Friday, March 28, 2014

POZIȚIA COPILULUI (Child's Pose)

Meet the mother of all mothers from hell: Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu), the controlling, overbearing, overpowering well-off Bucharest "lady who lunches", obsessed with running the life of her grown son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) - to the point of alienating him and, in the process, eliciting disgruntled comments even from her husband. Cornelia, an architect turned set designer and interior decorator, won't stop at anything to make sure Barbu lives up to her expectations for him, even if he himself doesn't want to.

     As the unfortunately-titled but otherwise smart Child's Pose starts, she is about to have her opportunity to regain control over Barbu after he is involved in a tragic car accident in the countryside resulting in the death of a young boy. Cornelia immediately starts working the phones and her list of connections at the upper echelons of Romanian society to make sure Barbu's life is not destroyed by a jail sentence or even an admission of guilt, her protecting instinct meshing to perfection with her knowledge of all the backslapping alleys and handshake ways to get things done. But is this leftover way from the olden Communist days a one-off remnant or an atavistic, unshakeable character trait?

     Though directed by sophomore helmer Călin Peter Netzer with the traditional attention to actors that we have come to expect from the "Romanian New Wave", the true author of Child's Pose is screenwriter Răzvan Rădulescu, also responsible for scripting the films that made modern Romanian cinema's international reputation, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days. Child's Pose shares much with those films' blunt, merciless looks at a society whose present remains haunted and in the shadow of its dramatic past, but also offers some hope going forward as Cornelia and Barbu's relationship attempts to find some common ground as everything falls by the wayside to leave only the mother's incontrovertible, if misguided, love for her only son.

Retaining the tradition of strongly naturalistic acting and handling (with no original music score and a preference for character-driven tales), Mr. Netzer's film is however a more composed and more "edited" piece, depending less on long or one-shot takes. Yet another proof of the excellent filmmaking talent hiding in Romania, what raises Child's Pose above the competition is the superb performance from Ms. Gheorghiu, a veteran actress who here runs the entire cycle of emotions from cold-hearted control and hateful cynicism to pure and simple motherly despair with an almost uncanny precision. After all, hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned.

POZIȚIA COPILULUI
Romania 2013
112 minutes
Cast: Luminița Gheorghiu, Bogdan Dumitrache, Natașa Raab, Ilinca Goia, Florin Zamfirescu, Vlad Ivanov
Director Călin Peter Netzer; screenwriters Răzvan Rădulescu and Mr. Netzer; cinematographer Andrei Butică (colour); designer Mălina Ionescu; costumes Irina Marinescu; editor Dana Lucretia Bunescu; producers Mr. Netzer and Ada Solomon, Parada Film in co-production with Hai-Hui Entertainment
Screened March 14th 2014 (distributor advance screening, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon)


Thursday, March 27, 2014

CADENCES OBSTINÉES

Though handsomely shot (even if too obviously in digital) and rather elegantly edited, actress Fanny Ardant's sophomore directing effort is nevertheless a bewildering disaster, the textbook example of a vanity project that exists purely because Ms. Ardant, writing and directing, wanted to express something in cinematic terms. What that is, though, is anyone's guess: the plot of Cadences Obstinées seems to make little sense, the hodgepodge of languages and actors suggests a filmmaking desire that gets lost in translation. It's a step back from the actress's debut feature Ashes and Blood, retaining her obvious taste for heightened family dramatics and heavy-handed symbolism, here applied to a more restrained tale of a married couple undergoing a crisis.

     Concert cellist Margo (a sleepwalking Asia Argento) stopped performing to devote herself to her marriage to architect Furio (Nuno Lopes), but finds herself lonely after his financial issues force him to take on the renovation on the cheap of a boutique hotel and the couple drifts apart. Hovering around them are a series of characters that take turns being the "third wheel" in the strained relationship between the hot-tempered Furio and the despairing Margo. But nearly everything that might help focus or anchor the story is left unsaid, and most of what is said is difficult to piece together in a plot. As handsomely presented (though somewhat redolent of the cinéma du look of the 1980s) as the psychodrama is, there's little rhyme or reason in its structuring and scripting, resolving itself in a series of disparate episodes that never truly coalesce into a sequential, cause-and-effect whole.

     Though a fine actress and a striking screen presence, as a director Ms. Ardant seems unable to draw any sort of cohesion from a cast that seems to be playing in different films, mostly left to their own devices and having to play archetypes rather than actual human beings. Ms. Argento's Margo is clearly patterned after the director herself (as was Ronit Elkabetz' "mother courage" in Ashes and Blood), but she (and everyone else) is lost in a film that wants desperately to be cinematic but never ejects a forced theatricality, a rigid staginess that makes it stilted and arch - elements that were already present in the director's debut but that come to the fore here through the lack of any sort of engrossing story.

     Cadences Obstinées seems like a condensation of all that can be laughable about serious, adult arthouse drama whn done wrong by someone who is utterly untalented - and yet neither Ms. Ardant nor her collaborators could ever be construed as talentless. Nevertheless, this is a bewilderingly misguided, misshapen piece.

CADENCES OBSTINÉES
France, Portugal 2013
101 minutes
Cast: Asia Argento, Franco Nero, Nuno Lopes, Ricardo Pereira, Tudor Istodor, Johan Leysen, Gérard Depardieu, Mika
Director and screenwriter Fanny Ardant; cinematographer André Szankowski (colour, widescreen); composer Jean-Michel Bernard; art director Isabel Branco; costumes Inês Mata; editor Julia Gregory; producer Paulo Branco, Alfama Films Production, France 3 Cinéma and Leopardo Filmes
Screened March 12th 2014 (distributor press screening, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon)


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

DAS MERKWÜRDIGE KÄTZCHEN (The Strange Little Cat)

Bonus points should be awarded to the Swiss-born, Berlin-based director and video artist Ramon Zürcher for inserting a cat both in the title and in the plot of his debut feature. Not that the lovely ginger tabby, or his "strangeness", are particularly central to The Strange Little Cat; they're more an embodiment, or a symbol, of the neatly, inventively compact quirkiness of a film whose real focus is the dynamics at work over the day of a family reunion to celebrate a relative's birthday.

     The cat isn't any stranger than every other member of the Berlin household where he resides; in fact, everyone in this tightly composed debut is slightly "off" even though Mr. Zürcher never shows anything other than perfectly regular day-to-day events. The Strange Little Cat never bothers overly with plot or character, preferring instead to focus on mood and detail, observing patiently within the four walls of the second-floor flat where everything takes place and from where everything is shot (with a couple of exceptions). The director's eye-level set-ups, precise and functional, create the idea of an almost entomological study of people being observed in their "natural habitats", suggesting a "pressure cooker" environment.

     This is where the "strange little cat" comes up again, his apparently casual flitting between rooms and moments, always present at both the banal and the remarkable events of the day, underlining the fact that nearly everyone in this household will, at some point during the day, feel hemmed in by emotional dynamics and cramped surroundings. Occasionally, there will be a brief, fleeting moment of freedom that Alexander Haßkerl's camera records as if trapped in amber, and that is precisely what Mr. Zürcher aims at. Some have pointed out a possible influence of the great deadpan, purely visual burlesque of stylists such as Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, but this comes entirely out of the fact that, rather than written, directed or staged, The Strange Little Cat is precisely and exactingly choreographed, with all of the family moving in and out of the frame as if they're following their own rhythm.

     For all of that, this ingenious achievement remains an ultimately inscrutable film (just as our feline friends, strange or not, are in fact) and one that never really makes you forget its essence as a school project - Mr. Zürcher's final "term paper", produced under the supervision of Hungarian master Bela Tárr. And yes, it's quite a calling card.

DAS MERKWÜRDIGE KÄTZCHEN
Germany 2013
72 minutes
Cast: Jenny Schily, Anjorka Strechel, Mia Kasalo, Luk Pfaff, Matthias Dittmer, Armin Marewski, Leon Alan Beiersdorf, Sabine Werner, Kathleen Morgeneyer, Monika Hetterle, Gustav Körner, Lea Draeger
Director, screenwriter and editor Ramon Zürcher; cinematographer Alexander Haßkerl (colour); designers Matthias Werner and Sabine Kassebaum; costumes Dorothée Bach; producers Silvan Zürcher, Johanna Bergel and Myriam Eichler, German Film and Television Academy Berlin
Screened November 9th 2013 (Lisbon Estoril & Film Festival 2013 advance screener, Lisbon) 


Monday, March 24, 2014

COMPLIANCE

American director Craig Zobel's third feature seems to begin as another one of those small-scale, independently-produced portraits of people struggling to survive in heartland America. Cleverly and swiftly, Mr. Zobel sets up, in a few well-observed strokes, the tense relationship between one worker and one manager at a small-town fast-food franchise. Then, during a particularly busy day where they're short one employee and several ingredients, manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) gets the call that sets the ball rolling: a police officer is on the phone saying that counter worker Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen from a customer, asking her to take over the occurrence and investigate for him.

     What starts out as a sketchy but believable situation mutates quickly, as the viewer realises that the "officer Daniels" (Pat Healy) on the other end of the line is not exactly your standard policeman, but a manipulator passing himself off as a cop; a voice artist exquisitely sensitive to the inflections and the giveaways of everyone around, feeding him what he needs to keep the pretense going for as long as he wants it. Mr. Zobel's one misstep in the tightly coiled, extraordinarily squirm-inducing exercise that is Compliance is in revealing the true identity of "officer Daniels" to the viewer 40 minutes into the film, while sheltering it from the other characters. It's a Hitchcockian gambit that underlines the mysterious power of language, assertiveness, attitude to create a hold over someone, how the semblance of authority is enough to block otherwise perfectly sensible people from using their heads.

     Sandra, Becky and everyone else at this Ohio "Chickwich" franchise are being taken in by a master conman, a prankster who gets off on demeaning women and taking gullible Midwesterners alongside him for the ride, making them accomplices to his sickening, exploitative prank. Are the viewers being equally taken in by Mr. Zobel? Or is he merely putting us in the hot seat, making us writhe while realising that "there for the grace of God go I"? In so doing, though, the revelation of "officer Daniels'" identity takes off some of the edge that, for its first 40 minutes, maintained Compliance almost unbearably nerve-wracking, shifting the question from "who is this guy and why is he doing this?" to "when will they realise who he is and is he ever going to be caught?".

     The film becomes more "conventional" (though the word is hardly applicable to its headstrong, single-minded, streamlined progression), gets closer to a classic thriller format, is diverted from the confrontational borderlands it almost traveled to - but it gets close enough to leave the viewer seriously discombobulated, as its origin in a series of real-life prank calls that took place in heartland America over the past decade hits you like a hammer. Compliance is a quiet little gem, one that needed to trust in itself a little bit more to reach full bloom, but that still gets you asking serious questions in ways very few modern American films have explored.

COMPLIANCE
USA 2012
90 minutes
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey
Director/writer Craig Zobel; cinematographers Adam Stone and Scott Gardner (widescreen, colour); composer Heather McIntosh; editor Jane Rizzo; costumes Karen Malecki; designer Matthew Munn; producers Sophia Lin, Lisa Muskat, Tyler Davidson, Theo Sena and Mr. Zobel, Dogfish Pictures and Bad Cop Bad Cop Film Productions in association with Muskat Filmed Properties and Low Spark Films
Screened March 11th 2014  (DVD, Lisbon)


Friday, March 21, 2014

WADJDA

When a film is more interesting because of its contextual circumstances rather than for its intrinsic cinematic qualities, where exactly should the eye of the beholder land? Case in point, Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour's Wadjda; in itself, a perfectly amiable, well-meaning but somewhat underwhelming film from a Middle Eastern cinema that is becoming progressively better known in the West. It's the story of a headstrong young girl who decides to challenge everyone's perception of her and of the roles she is supposed to take on; it reminds me of the type of story about children and their relationship with the world around them that Iranian cinema has made its own over the last few decades.

     But the fact that Wadjda was made on location in Saudi Arabia, a famously patriarchal, Muslim society where women are not allowed to pursue independent lives and careers, and written and directed by a Saudi woman, gives the film a whole other contextual importance - one that runs the risk of totally drowning its actual artistic value. The tale of the rebellious Wadjda, a stubborn tomboy who sets her sights on getting a bicycle despite society frowning on allowing girls to ride them, is given enormous grace and charm by the spunky performance of Waad Mohammed, who could be a close cousin of Marjane Satrapi's animated alter ego in Persepolis. Ms. Mohammed shows just how resilient kids can be when they will themselves to do something; here, she is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, that is, between her despairing mother (Reem Abdullah), forced to lose her husband due to her inability to sire him a boy, and her intimidating school headmistress (Ahd), who is a more restrictive jailer to her fellow women than a man (or, even, than the men that orbit the story) can ever be.

     Ms. al-Mansour has the setting down pat and a keen eye for her actors; hers is an agreeably modest tale, and one that is well told through the eyes of a young girl who is beginning to push at the limits of a role she was pre-assigned and is not pleased with. But that modesty is also what hampers Wadjda from becoming more than just an exotic curiosity: its engine hums rather than speeds, moving at a leisurely pace that suggests an earnest, eager exercise rather than a heartfelt, personal statement. Even given the limitations placed on Ms. al-Mansour by the rigid rules of her homeland, Wadjda is rather unimaginative and impersonal in its set-ups and pace, more functional than inspired; a perfectly regular production that may be too fragile to actually support the full weight that the context of being a Saudi film directed in Saudi Arabia by a woman has laid on it. It's unfair, but unavoidable, to compare it to another female-directed work from a closed community - Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void - and Wadjda doesn't come off as an equally affecting film. That's probably the burden of too many expectations placed on it; without them, perhaps this amiably modest film could be seen with different eyes.

WADJDA
Germany, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates 2012
97 minutes
Cast: Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman al-Gohani, Ahd, Waad Mohammed
Director/writer Haifaa al-Mansour; cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier (colour); composer Max Richter; designer Thomas Molt; costumes Peter Pohl; editor Andreas Wodraschke; producers Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner, Razor Filmproduktion, Highlook Communications Group and Rotana Studios
Screened March 7th 2014 (distributor press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

SACRO GRA

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi's fourth feature won him the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Sacro GRA was the first documentary to win the festival's top prize, but, peculiarly, it is also the most diffuse, most aimless, and least involving of Mr. Rosi's work so far. Where his remarkable El Sicario Room 164 recorded the long confession of a contract killer before the camera and Below Sea Level explored the inhabitants of the outsider American community of Slab City, Sacro GRA returns the director to his native Italy to compile observational vignettes shot over two years on the lives of those who, literally, live on the edges of society. Instead of one subject or one place, Mr. Rosi explores the on-ramps and off-ramps of Rome's ring road, the Grande Raccordo Annulare or GRA, and of those who live around it, somewhere in between the city centre and the suburbs.

     From the owner of a palatial mansion rented out for parties or film sets to the paramedic who travels the road daily taking care of accident victims, from the scientist studying insect infestations to the roadside prostitutes who keep a running commentary, these characters have something of the stubborn, the downtrodden, the downright eccentric that we have learnt to identify with classic Italian comedy. It's a reference that may be more in the viewer's mind than in the director's, as Sacro GRA is stylistically one with the previous films - total absence of commentary or musical illustration, a leisurely, laid-back rhythm that lets the various stories find their own rhythm in their own time, engulfing the viewer into the daily lives and the mindsets of its subjects, leaving the film open rather than directing the viewer through it.

     But where that was part of the strength of Mr. Rosi's previous work, here it is a design flaw, as there's a strong sense that there isn't much of a through-line between the various stories other than its (never identified) proximity to the GRA; as if the Roman ring road were merely a pretext that never truly justifies the attention lavished on these people. It all meanders along amiably but somewhat aimlessly, suggesting that the original idea of identifying and visiting the "invisible cities" underlying modern day Rome got "lost in translation" (or rather in editing) and never truly surfaces.

SACRO GRA
Italy, France 2013
92 minutes
Director, writer and cinematographer Francesco Rosi (colour); based on an idea by Niccolò Bassetti; editor Jacopo Quadri; producer Marco Visalberghi, Doclab and La Femme Endormie in association with Rai Cinema
Screened October 31st 2013 (Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival screener)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

THE UGLY ONE

The debut fiction by French-born, American-raised multimedia artist Éric Baudelaire invokes and evokes, at regular intervals, the more experimental nouveau-roman-inspired French production of the Sixties (think Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad or Alain Robbe-Grillet's work) and the radical Japanese filmmaking of that era as created by Nagisa Oshima or Koji Wakamatsu. But you don't really need an extensive or even passing knowledge of these films to enjoy The Ugly One, since the beauty of Mr. Baudelaire's film lies in a narrative playfulness that makes it equally accessible to viewers unaware of its references.

     However, it's a work that does gain added resonance if you have seen the director's previous film, the extraordinary 2012 documentary The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years without Images, from which The Ugly One is clearly derived. At first that derivation seems to be merely thematic, in its juxtaposition of the personal and the political, in its questioning of the costs exacted on one's personal life by the desire to take action to pursue a political aim. But, in fact, it turns out this brain-twisting fiction is "prescribed" by none other than Masao Adachi, the Japanese filmmaker turned political activist in the Japanese Red Army who was one of the subjects of that documentary. Mr. Adachi's voiceover, part narrator, part author, steers a story being shot in Beyrouth by Mr. Baudelaire about a group of former Palestinian activists haunted by their pasts, asking themselves what is left of their beliefs and convictions as time passed and the idealism that motivated them has given way to disillusion. But, in fact, is it Mr. Adachi's story that Mr. Baudelaire is filming? Or, instead, is he merely shooting the rehearsals and improvisations the cast is developing from that story in front of the camera?

      Constantly doubling back upon itself like a never-ending hall of mirrors, The Ugly One becomes a puzzle that, by design, can't really ever have one single proper solution but thrives on the questions being asked and the dilemmas being pondered by its characters. In many ways, Mr. Baudelaire is also shooting here a documentary, though of a different type - following the creation of a film in front of the viewer's very eyes, an investigation on idealism and activism that is being shaped in its own process of projection by both the technical choices of the director and the questions it creates in the viewers. As in The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu..., The Ugly One is built out of the moments of absence and doubt, of questioning and struggle, looking at the past with the hindsight of the present and taking stock of a period and of a commitment that failed to change the world as much as it desired. Or did it?

THE UGLY ONE
France, Lebanon 2013
100 minutes
Cast: Rabih Mroué, Juliette Navis, Manal Khader, Fadi Abi Samra, Rodney el Haddad, Hassan Mrad
Director Éric Baudelaire; screenwriters Mr. Baudelaire, Laure Vermeersch, Masao Adachi and Mr. Mroué; based on a story by Mr. Adachi; cinematographer Claire Mathon (colour, widescreen); art director Nanou Ghanem; costumes Béatrice Harb; editors Stéphane Elmadjian and Cécile Frey; producer Mr. Baudelaire, Poulet-Malassis in co-production with Orjouane Productions
Screened October 27th 2013 (DocLisboa 2013 advance screener, Lisbon)



The Ugly One (Trailer) from Eric Baudelaire on Vimeo.

Monday, March 17, 2014

MIELE (Honey)

It's hardly an obvious choice to start off a directing career by choosing assisted suicide as a subject. But, in what is not a flaw but a feature, that isn't really the main subject of esteemed Italian actress Valeria Golino's debut Honey. It's more of a background, a plot device, that propels the film's heroine, the independently-minded and determined loner Irene, forward only to become the "glitch" that forces her to change. "Honey" is Irene's codename within a close-knit underground group of "angels of death", helping terminally ill patients to die peacefully at home.

     A former med student who procures veterinarian medicines in regular trips to Mexico and smuggles them into Italy for her "patients", she is portrayed soulfully by Jasmine Trinca and shot by Ms. Golino as a scarred, righteous but self-effacing young woman, detached from the world save for a couple of connections. Then her perfectly organised world is thrown into disarray by a "patient", Roman engineer Carlo (Carlo Cecchi), who doesn't need her help and turns out to not be ill - merely bored with life and wishing to leave it on his own terms. Being asked to help someone die willingly and voluntarily for non-medical reasons completely short-circuits Irene's life, somehow transforming her from "angel of death" into an "angel of life" willing to do anything to prevent Carlo from killing himself, and questioning her own beliefs as she becomes progressively less brittle, more open to the world outside.

     It's clear it's this personal progression that most interests Ms. Golino, and that she is very aware of the pitfalls that "problem pictures" and topical melodramas can usually fall into. She avoids them elegantly, but in the process it also becomes notable that Honey ends up engaging the viewer more intellectually than emotionally; this isn't necessarily a bad thing per se, but it suggests that the director's desire to do a restrained, thoughtful melodrama colours the entire film and follows Irene's own tendency to set her life within rigid, sealed boundaries. Ms. Golino held herself back so much that Honey becomes an amiable but airless proposition that required a little less restraint and a little more spontaneity to do justice to its themes and its actors.

MIELE
Italy, France 2013
98 minutes
Cast: Jasmine Trinca, Carlo Cecchi, Libero de Rienzo, Vinicio Marchioni, Iaia Forte, Roberto de Francesco
Director Valeria Golino; screenwriters Francesca Marciano, Valia Santelli and Ms. Golino; based on the novel by Mauro Covacich A nome tuo; cinematographer Gergely Poharnok (colour, widescreen); designer Paolo Bonfini; costumes Maria Rita Barbera; editor Giogiò Franchini; producers Riccardo Scamarcio and Viola Prestieri, Buena Onda and Rai Cinema in co-production with Les Films des Tournelles and Cité Films
Screened February 25th 2014 (distributor press screening, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon)


Friday, March 14, 2014

THE CONGRESS

A good many years ago, "the future's so bright I gotta wear shades" became a global catchphrase on the back of a sarcastic pop song skewering the idea of a better, brighter future. As technology has moved on and surpassed the imagination of most of us, the push and pull of progress between technophobia and technophilia has been at the heart of many science-fiction tales, whether in the big screen or the printed page. And Israeli writer/director Ari Folman's follow-up to his universally acclaimed Waltz with Bashir dramatises effectively, and disturbingly, that push and pull as it shapes and inflects the course of history into paths not necessarily foreseen.

     This liberal adaptation of the late Polish novelist Stanisław Lem's 1971 novel takes an enormous leap of faith, asking its viewer to jump along into a creative landscape that has little or nothing to do with most conventional contemporary filmmaking. And it does so in such a way as to resemble an ever-shifting, ever-moving soap bubble propelled by the serious thought experiments of classic literary sci-fi. Starting out in a near future (rendered in bright, crisp live action footage) where major film studios are routinely locking up the image rights of major actors, scanning their likenesses and using these digital avatars in cookie-cutter blockbusters, The Congress is about nothing less than the fabric of reality itself, and the way humanity is the single most important key to access its truth.

     At the heart of Mr. Folman's sinuous riff on Mr. Lem's book is "the gift of choice". Actress Robin Wright (playing soulfully and sensitively an alternate version of herself) is bullied by studio executive Jeff Green (a conveniently slimy Danny Huston) into selling her image to Miramount Studios, in exchange for an eternal youth that will prevent her from repeating all the "lousy choices" that sank her once promising career. But when you no longer have the power to choose, when you have abdicated your choice to someone else who may not have your best interests at heart, how can that be any better than (very humanly) regretting the road not taken?

     That is where Mr. Folman is aiming at, as he follows the long arc of Robin's choice to sell her image into its future consequences, twenty years (and beyond) later, on a dystopian Earth peopled by opiated masses, overrun by chemicals promising an eternal limbo of escapist fantasy and hedonism, leaving the growingly devastated real world behind. It's the Matrix by any other name, and Mr. Folman writes its ironically hand-crafted alternate history in deliberately retro animation with a strong debt to 1930s pioneers and Betty Boop creators the Fleischer Brothers and to modern-day assembly-line Japanese anime. He does so while compacting an entire century of pop culture references into a maddeningly delirious, nightmarish psychedelic trip through a "future so bright you have to wear shades", reminding at the same time from the mind-blowing, mind-expanding psychedelics of the countercultural era of the 1960s and 1970s (Mr. Lem's novel, more or less closely followed in the film's second half, was originally published in 1971) and its "don't trust the man" libertarian instincts.

     When The Congress's live action photography is replaced, at the 50-minute mark, by Yoni Goodman's elaborately surreal classic animation, Mr. Folman's film seems to travel behind the lush curtains of David Lynch's "red room" or the Toontown access tunnel in Robert Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It's that same sense of crossing into the other side of the mirror, from a reality that is more or less akin to yours into another that is initially seductive but ultimately a dangerous trap from where they may be no return. In so doing, The Congress becomes a disturbingly resonant but ultimately moving cautionary fable about the times we live in and the slippery slopes lurking out in the darkest corners of our addiction to move forward. After all, "congress" rhymes with "progress". Don't say they didn't warn you.

THE CONGRESS
Israel, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Poland, France, India 2013
123 minutes
Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Danny Huston, Sami Gayle, Michael Stahl-David, Paul Giamatti
Director/screenwriter Ari Folman; based on the novel The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem; animation director Yoni Goodman; cinematography Michał Englert (colour); music Max Richter; designer David Polonsky; costumes Mandi Line; editor Nili Feller; visual effects Roiy Nitzan; producers Reinhard Brundig, Mr. Folman and Ms. Wright, Bridgit Folman Film Gang and Pandora Film in co-production with Paul Thiltges Distributions, Entre Chien et Loup, Opus Film, ARP Séléction, ARD Degeto, Cinemorphic Sikhya Entertainment, Canal Plus Poland, Silesia Film Fund, RTBF, Belgacom and France 2 Cinéma
Screened February 25th 2014 (distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon)


Thursday, March 13, 2014

FRUITVALE STATION

American director Ryan Coogler's debut feature, Fruitvale Station premiered at the 2013 Sundance festival (then under the less direct, shorter title Fruitvale) and came out in the midst of a film year where the "black experience" became an unexpected, coincidental trend in American filmmaking. The 12 months between the releases of Quentin Tarantino's uneven Django Unchained and Steve McQueen's harrowing 12 Years a Slave also brought Fruitvale Station, fellow Sundance sensation Blue Caprice and Lee Daniels' crowd-pleasing The Butler (whose star, Forest Whitaker, is the producer of Mr. Coogler's independently-made film).

     Since Blue Caprice hasn't been picked up for Portuguese release, Fruitvale Station becomes the only one in this batch to deal with contemporary America, taking its lead from the infamous New Year's Eve 2009 incident that saw the young Bay Area man Oscar Grant die from gunshots from a Bay Area transit officer after a scuffle on board a crowded commuter train. Mr. Coogler's film is a reenactment of Oscar's final 24 hours leading towards the tragedy, using it as a greater symbol of the current working-class black experience. A former small-time dealer who served time in jail and can't seem to hold on to a job, Oscar is also a devoted son and father, who is trying to get his life right as best he can, though dealt a marked hand from a deck that seems stacked against him on mere account of his skin colour.

     Up-and-coming actor Michael B. Jordan doesn't play Oscar as as a martyr or a saint, but as a conflicted, well-meaning if awkward young man asking himself how he can best move forward. The best thing about Fruitvale Station is its attempt to avoid the obvious tropes of characterisation, though it sadly ends up falling into the narrative traps of the "social realist problem picture" in a way that neither the commitment of all involved nor the story itself, shot with the agreement of Oscar's surviving family, deserve. Though Mr. Coogler makes a strong point of portraying Oscar as an individual and his story as one among many in the "naked city", the film he builds around him conforms far too much to the standard "inspired by true events" melodrama as well as to the format of modern, "gritty" American indie cinema (visible in DP Rachel Morrison's often intriguing handheld compositions).

     There's always a sense that Fruitvale Station is doing the opposite of what its director wants its story to mean, carried away by the righteous anger at the heart of his reaction to the story - but, to be sure, there are many good reasons to pay attention to Mr. Coogler's film, starting with the generally very solid acting and the sensibility to the daily life of these people. Just don't see it as another frontrunner for a non-existant "new black cinema" that is nowhere to be seen, elsewhere or in this earnest picture that doesn't have anything specifically "black" other than its story.

FRUITVALE STATION
USA 2013
85 minutes
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler ; cinematographer Rachel Morrison (colour); composer Ludwig Göransson; designer Hannah Beachler; costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers; editors Michael P. Shawver and Claudia S. Castello; producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, Significant Productions in association with the San Francisco Film Society and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation
Screened February 24th 2014 (distributor press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon)

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE

Has there ever been a blockbuster hit of which Hollywood hasn't thought of producing either a sequel or a reboot over the past couple of decades? More to the point: did we truly need a sequel to Zack Snyder's technically dazzling, ambiguously provocative Frank Miller adaptation 300? 300: Rise of an Empire is a positive reply to the former question, but a non-committal answer to the latter. Though Mr. Snyder is present as "show-runner", credited as co-writer and co-producer, directing duties have been passed on to Israeli adman Noam Murro and production has been handled by a bet-hedging "B team". And, though nominally based on Mr. Miller's own complementary but as yet unreleased graphic novel Xerxes, it's clear that Rise of an Empire should more accurately be called Artemisia.

     It's the richly villainous Persian naval commander, in a star-making performance by Eva Green, that both steals and anchors the film, designed as both a wraparound story that enlarges the political context of the original Battle of the Hot Gates, and as a sequel whose main thrust is the events that follow immediately the sacrifice of the Spartans. Rodrigo Santoro's flamboyant Xerxes, whose transformation into the androgynous god-king is here shown, is swiftly pushed aside from the tale; nominal hero Themistokles, the Athenian general whose fight against the invading Persians is the film's engine, is cut from the same mold as Gerard Butler's Leonidas in the original 300 but, despite Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton's fit in the role, much less charismatic. That Ms. Green ends up being the centre of the film underlines how much the actress understood what was required of her as Artemisia, and how much Rise of an Empire is beneath the balance of stern heroics and painterly artificial visuals of the original.

     Cinematographer Simon Duggan's murky palette and designer Patrick Tatopoulos' baroquely detailed digital sets aim at an epic, self-important grandeur, but Ms. Green's grandstanding, seductive performance as the vengeful, scorned Artemisia is more in tune with the classic Hollywood sword-and-sandal hokum than the fast-moving succession of combat set pieces. Her presence is just the right side of tongue-in-cheek, deflating the heroics to the point the film becomes a classic B movie bloated well beyond its modest nature - like a scrawny kid whose desire to bulk up may have been somewhat misjudged. It's an utterly disposable ride worth it exclusively for the stupendous presence of Ms. Green.

Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro
Director: Noam Murro
Screenwriters: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, from the graphic novel by Frank Miller, Xerxes
Cinematographer: Simon Duggan (colour, widescreen)
Music: Junkie XL
Designer: Patrick Tatopoulos
Costumes: Alexandra Byrne
Editors: Wyatt Smith, David Brenner
Visual effects: Richard Hollander, John Desjardin
Producers: Mark Canton, Gianni Nunnari, Mr. Snyder, Deborah Snyder, Bernie Grundmann (Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Cruel and Unusual Films, Atmosphere Pictures, Hollywood Gang Productions)
USA, 2013, 102 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo Imax, Lisbon, February 27th 2014


Monday, March 10, 2014

RINCÓN DE DARWIN (Darwin's Corner)

Its origins in Uruguay, a Latin American country not much known for its film production, are probably the initial selling point for Diego Fernández Pujol's debut feature after a series of shorts and music videos. Sadly, though, there's precious little else to distinguish Rincón de Darwin's deadpan slow-burn road movie from many other low-budget debut features, regardless of its origin being in small or big countries. Its artlessly gauche, long-take awkwardness fits perfectly with its theme - folk in stasis, caught in situations beyond their control, unsure where to go next or how to deal with them - but is also unable to give it a boost that would make a difference.

     At heart, Rincón de Darwin follows the traditional "life-changing road trip" concept: after being unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend, web developer Gastón (Jorge Temponi) agrees to drive to a remote corner of Uruguay to assess a family property that should go on sale. Alongside him in the eventful long drive from Montevideo to Rincón de Darwin in a battered old Ford F-150 are the family's square, conservative notary public Américo (Carlos Frasca), and the driver, dogsbody Beto (Jorge Esmoris), who is essentially there because of a mix-up. The small-A adventures the trio goes through are punctuated by excerpts from Charles Darwin's diaries from his passage through Uruguay, relevant to the men's issues with wives and families.

     But Mr. Fernández Pujol, also scripting, gives the "transformative" road movie precious little transformation. For the three men, the long journey is a reunion with who they really are and let themselves get away from, but do they really learn anything they (or us) didn't know, does the film give its viewer any insight on them? The long-take set-ups and Arauco Hernández Holz's cinematography are designed to make us focus all our attention on the solid performances from the three actors and on the scripting; but everything in Rincón de Darwin is so signposted, so predictable - even its dry, double-take wit - that you end up asking what exactly sets this amiable but flimsy debut apart from the pack. The answer, sadly, is its nationality.

Cast: Jorge Esmoris, Carlos Frasca, Jorge Temponi
Director and screenwriter: Diego Fernández Pujol
Cinematography: Arauco Hernández Holz  (colour)
Music: Franny Glass
Designer and costumes: Gonzalo Delgado Galiana
Editor: Fernando Epstein
Producers: Mr. Fernández Pujol, Gabriel Richieri, Micaela Solé, Luís Urbano, Sandro Aguilar (Transparente Films in co-production with O Som e a Fúria)
Uruguay/Portugal, 2013, 79 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 3 (Lisbon), February 26th 2014



Friday, March 07, 2014

UROKI GARMONII (Harmony Lessons)

Judging from this debut feature, Kazakh newcomer Emir Baigazin is one to follow: for a first film, Harmony Lessons is strikingly accomplished, with a perfectly tuned control of form and style if not yet of function in its intriguingly chilly take on the subject of school bullying. What begins as a perfectly standard tale of pranks and shunning of rural high-schooler Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) slowly becomes something more surreal and equivocal, as the quietly intense boy finds himself ostracized and joins forces with city-bred newcomer Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev) while the situation escalates implacably.

     The ever-encroaching persecution of Aslan and Bolat by a well-ordained bullying structure that relies on fear and agression could actually be read as a skewed comment about totalitarian or loosely democratic regimes (the proximity of Russia can't help but raise a few flags). But we may be jumping ahead of ourselves and Harmony Lessons (the irony of the title is almost sickening) can also be seen as a coldly entomological approach to the inner workings of an alienated kid living inside his own world since there's nothing remotely enticing outside. As the story develops, though, as Aslan's experiences become progressively more cruel and extreme, it's worth asking whether any of this is actually real or exists merely inside the kid's head. Mr. Baigazin, however, is so formalist a filmmaker that the ambiguity is never fully resolved and you leave Harmony Lessons asking what exactly this is all about. And therein does the director, also doubling as screenwriter and editor, fall into the customary traps of the debut feature - form over function, stylization over scripting, the need to take the approach all the way to its logical endpoint.

     That Harmony Lessons, despite underwritten and overlong, is still so striking is a testament to Mr. Baigazin's talent; that you can't really engage with its qualities beyond cold admiration is a testament to his inexperience. But a second feature is certainly worth waiting for.

Cast: Timur Aidarbekov, Aslan Anarbayev, Mukhtar Andassov
Director, screenwriter, editor: Emir Baigazin
Cinematographer: Aziz Zhambakiyev  (colour, widescreen)
Designer: Yuliya Levitskaya
Costumes: Ulan Nugumanov
Producer: Anna Katchko (JCS Kazakhfilm, The Post Republic Halle, Rohfilm, Arizona Productions, Adibul Studio)
Kazakhstan/Germany/France, 2013, 114 minutes

Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival 2013 advance screener, Lisbon, November 5th 2013


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

TWENTY TWELVE, THE DAY THE WORLD DIDN'T END

The widespread talk of a possible 2012 Mayan apocalypse, inspired by the Mayan calendar coming to an end on December 20th 2012, also inspired Portuguese filmmaker Marco Martins and Italian artist and theorist Michelangelo Pistoletto to create an "anti-apocalyptic" work, a sort of snapshot of life around the planet on a day like any other. Hence "the day the world didn't end" as a sub-title for their two-pronged Twenty Twelve project, a documentary film and an art exhibition, following a day in the life of several people all over the world.

     The day in question, allegedly, is December 20th 2012 - although the final film makes no secret that it would have hardly been possible for it to have been shot in one single day, seeing as Twenty Twelve was shot all over Europe, Asia or India, intercutting between the daily chores of a dozen people we see going out and about. Artists of all stripes, scientists and working people are recorded throughout in a series of individual vignettes that are then intercut throughout the lengthy, two-hour-plus running time. But as absorbing as some of these may be on their own - musician David Santos' painstaking creation of a new song paramount among them - the sum of the parts turns out to be much lesser than the individual elements. The mosaic structure quickly loses track of its overarching anti-apocalyptic concept, losing itself in a merely illustrative record of people going on about their lives, repeated ad infinitum and without ever creating the connecting tissue or narrative that would join the dots.

     This might not be much of an issue if Mr. Martins had been able to make the footage breathe on its own, but instead he seems to float around it placidly without ever finding the right way to make everything flow and mesh together; as it slowly goes nowhere, Twenty Twelve suggests a project that wasn't necessarily designed as a stand-alone film but that requires a contextualization unavailable to the filmgoers in order to fully reach its goal.

Director and cinematographer: Marco Martins (colour)
Conception: Michelangelo Pistoletti, Mr. Martins
Music: Filipe Felizardo, David Santos
Editors: Mariana Gaivão, Hugo Santiago
Producer: Renzo Barsotti (Centro de Criação de Teatro e Artes de Rua in association with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Banco Espírito Santo)
Portugal, 2013, 131 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 25th 2013


Tuesday, March 04, 2014

NEBRASKA

The director as auteur - that time-honoured staple that, thanks to French post-WWII film criticism, spread around the world like a virus - seems to be borne out irreducibly by American director Alexander Payne's follow-up to the very successful The Descendants. Nebraska is a project that Mr. Payne did not write or produce, yet it's not only a piece with his successful oeuvre, it also seems to distill the essence of his drily satirical yet compassionate take on people overwhelmed and disappointed by life. It's a work that bears out the auteurist credo of the director as the true author of the film, while at the same time invoking the genealogy of 1970s American filmmaking - a time where the "inmates had taken over the asylum", so to speak.

     Shot in widescreen black and white, Nebraska is a dead ringer for Peter Bogdanovich's seminal The Last Picture Show and its forlorn farewell to a small town America in its dying throes, about to be swallowed whole by history. Though the time frame (present day rather than the 1960s) and setting (Nebraska instead of Texas) is different, the general mood of disappointment and disillusion is similar in the tale of ageing curmudgeon Woody Grant (a wonderful Bruce Dern) who convinces himself a marketing come-on is in fact a legitimate million-dollar prize and travels all the way from Montana to Nebraska to claim the money. Bob Nelson's road-movie script, attuned to the melancholy desolation of stoical Midwestern lives, morphs imperceptibly into Mr. Payne's quietly desperate, deadpan-witty look at an America that seemed to be left behind by modern society. Woody is accompanied in his trip by his younger son David (Will Forte), who seems as aimless and mousy as his father, the one everyone thinks of as an underperformer.

     In driving his father to Nebraska, David understands better where he is coming from and why he is who he is - thus mirroring the film's own slow blossoming from quirky character study into a work that understands the landscape that originated it and works with it, rather than against it, to place itself in a history and a timeline. It's one hell of a slow-burn, slow-release tour de force where everything falls into its place steadily and inexorably towards a quietly redemptive ending, one where for once blood really is thicker than water (despite all that has gone before). It's also an Alexander Payne film through and through, and one that is very likely to be his best, enriching and expanding on the melancholy, aged palette of his breakthrough work About Schmidt. Nebraska is a little gem waiting to be discovered.

Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael (black & white, widescreen)
Music: Mark Orton
Designer: Dennis Washington
Costumes: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Kevin Tent
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa (Paramount Vantage, Bona Fide Productions, in association with Filmnation Entertainment, Blue Lake Media Fund, Echo Lake Entertainment)
USA, 2013, 115 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, February 22nd 2014

Nominated for six Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Bruce Dern; Best Supporting Actress - June Squibb; Best Original Screenplay; Best Cinematography)