Friday, May 30, 2014

A MÃE E O MAR (The Mother and the Sea)

Asa follow-up to his acclaimed 2011 essay-documentary É na Terra, Não É na Lua, Portuguese filmmaker Gonçalo Tocha may scale down his ambition but certainly not his interests, his curiosity and his experimenting with his third feature. A Mãe e o Mar was part of a series of commissions for the 20th anniversary of the Vila do Conde Short Film festival, and, with João Canijo's Obrigação (retitled É o Amor for its feature expansion), the only one to become a fully-fledged full-length feature.

     If É na Terra... looked at a remote community (the Azorean island of Corvo) through the eyes of a newcomer who learns of its nooks and crannies, A Mãe e o Mar focuses on another close-knit community little noticed by the outside world, but one that Mr. Tocha never really becomes a part of - not that it seems to have been his intention. In keeping with the nature of the Vila do Conde commission (requiring a local or regional subject), the community Mr. Tocha chose to film his documentary is the fishing village of Vila Chã, the only place in the world to have had women captaining fishing boats at sea. The film begins thus as an investigation into the history of this unique tradition, but one that stumbles almost immediately on the near-complete absence of written and/or historical testimony. Clutching at whatever few straws are left, the director organises A Mãe e o Mar as an elusive record of the few surviving memories, saving for future reference what little has made it through the years, in the shape of the recollections of the few men and women still alive who remember the practice and, in one or two cases, have actually shipped out to sea with women.

     The tone is highly elegiac throughout, occasionally infused with some heavy-handed but unavoidable symbolism, always full of a simple (but not simple-minded) earthiness that suggests it is just the way of all things that this nook of maritime history has become lost in the shadows of the past. To make up for the obvious absence of historical footage, Mr. Tocha explores instead a mise-en-abîme strategy that, as in É na Terra... and its predecessor Balaou, turns the actual making of the film and its filmmakers part of its nature and narrative, as the director himself introduces characters, explains shots and asks questions. In so doing, he invites the viewer along for the ride, while laying out his method and explaining why he's doing it this way.

     That is, however, both strength and weakness for this fragile, if affecting, work. There's a sense of a rickety scaffold that may not be strong enough to support his original plan; a series of worthy, smart, affecting interviews, testimonies and oral histories, and a number of beautiful shots, that make sense together but have not found the ideal form or shape. There's no denying A Mãe e o Mar is genuine and heartfelt, and both its modesty and curiosity manage to avoid most traps and pretenses. But there's no denying either that it never really soars, settling instead for an amiably rambling visit to a cabinet of curiosities whose central theme remains infuriatingly out of sight.

A MÃE E O MAR
Portugal 2013
95 minutes
Director Gonçalo Tocha; camera André Guiomar and Mr. Tocha; editors Mr. Tocha, Rui Ribeiro and Mr. Guiomar; producer Dario Oliveira; production company Curtas Metragens CRL
Screened October 27th 2013 (DocLisboa 2013 advance screener) and May 22nd 2014 (distributor advance screener)



"A Mãe e O Mar" #1 from Gonçalo Tocha on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

And for its next trick, Marvel Studios reboots the X-Men film saga, by mashing up the series' "original" timeline with the First Class prequel of 2001, thus giving rise to an entirely new, alternate continuum. It's a Terminator-like twist that, admittedly, shows some ingenuity, but whose tone flails far too much between overt seriousness and retro playfulness and, above all, suggests a cynical, somewhat despairing tone, an attempt to extend the characters' life cycle beyond the current glut of super-hero movies which has pretty much become the only thing in Hollywood's mind.

     Director Bryan Singer may have done wonders in the first two big-screen outings for Stan Lee's Marvel mutants thanks to his brooding, historically-grounded take on the characters' reluctant heroism and existentialist dilemmas. But that moodiness doesn't fit as easily the tonal shifts required by Simon Kinberg's script, positing an alternate future where the mutant population has been all but wiped out by the Sentinels, state-of-the-art robots attuned to its genetic signature (shades of The Matrix here). From this future where sworn enemies Professor X and Magneto (played by the returning Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) have made common cause, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to the moment in time when it came into existence: 1973's Paris Peace Accords, where the shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) kills the robots' inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and, with her capture, sets the Sentinel programme off. The trick is that Wolverine has to convince the younger Francis Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, reprising their First Class roles) to unite to help him stop Raven and use the consequent "butterfly effect" to prevent the future apocalypse.

     Thus, Mr. Singer cuts back and forth between the flashily retro, James-Bondian period extravaganza of the 1970s and the dark, dystopian future where only a handful of hidden mutants remain. The futuristic bookends are in line with the symbolic, weighty approach Mr. Singer perfected in his two series entries X-Men and X2, but so much time has passed since its novel approach that they now come off heavy-handed and derivative. On the other hand, the seriousness of these stakes casts a dark shadow in the more straight-forward central seventies action sequences, mostly expertly presented and, even, occasionally clever, but whose levitating-stadium climax pushes the film into over-the-top territory in a way far too reminiscent of Brett Ratner's ill-fated third instalment The Last Stand.

    Above all, there's a strong feeling that, for all its narrative time-traveling ingenuity, Days of Future Past is no longer something that makes organic sense within the X-Men universe but merely a cynical studio reboot with an eye on the financial bottom line. One that is certainly done with a little more care and attention than usual (with Mr. Singer bringing together the same crew he started in the series with), and one that puts to good use the collective talent of a cast that is certainly pulling its weight (but that is, overall, given very little to work with, since most of the "original" series cast is reduced to brief cameos or, in Anna Paquin's case, has been all but cut out of the film). But it's, basically, a film too far in a tiresome assembly-line of cookie-cutter super-hero adventures.

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
USA, United Kingdom 2014
132 minutes
Cast Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart
Director Bryan Singer; screenwriter Simon Kinberg; based on a story by Jane Goodman, Mr. Kinberg and Matthew Vaughn; cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (colour, widescreen); composer and editor John Ottman; designer John Myhre; costumes Louise Mingenbach; effects supervisor Richard Stammers; producers Lauren Shuler Donner, Mr. Singer, Mr. Kinberg and Hutch Parker; production companies Twentieth Century-Fox, Bad Hat Harry Productions, The Donners' Company and Simon Kinberg Productions in association with Marvel Entertainment, TSG Entertainment Finance, Ingenious Media and Down Productions
Screened May 16th 2014 (distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon)


Monday, May 26, 2014

BLUE RUIN

A quiet little sensation from American indie filmland, Blue Ruin is a vastly superior, and more interesting, work than its origin in the over-saturated market for American low-budget filmmaking and its eventful production may suggest. Made entirely independently on the savings of its principal cast and crew, with additional completion monies coming from 450 backers through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, this do-or-die effort from talented director Jeremy Saulnier is a smart, slow-burn grower of a film. It lies squarely halfway between the non-nonsense efficiency of old-fashioned, B-quota genre movie experts such as Don Siegel, and the attentive, observational character studies of the current crop of American ruralists such as Kelly Reichardt or Jeff Nichols.

     At its heart, actually, Blue Ruin lies much closer to something like Mr. Nichols' Shotgun Stories than to the Coen brothers, to whose Blood Simple it has been often compared - though it is a tale of bumbling, almost unwitting crime, it is also the tale of a desperate attempt to escape the blood ties that seem to define everything you are and do in the American South. It's a tale of revenge, of a man whose life was put literally on hold after a family tragedy, and who is shocked out of his "suspended animation" when a convicted killer is released early. But Mr. Saulnier's approach is pretty unusual for a genre movie: its premise is in fact only the first act of a narrative that constantly twists back and forth and grows exponentially in depth and resonance as it moves on: Dwight Evans' (Macon Blair) thirst for revenge on the man that killed his parents is hardly fully thought through, a decision that reawakens a seemingly dormant cycle of retribution whose extent will not be fully understood until very near the film's end.

     If Dwight's plan is hardly bulletproof, Mr. Saulnier's handling and pacing are - the violence and momentum of Blue Ruin are constantly offset by the seeming ordinariness of its hero, winningly played by Mr. Blair as a slightly dim everyman whose shattered world can never be put back together to his heart's content. The rural and small-town Virginia setting of the tale heightens this sense of people locked in bubbles of their own making, a blood feud that occasionally reminds of old-fashioned westerns, but that the director (also scripting and lensing) edges closer to an almost existential tragedy by making the most of his locations and reducing dialogue to the barest essentials. It's that rarest of objects that works both as an exciting genre piece and as a thoughtful character study, in no small part thanks to the way Mr. Saulnier fits everything he wants to say into a neatly compressed 90 minutes.

BLUE RUIN
USA, France 2013
90 minutes
Cast Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson
Director, screenwriter and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier (colour, widescreen); composers Brooke Blair and Will Blair; designer Kaet McAnneny; costumes Brooke Bennett; editor Julia Bloch; producers Anish Savjani, Richard Peete and Vincent Savino, Filmscience, Neighborhood Watch Films and The Lab of Madness in association with Paradise City
Screened May 15th 2014 (screener DVD, Lisbon)


Friday, May 23, 2014

HISTÒRIA DE LA MEVA MORT (Story of My Death)

Ever since the highly acclaimed Honor de Cavalleria debuted nearly ten years ago, Catalan director Albert Serra has earned a front-row seat at a coterie of maverick modern-day auteurs beloved of film critics, alongside equally leftfield contemporary directors such as Pedro Costa, Léos Carax, Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet or the found-footage duo Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucchi.

     Unlike Messrs. Carax or Costa, though, Mr. Serra has been treading a very fine line between the impenetrable and the poseur, his melding of Terrence Malick's lyrical naturalism and Robert Bresson's ascetic austerity intriguing on paper but usually underwhelming on screen. There's always been too much a sense that the Catalan director's cinema is a collection of well-disguised auteurist tropes, smugly passed off as radical filmmaking but in fact aimed straight at the orthodox centre of a certain type of "art cinema" meant to make specialist audiences feel good about their smarts.

     Mr. Serra can be a wonderful pictorialist in his images, often shot on location in natural lighting with consumer cameras and non-professional actors, without a set script and reacting often to the moment, suggesting a sort of cinema-povero-vérité. In Story of My Death that idea is taken to breaking point with its numerous nocturnal scenes, Jimmy Gimferrer's lensing evoking a failed no-budget attempt to emulate John Alcott's sterling work on Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon - the murkiness of the digital cinematography is such that for long stretches the viewer is left clutching at straws as to what is happening and whom is in the frame.

     As in Mr. Serra's previous takes on classic literary myths (Don Quijote in Honor de Cavalleria, the Three Wise Kings in El Cant dels Ocells/Birdsong), Story of My Death is a series of loose episodes starring historical figures. Here, it's famed seducer Giacomo Casanova (played by Catalan art historian and curator Vicenç Altaió) and his valet (Serra regular Lluís Serrat), during a trip beginning in Switzerland and ending in the depths of Transylvania as Casanova's paths cross those of count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) - not that you'd know, since neither name is uttered during the film's two-and-a-half-hour length, and all is so dimly lighted and elusively presented that it's hard to make ends or tails of what exactly is going on.

     There may be allusions of mind versus body, thought versus action, reflection versus spontaneity, but all of it is infuriatingly left at the viewer's discretion, to a greater, more flamboyant extent than in his previous work. This gives off a strong sense that Mr. Serra is setting the bar deliberately high in order to "filter" only the ones that are willing to put in the hard work his cinema demands: his long, almost unbearably slow takes, the lack of traditional narrative arc replaced by an apparent make-it-up-as-you-go-along free-form structure, seem designed as a pass/fail test to keep away the undesired. It's almost as if, instead of inviting viewers into his peculiar universe, the director is striving to keep them out and allow only the "chosen few" in.

     That nothing much happens throughout the two and a half hours of Story of My Death shouldn't be a problem if you're a gifted filmmaker; the problem with Mr. Serra is you never know if the gifts are truly his or merely the well-played tricks of a preternaturally aware confidence artist. In either case, Story of My Death only re-shuffles the cards some more.

HISTÒRIA DE LA MEVA MORT
Spain, France 2013
150 minutes
Cast Vicenç Altaió, Lluís Serrat
Director, screenwriter and editor Albert Serra; cinematographer Jimmy Gimferrer (colour, widescreen); composers Ferran Font, Marc Verdaguer, Joe Robinson and Enric Juncá; art directors Sebastián Vogler and Mihnea Mihailescu; costumes Lourdes Pérez and Rosa Tharrats; producers Montse Triola, Thierry Lounas and Mr. Serra, Andergraun Films and Capricci Films in collaboration with Televisió de Catalunya
Screened May 14th 2014 (distributor press screening, Medeia Monumental 3, Lisbon)


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

1960

In the year 1960, the late Portuguese architect Fernando Távora traveled the world for six months, leaving behind a "travel journal" of notes, drawings and impressions made while heading West, taking in the sights and sounds of cities and monuments. 50 years later, Portuguese director Rodrigo Areias "illustrates" fancifully that journal using newly-shot super-8 footage of those very same places, superimposed to actor Marcos Barbosa's readings of excerpts from Mr. Távora's writings.

     1960 is a peculiar work, halfway between the freeform essay film and the more traditional art documentary, commissioned by the European Cultural Capital Guimarães 2012, as the architect was the responsible for the city's urban planning redesign in the late 1970s/early 1980s. And it's also a smart, buoyant one, as Mr. Areias and his editor Tomás Baltazar assemble a jumble of newly-shot images that transport the grain and texture of found period footage (and are interspersed with a few actual period shots), while creating a combination illustration and commentary of Mr. Távora's writings. When he complains about the crass commercialisation and tourist traps of the Mayan ruins in Mexico or the Egyptian pyramids, or when he waxes lyrical about the perfection of Frank Lloyd Wright's Wisconsin estate Taliesin, there's a strong sense that these 50-year-old opinions about the power of architecture to affect human experience speak of our own days, as if nothing had changed in the years that have gone since. What's really essential about Mr. Areias' film, though, is the will to communicate how important thinking about one's environment, asking questions and not settling for the obvious is.

     1960's specificity may mean it's hardly a general-interest item, and there can be a sense that this is a slight item whose short, hour-long length can be more oriented for subject-specific festivals or television slots, but its technically impeccable presentation - both visually and aurally - and the colloquially engaging writing of Mr. Távora keep you constantly interested and entertained.

1960
Portugal 2013
66 minutes
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer Rodrigo Areias (colour); based on the travel journals of Fernando Távora; editor Tomás Baltazar; sound design Pedro Ribeiro and Pedro Marinho; production Fundação Cidade de Guimarães and Bando à Parte
Screened May 11th 2014 (DVD, Lisbon)

Monday, May 19, 2014

GODZILLA

Is there even a possibility to attribute a sense of authorship to a modern-day Hollywood production? That, of course, was the crux of the matter for the "auteur theory" French critics launched in the 1950s, and they did a lot to elevate the role of the director as the real creative engine of any film. As Hollywood seems to mire itself progressively more in super-hero or monster movies of gargantuan budgets and state-of-the-art visual effects, though, so does the question ask itself again. Should we take these seriously as works of cinema with a personal voice behind them (much as the Cahiers du Cinéma generation did with filmmakers generally considered entertainers as Hitchcock, Hawks or Ford), or merely as assembly-line products without the least sense of personality?

     British director Gareth Edwards' take on the mythic Japanese monster Godzilla, rebooting it for Western audiences after Roland Emmerich's much-derided 1998 effort, lies straight at the heart of that question. A film that seems to have hit the ground running at the box-office, welcomed by an unusually polarized critical reaction that has some writers welcoming it with open arms as the possible salvation of Summer blockbusters, this big-studio, big-budget debut from a filmmaker with only one low-budget feature under his belt is definitely attempting to do something else than just the usual assembly-line thing.

     Effacing all traces of Mr. Emmerich's film, and using Inoshiro Honda's 1953 original Japanese film as its template, this Godzilla is a much more ambivalent creature, a mysterious, pre-historic "alpha predator" whose concern is not so much the anthills of humans that are now installed on its stomping grounds around the world, more its role as a sort of nature-ordained quasi-divinity, with a duty to restore balance to a world out of joint. This beast that has mysteriously survived from olden days springs into action when human agency unwittingly reveals the existence of other equally ancient - and much more dangerous - creatures that have also survived.

     Working from a script credited to Max Borenstein, Mr. Edwards wholeheartedly embraces the cautionary-tale aspect from the early Japanese films that set the character on its 60-year long-running career; just as Godzilla was once a metaphor of the unforeseen consequences of mankind's dabbling with an atomic power it hardly understood, so are its "massive un-identified terrestrial object" foes the result of our ever-growing requirements for resources, liable to release forces we cannot control. The film's first major setpiece - set in a Japanese nuclear power plant - is unnervingly reminding of Fukushima, at other times Mr. Edwards' striking feel for imagery brings back the Asian tsunami or the traumas of 9/11 in a story that can be seen as resonating with the current climate change debates.

     For all that, it's clear that Godzilla does reuse the tried and true monster movie clichés: there's a reluctant hero that must put himself in harm's way as the only way to stop possible catastrophe, surplus-to-requirements female characters, a voice-of-reason scientist, a doubtful but professionally stern military officer with responsabilities and a "truther" who has been right all along. It's a shame these clichés are so blandly trotted out, especially since the major failing of Godzilla lies in its casting: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (the hero) proves distressingly anonymous as the hero, Elizabeth Olsen and Sally Hawkins (the hero's wife and the scientist's assistant) have next to nothing to do throughout except look terrified. It falls to Ken Watanabe (the scientist) and David Strathairn (the officer), in the meatiest roles, and Bryan Cranston (the truther) and Juliette Binoche (the wife), to infuse humanity and gravitas in what are essentially underwritten stock characters.

     This is all the more dangerous since Mr. Edwards' trick in Godzilla is to always see his creatures from a distinctively human point of view, delaying as much as possible their entrances (none are seen before the 45-minute mark, and Godzilla itself won't show up until much later), focussing more on the impact of these unimaginable giants on human civilization as we know it. In so doing, he brings back some of the sense of awe and terror that only a very few filmmakers have been able to conjure repeatedly, and none more so that Steven Spielberg, whose War of the Worlds is a very visible influence here, in terms of structure, reveal and pacing. The sense of scale and disorientation is so overwhelming that it almost makes you forget that, in many ways, Godzilla is also a riff on Spielberg's central theme of family - these monsters are what sets families apart yet brings them together, as our hero, the improbably-named Ford Brody (Mr. Taylor-Johnson), lost his nuclear family (Ms. Binoche and Mr. Cranston) to the creatures' first sighting, only to come to peace with them through their reappearance.

     For all of that, it's really in Mr. Edwards' tantalizingly elusive, reflective (and reflecting) handling, well supported by DP Seamus McGarvey's nocturnal camerawork and Bob Ducsay's smartly elliptical editing, that Godzilla shines as something that avoids the fast-food sugar-rush of summer blockbusters; a surprisingly muted yet unequivocally emotional take on what a modern-day monster movie could (should) be like.

GODZILLA
USA, Japan 2014
123 minutes
Cast Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, Victor Rasuk
Director Gareth Edwards; screenwriter Max Borenstein; based on a story by Dave Callaham; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (colour, widescreen, 3D); composer Alexandre Desplat; designer Owen Paterson; costumes Sharen Davis; editor Bob Ducsay; visual effects Jim Rygiel; producers Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent and Brian Rogers, Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Productions in association with Advanced Audiovisual Productions
Screened May 9th 2014 (NOS Colombo Imax, Lisbon)


Friday, May 16, 2014

THE DOUBLE

British actor/writer Richard Ayoade follows up his much-acclaimed directing debut Submarine with an eerie, disquietingly piece of Lynchian surrealism. Set at the exact opposite of Submarine's irreverent celebration of growing up weird, The Double shares with it Mr. Ayoade's uncanny way of connecting with his actors to bring out the essence of the characters he gravitates to - outsiders yearning to fit a world that seems to reject them the more they try - and his precise determination to create entire universes that will help us see the world through their eyes.

     For The Double, the director and his co-writer Avi Korine (brother of Harmony) take Russian writer Fyodor Dostoievsky's novel about a man confronted with a mirror image of himself who takes over his life, and set it at a weird intersection between Dennis Potter's fantasy takes on humdrum daily life, Terry Gilliam at his most baroquely Kafkaesque and David Lynch's "psychogenic fugue" dissociations. Taking place in a hallucinatorily haunting perpetual night straight out of Dark City via Brazil (much kudos to designer David Crank), this is the tale of the "non-person" that is Simon James, a low-level cog in a perpetual make-work machine that is tired of being overlooked yet incapable of taking the first step. A new co-worker, James Simon, shows up and, to Simon's horror, he's his exact physical double endowed with all the successful gifts of the self-made-(sales)man. Slowly but surely, James starts taking Simon's life away until, with nothing left to lose, the shy, anonymous loner takes matters in hand.

     That The Double is as affecting as it is owes much to Jesse Eisenberg's impeccable, film-carrying performance, but also to the added sense of existential poignancy of Simon's fight to just be noticed as a person with thoughts and feelings in a beautifully-constructed world that has no truck for such things. Yet, despite the film fitting in easily in a long-standing tradition of British dystopias that has George Orwell's 1984 as its possible highpoint, The Double seems to lack something as its descent into surrealism gains speed in the third and final act. It's as if Mr. Ayoade allows the film to lose track of its quietly disturbing anguish, drowned in the sensory opacity of Mr. Lynch's Lost Highway, the film slowly becoming a purely technical, somewhat self-centered, exercise in universe building.

     The director's determination to not offer an easy way out to the viewer, though admirably true to what's gone before, is simultaneously strangely haunting and irritatingly off-putting. It allows the dank, sickly colour palette in DP Erik Alexander Wilson's images and Mr. Crank's retro-futuristic production design to remain intriguing while keeping the ultimate solution of the mystery always out of reach, its empathy with Simon's impossible situation evaporating before it coalesces again, always just out of sight. A mystery The Double is, and one as alluring as it is infuriating; a film you can't quite dismiss but that you can't quite embrace. Maybe that's all it needs.

THE DOUBLE
United Kingdom 2013
93 minutes
Cast Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Cathy Moriarty, Phyllis Somerville, James Fox
Director Richard Ayoade; screenwriters Mr. Ayoade and Avi Korine; based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoievsky The Double; cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson (colour); composer Andrew Hewitt; designer James Crank; costumes Jacqueline Durran; editors Nick Fenton and Chris Dickens; producers Robin C. Fox and Amina Dasmal, Filmfour, The British Film Institute and Alcove Entertainment in co-production with Attercop Productions and MC Pictures, in association with Protagonist Pictures and Auburn Entertainment
Screened May 8th 2014 (DVD, Lisbon)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

APRÈS MAI (Something in the Air)

French director and former film critic Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air comes on the heels of his universally acclaimed deconstruction of 1970s terrorist Carlos "the Jackal", 2010's Carlos. His reversion to a more modest, "classical" French mode of filmmaking after that expansive epic (commissioned as a five-hour television film, but existing as well in a163-minute film version) has been welcomed with some dismay and disappointment. Unwarranted ones, I find, since the openly autobiographical Something in the Air is a mirror image of Carlos in its grounding in a specific time period, the early 1970s, in its infatuation with the possibilities of reinvention brought on by the sweeping revolution of youth culture and activist protest.

     Just as Edgar Ramírez's Carlos was a narcissist looking for 15 minutes of fame rather than for a cause to devote himself to, the hero of the new film, art student Gilles (Clément Métayer), is someone who is trying clothes on for size, experimenting with possible futures to see what will fit best. We meet him at a 1971 violent demonstration, a high-school activist still riding the coat-tails of the idealism of the May '68 riots, caught up in the edgy thrills of protesting against the bourgeois state of things while going home to create his paintings and drawings in blessed peace at his TV producer dad's country house.

     Such is the persistent, gentle irony of Something in the Air, whose original French title - Après mai, "after May" - seems to be more to the point. It's a film about what remained "after May", about the left-overs of the revolution that never quite happened, about those who bought into it and held on to it, out of desperation or lack of alternative, who kept on believing they could truly change the world only to find it was all but a dream. In his entire coterie of high-school friends, Gilles is probably going to be the one kid who, by never fully engaging, truly escapes all traps and creates his own path.

     Mr. Assayas' film may meander somewhat aimlessly for most of its length, but it's precisely that aimlessness that gives it heft and gravitas, the push and pull that sees these idealistic art-school kids, drunk on their own smarts, commit to utopias whose impossibilities they can't quite fathom. Like them, it's a film drunk on its own heightened romance, its life-affirming celebration of coming of age in such an interesting time uneasily mixed with a bitter-sweet nostalgia for what never truly happened, cleverly underlined by DP Éric Gautier's roaming steadycam, occasionally Renoirian in its carefree, bucolic compositions, and by Mr. Assayas' own impeccable choice of musical illustration. A minor work Something in the Air may be; but it's an affecting, heartfelt one that touches a chord.

APRÈS MAI
France 2011
122 minutes
Cast Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Félix Armand, Carole Combes, India Salvor Menuez, Hugo Conzelmann, Martin Loizillon, André Marcon
Director and screenwriter Olivier Assayas; cinematography Éric Gautier (colour); designer François-Renaud Labarthe; costumes Jürgen Doering; editors Luc Barnier, Mathilde van de Moortel; producers Nathanaël Karmitz and Charles Gillibert, MK2 Production in co-production with France 3 Cinéma and Vortex Sutra
Screened May 7th 2014 (DVD, Lisbon)


Monday, May 12, 2014

UNDER THE SKIN

At the heart of Jonathan Glazer's third feature is an alien being discovering a corner of our Earth (in this case, Scotland). The British director's adaptation of Michel Faber's novel is itself an alien being, exploring methodically the possibilities of film to tell a story shorn of all traditional narrative landmarks, emulating its character's process of exploration and discovery as it observes and collects evidence.

      While there is clearly some sort of narrative arc in Under the Skin, it's not so much a traditional, classical narrative as it is a strangely disquieting, uncomfortable look at what makes us human seen through the glacially indifferent eyes of a foreigner (and "alien" still is a synonym for "foreigner") who doesn't seem to be able to understand or comprehend humanity - or maybe simply doesn't want to until it's forced to. To be human is to change, and Under the Skin is the story of an observer that changes, that starts taking part, a predator that allows itself to become prey.

     All of this, however, is easier written than seen, as Mr. Glazer's approach is to simply eject every possible element that might ground the viewer. No characters are ever given names or identities, as if they're simply archetypes or examples; why the alien is on the Earth, what does it do with the young men (all bachelors whose absence wouldn't be noted) it seduces then traps in some sort of sleek black amber, where does it come from, all is left unexplained. Instead, Under the Skin just unfurls like a purely sensory experience, with nothing for the viewer to hold on to; just Scarlett Johansson's physical presence, almost like an empty vessel allowing herself to be filled by whatever lies on anyone's mind, and the meticulously exquisite orchestrating of the many audio-visual elements at Mr. Glazer's disposal.

     The film becomes an almost dialogue-free experiment, reminiscent of the psychedelic midnight movies and head-trips of the 1970s, but given a resolutely contemporary gloss by the director's textured, evocative handling. It reminds all at once from Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg (and particularly his 1976 cult movie The Man who Fell to Earth), vintage Hammer films, Ken Russell, David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovski or Marguerite Duras, but like its alien seductress that is at the same time unique and banal, it creates its own personal magic. Whatever it is that Mr. Glazer is aiming at with this formally breathtaking object, the one undoubted definition is that it is cinema - an audio-visual-narrative experience that could not exist in any other art  form.

     Whether you like it, ot not, is beside the point; Under the Skin isn't an easy film to like, let alone enjoy. But it's a stunning achievement, proof positive of Mr. Glazer's singular, unique vision as a filmmaker; and that something as uncompromising as this has been made in a day and age where conformity seems to be the modus operandi of film financiers is, in itself, cause for celebration.

UNDER THE SKIN
United Kingdom, USA, Switzerland 2013
108 minutes
Cast Scarlett Johansson
Director Jonathan Glazer; screenwriters Walter Campbell and Mr. Glazer; based on the novel by Michel Faber Under the Skin; cinematographer Daniel Landin (colour); composer Mica Levi; designer Chris Oddy; costumes Steven Noble; editor Paul Watts; sound designer Johnnie Burn; effects supervisors Tom Debenham and Dominic Parker; producers James Wilson and Nick Wechsler, Filmfour, British Film Institute, Nick Wechsler Productions and JW Films in co-production with Sigma Films, in association with Creative Scotland, Filmnation Entertainment and Silver Reel
Screened April 15th 2014 (distributor advance screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, Lisbon)


Thursday, May 08, 2014

DABBA (The Lunchbox)

Indian cinema has allowed itself to be boxed in as a riotously garish assembly line of Bollywood extravaganzas, effectively asphyxiating all other local productions that don't fit the cliché. That something like The Lunchbox fails to check that particular box, while checking a series of other boxes pertaining to the contemporary adult/prestige picture skirting the art-cinema circuit, is a good thing or a bad thing?

     Writer/director Ritesh Batra's debut, produced by the influential director Anurag Kashyap, has enough smarts to come off as something more than a mere touristic/exotic version of Western melodramas, but in so doing it risks filling in the somewhat condescending slot of "Eastern films trying to be Western". It's a conundrum Mr. Batra couldn't quite escape even if he wanted to, and while The Lunchbox doesn't really present a formed filmmaking personality, it never loses itself in meandering side tracks and keep its central plot device in sight: a misplaced lunchbox, one of the thousands delivered daily by Mumbai's dabbawallas from wives' kitchens to their husbands' workplaces.

     The director starts by cross-cutting between insecure housewife Ila (the lovely Nimrat Kaur), racing to cook lunch in time for the delivery service to pick it up, and the all-business Saajan Fernandes (the great Irrfan Khan), a paper-pusher near retirement, whose lunchbox for the day is unaccountably particularly delicious. Attentive filmgoers with no prior knowledge of the plot will guess that Ila's lunch has mistakenly been delivered to Fernandes, a situation that Mr. Batra skirts elegantly before confirming it about 20 minutes in. What follows, as Ila realises her packed lunch is being delivered to a "wrong person" who seems to appreciate her cooking a lot more than her own husband, is a charmingly decorous, if quaint, epistolary romance: the solitary housewife and the curmudgeonly widower start exchanging notes via the lunchbox, since neither exactly knows who it is they're talking with and have no other way of contact - or, rather, seem either scared of or uninterested in finding a way to actually meet each other.

     This is where The Lunchbox shines: in keeping its two leads apart while tracing an effortless back and forth, in a superb editing job by John Lyons that makes you forget they're practically never in the same shot at the same time. It's this clever approach, along with Ms. Kaur and Mr. Khan's sensitive, sharply attentive acting, and Mr. Batra's eye feel for the bustle of Mumbai, that overcomes the somewhat banal self-help overtones of the tale, as both Ila and Fernandes pivot off their increasingly intimate correspondence to effect some changes in their staid lives, in a well-meaning but somewhat over-used arc that is embellished by its presentation. For all that, there's an undeniable appeal in The Lunchbox's disarming modesty, in its quiet sincerity, that makes it genuinely enjoyable, a distant but equally charming cousin of Ang Lee's masterful Eat Drink Man Woman. 

DABBA

India, Germany, USA, France 2013
101 minutes
Cast Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Director and screenwriter Ritesh Batra; cinematographer Michael Simmonds (colour, widescreen); composer Max Richter; designer Shruti Gupta; costumes Niharika Bhasin Khan; editor John F. Lyons; producers Arun Rangachari, Anurag Kashyap and Guneet Monga, DAR Motion Pictures, Rohfilm, Cine Mosaic, ASAP Films and Sikhya Entertainment in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma and National Film Development Corporation (India)
Screened April 28th 2014 (screener DVD, Lisbon)


Tuesday, May 06, 2014

TROPICÁLIA

The music documentary often falls into a trap of its own making: the sense that, despite the pervasiveness of popular music in modern-day culture, the form is essentially preaching to the choir of fans of a specific musician, genre or movement, unhelped by the traditional "talking heads" format it often chooses. It's therefore a relief to see Marcelo Machado buck the trend with Tropicália, finding an enticing way to represent this short-lived but highly influential artistic movement that swept Brazil between 1967 and 1969.

     The "tropicalist" group, whose unofficial but clearly programmatic leaders were singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil while also taking in film, theatre and art, was enormously popular and acclaimed at the time in their native land, but only really started resonating internationally much later, after more adventurous music fans and younger generations started hearing the treasure trove of recordings it generated. The name was taken from an installation by artist Hélio Oiticica and adopted for a collective album with contributions from all the major musicians involved, and was meant to designate a celebration of the contradictions and culture of 1960s Brazil; simultaneously utopian and traditionalist, melding together "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture, influenced by the Beatles and Anglo-American psychedelia as much as by Brazilian folk art and music and sudsy crooners.

     The weak link in Mr. Machado's documentary is its assumption that much of this is already known to viewers, leaving little time to explain who the central figures of the movement were, where they came from, how they got here; instead, Tropicália focuses on contextualising its short-lived existence, as what began as a purely artistic expression became more and more entangled with the country's socio-political reality. It does so by successfully creating a kaleidoscopic, swirling mosaic of vibrantly edited precious archival footage and on-screen graphics that translates into pictures the general sense, feeling and quest of Tropicália: a wide-eyed, optimistic, celebratory happening of Brazil on the on-ramp of the highway to modernity.

     The movement's collagist sensibility is excellently captured in the film's visuals, but the real gem is that Mr. Machado has interviewed Messrs. Veloso and Gil and many of the other musicians involved - like Os Mutantes' Rita Lee, Sérgio Dias Baptista and Arnaldo Dias Baptista, or Tom Zé - but keeps them off-screen for most of the film. Their contemporary comments on the movement, coloured with the hindsight of the nearly 50 years that have since passed, create a rueful and joyful contrast between their young idealist selves on-screen and the wiser, more experienced modern-day persons. Tropicália did not change Brazil as much as its members, flush with the enthusiasm of youth, would have wished, but it brought enough change that it remains a guiding light of integrity and artistic creativity that still resonates today, with Mr. Machado's insightful documentary capturing wonderfully the sense of possibility, colour and fun that it brought to a greyish, cloistered Brazil.

TROPICÁLIA
Brazil, United Kingdom, USA 2012
87 minutes
Director Marcelo Machado; screenwriters Mr. Machado and Di Moretti, with the collaboration of Fernando Honesko, Oswaldo Santana, Ricardo Soares, Thiago Dottori and Vaughn Glover; based on an idea by Mr. Glover and Maurice James; cinematographer Eduardo Piagge (colour); graphics Gabriel Bitar; art director Ricardo Fernandes; editor Oswaldo Santana; producers Denise Gomes and Paula Cosenza, Bossa Nova Films in co-production with Mojo Pictures, Record Entretenimento, VH1 and DLA, in association with Americas Film Conservancy and Revolution Films
Screened April 14th 2014 (DVD, Lisbon)


Monday, May 05, 2014

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

For better and for worse, the Muppets remain gleefully themselves in this sequel to the 2011 re-introduction of the characters on the big screen under the aegis of Disney. For better, because the sweetly subversive community of freaky vaudevillians remains as lovingly inventive, absurd, silly and amusing as ever. And the new film, retaining the entire creative group behind The Muppets except for star/co-writer Jason Segel, retains the goofy, deadpan sense of nonsensical, surrealist burlesque Jim Henson built as their trademark.

     For worse as well, because the Muppets really aren't, and never have truly been, designed to exist on a big screen. Their defiantly hand-operated, "analog" humanity may set them apart from perfect, modern-day digital CGI creations, but also builds in the technical and physical limitations that prevent a director from going to town visually with the production values. Instead, as one early musical number in Muppets Most Wanted proves, the Muppets' restrictions themselves seem to hold the film back.

     More complicated is the sense that the characters' mild, well-meaning anarchy strongly resists the demands of a feature-length narrative. Their origins in what was, for all intents and purpose, a pastiche of old-school vaudeville shows interspersed with TV sketch comedy, mean they've always seemed somewhat adrift or lost at sea in a 90-minute tale. It's a problem that existed from their very first big-screen outings under Mr. Henson, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that this new series, handled by veteran TV comedy director James Bobin, screenwriter Nicholas Stoller and songwriter Bret Mckenzie, hasn't actually been able to solve.

     Muppets Most Wanted reminds of the original second Muppet movie, The Great Muppet Caper, in that it is a heist movie melded with a road trip across Europe: Kermit (performed by Steve Whitmire) is replaced by an exact evil lookalike, Russian criminal mastermind Constantine (performed by Matt Vogel), who has engineered a European tour stopping next to museums that hide the keys to stealing the British Crown Jewels. Two of today's most admired and acclaimed TV comedians star alongside the usual gang - The Office's Ricky Gervais as Dominic Badguy (pronounced "Badgee" - it's French), the accomplice that Constantine plants as manager, and 30 Rock's Tina Fey as Nadya, the officer in charge of the gulag from which Constantine escapes and to which Kermit is exiled after his lookalike replaces him in the Muppets. That the third major human role, a sniffy Interpol inspector, has been given to Modern Family's Ty Burrell more or less confirms modern-day TV comedy as the true inheritor of the Muppets' legacy - even though all of them pretty much play straight guys to the characters, somewhat wasted in a perfunctory plotting that works more as a connective thread.

     For all that, Muppets Most Wanted is hardly a wash; there are a few choice gags, a pervasively unpretentious, amiable mood, a sense of fun and of hanging out with old friends. The Muppets have always existed in a knife-edge between the quaint and the hip, the musty and the hilarious, and this film merely continues it, even if it will hardly bring any new converts to Muppetworld.

MUPPETS MOST WANTED
USA 2014
107 minutes
Cast Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey; Muppet performers Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz
Director James Bobin; screenwriters Mr. Bobin and Nicholas Stoller; cinematographer Don Burgess (colour); composer Christophe Beck; songs Bret Mckenzie; designer Eve Stewart; costumes Rahel Afiley; editor James Thomas; effects supervisor Sean Mathiesen; producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, Walt Disney Pictures and Mandeville Films
Screened April 11th 2014 (distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon)