Thursday, January 30, 2014

SAVING MR. BANKS

The great irony surrounding Saving Mr. Banks is inescapable: what started out as an exploration of the fight between Australian writer P. L. Travers, née Helen Goff, and Walt Disney over the film adaptation of her Mary Poppins novels, has become its own Disney movie - an airbrushed, Oscar-baiting prestige picture - when it could have, and should have, been so much more. Granted, it would have always been tricky to tell this true story without the involvement of the Disney studio, but did it really have to mean water the story down to a rather schematic, bowdlerized take on art as sublimation of personal life? Can, in fact, any work of art be merely reduced to a simple succession of cause and effect, of life experiences alchemically transformed into a roman à clef of personal connections?

     As posited by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith's script, the tale of dream nanny Mary Poppins and her influence in the household of London banker George Banks arose out of P. L. Travers' childhood in the Australian outback with a charming, loving but stifled father (Colin Farrell) unable to behave responsibly for the sake of his children; Walt Disney's connection to Travers' book, while undeniably personal, could have never reached the same heights for a controlling mind such as the writer. "Restoring order with imagination" is what they're both in the business of doing, as Disney (Tom Hanks) points out at one time in one of the discussions with Travers (Emma Thompson). And it would be perfectly fine, if both the script and John Lee Hancock's glossy but merely illustrative handling didn't intercut so diligently between the writer's culture-shock experiences while at Hollywood and her vivid recollections of her Australian childhood. In so doing, Saving Mr. Banks runs the risk of trivializing whatever magic Mary Poppins, both book and film, may still hold today - as so many Hollywood-backlot films run the risk of doing (Sacha Gervasi's entertaining but disposable Hitchcock comes to mind).

     That the film still holds one's interest over its slightly extended runtime may be attributed, first, to the scenes where Travers goes over the script and songs with screenwriter Don da Gradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak), the songwriters, which provide some interesting, curious insights into the actual creative process. Also to Paul Giamatti's wonderfully subdued supporting turn as Ralph, the cheerful driver hired by Disney to take the writer around, a beautifully low-key distillation of Mary Poppins' emotional subtext. And, finally but above all, to Emma Thompson's extraordinary portrayal of P. L. Travers, fleshing out the stern, curmudgeonly presence of the writer with a lifetime of pain and repressed emotions, staying always just the right side of melodrama and refusing to surrender to the manipulation the earlier, golden-hued scenes of Australian childhood aim for. Had Saving Mr. Banks followed Ms. Thompson's lead, then it would have been a much better film.

Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B. J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenplay: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Cinematography (colour, widescreeen): John Schwartzman
Music: Thomas Newman
Designer: Michael Corenblith
Costumes: Daniel Orlandi
Editor: Mark Livolsi
Producers: Alison Owen, Ian Collie, Philip Steuer (Walt Disney Pictures, Ruby Films and Essential Media and Entertainment, in association with BBC Films, Hopscotch Features and Screen Australia)
United Kingdom/USA/Australia, 2013, 125 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), January 20th 2013

Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Original Music Score


Monday, January 27, 2014

A CAMPANHA DO CREOULA (The Quest of the Schooner Creoula)

We've met André Valentim de Almeida before - with his 2012 essayist documentary about a 2009 stay in New York City, From New York with Love. For a follow-up, the director delves yet again both in his magic box of tricks and in his archives and pulls out footage he shot in the Summer of 2010, while accompanying a scientific trip to the Savage Islands, a Portuguese archipelago off Madeira. "Three weeks without newspapers, phone, internet or fine pastries", he pronounces in the voiceover, at the height of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup - and soccer will play an important role in the structuring and presenting of the film, designed as an essay about the ineffable qualities of Portuguese history and society.

     Structure is important here: A Campanha do Creoula is clearly a more structured, cohesive film than From New York with Love, with which it shares the playfulness and the slow unfolding of its real subject. On the surface a variation on the rather formulaic, often stiff science documentaries that are the mainstays of cable channels, the deadpan wit and tight narrative control lead the viewer into something else altogether, a peculiar sociological study that rises slowly from the uncovering of the history of the Savages, of the ship itself - the Creoula was once a lugger active in cod fishing off Newfoundland refitted as a training ship for the Portuguese Navy - and of the director. All of them seem to collide head-on at a very slow but nonetheless unavoidable speeds, ending up as a fleetingly moving, but mostly cheerfully melancholy look at the director's relationship with the little corner of the world he calls home. It's yet another intensely personal essay, but one that is much more wide-ranging and accessible (not to mention funnier) than From New York with Love.

Director, writer, cinematographer, editor and producer: André Valentim de Almeida
Portugal, 2013, 73 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 23rd 2013

Friday, January 24, 2014

STO LYKO (To the Wolf)

There's something unsettlingly disconcerting about the feature debut of the Anglo-Greek filmmaking duo of Christina Koutsospyrou and Aran Hughes. Technically a documentary about the hardships of shepherds living in the remote Nafpaktia mountains of Greece, To the Wolf is in fact a mood-setting assemblage of documentary footage into a loose fictional narrative, weaving the lives of struggle and poverty of two families into the larger drama of a contemporary Greek society that found itself impoverished when the recession hit badly.

      Built out of long takes that give it a stately, almost comically overwrought weight, the film conveys well the sense of despair and pointlessness present in a lifestyle that is even more endangered after the crisis hit. The dark, greyish, foggy landscapes create a sort of apocalyptic tone underlined by the dry, sullen wit of its characters, dovetailing neatly with the current "new wave" of Greek cinema and its resolutely opaque, absurdist sensibility.

     That sensibility is, for better or worse, mirrored in this intriguing if not entirely successful debut, concerned less with content than with form and, in the process, raising interesting (though possibly not entirely required) questions about the strengths and weaknesses, the limits and definitions of documentary filmmaking. To the Wolf is the record of a "likely" or "possible" reality rather than of "actual" reality. Which is more "truthful"? Ms. Koutsospyrous and Mr. Hughes let their viewers figure it out.

Directors, cameramen and editors: Aran Hughes, Christina Koutsospyrou
Producers: Julien Mata, Alice Baldo, Mr. Hughes, Ms. Koutsospyrou, Theo Prodromidis (French Kiss Production, Linel Films)
France/Greece/United Kingdom, 2012, 74 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 23rd 2013



Sto Lyko (To the Wolf) - TRAILER from LINEL FILMS on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

AMERICAN HUSTLE

We've been here before, in this territory of small-time conmen stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, in these 1970s where everything seemed possible in an American cinema that was more complicated and closer to real life than anything seen before. The only thing is, American Hustle may be set in late-1970s New York City and tell a story of struggling anti-heroes, human beings who took a different, darker path, but we're not in the 1970s anymore. And David O. Russell's fictionalised take on a real-life episode of the era, transformed by the director from an original script by Eric Singer, is too enamoured of the possibilities, of the freedom and the desire of 1970s cinema to recognise that he's trying to reinvent the wheel and do again what has already been done better.

     American Hustle wants to be the ultimate seventies movie, a head-on collision of classical Hollywood and modern auteur drive, romantic comedy, crime drama and character study alchemically melding into a perfect distillation of American low-life glamour and blue-collar nobility. The key premise comes from a heist movie and is Scorsesian in its scope and driving themes (ambition, escape, making it big): small-time con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are strong-armed by ambitious FBI agent Richie di Maso (Bradley Cooper) into an elaborate set-up designed to entrap corrupt politicians, with New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as their unwitting entry point. But Mr. Russell seems to be more interested in the boisterous love triangle that develops into a twisted "comedy of remarriage", one that seems straight out of a film by the equally cinephile Peter Bogdanovich: Richie desires Sydney, who is Irving's mistress, but her feelings for them lead her to spurn them both for the duration of the con, with Irving's actual wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) as an "interloper" in both the romance and the action.

     A fine actor's director, Mr. Russell has neither Martin Scorsese's drive nor Mr. Bogdanovich's sensibility; he does have a manic energy and a feel for blue-collar life that has served him well in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but American Hustle is a whole other kettle of fish and one that soon suggests the director has bitten off more than he can chew. Bloated and overlong at nearly two and a half hours without any proper justification for the length, always amped up to eleven as per the director's usual but too often seeming to be running on fumes, the film is never as funny or as original as it thinks it is — though Mr. Russell does coax once again a fine series of performances, especially from Ms. Adams and Ms. Lawrence, with a standout supporting role from comedian Louis C. K. as the penny-pinching FBI supervisor who stands in Richie's way. It is an entertaining, well-made film - but, as Silver Linings Playbook before it, has been hyped beyond its own merits, and suggests a more careerist director than either that careening comedy or the tense, nervous The Fighter showed.

Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C. K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, Paul Herman
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriters: Eric Warren Singer, Mr. Russell
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren (colour, widescreen)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Judy Becker
Costumes: Michael Wilkinson
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten
Producers: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon  (Annapurna Pictures and Atlas Entertainment)
USA, 2013, 138 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, January 15th 2014

Nominated for ten 2013 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress - Amy Adams; Best Actor - Christian Bale; Best Supporting Actress - Jennifer Lawrence; Best Supporting Actor - Bradley Cooper; Best Original Screenplay; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Editing)


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

CARA A CARA (Face to Face)

The latest documentary from director Margarida Leitão is a quite good example of an excellent idea wasted in an ultimately undecided, undecisive approach to its subject. At its heart lies the Iberian bullfight, a longstanding practice in Spain, France and Portugal that has become a flashpoint between animal rights activists and defenders of the practice, but Ms. Leitão isn't in it to either glorify or denounce bullfighting. Her focus is on the "forcados", who invest against the bull in the arena alone and on foot to grab it (mostly by the horns, but not only), and she seems to be trying to understand why the young men who sign up for the groups would want to go head to head with a beast that can gore them or kill them in a flash.

     The director juxtaposes two squads of men who do this pretty much on a voluntary, amateur basis, one of the longest-running Portuguese groups and a younger Mexican band - but that is where her film fails: while Ms. Leitão captures pretty accurately the masculine bond that surrounds the men as they train and perform, as well as the down, quiet moments, never does she manage to delve inside what makes them tick, revealing thoughts or reasons. As a record of their rituals and performances, yes, Cara a Cara can be a fascinating group portrait, especially since the director is very attentive to their expressions (whenever the group is in the arena, the camera's focus on the waiting men is priceless and insightful). But there is nothing else beyond that, only the sense of a film that gets in the room with these men but seems to have stayed firmly at the door, observing them carefully but failing to explain why they do what they do.

Director and screenwriter: Margarida Leitão
Camera: Guilherme Daniel (colour)
Editor: João Braz
Production: Ukbar Filmes, Inmedia
Portugal/Mexico, 2013, 69 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 Portuguese competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 22nd 2013



Trailer Cara a Cara from Ukbar Filmes on Vimeo.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

ANITA

There's a charming, dazzling idea at the heart of director and video artist Luca Magi's brief moodpiece: retracing the fictional journey of the lead character in a film that was never made. In 1957, Federico Fellini wrote with Tullio Pinelli a screenplay loosely based on his own journey back home to visit his dying father, but Viaggio con Anita in its original form was never shot (to the director's great remorse; having sold the script to producer Alberto Grimaldi, Fellini was disappointed in the adaptation shot by Mario Monicelli in 1978 with Giancarlo Giannini and Goldie Hawn). Anita is an impressionist, enveloping combination of documentary and essay that seeks to recreate the original script's journey from Rome to Fano, finding the traces of the past in the present and fiction in reality, and vice-versa, by dovetailing newly-shot footage with period home movies in 8mm and 16mm.

     Asking what is the part of nostalgia and the part of fantasy, how much of it is actual memory and how much of it projection, Anita asks how does the real world become affected by the overlay of fiction and artistic experience. By intertwining "old" and "new" footage, Mr. Magi creates an oneiric, phantasmagorical palimpsest of ideas and memories awakened by a film that never existed - a love letter whose magic lies in its small scale. Anita would very probably not survive a longer cut - even at under one hour there are some longueurs - and its very specific mood means it's not for everyone, but for those who enjoy it, it's a thought-provoking, very lovely piece of work.

Director: Luca Magi
Screenwriter: Antonio Bigini, inspired by the screenplay Viaggio con Anita by Federico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli
Cinematographers: Mr. Magi, Claudio Giapponesi (colour)
Music: Massimo Carozzi
Editor: Mr. Giapponesi
Producer: Alessandro Carroli (Kiné Società Cooperativa and Vezfilm)
Italy/United Kingdom, 2012, 55 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 official competition screener, Lisbon, October 22nd 2013




Trailer ANITA (2012)- Luca Magi from Kiné Coop on Vimeo.

Monday, January 20, 2014

NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. I

The "nymphomaniac" of the title isn't really the central character of Danish director Lars von Trier's latest film, played at two different stages of their lives by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg. No, the real "nymphomaniac" is Mr. von Trier himself, making a sort of aesthetic autobiography, a film à clef full of thinly-veiled references to his public image and past career in the shape of a bait-and-switch provocation. It's also a star-studded recap of his oeuvre's stylistic and formal approaches disguised as a socratic dialogue between a speaker and a listener, alternating between the tragic and the comedic, the highbrow and the lowbrow, in a typically and uniquely von Trier-like charade. It is, though, hard to look at Nymphomaniac Vol. I and not see in it something deeper, something more sincere and sophisticated that in many of the nakedly provocative works that made his reputation.

     Just as in the previous Melancholia you could feel a wintry, greyish, more subdued tenor, suggesting a director more at ease and more liberated the closest he feels to himself, here the structure of Joe (Ms. Gainsbourg's) sexual education is much less about sex, desire or lust than it is about emotion and life - as if she were a "woman without qualities" enveloped by guilt and despair. As she seems to confess herself to the sympathetic ear of Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) to be a mean, evil person, through a series of roughly chronological coming-of-age sketches, she is really voicing the director's own mea culpa as a master manipulator for his own purposes; substitute art for sex, note how little of the sex depicted on screen is graphic or even titillating, and you'll get yet another example of just how ambitious and hyper-sensitive Mr. von Trier is, as he attemps to create a filmic equivalent to a neo-classical dialogue or an epistolary novel as a self-justification for being the foremost contemporary agent provocateur of cinema.

     Of course, all of this may very well shift once Nymphomaniac vol. II is revealed - this is the first of two separate two-hour films edited, allegedly with the director's agreement but without his participation or involvement, down from a longer, five-hour unrated, uncensored cut. Whether this Nymphomaniac is or not what Mr. von Trier originally planned, it is nevertheless very recognisably his work, down to the demanding, nakedly confessional tenor of the performances (Ms. Gainsbourg seems to have become a regular, and Uma Thurman turns in a surprisingly against-type role as the distraught wife of a man who decides to leave his family for Joe). And the odds are you're being manipulated yet again with all the multiple-version situation - even so, there's a very strong feeling that Nymphomaniac as Melancholia before is coming across as more sincere and heartfelt than most of what Mr. von Trier has been doing ever since the early masterpiece that was Europa.

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia Labeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen
Director: Lars von Trier, with additional work by Anders Refn
Screenwriter: Mr. von Trier
Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro  (colour, widescreen) 
Designer: Simone Grau Roney
Costumes: Manon Rasmussen
Editor: Molly Malene Stensgaard
Producer: Louise Vesth  (Zentropa Entertainments 31 in co-production with Zentropa International Köln, Slot Machine Productions, Zentropa International France, Caviar Films, Zenbelgië, Zentropa International Sweden, ARTE France Cinéma, Groupe Grand Accord and ARTE G. E. I. E.)
Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium/Sweden, 2013, 117 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon, January 11th 2014



Nymphomaniac Official Trailer from Zentropa on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

A film such as Dallas Buyers Club gives a sense that, for all its support of liberal, progressive causes, Hollywood still much prefers to treat them as self-congratulatory, piously edifying "problem pictures" that fit a comfortingly formatted, pre-existing shelf. Indeed, some of that can be seen in this otherwise estimable and smarter than usual drama from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée: an adaptation of the true tale of hard-living, hard-drinking Texas womanizer Ron Woodroof, who was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s and explored a number of parallel, unofficial treatments made possible through "buyers clubs".

     That Woodroof's story is embellished and fictionalised in Dallas Buyers Club is hardly a surprise (when truth is in the way of a good story, it has a habit to fall by the wayside), but that this is technically an independent production made outside the Hollywood channels is pretty much an admission that what passes for "independent" film nowadays is really just an edgier take on what would have otherwise been major-studio production. Worse, that a story about the role buyers clubs had in AIDS activism still seems to require a heterosexual experience at its heart to get made (and run all the way to the Academy Awards as Dallas Buyers Club is doing) is very disappointing in a post-Brokeback Mountain, post-Milk landscape.

     Still, these caveats aside, Dallas Buyers Club is a nicely done picture that avoids most of the melodramatic excesses its tale would be prone to; Mr. Vallée's handling, discrete and smart (avoiding for instance any musical score), makes up for the archetypes at the heart of its script, where each character serves a precise dramatic function (Jared Leto's transvestite martyr, Jennifer Garner's kindly doctor-cum-love-interest) and is neatly arranged within the framework of an openly redemptive story. What could have been a movie-of-the-week true-life drama is easily transcended by Mr. Vallée's almost imperceptible energy and, above all, by two show-stopping performances that have depth and heart under the overtly visible physical transformations the actors went through: that of Mr. Leto as Rayon and especially Matthew McConaughey's as Woodroof, both of them zeroing in sharply on the inner essence of their characters.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O'Hare, Dallas Roberts, Jared Leto
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenwriters: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Cinematogaphy: Yves Bélanger  (colour, widescreen)
Designer: John Paino
Costumes: Kurt Swanson, Bart Mueller
Editors: John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa
Producers: Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter  (Truth Entertainment, Voltage Pictures, R2 Films, Evolution Independent and CE Productions)
USA, 2013, 116 minutes

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

Winner of three 2013 Academy Awards (Best Actor - Matthew McConaughey; Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto; Best Make-Up)
Nominated for three other Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing)


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

VIDA ACTIVA

The approach at the heart of Susana Nobre's feature documentary Vida Activa is, to say the least, unusual: the film feeds off her work in a job centre in Vila Franca de Xira, some 30km outside Lisbon, where she counseled and helped prepared older workers, laid-off or unemployed, for the "new world" of modern employment. Her subjects are the people whose case files she handled, filmed with their knowledge and consent and that of her superiors, and the final result was edited down from footage shot over four years, between 2007 and the centre's 2011 shutdown after the programme it belonged to was cancelled.

     Essential to Ms. Nobre's approach is making sure her subjects retain their personal dignity, letting them talk about their experience of (un)employment in long, unmediated takes. These can be as dry and dull (there are next to no visual flourishes and a total absence of soundtrack) as they are vital for the entire structure of the project: the trick is making both subject and viewer at ease with the presence of a camera recording the exposure of their past experiences to the world, intruding into their sense of self. And the viewer finds herself in the position of the worker who is taking in all these histories and experiences, feeling as helpless as all involved as to whether there can really be a fresh, new start.

     Ms. Nobre dovetails her study of how the unemployed feel with the specific issues of the Vila Franca/Alverca do Ribatejo South Central region, where the main employers eventually closed down and threw an entire population into unemployment. She contextualises it within a better time of guaranteed long-term work that no one ever thought could disappear, as a lost world of hope in the future; she also shows the current employers to have a purely utilitarian view of work as a means to an end, merely using skills for as long as they're needed before disposing of them as no longer necessary. Thus a greyish indefinition replaces the sense of purpose and worth people had before, throwing them into a limbo these people feel themselves trapped in and see little to no way out of, even though they stubbornly (or self-blindingly?) insist on trying to maintain some dignity.

     That limbo is poignantly made visible in the final scenes, as the centre where Ms. Nobre worked for four years is shut down, and its aid workers are themselves thrown into the same position of the people they were supposed to help. While there's much about Vida Activa that is specific to the way Portugal suffered with the 2008 recession, and there's a brittle bluntness to its form that doesn't make it particularly endearing, this is in fact a hauntingly universal tale of the effects of unemployment.

Director and camera: Susana Nobre (colour)
Editor: João Rosas
Producers: Ms. Nobre, João Matos (Terratreme Filmes)
Portugal, 2013, 91 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 21st 2013

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

LA BATALLA DE CHILE (The Battle of Chile)

There is a reason why Chilean exile Patricio Guzmán's monumental work The Battle of Chile has become one of the high-water marks of documentary filmmaking and is considered one of the finest, if not the finest, political film ever made. Its subject alone would call attention to it - the 12 months leading up to the September 1973 coup that deposed elected Chilean president Salvador Allende and sent the country into a two-decades-long oppressive military regime led by Augusto Pinochet, as seen from inside Chile by those who lived through it.

     But what makes The Battle of Chile's importance lies elsewhere. On one hand, the film - a nearly five-hour work divided into three separate parts - is essentially history as it happened, shot in the heat of the moment by a bunch of volunteer, enthusiastic young men and women idealistically yearning for Mr. Allende's socialist democracy to gain a foothold. On the other, it is also a meditation on history after it happened, having been edited at length over three years in exile from the many hours of footage shot during 1972 and 1973 - thus, reporting becomes historiography in front of the viewer's eyes. Mr. Guzmán refuses to reduce his mammoth assemblage to images to a simple narrative collage of events; everything in it is carefully considered, presenting a layered, multiple view of the events in roughly chronological order, the passage of time attributing a whole other reflexive, reflective layer over it, its focus on the experience inside Chile in a compacted period of time creating a potted history of Latin American politics, an accelerated syllabus of Politics 101 split into three approximately 90-minute "episodes".

     The first two - The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie and The Military Coup, finished respectively in 1975 and 1976 - function together as a diptych that narrates the events in order, starting at the coup then "rewinding" back to the events of October 1972. The third, Power to the People, finished in 1979, focuses on specific moments of the Chilean workers taking matters into their hands, and presents an abbreviated history of the chasm between political theory and political practice as those in charge begin to realise the enormity of their self-appointed task of remaking a whole way of governing. It's a remarkably alive portrait of a country given a reprieve to look into the future then forcefully dragged, kicking and screaming, back into the past against its will, doubling as a master class of political scheming as the rules of democracy are overtly flaunted by the opposition with excessive zeal in order to gum up the machinery.

     In a way, the film becomes the story of an impossible utopia whose desired class reconciliation was sabotaged at every step by an ultra-conservative right unwilling to engage with a wide-eyed, idealistic left; but it's a story that, though it may denounce the right, does not whitewash the mistakes of the left. By focusing on the daily events to create a composite picture of the larger time period, Mr. Guzmán's work becomes an affecting journey through its time, held aloft not as a shining example but presented in unassuming simplicity as a cautionary tale of the left's failure to recognise its idealism as insufficient to overcome a recalcitrant opposition; but also as a testimony for future reference of a shining moment where that idealism seemed enough to change the world. That the film is fully aware that it didn't and why it didn't, instead of saying "if only...", is what sets The Battle of Chile apart and makes it the work of art and of history that it has become with time.

Narrator: Abilio Fernández
Director: Patricio Guzmán
Screenwriter: Mr. Guzmán, with the collaboration of Pedro Chaskel, José Bartolome, Julio García Espinosa, Federico Elton, Marta Harnecker and Chris Marker
Camera: Jorge Müller Silva (b&w)
Music: José Antonio Quintano
Editor: Mr. Chaskel
Production: Mr. Guzmán, in collaboration with Mr. Marker, the Cuban Institute of Cinema and Film Arts, and the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation

Part I: La Insurrección de la Burguesía (The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie)
Chile/France/Cuba/USA, 1975, 97 minutes

Part II: El Golpe de Estado (The Military Coup)
Chile/France/Cuba/USA, 1976, 86 minutes

Part III: El Poder Popular (Power to the People)
Chile/France/Cuba/USA, 1979, 79 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa retrospective sidebar preview screeners, Lisbon, October 19th and 20th 2013


Monday, January 13, 2014

OS DIAS COM ELE

There's a fascinating, if not entirely original, idea in Brazilian director Maria Clara Escobar's debut film: to uncover part of the forgotten history of 20th century Brazil - the years it spent under military dictatorship - through the story of her father, Brazilian academic, philosopher and communist militant Carlos Henrique Escobar, now relocated to Portugal with a new family. To use her own personal family history as a doorway into the past, not only the past of a country but also the past of a family that never truly existed - Carlos Henrique recognised Maria Clara as his daughter, but never married her mother.

     That's not the film Ms. Escobar ended up making, and I'm not sure whether that change of plans wasn't for the better - it turns out that the idea of talking of a period insufficiently researched through a personal story becomes a tale of family relationships and estrangement, as the director suddenly finds getting her father to discuss the subject at hand is the same thing as drawing blood from a rock. Mr. Escobar is unwilling to relinquish control of his narrative (whether political or personal) and does so bordering on a condescension borne of righteousness, Ms. Escobar becomes frustrated at his obstinacy, and the underlying tension born of their mutual stubbornness becomes the very subject of Os Dias com Ele, as the duty of memory that was at the project's inception transforms into an attempt at bridging a generation gap that didn't seem to be there in the first place but was probably unavoidable.

     There's a strong sense of tip-toeing around an elephant in the room, a beast that goes unseen and unmentioned but that is nevertheless present; Os Dias com Ele thus becomes a chronicle of learning to live with secrets and a past that is kept locked away, wondering whether it is better - or what purpose would it serve - to bring it out on to the open. All of this while remaining true to the original project of uniting the "little history" of people and the "big history" of the world, micro and macro in one movement, only in an entirely different way than originally designed.

Director and cinematographer: Maria Clara Escobar
Editors: Júlia Murat, Juliane Rojas
Production: Filmes de Abril
Brazil, 2013, 107 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 18th 2013


Friday, January 10, 2014

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

If you think about it, a tale of brash upstart stockbrokers trying to make it big in Wall Street fits right into the very American idea of the self-made man, the pioneer breaking new ground for himself, pulling himself by the bootstraps until he gets where he wants to go, stopping at nothing to make things happen. The difference, in the tale as Martin Scorsese tells it in The Wolf of Wall Street, is that the business brash upstart stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo di Caprio) is in is making money through shady financial transactions he is the only one profiteering from.

     There's one born every day, and Belfort will stop at nothing to make money off them, as indeed he did during the 1990s before eventually being caught by the FBI. There's something in his story, greatly embellished in the memoir that is the basis for Mr. Scorsese's movie, that suggests he is making up for lost time, disproving those who said he'd never get there, sticking it to The Man even while hobnobbing with him - the tale of a classically insecure yet wildly ambitious man, told at breathtaking speed and in gargantuan excess as Belfort and his growing cast of cronies erect a grotesque monument to greed, sex and wealth.

     The Wolf of Wall Street's relentless parade of bling is as lurid and gaudy as it is nauseous and overegged; in its Grand-Guignolesque rise and fall of a salesman who pushed too hard we see echoes of earlier films by Mr. Scorsese, yet he can no longer shoot Belfort like he shot his other made men. Times have changed, and these folk have nothing that'll even resemble a moral code - not family, not brotherhood, not even morality, it's every man for himself. As such, he underlines the desperation and darkness at the centre of this orgy of greed, his camera waltzing around the ostentatious, flashy signs of obscene wealth with as much kinetic relish as moral disapproval.

     Is Mr. Scorsese trying to have his cake and eat it too, or merely exploring satire in a particularly savage, visceral way? Other reviewers have veered wildly in either direction, but I prefer to think that the director is moving back into the dysfunctional fray of American mores after the whimsical interlude of Hugo, aware of and attuned to the tone Terence Winter's script needs to work as a film but also attempting to recapture some of his earlier energy within the structure of an excessive morality play. Key to this moral angle is the presence of Mr. Di Caprio, Mr. Scorsese's current regular accomplice (and a co-producer of the film as well), using to good effect his golden-boy looks to play the inside-out flip-side of his canny, charming conman in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. Both characters are grown-up kids looking for acceptance within the bigger world, looking for a place to fit in but in almost opposite ways; where Joe Abagnole blended in until he wasn't any longer himself, Jordan Belfort wants to stand out and make himself known for who he is.

     The Wolf of Wall Street physically exhausts the viewer to the point he just wants this endless party to finally come to an end - and its excessive three-hour length may be part of the point Mr. Scorsese wanted to make, as the film does shape up to be a comment on the current economic crises and the villain role that bankers, financial consultants and stockbrokers have had in it. But nevertheless it's clear that, for all his visual virtuosity, the director isn't breaking any new ground here, merely recycling his bravura moments in a new setting while essaying satire with an appropriately heavy hand. This film was made for these times, and may yet survive them.

Cast: Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Terence Winter, from the memoir by Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto (colour, widescreen)
Designer: Bob Shaw
Costumes: Sandy Powell
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Producers: Mr. Scorsese, Mr. Di Caprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Kiskoff  (Red Granite Pictures, Appian Way Productions, Sikelia Productions, EMJAG Productions)
USA, 2013, 179 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, January 3rd 2014

Nominated for five 2013 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Leonardo di Caprio; Best Supporting Actor - Jonah Hill; Best Adapted Screenplay)


Thursday, January 09, 2014

LOVELACE

For their second incursion into non-documentary narrative filmmaking, Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman continue to tell stories of the alternative/underground cultures of post-World War II United States. Better known for their gay-themed documentaries such as The Celluloid Closet and The Times of Harvey Milk, their first "fiction" foray was an intelligent and ambitious but somewhat over-reaching take on Allen Ginsberg's beat poem Howl, which they now follow with a biography of Linda Lovelace, star of the 1970s infamously legendary crossover porn film Deep Throat. 

     Messrs. Epstein and Friedman, along with screenwriter Andy Bellin, structure it not like your standard biopic, but more like a Rashomon-like "twice told tale", in a narrative device that sees the same events through two different lenses: Catholic schoolgirl Linda Boreham's marriage to the shady Chuck Traynor, who would become his manager, and her rise to stardom appear first as the transgressive fairy tale suggested in the public perception, and then through her own adult memories when, after remaking her life as a married working mother, she decided to set the record straight by writing a memoir. It is, essentially, Linda's side of the story that is at the centre of Lovelace: how she married Traynor to find a way out of the oppressive family environment she grew up in, how she fairly quickly found herself out of her depth, not quite aware of what exactly she was getting herself in nor of where it could take her, eventually needing to write her own story and reclaim her identity as Linda Boreman.

     For that reason alone, the casting of Amanda Seyfried, the chirpy ingenue of Mamma Mia! and Les Misérables, as Linda is as inspired as it comes: the actress brings to the part a sweetness and a simplicity that ring true with the way Linda herself became an unlikely, somewhat naïve star, and with her desire to lead a "good life" that led to make some bad choices. It's a tale that would have probably not quite come off as a documentary - plus, the subject had already been covered to some extent in Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's Inside Deep Throat - but despite all the right moves of Messrs. Epstein and Friedman, doesn't quite make it either as a more conventional narrative film. Despite the casting and the period-perfect visuals, even the smart approach to the organising of the narrative, there's a restraint and a rather conventional design of the story as a cautionary tale of domestic abuse that neuters many of the more transgressive aspects to the film.

     There's a sense that the directors are too rooted in the documentary tradition to actually pull off the flights of fancy that a project like this can actually be enriched by, even though Lovelace proves again they're adept at directing actors. Ms. Seyfried's performance - though closer to her reputation than many will think on the surface - will come as a surprise to many and Peter Sarsgaard successfully channels his darker side as Traynor; but it's an unrecognisable Sharon Stone, playing Linda's tough-love mother Dorothy, that best encapsulates the film's qualities, even if ultimately Messrs. Epstein and Friedman don't take them to the limit.

Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Hank Azaria, Wes Bentley, Adam Brody, Bobby Cannavale, James Franco, Debi Mazar, Chris Noth, Robert Patrick, Eric Roberts, Chloë Sevigny, Sharon Stone, Juno Temple
Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Screenplay: Andy Bellin
Cinematography: Eric Edwards  (colour)
Music: Stephen Trask
Designer: William Arnold
Costumes: Karyn Wagner
Editors: Robert Dalva, Matthew Landon
Producers: Heidi Jo Markel, Laura Rister, Jason Weinberg, Jim Young (Millennium Films and Eclectic Pictures in association with Untitled Entertainment, Animus Films and Telling Pictures)
USA, 2013, 92 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 Panorama advance press screening, Cinestar Sony Center 3 (Berlin), February 9th 2013


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

KELLY

With the intriguing, multi-layered Kelly, French filmmaker Stéphanie Régnier creates a piece that carries echoes of the interest contemporary documentary has in first-person narratives and in ambiguous, border-challenging structures. In her simple device of having her subject talk straight to the camera, in a non-descript hotel room, about her experiences, we see a reference to Wang Bing's Fengming, a Chinese Memoir, where a woman spoke to camera about her life; in the regular interruptions of Kelly's tale by voiceover-only commentary from other people about her, Kelly reminds of Salomé Lamas' ever-shifting Terra de Ninguém, where not everything may be what it seems.

     Kelly is a Peruvian we meet in Tangier, working odd jobs or as a prostitute to make ends meet, looking to cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Europe so she, and her younger brothers, may join their mother who works in France. She has already travelled from Peru more than once, having been previously repatriated, and Tangier is the closest she's ever been to France - yet the possibility of her entering Europe, not necessarily legally, seems to be ever-elusive and dwindling. Ms. Régnier presents her tale at face value, letting her own words tell it, and pointing out that, although Kelly is part of an underclass that struggles to be heard and respected, she is in control of that story even while being buffeted around by the storms of society around her that look down upon immigrants who try to make a better life elsewhere. An indictment of a society that exploits immigrants, or a tale of a dream deferred as a woman puts everything in the backburner for the sake of a better life for her brothers?

     Should we take the story as the truth the face value suggests, or should we ask ourselves how much of it is a fiction we want to believe in? Is Kelly simply weaving an embellished tale for the sake of making "first-world" consciences feel bad, or is she baring herself in front of the camera? And what are we to make of our own assessment of the situation? Do we believe in it because we truly want to or because we feel we should? Ms. Régnier cannily lays down the cards and then lets its viewers make up their minds; she is entirely in control of the film she wants to make, just as Kelly is entirely in control of her words and her story. Everything else is left to the viewer - and the questions it asks are entirely valid.

Director, camera, sound: Stéphanie Régnier
Editor: Saskia Berthod
Producers: Carine Chichkowsky, Madeline Robert (Survivance and Les Films de la Caravane in co-production with Lyon Capitale TV and Oumigmag)
France, 2013, 67 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 official competition screener, Lisbon, October 18th 2013

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

OS CAMINHOS DE JORGE

The title "character" of Portuguese-Belgian director Miguel Moraes Cabral's documentary is Jorge Fernandes, a sixty-something man who rides around the Northern provinces of Portugal with his trusty, noisy old motorcycle, sharpening knives and scissors with a portable grindstone and doing some faith healing on the side. Through the trips of this journeying tradesman, Mr. Moraes Cabral is attempting to draw a contrast between an "old", disappearing world of close provincial communities and a "new", modern world that is letting tradition disappear without a trace. It is also an attempt at recording some of those disappearing tales before it's too late.

     Mr. Fernandes thus becomes the "centrepiece" of a series of encounters and characters radiating from his travels around Braga, but in so doing Os Caminhos de Jorge loses some focus, meanders dangerously close to a certain shapelessness, a sense that at one point the director may have found everything else around his central character more interesting, or worth of a film in itself. In its aimlessness, however, as it veers back and forth between Jorge and those surrounding him, it also gets very close to the sense of aimlessness of a man who makes ends meet with a centuries-old trade now seriously threatened in a country where even established barbershops have to shut down due to legalities they have nothing to do with. It's serious, well-meaning stuff, though lacking the "edge" that would give it a more forceful push - it's as if Mr. Moraes Cabral started doing one thing but found himself heading in another direction, attempting to shape material that resists any linear structuring, in a stop-start motion that never truly gels together but provides amiable observational moments on its way.

Director: Miguel Moraes Cabral
Camera: Christophe Rolin, Ivan Castiñeiras
Editors: Francisco Moreira, Mr. Moraes Cabral
Production: Leïla Films in co-production with Quilombo and Filmes do Caracol
Belgium/France/Portugal, 2013, 63 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 official competition screener, Lisbon, October 18th 2013

Monday, January 06, 2014

L'ÉCUME DES JOURS (Mood Indigo)

Irony alert! French wonder-boy director Michel Gondry is best known for his intricate, almost baroque do-it-yourself Rube Goldberg tricks, as displayed and perfected through a series of groundbreaking pop promo videos, and central to the emotional punch of his stellar second feature Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yet, his most accomplished film ever since that Charlie Kaufman-scripted mind-twister was also his least affected, the nearly effects-free teenage piece The We and the I.

     This is notable because few works would be so "up Mr. Gondry's alley" as Boris Vian's late-1940s classic cult novel L'Écume des jours (translated into English alternately as Froth on the Daydream or Foam of the Daze) - an oneiric, absurdist roman à clef written at the height of Parisian post-War existentialism that only became popular after the author's death. Its dream logic and surreal, whimsical touches (such as the "pianocktail", a piano where each key corresponds to an ingredient in a cocktail created through the playing) seem tailor-made for the director, and it's no wonder he responds to it with a tour de force of eccentric, ingenious visuals to tell the ultimately sad tale of Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloé (Audrey Tautou), lovers whose passion and marriage are undone by an incurable disease she contracts during their honeymoon.

     There's no whitewashing the ultimately bleak plot, set in a timeless, dreamy Paris soundtracked by Duke Ellington - if anything, there's black-and-whitewashing as DP Christophe Beaucarne's colour palette becomes progressively more discoloured, ending what began as a pop riot of colour as B&W tragedy. There's no doubt either that Mr. Gondry's prodigious visual imagination, well backed by Stéphane Rozenbaum's intricate production design, makes the film hang together through thick and thin — though it also hinders it, its flights of fancy floating untethered from any narrative logic into a succession of dreamy setpieces loosely threaded according to the arc of a tragic love story. Narrative has seldom been the director's strong suit but the surreal literary conceits of Mr. Vian's novel required a more grounded, more solid structure than Mr. Gondry can supply, the actors trying their best but being mere puppets in his enormous play-set.

     The result breathes, at the same time, an extraordinary creative freedom and a sense that it has been teleported directly from an entirely other timeframe - closer to some of the psychedelic late-1970s cult midnight movies. And that such a defiantly uncommercial enterprise was given a big budget and a star cast is as quixotic as it is remarkable, making L'Écume des jours one of those oddities that try too hard yet can't be dismissed outright. It's got "cult" written all over it, and it stands as a brave but somewhat misguided failure. And it proves, yet again, that the more Mr. Gondry lets himself be carried away by his imagination the less his work resonates as it should.

Cast: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy, Aïssa Maiga, Charlotte le Bon, Sacha Bourdo, Vincent Rottiers, Philippe Torreton, Laurent Lafitte, Alain Chabat
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenwriters: Mr. Gondry, Luc Bossi, with the collaboration of Carole Fèvre and Nicole Bertolt, from the novel by Boris Vian, Froth on the Daydream
Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne (colour, widescreen)
Music: Étienne Charry
Designer: Stéphane Rozenbaum
Costumes: Florence Fontaine
Editor: Marie-Charlotte Moreau
Animations: Valérie Pirson
Visual effects: Arnaud Fouquet, Romain Strabol
Producer: Mr. Bossi (Brio Films, Studiocanal, Scope Pictures, France 2 Cinéma, Hérodiade Films, RTBF and Belgacom in association with Cinémage 6, Cinémage 7, La Banque Postale Image 5, Manon 2, Anton Capital Entertainment and SCA)
France/Belgium/United Kingdom, 2013, 131 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, December 27th 2013


Friday, January 03, 2014

12 YEARS A SLAVE

There has been a tendency to look at British artist Steve McQueen's third feature film as part of a "new wave" of "black" or "African-American" cinema that is dealing with the black experience in America in a much more direct way, less as genre pieces or "blaxploitation" and more as standard drama. At the same time, Mr. McQueen's film, based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a black free man in the 1840s Northern United States who is kidnapped and sold down South as a slave, is also coming in line with the Academy Awards feeding frenzy of serious prestige pictures. Either case seriously undersells the director's traditionally visceral, confrontational work as something 12 Years a Slave most definitely isn't.

     The key to the issue: many American critics have seen fit to contrast Mr. McQueen's film with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained as politically opposed takes on American slavery, when both films exist separately and stand apart in the way they handle the subject: Mr. Tarantino through the looking-glass of bastard genres, rewriting the American western history in the manner of his earlier rewrite of war movies Inglorious Basterds, Mr. McQueen from a more serious, naturalistic but no less confrontational point of view. The British director merely applies his traditionally brutal, formal approach to a more conventionally structured story arc, much more linear than either of his previous works Fear or Shame. As always, the intense commitment of his actors - from the harrowingly inhabited performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup to the star cast showing up for bit roles - isn't there to distract us from the film's story, being instead subsumed in the emotional roller coaster Mr. McQueen creates methodically.

     There is nothing merely exploitative or redundant in 12 Years a Slave, as the director's spare use of music (with Hans Zimmer's most subdued and quieter score in ages) and deliberate creation of mood through purely cinematic means conspire to weave a web of dread and claustrophobia around the viewer, who finds himself engulfed almost unwittingly into the same nightmare Northup finds himself living in for twelve years. Mr. McQueen's strict refusal to signpost or bracket its time frames, never properly assigned throughout, is deliberately disorienting, as is indeed everything else in this meticulously created film: working with his regulars, DP Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, the filmmaker creates not so much a standard narrative film as a chillingly matter-of-fact atmosphere, a background that sucks all life into it then out and prevents it from escaping anywhere else - and does so within the trappings of a problem picture, seducing its viewer much like the two slave traders seduce Northup into a false sense of security.

     On its surface yet another prestige film made by Hollywood to assuage America's historical guilty conscience, 12 Years a Slave slowly assaults its viewers beyond anything they bargained for, placing them into the exact position of a man whose only fault was having the wrong skin colour at the wrong time. Come for the penitence, leave with the guilt amplified - a bait and switch that would be almost laughable if it didn't come in the shape of such a masterfully created, smoothly layered meditation on race in America. It's Mr. McQueen's third masterpiece in a row.

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: John Ridley, from the memoir by Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt (colour, widescreen)
Music: Hans Zimmer
Designer: Adam Stockhausen
Costumes: Patricia Norris
Editor: Joe Walker
Producers: Mr. Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Mr. McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas (Regency Enterprises, River Road Entertainment, Plan B Entertainment and New Regency Pictures in association with Filmfour)
USA/United Kingdom, 2013, 134 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, December 18th 2013

Winner of three 2013 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Supporting Actress - Lupita Nyong'o; Best Adapted Screenplay)
Nominated for six other Academy Awards (Best Director; Best Actor - Chiwetel Ejiofor; Best Supporting Actor - Michael Fassbender; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing)


Thursday, January 02, 2014

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

At its heart, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an analogue fable for our digital times: get away from your computer, from your all-consuming job, and start living for real, seeing people, seeing the world, making truly human connections. That such an analogue fable must make use of much digital trickery is obviously not lost on the filmmakers themselves, but the irony only makes Ben Stiller's sweetly melancholy take on James Thurber's classic short story about an harassed company man who lives vicariously in his imagination more poignant.

     Mr. Stiller's Walter Mitty, as reimagined by The Pursuit of Happyness screenwriter Steven Conrad, is now a photo archivist at Life magazine who sacrificed his life to the need to support financially his mother (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) after the unexpected death of the father. When Life is about to be shut down and converted into an online-only presence and an all-important negative for the cover of the last issue is waylaid, Walter is forced to take off in search of daredevil photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). Abetted by the office colleague (Kristen Wiig) he's taken an interest in and harassed by the new, heartless boss (Adam Scott), Walter's "secret life" slowly comes to the surface; Mr. Stiller is excellent at transitioning the film from reality to dream in the early oneiric sequences, then blending both to the point the viewer starts asking how much of this is really happening or is merely in Walter's mind.

     What's more exciting about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, though, is just how much Mr. Stiller is the perfect actor to play the role, and how sensitively he directs both himself and the cast around him to serve the tale he wants to tell. It's the modernity of the film that is its true asset, the unassuming pragmatism with which the actor/director frames the tale while never losing the wide-eyed innocence of his daydreamer; it may shed a tear for the inexorable march of digital progress and the loss of analogue small things, but it refuses to look at it as "the end of civilization" preferring to see it as an opportunity to start something new. It doesn't grab desperately to what was; it lets go and moves on.

     A few of the more straight-forward humour interludes may be out of character for the film, the prevalent product placement is ambiguous enough to not cloud the film as much as it could. But at its heart, there is something wonderfully decent and old-fashioned about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a film that seems from the outside as another big-budget star comedy and turns out to be an unassumingly modest, thoughtful, lovely little meditation on the modern world.

Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Patton Oswalt, Adrian Martinez, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Sean Penn
Director: Mr. Stiller
Screenwriter: Steven Conrad, from the short story by James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh (colour, widescreen)
Music: Theodore Shapiro with José González
Designer: Jeff Mann
Costumes: Sarah Edwards
Editor: Greg Hayden
Visual effects: Guillaume Rocheron
Producers: Samuel Goldwyn Jr., John Goldwyn, Stuart Cornfeld, Mr. Stiller (Twentieth Century-Fox, Samuel Goldwyn Films and Red Hour Films in association with TSG Entertainment Finance, New Line Cinema, Ingenious Media, Big Screen Productions and Down Productions)
USA/United Kingdom, 2013, 115 minutes

Screened: UCI El Corte Inglés 13, Lisbon, December 28th 2013