Saturday, March 30, 2013

GOLD

Judging from its cool reception in competition at the 2013 Berlinale, acclaimed German director Thomas Arslan's Gold, outwardly a western about a party of German immigrants heading to Canada to dig for gold in the late 19th century, ought to be filed under the category "missteps by European directors aiming at Americana". But Gold is not at all a misstep, since it is not quite what that quick synopsis suggests. It's more of a laidback, dialed-down observation of the American dream as seen from the outside, not so much a western (not even a revisionist one) as an almost Melvillian moral tale, where people are buffeted by fate and choose (or not) to face it head-on.

     While technically Gold has all the trappings of the western - and during the first half also a strong sense of kinship with Kelly Reichardt's equally moody but superior Meek's Cutoff - in reality it applies them to a tale that is much closer to that of film noir; the disparate elements of the party coming together due to their different specialties almost like a gang readying themselves for a heist, the two loners in the group turning out to be the ones who will make it through to the end. These are Nina Hoss's Emily - a modern woman if ever there was one, standing up on her own two feet - and Marko Mandic's jack-of-all-trades Carl Boehmer; a man and a woman who are the ones with nothing to lose, running from their pasts (for entirely different reasons), the ones that are best placed to actually fulfill the "American dream" - all while Mr. Arslan, once again exploring the darker side of society, uses their tale as a wry comment on the the feasibility of a dream that has remained unchanged for the best part of two centuries, and of our need to believe in them when around us things aren't going well.

     Granted, the director's cool, methodical handling, the way he uses the desolate landscape as an expression of the party's desperate search for freedom, underlined by Dylan Carlson's lonesome, metallic guitar music, are hard to reconcile with the heroic appearances of the western, as well as somewhat arid and heavy-going, especially at an almost two-hour length. But, as it clearly becomes visible throughout, it's not a western that Mr. Arslan wanted to do, rather another of his character studies disguised as genre deconstructions. Gold is all the better for it.

Cast: Nina Hoss, Marko Mandić, Uwe Bohm, Lars Rudolph, Peter Kurth, Maria Enskat, Wolfgang Packhäuser
Director and writer: Thomas Arslan
Cinematography: Patrick Orth  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Dylan Carlson
Designer: Reinhild Blasche
Costumes: Anette Guther
Editor: Bettina Böhler
Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber (Schramm Film Koerner & Weber in association with Red Cedar Films, in co-production with Bayerischer Rundfunk, ARD-Degeto, Westdeutscher Rundfunk and ARTE)
Germany/Canada, 2013, 114 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition screening, Friedrichstadtpalast (Berlin), February 10th 2013


Friday, March 29, 2013

THE DEEP BLUE SEA

British director Terence Davies' long-awaited return to fiction film-making after a ten-year-plus absence (interrupted only by the lovely essay-documentary Of Time and the City) plays somewhat like a concentrated essence of his recurrent themes and forms. A period piece set in post-WWII Britain, The Deep Blue Sea layers a swooningly melancholy tonal atmosphere over a precise evocation of the lone individual lost in a society that demands that he conform, somewhere between a rueful lament for lost opportunities and a curdled sense of nostalgia.

     It's not certain that Terence Rattigan's original stage play told the story of a modern woman railing against the fusty conventions that constrain her, while posing in the perfectly poised outward respect of said conventions  - but that is indeed the line that Mr. Davies' adaptation of the play takes. Hester Collyer (a pitch-perfect, barely quavering Rachel Weisz in a superbly controlled performance) will not stoop to play the pre-ordained part of the well-mannered wife of a knighted judge (Simon Russell Beale). She wants something else: the passion that will sweep her off her feet into feeling a living, loving, complete woman - even if to do it she will contradictorily stoop to play another pre-ordained part, that of the fool-for-love adulteress who will throw everything away to pursue the dashing former RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston) who hasn't been able to move on from those glory days.

     What follows, shot as a quasi-symphonic reverie both elegiac and life-affirming at once, is a tale of people who can't let go of their past but cannot fully be in their present, lost in a limbo from where they hope against hope that love will deliver them. Mr. Davies' aesthetic eye for the period is perfectly complemented by the work of production designer James Merifield and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, the diffuse tones of dull lighting, musty wallpaper and cigarette smoke soundtracked to perfection by Samuel Barber's wondrously lyrical violin concerto. It's true that, at times, one feels the director is getting lost in his own aesthetics and drifting dangerously close to self-parody, before regaining composure with that peculiarly British restraint that he has perfected, the refusal to sentimentalize for the sake of sentiment that is the hallmark of the finest English filmmaking. Also, the occasional moment of lush romanticism makes me think Wong Kar-wai may owe an unspoken debt - or at the very least have an unspoken kinship - with Mr. Davies.

     But the director is so in command of his material and so in tune with the actors that you quickly forget The Deep Blue Sea was originally a stage play and that the film is set almost entirely indoors with only three main speaking parts (all of which outstandingly performed). This, Mr. Davies seems to be saying, is how you take material that was supposedly of its time to make a film that is gloriously out of time, as much as Hester was a woman out of tune with her time, yearning for a freer life than what society allowed her.

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale
Director: Terence Davies
Screenplay: Mr. Davies, from the play by Terence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea
Cinematography: Florian Hoffmeister  (colour)
Designer: James Merifield
Costumes: Ruth Myers
Editor: David Charap
Producers: Sean O'Connor, Kate Ogborn  (The UK Film Council, Filmfour, Camberwell Films and Fly Films in association with Protagonist Pictures, Lipsync Productions and Artificial Eye)
United Kingdom, 2011, 98 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), March 19th 2013


Thursday, March 28, 2013

PROMISED LAND

"That delusional self-mythology? It's all bullshit." So says Matt Damon's character, Steve Butler, at one point in Gus van Sant's smartly-scripted, deeply humanist look at the changes America is undergoing at the moment. What Steve is talking about is the mythical American rural small town, being destroyed by the advancing forces of globalisation and the service economy, as farming and ranching fall by the wayside.

     And Steve should know because he saw it first-hand as his own small town withered and died after the big industry left, leading him to taking a job as a successful sales representative with a company offering a way out and safe money to depressed landowners through the process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" - a recent and controversial technique for extracting gas or oil from the land. His last job before riding the express lift to the head office, though, finds him facing an opponent who gives as good as he gets: the arrival of ecological activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) signals the beginning of a battle for the soul of a small rural Pennsylvania town where no one wants to see the place go to seed, but where not everyone is willing to turn down good money for an uncertain future, but also, in a larger sense, a battle for the soul of America (citizens versus corporations).

     It could also be seen as a metaphor for the integrity Mr. Van Sant finds here - though Promised Land has much in common with his previous work, namely in his uncertain but straight-backed heroes who find themselves embracing a frontline they never asked for, he is here as a director for hire; the film was to have been Mr. Damon's directing debut, with the actor stepping back after realising that shooting overruns on another project prevented him from preparing adequately for the job. Needless to say, it does not seem at all like a mere understudy job; instead, Mr. Van Sant places himself at the service of the story, underlining the humanity of these characters, never afraid to show them at their worst but never stooping down to easy platitudes or demagogical demonisations. Everyone has a reason for doing what they are doing, and everyone believes in something - in that sense, Mr. Van Sant's camera, always at eye level, dovetails neatly with Messrs. Damon and Krasinski' script, which is not so much about fracking and its dangers or advantages rather than about people and the way they react in difficult circumstances.

     Promised Land seems to have been custom tailored for the director, who not only perfectly sets up the rural small-town setting as he also makes sure every single role, even the smallest, has a heart beating inside and a reason to do things - much helped by a stellar cast where no role is merely supporting (but where, admittedly, Frances McDormand as Mr. Damon's sales rep colleague and Titus Welliver as a local merchant do steal the show at moments). It's a great "little" movie where feelings trumps message at every single crossroads.

Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie de Witt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Terry Kinney, Hal Holbrook
Director: Gus van Sant
Screenplay: Mr. Krasinski, Mr. Damon, from a story by Dave Eggers
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren (colour)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Daniel S. Clancy
Costumes: Juliet Polcsa
Editor: Billy Rich
Producers: Mr. Damon, Mr. Krasinski, Chris Moore (Focus Features, Sunday Night, Pearl Street Films and Media Farm in association with Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi)
USA/United Arab Emirates, 2012, 106 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Filmkunst 66 (Berlin), February 6th 2013


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

GLORIA

If you're coming to Gloria thinking of a connection with John Cassavetes' popular 1980 potboiler, you've got another think coming (despite the fact that, not far from the film's ending, there is a sly nod to that film thrown in). Also, if you're coming to Gloria unaware of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio's strength in well-observed personal relationships - so crisply presented in his well underrated debut La Sagrada Familia - you'll be waiting for the other shoe to drop all throughout this fourth feature of his. It's an unsurprisingly logic expectation seeing as most modern Latin American cinema seems to carry within it the memory and seed of the region's political turmoil throughout the second half of the 20th century, waiting to be unleashed whether directly or metaphorically - and Gloria is produced by Pablo Larraín, whose own work as a director has been rooted in Chile's recent and tragic history.

     You could definitely force a political reading on the tale of Gloria, the divorced fifty-something struggling to move forward with her life even at her age, but that would really be over-egging a pudding that has no need for extra ingredients and came out pretty well in the first place. Gloria, in a star-making performance from veteran Paulina García, is neither a symbol nor a stand-in - just a woman making her way through a complicated life and unwilling to settle for second best, even as the world keeps pushing her into situations she isn't necessarily ready for. From the neighbor's cat that keeps sneaking into her flat despite her dislike of felines to her occasionally over-desperate need for some sort of contact (visible in the way she keeps trying to connect with her two grown-up kids), Gloria is really stuck in a rut she might not be aware of. The centre of the story is her meet-cute with the gentlemanly Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a charmingly old-fashioned man who may just be what she needs to get out of her rut, if it weren't for his mysterious attachment to his troubled ex-wife and daughter, suggesting there's more to this kind but ultimately incapable to commit gentleman than meets the eye.

     What comes out of this is a cheerful tale of feminine empowerment that may seem slight but rings wonderfully true, in no small part thanks to the force of nature that is Ms. García, in one of those powerhouse performances that not only make the film but are the film. That is not to say there isn't anything else beyond the actress; there is indeed, a story and a director that embrace the vibrancy of humanity in all its complexity, refraining from passing judgment and reveling in the fact that starting from scratch may not be just a dream but an actual necessity.

Cast: Paulina García, Sergio Hernández
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Screenplay: Mr. Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Cinematography: Benjamín Echazarreta (colour)
Designer: Marcela Urivi
Costumes: Eduardo Castro
Editors: Soledad Salfate, Mr. Lelio
Producers: Juan de Díos Larraín, Pablo Larraín, Mr. Lelio, Mr. Maza (Fabula in co-production with Nephilim Producciones, Muchas Gracias and Forastero)
Chile/Spain, 2013, 108 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 10th 2013


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

VIC & FLO ONT VU UN OURS (VIC & FLO SAW A BEAR)

Former film critic Denis Côté has become one of the most acclaimed new directors in world cinema, in no small part thanks to the constant culture of risk he has embraced in his filmmaking - while all his films, both documentaries and fictions, can conceivably be recognised as his, they're all generally quite idiosyncratic. None more so, though, than this crime film turned simultaneously upside down and inside out, about two ex-cons and their enchanted Quebecois forest idyll after their release from prison. Punctuated by much tongue-in-cheek, deadpan humour, Vic & Flo ont vu un ours is very much its own film, so to speak, working Mr. Côté's interest in genre and in outsiders into an elastic yet curiously affecting plot.

     The titular characters Vic (for Victoria; Canadian comedian Pierrette Robitaille) and Flo (Florence; Romane Bohringer) are two women struggling to build their own world after leaving jail, where they served time for crimes that are never explained. Their second chance at life, taking place at the rural house of Vic's elderly disabled uncle, is encouraged by their parole officer (a sympathetic performance from Marc-André Grondin), but is thrown into disarray by a disquieting sense of fate encroaching upon their little Quebecois neck of the woods where very little seems to happen. There is, in fact, something "out of the past" about to happen (involving literally someone out of that past), but that noir-ish tale of ex-cons struggling to go legit is gleefully subverted by Mr. Côté. Not only because of the sexual angle (a lesbian couple where Flo is effectively a bisexual afraid to commit to anyone, regardless of sex) but also because the story is propelled into an ominous possible Canadian Gothic with fairy tale and fable elements (the bear of the title is more of a metaphor, though appropriate for the shock ending that seems tailor-made to throw viewers out of the screening asking what on Earth have they just seen). Also, Mr. Côté smartly bends the conventions of crime film into a sort of metafictional construct about love and fate, while constantly throwing wrenches into the machine to keep things fresh and unusual (though, it should be said, never subverting for subversion's sake; there is a method to the apparent madness).

     None of this would be half as enjoyable if it weren't for the well-chosen cast and the effortless way in which the three leads bounce off each other in a tug-of-war between passive aggression and genuine fondness - a tug-of-war Mr. Côté works into the film's form through the contrast between the location work and the indoor scenes, showing Vic et Flo wanting to break free yet still hemmed in by all that surrounds them. All this to say this is probably the director's most accessible film, likely to attract viewers put off by some of his previous films' more austere, arid devices - though those same viewers might still come out scratching their heads as much as before. Which is no bad thing.

Cast: Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-André Grondin
Director and writer: Denis Côté
Cinematography: Ian Lagarde (colour)
Music: Mélissa Lavergne
Art director: Colombe Raby
Costumes: Patricia McNeil
Editor: Nicolas Roy
Producers: Stéphanie Morissette, Sylvain Corbeil (Metafilms and La Maison de Prod in association with Super Écran)
Canada, 2013, 95 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9 (Berlin), February 9th 2013


Monday, March 25, 2013

L'ENFANT D'EN HAUT (SISTER)

In her debut feature, the disquietingly surrealist Home, Swiss director Ursula Meier painted the picture of a family unit closed so much over itself that its emotional autarky couldn't survive when confronted with the outside world. The filmmaker's sophomore effort is a much less surreal tale, but it still deals with the emotional fallout from a rundown family situation, in the story of two siblings living hand-to-mouth and left to fend for themselves - or rather, with the young Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) having to fend both for himself and for his older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux). He does so by leaving their suburban tower block in the middle of a low-rise Swiss nowhere and taking the cable car to the local ski resort, where he passes himself as a tourist to steal anything that might be of use, from ski gears to packed lunches.

     Contrasting the rarified, well-off "up there" with the struggling, penniless "down here" suggests some sort of fairly obvious social metaphor appropriate both to modern times and to the notoriously two-leveled Swiss society. But Ms. Meier is not so much interested in that (though it is obvious it is never far from her mind) as she is in the potential the structure has to reflect Simon and Louise's relationship with each other. Love and affection are intertwined and often mistaken for money and survival; the older girl seems to veer from tender friendliness to petulant disinterest, while the young boy seems to yearn for a paternal/maternal figure that is constantly out of reach, especially because Louise refuses to be it. At heart, Ms. Meier wants to track how two people who yearn desperately for human contact and the human touch but don't have and are suspicious of any "functional" family unit can find their own roles and build their own family - and it's here that Sister finds its greatest strengths, as well as some of its flaws.

      The up/down symbolism may be somewhat obvious, but that doesn't make it any less effective, and the apparent incongruity of the tower block where Louise and Simon live not only mirrors the ski resort's bourgeois comforts but also the idea of a haven, or oasis; what's less interesting is the need for a more conventionally melodramatic conflict between the siblings, when the film works much better as it juxtaposes the different rhythms and feels of Simon's day (the fantasyland "up there", the drudgery "down here"), especially since the young Mr. Klein is such an assured presence. Either way, Sister is a much more interesting work than Home. 

Cast: Léa Seydoux, Kacey Mottet Klein, Martin Compston, Gillian Anderson
Director: Ursula Meier
Screenplay: Antoine Jaccoud, Ms. Meier, with Gilles Taurand
Cinematography: Agnès Godard  (colour)
Music: John Parish
Designer: Ivan Niclass
Costumes: Anne van Brée
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Producers: Denis Freyd, Ruth Waldburger (Archipel 35 and Vega Film in co-production with RTS and Bande à Part Films)
France/Switzerland, 2012, 97 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), March 15th 2013


Friday, March 22, 2013

BULLET TO THE HEAD

It has been a while since we had the pleasure of seeing director Walter Hill at the top of his game (more accurately, on the TV series Deadwood and Broken Trail). Sadly, this return to the big screen after a ten-year absence, helming a Sylvester Stallone vehicle that looks to bring back some of the energy and luster of the 1980/1990s action movie, falls flat on its face, suggesting that everybody who contributed to this half-hearted adaptation of the graphic novel Du Plomb dans la tête is merely going through the motions. Which wouldn't be much of a problem, since so much of formulaic crime thrillers hangs upon going through the motions, if Bullet to the Head took itself a little less seriously as a actioner and a little more seriously as a throwback.

     Mr. Stallone is in fine monosyllabic form as New Orleans contract killer Jimmy Bobo, forced to partner with Washington cop Taylor Kwon (an unconvincing Sung Kang) to find out who wanted him and his associate dead after killing Kwon's disgraced former partner. But the buddy banter between the veteran killer and the smartphone-wielding detective never truly clicks, and Alessandro Camon's script piles on blithely both inconsistencies (such as the prostitute witness that is completely forgotten by the time the film ends) and cliches (the also unconvincing relation between Jimmy and his tattooist daughter) with its attempts at tough-guy wisecracking coming up as wincingly unfunny posturing. (Is this really the same Mr. Camon who helped Oren Moverman write the wonderful The Messenger?) Mr. Hill does his best to keep the story moving at a brisk pace, but even at a taut 90 minutes and despite the efficiently-shot action scenes, the sense that everybody involved is doing just enough to earn their paycheck means Bullet in the Head quickly outstays its welcome. Which is quite the pity coming from a director we've seen in so much better form not too long ago.

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jon Seda, Weronika Rosati, Jason Momoa
Director: Walter Hill
Screenplay: Alessandro Camon, from the graphic novel written by Alexis Nolent and illustrated by Colin Wilson, Du Plomb dans la tête
Cinematography: Lloyd Ahern (colour)
Music: Steve Mazzaro
Designer: Toby Corbett
Costumes: Ha Nguyen
Editor: Tim Alverson
Producers: Alessandra Milchan, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Kevin King-Templeton (IM Global, Dark Castle Entertainment, Millar Gough Ink, Emjag Productions, After Dark Films)
USA, 2012, 92 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), March 13th 2013


Thursday, March 21, 2013

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS

On the surface, Seven Psychopaths seems to be yet another of the post-modern crime movies whose graphic violence, smart writing and elaborate plotting mesh in an appropriation of the ways Quentin Tarantino renewed genre codes after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. On closer appreciation, though, the writer/director beyond this US-set British production is a talented and recognised wordsmith in his own, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. And what he does here is take those post-Tarantino genre renewal as far as they'll go before breaking up: Seven Psychopaths is openly a crime movie about crime movies, a meta-referential Möbius strip where the levels of fiction within the story are constantly shifting and blurring beyond any recognition save the need to go on telling stories.

     Since so much of cinema is storytelling (whether purely sensorial or narrative), it's no wonder that Mr. McDonagh is meditating on the origins and transformations of the key element that is the story. At heart, this is the tale of a screenwriter tasked with writing a crime movie called Seven Psychopaths; what we witness is how Irish transplant Martin (Colin Farrell) goes about creating it while being dragged by his friend and small-time crook Billy (a frenzied Sam Rockwell) into a surreal crime tale involving a Los Angeles' crime boss' (Woody Harrelson) kidnapped pet dog.  The identity of the title's seven psychopaths is revealed at irregular intervals and, at first, seem to have little to do with the central story, until the film itself seems to start collapsing under the conflicting ambitions of the ever more befuddled Martin (who is adamant he doesn't want to write just another crime thriller) and the ever more out-there Billy (who wants the script to become the action movie to end all action movies).

     At that point, you begin to ask yourself whether Mr. McDonagh is talking about the film's own creation, presenting a metaphor of creative work as a whole or just trying to see how far he can take the idea of a self-reflexive crime thriller. The playwright certainly has a way with words (running the risk of typecasting, it must be the Irish gift of the gab) and with colourful characters: pretty much every single one in this film, down to the bit parts, could very well be its star, none more so than Tom Waits' rabbit-petting moral serial killer. But it's fair to say that, as a director, he is more concerned with the writing than with the merely adequate visuals (this is after all a script-driven project, very much a writer's movie). And he can't help but let the film drag somewhat in its second act, where the thoughtful critique of action movies that is at the heart of the entire project risks swallowing everything else whole and turn Seven Psychopaths into an intriguing essay on narrative deconstruction and the origins of creativity, replete of sly references to previous films, instead of the cracking genre subversion it enjoys being for much of its length.

     The sheer gall of wanting to have his layer cake and eating it too, though, helps Mr. McDonagh steer the film in the right direction, much helped by the insanely talented cast whom he pretty much sets loose with remarkable results. Despite the excellent Mr. Farrell's previous form with the director (he was the lead in Mr. McDonagh's debut film, In Bruges, as well), the manic Mr. Rockwell, a superb Christopher Walken as a devoutly Catholic small-timer and the ever-great Mr. Harrelson pretty much steal the show from under him and make Seven Psychopaths a cracker of a movie that never stoops down to its audience nor shirks from embracing the genre cliches the better to reverse and subvert them.

Cast: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Željko Ivanek
Director and writer: Martin McDonagh
Cinematography: Ben Davis  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Carter Burwell
Designer: David Wasco
Costumes: Karen Patch
Editor: Lisa Gunning
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Mr. McDonagh (Filmfour, British Film Institute and Blueprint Pictures in association with Hanway Films)
United Kingdom, 2012, 110 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), March 12th 2013)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

DOLGAYA SCHASTLIVAYA ZHIZN (A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE)

The echo chambers between films that developed independently of each other are one of the most intriguing and interesting aspects of programming a film festival. Hence, in the Berlin main competition of 2013, Boris Khlebnikov's Russian miniature A Long and Happy Life mirrored in reverse Gus van Sant's Promised Land, positing a similar subject seen from different sides - the losing battle of rural farmers struggling to make a living against modern industry and business. Mr. Van Sant's film is a clear-eyed piece of thoughtful, doubtful Americana, but Mr. Khlebnikov's work is infused with a very Russian spirit of ominous fatalism, functioning for all intents and purposes as an inverted mirror of Promised Land, equally clear-eyed but much more hopeless and bordeline absurd.

     The title, of course, is meant ironically: relocated city boy Sasha's life is definitely not going to be happy, and possibly neither very long, from the moment he becomes the lone holdout unwilling to sell the piece of land he has been working on unsuccessfully as the leader of a collective farm. Initially willing to sell off to the local oligarchs after all the hardships he and his co-workers have gone through for little or no reward, Sasha (played by Khlebnikov regular Aleksandr Yatsenko) changes his heart after the collective refuses to sell and decides to stick it to the fat cats from Moscow - but eventually finds himself all alone after the initial show of dignity deserts each and every one of the farmers in turn.

     There is something of the western (High Noon does come to mind) both in the narrative structure and in the rural setting: Sasha turns out to be the one moral compass standing fast against the encroaching corruption when everyone else gives up the fight as impossible to win, though he was the most reluctant to join in, even against his own girlfriend Anya (Anna Kotova) who also happens to be the local registrar's secretary. But just as there is something of the western, there is also something of the film noir as Sasha becomes progressively more desperate and lonesome, a haunted, hunted man who embraces the stand he is taking to a very Russian point of no return, in a way he himself would have never thought before. Mr. Khlebnikov's brief, sharp, to the point film - his fifth feature and third in a loose trilogy about modern Russia following 2003's successful debut Roads to Koktebel (co-directed with Alexei Popogrebsky) and 2009's opaquely absurdist Help Gone Mad -  is greatly helped by no-nonsense handling, making good use both of his hand-held camera and of the rough-hewn country buildings and desolate landscapes, with the total absence of soundtrack underlining the fact that, while this is a film, these are serious matters that are being dealt with.

Cast: Aleksandr Yatsenko, Anna Kotova, Vladimir Korobeinikov, Sergei Nasedkin, Yevgeny Sitiy, Inna Sterligova, Aleksandr Alyabiev, Sergei Pestrikov, Gleb Puskepalis, Pavel Kolesnikov, Denis Yatkovsky, Valeri Konstantinov
Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Screenplay: Aleksandr Rodionov, Mr. Khlebnikov
Cinematography: Pavel Kostomarov (colour)
Designer: Olga Khlebnikova
Costumes: Svetlana Mikhailova
Editor: Ivan Lebedev
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Aleksandr Kushaev (Kinokompania Koktebel)
Russia, 2012, 77 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 9th 2013

Sunday, March 17, 2013

PARADIES: HOFFNUNG (PARADISE: HOPE)

Though originally designed a single film telling three interlocking stories, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's Paradise project ended up becoming three separate films focusing each one one of the stories. After Paradies: Liebe (Paradise: Love, premiered at Cannes 2012) and Paradies: Glaube (Paradise: Faith, revealed in Venice 2012), Berlin 2013 presented Hoffnung (Hope), where overweight teenage Melanie (Melanie Lenz) is shipped off to a weight-loss camp for teenagers while her mother is off to Kenya and her aunt is evangelizing around Vienna.

     Melanie's mother is the sex tourist of the first film (never seen here), while her aunt (Maria Hofstätter, who has a brief cameo at the beginning) is the religious zealot from the second. Yet this is probably the sweetest and least confrontational of the three films, and probably in the entire career of the Austrian director, one of the most notable of the current wave of local filmmakers that also includes Michael Haneke, Michael Glawogger or Markus Schleinzer. Mr. Seidl has become known by his daringly entomological portraits of modern society and the ruthlessly clinical way in which he shoots them, posing the viewer as mere spectator of his perfectly poised, geometrical long set-ups that describe and reduce the power games within any given group to its immediate essence. Here, adolescence is the subject, as the director follows the way that Melanie fits in and connects with the other teenagers in the camp, watching as they naturally gravitate to and away from each other - the fact that the camp is set up in what seems like a school complex deserted for the summer makes it even more of a controlled experiment in social mores. But the director's eye never stoops to looking at these kids as mere specimens; instead we see them as young people trying to make their way in the world and not quite knowing how.

     Over the daily exercises and chores performed as a group, Mr. Seidl shows how Melanie and her friends abandon themselves to standard teenage behaviours or evade adult supervision, but also how she develops a crush on the doctor in charge of the group (Joseph Lorenz), and slowly, in a self-aware fashion, begins to seduce him - with the man (who remains unnamed throughout) seemingly answering in kind (leading to the film's most daring yet also most surprising narrative development). Juxtaposing her crass seductions as a measure of identity and individualism against the rigid framework of a cookie-cutter camp whose good intentions are unlikely to actually guarantee results, Mr. Seidl paints with his usual dispassionate detachment a disenchanted portrait of a lost modern adolescence, stuck in a rut, already going through the motions. But his entomologist's eye never stoops to looking at these kids as mere specimens; instead we see them as young people trying to make their way in the world and not quite knowing how.

Cast: Melanie Lenz, Joseph Lorenz
Director: Ulrich Seidl
Screenplay: Mr. Seidl, Veronika Franz
Cinematography: Wolfgang Thaler, Ed Lachman (colour)
Designers: Andreas Donhauser, Renate Martin
Costumes: Tanja Häusner
Editor: Christof Scherbenlos
Producer: Mr. Seidl (Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion in co-production with Tatfilm, Parisienne de Production, ARTE France Cinéma and ARD Degeto)
Austria/Germany/France, 2012, 91 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9 (Berlin), February 7th 2013



Trailer: PARADIES: Hoffnung (Ulrich Seidl) from Stadtkino Filmverleih on Vimeo.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

DE ROUILLE ET D'OS (RUST AND BONE)

Having risen to the front line of contemporary European auteurs with his previous, widely-acclaimed De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (The Beat that My Heart Skipped) and Un Prophète (A Prophet), French writer-director Jacques Audiard was due for a backlash. And it duly arrived with Rust and Bone, fashioned from a book of short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson and toplined by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. While it is in fact a lesser film than the two previous titles, it stands up quite well on its own as a solid, slightly left-of-field tale with a slightly American feel. It is, after all, the story of two people struggling to rebuild their lives from scratch, two losers finding each other at the darkest point of their lives and wondering whether they're the answers to each other's prayers. And what is genuinely interesting in it is the consistent intertwining of body and soul throughout, since both characters, Ms. Cotillard's Stéphanie and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts' Ali, are learning to live in their broken bodies while nursing broken souls and not quite sure how to deal with the blows that life sends their way.

     Meeting in Antibes, where former boxer Ali is working as a bouncer and living hand-to-mouth with his young son at his sister's and Stéphanie is an orca trainer at the local marine park, the tale gets going when she loses her legs in an accident and he starts bare-knuckle-boxing to make money on the side. Mr. Audiard doesn't quite know where he wants to go: in many ways, his cinema remains too "thoughtful" and literate to actually achieve the total physicality he is looking for, while the social background of working-class people whose lives are struggles in themselves adds a somewhat hefty layer of metaphor. Yet the physical moments are the high points of his film, the way Stéphane Fontaine's widescreen cinematography captures both the bright beachfront light and the nocturnal darkness surrounding the characters.

     In that respect, the key to Rust and Bone, much more than a typically restrained Ms. Cotillard, is Mr. Schoenaerts' affecting presence, an expertly nuanced performance halfway between sweetness and brute strength that is the perfect metaphor of what the director was looking far without quite getting there. Whenever the actor is on the screen, the film approaches what Mr. Audiard must have had in mind - but despite the shortcomings, this is an often beautiful to look at, always interesting piece of work by a director still head and shoulders ahead of its competitors.

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Céline Sallette, Corinne Masiero, Bouli Lanners, Jean-Michel Correia
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenplay: Mr. Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, from the book of short stories by Craig Davidson, Rust and Bone
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine (colour, widescreen)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Michel Barthélémy
Costumes: Virginie Montel
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Production: Why Not Productions, Page 114 and France 2 Cinéma in co-production with Les Films du Fleuve, Lumière et Lunanime, RTBF, BIM Distribuzione and Optimum Releasing
France/Belgium/Italy/United Kingdom, 2012, 122 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, March 8th 2013


Friday, March 15, 2013

ROBOT & FRANK

A tale of growing old (dis)gracefully that is both sweetly understanding and upliftingly melancholy, Jake Schreier's directing debut makes virtues out of its low budget and high-concept premise, running with them in not entirely predictable directions. Set in a near-future where robot helpers have become the norm, Robot & Frank tells of what happens when forgetful curmudgeon Frank Weld (Frank Langella) gets a robot carer from his son (James Marsden) so he can go on living on his own in his New Hampshire small town.

     What starts as a gently moving look at the difficulties of aging and one man's reluctance to admit he is now longer young shifts imperceptibly into an equally gentle questioning of progress, through the characters of the local librarian (a wonderfully subtle Susan Sarandon) whose job is on the verge of irrelevance and of his own activist daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), who insists on independence from robots' "slave labour". And then, as Frank is revealed as a retired master thief, the film becomes an impossibly cheerful "last hurrah" of a heist movie, the robot (impeccably voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) going along with all the scoping and planning as a means to keep Frank "active".

     Mr. Schreier handles the tonal shifts with some confidence, befitting a project where it's feeling and tone that matter most, even if Robot & Frank sticks mostly in neutral throughout, never truly soaring to the heights it promises nor sinking into the abysses of platitude. What it retains throughout - and that is its key - is an essentially charming quality, greatly helped by the stellar performance of Mr. Langella in the title role, and a clever but never cocky modesty that makes it a pleasing, heart-warming film.

Cast: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto, Peter Sarsgaard, Susan Sarandon
Director: Jake Schreier
Screenplay: Christopher Ford
Cinematography: Matthew J. Lloyd (colour, widescreen)
Music: Francis and The Lights
Designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Costumes: Erika Munro
Editor: Jacob Craycroft
Producers: Galt Niederhoffer, Sam Bisbee, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Lance Acord (Park Pictures in association with White Hat Entertainment and Dog Run Pictures)
USA, 2012, 89 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), February 26th 2013


Thursday, March 14, 2013

A ÚLTIMA VEZ QUE VI MACAU (THE LAST TIME I SAW MACAU)

Neither straight-forward documentary nor openly fictional, Portuguese directors João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata's first joint feature is a melancholy, playful requiem about ghosts and memories that feeds on both its authors' personalities. Mr. Rodrigues, the Portuguese director of cult favourites O Fantasma and To Die Like a Man, is the one who  is recognised worldwide, but Mr. Guerra da Mata, who has but one short to his own name, has had an important creative role behind the scenes as his regular art director and co-writer. Their third jointly credited project as directors, The Last Time I Saw Macao is the first to truly combine into one whole the different sensibilities they bring to their projects: Mr. Guerra da Mata's more forcefully playful, exuberant pop-infused feel, and Mr. Rodrigues' more detached, precise, clinical eye.

     Originally, it was conceived as a loose documentary inspired by Mr. Guerra da Mata's childhood in the then-Portuguese colony as the son of a Portuguese officer; the end result uses his memories as a framework for something else entirely. It starts as an exotic schoolboy mystery inspired by 1950s film noir and golden-era Hollywood, involving a transvestite expatriate (real-life transexual Cindy Scrash, mostly present in voice only after a stunning lip-synced musical prologue) who calls for help after being caught up in a high-stakes conspiracy. That fictional tale, suggested by films such as Josef von Sternberg's Macao, is integrated into an observational walk through memory lane, coloured by the nostalgic awareness that the wide-eyed enchantment of staking out your childhood territory can no longer be revisited.

     From then on, The Last Time I Saw Macau disintegrates into an apocalyptic experimental fantasy with more in common with Mr. Rodrigues' solo work, losing some steam in its final stretch as the engine starts running on empty. Still, there is much to admire in this love letter to a lost sense of adventure and romanticism that can no longer be rekindled, a film that, for all its shortcomings, looks and feels like nothing else out there.

Cast: Cindy Scrash
Narrators: João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata

Directors and writers: Mr. Rodrigues, Mr. Guerra da Mata
Cinematography: Mr. Rodrigues, Mr. Guerra da Mata, (prologue) Rui Poças (colour)
Art director (prologue): Mr. Guerra da Mata
Costumes (prologue): João Carlos Marques
Editors: Raphaël Lefèvre, Mr. Rodrigues, Mr. Guerra da Mata
Producers: João Figueiras, Daniel Chabannes de Sars, Corentin Dong-Jin Sénéchal (Blackmaria in co-production with Épicentre Films and Le Fresnoy - Studio National des Arts Contemporains)
Portugal/France, 2012, 82 minutes

Screened: producer advance screener/DocLisboa 2012 official competition, Lisbon, October 5th 2012



LA DERNIERE FOIS QUE J'AI VU MACAO de João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata (Trailer) from Epicentre Films on Vimeo.

Monday, March 11, 2013

OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

There's no doubt that what Disney asked of Sam Raimi was to remake The Wizard of Oz for a contemporary audience who hasn't been exposed to (or couldn't care less about) Victor Fleming's classic 1939 piece of Hollywood fantasy, and while on the subject generating a new stream of revenues for the studio. Yet, Oz, the Great and Powerful proves, against all odds (and a set of surprisingly scathing reviews), that it not only is possible to make a decent movie out of the marketing department's diktats - it is also possible to make it an artistic statement, a love letter to classic Hollywood as worthy as Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning Hugo.

     As scripted by hack-for-hire Mitchell Kapner and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (drawing on elements of the dozen Oz books written by L. Frank Baum, but pointedly not on the actual Wizard of Oz whose rights are still owned by Warners), this Oz is a sly, meta-referential retread of the original tale of Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road disguised as an "origin story" of the Wizard, set some 25 years earlier. A retread because, essentially, Oz follows the same blueprint: a flawed hero(ine) who discovers his (her) inner strength in the magical land of Oz, while undergoing a hero(ine)'s journey with a series of dysfunctional sidekicks. Here, it's no longer Judy Garland's Dorothy, but two-bit magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco), flown by a twister from 1905 Kansas to the land of Oz to learn about himself and fulfill his unknown destiny as The Wizard, his struggle to depose the wicked witch enslaving most of the country following closely that of the original film. Dorothy's "no place like home", though, mutates into Oscar "coming home", and the land of Oz becomes a metaphor for the fantasy world of classic Hollywood, with Mr. Raimi framing the new story as an homage to both the 1939 Wizard and the "golden era" of studio filmmaking.

     In Mr. Franco's self-deprecating performance as Oz, we see shades of Clark Gable's charms, mutating into Cary Grant's way with dialogue in his bickering with Michelle Williams' Glinda - straight out of classic screwball comedy and not more than once reminding of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. Mila Kunis' Theadora evokes the sultriness of Veronica Lake (especially in the way Mr. Raimi films her cascading hair), while Rachel Weisz's Evanora is the classic femme fatale of 1930s thrillers. There's also the obvious gimmick of - like in the original Wizard - starting the film in black and white before moving into colour; the director turns this into a dazzling prologue in "square" Academy-ratio, 1930s monochrome melodrama shot in mostly static compositions before the screen literally expands into widescreen, richly-coloured fantasy where, for the next half an hour or so, there is a sense of gaining one's "sea legs" as the camera literally floats along, as if taking in all of the wonderment.

     It is true that, afterwards, Oz does become a slightly less imaginative project, and does conform more to the blockbuster tradition. But there is, indeed, much to be said for a film whose creative climax hinges on a visual illusion straight out of a magic show - or, more to the point, from Thomas Alva Edison's book of inventions, positing Oz as a nickelodeon attraction, an American compatriot of the Europeanized Méliès references in Hugo. Not to say the films are comparable - there's a business decision at the heart of Oz, unlike for Hugo - but there is certainly a sense of wonder at the heart of both, with modern technology (in this case a fun-fair 3D and state-of-the-art digital effects) standing in for the ingenuity and smarts of the great pioneers of cinema. There's nothing pioneering about Oz, the Great and Powerful, but there is much to be admired - and yes, Sam Raimi remains one of the few film directors capable of taking on a big Hollywood project and not surrendering to the general dumbing-down.

Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire, from a story by Mr. Kapner and the Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum
Cinematography: Peter Deming (colour, widescreen, 3D)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Robert Stromberg
Costumes: Gary Jones, Michael Raschke
Editor: Bob Murawski
Visual effects: Scott Stokdyk
Make-up effects: Gregory Nicotero, Howard Berger
Producer: Joe Roth (Walt Disney Pictures and Roth Films in association with Curtis-Donen Productions)
USA, 2013, 130 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 6 (Lisbon), March 4th 2013


Saturday, March 09, 2013

MAMA

"A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape" - it's a nice thought, neatly expressed halfway through Argentine director Andrés Muschietti's debut feature, but it's one that Mama doesn't really follow up on, preferring to deploy well-worn scare tactics instead of emotional layering. Expanding on his award-winning 2008 short with the helping hand of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, Mr. Muschietti starts Mama pretty well, by keeping close to his vest the exact nature of the supernatural presence that has been taking care of sisters Victoria and Lilly Desange (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse), after their deranged father killed their mother and whisked them away into the depths of Washington State.

     Found after five years living on their own in a remote log cabin, the girls are returned to civilization and handed over to their paternal uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his rock musician girlfriend Annabel (an unrecognisable Jessica Chastain). But the spectral visitation they call Mama seems to have come with them, as is made clear in a superb shot showing Annabel going about her business on one side of the frame while, on the other, Lilly plays with the ghostly presence. Sadly, that's about the smartest Mama ever gets.

     The story openly hinges on the awakening of a maternal instinct in Annabel, who was reluctant to take on the girls to begin with, and on the girls' acceptance her - much in the way of previous Del Toro projects such as his own Pan's Labyrinth and J. A. Bayona's The Orphanage. But Mr. Muschietti dials down that emotional side in favor of a squarely conventional horror film about getting rid of the "other" mother unhelped by the below-par effects for the now-materialized Mama (played by Javier Botet). The result wastes a couple of good ideas and the earnest performances of its cast in a series of basic scripting problems (particularly in regard to the timeframes of the plot) and misjudged tonal shifts - especially in the final act, whose wrap-up demands a stylistic precision the director can't muster - that literally throw away what was so promising about the premise.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenplay: Neil Cross, Mr. Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti, from a story by Mr. and Ms. Muschietti
Cinematography: Antonio Riestra (colour)
Music: Fernando Velázquez
Designer: Anastasia Marano
Costumes: Luis Sequeira
Editor: Michele Conroy
Visual effects: Edward J. Taylor IV, Aaron Weintraub
Producers: J. Miles Dale, Ms. Muschietti (De Milo Productions and Toma 78 in association with The Movie Network and Movie Central)
Spain/Canada, 2013, 100 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), March 1st 2013


Friday, March 08, 2013

BLANCANIEVES

At first sight, the sophomore effort by Spanish director Pablo Berger seems to be riding the coat-tails of Michel Hazanavicius' Oscar-winning feel-good homage to the silent golden age of Hollywood, The Artist: a silent period fable shot in Academy-ratio black & white, here set in 1920s Seville. Yet Mr. Berger's film was in fact a labour of love the director steered through the best part of a decade and was shooting when The Artist premiered, and it's much closer in spirit to the fantastical appropriations of Spanish history that Guillermo del Toro explored in his two Spanish movies, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth.

     As in the first, it's a tale about the past coming back to haunt you and never really leaving your side; as in the second, it's a story about a girl who must overcome the raw hand fate has dealt her, both of them within an ingenious framework that adapts the Grimm's classic fairytale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Spain's atavistic fatalism and macho culture of bullfighting. Ironically for a film set in a strongly patriarchal time period, this is the tale of two women struggling to stand on their own feet and escape the rigid rules of a male-centred society.

     Snow White is Carmen (played as a child by Sofía Oria and as a young girl by the charming Macarena García), love child of the ill-fated marriage between a flamenco star who died giving birth and master matador Antonio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), rendered quadriplegic in a fateful corrida The Wicked Stepmother is Encarna (Maribel Verdú, the kindly housekeeper from Pan's Labyrinth, in a richly villainous performance), the hospital worker who nursed the now-widowed Antonio back to health and married him for his money, taking in Carmen as a virtual slave after the grandmother who raised her dies.

     Ms. Verdú depicts Encarna as a ruthless man-eating dominatrix who will stop at nothing to make sure she gets what she wants, an evil double of Ms. García's Carmen, whose wide-eyed naïveté and innate goodness become self-evident once she escapes death at the hands of Encarna's factotum and, amnesiac, is taken in by the Seven Dwarves - a troupe of circus artists performing as comic relief in bullrings. Chance leads Carmen - rechristened Snowhite by one of the dwarves in a sly meta-reference to the fairy tale - to reveal herself as a fully-fledged matador worthy of her father's reputation, and in so doing to posit the Snow White vs Wicked Stepmother duel in 1920s Seville as that of two women daring to step outside their comfort zone and yearning to be acclaimed for it - yet also necessarily condemned to pay the price for their daring.

     Mr. Berger's silent treatment (not so much wanting to pass itself of as a lost 1920s movie but effortlessly combining both 1920s and 2010s techniques, with many handheld shots and quick-cut editing given added effect by the square frame ratio) frames the story both as timeless melodrama and updated Greek tragedy given a high-contrast expressionist gloss by Kiko de la Rica's rich cinematography, in a veiled metaphor of the upcoming Spanish Civil War underscored by the film's finale, darker and edgier than the traditional iterations of the fairy tale. Though some will think of Luis Buñuel's dispassionately acid satires (especially in some of the more surreal moments), Mr. Berger's film is not in the same league; and, in any case, is a much more ambiguous proposition, since it simultaneously celebrates resistance and shows how futile it can be - to quote from another Spanish classic, Encarna and Carmen are tilting at windmills in a country that is about to be torn apart. Whereas The Artist was a celebration, Blancanieves is an elegy.

Cast: Maribel Verdú, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Sofía Oria, Macarena García, Angela Molina
Director: Pablo Berger
Screenplay: Mr. Berger, based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm
Cinematography: Kiko de la Rica (black & white)
Music: Alfonso de Vilallonga
Designer: Alain Bainée
Costumes: Paco Delgado
Editor: Fernando Franco
Produces: Ibon Cormenzana, Jérôme Vidal, Mr. Berger (Arcadia Motion Pictures, Nix Films, Sísifo Films, The Kraken Films, Noodles Production and ARTE France Cinéma)
Spain/France/Belgium, 2011, 104 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), February 28th 2013


Thursday, March 07, 2013

SIDE EFFECTS

Allegedly, Side Effects is director Steven Soderbergh's final feature film before retiring to devote himself to other pursuits (if you exclude the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, due to receive a theatrical release outside the USA). If this is indeed his farewell to the big screen, it's a good measure of what we're losing: one of the few contemporary American filmmakers who has a clear idea of what it is he wants to do, how to do it and how to retain full creative control while doing it. Far too many people have dismissed Mr. Soderbergh's protean, always-on creativity and deliberate genre- and style-hopping as a stunt to disguise a mere hack of a director-for-hire, but if the word "hack" is to be attributed to him, then it should be inscribed alongside the great "hack auteurs" of American cinema that coloured studio filmmaking from the "golden age" of the 1930s to the last gasp of the 1970s (and many of the director's films do have an aura of 1970s gleeful try-anything-once adventure).

     Mr. Soderbergh has always made a point of using each new film as a step in an artistic rather than careerist ladder, adapting his style to the substance of the project but also building on the experience, trials and errors from previous works. For this twisty, twisted thriller set in the world of modern pharmaceuticals, written by regular collaborator Scott Burns (The Informant!, Contagion), he again explores the disconnect between image and identity that underscored Magic Mike while extending the sense of society as a mere commodity exchange explored in The Girlfriend Experience, within the context of a genre exercise like Contagion or Haywire - no wonder A. O. Scott in the New York Times called Side Effects a sort of "greatest hits package", though the new film is rather more than the just the sum of its constituent parts.

     In this case, the genre Mr. Soderbergh explores, deconstructs and rebuilds is the old-fashioned thriller where nothing is what it seems, presenting itself as an apparent indictment of "better living through chemistry" as advertised breathlessly by the big pharmaceutical companies and prescribed mindlessly by doctors with an eye to their bank accounts. But that is before it switches into a Hitchcockian murder mystery with elements of film noir and conspiracy thriller leaning towards American Gothic, as up-and-coming New York psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) finds himself in trouble after prescribing a brand-new antidepressant to Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a depressed housewife whose husband is about to be released from prison after serving for insider trading.

     True, it may not be much a stretch for a director so attuned to his material as Mr. Soderbergh - and there is a sense that Side Effects is something that he could do pretty much in his sleep, which is not to say he did do so. But everything, from the performances to the greyish, filtered mood of the visuals is so perfectly judged and expertly paced (the director serves once again as his own cinematographer and editor, under his usual aliases of "Peter Andrews" and "Mary Ann Bernard") that it confirms that few, if any, other current Hollywood filmmakers could be in such complete control of tone and material. Even more remarkably, Side Effects is the type of movie any of the major studios would rush to produce (and did back) as recently as 25 years ago but that these days needs independent financing just to be looked at. Therein may lie one of the reasons why Mr. Soderbergh is retiring, and one can't really blame him - but it's one more reason to regret that he will be retiring.

Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
Director, cinematographer and editor: Steven Soderbergh (colour)
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns
Music: Thomas Newman
Designer: Howard Cummings
Costumes: Susan Lyall
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Gregory Jacobs, Mr. Burns (Endgame Entertainment and Di Bonaventura Pictures in association with Filmnation Entertainment)
USA, 2013, 106 minutes

Screened: Berlinale 2013 official competition press screening, Berlinale Palast, February 11th 2013


Friday, March 01, 2013

QUARTA DIVISÃO

Veteran helmer Joaquim Leitão's disappointingly generic attempt at home-grown big-screen police procedural gains some traction over its first half before ending up totally undone by a rote script that plays unfairly with its audience's expectations. Probably the only director of the 1980s film-school generation to carve out a niche away from the auteurist tradition, Mr. Leitão's career has been indissociable from that of producer Tino Navarro for the past 25 years, resulting in a few solid productions among which a couple of certified box-office hits.

     But that collaboration seems to be now running on fumes, especially since Mr. Navarro started taking sole responsibility for the scripts. This was true of their previous film A Esperança Está Onde Menos Se Espera (2009), a gauche melodrama where the writer-producer and the director seemed to be aiming at different films, but is even truer in a different way in Quarta Divisão, which, despite the qualities Mr. Leitão brings to the film, has to rate as his worst production. The first hour, laying the camaraderie between a Lisbon detective squad let by the hot-tempered Lena Tavares (Carla Chambel) as they search for the missing son of an upper-class family, is a no-nonsense procedural moving along briskly and effectively, if reminding far too much of Maïwenn le Besco's well-meaning Polisse.

     But just as the search for the kid wraps up (a bit too neatly and quickly), having touched on intimations of paedophilia (a hot-button subject in Portuguese society over the past decade), Mr. Navarro's script takes a turn for the worse, piling up plot twists upon plot twists centred on the dysfunctional relationship between the child's father (Paulo Pires) and his aloof, distant trophy wife (Cristina Câmara). In the process, the screenplay reduces the whole thing to cheap, fast-moving soap opera revelations and vendettas that wouldn't strain credulity as much on the small screen but become purely risible on the big screen. Try as he might, Mr. Leitão's functional, nervous style is incapable of giving any veracity or depth to a plot that turns so disbelievingly upon itself to the point of giving whiplash to the audience and, ultimately, cheapens and bowdlerises the very serious issues of abuse it purports to deal with.

     While it's true there's only so much you can do within the realms of the police procedural without falling into traps, the fact that most characters remain written as stereotypes with little personality and give their actors so little to work with (none more so than Ms. Chambel's noble-minded inspector, making the film's final scenes all the more disappointing for disregarding the whole arc of the character's development) condemns Quarta Divisão to the bin of well-meaning but ultimately soulless "problem pictures".

Cast: Carla Chambel, Sabri Lucas, Cristina Câmara, Paulo Pires, Martim Barbeiro, Adriano Luz
Director: Joaquim Leitão
Screenplay: Tino Navarro
Cinematography: Carlos Lopes (colour, widescreen)
Music: Luís Cília
Art director: João Torres
Costumes: Rute Correia
Editor: Pedro Ribeiro
Producer: Mr. Navarro (MGN Filmes in co-production with Radio and Television of Portugal, with the participation of Zon Audiovisuais)
Portugal, 2013, 121 minutes

Screened: distributor premiere screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), February 22nd 2013