Thursday, October 31, 2013

FRANCES HA

The obvious starting point of comparison for Noah Baumbach's new film is Woody Allen's halcyon mid- to late-1970s period. After all, Frances Ha is a "New York story" shot in radiant, luminous black and white (take a bow, DP Sam Levy) and a loving paean to its star, Greta Gerwig, who is Mr. Baumbach's muse just as Diane Keaton was then for Mr. Allen. And, since it is named after its ditzy, quirky, free-spirited lead character, Annie Hall comes inevitably to mind. For all that, though, Mr. Baumbach's tale of a dancer about to hit 30 and yet to find a shape or a course for its life has more in common with his usual tales of broken people than it may seem at first sight, and especially with its previous and sorely underrated Greenberg (where Ms. Gerwig had a key role)

     Frances Ha can be seen as the positive mirror image of Greenberg - cool, understated, freewheeling where the previous film was burnt-out, sun-drenched, confused - but it remains a story of people unmoored, adrift, looking to rebuild their lives. In Frances' case, it's the long-dreaded moment when she finally can no longer hide behind her quirkiness and own up her life, grow up so to speak: after she has broken up with her boyfriend, and after her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) moves out. Frances' life starts tumbling down and practically demanding she put her ship in order: the dance studio she works with has no work for her, she starts downsizing to cheaper rental flats, life becomes a struggle just to make rent money - just like many of her contemporaries who have a hard time finding jobs they can relate to (as someone says at some point, "the only people in New York who can afford to be artists are rich").

     But if on paper all of this suggests a bitter sweet comedy that reflects, in more ways than one, the current state of affairs for those who face life without a safety net, on screen Frances Ha is something else entirely: a lighter-than-air yet thoughtful comedy, shot through with many stylistic touches that will remind cinephiles of the freedom and insouciance of the original Nouvelle Vague but that is, very clearly, its own, peculiarly American, very modernist film. All this is much helped by the bouncy, physical presence of Ms. Gerwig, an incredibly engaging comédienne who carries the whole project on her shoulders with effortless grace, poise and timing (no wonder Frances is a dancer). Mr. Baumbach does, however, create the space around her for Frances Ha to be a fully-fledged film rather than just an enchanting little bonbon; no matter how enticing the comparisons to Woody Allen or to the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers are, they're all extremely reductive when it comes down to the end result. Frances Ha is its own film - and a wonderful one at that.

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriters: Mr. Baumbach, Ms. Gerwig
Cinematography: Sam Levy  (b&w)
Music: Dean Wareham, Britta Phillips
Designer: Sam Lisenco
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Producers: Mr. Baumbach, Scott Rudin, Lila Yacoub, Rodrigo Teixeira  (RT Features, Pine District Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions)
USA/Brazil, 2012, 86 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 Panorama screening, Friedrichstadtpalast, Berlin, February 14th 2013; distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Campo Pequeno 3, Lisbon, October 1st 2013


Monday, October 28, 2013

MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN

It's almost unavoidable that any film adaptation of a much loved book will disappoint as much as it will please readers; film is not literature, and both media have different demands. However, Deepa Mehta's film version of Salman Rushdie's 1980 Booker Prize winner and certified masterpiece Midnight's Children complicates things in a whole different way. Mr. Rushdie himself scripted the adaptation and it's his unmistakable voice heard narrating the tale, and this makes it even more baffling that the film turns out to be a visual feast that turns the thought-provoking story and the book's delicate tonal balance into an exotically melodramatic family saga.

     It's not entirely surprising: Ms. Mehta, born in India but long based in Canada, has never shied away from deploying eye-catching visuals to simultaneously underline and offset the melodramatic structures of her conventionally-structured, well-meaning tales (the trilogy of Earth, Fire and Water coming most obviously to mind). The effect is often that of watching a sophisticated Bollywood song-and-dance extravaganza shorn of song and dance - an approach that would, in fact, make a whole lot of sense applied to Mr. Rushdie's sprawling tale of post-independence India seen through the eyes of the preternaturally gifted Saleem Sinai (played by Darsheel Safary as a teenager and by Satya Bhabha as an adult), born at the exact stroke of midnight when India became independent, symbolizing in a nutshell the enormous promise and painful disappointment of the new nation's growing pains.

     But the books' oneiric, synesthetic, post-modern playfulness is often lost in Ms. Mehta and Mr. Rushdie's gorgeous-looking but dramatically-flat adaptation, effectively a series of chronologically sequential episodes - little playlets that connect the narrative dots in a broadly melodramatic fashion while losing all of the connecting tissue and little details that made the book so richly rewarding. Individually, some of the elements (especially in the first half of the film) gel reasonably well, but the rather basic character arcs mean that even the best performers in a very unequal cast (confirming the director as a visual stylist with serious casting issues) can't make anything out of what they're given. Midnight's Children eventually collapses in a rather disappointing sequence of exotic eye candy that pays a disservice to its origins - in a way, a film that mirrors very precisely the ultimate fate of its title characters, and that proves a fine writer may not be the best person to make a film out of his own creation.

Cast: Satya Bhabha, Shahana Goswani, Rajat Kapoor, Seema Biswas, Shriya Saran, Siddharth, Ronit Roy, Rahul Bose, Darsheel Safary, Shabana Azmi, Charles Dance, Kanvir Shorey, Vinay Patak, Anupam Kher
Director: Deepa Mehta
Screenwriters: Salman Rushdie, Ms. Mehta, from Mr. Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children
Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Designer: Dilip Mehta
Costumes: Dolly Ahluwalia, Ritu Kumar
Editor: Colin Monie
Producer: David Hamilton (Hamilton-Mehta Midnight Productions in association with Number 9 Midnight Films, Canadian Broadcasting Network, The Movie Central, Canada Media Fund, Ontario Media Development Corporation, Filmnation Entertainment, Blue Lake Media Fund and Echo Lake Entertainment)
Canada/United Kingdom/USA, 2011, 148 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, October 6th 2013


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

GRAVITY

One of the most celebrated Hollywood one-liners has Bette Davis say to Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager "don't let's ask for the moon, we've got the stars". Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón's technically breathtaking Gravity is, in some perverse way, the perfect realisation of that legendary dialogue. It's got two bona fide film stars in its lead, or rather, in its only on-screen roles, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and is set among the stars, placing them adrift in space in Earth orbit after an unexpected wave of debris destroys their shuttle. In many ways - and surprising ones, since you don't exactly identify science-fiction with that genre - Gravity is the ultimate woman's picture, as it all hinges around Ms. Bullock. She plays Ryan Stone, a neophyte astronaut in her maiden voyage, with a tragic backstory and a general uneasiness about being in space.

     Her survival and comeback from the mother of all freak accidents, even if supported by the calming presence of veteran astronaut and surviving mission commander Matt Kowalski (Mr. Clooney in an effectively supporting turn), represents the ultimate feat of strength for a woman burned by life, who must, quite literally, rise again from the ashes and stand up on her own two feet. That melodramatic plot of the woman fighting against all odds is probably Mr. Cuarón's trade-off for being left alone to do Gravity his way: as a majestic, intelligent, visually dazzling 3D thrill ride that shows just how galvanizing the format can be when handled by someone who knows what he wants to do.

     It's hardly the stuff major studios dream of: only two actors on screen for all of the film's length, long stretches without any dialogue, and a production requiring technology and visual effects to work its magic. But Mr. Cuarón makes it work almost effortlessly, delivering what may be the most unlikely big-budget blockbuster in a long time. Working in long takes that are masterpieces of digital compositing, seamlessly melding actual live action footage with picture-perfect photo-realistic digital trickery, Mr. Cuarón follows here on the footsteps of James Cameron's Avatar. He uses the technology not as an end in itself, but as a tool to tell his story to the best possible effect, to create the universe that will support it and render it plausible. And, boy, is it quite an effect: Gravity's visuals are almost Kubrickian in their precision detailing and dazzling grandeur, breathtaking yet terrifying, but always subject to the restrained performances that sell the film's premise of loneliness and resourcefulness perfectly.

     For all that, there's a sense that the layering of personal backstory that makes Gravity an easier sell to the common-man audience may also be surplus to requirement, preventing the film from reaching the heights that seem to be in store for it. It's a virtuoso piece of visual filmmaking that stops short of perfection: like not reaching for the moon when you have the stars.

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriters: Mr. Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki  (colour, widescreen, 3D)
Music: Steven Price
Designer: Andy Nicholson
Costumes: Jany Temime
Editors: Mr. Cuarón, Mark Sanger
Visual effects: Tim Webber
Producers: Mr. Cuarón, David Heyman  (Warner Bros. Pictures, Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films)
USA, 2013, 91 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, October 3rd 2013

Winner of seven 2013 Academy Awards (Best Director; Best Cinematography; Best Original Music Score; Best Film Editing; Best Visual Effects; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing)
Nominated for three other Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Actress - Sandra Bullock; Best Art Direction)


Monday, October 21, 2013

DON JON

[reposted]

After a bumper year as an actor with performances in Premium Rush, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper and Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shifts into his directing debut, which he also wrote and stars in. And while Don Jon isn't a defining statement as yet, it's an immensely likeable effort, certainly rough around the edges but smart and determined about where it wants to go with its portrait of a New Jersey Italian-American Lothario getting simultaneously his sentimental education and his comeuppance.

     Centred around his own performance as the vain Jon Martello, a buff womanizer seemingly straight out of Jersey Shore central casting, Mr. Gordon-Levitt articulates his tale as a gently satirical look at the role models and images adopted by contemporary youngsters, underlined by the fact that the titular addiction of Jon's is to internet porn. As Jon's strongly accented voiceover puts it, masturbating to online titillation has the great advantage of being the perfect night out: no real-life sexual tryst can ever hope to reach the unassailable level of these clips that eject all of the messy situations they generate in real life. Therein lies both the beauty and the danger: everything else around Jon is merely an itch that needs to be scratched, the need for actual sex fulfilled by an endless stream of one-night-stands to be discarded like the moist towelettes thrown on the bin after another successful act of onanism. Until, that is, the "one that gets away", Scarlett Johansson's sassy and feisty Barbara, hoists him on his own petard and he begins to realise that love is a two-way street his addiction may jeopardize - as his overbearing night-school classmate Esther (Julianne Moore) will eventually teach him.

     Making the most of his obviously low budget, Mr. Gordon-Levitt proves himself in command of the tone he's looking for (part satire, part gentle comedy-drama), but not necessarily of its tempo and structure: a slightly over-drawn first half, a somewhat rushed second, a few nicely drawn but rather underused supporting roles in Jon's family. Undeniably, though, as an actor he more than steps up to the plate, using well his good-looking-guy-next-door looks, and as director he shows himself adept with his cast, more than making up for whatever shortcomings he may have elsewhere. Ms. Johansson is pretty good in a reasonably thankless part, and Ms. Moore offers a typically understated but wonderfully rounded performance in what is essentially a supporting role. Most interesting, though, is the way that this somewhat loose, fluid tale of contemporary mores turns out to evoke John Badham's much misunderstood Saturday Night Fever and its look at the dreams and aspirations of working-class youth, substituting the internet for disco dancing. As an actor, we knew Mr. Gordon-Levitt seldom rested on his laurels, and as a director he proves to be equally charming and hard-working.

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Rob Brown, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Jeremy Luke, Italia Ricci, Tony Danza
Director and writer: Mr. Gordon-Levitt
Cinematography: Thomas Kloss (colour, widescreen)
Music: Nathan Johnson
Designer: Meghan C. Rogers
Costumes: Leah Katznelson
Editor: Lauren Zuckerman
Producer: Ram Bergman  (Voltage Pictures, Hit Record Films and Ram Bergman Productions)
USA, 2013, 89 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 Panorama advance press screening, Cinestar Sony Center 3 (Berlin), February 8th 2013


Friday, October 18, 2013

IO E TE (ME AND YOU)

For his return to an Italian-based story after a 30-year absence - and for his first feature in nearly a decade - Bernardo Bertolucci decided to shut himself up in a dingy basement. There's undoubtedly a deliberate irony as much as a practical limitation involved in the choice, since health issues have confined Mr. Bertolucci to a wheelchair. But, as is usual in the director's later, visually breathtaking but overly formalist work, Me and You is a sensual yet hollow exercise in filmmaking that is pretty unconvincing as a narrative work, using recognisable elements of provocative titillation as mere decoys, false leads that end up having little to no relevance to the end result. It also works as a sort of minimalist, more austere take on his previous film, The Dreamers. 

     Whereas that film, based on Gilbert Adair's novel, seemed to be an old man's nostalgic trip to the "golden days" of 1960s cultural guerilla, Me and You, from a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, sees Mr. Bertolucci reconfigure that film's central concept of siblings finding their way around the world. In The Dreamers, Eva Green and Louis Garrel played a dilettante, inseparable sister and brother intoxicated by the sexual and cultural freedoms brought on by the events of May 1968. They are here redrawn as conflicting, estranged half-siblings whose unexpected re-connection may put their ways to right. The first problem is that Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) and Olivia (Tea Falco) are brought together by a MacGuffin that is never properly explained: Lorenzo's ingenious plan to pretend to go on a class skiing trip while in fact holing up in his apartment building's basement storage area, borne of his unwillingness to reengage with the world after an unexplained incident seemingly heightened his anti-social tendencies and required psychiatric help.

     That week of loneliness is stymied, though, when his older half-sister, an artist and model whose mother was "traded in" for Lorenzo's mother, shows up penniless and desperate in order to quit her heroine addiction cold turkey. Though unwilling to welcome in the blood relation, the forced cohabitation will eventually make the teenager understand his family better and lead him out of his self-absorbed petulance. But the fact remains that Mr. Bertolucci does little to nothing that would make the viewer side with either of them: Lorenzo and Olivia seem to be presented as shining examples of a privileged youth that has pointedly lost its way - or maybe refused to find its way. Both trade in nihilism, obliviousness and aimlessness, neither cares one jot about the world outside (no wonder it takes a week of isolation to make them come to their senses), until a forced timeout makes them realise the human connection they're missing and they so obviously need. They are two of the least interesting lead characters I have seen in any recent movie, and the pitch-perfect tone of Mr. Antinori as the obnoxious, manipulative little brat sits oddly at ease with the plot's coming-of-age arc, since so much is left unsaid and unexplained.

     Granted, that may have been the point all along. And while the director has certainly not lost his grip on the images, he doesn't seem to have any idea where he wants the story to go. There are some flashes of brilliance throughout, especially towards the end, when the growing complicity between a more understanding Lorenzo and the highly vulnerable Olivia gives Me and You a semblance of a heartbeat. That's when Mr. Bertolucci is at his best, finding a tone that could sustain the whole movie and gels the disparate elements into a whole. But by then it's far too late; the film is unable to recover from the virtuoso formalism that dulls its already little-convincing intrigue, and you are left asking what exactly was Mr. Bertolucci aiming at with this awkward little chamber piece, other than proving he still had it in himself to do a small-scale picture.

Cast: Jacopo Olmo Antinori, Tea Falco, Sonia Bergamasco, Veronica Lazar, Pippo Delbono, Tommaso Ragno
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenwriters: Niccolò Ammaniti, Umberto Contarello, Francesca Marciano, Mr. Bertolucci, from the novel by Mr. Ammaniti, Me and You
Cinematography: Fabio Cianchetti  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Franco Piersanti
Designer: Jean Rabasse
Costumes: Metka Kosak
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
Producer: Mario Gianani  (Fiction and Wildside in co-production with Medusa Film, Sky Cinema and Mediaset Premium)
Italy, 2012, 97 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, October 7th 2013


Thursday, October 17, 2013

ANIMAL KINGDOM

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, goes the saying - but is it nature or nurture that makes it so? And, when your lineage is one of implacable, almost callous cruelty and crime, does it even matter if it's genealogy or environment that makes you follow their footsteps? Australian director David Michôd's acclaimed debut feature, seemingly at first a slow-burn crime thriller, ends up enmeshing it with that precise question, as the Melbourne police draw ever closer to a criminal family, the Codys, laying low after a string of high-profile robberies. Mr. Michôd, however, sees the story through the eyes of a newcomer - gangly, surly Joshua aka J (James Frecheville), the only son of the clan's estranged daughter.

     After she dies, J is taken in by his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) and meets the uncles who run the gang: the youngest, quiet and uncomfortable Darren (Luke Ford) and the outgoing and party-loving Craig (Sullivan Stapleton). But the ringleader is the eldest, Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), known as Pope, a disquieting fellow who seems to feed on paranoia and for whom nothing is ever quite right. Caught against his will in the ever-tightening vise of the duel between the family and the cop who won't stop at nothing to jail them (Guy Pearce), J is forced to grow up in ways he never expected and ends up having to choose between right and wrong, when the only blood relatives he has in his life are on the wrong side - learning that his family, actually run with an iron hand by a grandmother who thinks nothing of disposing of other blood relatives, puts a whole new spin on the concept of "dysfunctional".

     Mr. Michôd, directing from a water-tight, perfectly formed script he nursed for years, can't help lay on the portents a bit too thickly, suggesting Animal Kingdom as a kind of Godfather-ly family tragedy by way of Michael Mann's sun-drenched urban noirs transported Down Under. The slow-motion plans, Antony Partos' score, the implacably deterministic structuring may come on a bit too strong - but that never diverts from the first-time helmer's sure grasp of story and excellent control of mood (Adam Arkapaw's cinematography is exemplary in that sense), and of his knack for modulating with uncanny ease a strong ensemble cast. And it's an ensemble in the truest sense of the word - everyone works off everybody else, and even the briefest of roles exists as fully-fledged, stand-alone characters. It's Mr. Frecheville (then a newcomer) who carries the bulk of the film's load, but he's excellently supported by everyone around him, from Mr. Mendelsohn's ghost-like unpredictability to Mr. Pearce's strong moral compass. Animal Kingdom may not tell a particularly new tale, but tells it with conviction, talent and a certainty that is seldom visible in a first-time film director. As for the influence of nature and nurture - the film doesn't really offer anything other than a tie, but you'll have to see it to find out why.

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville
Director and screenwriter: David Michôd
Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Antony Partos
Designer: Jo Ford
Costumes: Cappi Ireland
Editor: Luke Doolan
Producer: Liz Watts (Screen Australia and Porchlight Films in association with Film Victoria, Screen New South Wales, Fulcrum Media Finance and Showtime Australia)
Australia, 2009, 113 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, September 29th 2013


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

RUSH

Granted, it's somewhat cringeworthy to say that a film about two racing drivers is all about drive. For lack of a better word, though, that is indeed what Rush, the true story of the pivotal 1976 championship rivalry between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, is all about: the drive to win at all costs, to prove one's mettle, in different, almost opposite yet complementary ways. That it's a true story, minimally embellished by The Queen and Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan, only heightens the seductive mythical power of a tale that embodies the jet-setting allure of 1970s motor racing like few films have.

     F1 racing may have never been an exact science despite its focus on engineering, and the way in which the drivers came to be seen as adrenaline-soaked adventurers is perfectly captured in Rush's structure as a duel between two men who need each other, driven to excel by the sheer presence of the other as its exact opposite. It would be easy to invoke "daddy issues" or the usual engine/penis comparison, but the strength of Mr. Morgan's screenplay, and of Ron Howard's film, is that it goes well beyond that: it's not just about who's the better driver, has the most money or drives the strongest engine, it's about the drive that keeps you going when the rubber hits the road. The borderline-OCD Lauda's methodical, coldly calculated risk assessments (extraordinarily conveyed by Daniel Brühl in a remarkable performance worth the price of admission alone) needed the instinctive, devil-may-care coolness of Hunt (Chris Hemsworth underplaying cheerfully) to stand out. This is where Mr. Howard's film is best: when he allows the actors (a solid ensemble of non-American character actors) to ground the action, and when he connects that with the dynamically filmed racing sequences.

     It's whenever the camera is off Messrs. Brühl and Hemsworth and the racetracks, and Mr. Howard extends pointlessly the racing dynamism into flashy camera setups and fast-moving editing, that Rush loses steam. They suggest a director either wanting to freshen up the standard two-shot or aiming for a 1970s period feel, but in either case simply remind us how well-meaningly awkward Mr. Howard can be when he wants to be "hip", since "hip" was never his strength. Yet, in most of the film Rush is successful enough to prove him right to step out of his usual comfort zone; the strong performances from the two leads and Anthony Dod Mantle's moody, colour-challenged cinematography show his sensibility for the subject (he did start off as a director with a Corman cheapie about cars, Grand Theft Auto). The irony is, of course, that a director not known for his kinetic skills is trying to punch up what is essentially a solidly, traditionally-constructed two-hander script about ambition into a fast-moving film. That he only pulls it off halfway is, nevertheless, more than you'd expect.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Peter Morgan
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Hans Zimmer
Designer: Mark Digby
Costumes: Julian Day
Editors: Dan Hanley, Mike Hill
Visual effects: Jody Johnson
Producers: Andrew Eaton, Eric Fellner, Brian Oliver, Peter Morgan, Brian Grazer, Mr. Howard (Exclusive Media, Revolution Films, Working Title Films and Imagine Entertainment in association with Cross Creek Pictures, Egoli Tossell Film and Action Image)
United Kingdom/Germany/USA, 2013, 122 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, September 27th 2013


Monday, October 14, 2013

HANNAH ARENDT

"Philosophers don't write to a deadline" and "thinking is a lonely thing" - both are utterly true, and both are probably the most unlikely subjects for a feature film ever. Yet, Margarethe von Trotta's tale of the period during which German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt followed the trial of SS official Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and wrote her (now famous, then infamous) essay on the banality of evil, is a surprisingly gripping film. All the more so because there's really nothing to it other than people thinking, talking, debating (sometimes passionately) opinions. There is not even any pretense of Hannah Arendt being a highly aesthetic effort - not that we would expect that from the veteran German director anyway, blunt and straight-forward as Ms. von Trotta can be.

     And that is probably why this rather blunt and straight-forward not-quite-biopic - an insightful look into "a life of the mind" and how that intersects the real life in the real world - is so affecting. Where Arendt herself compartmentalized - or tried to compartmentalize - separately public and personal spheres, work and life, the film refuses to do so; in point of fact, it drives down the point that Arendt paid a heavy price for that compartmentalization, and that behind the frighteningly intelligent mind was a real person, a human being with emotions, desires and needs. Hannah Arendt is both about her groundbreaking insight into the darkness that lives inside each person, and about her inability to understand how the divulging of said insight would affect her and those around her. Her New Yorker pieces and their release as a book threw into disarray the tight-knit bonds she had built with her friends, and, no matter how hard she tried, she simply could not separate work and life as she would want.

     Much helped by Barbara Sukowa's commanding, magisterial performance as Arendt and by a strong supporting cast, Ms. Von Trotta and her attentive DP Caroline Champetier start the film in a diffuse half-light that gradually becomes crisper, more distinct, as the shades are lifted and the worlds of the mind and the body are joined. There's an extraordinary sense of period dripping from Volker Schaefer's production design and Frauke Firl's costumes, perfectly recapturing that golden post-WWII moment of New York academia, offering a smart contrast between its autumnal, muffled comforts and the blunt force of Arendt's thoughts. And, admittedly, that period feel may suggest some sort of nostalgia for a period where serious thought drove the public conversation (something, alas, there is currently a dearth of). Probably, though, the Arendt fracas also falls in line with the general incomprehension serious thought often is received with as well. But, regardless, Hannah Arendt is precisely what we don't have enough of nowadays: thoughtful yet human filmmaking, fleshing out the people behind the names.

Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer, Julia Jentsch, Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen, Nicholas Woodeson
Director: Margarethe von Trotta
Screenwriters: Pam Katz, Ms. Von Trotta
Cinematography: Caroline Champetier (colour, widescreen)
Music: André Morgenthaler
Designer: Volker Schaefer
Costumes: Frauke Firl
Editor: Bettina Böhler
Producers: Bettina Brokemper, Johannes Rexin (Heimatfilm in co-production with Amour Fou Luxembourg, Sophie Dulac Productions, MACT Productions, Metro Communications, ARD-Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk and Westdeutscher Rundfunk)
Germany/Luxembourg/France/Israel, 2012, 113 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2 (Lisbon), September 26th 2013


Wednesday, October 09, 2013

IMOGENE aka GIRL MOST LIKELY

Somewhere along the way, the bitter-sweet quirkiness Imogene aimed for got lost. What we get instead of the intended melancholy comedy is a bewildering tonal mess, flirting with the sense of discomfort that has become the keystone of modern American comedy yet not afraid to resort to cheap laughs if necessary, asking a stellar cast to flesh out characters that seem to have no reason for existing other than their idiosyncrasies. Imogene, retitled Girl Most Likely for its belated US release, aims clearly for a class satire of modern New York City doubling as quirky character comedy; instead, it becomes a sulky, self-centred tantrum that never finds the exact balance between melancholy and wit that directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini seem to be searching for.

     In a way, it's true the film's plot lies precisely in that in-between state: it's the tale of Imogene Duncan (Kristen Wiig), a teenage playwright prodigy who never fulfilled her promises and is now stuck between two worlds and forced to choose the one she doesn't want. Dumped by her aloof boyfriend, fired from her publishing job and evicted from her Manhattan condo after a fake suicide attempt, Imogene ends up back in the New Jersey hometown she'd vowed to get away from, in the care of the kooky, gambling-addicted trailer-trash mother (Annette Bening). Humiliated at her return home as a failure, Imogene tries desperately to hang on as best she can to her life in NYC, but it turns out she doesn't really have a choice other than to rediscover what it was that propelled her out of Ocean City.

     The problem is very simply that at no point throughout the film do these characters engage the viewer in any sort of way, either because Michelle Morgan's script follows a rather predictable narrative arc or because Ms. Berman and Mr. Pulcini's handling plays it far too straight, before a completely out-of-left-field climax comes in to undo everything. It's really a matter of sensibility, and while on paper Imogene's seems a heightened, stylized fantasy in the manner of a more grounded, less effete Wes Anderson, on screen it plays more like a wry family comedy with a twist, with a tacked-on ending that seems to come from an entirely different film; it has the talent necessary to pull through, but it never coheres into something enticing or even interesting.

Cast: Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Darren Criss, Christopher Fitzgerald, June Diane Raphael, Bob Balaban
Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Screenwriter: Michelle Morgan
Cinematography: Steve Yedlin  (colour)
Music: Rob Simonsen
Designer: Annie Spitz
Costumes: Tom Broecker
Editor: Mr. Pulcini
Producers: Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Mark Amin  (Maven Pictures and Anonymous Content Pictures in association with Ambush Entertainment, 10th Hole Productions and Gambit Films)
USA, 2012, 103 minutes

Screened: Zon Lusomundo Amoreiras VIP 3, Lisbon, September 30th 2013


Tuesday, October 08, 2013

DIANA

Unavoidably - but not unexpectedly, even with a respectable top-lining presence such as Naomi Watts - any attempt at making a biopic of the late princess of Wales, Diana Spencer, would end up like what Diana ultimately is. That is, an handsomely mounted but highly cynical dreamy romance, the big-screen equivalent of those breathless "people" magazine spreads or special issues that commemorate the "official story" of a public figure, picking apart the most banal photograph for tantalizingly tell-tale signs of unknown mysteries. And yet, not just because Ms. Watts is in the lead here, you can see the paths not taken at nearly every turn in German director Oliver Hirschbiegel's Euro co-production.

     Inspired by journalist Kate Snell's book on Diana's affair with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, the film takes place in the period between her tell-all TV interview with Martin Bashir in November 1995 and her death in the fateful Paris car crash in August 1997, and the question of celebrity hangs heavily over the entire enterprise. A key issue in the relationship between Diana and Khan (a stiff, ill-at-ease Naveen Andrews) is the pressures that her being the world's most famous woman put on the couple; throughout the film, though, she is shown to be aware of that fame and not shy of using it for her own purposes, even if most of the time it seems to be an albatross preventing her from truly being herself.

     For all that, though, Diana never really engages seriously any of these issues. It prefers to hide behind the enchanting, Girls' Own Paper dream of a royal affair, with the unhappy princess a caged bird yearning for a normal life she is fully aware she can no longer have. The film trades purely on the official line of the tale of the people's princess, playing to the mythology while only apparently wanting to expose it; Ms. Watts' well-rounded performance makes you forget the lack of resemblance (we're always aware this is Naomi Watts playing Diana) and seems custom-tailored for an entirely different object - even though it's clear the filmmakers had no other film in mind, judging from Stephen Jeffreys' rather clunky scripting and cringingly formulaic dialogue. Nothing more than cheap perfume lavishly packaged as high-end fragrance, Diana is the sort of romantic nonsense British filmmakers knew how to do with conviction 60 years ago but no longer truly believe in nowadays.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge, Charles Edwards, Geraldine James, Juliet Stevenson, Cas Anvar, Daniel Pirrie, Michael Byrne, Art Malik
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenplay: Stephen Jeffreys, from the book by Kate Snell, Diana - Her Last Love
Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann (colour, widescreen)
Music: David Holmes, Keefus Ciancia
Designer: Kave Quinn
Costumes: Julian Day
Editor: Hans Funck
Producers: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae (Ecosse Films in co-production with Scope Pictures, Le Pacte, Film i Väst, Filmgate Films, B Media Export, in association with B Media Export, Indéfilms, A Plus Image 4 and Palatine Étoile 10)
United Kingdom/Belgium/France/Sweden, 2013, 113 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, September 24th 2013


Monday, October 07, 2013

2 GUNS

Even if you didn't know 2 Guns is based on a graphic novel, you wouldn't probably take too long in ascertaining the origin of Baltasar Kormákur's fast-moving, wise-cracking buddy comedy-actioner. There's definitely something cartoonish about this two-against-the-world tale of two undercover cops, one DEA, one NCIS, thrown into the deep end of a sting operation gone very wrong. But you wouldn't take too long either in understanding that the cartoonish, cheerful tone is a deliberate throwback to the golden age of the 1980s buddy cop movie - the era of titles such as 48 Hours, Running Scared, Stakeout, The Hard Way or Lethal Weapon - with a game cast having lots of fun with genre tropes and a buoyant rhythm suggesting an unholy mix of Michael Bay's OTT tendencies, Tarantino-ish meta-satirical self-awareness and Don Siegel no-nonsense.

     The key to 2 Guns lies in the simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and serious approach of all involved, from scriptwriter Blake Masters' pointed stabs at political and institutional corruption (in this world, it seems pretty much everyone's tainted) to Icelandic transplant Kormákur's gleefully take-no-prisoners handling, all driving action and cheeky wit. It's all magnificently encapsulated in the apparently unlikely but pitch-perfect match-up between stars Denzel Washington (as DEA cool cat Bobby Treach) and Mark Wahlberg (as Navy man Michael Stigman). Mr. Washington can turn the cool factor on at will, granted, and his character isn't much of a stretch, but there's real sparkle in his effortless, wise-cracking banter with an easy-going Mr. Wahlberg, whose often underestimated comic timing is on the spot here; and there's beautiful supporting work from Bill Paxton as the piece's core villain, relishing every Texan-accented line of his puppet-master corrupt federal agent. 2 Guns will never be anyone's idea of a masterpiece, true. But if all action films cranked out by the Hollywood machine could be as driven, driving and fun as it, Summer wouldn't be a dirty word any longer.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, James Marsden, Fred Ward, Edward James Olmos
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Screenplay: Blake Masters, from the graphic novel 2 Guns by Steven Grant
Cinematography: Oliver Wood (colour, widescreen)
Music: Clinton Shorter
Designer: Beth Mickle
Costumes: Laura Jean Shannon
Editor: Michael Tronick
Producers: Marc Platt, Adam Siegel, Randall Emmett, Norton Herrick, George Furla, Ross Richie, Andrew Cosby (Foresight Unlimited, Emmett/Furla Films and Marc Platt Productions in association with Universal Pictures, Oasis Media Ventures, Norton Herrick Entertainment, Boom! Studios, Empyre Media Capital and Envision Entertainment)
USA, 2013, 109 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, Lisbon, September 19th 2013


Friday, October 04, 2013

and now for something completely different: NOT ONE, BUT MANY YEAR ZEROS

The following story, with Joana Amaral Cardoso reporting on a press conference from the Portuguese Association of Film Producers, was printed in today's issue of daily newspaper Público. Translation mine.

Film producers sound the alarm: the fact that [pay-TV operators] Zon, Optimus, Meo, Cabovisão and Vodafone do not pay the annual contributions mandated in the new Film Act may create "successive year zeros for Portuguese cinema", and the opening of the financial support tenders for 2014 may be at risk. The Association of Film and Audiovisual Producers (APCA) demanded yesterday a "political solution that will allow the sector to survive" during this impasse - according to the Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual (ICA), an impasse that has cost 11 million euros since July.

At the heart of the issue is the non-observance by the five pay-TV operators of their required annual payments (€3,5 euro per subscriber, calculated according to the median number of subscribers); the operators are protesting the rate's constitutionality, and their not being at liberty to choose the projects they would prefer to support with their contributions, among other points raised. Since the operators have refused to pay, producer Luís Urbano [O Som e a Fúria] pointed out in the press conference that puts at stake "the opening of the 2014 tenders, due at the end of October". The 2012 tenders were suspended and the resulting paralysis made the period known as "year zero" for Portuguese cinema.

The producers predict there will be a "legal battle" between the operators and the state that may take "three to four years" to solve. Director Luís Galvão Teles challenged "the government to admit its responsabilities" and to stop "the collapse of the sector" in front of a roomful of film professionals. Luís Urbano, accompanied on the podium by director Luís Filipe Rocha, Galvão Teles, APCA president and producer Pandora Cunha Telles and producer Paulo Branco, pointed out "the sector cannot wait for such a long time". Apritel, the association representing the operators, has announced they will react to the Film Act with "all legal mechanisms available".

Asked about the type of political solution the producers expect to make up for the lack of monies, Urbano defended it's the government that should define its response. "The future of Portuguese cinema is going to be decided in this game. Either there is a political response, or the sector dies." The producer also announced he will sue the state for any financial losses incurred, and Pandora Cunha Telles has said that, if no solution comes up soon, "APCA and all producers affected will take legal measures." "We have started a period of fight," said Urbano. Branco says that "one sector [the TV operators], no matter how strong it is, cannot strangle another", and pointed out it's a matter of non-observance of the law.

The annual contribution is at the heart of the public production financing model, through ICA, but Paulo Branco reminded "the sector does not live on this money alone." "It is an essential starter for us to double or triple the financing of Portuguese films [in the market]." The risk of total shutdown and unemployment for "hundreds of professionals," raised by Luís Filipe Rocha, is as urgent as the risk of confirming this year's tenders, since without that confirmation the banking guarantees to shoot films approved for production in 2013 cannot be unlocked.

The press conference brought together producers, actors, screenwriters and directors and pointed out, among the many dates of the complex process [...], all the professional film associations have sent a letter to Prime-Minister Passos Coelho on this subject a month ago. "We still have not had an answer", said Pandora Cunha Telles.

Branco noted the monies at stake are "a drop of water in the ocean of Portuguese audiovisual" - "less than the money needed to bankroll a Woody Allen film", he said ironically - and Pandora Cunha Telles quantified the fee as 0,87% of the median monthly profits of the pay-TV operators. Luís Filipe Rocha lamented the "deafening silence" of the Presidency and of the competent ministry. Director and [opposition] Member of Parliament Inês de Medeiros clarified from the audience that the subject will be up for debate in the Parliament October 9th, when the financing model of the Portuguese Cinemathèque will be discussed with the presence of the State Secretary for Culture.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE

Having seen Like Someone in Love hot on the heels of revisiting Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon, it's almost unavoidable to find traces of the Japanese master in the latest work from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, shot in Japan with a Japanese cast and crew. But Mr. Kiarostami's patient, static takes, (openly) influenced as they may be by Mr. Ozu's observational stillness, are certainly in the service of something else - yet another of his ingeniously self-reflexive commentaries on life and art. In point of fact, Like Someone in Love is about the distance between inside and outside, fact and fiction, truth and make-believe, following an unexpected triangle developed over a 24-hour period: Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a college student who escorts on the side to make money, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), her jealous repairman boyfriend, and Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), a retired professor and a "client" of Akiko's who seems to long for something other than sex.

     What is so intriguing and fascinating about Mr. Kiarostami's approach to these characters is how he ejects pretty much everything that could give story, motive or purpose to them. Instead, the film becomes a deliberately opaque play, one that forces every character to take on different roles and makes the viewer part of that play-acting. It's highly appropriate for a film about loss and longing, about depth rather than surface, about the choices we make at every given turn. As usual with the director, the naturalistic performances and the observational handling are part and parcel of the process, leading the viewer to trust his feelings and his thoughts. He weaves slowly a tale of wrong turns or roads not taken, unfolding with an exquisite attention to each of the characters' more minute glances or movements.

     Then, abruptly, it all ends - in an ending that Mr. Kiarostami originally wrote in as a mere "placeholder" but finally thought twistedly appropriate, and that becomes, at the same time, a letdown and the cherry on top of the film's deliberately equivocal nature. The viewer's acceptance of it will undoubtedly depend on his knowledge and tolerance for the director's regular thoughtful playfulness; I must admit its sudden return to theoretical abstraction threw me for a loop and marred what, until then, had been a wonderful addition to the Kiarostami canon.

Cast: Tadashi Okuno, Rin Takanashi, Ryo Kase, Denden
Director and screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami
Cinematography: Katsumi Yanagishima  (colour)
Designer: Toshihiro Isomi
Costumes: Masae Miyamoto
Editor: Bahman Kiarostami
Producers: Marin Karmitz, Kenzo Horikoshi  (MK2 Productions and Eurospace)
France/Japan, 2012, 109 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), September 13th 2013