan Ellison  (Joanne Sellar Productions, Ghoulardi Film Company, Annapurna Pictures)
USA, 2012, 137 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), December 14th 2012


Friday, February 01, 2013

BARBARA

With Barbara, estimable German helmer Christian Petzold, one of the leading lights of the much-talked about "Berlin School", delivers his finest, most affecting film. In many ways, it is the apex of his work so far, the film where his observationally cool, remarkably economical style of filmmaking fits the theme and mood of the film most exactingly; the 1980s-set tale of a woman's personal and moral journey towards the humanity within herself that she took for granted practically demands the precision of Mr. Petzold's clinical handling.

     Here, the imperceptible closing of the camera on Barbara's face as she understands more about her predicament, away from the more general group shots where she is a figure in a landscape or a member of a group, gives away the director's intent: making her realize where individuality and humanity really lies, an important point for a tale set in the rigidly regulated East Germany of the early 1980s, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Barbara (an impeccably modulated performance from Nina Hoss, a regular in Mr. Petzold's work) is a Berlin doctor assigned to a provincial hospital over an unstated misdemeanor while being regularly intruded upon by the local elements of the secret police. She is still planning to escape to live with her West German businessman lover, but what she really wants comes into focus when a pregnant teenager (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) comes in with a case of meningitis.

     As usual in Mr. Petzold's films, most of the back story is left entirely unsaid, but what matters is what is happening now, in front of the camera: the questions that Barbara asks herself, her own realisation of her place in the world, the immaculately composed veneer of distance and loneliness brilliantly underplayed by Ms. Hoss being slowly chipped at by the undrstanding that, even in a totalitarian regime, withdrawal and refusal may not be the answer. Mr. Petzold's methodical, almost geometrical construction only helps Barbara become ever more affecting and touching as it inexorably moves toward a dénouement that is as remarkable as it is hardly expected.

Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Mark Waschke, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Rainer Bock

Director and writer: Christian Petzold
Cinematography: Hans Fromm  (colour)
Music: Stefan Will
Designer: K. D. Gruber
Costumes: Anette Guther
Editor: Bettina Böhler
Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber (Schramm Film Koerner + Weber in co-production with ZDF and ARTE)
Germany, 2012, 101 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, January 27th 2013