Tuesday, April 30, 2013

NUGU-UI TTAL-DO ANIN HAEWON (NOBODY'S DAUGHTER HAEWON)

It's pretty much granted that South Korean director Hong Sang-soo has become quite the arthouse darling in recent years, with his lighter than air, low-budget flâneries about love and life produced at lightning speed. Pretty much an acquired taste with their loose narratives and approximative aesthetics (the viewer's tolerance of fast zooms plays an important part in the appreciation of the work), Mr. Hong's films nevertheless do possess a sly charm of their own, one that has seemingly been coming more often to the fore with more recent productions, culminating in the door-opening presence of bonafide star Isabelle Huppert on the previous In Another Country.

     Another French star appears in the opening scenes of Nobody's Daughter Haewon: Jane Birkin, effectively playing herself in a passing cameo that underlines the writer/director's tongue-in-cheek approach to narrative. Haewon (Jung Eun-chae), the film's "heroine", has absolutely no idea who Ms. Birkin is until she realises her daughter is Charlotte Gainsbourg - and Mr. Hong uses this as a symbol of the character he is presenting, an acting student who seems to float carefree through life in a strongly regimented society. Haewon has no idea what it is she is aiming for, but she does know what she wants and gravitates toward her desire for happiness, gleefully refusing to play the part everyone expects her to take. Shot in the usual leisurely, awkward manner we have come to expect from the director, Nobody's Daughter Haewon is only apparently light and fluffy, with this most idiossyncratic director hiding astutely his own search for reason and rhyme behind that throwaway appearance.

Cast: Jung Eun-chae, Lee Sun-kyun, Kim Ja-ok, Yu Jun-sang, Kim Eui-sung, Ye Ji-won, Jane Birkin
Director and writer: Hong Sang-soo
Cinematography: Kim Young-koo, Park Hong-yeol  (colour)
Music: Jeong Yong-jin
Editors: Hahm Sung-won, Son Yeon-ji
Producer: Kim Kyoung-hee (Jeonwonsa Film Company)
South Korea, 2012, 90 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast, Berlin, February 15th 2013

Monday, April 29, 2013

O FRÁGIL SOM DO MEU MOTOR

It's no small feat to pull off a debut feature with a self-financed genre film outside the usual European system of subsidised or pre-sales financing. But for all the can-do spirit that Leonardo António expended on O Frágil Som do Meu Motor, coupled with a self-evident technical savoir-faire, this handsome yet hopelessly muddled debut trips hard on the same obstacle most attempts at Portuguese mainstream filmmaking trip over: pure and simple story telling and scripting. Instead, we get a disconnected, episodic structure with little to no sense of plausibility or believability, cramming together a series of stock American TV crime drama clichés and everything-is-connected soap opera construction into a Portuguese setting, disregarding any feel of sense. Worse, Mr. António, who also scripts, throws into the mix developments and concepts that add nothing but confusion.

     Central to the film's misjudgment of tone and failure of plot is the opening and closing voiceover spoken by a yet unborn baby inside the mother's womb, a misleading idea that is completely unrelated to anything else in the story and resurfaces at irregular intervals to bewildering effect. It could have been acceptable if there had be a straight-forward, easy-to-follow story. Instead, though, we get a series of surprisingly pointless sidetracks from a central thread, of an investigation into the crimes of a serial killer who murders pregnant women. The heroine, hospital nurse Gabriela (Alexandra Rocha), works in the burn ward where the latest victim is battling for her life, but she is also friends with Vítor, the detective in charge of the case (João Villas-Boas), who also happens to be the best friend of her husband (Gustavo Vargas), a former detective paralysed in a shootout. Gabriela starts investigating the case on her own, while beginning to receive mysterious packages from a man who sets her dates in a derelict building, leading to blindfolded SM sex where she never sees his face - and we haven't even gotten to the twist ending nobody saw coming.

     When a story fails so completely to hang together, the best efforts of the actors and the generally adequate if low-budget technical credits unable to rescue the film from train-wreck status, you know that you're in for a painful experience. The failure of O Frágil Som do Meu Motor is compounded by a total absence of rhythm at an overbearing two hours plus, suggesting that Mr. António's can-do spirit lacked the necessary supervision that would harness it and guide it to clarity. The result is disheartening.

Cast: Alexandra Rocha, João Villas-Boas, Gustavo Vargas, Rui Luís Brás
Director and writer: Leonardo António
Cinematography: Pedro Sousa, José Tiago  (colour)
Music: Rodrigo Leão
Art director: João Cavaleiro
Costumes: Mélanie Guedes Marques
Editor: Ana Costa
Producer: Pedro Mendonça (Recycled Films)
Portugal, 2012, 130 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, April 16th 2013


O Frágil Som Do Meu Motor Trailer from Recycled Films on Vimeo.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

É O AMOR (OBRIGAÇÃO)

Following on from the masterful Sangue do Meu Sangue, Portuguese director João Canijo further explores the feminine universe of working-class women up against hard times with this intriguing but ultimately minor film. É o Amor started out as a straight-forward, short documentary subject commissioned for the Vila do Conde Short Film Festival's 20th anniversary, with Mr. Canijo choosing as his theme the women from the fishing community of Caxinas, near Vila do Conde in the North of Portugal, who pretty much run the business while the men are away at sea. The director asked his regular actress Anabela Moreira to live with captain's wife Sónia Nunes and her crew over a few weeks and in essence become one of them; her "alien" presence meant to work as a sort of "surrogate" for the viewer, a way into this close-knit feminine world, emulating the intensive research that all of Mr. Canijo's actors do before shooting.

     Ms. Moreira's presence was a guide-line into Caxinas in the first incarnation of the project, unveiled at Vila do Conde in the Summer of 2012 - the remarkable, hour-long Obrigação - but the director became aware that the wealth of material he'd assembled warranted a larger push into that world. Hence the feature-length É o Amor, delving deeper into the ritualized world of these women who work hard at keeping the kindling of love and romance burning while running their households and the crew's finances with an iron hand, in a perfectly judged combination of vulnerability and strength that the director captures adroitly and admiringly, and that Ms. Moreira helps bring out in front of the camera. Where this second take on the material stumbles, though, is by adding to the actress's presence; from a foreigner who learns to be "one of them", she becomes a stranger who doesn't fit in and never feels at home, as revealed in a series of straight-to-camera "interludes" where Ms. Moreira reveals her fears and worries and over-engineers her apprehension of being found out as a hollow shell, yearning to belong and in awe of Ms. Nunes and her co-workers' straight-talking simplicity.

     It's a tricky, dangerous decision that needs to be handled delicately and effectively skews the film; feeling more of a later add-on than something truly native to the project, it introduces an overbearing, off note that breaks the flow of the documentary footage, mythologizing the working-class life as an unattainable fairy tale while introducing a somewhat unwelcome sense of Kuleshovian montage. É o Amor recycles in full a number of scenes from Obrigação whose contextualisation shifts in this longer cut to not entirely better effect. Above all, there was a spontaneity and an energy in the shorter, hour-long version that is entirely missing from the longer version, suggesting a film whose ambitions crippled its results. Or, put otherwise, whereas the hour-long Obrigação left you wanting more, the nearly two-and-a-half-hours É o Amor makes you wish it would be shorter, despite keeping a lot of what was interesting in the short cut.

Director: João Canijo
Screenplay: Anabela Moreira, Mr. Canijo
Camera: Tiago Carvalho, Flávio Pires, Gustavo Santos, Ms. Moreira, Mário Castanheira
Editor: João Braz
Producers: Dario Oliveira, Pedro Borges (Midas Filmes, Curtas Metragens, RTP)
Portugal, 2013, 138 minutes

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



É O AMOR de João Canijo - TRAILER from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.

Friday, April 26, 2013

After two claustrophobic, consistently harrowing close-ups of life in a repressed Chile under the Pinochet regime, from its early days in Post Mortem to its poisonous apex in the earlier Tony Manero, director Pablo Larraín moves his focus to the final days of the status quo in No. It's the true story of the political referendum that ended the military dictatorship and put Chile in the path to democracy in 1988.

     A brighter, cheerier film than its predecessors, and one that takes as its basis a stage play by renowned writer Antonio Skármeta where Tony Manero and Post Mortem were original scripts, No nevertheless is of a piece with them, forming an unplanned trilogy of sorts in its dovetailing of the private and political spheres through the eyes of someone who attemps, unsuccessfully, to not get too involved in what is going on around him. In this case, it's advertising whizkid René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), whose ability to sell microwaves and sodas to the prospering Chilean middle-class (opening in the process a rift with his politically active ex-wife) ends up being the precise ingredient that will make him accept the job of running the anti-Pinochet political broadcasts.

     No is simultaneously a time capsule of a moment in history where marketing played a decisive role in awakening a political conscience, and a political film that uncovers how all politics has become a discipline of marketing, smartly weaving the realisation that it's all a question of supply and demand marketing is perfectly poised to manipulate. Mr. Larraín is so aware of this that the film's own style and casting reflect it: the Mexican heartthrob Mr. Bernal is a pitch-perfect choice to play René, as is that of the director's regular accomplice Alfredo Castro playing René's boss Lucho Guzmán, a man who has grown accustomed to dancing with the devil; and by shooting in the now-discontinued U-Matic broadcast video format, he can match the original period footage to the dramatic reconstruction of the events while giving it a period feel and patina that would otherwise be absent.

     At its heart, No is the tale of a man's political awakening - excellently rendered by Mr. Bernal, far too often cornered by his good looks when he is a better actor than that - being presented as the symbolism of a country's awakening to democracy, expertly realised by a director who has been growing in stature and confidence with each new project.

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Néstor Cantillana, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Pascal Montero, Jaime Vadell
Director: Pablo Larraín
Screenplay: Pedro Peirano, from the stage play by Antonio Skármeta, El Plebiscito
Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong  (colour)
Music: Carlos Cabezas
Designer: Estefanía Larraín
Costumes: Francisca Román
Editor: Andrea Chignoli
Producers: Juan de Díos Larraín, Daniel Dreifuss (Participant Media in association with Funny Balloons and Fabula, in co-production with Canana Films)
Chile/USA/France/Mexico, 2012, 118 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 4, Lisbon, April 12th 2013


Thursday, April 25, 2013

TRANCE

Here's the thing: British director Danny Boyle's flashy, colourful, fast-moving style that so entranced audiences in the "cool Britannia" era of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting has become an albatross around his neck. Never mind that some of his subject matters seem to practically demand that approach (the Alex Garland-scripted genrefests 28 Days Later and especially the criminally underrated Sunshine, still my favourite of his films), his most popular films were examples of style overriding substance with pretty shallow results (127 Hours, the bewilderingly popular Slumdog Millionaire).

     Hot on the heels of his Olympics extravaganza, Trance is a perfect fit for Mr. Boyle's glossy, breezy visuals: a heist movie turned into a shifty thriller that constantly doubles back on itself to reveal new layers, but whose far-fetched implausibility demands a hyper-confident, sleight-of-hand assuredness that keeps the plot going while not taking itself overly seriously. Enter the director and his crew of regulars (DP Anthony Dod Mantle, editor Jon Harris, composer Rick Smith of the band Underworld), ready to deploy every trick in their book to make the viewer forget how outlandish the crime plot is while having an entertaining time at the movies. In many ways, Joe Ahearne's original plot, reworked by Shallow Grave/Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge, is a sort of less fantastical version of Inception's mind games: after an elaborate heist on a Goya painting goes wrong, the amnesiac accomplice (James McAvoy) is pressured by the ruthless ringleader (Vincent Cassel) into hypnosis therapy to unlock the suppressed memory of where he hid the painting.

     Mr. Boyle uses that situation as a central point from where he weaves an ever-spinning web that obfuscates as much as it reveals, shifting the onus of believability onto the shoulders of the actors. While Mr. Cassel's lithe, coiled intensity and Mr. McAvoy's barely-repressed powerlessness are spot-on, it's Rosario Dawson, in a star-making performance as the hypnosis therapist who becomes an invaluable accessory to the plan, that steals the film from under their feet and unlocks the hidden layers of the plot - above and beyond the demands of the script. Nobody is going to mistake Trance for a classic, but Mr. Boyle has gone on record saying he wasn't looking to make one - just exercising his chops in a slyly exciting, bumpy thrill ride. That's exactly what Trance is.

Cast: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge, from a story by Mr. Ahearne
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle (colour, widescreen)
Music: Rick Smith
Designer: Mark Tildesley
Costumes: Suttirat Larlarb
Editor: Jon Harris
Visual effects: Adam Gascoyne
Producer: Christian Colson (Fox Searchlight Pictures, Pathé Productions, Cloud Eight Films, Decibel Films in association with TSG Entertainment, Ingenious Media, Indian Paintbrush, Big Screen Productions, Down Productions and Ingenious Film Partners)
United Kingdom/USA, 2013, 102 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon, April 9th 2013


Thursday, April 18, 2013

LOS AMANTES PASAJEROS (I'M SO EXCITED!)

Regardless of Pedro Almodóvar's much self-evident talent, there have been grumblings over the past few years about the apparent dwindling returns in his work. Nothing too worrisome; three masterpieces in a row (Todo Sobre Mi Madre, Hable con Ella and La Mala Educación) isn't very usual these days, Volver and Los Abrazos Rotos weren't exactly strikeouts even if they were a few notches, and the gothic melodrama of La Piel en que Habito suggested the director was aware his string of exquisite cinephile "women's pictures" was drying up.

     Just as La Piel en que Habito looked back to earlier, edgier works such as Matador or La Ley del Deseo, Los Amantes Pasajeros sets itself up as a deliberate throwback to his earlier, zanier comedies, as well as a unabashedly fun, day-glo reaction to the glossy, clinical formalism of the previous film. It's also further evidence of Mr. Almodóvar's film-buff touch: playing up the phoney-looking sets and Technicolor colour schemes of  1960s and 1970s low-budget comedies, the film is structured as a series of quasi-Tashlinian sketches (if Frank Tashlin pushed the gay envelope), set mostly inside an airplane's business class cabin, and loosely connected through a gossamer-thin Airport-style plot.

     It turns out that the Madrid-Mexico City long-haul flight has a landing gear malfunction and is circling Spain waiting for a runway to be cleared for an emergency landing. Aboard there's a womanizing TV star (Guillermo Toledo), a high-flying madam (Cecilia Roth) convinced the malfunction is an attempt on her life, a mysterious Mexican (José María Yazpik) who looks like a contract killer, a financial executive (José Luis Torrijo), and a psychic (Lola Dueñas) who is convinced she'll lose her virginity on the flight. Factor in a trio of Pointer Sisters-lip-syncing flight attendants (Javier Cámara, Carlos Areces and Raul Arévalo), a bisexual pilot (Antonio de la Torre) and a macho co-pilot (Hugo Silva) and an endless string of camp, cheerful jokes and you get a fast-moving, almost revue-like comedy - a Latin Airplane!, if you will - bursting over with the director's trademark 1980s quirky, riotous wit, and transgressive sex burlesque. 

     The sly, satirical edge of those earlier films is only briefly touched upon (the financial executive is fleeing from a huge "white elephant" project that will turn out to be helpful towards the film's dénouement), and Mr. Almodóvar keeps the film moving along at full steam (though there's an inevitable comedown after the big Pointer Sisters musical number). It's very clear that his intention was never to add another serious effort to his recent filmography, but to make a break, even take a break, and just allow himself an unpretentious, enjoyable breather of a film. For all that, Los Amantes Pasajeros is very clearly an Almodóvar film, both in its quirky humour and in the effortless control the writer/director has over it; its apparent quirkiness and sense of throwaway looseness is proof Mr. Almodóvar made exactly the film he wanted to make, but had much more fun in the process, inviting both the cast and the audience to join in the revelry. And while no one will mistake it for a masterpiece, its cheerful liveliness is endearingly contagious. 

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Coté Soler, Antonio de la Torre, Hugo Silva, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Laya Martí, Javier Cámara, Carlos Areces, Raul Arévalo, Pepa Charro, Nasser Saleh, Concha Galán, José María Yazpik, Guillermo Toledo, José Luis Torrijo, Lola Dueñas, Cecilia Roth, Paz Vega, Blanca Suárez, Susi Sánchez, Carmen Machi, Violeta Pérez, Barbara Santa Cruz, María Morales
Director and writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine  (colour)
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Art director: Antxon Gómez
Costumes: Tatiana Hernández, Davidelfín
Editor: José Salcedo
Producers: Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García  (El Deseo in association with Blue Lake Media Group, Filmnation Entertainment and Spanish Television)
Spain/USA, 2012, 90 minutes


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

DARK BLOOD

There would always be a logical, if somewhat morbid, curiosity about what River Phoenix's final screen performance would have been like. Mr. Phoenix's tragic overdose in October 1993 happened between five finished weeks of Utah locations for Dutch director George Sluizer's Dark Blood and a three-week studio shoot in Los Angeles that never took place, with the insurers taking possession of the material. Mr. Sluizer eventually got hold of the footage just as it was about to be disposed of, and, faced with his own illness, made a decision to finish the film as best he could while still alive.

     The director did not even attempt to shoot the missing scenes (allegedly a full fifth of the project), preferring to edit the available material as close as possible to the original storyline, and filling in the blanks with his own voiceover, but the resulting picture floats in a rather strange limbo: neither a finished film nor an exploitable one (due to ownership questions that limit it for now to festival or one-off screenings), nor even a very interesting one. Its tale of an urbane couple whose marriage is on the rocks (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) lost in the middle of the desert and saved by a recluse half-Indian with possible psychotic tendencies (Mr. Phoenix) might not have been a good film had Dark Blood ever been properly finished. In part a rather old-fashioned seventies-ish acid fable about finding yourself in the middle of nowhere, in part a creepy tale of sexual obsession, what remains of the material is preposterous enough to warrant enjoyment as a cult midnight-movie projects, especially given Ed Lachman's absolutely ravishing location photography, but comes across as ill-formed.

     While the wish for Mr. Sluizer to leave his film as finished as possible is fully understandable, the result can seem ill-advised, especially in the wake of a generally disappointing filmography whose only peak was his excellent spooky thriller The Vanishing (which he himself remade to diminishing returns in the US). As for Mr. Phoenix, sadly, his mercurial qualities as an actor are nowhere to be seen in a mumbling, half-hearted performance in an impossible role; both Ms. Davis and Mr. Pryce, saddled with equally thankless characters, fare little better, though at least they seem aware of the outlandishness of the project. Mr. Phoenix's reputation might have been better off had Dark Blood just remained locked in a vault.

Cast: River Phoenix, Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce
Director: George Sluizer
Screenplay: (1993) Jim Barton, (2012) Mr. Sluizer
Cinematography (1993): Ed Lachman  (colour)
Music (2012): Florence di Concilio, James Michael Taylor
Designers (1993): Jan Roelfs, Ben van Os
Costumes (1993): Jane Robinson
Editor (2012): Michiel Reichwein
Producer (1993): Joanne Sellar (Scala Pictures, Fine Line Features)
Producer (2012): Mr. Sluizer (Sluizer Films)
USA/United Kingdom/The Netherlands, 2012, 85 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official out of competition press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 14th 2013


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR.

There's not much else that needs to be said to explain just how unusual James Franco's multi-hyphenate status is in Hollywood these days. Case in point: a few weeks before his most high-profile big-studio role toplining Disney's Oz, the Great and Powerful, Mr. Franco introduced at Sundance Interior. Leather Bar., a provocative hour-long essay film co-directed with queer documentarian Travis Mathews. Interior. Leather Bar. engages in a hall-of-mirrors meditation about reality, perception and sexuality using as its start the infamous "lost footage" of William Friedkin's controversial 1980 thriller Cruising set inside a NYC gay disco. Messrs. Franco and Matthews want to reenact that footage in a Hollywood backlot, using straight actor Val Lauren in the Pacino role surrounded by real-life gay men.

     Why does Mr. Lauren do it? Because he openly wants to be associated with Mr. Franco's attempt at breaking an age-old Hollywood taboo where on-screen violence is acceptable but any sort of open sex - and specifically gay sex - isn't. Therefore, Interior. Leather Bar. isn't so much a film on sex or showing sex, as it is one where there's a lot of talking about sex, discussing where do transgressive images begin and end in a media-saturated society as ours. That everything is in the eye of the beholder may not be a shattering conclusion to arrive at, but it seems to me that Messrs. Franco and Matthews are not so much thinking of the conclusion as they are of the process to get there: by carefully layering elements ambiguous enough to be either real or fictional. Is Mr. Franco in this for real, is he just playing an elaborate prank, did he lose interest halfway through or only seem to, or all of it at the same time? Is Mr. Lauren himself in on the joke or is he being manipulated from all sides, by both Mr. Franco and his off-screen agent?

     All the while, regardless of what is really going on, Interior. Leather Bar. is opening a serious conversation about Hollywood's double standard and the fact that everything is judged on perception rather than truth (and isn't manipulation itself a way of achieving a constant relativisation of terms?). It doesn't really bring anything new to the discussion, but it's a playful and smart summing up of what is going on in it.

Cast: Val Lauren, Christian Patrick, Brenden Gregory, Bradley Roberge
Directors: James Franco, Travis Mathews
Screenplay and editing: Mr. Mathews
Cinematography: Keith Wilson (colour)
Music: Santiago Latorre
Art director: Liz Phipps
Costumes: Lane Stewart
Producers: Mr. Franco, Liz Torres, Mr. Mathews, Mr. Wilson (Rabbit Bandini Productions)
USA, 2013, 60 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 Panorama official screening, UCI Kinowelt Colosseum 1 (Berlin), February 13th 2013


Monday, April 15, 2013

FAUST

A towering endurance test that won't endear Russian aesthete Aleksandr Sokurov to anyone other than his hardcore fans, Faust is nevertheless a stylistic achievement too staggering to be petulantly ignored. The legendary myth of the Faustian pact with the Devil is here adapted quite freely (by Mr. Sokurov, his usual screenwriter Yuri Arabov and scholar Marina Koreneva) from Goethe's 19th century two-part play. The tale, spoken in German, is set in an early 19th century German village where Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is a penniless doctor and scholar whose desire the gain the sum of the world's knowledge and the hand of the lovely Margarete (Isolda Dychauk) leads him to enter into a pact with the moneylender Mauricius Müller (Anton Adasinsky), in fact the Devil in disguise.

     Not entirely surprisingly for a story that follows a man willing to do anything for the sake of knowledge (and knowledge is power), Mr. Sokurov places Faust as the final title of a cycle of films about power, following from the "dictator triptych" of Moloch (Hitler), Taurus (Stalin) and The Sun (Hirohito) - though admittedly a more allegorical, ambiguous addition to the cycle, viewing the human side of power here from a more abstract, metaphysical angle. Ever the artist, the director composes each shot as if it were a lovingly executed painting, regularly introducing his trademark distortions and helped no end by Bruno Delbonnel's saturated monochrome lensing (whose colour-graded, diffuse tints change almost seamlessly according to the scene's tone), all the while filling the (Academy sized) frame with action, sound, music, dialogue until the viewer - like Faust himself - is being assaulted by a variety of stimuli he must either surrender to or rise above.

     Faust is as abstract and opaque in its structure and meaning as most of Mr. Sokurov's previous works, only much less lyrical and taken to a point of no return of baroque, surreally grotesque pantomime, brutalist in its demand for the viewer to submit to its Gesamtkunstwerk approach, where every single element, fed into its paroxystic, quasi-hysterical overload of information, becomes indelible from the whole. More than Goethe's Faust, then, this is indeed "Sokurov's Faust", an object that seems calculated to ellicit any number of strong opinions while maintaining its true nature known only to its maker.

Cast: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk, Georg Friedrich, Hanna Schygulla, Sigur∂ur Skulásson
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Screenplay: Yuri Arabov, Mr. Sokurov, Marina Koreneva, based on the play Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel  (colour)
Music: Andrei Sigle
Designer: Elena Zhukova
Costumes: Lidia Krukova
Editor: Jörg Hauschild
Producer: Mr. Sigle  (Pro-Line Film)
Russia, 2011, 134 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, April 7th 2013


Saturday, April 13, 2013

OBLIVION

A visually dazzling but workmanlike sci-fier that turns out too derivative to be the Philip K. Dick mindblower it aims to be, Joseph Kosinski's sophomore effort after the slick Tron: Legacy tantalises the viewer with glimpses of a metaphysical, almost-Kubrickian meditation on identity, memory and loss that end up buried among the action bluster demanded of any contemporary big-budget blockbuster and the requirements of a star vehicle for Tom Cruise in action-hero mode. Yet, for its first half at least, Mr. Kosinski, who developed the original story as a script for a graphic novel, teases out an intriguing mystery set in a post-apocalyptic Earth after the fallout of a brutal but failed alien invasion. An effortless Mr. Cruise stars as Jack Harper, a glorified mechanic in charge of the power installations off the former Jersey shore that are storing energy for mankind's refuge in outer space. Two weeks away from shipping "home" to Titan, a series of unusual events, coupled with strange dreams that may actually be suppressed memories, throws that plan into disarray and hints that not everything is as it seems - including Jack himself.

     What follows is tricky to condense or explain without giving away important plot points, but sci-fi fans will recognize most of them as a smartly assembled recycling of elements from Total Recall, Moon, Independence Day, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Vanilla Sky (there's even a touch of Chris Marker's La Jetée thrown in for good measure). They're given added strength by Mr. Kosinski's visual flair and striking, modernist compositions, which in a way are also one of Oblivion's flaws: the film constantly looks a dream, thanks to lenser Claudio Miranda's effortless blending of live action and visual effects and designer Darren Gilford's outstanding creation of post-apocalyptic New York, but all the care put in the visuals seems to block the director from sandblasting the more egregious plot points. And for all the effort that his well-chosen cast puts into the film - special mention should go to Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough - there's still much archetype written into the characters, some of which are insufficiently fleshed-out for a story that's so preoccupied with identity. The added need to fit all these idead into the scaffolding of a standard action picture means that Oblivion gradually loses steam until, by the end, nothing remains but a beautiful half-finished building with the odd hint of what could have been; decent enough taken on its own terms, and much better than most of the competition, but frustratingly undercooked.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay: Karl Gajdusek, Michael de Bruyn, from a story by Mr. Kosinski
Cinematography: Claudio Miranda  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Trapanese
Designer: Darren Gilford
Costumes: Marlene Stewart
Editor: Richard Francis-Bruce
Visual effects: Eric Barba, Bjørn Meyer
Producers: Peter Chernin, Mr. Kosinski, Dylan Clark, Barry Levine, Duncan Henderson (Universal Pictures, Monolith Pictures and Chernin Entertainment in association with Relativity Media, Radical Studios, Dentsu and Fuji Television Network)
USA/Japan, 2013, 125 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), April 4th 2013


Friday, April 12, 2013

CAPTIVE

On paper, Captive should have been the moment where Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, a divisive but respected figure in the art house and festival circuit thanks to his vibrant, low-budget stories of the modern day Philippines, moved up the ladder. Produced with extensive European financing and featuring bonafide star Isabelle Huppert as the nominal lead, Captive is based on the real-life hostage-taking by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Muslim group Abu Sayyaf at a Filipino resort in 2001, an ordeal that lasted for a year as the party traveled around the country's islands followed by government troops (apparently little interested in the fate of the hostages). Yet, upon its unveiling at the 2012 Berlinale, Captive bewildered pretty much everyone with its looping, loping approach to narrative and Ms. Huppert's dilution in an ensemble cast - which is probably what Mr. Mendoza, who is also known for the abrupt mood and theme changes from film to film, was aiming at all along.

     The film's title is programmatic in itself, and so is its construction (one of its scribes being Filipino journalist Arlyn Dela Cruz, who covered the case back in 2001 and appears briefly as herself in a couple of scenes). There is little or no context or reason for the hostage-taking given, other than what is perceived as the story unfolds, and the viewer is pretty much placed in the same circumstances of the hostages held for ransom, "captive" and kept in constant movement through the jungle, time effectively losing all meaning. In so doing, Mr. Mendoza creates a languid, feverish dream-state as the world recedes and life becomes subordinate to the apparently random laws of the jungle, as the recurring (and very Herzogian) inserts of animals going about their ways suggest. That sense of dream-state, of being stuck in an out-of-time limbo, is the strongest achievement and also the weakest link of Captive: it's what gives the film both its quasi-hypnotic allure and its slog-like weariness, the sense of being stuck in a treadmill with no exit in sight that can be simultaneously peaceful and nerve-wracking.

     Used as an anchor that will reassure the viewer, Ms. Huppert plays a French missionary who is one of the few foreign nationals among the hostages, and it's not difficult to see that the challenge for this most intense and intelligent of actresses was to play against type as someone forced to relinquish all control and go with the flow. It seems, though, that Mr. Mendoza himself ended up letting go of some of his control over the project, stuck between his desire to "zoom out" and make a "statement picture" about an important subject and his tendency to close in on smaller, personal stories that work as fractal mirrors of a larger tale. That uncertainty, though in some ways appropriately inherent to the tale, ends up as well working against the project, since the film seems to drift along on that dream-state alongside its cast and characters when it should be leading them towards the bitterly ironic dénouement.

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Angel Aquino, Bea Garcia, B. J. Go, Cheryl Ramos, Elizabeth Ty Chuan, Jelyn Nataly Chong, Jon Achaval, Kathy Mulville, Madeleine Nicolas, Marc Zanetta, Marinela Lumeran, Mon Confiado, Neil Ryan Sese, Perry Dizon, Pieter Overbeeke, Raymond Bagatsing, Rustica Carpio, Sid Lucero, Timothy Mabalot
Director: Brillante Ma. Mendoza
Screenplay: Mr. Mendoza, Patrick Bancarel, Boots Agbayani Pastor, Arlyn Dela Cruz
Cinematography: Odyssey Flores  (colour)
Music: Teresa Barrozo
Art directors: Simon Legré, Benjamin Padero
Costumes: Judy Shrewsbury
Editors: Yves Deschamps, Gilles Fargout, Kats Serraon
Producer: Didier Costet (Swift Productions, ARTE France Cinéma, Centerstage Productions Philippines, B. A. Produktion and Studio Eight Films in association with Films Distribution, Appaloosa Films and Unlimited)
France/Philippines/Germany/United Kingdom, 2011, 122 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14 (Lisbon), April 3rd 2013


Thursday, April 11, 2013

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP

There are two films battling for the soul of Robert Redford's newest directorial effort, and the "good" side wins the bout by a hair's width. The contender is the earnest but somewhat plodding, conventionally well-made political thriller, thankfully edged out in the nick of time by a quietly lucid drama about times changing and people taking precedence over politics (which makes The Company You Keep sound like something the great but lately uneven André Téchiné might have done).

     In a way, it's pretty valid to ask what another director, more dynamic and less stolid, might have done with this material; absent the late Sydney Pollack and Alan Pakula, not many contemporary filmmakers would go for such an overtly political tale, adapted from Neil Gordon's novel. But Steven Soderbergh would probably be a good fit, seeing as the film was scripted by one of his regular accomplices, Lem Dobbs, who sets the film running in two parallel yet converging narrative tracks that keep shining lights into the other's corners. Tyro reporter Shia Labeouf uncovers the real identity of esteemed Albany lawyer (played by Mr. Redford himself) as a 1970s radical activist wanted by the FBI for an ill-fated heist that ended with a dead security guard. On one side, Mr. Redford goes on the run across the country to finally shed light on the facts and clear his name, in search of an old flame and comrade-in-arms (Julie Christie). On the other, Mr. Labeouf's reporter, realising he messed with a wasp's nest, starts realising there's more to this story than seems at first and, digging deeper, uncovers a whole other truth than what he was expecting.

     To his credit, Mr. Redford keeps the tale on the straight and narrow, his (and editor Mark Day's) cutting choices keeping the narratives taut and clear (even at the expense of surprise, since at some point the twists start becoming pretty visible). But his major advantage for this project is that he actually lived through those 1970s, and he was one of the faces of 1970s Hollywood liberalism. Mr. Redford can give it the added gravitas of experience, not just it in his own aged features but also in his pitch-perfect guiding of an equally veteran cast dealing with "the way they were" and the way they are now. "We've turned into our parents", it's said at one point in the film, and that is what makes The Company You Keep both poignant and resonant: it's a story about accepting one's age and one's life, explaining why the scenes with Mr. Labeouf as the callow reporter who learns about life and the FBI crew in pursuit don't ring as true. They're just perfunctory set-up material to get Mr. Redford where he wants to go, and that is to ask who have we become, what have our beliefs and our lives led us into. It's there that The Company You Keep wins: as a story about people rather than about politics.

Cast: Robert Redford, Shia Labeouf, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Susan Sarandon
Director: Mr. Redford
Screenplay: Lem Dobbs, from the novel by Neil Gordon, The Company You Keep
Cinematography: Adriano Goldman  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Cliff Martinez
Designer: Laurence Bennett
Costumes: Karen Matthews
Editor: Mark Day
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Mr. Redford, Bill Holderman (Voltage Pictures and Wildwood Enterprises in association with Film Capital Europe Funds, Soundford and Picture Perfect Corporation)
USA/Canada/France, 2012, 122 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), April 2nd 2013



Wednesday, April 10, 2013

COMPUTER CHESS

Just like Pablo Larraín's No - but conceived independently of each other - Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess makes clever use of obsolete visual technologies, having been shot entirely in 1960s-vintage, now-discontinued video cameras, all the better to give its tale of pioneer computer geeks that elusive period feel. That is actually the key that makes the ultra-independent American director's fourth feature his most amiable and accessible, even though in essence Computer Chess has the same loose ensemble structure of his previous works Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax.

     In the new film, Mr. Bujalski moves from the no-budget, loosely improvised tales of young aimless artistic people looking for their place in the world to a no-budget, loosely-improvised tale of young aimless IT people looking for their place in the world 30 years ago, thus evading (ever so slightly) the rules of the mumblecore movement he has been affiliated with. Yet, the truth is that young-adult awkwardness is universal and timeless. Set in the early days of personal computers, in a cheap motel where a tournament of computer chess is taking place, Computer Chess traces the fluid flow of these science nerds (granted, not all of them young adults) as socially awkward as any nerd (before or since) struggling to interact and build meaningful relationships, suggesting that even though they're developing groundbreaking technology (used mainly to play chess games) the human factor remains difficult to attain.

     That dysfunction is underscored by the sweetness with which Mr. Bujalski paints these characters (some of whom, it should be noted, are actually played by real-life technologists), and the offbeat but gentle way in which he plays them against each other: there's a religious cult meeting elsewhere in the hotel, a disgraced technologist attempting to gatecrash the competition, and a "conspiracy theory" floating around regarding one of the teams. Ultimately, though, Computer Chess is as much a study of the awkward male psyche as much as any of the director's previous films, only leavened of its habitual moroseness by the aesthetics surrounding it - and, surprisingly, that aesthetic change is all that was needed.

Cast: Wiley Wiggins, Patrick Riester, Jim Lewis, Freddy Martinez, Myles Paige, Gerald Peary, James Curry, Bob Sabiston, Robin Schwartz, Chris Doubek
Director, writer and editor: Andrew Bujalski
Cinematography: Matthias Grunsky  (black & white)
Designer: Michael Bricker
Costumes: Colin Wilkes
Producers: Houston King, Alex Lipschultz (Computer Chess Films)
USA, 2013, 91 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 Forum official screening, UCI Kinowelt Colosseum 1 (Berlin), February 13th 2013


Monday, April 08, 2013

PRINCE AVALANCHE

What exactly are we supposed to expect these days from David Gordon Green? The American director's early, fiercely independent dramas have given way to a series of goofy post-Apatow studio comedies, suggesting to some observers that Mr. Green may have "sold out". Prince Avalanche isn't the expected answer: it's a low-budget, independently-financed production set almost exclusively in rural Texas locations and a chamber play for two actors, but those actors are Hollywood players Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, and the film has a number of common themes with those comedies.

     Set during a particularly hard late-1980s summer of wild fires, it's a sort of "bromance" about men who have an obvious hard time growing up and assuming their responsibilities. Lance (Mr. Hirsch) is the college student brother of the girlfriend of Alvin (Mr. Rudd), who has taken him as a helper to help repaint and refit the rural roads struck by the fires, but they seem to have very little in common other than that loose connection. Lance is an easy-going party dude who thinks the job sucks and looks forward to his weekend forays back to town, while Alvin is a self-motivating stick-to-the-rulebook type who yearns for a regular life.

     While Mr. Green is merely adapting Hafstein Gunnar Sigurdsson's Icelandic film Either Way, his take works a dream as an American story, a sort of slow-moving road movie about people searching for themselves during a trip through the back country, complete with a predictable three-act structure and an equally predictable ending where each one learns something from each other. That Prince Avalanche manages to become an amiable, laidback film is due to the odd intimation of inexplainable events throughout, the committed performances of the two actors and the easy-going rhythm the director applies; but amiable as it may be, it doesn't seem to either break any new ground or suggest what will be Mr. Green's route from here on.

Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenplay: Mr. Green, from the film Either Way written and directed by Hafstein Gunnar Sigurdsson
Cinematography: Tim Orr  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Explosions In The Sky, David Wingo
Designer: Richard A. Wright
Costumes: Jill Newell
Editor: Colin Patton
Producers: Lisa Muskat, Derrick Tseng, Craig Zobel, James Belfer, Mr. Green (Muskat Filmed Properties and Dogfish Pictures in association with Lankn Partners, Dreambridge Films, The Bear Media and Rough House Pictures)
USA, 2012, 95 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 12th 2013


Saturday, April 06, 2013

EPISODA U ŽIVOTU BERAČA ŽELJEZA (AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF AN IRON PICKER)

Though his timely satire No Man's Land earned him the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Bosnian director Danis Tanović hasn't exactly become a household name since, floating between smaller homegrown projects (Cirkus Columbia) and international co-productions that haven't truly registered (Triage). On paper, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker doesn't seem as if it will change that low profile, seeing as its theme is the plight of the Roma people and the institutional racism they suffer from; a social issue that has been appropriated by documentary filmmaking and that, in fiction, may open the door to earnest but blandly admonishing melodrama. The way Mr. Tanović handles it, though, makes literally all the difference.

     Short and sharp, filmed in almost real time with a minuscule budget, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker follows, in apparent documentary fashion, what happens to a Bosnian Roma day labourer (Nazif Mujić), living hand to mouth from scraping abandoned car bodies for iron, when his pregnant wife (Senada Alimanović) suffers a miscarriage. The family is uninsured and can't afford the treatment that will save her life, and the medical authorities won't open an exception for them since they're Roma and don't have any fixed salary. This peripatetic, Kafkian odyssey puts one in mind of Cristi Puiu's masterful The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, only made more chilling by the apparent real-life trappings surrounding it; Mr. Tanović puts the viewer in the man's shoes through his handheld vérité camerawork, but though this is a true case that shocked Bosnia, the film isn't a straight documentary. Instead, it's a factual recreation performed by the actual people who lived through it - it was Ms. Alimanović that almost died, it was Mr. Mujić who struggled to find the money, and even the doctors who had to turn them back play themselves.

     That makes An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, with all its limitations and its badge of social earnestness, a truly intriguing proposition that settles right at the heart of the contemporary debate about the borders and limits of fiction and non-fiction film. The effectiveness of the project is measured by the fact that Mr. Tanović puts the people front and center, making us care for them first and only afterwards realise the reason for the situation they're living in - quite a feat in a film that could easily fall in the problem picture/documentary of the week mold. Not only is An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker a more personal and heartfelt project for Mr. Tanović - it could also mean a brand new start for the director.

Cast: Senada Alimanović, Nazif Mujić, Sandra Mujić, Šemsa Mujić
Director and writer: Danis Tanović
Cinematography: Erol Zubčevic  (colour)
Editor: Timur Makarević
Producers: Amra Bakšić Ćamo, Čedomir Kolar (Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art in association with ASAP Film and Vertigo Emotion Film)
Bosnia and Herzegovina/France/Slovenia, 2012, 74 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 13th 2013


Friday, April 05, 2013

PARDÉ (CLOSED CURTAIN)

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi may have been banned by his authorities from directing films, yet here he is defying the odds yet again by delivering his second film in a row after the interdiction was slapped on him, following the multi-layered essay on his home imprisonment This Is Not a Film. Closed Curtain was again made in association with an "above ground" filmmaker and friend, Kambozia Partovi, but this is a much more claustrophobic, darker object than This Is Not a Film, more overtly cryptic while moving away from its predecessor's documentary elements. For better or worse, the new film is more openly staged, as the opening scene suggests: a man (Mr. Partovi) arrives at a seaside villa and, before everything else, makes sure every single window in the house is covered, setting the scene as both a stage (or maybe a rehearsal room) and a prison, or maybe a stage within a prison.

     Yet, though Closed Curtain asks again the question of what can a filmmaker do when he cannot make films and retains the defiance of This Is Not a Film while doing so, it runs with it in a different and less successful direction. It starts out as a fictional narrative, with the man arriving at the villa eventually revealing a dog he carried hidden in his luggage, to save him from an edict demanding all pets to be disposed of, and then harboring against his will another fugitive (Maryam Moghadam), though for different reasons. Halfway through this deliberately opaque thread, though, Mr. Panahi makes his appearance pulling down all the curtains of the villa, revealed as his seaside house and letting the sunshine in; slowly, Closed Curtain reveals itself as an essay on the nature of narrative, intricately layering its two levels of story-telling. In the parable about the fugitives, Mr. Partovi seems to be playing a writer who is laying out a script; the problems that he finds with the house he's hiding are, in the meantime, being sorted by Mr. Panahi with some workers, and being commented upon by Mr. Partovi and Ms. Moghadam, as if they were observers from another dimension; and Mr. Panahi, on his end, seems to be observing or thinking how to film the fugitives.

     Closed Curtain thus becomes something out of Samuel Beckett or Alain Robbe-Grillet, creating its own "world on a wire" (to quote Fassbinder) where you ask yourself exactly whom is dreaming what. Eventually, this asserts itself as a kind of feedback loop that starts over again at the end, suggesting this is much closer to the observational, cryptic tone of Mr. Panahi's earlier works (both as a writer for Abbas Kiarostami and on his own). But, in its open questioning of the borders between reality and fiction, art and life, Closed Curtain remains stronger as a theoretical, abstract construct than as a genuinely enthralling film. There was a spontaneity and a true sense of adventure lurking within This Is Not a Film that is sorely missing here; this is clearly a more thought-out production, closer to a more traditional film, but it's much less relatable than its predecessor. Where before we felt for Mr. Panahi's predicament but life went on in hope, here the sheer opaqueness of the metaphors suggest a quiet desperation, a claustrophobia indicating that the director might have taken refuge inside the darker corners of his mind and came back with a more intellectual but less focused experiment. While the sheer existence of Closed Curtain is great and welcome news, the end result is more interesting as a political statement or as an exercise in self-therapy than as an engaging film.

Cast: Kambozia Partovi, Maryam Moghadam, Jafar Panahi, Hadi Saeedi
Directors and writers: Mr. Panahi, Mr. Partovi
Cinematography: Mohammed Reza Jahanpanah  (colour)
Editor and producer: Mr. Panahi (Jafar Panahi Productions)
Iran, 2013, 106 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 12th 2013


Thursday, April 04, 2013

TAXI DRIVER

Winner of the Cannes Palme d'or in 1976, Taxi Driver came out fighting, guns ablaze, and heralded the definitive arrival of Martin Scorsese as a major American filmmaker, at the intersection of the post-1967 "new Hollywood" generation and of the deep reverence for "classic Hollywood" cinema. Yet the tale of damaged Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, a New York cabbie spiralling down into the void of his own paranoia and delusion as a sort of martyr-warrior ready to cleanse the city from its filth, remains as elusive as it was almost 40 years ago, not to mention as contemporary as it ever was.

     What is so striking about Taxi Driver in 2013 is how unabashedly classic its filmmaking is, how Mr. Scorsese was appropriating the lush camerawork of Vincente Minnelli or Orson Welles and the nocturnal poetry of the finest American film noir (visible in Bernard Herrmann's romantic score) and meshing it with the more jagged, modern approaches of Jean-Luc Godard or John Cassavetes to tell a story that would not be acceptable to film prior to the 1960s. It is, moreso, a story of its time, condensing the anxieties of post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America in an explosive portrait of a man on the edge living in a city on the edge - the seedy downtown New York of the mid-1970s, away from the well-off comedies of uptown Manhattan manners that Woody Allen would start trading in at this time, before the gentrification started changing the city. Travis, as portrayed by Robert de Niro in a nuanced, seethingly controlled performance always one beat away from madness, takes his job as a night cabbie to make up for his inability to sleep at night, and he begins slowly to take into himself the thousand stories of the city he picks up with his fares - from the man who's preparing to kill his wife (Mr. Scorsese himself) to the politician running for president (Leonard Harris) who comes up with a series of stump-speech platitudes. 

     Travis can't identify with any of them but can't be himself a passive observer of the city; instead, to quote from Whitman, he will contain multitudes and style himself as the paladin New York needs to be saved from itself. Only he is a delusional, psychotic paladin who targets a politician out of spite for having been scorned by a staffer (Cybill Shepherd) on his campaign on whom he had romantic designs and, once that fails, moves to release a teenage prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her indenture to her pimp (Harvey Keitel). Travis is a self-appointed saviour in search of someone whom he'll save - but can he even save himself from his own psychosis?

     Mr. Scorsese's interest in guilt and redemption dovetails neatly with screenwriter Paul Schrader's own portrayal of violent martyrdom, but ultimately Travis Bickle embodies the dark side of 1970s America, the prescient realisation of the polarisation between the city and the country, metropolis and the heartland, that moment where "manifest destiny" seemed like a tragic joke and the country as a whole seemed adrift and in search of a course. Taxi Driver, as spewed in a jolt of cathartic energy by a lean, hungry Mr. Scorsese, is a film of its time, but that transcends it both as a cinematic achievement and as a masterful allegory. 

Cast: Robert de Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Paul Schrader
Cinematography: Michael Chapman  (colour)
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Art director: Charles Rosen
Costumes: Ruth Morley
Supervising editor: Marcia Lucas
Editors: Tom Rolf, Melvin Shapiro
Producers: Michael Phillips, Julia Phillips (Columbia Pictures, Bill/Phillips Productions and Italo-Judeo Productions)
USA, 1976, 114 minutes

Screened: 2011 4K digital restoration distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), February 27th 2013


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915

It's worth asking what current day Hollywood star would go out of her way to work with some of the most admired but demanding art-house directors of the moment. That is precisely with Juliette Binoche has been doing recently, working with Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Abbas Kiarostami in films that may gain exposure from her presence in them, but that are done entirely on their directors' terms rather than on her star wattage. Nowhere is this more visible than in this meeting between the actress and Bruno Dumont, the austere, oblique director of Hadewijch and Outside Satan in Camille Claudel 1915. It's a meeting that Ms. Binoche sought out and where she abandons herself to Mr. Dumont's stark vision, in a raw, ascetic portrait of a few days in the life of sculptress Camille Claudel after her confinement to the Montdevergues asylum in the French countryside in 1915.

     Ms. Claudel's life and work have been the subject of one previous and more conventional biopic - Camille Claudel, with Isabelle Adjani in the title role and directed by Bruno Nuytten - but Mr. Dumont restricts his view to the period after she has been institutionalised in this establishment that mostly took in the handicapped or the mentally ill and is no longer creating, her willpower and personality chafing at the undignified surroundings, her paranoiac thoughts of persecution given free rein. The underlying subtext is that of Camille as a dangerously subversive figure in a patriarchal world - a talented female challenging the rule of the male law, and stifled as payback in a hellish place where everyone around her is female - but also of Camille as an artist whose quest threw her into an altered state that made her stand defiantly apart. Her isolation is effectively mirrored by the presence throughout of her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), a fervently, mystically religious writer, whom Camille considers the only one able to understand her transcendent connection to art.

     Mr. Dumont, in his traditionally ascetic way, presents the two siblings' anticipation of his visit to Camille at Montdevergues and juxtaposes it to the actual meeting as an anti-climactic moment where they effectively talk past each other, Paul lost in his mystical ecstasies as Camille must remain to suffer in silence in surroundings that mistake her for a loony (in fact, she would never be released from the asylum and died there). The director chose to shoot the harrowing scenes of Camille in the asylum with her co-inmates played by real handicapped actors and their nurses - not out of some exploitative concept but to better give both his viewers and his actress a better sense of what she was up against. Ms. Binoche rises to the occasion with a typically great performance, subsuming herself in the role without the slightest trace of vanity, perfectly translating the sense of a woman sustained by her art and her inner world alone; Mr. Dumont does not shirk the headier, philosophical subtexts of Paul's faith and Camille's martyrdom, meaning this is another of his usually thoughtful meditations on the human condition, and one of his finest - suggesting Ms. Binoche was right all along to want to work with him.

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent
Director and writer: Bruno Dumont
Cinematography: Guillaume Deffontaines  (colour, widescreen)
Art director: Riton Dupire-Clément
Costumes: Alexandra Charles, Brigitte Massay-Sersour
Editors: Mr. Dumont, Basile Belkhiri
Production: 3B Productions in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, CRRAV Nord-Pas de Calais and Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains
France, 2013, 95 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9 (Berlin), February 11th 2013


Tuesday, April 02, 2013

BEFORE MIDNIGHT

Alternating constantly between the mainstream and the independent side of filmmaking, veteran director Richard Linklater remains in fact better known for the "boy-meets-girl" diptych he directed nine years apart about the casual one-shot encounters between Frenchwoman Céline and American Jesse, portrayed in both cases by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. In their first meeting in 1995's Before Sunrise, their night in Vienna was a magical moment of discovery about two kindred souls in search of themselves, made all the more poignant for the realisation that this was really a one-off. Returning to the characters to see where they were nine years later, in 2004's lesser, more twee Before Sunset, now set during a day in Paris where the two reconnect by accident, opened the door to a possible fictional variation on Michael Apted's series of Up documentaries following the lives of a group of people at seven-year intervals.

     The temptation to wrap up the series as a trilogy must have been hard to resist, especially since the two films gained in stature as time passed, so Ms. Delpy, Mr. Linklater and Mr. Hawke went at it in the utmost secrecy until the shoot of Before Midnight was safely concluded. The result, surprisingly, is probably the strongest of the three films, putting Céline and Jesse, now a married couple with children vacationing in Greece, face to face with the daily grind of adult life and making a relationship work. As Before Midnight is essentially a two-hander, and the actors were also co-writers in the project (both Ms. Delpy and Mr. Hawke having become successful writers and directors since), there was a risk that the family mood of the new film might be far too close to Ms. Delpy's own marital comedies. But Mr. Linklater's "quality control" and the chemistry between the two actors give short shrift to that expectation, since it's exactly the push and pull of Céline and Jesse that has always moved the series forward, given added gravitas by the fact that the romance present in the earlier films has now given way to the demands of real life and the passage of time has taken its toll on the earlier fantasies - even though a number of formal elements recur (as the long walking conversations through the landscape followed with steadycam work).

     This leads to a whole other question that is essential for the film to make its mark: whether it can exist independently of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset or makes little sense without the previous instalments, since a lot of that gravitas comes precisely from the connection that filmgoers throughout the years have made with the two characters. Though that might be best answered by someone who hasn't been exposed to the previous films, as far as I'm concerned the fact that Before Midnight is much closer to what actual couples go through in their lives, with a strong sense of life lived rather than projected (despite the dreamlike Greek background, which has to register as some sort of irony) in a relaxed, unself-conscious but serious manner, makes it rather more relatable and engaging. Or, perhaps, adult - which is key to understand the Before... films' success, catching the audience at the same point in their lives that the characters are going through. Before Midnight never panders down to its audience buts asks them along for the ride, and it's a more rewarding one than you'd expect.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Mr. Linklater, Ms. Delpy, Mr. Hawke
Cinematography: Christos Voudouris
Music: Graham Reynolds
Designer: Anna Georgiadou
Costumes: Vasileia Rozana
Editor: Sandra Adair
Producers: Mr. Linklater, Christos V. Konstantakoupolos, Anne Woodhatch (Faliro House and Detour Filmproduction in association with Venture Forth and Castle Rock Entertainment)
USA/Greece, 2013, 109 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 out of competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 11th 2013


Monday, April 01, 2013

UPSTREAM COLOR

It doesn't happen very often that you find yourself watching a film that pulls you in so seductively into its universe before you even realise that you have gone out on a limb, surrendering to the sensory overloads being thrown at you from the screen without an urgent need to make sense of what it is you are seeing. Upstream Color is one of those rarities: the long-awaited sophomore effort of ultra-indie hyphenate DIY filmmaker Shane Carruth, almost ten years after his remarkable debut Primer, is an unclassifiable, alluring piece of pure cinema, a loosely narrative tone poem of images, colour, sounds and moods that leaves its meaning open to whatever the audience wants to make of it.

     We are actually assembling the puzzle alongside the film's heroine Kris (Amy Seimetz), kidnapped one night after a spiked drink and having to reassemble the pieces of her life in the wake of her return to sentient life. The pieces evoke Cronenbergian body horror, ecological fable, existentialist mystery and Philip K. Dick allegorical science-fiction, with hints of experimental cinema, essay-film, broken romance and social drama. As Upstream Color moves through its three "acts", it also seems to be cycling through what may be a "circle of life", taking the narrative full circle from the mysterious drug, synthesized from plants and bugs, that is used to make Kris relinquish control of her life to an equally mysterious man named in the credits as the "Thief" (Thiago Martins), to its riverine origins; the journey in between sees Kris meet someone who may be a fellow victim (played by the director himself), while Henry David Thoreau's Walden is used as a "trigger" that may solve the entire bewildering situation. Or may it?

     That's the beauty and magic of Upstream Color: Mr. Carruth's new work is even more of a blank slate than the stunning Primer was, a superb statement of complete control over form and substance that cost a hundred and looks like ten million. There's no denying that the new film, again mostly self-made and self-produced, is exactly what its maker wanted it to be - all you have to do is to to let yourself go with its unique, disorienting sensory flow, like Upstream Color itself is the drug you need to understand its hallucinatingly beautiful images and sounds. Love it or leave it - but there is simply nothing whatsoever near this out there at this moment.

Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
Director, writer, cinematographer and music composer: Mr. Carruth
Designer: Thomas Walker
Editors: David Lowery, Mr. Carruth
Producers: Mr. Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben le Clair (ERBP)
USA, 2013, 96 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 Panorama official screening, Cinestar Event am Sony Center (Berlin), February 10th 2013