Monday, June 17, 2013

HODEJEGERNE (HEADHUNTERS)

Scandinavian procedurals and thrillers have become the toast of the town over the past couple of years, in no small part thanks to the sales phenomenon of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy of novels, but also helped by the celebrated television shows The Killing or Wallander. Headhunters is yet another facet of that interest, adapting one of the novels by best-selling Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, with its remake rights allegedly bought by an American studio even before this homegrown film adaptation had finished shooting.

     Of course, this is the Millennium modus operandi rebooted (the production company is the same, Yellow Bird) with one difference: while David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remade an original produced for television, Headhunters was a theatrical feature from the start. At least technically, since Norwegian director Morten Tyldum is himself a TV veteran and, for all the widescreen lensing and action sequences, this remains mostly a blown-up TV movie. The giveaway is in Trond Bjorknæs and Jeppe Kaas' intrusive, numbing score, signposting every single plot development from a distance and making sure the viewer feels what he is supposed to feel at every step of the way.

     This is doubly disappointing. First, because for all the IKEA-functional handling (crisply lensed by John Andreas Andersen), there are some very strong performances from the cast, especially from the lead, the wiry and smart Aksel Hennie, playing Roger Brown - a dislikeable, take-no-prisoners HR consultant with a sideline as an art burglar that helps finance the jet-setting lifestyle he has taken on for the sake of his wife (Synnøve Macody Lund). Second, because the mere thought of having as a hero such a thoroughly unpleasant character, and the need to make the viewer root for his redemption rather than for his comeuppance despite being such a self-evident jerk, is strong enough to survive whatever the plot throws at him. And it throws a lot, intertwining Brown's personal and private lives as he "headhunts" a newly retired security firm executive (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) only to find himself the apparent target of a well-organised conspiracy where nothing is what it seems.

     That constant doubling-back on itself, adroitly if anonymously managed by Mr. Tyldum, only keeps the viewer interested because Mr. Hennie gives a craftily-judged turn as Brown, always living by his wits and perfectly aware of the level he needs to be playing at to get himself out of this, but also making very clear that the ruthlessness of his presentation is a well-appointed facade to hide his shortcomings (operative word, here, being "short"). A more stylish, less anonymous take on the material would do wonders for Headhunters' pulse, but it's nowhere to be found here, so we can only hope that whatever comes out of the eventual American remake will do the necessary justice to Mr. Nesbø's novel, as indeed Mr. Fincher's film did to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Cast: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund, Eivind Sander
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenplay: Ulf Ryberg, Lars Gudmestad, from the novel by Jo Nesbø, Headhunters
Cinematography: John Andreas Andersen  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Trond Bjerknæs, Jeppe Kaas
Designer: Nine Bjerch-Andresen
Costumes: Karen Fabritius Gram
Editor: Vidar Flataukan
Producers: Asle Vatn, Marianne Gray (Yellow Bird Norge and Friland Film in co-production with Nordisk Film and Degeto Film)
Sweden/Norway/Denmark/Germany, 2011, 100 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 8th 2013


Saturday, June 15, 2013

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

For those who tend to consider "Oscar bait" as a strictly contemporary term, it's not very hard to go back in Hollywood history and find serious, "prestige" pictures that would be their equivalent at the time. From Here to Eternity is a perfect example of early-1950s Oscar bait, with the added realisation that what passed for "prestige", adult filmmaking then was a lot more solid and less cynical than its contemporary equivalents. But the continued popularity of Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of James Jones' novel, and its undoubted importance in the Hollywood production of the time, shouldn't hide the fact that From Here to Eternity is no masterpiece.

     In fact, it isn't one precisely because of its importance in 1953: Mr. Zinnemann's naturalistic, unobtrusive handling may push the boundaries of what was acceptable in classic Hollywood melodrama, but wasn't as innovative or intense as what other, younger directors, such as Elia Kazan, were doing at the time. And its cohabitation of "classic" and "modern" film acting styles - Montgomery Clift's brooding intensity and Burt Lancaster's all-American charm - suggests a "bridge" film between the past and the present, alluded to in the structuring of the script, alternating between Mr. Clift's "rebellious", individual integrity and Mr. Lancaster's rock-solid "company man". After all, From Here to Eternity opened in between A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, and the same year as The Wild One - and while its then-shocking scene of Mr. Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing passionately in the Hawaiian waves helped push the boundaries of Hollywood screen sensuality, there's also a sense that Mr. Zinnemann never truly solves the underlying tension between past and future, between a more traditional drama of love and loneliness and a more novel character study of man lost in society.

     Columbia wanted a first-rate prestige picture to justify its investment, the director fought to shoot it in black and white, pushing the limits of what a Hollywood studio would accept; yet, the parallel tracks of the film's two key plots are almost mirror images of the "struggle" between them. The secret affair between Ms. Kerr's disenchanted, barren officer's wife and Mr. Lancaster's lifer sergeant is the stuff of classic melodrama; the suffering of Mr. Clift's scarred soldier at the hands of his commanding officer's henchmen, an individual ready to lay his life for an ideal but unwilling to sacrifice his integrity for the glory of others, fits right into the general post-war disillusionment and anguish at a time when "they never had it so good", and is extended by proxy into Frank Sinatra's easy-going but unlucky buddy. Mr. Clift's haunted, intense performance seems to belong wholeheartedly to another film, especially since the film's tragic ending, as life in this Hawaiian barracks is finally changed for good with the Pearl Harbor bombardment that catapulted the US into WWII, suggests that this was not the time for individualism. Ten years later, as From Here to Eternity was produced and released, though, its time had come, and the film remains crystallised in between.

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Daniel Taradash, from the novel by James Jones, From Here to Eternity
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey  (b&w)
Music: George Duning
Art director: Cary Odell
Editor: William Lyon
Producer: Buddy Adler (Columbia Pictures)
USA, 1953, 118 minutes

Screened: 4K digital restoration advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, June 7th 2013


Friday, June 14, 2013

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

Whether one of the tales being told in Hyde Park on Hudson - the secret love affair between the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret "Daisy" Suckley over his Summer residences at his mother's Hyde Park estate - is true or tall is beside the point. What really matters is that veteran British director Roger Michell finds, somewhere in the middle of a rather muddled piece of "heritage cinema", a sense of melancholy and wonder, an outside, benevolent gaze that would not necessarily be expected. That sense is found in the way that Daisy (Laura Linney) looks onto the comings and goings at the serene rural setting of Hyde Park with the distance of someone who is not part of it and who enjoys keeping that distance, both amazed at and uncomprehending of it all.

     In truth, that sense of the "small history" taking place while the "Greater History" is being made is a lot more interesting than either Bill Murray's sly performance as Roosevelt (a departure if ever there was one for an actor who's been pretty much typecast throughout) or the film's dovetailing with pre-WWII history in the 1939 visit of British King George VI to the US to raise support for the war to come. Richard Nelson's script sways uncertainly between culture-clash comedy, with the highly insecure King and Queen Elizabeth (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) uncomprehending of American customs, and soft romantic reverie as Daisy enjoys her interludes with the famously womanizing polio-afflicted president. Yet neither of these plot strands ever goes much of anywhere; instead, what sticks are the breezy car drives Daisy and Roosevelt take, her moments walking through the woods or through the house, her standing outside Hyde Park as dignitaries come in and out, laughter or music echoes, the sense of a quietly content life lived on the margins of the world and pleasurably so.

     That Ms. Linney's lovely, self-effacing performance should be the conduit for this is hardly unexpected; neither is it unexpected that nearly everything else in Hyde Park on Hudson sticks to the well-groomed playbook of period drama that the British know how to do with their eyes closed, even though Mr. Michell's enlivening of it with steadycam or handheld work during the fretting run-up to the royal visit throws a few well-mannered spanners in it. What is startling is the film's inability to actually choose which of its parallel plots it prefers to develop and its general stodginess, presented with a perfunctory "yes-this'll-do" professionalism. And yet, that kernel of quiet comfort hidden stage right in Ms. Linney is more than enough to warrant Hyde Park on Hudson a clear-eyed look.

Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Olivia Williams
Director: Roger Michell
Screenplay: Richard Nelson
Cinematography: Lol Crawley  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Jeremy Sams
Designer: Simon Bowles
Costumes: Dinah Collin
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Producers: Kevin Loader, Mr. Michell, David Aukin (Focus Features, Filmfour, Free Range Film, Daybreak Pictures)
USA/United Kingdom, 2012, 94 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, June 6th 2013


Thursday, June 13, 2013

NOW YOU SEE ME

The entire premise of Now You See Me is based on what one of its characters calls "targeted deception" : making sure that what's really at stake is not what your eye is drawn towards. And since there's intrinsically nothing at stake in this adept demonstration of filmic sleight of hand, director Louis Leterrier's job is to keep the viewer interested and entertained in what is one rolling, continuous MacGuffin until the end credits roll. There are worse ways to spend two hours than watching Now You See Me, to be sure, but there's also the sense at the end that you've just witnessed a glitzy, high-tech Vegas magic show as fizzy as it is disposable. In the olden days, this could have been a Rat Pack movie; since nowadays there's no more Rat Pack, Mr. Leterrier's handpicked cast is a good next best thing, even though everyone is pretty much punching beneath his weight here.

     Produced by J. J. Abrams acolytes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman from a script co-written by Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Men in Black's Ed Solomon, Now You See Me is a twist on the classic heist movie. The "thieves" are a newly-grouped quartet of magicians formed by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco, backed by millionaire Michael Caine, and the cops chasing them are FBI agent Mark Ruffalo, Interpol agent Mélanie Laurent and professional magic debunker Morgan Freeman. The action starts with the "Four Horsemen" apparently stealing three million euros from a Parisian bank while still on stage at a Vegas casino, in the first of three extravagant shows that seem to follow some sort of mysterious pattern that the cops, always one step behind, struggle to comprehend. Of course, nothing is what it seems; that's a given in every movie involving magicians, as well as in every heist movie. But while the bigger picture behind the magic shows-cum-larceny seems to aim at correcting past wrongs in a devious (and finally pretty angular) way, ultimately there's not much behind the high-tech magic curtain.

     The characters are never developed beyond a couple of one-dimensional traits matching the actors' public personas, and it's a credit to Ms. Laurent and Messrs. Eisenberg and Harrelson that they manage to flesh out engaging characters from such basic building blocks. Mr. Ruffalo has a harder time because of the specific arc of his cop part, and the fact that his Agent Rhodes seems to be such a curmudgeon where everyone else is finding things a breeze, while Ms. Fisher and Mr. Franco have little to no screen time and Messrs. Caine and Freeman are basically phoning it in professionally. And Mr. Leterrier seems to be so aware of his thin material that he ends up creating ever more elaborate, and targeted, deceptions, running the film at a busy, flowing tempo and making the most of the outlandish magic set pieces and photogenic locations he shoots in. He is clearly hoping for the viewer to focus on the fast-moving surface sheen while disregarding there's nothing much underneath. Which is perfectly fine, since at no point does Now You See Me pretend to be anything other than unpretentious, show-off entertainment, a disposable night out at the movies.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenplay: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt, from a story by Messrs. Yakin and Ricourt
Cinematography: Larry Fong, Mitchell Amundsen (colour, widescreen)
Music: Brian Tyler
Designer: Peter Wenham
Costumes: Jenny Eagan
Editors: Robert Leighton, Vincent Tabaillon
Producers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Bobby Cohen (Summit Entertainment, K/O Paper Products)
USA/Canada, 2013, 115 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, June 5th 2013


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

STAND UP GUYS

At one point, one of three veteran hoodlums facing the indignities of old age and the fact that time waits for no man, confronted with what is coming, says "This is what it comes to". A less generous viewer might point out such a sentence was exactly what Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin might have in mind when shooting Stand Up Guys, with a question mark added for emphasis: "this is what it comes to?". Yet, disappointing as it may be, Fisher Stevens' gentle comedy of old age is neither undignified nor a complete waste of time; instead, it's an amiable effort that shortchanges its cast with a predictable narrative arc, but thrives in the sense of nostalgia for older, riskier days - both for old-school gangsters and for thrillingly daring film performances.

     Granted, there is a sense that the "package" alone got Stand Up Guys green-lighted: three of the most electric performers of 1970s American cinema playing their age as small-time mobsters reunited when Mr. Pacino's Val is freed after a 30-year stint in jail. Noah Haidle's script makes no secret from the beginning that this first night of freedom will also very likely be Val's last, and that Mr. Walken's Doc, his best friend and the only one to stick along during the entire 30 years, is the one who will have to dispose of him. What maintains interest, then, is not so much the apparently pre-ordained end result, but much more the wayward path the tale will take until an ultimate resolution that may or may not be the one we viewers were led to expect. That wayward path involves a diner staffed by the charming Alex (Addison Timlin), a family-business brothel run by the ditzy Wendy (Lucy Punch) and a third mobster, former getaway driver Hirsch (Mr. Arkin), sprung from his retirement home for a sort of "last hurrah".

     Not all of the adventures of these men with enough age to be grandparents are entirely convincing (some are borderline embarrassing), but they're all given the right amount of bounce and poignancy by the performances of a serene Mr. Pacino and, especially, a restrained Mr. Walken (Mr. Arkin's is, effectively and sadly, merely a guest star turn). As the night goes, the sense that there's a history shared and felt between them, the way they make each word and move speak the volumes that are left unspoken, turns this rather creaky melodrama of men coping with growing old and not being anymore who they once were into a charmingly bitter-sweet comedy in a minor key. Mr. Stevens, a veteran supporting actor who has been mostly active as a producer, keeps any interferences to a minimum; his handling is so self-effacing as to be mostly illustrative of the script, but has the advantage of shining the best possible light on his leads, and they respond with performances that breath life and humanity into a routine production. This is what they have come to? Well, yes, but at least there's something to it.

Cast: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin, Julianna Margulies, Mark Margolis, Lucy Punch, Addison Timlin, Vanessa Ferlito
Director: Fisher Stevens
Screenplay: Noah Haidle
Cinematography: Michael Grady (colour, widescreen)
Music: Lyle Workman
Designer: Maher Ahmad
Costumes: Lindsay Ann McKay
Editor: Mark Livolsi
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Jim Tauber, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi  (Lionsgate Films, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Lakeshore Entertainment Group)
USA, 2012, 95 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 9th 2013


Saturday, June 08, 2013

STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS

One of the keys to J. J. Abrams' highly successful reinvention of Gene Roddenberry's beloved sci-fi franchise is his awareness of Star Trek's status in pop culture. Simultaneously invoking classic adventure serials and a utopian streak of belief in mankind's potential, space opera and drama of ideas, Flash Gordon and Forbidden Planet in one neat package, Mr. Roddenberry's creation was an unusual marriage of high and low popular culture. Handed the franchise in the mid-2000s with a view to updating it, Mr. Abrams achieved the apparently impossible feat of creating an origin story in line with the series' canon but about to head in startlingly different directions. Along with screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Mr. Abrams "reset" the franchise timeline to the "year zero" of the "original" crew of the starship Enterprise, as James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) graduate from Starfleet Academy, but developed it as an alternate timeframe resulting from events in the "canonical" timeline.

     The ingeniousness of the solution was enhanced by a wider frame of metatextual references, both to the original series and to the status of Mr. Abrams and his team as the new guardians of the franchise. 2009's Star Trek was a tale of sons struggling to affirm themselves in relation to their father figures, just as Mr. Abrams was affirming himself in relation to Mr. Roddenberry's universe. Into Darkness is the inevitable sequel - after all, the Star Trek galaxy has always been a continuously open-ended engine of stories - and sees the "coming of age" of Kirk and Spock as Starfleet officers. Their need to find their own, individual place within the complex universe of rules and regulations that surround them is the same as that of Mr. Abrams's crew (entirely ported from the 2009 film) to settle in their own take on the universe, simultaneously canonical and heretical.

     Star Trek remains focused on the combination of adventurous space opera and thoughtful small-scale human drama, and this time the crew finds itself dealing with a rogue Starfleet officer (Benedict Cumberbatch), wanted for launching a terrorist attack on a London installation. But John Robinson turns out to be both pawn and player in a larger, secret game, also involving a Starfleet higher-up (Peter Weller) and his desire to keep in check the ominous Klingon empire, and needless to say, he isn't who we think he is. There's a hint of warmongering involved, one that may remind the viewer of the neo-conservative drums of pre-emptive interventionist war (Star Trek was always a cracked mirror of its times). But the clearest references, without giving too much away, are to 1982's The Wrath of Khan, the series' second big-screen outing, placing Into Darkness in exactly the same position as the 2009 film: as a Trek adventure aiming both at connoisseurs and neophytes, confirming Mr. Abrams' unique way with allowing the viewer to feel instantly comfortable within a universe he may not be familiar with.

     True, there is a sense that the director is merely setting up the franchise to move forward without his direct involvement, as well as the occasional feeling that Mr. Abrams is merely going through the paces.  Zoë Saldana's Uhura, one of the strongest characters in the 2009 reboot, is sadly given less screen time, whereas Simon Pegg's Scottish engineer Scotty is more of a comic relief than before, and Mr. Cumberbatch's villain, despite the actor's stentorian, steely-eyed anger, is a bit too stock to convince entirely. But Into Darkness remains a top-notch adventure by any standard, simultaneously exhilarating and smart; it's just that expectations after the masterful Star Trek were so high that, really, anything short of another masterpiece would be disappointing.

Cast: John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Peter Weller, Anton Yelchin, Leonard Nimoy
Director: J. J. Abrams
Screenplay: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, from the characters created by Gene Roddenberry
Cinematography: Dan Mindel  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Michael Giacchino
Designer: Scott Chambliss
Costumes: Michael Kaplan
Editors: Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon
Visual effects: Roger Guyett
Producers: Mr. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Mr. Lindelof, Mr. Kurtzman, Mr. Orci (Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, Bad Robot Productions)
USA, 2013, 132 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 4, Lisbon, May 31st 2013

Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Visual Effects


Monday, June 03, 2013

QUARTET

There really is not much to say about Quartet, Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut (after the aborted late-1970s experience of Straight Time, taken over by Ulu Grosbard), other than it knows how to draw the best from its veteran cast in a way not many films can brag about these days. Mr. Hoffman gives the first-rate cast of British veterans the time and the space to create proper characters and imbue them with recognisable, lived emotions. It does sound like faint praise, I know; but while Quartet is hardly ever going to be anyone's idea of a classic film, not every film has to be a classic and a modest production that is fully aware of its limitations can be as enjoyable, if not more, than more ambitious projects.

     That is certainly the case in this adaptation of his own play by the veteran Ronald Harwood (who was more inspired in Roman Polanski's The Pianist, among others), in essence a tale of coming to terms with one's past and age, set in a retirement home for performing artists. The central plot point is the arrival of retired diva Maggie Smith, and whether she will accept to perform in the home's fundraising gala the Rigoletto quartet she created with three other singers who are also guests at Beecham House: randy Scot Billy Connolly, sweet but ditzy Pauline Collins and, above all, her old flame Tom Courtenay, still bitter that she preferred her career over him. It's not much of a plot, but it works perfectly as a means to take a wistful look at how mistakes haunt you through the years and how you hope you can make up in some way for the errors of the past. And the stodginess of the plotting and the bromides about old age the story can throw are more than made up by the witty dialogue and the fully rounded nature of the central "quartet", gloriously brought to life by four remarkable actors.

     With the help of John de Borman's ravishing widescreen cinematography, Mr. Hoffman makes the most out of his heritage settings but essentially trains his camera on the actors, making Quartet an actor's piece in the best possible sense of the word, and being rewarded with apparently effortless but extraordinarily subtle performances. Sometimes, that's all that's needed to make a film worthwhile.

Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Gwyneth Jones
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Screenplay: Ronald Harwood, based on his stage play Quartet
Cinematography: John de Borman  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Dario Marianelli
Designer: Andrew McAlpine
Costumes: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Barney Pilling
Producers: Finola Dwyer, Stewart Mackinnon (BBC Films, DCM Productions, Headline Pictures and Finola Dwyer Productions in association with Decca Music Group and Hanway Films)
United Kingdom/Germany, 2012, 98 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, April 27th 2013