Saturday, August 31, 2013

and now for something completely different: MIGUEL GOMES ON THE CURRENT STATE OF PORTUGUESE CINEMA

The following is an op-ed piece director Miguel Gomes (Tabu) and his long-time producer Luís Urbano of O Som e a Fúria prepared to accompany the short film Redemption premiering at this year's Venice Film Festival. The piece was given out to press at Venice and published as an op-ed in the August 31 edition of daily newspaper Público (paywalled). Translation mine.

PORTUGUESE CINEMA: THE ALARM BELLS RING

Miguel Gomes
Luís Urbano

Once more the alarm bells ring: Portuguese cinema is in danger. After a year zero, 2012, when the Portuguese State did not open their usual production support tenders for new films, the ghost of another stoppage in the sector is a very real menace.

But where does this menace come from? Is it from the Portuguese economic crisis? No, since the current government has sketched a new Film Act that allows the Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual (ICA) to earn its own income, allocated separately from the state budget, originating from the financial contributions that television operators in the Portuguese territory are bound to pay by law.

Does this menace come from the new act not having been enacted? No, because after 18 months of public discussion of the Act and of its regulatory decrees - we can't remember a law that was so widely discussed - it was finally ratified and enacted.

But if the Act is ratified and created by the same government that must now enact it - a government still in function, as there is no public knowledge of any kind of coup - its non-observance would be the manifestation of a surreal case of misgovernment in the Republic.

Let us thus end with this suspense and confirm the surreality. The main contributors for the new Act refuse to pay the monies owed, and the competent ministry pretends nothing's happening. The cable television operators are taking advantage of the current government's lack of strength and political conviction and announce they do not plan to pay the monies the Act demands from them. They're probably throwing stuff at the wall to see if it sticks, aiming for a renegotiation of the Act, using the possibility of a long legal battle that would paralyse the film sector for years as a blackmailing strategy. The government itself is accepting this blackmail by not coming out to defend the Act it has created, debated and enacted. It should be remembered that, in the area of culture in Portugal, the buck stops with the most powerful figure in the Portuguese political parliamentary regime, the prime-minister, since the Culture Ministry has been extinguished (by this same government) and replaced by a secretary of state. As for the non-observance of the law and the emergency situation it creates, no thoughts or emotions from Mr. Passos Coelho are known... On the other hand, in a government that has shown no mercy about fiscal non-observance from individual taxpayers, it's stunning to realise that, over the last week, they have given the green light to the merger of two of the non-complying companies, Zon and Optimus! Out of curiosity: since both companies started their merger, in December 2012, Zon alone rose 47% in the stock exchange.

Now, to the companies that refuse to follow the letter of the law:

- Zon Audiovisuais, a group 28,8% owned by Ms. Isabel dos Santos (does she happen to know that the company she owns in Portugal is non-compliant to the Portuguese fiscal authorities), concentrating currently 61,5% of the film distribution business, 57,6% of the film exhibition business, 100% of pay-TV film channels, 50,2% of cable television and internet access, 27% of landline telephone networks and 1% of mobile cellphone networks;

- Portugal Telecom (PT), owner of 58% of landline telephone networks, 45% of mobile cellphone networks, and 39,2% of cable television;

- Vodafone Portugal, corresponding to 40% of mobile cellphone networks and 1,6% of cable television and internet access;

- Optimus, with 14% of mobile cellphone networks and 1,2% of cable television and internet access;

- and Cabovisão, with 7,8% of the cable television and internet market.

(sources: Anacom and ICA)

This non-compliance has prevented the ICA of receiving 12 million euros by the end of July 2013. The (few) reasons made public by the non-complying companies (the alleged unconstitutionality of the Act, and its alleged non-compliance with European law) will hardly be proven in Portuguese courts or in a European jurisprudence that has similar mechanisms to finance film in its respective countries. The European Commission has already denied any non-compliance of the Portuguese Act with European law. Internally, the new Cinema Act merely takes over and enlarges the financing mechanisms from previous acts, mechanisms that have been kept in place since the beginning of the 1970s without ever having being declared unconstitutional.

As for the government, it is the same government that calmly and unmoved is watching the hollowing out of the Portuguese Cinemathèque and of the National Archive of the Moving Image, whose financing model has run out as well. And the opposition parties silently watch the parade go by as a Summer distraction.

In the film we are now premiering at Venice, Redemption, we have used archival footage from Portuguese films, supplied by the National Archive of the Moving Image, an institution that deals with the preservation of the Portuguese film memory and that now announces it may have to shut down. And, in a strange astral conjunction - or maybe not... - this same film features as characters and narrators some of the political leaders that have led European governments over the past decade, Passos Coelho among them... Though we do not want to reveal the film to those who haven't seen it, we do believe that redemption is always a possibility for everyone, even for these gentlemen.

Friday, August 30, 2013

LEMALE ET HA'HALAL (FILL THE VOID)

The initial tendency upon looking at Fill the Void, American-born Israeli Rama Burshtein's debut "secular" film, will be to file it as a curiosity in the cabinet of exotica, due to its geographical and cultural origin in the Middle East and, especially, in the usually very closed world of the ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews known as the haredim. Yet, the film's tale of the qualms and doubts raised by an arranged marriage could come from any of many age-old cultures in our world, whether Eastern or Western, Northern or Southern; and Mrs. Burshtein ultimately tells the story of a young girl forced to grown up faster than she'd like and to conform to an adult world she has not yet quite found her place in. In that sense, Fill the Void isn't so much about a specific religious community but about universal experiences.

     Mrs. Burshtein, who herself is part of the religious, ultra-orthodox community, does shatter pretty much the outside stereotypes, while smartly avoiding any exoticisation of its rituals and structures. Hers is neither a film strictly for the community, like her previous filmmaking experiences, nor a bowdlerisation for the others, but rather a universal story set in a specific context, to the point that the viewer soon forgets the otherness of the background to focus strictly on plot, event and characterisation.

     The "void" of the title is that left in the Mendelman family of Tel Aviv, after the eldest daughter dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby boy and an inconsolable widower. In a leaf taken from the old Jewish matchmaker stereotypes, matriarch Rivka (Irit Sheleg), unwilling to let her son-in-low Yochay (Yiftach Klein) marry someone else and take away her grandson, schemes to marry the youngest daughter, Shira (Hadas Yaron), off to him. She has just turned 18, and her own engagement has conveniently been undone; her mother's proposal essentially asks her to become a surrogate for the dead Esther out of familiar convenience, something that at first everyone but Rivka resists out of a sense of doubt and propriety, though eventually everyone comes around to the possibility. Everyone, that is, except Shira herself, torn between what she sees as her duty to her family as a daughter and her desire, no matter how romantic, to be in control of her own life (or as much as the structure of her community allows, though there is never any doubt that women wield quite a lot of power here).

     Despite the serious questions being asked in the film, the balance needing to be struck between individual and society, duty and fulfillment, Fill the Void is a bright, diffuse film, crisply photographed in gorgeous soft-focus widescreen by Asaf Sudry. It's entirely necessary to understand that Shira is not being forced into this marriage out of punishment or spite, but out of a true desire to grant some comfort and solace, some closure to the pain Esther's death brought to the Mendelmans. She is loved and well-loved, and she is being asked to rise to a very unusual occasion. Mrs. Burshtein's kind, attentive handling, always emotionally balanced and minutely detailed, coaxes remarkable performances from her entire cast, but especially from Ms. Yaron, pitch-perfect in between adolescent petulance and grown-up seriousness. It's a perfectly judged performance in a surprisingly affecting film, a little hand-crafted gem about people dealing with life that deserves to be seen as more than just an exotic curiosity.

Cast: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Chaim Sharir
Director and writer: Rama Burshtein
Cinematography: Asaf Sudry  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Yitzhak Azulay
Art director: Ori Aminov
Costumes: Chani Gurewitz
Editor: Sharon Elovic
Producer: Assaf Amir (Norma Production)
Israel, 2012, 90 minutes

Screened: distributor advance DVD screener, Lisbon, August 23rd 2013


Thursday, August 29, 2013

RPG

A strikingly ill-advised attempt at character-driven science fiction that lands with a startling thud, RPG marks the joint directorial debut of tyro helmer David Rebordão, the man behind A Curva, an online short that went viral a few years ago, and veteran producer Tino Navarro, also co-scripting with veteran TV writer Artur Ribeiro. But this is effectively Navarro's baby, and it's a misshapen, ugly one, its intriguing premise being slowly deflated by a futuristic frame that looks shot on a tight budget, wrapped around a clumsily scripted Ten Little Niggers mystery.

     Sometime in the future, a mysterious Mr. Chan (Chris Tashima), head of a company called RPG (for Real Playing Game, in an absurd pun with "role playing game"), brings together ten millionaires by dangling before them the promise of rejuvenation. He does so by inserting them in a "virtual" universe where they will play a survival game, playing in the bodies of young people they have themselves chosen. The trick is the virtual game is one of deadly "musical chairs" - where their young avatars must kill each other then correctly identify the "real" person behind the avatar, leaving only one survivor who will earn the right to start all over again in a rejuvenated body. There is a suggestion of John Frankenheimer's cult classic Seconds in this (though it may possibly be in the eyes of the beholder rather than the filmmaker's), but it quickly disappears as we realise the script flunks on basic motivation reasons.

     Why the millionaires, not all of which came by their fortunes honestly, have to play this game in order to find youth again and why only one of them can win is never adequately explained or suggested other than by a desire to be forever young - as laid out in Mr. Chan's initial talk to our "hero", dying millionaire Steve Battier, played as an aging man by Rutger Hauer in a short guest appearance and as a young man by British actor Cian Barry. Whatever comment the filmmakers may wish to make on the need for a proxy experience that seems to come with the virtual, online worlds of technology is never truly made, since we never find out what exactly drew each of them to this experience (which, mind you, might be a question to pose the mostly unknown young multinational cast who signed up for this).

     Instead, Messrs. Rebordão and Navarro use the virtual game as a sex- and violence-laced thriller that is unable to attribute any sort of agency to its characters other than survival instinct, suggesting the bookending sci-fi frame a mere justification for a titillatingly naughty-nasty video-game vision of humanity that parades a series of lazy stereotypes about youth, gender, violence and relationships. Though the game scenes are laid out with some competence, crisply photographed and making good if uninspired use of the steadycam on its location work in an abandoned resort, the futuristic scenes suffer from unconvincing, basement-bargain design and visual effects. By the time the story wraps up, somewhat abruptly, we feel as we have been conned by a writer who decided to get out of the mess he wrote himself into with a cop-out ending that short-changes both its characters and its viewers.

Cast: Cian Barry, Alix Wilton Regan, Nik Xhelilaj, Pedro Granger, Christopher Goh, Genevieve Capovilla, Dafne Fernández, Reuben Henry Biggs, Cloudia Swann, Débora Monteiro, Chris Tashima, Soraia Chaves, Rutger Hauer
Directors: David Rebordão, Tino Navarro
Screenplay: Artur Ribeiro, Mr. Navarro
Cinematography: José António Loureiro, André Szankowski  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Pedro Marques
Art director: José Pedro Penha
Costumes: Os Burgueses, Eleutério & Mia
Editor: Pedro Ribeiro
Visual effects: Nuno Mesquita, Rafael Galdó
Producer: Mr. Navarro (MGN Filmes)
Portugal, 2013, 102 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 2, Lisbon, August 19th 2013



Trailer RPG from david rebordão on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

and now for something completely different: THE SOFT POWER OF CULTURE

Nick James, in the June 2013 issue of Sight & Sound:

"...Our government seems wilfully to misunderstand the contribution the arts make to the economy. Maria Miller, the culture secretary, has set out the government's position on funding the arts over the next few years in such a way as to prepare us for more cuts, even though, as playwright Dan Rebellato reminds us in The Guardian, current arts funding amounts to just 7p out of every £100 of public spending, in return for which the creative industries account for 6.2 per cent of the goods and services in the economy, £16.6 billion in exports and 2 million jobs."

But, of course, "art"'s contribution to "the economy" is still seen as negligible despite punching above its means. Not just by the British government. This is why the current funding problems for Portuguese cinema and the Portuguese Cinemathèque are more important than they seem: it's essential to recognise the central role arts have not only in culture but also in feeding the undergrowth of global image and reputation. If there is one thing Portugal is known for worldwide is its culture - its writing, its music, its film, its art. What we have that is ours. Not what we have that apes what's done abroad. Not our economy. Not our politics. And yet, seldom have our political powers made a conscious effort to highlight our art and our culture. Perhaps it's too late by now. I'd like to think not.

Monday, August 26, 2013

JOBS

"Think different", exhorted the Apple advertising in the late 1990s, following the mantra laid out by the company's founder Steve Jobs, driven to reinvent personal computing by focussing on the average citizen. Had director Joshua Michael Stern and screenwriter Matt Whiteley followed the late Mr. Jobs' direction to "think different", their biopic could have stood out. Instead, they turned out an anonymous, bland run-through of the visionary perfectionist's formative years from his college days in the 1970s to his mid-1980s ouster from Apple, then leaping ahead to the his late-1990s return and rescue of the company.

     In a way, it's as if the filmmakers could only make sense of Mr. Jobs' idiosyncratic life and work by boxing him in the tried and true biopic format, as laid out by classic Hollywood: a visionary hero who will stop at nothing to realise his vision, even if he is not understood at first by the world around him. On the whole, the narrative arc of Mr. Jobs' career at Apple may be like that - and, since the film doesn't exactly whitewash his temper and his many callous, even autistic behaviours, there's also a slight hint of a hyper-competitive personality yearning to prove the others wrong - but it pretty much reduces the film to just another classic biopic. It focusses on the central events that molded Mr. Jobs' career, but ejects pretty much all of his personal life, and reduces most of his co-workers to mere walk-in roles or cameos, wasting perfectly fine actors (J. K. Simmons, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Modine) in broad-strokes sketches that never truly colour in the events (blink and you'll miss James Woods or Lesley Ann Warren, for instance).

     The problem with Jobs isn't necessarily one of execution: it's an efficiently mounted, if routine, production, zipping along effectively if blandly; Ashton Kutcher manages to capture Mr. Jobs' drive, though not entirely his darkness, and has a strong rapport with the excellent Josh Gad, playing Mr. Jobs' co-founder Steve Wozniak. It's mostly one of conception: a run-of-the-mill, standardised biopic such as this, trying to fit things into pre-allotted boxes, will never be able to convey a vision as driven and borderline radical for its time as was Mr. Jobs'. And it isn't. So we get yet another tale of a visionary time caught up with.

Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J. K. Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, Ron Eldard, Ahna O'Reilly, Victor Rasuk, John Getz, Kevin Dunn, James Woods, Matthew Modine
Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Screenplay: Matt Whiteley
Cinematography: Russell Carpenter  (colour, widescreen)
Music: John Debney
Designer: Fredrick Waff
Costumes: Lisa Jensen
Editor: Robert Komatsu
Producers: Mr. Stern, Mark Hulme (Five Star Feature Films in association with IF Entertainment, Venture Forth and Silver Reel)
USA/Switzerland, 2013, 129 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, August 20th 2013


Saturday, August 24, 2013

and now for something completely different: THE PORTUGUESE CINEMATHÈQUE

This past week, Portuguese Cinemathèque director Maria João Seixas announced there was a strong possibility the institution might not be able to open its doors in September, due to financial constraints and shortcomings.

It's the latest issue in a difficult couple of years in the life of the Cinemathèque. Responsible for operating the National Archive of the Moving Image, a state-of-the-art restoration and archive facility in the Lisbon suburbs, and the central-Lisbon Cinemathèque master building, with two screening theatres and a library, the institution has been suffering from the economic recession and the general austerity measures mandated by the current neo-liberal, centre-right government. All unhelped by the decision to cut down the former Culture Ministry into a mere secretarial position with little to no financial autonomy.

There has never been really much of a cultural policy in Portugal for a while now, but now that is practically none. The austerity measures have all but shut down the state subsidy aids to film production disbursed through the Institute of Film and Audiovisual (ICA), even though Portuguese cinema is one of the best calling cards the country has worldwide, thanks to the international acclaim of Miguel Gomes, João Pedro Rodrigues, Pedro Costa or Manoel de Oliveira.

Any Portuguese film, regardless of its genre, style or budget, has no chance to break even in its home market even if it becomes a hit; the multiplex-based exhibition circuit is geared toward mass-market blockbusters, with any alternative exhibition circuits virtually non-existant. And television and cable channels have completely abandoned the screening of classic, repertory or European and world cinema, replaced by endless formatted soap operas and reality shows, Hollywood blockbusters and recent commercial productions. The exceptions are few and far between.

This means the Cinemathèque plays a central role in making visible repertory and classic cinema, being one of the rare screens that still projects films in 35mm prints (not necessarily by design; the Cinemathèque does not own a digital projector, even though the exhibition market has all but abandoned 35mm projection). Screening five times a day in its two theaters, Monday through Saturday, the Cinemathèque has for years been a true living museum of film, and responsible for building and shaping generations of film buffs and film lovers who would not have been exposed to many of the classics without its regular thematic seasons and film series.

The financial problems the institution is now facing are only the latest in a series that, over the past two years, has seen it lack funds to borrow or pay transit fees for prints from other cinemathèques; pay for electronic subtitling of borrowed prints; or print the monthly programme schedules, replaced by in-house xeroxed copies. Over the last few months before its August summer break, the Cinemathèque's film series focused exclusive on its own archive of 35mm prints painstakingly built over decades, and on occasional series graciously funded or supported by other institutions, or co-produced with festivals such as DocLisboa.

The Cinemathèque has never been a unanimous project - many of its decisions and directions over the years have been debatable - but it is the only one we've got and we can't afford to lose it. That suddenly we may lose it, just as we've lost so much over the last couple of years of a government that has brutally slashed the social and cultural tissue in the name of fulfilling financial demands that are strangling the country, is unthinkable. We may not be able to do much to stop it. But I'm certainly not going to keep quiet about it.

The Cinemathèque website
The latest news on the situation (in French, via Les Inrocks)
The latest news on the situation (in Portuguese, via Público)
Hartmut Bitomsky's call for help (in English, via Facebook)

Friday, August 23, 2013

PAIN & GAIN

Compared to what king of Hollywood big-budget bombast Michael Bay usually does, Pain & Gain could almost be described as a chamber piece. Of course, it's nothing of the sort, but the fact remains that this smaller-scale black crime comedy, based on a real story, is a somewhat unusual choice for a director better known as a kinetic purveyor of mindless big-screen eye-candy. Which, in a weird, twisted way, is exactly why Mr. Bay is a match made in heaven for a story that hinges on the desire to achieve the perfect facade of wealth, to attain the "good life" without having necessarily earned it but looking as if you did. It's all about appearances.

     In that sense, Pain & Gain, adapted by The Life and Death of Peter Sellers screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely from a series of 1999 articles by Miami reporter Pete Collins, is pretty much a film of our time. It fits in perfectly with Sofia Coppola and Harmony Korine's looks at the shallowness and fickleness of modern pop culture respectively in The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers, while rubbing elbows with the Coen brothers' sly, wry explorations of stupidity such as Burn After Reading. In fact, that film's Brad Pitt - a personal trainer as well - is a close cousin of Daniel Lugo, the "ringleader" and main instigator of the "gang" at the heart of Pain & Gain, known as the Sun Gym Gang, and soulfully portrayed by a solid Mark Wahlberg. 

     Daniel is a small-time con artist reinvented as a personal trainer at a Miami gym, whose sense of entitlement to the American Dream he has never reached leads to recruit two colleagues to set up a "perfect" crime: kidnap a wealthy client, have him transfer all his money and property to them and dispose of him. Needless to say, things don't quite work out like that: the co-conspirators, a born-again ex-addict ex-con (a spot-on Dwayne Johnson) and a sex-obsessed bodybuilder rendered impotent by his use of steroids (Anthony Mackie) are even more useless than Daniel is when it comes to crime, and the victim himself is an insufferably obnoxious, utterly dislikeable cretin (a scene-stealing Tony Shalhoub) who not only survives the ordeal but swears revenge, despite no one truly believing him. 

     What follows is a black comedy that is outrageously candy-coloured to the point of nausea, where laughter pretty much dies in the throat as the idiocy of all involved snowballs into a perfect storm of happenstance incompetence and brain-addled amorality. The central trio of actors manage to infuse an almost tender naïveté in these supposed tough guys whose intelligence is inversely proportional to their muscle mass, while around them Mr. Bay breezes through the film with his usual barrage of visual tricks (slow motion, roving cameras, bombastic soundtrack) while occasionally losing sight of his narrative (the two-hour plus running time is not a plus). But his glossy, sun-kissed handling fits like a glove the gaucheness of folks striving for an American Dream they can never hope to reach and settle for the outward signs of financial success, and lends the film an outlandish, offhand quality that marks it as a more intriguing, interesting film than it may seem at first.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Rob Corddry, Ken Jeong, Michael Rispoli, Rebel Wilson, Ed Harris
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, from the Miami New Times articles by Pete Collins
Cinematography: Ben Seresin  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Designer: Jeffrey Beecroft
Costumes: Deborah L. Scott
Editors: Thomas A. Muldoon, Joel Negron
Producers: Donald de Line, Mr. Bay, Ian Bryce (Paramount Pictures, De Line Pictures)
USA, 2013, 129 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, August 14th 2013


Thursday, August 22, 2013

ATÉ VER A LUZ

Basil da Cunha is one of the most acclaimed young promises of Portuguese cinema thanks to a handful of well-received shorts - belying the fact that he is the Swiss son of Portuguese parents, whose film studies and initial career took place in Switzerland rather than Portugal. In many ways, though, the fact that he is an "alien" in the country of his family has shaped his cinema and has also been part of his strength, allowing him to take a dispassionate, understanding look at other strangers in strange lands.

     In Mr. da Cunha's work so far, he has taken an interest in the mostly African dispossessed living in the peripheral shantytowns of Lisbon; his feature-length debut, Até Ver a Luz, takes place in the Reboleira suburb where his two previous shorts, Nuvem and Os Vivos Também Choram, were set, with characters from those shorts recurring as well. In a way, Mr. da Cunha seems to be following in the footsteps of Pedro Costa's acclaimed work in the Fontainhas shantytown, though shot in a less austere, more classically narrative fashion. The tale of a loner (Pedro Ferreira) who finds himself in trouble with the local drug lord (João Veiga) over money owed, Até Ver a Luz has something of the film noir in it, stripped down to the skeletal, fatalistic plot that is then enriched by the director's attentive gaze over the rhythms, detail, moods and figures of this disaffected slum. Though there was a plotted script, Mr. da Cunha let the non-professional actors come up with the dialogue on their own, allowing their own lives to seep into the fictional characters they are playing.

     All fine and dandy, but the essential handicap of the director's shorts remains: his lack of a filmmaking personality, self-effaced behind the global language of a certain modern-day auteur cinema that focuses on small subjects and overlooked backgrounds, technically accomplished yet strangely impersonal. Though there's nothing inherently wrong with Até Ver a Luz as a motion picture, everything being in its right place, that is precisely the problem with this debut film: there's little to none lasting impression of an identity, just the sense of a well-executed exam by a director who has clearly found the subject he wants to follow and has the technique down pat but has not yet developed an identity or a style of his own.

Cast: Pedro Ferreira, João Veiga, Nelson da Cruz Duarte Rodrigues, Paulo Ribeiro
Director, writer: Basil da Cunha
Cinematography: Patrick Tresch  (colour)
Art director: Carlos Baessa de Brito
Editors: Renata Sancho, Mr. da Cunha, Émilie Morier
Producer: Elena Tatti  (Box Productions and Geneva University of Art and Design in association with RTS SSG SSR)
Switzerland, 2013, 99 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 2, Lisbon, July 23rd 2013


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

LA FILLE DU 14 JUILLET (THE RENDEZ-VOUS OF DÉJÀ VU)

You can see a mile off where French director Antonin Peretjatko is coming from: the cinephile tradition of classic French auteur theory, and especially the devotion to the fresh and frothy irreverence of the early Nouvelle Vague films. At heart, Mr. Peretjatko's feature debut La Fille du 14 juillet is a Nouvelle-Vague-ish take on screwball comedies, with the writer/director weaving a constantly shifting landscape of surreal, nonsensical episodes from a classic meet-cute scenario.

     The boy-meets-girl situation here has the unemployed and newly-graduated Truquette (Vimala Pons) bumping into museum guard Hector (Grégoire Tachnakian) through the match-making efforts of Truquette's friend and Hector's colleague Charlotte (Marie-Lorna Vaconsin) on a quiet Bastille Day at the museum. The story actually takes place a fortnight later, with Hector looking for an excuse to see her again and and using a vacation trip to the seaside to deploy a number of seduction attempts that are mostly foiled by his traveling companions but also by the French government's decision to foil the recession by pushing the return from holidays forward by one month.

     And this is where La Fille du 14 juillet goes seriously astray. It's not in the nonsensical humour, nor in the non-sequitur structuring that sees the plot move constantly back and forth and sideways, and not even the fairly obvious low budget and cast of unknowns. Rather, it's in the realisation that Mr. Peretjatko's attempt to reconcile topical social satire and Nouvelle Vague-inspired wit falls flat on its face because times have changed and the film doesn't seem to take that into account, borrowing far too liberally from Jean-Luc Godard's Sixties playbook. À Bout de souffle, Une Femme est une femme and Week-end are all quoted directly throughout, as are other filmmakers of the era (the press notes mention by name Jacques Rozier and Luis Buñuel, but Luc Moullet or Louis Malle's Zazie dans le métro wouldn't be out of the question as well). But the quotes come up to such an extent that the film becomes worrisomely unimaginative and overly in debt to its influences. Worse, Mr. Peretjatko seems to lack the buoyancy and spirit of the originals whose footsteps he's following on, and his film is much more visually dull and lifeless than Mr. Godard ever was even at his debut, with a couple of seriously awkward camera set-ups that jar the viewer far too obviously.

     As a result, most everything in La Fille du 14 juillet seems exceedingly derivative and heavy-handed, searching for a lightness of touch it never truly manages and that is only found in the delightful presence of Ms. Pons, who is a trained acrobat. Her easy-going charm and flightiness seem to embody what Mr. Peretjatko was looking for in his film but ended up passing by.

Cast: Vimala Pons, Grégoire Tachnakian, Vincent Macaigne, Marie-Lorna Vaconsin, Thomas Schmitt, Serge Trinquecoste, Esteban, Lucie Borleteau, Philippe Gouin, Pierre Méréjkowsky, Albert Delpy, Bruno Podalydès
Director, writer: Antonin Peretjatko
Cinematography: Simon Roca (colour)
Designer: Erwan le Gal
Editors: Carole le Page, Mr. Peretjatko
Producer: Emmanuel Chaumet (Ecce Films)
France, 2013, 88 minutes

Screened: Medeia Monumental 3, Lisbon, August 15th 2013


Friday, August 16, 2013

VIRAMUNDO - UN VOYAGE MUSICAL AVEC GILBERTO GIL (VIRAMUNDO - A MUSICAL JOURNEY WITH GILBERTO GIL)

Curiosity and openness have been one of the key constants in the career of Brazilian singer and songwriter Gilberto Gil. In the mid- to late-1960s, Mr. Gil was, with Caetano Veloso, the prime mover behind the revolutionary Tropicália movement, a melting pop of cosmopolitan pop music and local folk traditions that extended from music into other arts, combining "high" and "low" culture, native tradition and colonial influence to create a brand new, exclusively Brazilian cultural identity. Tropicália changed Brazilian art forever and, though Mr. Gil remained an important artist and songwriter ever since, with a stint as minister for culture between 2003 and 2008, his career never again reached the same creative peaks of that period, unhelped by his forced early 1970s exile in Great Britain after he fell foul of the military dictatorship that had taken over.

     Curiosity and openness are also the traits of the actual journey Mr. Gil took for this documentary by Swiss director Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, traveling in search of the way other former colonial countries have meshed their native cultures with incoming Western influences. Starting out in Brazil and looping back to his native country by way of an extended stay in Australia and a shorter stop in South Africa, Viramundo follows the artist's travels as he learns how local cultures are fighting back assimilation by harnessing the power of modernity to create a through-line to the past, with music as a universal language readily shared.

     For all the exposure Viramundo gives to those struggling aboriginal cultures' reclamation of the ground lost to decades of colonisation, though, the film is a strangely inert, distant object, merely skimming through them rather than stopping to absorb them. The film's first stop abroad is in Sydney to meet Peter Garrett, the former singer for Australian rock band Midnight Oil who has traded in the microphone for the political bench; this merely heightens that a lot of what happens in Viramundo may come down to mere photo-op posturing. Mr. Gil's background may see him jam or play with local musicians, but nothing really comes out of it other than mostly perfunctory collaborations that fall well short of any cultural meeting. It's only in the Brazilian segments - and in a moment where his percussionist and a South African musician show each other how the same instrument is used differently in each culture - that some genuinely thrilling music comes up.

     Mr. Borgeaud structures everything with the marvel of someone who has had his eyes open to things he'd never ever thought of, a typical first-world cultural tourist dazzled by exoticism and wanting to share just how much these people are standing up for ourselves. The film never stoops to condescension but does skirt it dangerously, and the central device of looking for a common thread connecting Brazilian, South African and Australian aboriginal cultures' evolution is not really followed through. While there is a genuine film to be made from the stories and songs Mr. Gil learned and shared in this trip, and there's no denying that his curiosity and openness to the bigger world shines through Viramundo, what Mr. Borgeaud has done is essentially a paean to the curiosity of its star, rather than a film genuinely appreciative of the richness he finds along the way. We return from the trip none the wiser than when we left.

Director: Pierre-Yves Borgeaud
Screenplay: Emmanuel Gétaz, Mr. Borgeaud, from an idea by Mr. Gétaz
Camera: Camille Cottagnoud  (colour)
Editors: Daniel Gibel, Mr. Borgeaud
Producers: Mr. Gétaz, Frédéric Corvez, Clément Duboin  (Dreampixies and Urban Factory in co-production with Swiss Television RTS SRG SSR and Momentum Production)
Switzerland/France, 2012, 93 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, August 6th 2013



VIRAMUNDO - A musical journey with Gilberto Gil (Official trailer) from momentum_prod on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

ELYSIUM

Apparently, hurried observers have as one of their favourite pastimes throwing the baby out with the bath water. For instance: all the blockbusters you've been seeing are crap, therefore all blockbusters are crap. This is where a film like South-African director Neill Blomkamp's sophomore effort, Elysium, exposes the argument: it's a film that hews closely to the traditional blockbuster form and style, yet injects in it something else, a different attitude that sets it somewhat apart.

     In this case, what Mr. Blomkamp does is use, again, genre as a distorted mirror of modern society, just as he had done in his wildly successful debut District 9. There, he used immigration and xenophobia, coloured by South Africa's apartheid past, to underlay its futuristic, derivative science-fiction/actioner structure. Here, immigration is again part of the mix, but Elysium is more of a meditation on class and wealth set in an over-populated, under-resourced dystopian Earth 150 years in the future, meticulously created by production designer Philip Ivey. The moneyed elite has set itself apart by living leisurely in an orbital space station called Elysium, whereas everyone else struggles to survive basically as working drones to maintain the space station's economy.

     Such class distinction in science-fiction goes all the way back to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but Mr. Blomkamp, who also scripted, brings it up to date by making the flashpoint of this future dystopia healthcare: medical technology has evolved to the point all disease can be eradicated, but is only available to Elysium residents and off-limits to everyone else. This makes clear the director's vision makes the film a resonant sci-fier for the Occupy generation, the issues it reflects being pretty much global concerns but gaining a particular resonance in modern America with its security and healthcare debates.

    While this suggests Elysium is more of a pamphlet than a film, the grace note is that Mr. Blomkamp drops the subject into a well-made if somewhat generic action movie, a bit too close to the District 9 formula, that makes the most of its global positioning: not only does it eschew the traditional Anglo-centred plotting (the Los Angeles of 2154 is as much Latino as Anglo and effectively bilingual) but its supporting cast is openly global. South-African actor Sharlto Copley, the breakout star of District 9, is here a gloriously unhinged psychotic villain, and dynamic smuggler Spider may give Brazilian Wagner Moura (from the Elite Squad films) his own international breakout, with the other key roles being played by Mexican Diego Luna and Brazilian actress Alice Braga.

     Still, the names above the title are two bonafide film stars: Matt Damon doesn't really sweat it as hero Max da Costa, an ex-con worker who can't seem to get a break and whose desperation propels him to strike at the status quo, while Jodie Foster has a rare villainess role as the sneering, coldly ambitious defense minister of Elysium, determined to keep the "great unwashed" away. Neither role pushes the actors' range, but, as Hollywood luminaries, their presence also validates Mr. Blomkamp's earnestness in attempting a "thinking blockbuster" - shot with pretty much all the returning crew from District 9  - that will satisfy both action fans and those who demand a little more substance from their entertainment. Elysium works on both counts, but it's a mild letdown after the potency of District 9, looking far too much like a bigger-budget retread with stars of that film's combination of genre and social satire.

Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Director, writer: Neill Blomkamp
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Ryan Amon
Designer: Philip Ivey
Costumes: April Ferry
Editors: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith
Visual effects: Peter Muyzers
Producers: Bill Block, Mr. Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg (Media Rights Capital, QED International, Alphacore, Kinberg Genre Productions)
USA, 2013, 109 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, August 6th 2013


Monday, August 12, 2013

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO

British director Peter Strickland made quite a splash in the festival and arthouse circuit with his striking debut Katalin Varga. His follow-up to that dark tale of revenge among Carpathian rural traditions is an even more accomplished work stylistically, an extension of his apparently effortless formalist control of mood and tone, working within tightly codified genre structures yet openly moving beyond and outside them. Like the previous film, Berberian Sound Studio is a slight narrative bulked up and given heft through its impeccably controlled handling: in the 1970s, British sound recordist Gilderoy (the excellent Toby Jones, playing the right side of disorientation and frustration) arrives in Italy to do the sound mix for a cheap horror movie.

     It soon becomes clear that Gilderoy is well out of his depth - more used to the serenity of the countryside and to the aural soundscapes of nature documentaries, the quiet, organised Englishman feels ill at ease among the voluble, rickety Italian production, truly a stranger in a strange land. And the violent scenes he is post-producing for self-aggrandizing director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) and frustrated producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco) start taking their toll. Berberian Sound Studio becomes the tale of Gilderoy's descent into a sort of living nightmare, as he begins to lose his grasp on reality and enters a twilight world where time bends and shifts to the rhythms of the scenes he is dubbing and mixing over and over again.

     It isn't as plot-driven as Katalin Varga was, but like its predecessor it works more as a subtle but definite accumulation of touches, a disquieting mood symphony that Mr. Strickland layers as carefully as Gilderoy his work, creating a seemingly never-ending Möbius strip. It's hardly a traditional horror movie, as there is no horror shown on screen. It works within the confines of the classic Italian horror and giallo movies of the 1960s and 1970s as made famous by directors such as Mario Bava or Dario Argento; DP Nic Knowland doesn't shy from lighting it starkly, creating a diffuse, disturbing mood on production designer Jennifer Kernke's detailed sound studio set. But it's a sort of meta-giallo, where nothing is really ever seen, confirming that the best horror films are those where everything is suggested and remains in one's mind. Or, rather, in Mr. Strickland's and sound designer Joakim Sundström's fully realised, immersive sound world, for this is a film driven not by what's seen but by what's heard (special mention should also go to the appropriately moody score from alternative rock group Broadcast).

     Berberian Sound Studio is a staggering technical achievement, a work that sustains its mood through purely sensory means for as long as it can (and, granted, it doesn't manage it all the way). If Katalin Varga didn't convince you here was a director worth looking out for, then Berberian Sound Studio should set you straight about that.

Cast: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed
Director and writer: Peter Strickland
Cinematography: Nic Knowland  (colour)
Music: Broadcast
Designer: Jennifer Kernke
Costumes: Julian Day
Editor: Chris Dickens
Sound: Joakim Sundström
Producers: Keith Griffiths, Mary Burke (Illuminations Films and Warp X for Filmfour and The UK Film Council in association with Screen Yorkshire and Geißendörfer Film und Fernsehproduktion)
United Kingdom/Germany, 2011, 92 minutes

Screened: Roxie Film Theater, San Francisco, June 25th 2012



Friday, August 09, 2013

THE LONE RANGER

Few films may have been so ill-advised from the get-go as producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski's bloated, mismatched take on old-fashioned Western hero The Lone Ranger. Hounded by budget discussions that threatened to cancel production, received by dismal reviews and lack of interest from audiences, the painful box-office under-performance of what had been meant to be a new long-running franchise for Disney, Mr. Bruckheimer, Mr. Verbinski and star Johnny Depp in the wake of the Pirates of the Caribbean series became white noise obscuring the real issues of the actual film object.

     Though pretty faithful to the character's origin story as laid out in the 1930s radio serial and the later television episodes (the Lone Ranger is the only survivor of a group of Texas Rangers killed in a dastardly ambush, returning to bring justice to the Wild West with the help of a mysterious Indian sidekick), the truth is The Lone Ranger is simply not a very good film. Essentially, Messrs. Verbinski and Bruckheimer have cloned the approach that stood them in good stead with the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (The Curse of the Black Pearl) and then diluted gradually with the follow-ups: a more or less straight-forward, spectacular take on a classic adventure sprinkled with post-modern jokes. The problem with The Lone Ranger is there are too many jokes rubbing up with a more serious, historical side, crucially creating a disconnect of tone that eventually dooms the project.

     There is one nice post-modern touch in the framing device bookending the central plot: an aging Indian in a fun fair sideshow in turn-of-the-20th-century San Francisco tells the true story of the Lone Ranger to a young boy. But is it really a true tale, or merely a tall one? The native is in fact the Ranger's trusty sidekick Tonto, a character that the ensuing feature-length flashback will suggest plays fast and loose with truth, played by Johnny Depp as a close cousin of both Captain Jack Sparrow and his recent Tim Burton odd heroes such as Dark Shadows' Barnabas Collins or Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter. It's an eccentric, quirky performance for an odd-man-out character that remains constantly outside the boundaries of society. But while Mr. Depp's performance was central to the charm of the first Pirates of the Caribbean, here it drives the film into an "odd-couple" sitcom dynamic with Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger, openly played for laughs, that jars seriously with the underlying themes of the Western side of the film.

     In fact, if you were to eject these interludes, you would be left with an unmemorable but decent Western programmer where the Lone Ranger must avenge the death of his brother (James Badge Dale, making the most of a small role) at the hands of sadistic gunman Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and corrupt railroad baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). This side of the film takes in a large number of Western standard plots and situations, but the lingering gravitas of the subplots involving the railroad and the massacre of Native Americans is mishandled and sabotaged by the broad humour of Tonto's oddness. In swaying between one and other, Mr. Verbinski essentially does a disservice to both, preventing him from finding a consistent tone for his film and undercutting Mr. Hammer's clean-cut, Brendan Fraser-like charm with the predictably quirky Mr. Depp.

     There's also a sense that the director may have been aiming to recapture the endearing, intriguing eccentricity of his 2011 animation Rango, another offbeat take on the western where Mr. Depp voiced a wannabe-hero chameleon. But what works as animated surrealism doesn't necessarily pass muster in live-action, and even though Disney's millions may have bought the best Hollywood can come up with technically, The Lone Ranger comes off as an aimless film trying to please everyone and ending up pleasing no one in particular, searching for a groove or a path it never truly finds. The film's eventual success or failure is completely secondary to it being a long-winded slog through a landscape Mr. Verbinski can never find his position on.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Hans Zimmer
Designers: Jess Gonchor, Mark McCreery
Costumes: Penny Rose
Editors: Craig Wood, James Haygood
Visual effects: Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Mr. Verbinski  (Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Blind Wink Productions, Infinitum Nihil)
USA, 2013, 149 minutes

Nominated for two 2013 Academy Awards (Visual Effects; Make-Up)

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), July 30th 2013


Thursday, August 08, 2013

THE BLING RING

In the interests of full disclosure, I have translated and subtitled The Bling Ring into Portuguese. 

Whether Sofia Coppola will ever repeat the magnificence of Lost in Translation is pretty much a moot point. By its own nature, any masterpiece is unrepeatable, even though that film's heightened state of limbo between reality and desire, the chasm between aspirations and real life, seems to signpost a recurring theme in Ms. Coppola's work. After the startled, subdued reception awarded Somewhere, though, The Bling Ring does suggest a newly-found drive in the director.

     Based on the true story of a gang of well-off teenagers who broke into Hollywood celebrity homes and absconded with luxury items they kept or sold, it's a breezier, more narratively conventional film than usual for Ms. Coppola, even though it gives off a bitter after-taste. Her look at celebrity culture and the hollow, self-centered narcissism of moneyed teenagers starts off with the fast-moving pop insouciance of the underrated Marie Antoinette without the "little rich girl lost" melancholy vibe, matched with the heightened teenage dreamstate of The Virgin Suicides. It's a compact little movie that is able to slow down at a moment's notice to savor the improbable rush of being a teenager cat-burglar seemingly getting away with it.

     The Bling Ring observes the titular teenagers with a fascination over their simultaneous ability to be clued-in to the latest celebrity gossip and utterly clueless as to any sort of underlying morality, making the film a breathless look at teenage recklessness tinged with a canny disbelief of their total lack of societal landmarks. Based on an article published in Vanity Fair, it's a fictionalized take on the events, with Ms. Coppola, also scripting, putting Marc (Israel Broussard), the only boy in the five-strong group, as the viewer's surrogate. Marc is the "new kid in town", newly-arrived to a Hollywood high school, is taken under the wing of the resident "cool kid", fashion-obsessed Rebecca (Katie Chang); his statements to the Vanity Fair reporter are the connecting tissue for the film, counterpointed by those of the group's most outrageously clueless member, home-schooled runway wannabe Nicki (a scene-stealing performance by Harry Potter's Emma Watson).

     That structure is also a yardstick of Ms. Coppola's control over the project: though the nominal Ring-leader was the alert, calculating Rebecca, she prefers (maybe for legal reasons?) to tell the story through the eyes of Marc, the "odd man out" both in financial and social terms, and Nicki, who embodies all that's wrong with these rich kids living inside a bubble of their own making. In so doing, she makes clear the moral aspect to her tale, one she allows to remain present throughout in a light but determined manner; no excuses are made for the behaviour of the Bling Ring itself, even if the reasons as to why they behaved like this are left somewhat glossed over. But she also allows the film to feel somewhat off-kilter, unbalanced, with Rebecca, the most intriguing of the group, remaining forever beyond the viewer's reach, and all other characters save Marc and Nicki merely sketched as accessories, in all senses of the word. Unlike Ms. Coppola's previous work, though, there's hardly any sense of lethargic existentialism in The Bling Ring, replaced by a more assertive rhythm and a clearer narrative engagement. It's, clearly, a step up in her career. Its direction is, however, less clear.

Cast: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Georgia Rock, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann
Director: Sofia Coppola
Screenplay: Ms. Coppola, based on the Vanity Fair article by Mary Jo Sales, "The Suspects Wore Louboutins"
Cinematography: Harris Savides, Christopher Blauvelt (colour)
Music: Brian Reitzell, Daniel Lopatin
Designer: Anne Ross
Costumes: Stacey Battat
Editor: Sarah Flack
Producers: Roman Coppola, Ms. Coppola, Youree Henley (American Zoetrope and NALA Films in association with Pathé Distribution, Tohokushinsha, Tobis Film, Studiocanal and Filmnation Entertainment)
USA/France/Japan/Germany/United Kingdom, 2013, 90 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), July 29th 2013


Wednesday, August 07, 2013

YEK KHANAVADEH-E MOHTARAM (A RESPECTABLE FAMILY)

By now the curiosity and exotic values of Iranian cinema should have fallen by the wayside, to leave the simple appreciation of the intrinsic cinematic qualities of each film. Judging from the work that reaches the West (some of which, it must be said, isn't necessarily seen in Iran itself), Iranian cinema is no different than everyone else's: there's the good, the bad and the indifferent. A Respectable Family, Massoud Bakhshi's debut fictional feature after a few well-received documentaries, is a clear case of an under-performer that never really makes the best of its alluring central premise: making the Persian equivalent of a 1970s political thriller, about an innocent man caught in a Kafkian web of corruption.

     The man, in Mr. Bakhshi's film, is Arash Saafi (Babak Hamidian), a college professor living outside Iran who returned to teach a six-month course at the invitation of Shiraz University. Despite butting heads with the college authorities over the content of his classes, Arash kept mostly a low-profile until, with one week to go before his return to Europe, the dominoes start to fall. Problems arise with his documentation, his estranged father's lawyer shows up with news of a secret bank account to benefit only him and his mother, and the father himself dies during a visit to Teheran. As he remembers the difficult family situations he lived during the Iran-Iraq war, with his mother finding out his father had a second family and hoarded rationing stocks for his own profit before eventually leaving him, Arash finds he has to deal with the other side of the family he has tried to keep away from: his thuggish half-brother Jafar (Mehran Ahmadi), Zohreh (Parivash Nazarieh), the childhood sweetheart that eventually married Jafar and found refuge in devout religion, and his secretive, edgy, can-do nephew Hamed (an excellent Mehrdad Sedighian).

     The political ramifications of this "respectable family" (the irony is, of course, meant throughout) go very deep and dark indeed, but Arash's harrowing journey through those dark corridors would be much more fascinating had Mr. Bakhshi written him as less of a passive cypher. A thriller is only as good as its hero, and Arash isn't much of one, as he merely endures what is thrown at him and observes without ever making much of a choice. Mr. Hamidian portrays him not so much as a character but as an archetype of the baffled man out of his league, a mere puppet buffeted from all sides by the wind, unhelped by the way the director frames and stages the plot in a rather indifferent, occasionally amateurish manner. The film does come alive in fits and starts: Mr. Sedighian's forceful performance as Hamed instils an edge of danger throughout, and the scenes invoking Arash's memories (apparently inspired by Mr. Bakhshi's own past experiences growing up) are the film's strongest, conveying enormous information about the period in a few well-measured brush strokes.

     There is something to be said about the disenchanted portrait of modern Iran A Respectable Family paints, in line with we have seen in the works of Asghar Farhadi or Rafi Pitts. But while it's certainly valid to look at it as in that league, it's equally valid to point out that Mr. Bakhshi's film is full of good ideas and intentions that aren't as realised as they could have been.

Cast: Babak Hamidian, Mehrdad Sedighian, Ahoo Kheradmand, Mehran Ahmadi, Parivash Nazarieh, Behnaz Jafari, Mehrdad Zini, Yazdan Jamshidi, Matin Khalibi, Niki Nasirian
Director and writer: Massoud Bakhshi
Cinematography: Mahdi Jafari  (colour)
Designer: Mahmoud Bakhshi
Editor: Jacques Comets
Producers: Mohammad Afardeh, Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin  (Firoozei Film, JBA Production)
Iran/France, 2012, 90 minutes

Screened: distributor advance DVD screener, Lisbon, July 28th 2013


Tuesday, August 06, 2013

THE INNKEEPERS

Whereas most of the recent American horror production has been geared towards "torture porn" or gory shockers, there are still a few directors working who prefer to follow character and mood-based tried-and-true tropes. One of the most acclaimed young directors working in the genre, Ti West follows precisely on that path with his fifth feature, The Innkeepers. It's essentially a classic haunted house story updated for the "millennial" generation: two characters, a concentrated span of time (one weekend), one set and one overarching concept. The inn of the title is the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a small-town hotel with an allegedly bloody history, about to close down permanently; the "innkeepers" are the two remaining employees over its final weekend open, attempting to uncover the truth about the alleged haunting of the place.

     The first sign that Mr. West has something else on his mind is that these are not your average disposable horror-film characters, even if that is the underlying scaffolding: Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are on-screen for nearly the entire length of the film, so we get to know them much more intimately than is usual, and they're not necessarily the nicest folk around. Luke is the proverbial techno-nerd playing up a cool factor that he may not have and seeking to parlay the inn's haunted status into internet fame, Claire is an over-eager, under-achieving girl who may believe in the supernatural status more than Luke does; both are portrayed as not nearly mature enough for their jobs, as their interactions with the rare guests suggest, reminding of Kevin Smith's Clerks. The clearest example is has-been TV star Leane (Kelly McGillis), who reinvented herself as a psychic and is the focus of Claire's initial awe and of Luke's skeptical zingers. That is, both are perfectly credible both as contemporary characters and as the kind of people who would find work at an empty, closing old hotel.

     On top of this, Mr. West layers a well-mastered study in eerie atmospherics that reminds (deliberately?) of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, both in the way DP Eliot Rockett's camera roves and frames the hotel's corridors, and in the disquieting mood he builds out of seemingly normal places and situations. That the ending - the only segment of the film where actual blood is visible, briefly - also suggests an unexplained, inexplainable presence in the premises is yet another connecting thread to Mr. Kubrick's precise, geometric story.

     For all that, though, there is a sense that Mr. West bumps up against a script that is too long on foreplay and mood and far too short in actual heft. The payoff, while satisfying within the film's logic, does fall short of the promises contained in the director's excellent formal control and attention to performances, and even in the narrative structuring in "chapters" and an "epilogue"; a case of too much foreplay and not enough fulfillment. But it's easy to see why Mr. West, who also scripted and edited, remains a talent to follow closely.

Cast: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis
Director, writer and editor: Ti West
Cinematography: Eliot Rockett (colour, widescreen)
Music: Jeff Grace
Designer: Jade Healy
Costumes: Elisabeth Vastola
Producers: Derek Curl, Larry Fessenden, Mr. West, Peter Phok (Dark Sky Films, Glass Eye Pix)
USA, 2011, 101 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, July 27th 2013


Monday, August 05, 2013

THE ICEMAN

For better or worse, actor Michael Shannon's intensity and commitment to finding humanity in broken, brooding characters has helped typecast him in unpredictable, "heavy" roles - a possible modern equivalent of Christopher Walken's off-kilter performances. The Iceman is one of Mr. Shannon's increasingly visible lead roles in independent productions, and the depth of talent Israeli director Ariel Vromen managed to attract to the cast of his modest gangster picture - Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, James Franco, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer - has no doubt been helped by his presence. But that is exactly why it's a shame that there's not much else to recommend this narrative retelling of the true story of New Jersey hitman Richard Kuklinski, following on from Jim Thebaut's HBO documentary and Anthony Bruno's book that recounted the striking tale.

     Kuklinski hid his true trade from his family and friends for 20 years, initially stating he worked for Disney's East Coast offices and eventually passing himself as a financial adviser and trader, all while becoming one of the most lethal Mob killers of all. Mr. Vromen and his co-writer Morgan Land posit Kuklinski as a devoted family man, who would go to any length to give his wife (played here by a sympathetic Winona Ryder) and two daughters the stability he himself never got from his violent Polish father, and who did his best to keep the dark, violent side he knew he had from them. Mr. Vromen is also interested in playing up the mythic side of the classic American gangster movie. While Mr. Shannon plays Kuklinski as a working-class man who is doing a job like any other to put money on the family table, the director can't resist structuring The Iceman as a small-time gangster saga, the period settings (1970s and 1980s) and temporal telescoping suggesting this could be a modest, low-key Goodfellas following the hitman's rise and fall.

     Yet, there's a basic disconnect between the genre trappings Mr. Vromen can't help but visibly emulate, and the self-contained, introspective nature of Kuklinski as brilliantly projected by Mr. Shannon. Also, both for the good and the bad, the film leaves deliberately out any attempt at easy psychologising, hinting only at the past in a very strong scene where Kuklinski visits his imprisoned brother Joey (Stephen Dorff) in jail. The approach allows the actor to nuance the character richly, but means the director has to play up the criminal aspects of the plot to make up for what isn't there; the run-of-the-mill structuring and plotting eventually end up dragging the film down, away from the intense character study that the film could have been and towards a generally anonymous gangster picture. It's another quiet triumph for Mr. Shannon, sadly wasted in the film's functional handling, episodic plot and rote music score; in trying to fit too much into one single film, Mr. Vromen may have done his fascinating true story a disservice.

Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, James Franco, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, John Ventimiglia, Danny R. Abeckaser, Ryan O'Nan, Stephen Dorff
Director: Ariel Vromen
Screenplay: Morgan Land, Mr. Vromen, from the book by Anthony Bruno, The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer, and the documentary by Jim Thebaut, The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer
Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski  (colour)
Music: Haim Mazar
Designer: Nathan Amundson
Costumes: Donna Zakowska
Editor: Danny Rafic
Producers: Ehud Bleiberg, Mr. Vromen, Avi Lerner (Millennium Films, Bleiberg Entertainment)
USA/Israel, 2012, 105 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 11, Lisbon, July 26th 2013


Saturday, August 03, 2013

LA CAGE DORÉE (THE GOLDEN CAGE)

After the first minutes of La Cage dorée, there's a really strong sense that you're settling in for a rather old-fashioned comedy of errors such as those that made the delights of middle-brow theater-goers of the Parisian boulevards in the 1950s and 1960s. And, yes, there is no denying that part of what made this debut feature by Franco-Portuguese helmer Ruben Alves such a success in France is precisely that throwback to a perfectly decent, harmless, old-fashioned night out with the missus. Yet, for all the apparent ease with which Mr. Alves redeploys the bourgeois comforts and time-honoured, time-saving stereotypes of boulevard comedy, there is something else at work here as well. This tale of the cohabitation between a family of Portuguese immigrants in Paris and their French employers doesn't so much revel in those stereotypes as, in a slow-burn manner, uses them and the well-oiled comedy mechanics to ask thoughtful questions about them and why they exist.

     The starting point is the unexpected inheritance that falls in the lap of Maria and José Ribeiro (Rita Blanco and Joaquim de Almeida), long-time immigrants who work respectively as the inestimable concierge of a Paris apartment building and as a construction foreman-cum-all-around-handyman. The death of José's estranged brother means the family estate is now his, but only if they will move back to Portugal to run it - a tricky subject as their children, twenty-something Paula (Barbara Cabrita) and teenager Pedro (Alex Alves Pereira), are more French than Portuguese, and Maria's sister Lourdes (Jacqueline Corado da Silva) is relying on her to start a food business of their own. The couple decides to keep the news to themselves while they think the matter through, but the papers are inadvertently seen by Lourdes, and soon the inheritance becomes the neighborhood's worst kept secret, with both José's boss (Roland Giraud) and the condo owners realising they won't manage without the Ribeiros.

     The film's humour thus plays in two separate levels. First is the surface comedy of errors between the couple and their surroundings, using the traditional structure of innuendos, misunderstandings and obfuscation. On a second layer, though, Mr. Alves and his co-writers play up an astute look at the stereotypes of both the hard-scrabble, hard-working Portuguese immigrant in France and of the elegant, effete French bourgeoisie. He suggests that the communities themselves reinforce those stereotypes, even if unwittingly: the indecision of the Ribeiros between striking out for themselves without any guarantee of success or staying in a comfort zone with a guaranteed future is a typically Portuguese character trait; the younger generations' discomfort with and refusal of the immigrant label is typical of desiring to create an identity of their own.

     As for the French, their exquisite politeness seems to mask the fact that serious things tend to go unspoken or unapproached for fear of offending or of being misinterpreted, thus reinforcing the stereotypes from both sides. La Cage dorée is also pretty smart in the way it underlines just how much these identity clichés are, for good or bad, grounded on fact, and the binational cast has a ball with the characters by both playing up that stereotype and subverting it by paying attention to what makes each of them tick and how the circumstances conspire to make them look differently at their immigrant condition. Even if for most of them these performances are hardly a stretch, their comfort with the characters helps in making them relatable - especially Ms. Blanco, who has form in these working-class mother types, and Chantal Lauby, playing with a wondrously ditzy sense of timing the wife of José's construction boss.

     For all that, the strength of La Cage dorée lies more in its performances and its script than in its handling; Mr. Alves' work is more functional than inspired, illustrative rather than stylistic, though he shows a firm hand with the film's tempo and speed (bringing it in at 90 minutes flat) and a good attention to performances. It's a charming, amiable comedy, much less obvious than it seems at first, even though it will probably not travel much outside Portuguese communities around the world.

Cast: Rita Blanco, Joaquim de Almeida, Roland Giraud, Chantal Lauby, Barbara Cabrita, Lannick Gautry, Maria Vieira, Jacqueline Corado da Silva, Jean-Pierre Martins, Nicole Croisille, Alex Alves Pereira, Alice Isaaz
Director: Ruben Alves
Screenplay: Mr. Alves, Jean-André Yerles, Hugo Gélin, from a story by Mr. Alves and Luc-Olivier Veuvé
Cinematography: André Szankowski  (colour)
Music: Rodrigo Leão
Designer: Maamar Ech-Cheikh
Costumes: Isabelle Mathieu
Editor: Nassim Gordji Tehrani
Producers: Danièle Delorme, Mr. Gélin, Laetitia Galitzine  (Zazi Films, Pathé Production, TF1 Films Production in association with Cinémage 7 and Hoche Image)
France, 2012, 91 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, July 18th 2013


Friday, August 02, 2013

THE WOLVERINE

In the midst of the current glut of cinematic super-hero adventures, James Mangold's take on the mutant immortal from the X-Men series is refreshingly old-fashioned in its presentation as a sort of low-key thriller with hints of film noir existentialism and a minimum of super-powers - at least until the requisite blow-out finale. This should not be surprising, seeing that: a) Mr. Mangold has shown he can bring a modicum of personality to major-studio projects (his Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz spy comic Knight & Day remains one of the most solid and underrated attempts at a tongue-in-cheek action fest), and: b) he had nowhere to go but up after the disappointing initial solo outing for the Wolverine in Gavin Hood's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, especially with star Hugh Jackman raring for a second, better go at the character that turned him into a film star.

     For most of its well-paced length, The Wolverine is a much better film than its predecessor; it's also a welcome return to the original tone, darker and more adult, Bryan Singer brought to his two X-Men films. And, more surprisingly, it's mostly a no-nonsense mystery-thriller reminding of that genre's 1960s/1970s B-movie heyday, as Mr. Jackman's Logan is presented as a loner struggling to make sure justice is served on those who deserve it, haunted by the memories of the woman he loved and lost because of it (Famke Janssen as fellow X-woman Jean Grey). Set in Japan, reminding of both Alan Pakula's The Yakuza and Ridley Scott's Black Rain, the plot has Logan called to Tokyo by Yashida (Hiruhiko Yamanouchi); a man he saved from death in Nagasaki at the tail end of WWII, and now one of the most powerful tycoons in Japan, who, on his deathbed, entices him with the possibility of becoming a mortal.

     The realization by Logan of immortality as a curse rather than as a blessing is the central premise from which the script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank spins out, and it remains in play throughout as Logan becomes an unplanned bodyguard to Yashida's grand-daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who is being sought out by the Yakuza (and other unnamed folk) for reasons connected with conflicting interests in the Yashida assets. This Bodyguard-like rapprochement between Logan and Mariko underlines even more The Wolverine's debts to a more classic thriller framework, coloured by some discreet exotica (Will Yun Lee's secret ninja squad, Rila Fukushima's anime-like tough sidekick) while allowing Mr. Jackman to be the only Western actor in a mainly Japanese cast. The mere fact that the film's blueprint seems to be the 1970s action-thriller is enough to set The Wolverine apart of most contemporary super-hero films, despite a mid-point sugar-rush fight atop a bullet train that stretches credibility but, importantly, never breaks it.

     Until, that is, the by-now compulsory special-effects extravaganza that passes for a finale shows up, breaking the film's rhythm and wrapping up awkwardly some of the plot's loose ends (namely those involving Yoshida's suspicious physician). It's a sad reminder that, for all the elegant, solid scaffolding that Mr Mangold erects for Mr. Jackman to delve deeper into his character, looking at him both as an action hero and as a man with troubles and emotions of his own, there will always be compromises to be made with the requirements of a big franchise, and ones that don't necessarily benefit the end result. The Wolverine may be a better film than the previous solo outing for the character, but for all its good things it remains tantalizingly beneath what could have been.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Hiruhiko Yamanouchi, Brian Tee
Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank
Cinematography: Ross Emery  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Marco Beltrami
Designer: François Audouy
Costumes: Isis Mussenden
Editor: Michael McCusker
Visual effects: Philip Brennan
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Hutch Parker, John Palermo (Twentieth Century-Fox, The Donners Company and John Palermo Productions in association with Marvel Entertainment, TSG Entertainment, Ingenious Media and Big Screen Productions)
USA/United Kingdom, 2013, 126 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 6, Lisbon, July 22nd 2013