Friday, October 31, 2014

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY

Patricia Highsmith's tales of Americans adrift in Europe, stumbling their way into unexpectedly existential, amoral situations, have long fascinated cinema, and have even originated some pretty good films. In many ways, a lot of it is due to the late writer's interest in the inherently cinematic duality of the doppelgänger, made visible in the identity theft at the heart of the Ripley series since The Talented Mr. Ripley.

    The Two Faces of January, Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini's directorial debut, comes across as a sort of second-tier Talented Mr. Ripley set under the hot Summer sun of 1962 Greece, with the two male leads passing themselves off as what they are not and recognising kindred spirits in each other. Both are small-time con artists who have shed a skin and are yearning to live the dream they were promised but can't access other than through less legal ways.

     These, however, are not exactly innocents abroad; rather people in a somewhat strange pilgrimage to exorcise demons or run from their pasts. Chester McFarland (Viggo Mortensen, channelling a young Ed Harris) is a World War II veteran living it large after eloping to Europe with the money entrusted to him by investors. Rydal Keener (a subdued, almost bland Oscar Isaac) is the son of a scholar tasting freedom from a life pre-ordained by a suffocating family and skimming off rich tourists who have more money they know what to do with.

     A casual meet in Athens, expatriates enjoying time together, takes a turn for the worse when Rydal is unwitting witness to Chester's attempt to hide the dead body of a private detective sent on his trail. Escaping before the police cotton on to the crime, the fast friendship between the two men, having become a kind of surrogate father and son, deteriorates quickly as Chester realises Rydal is attracted to his wife, the lovely Colette (Kirsten Dunst making the most of a thankless, supporting role).

      To his credit, Mr. Amini strives valiantly to maintain the wry, detached tone of Highsmith's novels, the almost casual way with which the tiniest detail mushrooms into a full-blown butterfly effect, her characters struggling with the unavoidable. But he is unable to give The Two Faces of January the added edge that would underline the hunger, the desperation for self-reinvention that is the engine for both Chester and Rydal's actions.

     Instead, the director falls back on that standard British mode of elegant, understated period film making, the impeccable production and Marcel Zyskind's widescreen Kodachrome cinematography seemingly ripped out of a 1960s thriller - which might have been the whole point.  But in so doing, The Two Faces of January becomes a tasteful, thoughtful, rather bloodless film - which is precisely what the writer was railing against with her disappointed characters.

     There is, to be sure, nothing intrinsically wrong per se with this handsome production, well performed and well handled if with some anonymity. It's just that this kind of vacuum-sealed, well-appointed film somehow evades the exact existentialism that was at the heart of the novel: there's no weariness, just ennui.

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY
France, United Kingdom, USA 2013
97 minutes
Cast Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, David Warshofsky
Director and screenwriter Hossein Amini; based on the novel The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith; cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (colour, widescreen); composer Alberto Iglesias; designer Michael Carlin; costumes Steven Noble; editors Nicolas Chaudeurge and Jon Harris; producers Tom Sternberg, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robyn Slovo; production companies Studiocanal, Working Title Films, Timnick Films and Mirage Enterprises in association with Anton Capital Entertainment
Screened November 27th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

DER ANSTÄNDIGE (The Decent One)

Here's the question I could never get out of my mind while seeing The Decent One, Vanessa Lapa's scrupulously researched and impeccably assembled montage of archive footage about the infamous head of Hitler's SS, Heinrich Himmler: what is it truly about?

     Is it about our never-ending fascination as to why and how the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany was possible, with the existential struggle between Good and Evil of World War II? Is it about trying to understand the mentality that made Nazism possible? Is it about the disconnect involved in being perfectly normal family men with a genocidal, lethal job?

     In attempting to reconcile the callous bureaucracy and chilling cruelty of the Nazi regime with Himmler's personal life, Ms. Lapa, an Israeli journalist and filmmaker born in Belgium and the descendent of Holocaust survivors, is trying to understand dispassionately what drove a man like the feared SS leader to direct such barbaric acts. In many ways, The Decent One - the title suggesting the perfectly average family life Himmler led, shown in extracts from his correspondence - tries to engage its subject with journalistic zeal and an archivist's attention to the minutiae of the context in which everything happened.

     The accumulation of inexhaustibly researched material (a wealth of which comes from Himmler's family archives and had never been made public before), however, as the (almost too) bloodless end result proves, brings the viewer no nearer to a glimpse of the reason why.

     What the film does portray, chillingly, is a sort of underlining of Hannah Arendt's commentary of the "banality of evil", the sense that the kernel of the horror behind the Holocaust lies almost forgotten underneath a labyrinthine series of layers of bureaucracy and protocol; the idea that the machinery of war and genocide, and its minutely reported and noted process, was in fact the real heart of the regime, a desire for order, hierarchy, respect to be maintained at all costs (the much vaunted German efficiency becoming a tragically distorted negative of itself).

     The Decent One doesn't necessarily answer the questions it poses, and that's not necessarily a bad thing since it reminds the viewer of the reasons why they must continue to be posed. But I also couldn't help think that, at some point, Ms. Lapa also loses sight of the answers because she is too absorbed in the technical challenge of having to construct her film entirely out of archive footage (and some of her artistic choices, especially when it comes to sound effects and music score, are laid on a bit too thick for effect). It's a challenge she meets head on magnificently, resulting in an undeniably important historical document, but one that, underwriting everything that's been said before, leaves you none the wiser.

DER ANSTÄNDIGE
Israel, Austria, Germany 2013
96 minutes
Director and producer Vanessa Lapa; screenwriters Ms. Lapa and Ori Weisbrod; composers Jonathan Sheffer, Daniel Salomon and Gil Feldman; editors Noam Amit and Sharon Brook; production company Realworks in co-production with Felix Breisach Medienwerkstatt, ORF, MDR and WDR
Screened February 9th 2014, Kino International, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama official screening)


Monday, October 27, 2014

GETÚLIO

Brazil has been a lot in the news lately, what with the soccer world cup, public protests and presidential elections - all the more reason to be attentive to the strikingly inventive and interesting independent cinema the country is now producing. The first foray into narrative fiction from documentary filmmaker João Jardim, best known abroad for his work with Lucy Walker in the glossy, well-meaning documentary Waste Land, triangulates many of these issues into a fictionalised take on the last few days in the life of Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas, who died by his own hand in 1954.

      Mr. Jardim is seeking that sweet spot between popular mainstream and auteur filmmaking that Walter Salles, Fernando Meirelles and José Padilha reached before him - and, as so many others before him, he also fails to find it. Despite an excellent ensemble cast led by Tony Ramos as an aged, disenchanted Vargas, Getúlio is a hurried, harried, jumbled primer in Brazil's mid-century history as a political thriller and a glossy, over-stylized City of God also-ran, full of camera trickery and flashy visuals, as a narrative film.

     At times, there's a sense that Mr. Jardim and his talented DP Walter Carvalho are aiming for a sort of Oliver Stone stream-of-consciousness visual overload. But where Mr. Stone's maximalist approach in films such as Nixon or JFK was justified by his need to find a visual equivalent to the labyrinth of theories, contexts, places and characters his sprawling plots required, Getúlio seldom leaves the Catete presidential palace where everything takes place.

     His reliance on both jittery handheld cameras and sweeping, stately pans and set-ups tends therefore to read more as a solution to keep his parlour political thriller from feeling hemmed in. The key to its plot, though, is precisely that Getúlio Vargas, a former dictator who was democratically elected for a third term, was indeed hemmed in by the circumstances, trapped in a prison of his own making, running round like a hamster in a wheel.

     The film follows the last few days of the president's life, as a botched hit on crusading journalist Carlos Lacerda (Alexandre Borges) that kills an Air Force officer is traced back to members of the president's own security guard and unravels his government as internecine factions start jousting for power in a post-Getúlio world. Both in Mr. Ramos' exquisitely judged performance and in the script by George Moura, Teresa Frota and Mr. Jardim, Getúlio is a tale of a man lost in its own entropy, weathering a storm that is spinning out of control, and realising that the events have overtaken him to a point nothing he can do - except his death - can put things right.

     But that core of calm at the centre of the hurricane is drowned by all the huffing and puffing around him, with the constant back-and-forth between aides (and mostly his own daughter Alzira, played by Drica Moraes) eventually becoming the film, a continuous series of interferences (and that includes the rather obtrusive dream sequences) that distract from its lead character. It's as if Getúlio were a ghost, already dead, but without knowing it, and the film forgot to look into that, preferring to explore only the chaos around him.

     Undeniably proficient technically, Getúlio is nevertheless a disheartening experience, as you sense Mr. Jardim is constantly missing the forest for the trees. Nowhere more than in the close-up of Mr. Ramos as Getúlio remembers his now dead older son, a close-up that in its handheld intrusiveness and tone-deafness with what's at stake around him becomes the exact opposite of what the director wants to evoke. In trying too hard to reach for the centre, Getúlio gets lost all over the place.

GETÚLIO
Brazil, Portugal 2014
101 minutes
Cast Tony Ramos, Drica Moraes, Alexandre Borges, Adriano Garib, Fernando Luís, Leonardo Medeiros, Marcelo Medici, Alexandre Nero, Jackson Antunes, Thiago Justino, Clarisse Abujamra, Michel Bercovitch, José Raposo, Cláudio Tovar, Daniel Dantas, Fernando Eiras, Paulo Giardini, Murilo Grossi
Director João Jardim; screenwriters George Moura and Teresa Frota with Mr. Jardim; based on a story by Mr. Jardim; cinematographer Walter Carvalho (colour, widescreen); composer Federico Jusid; art director Tiago Marques; costumes Marcelo Pies, Valéria Stefani; editors Joana Ventura, Pedro Bronz; producers Pedro Borges, Mr. Jardim, Flávia Borges; production companies Copacabana Filmes e Produções and Fogo Azul Filmes in co-production with Globo Filmes, Telecine Productions, Midas Filmes, MGM Latin America and RTP
Screened October 24th 2014, Lisbon (distributor screener DVD)



Friday, October 24, 2014

FURY

War is hell, goes the saying we've all heard so many times. But screenwriter David Ayer's fifth - and finest - feature as director is intent on saying it in a more visceral, blunt way, without pulling any punches just because there's a Hollywood star top-lining its cast.

     Entirely set in and around an American tank in the final stretch of World War II, as the Allied push into Berlin meets fanatical, desperate resistance, Fury is part classic platoon picture about men under pressure, part acute character study of men in war, but is notable for refusing the standard war-movie heroics, replaced by a disenchanted, downbeat tone.

     Mr. Ayer, who served in the American Navy submarine service, is clearly fascinated by the dynamics of male bonding and the pressure involved in snap decisions on edgy situations, blurring the line between right and wrong; he came to prominence with his script for Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, and his work as both screenwriter (The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue) and director (Street Kings, End of Watch) betrays his fascination with the close-quarters push-and-pull of men on a mission.

     Fury encapsulates all of his recurring themes in a script that is very redolent of Training Day, with a newcomer being taught the ropes of a job that turns out much harder and tougher to swallow than he could have expected. Here, it's the coming of age of Norman Ellison (an excellent Logan Lerman), a pool typist parachuted into a veteran tank crew who has just lost one of its gunners and who has survived against all odds in a branch with a high death rate due to the many structural weaknesses of American tanks, especially when up against the technically superior German vehicles.

     For the inexperienced Norman, the next few days are going to be a rude awakening, the realities of violent conflict encroaching on him as Mr. Ayer telescopes the experience of war into a heightened, dazed, bloody blur. Only base survival instincts and nimbleness will keep you alive, but Norman also has to prove himself to a crew that has been hardened and numbed by war.

     The director is particularly attentive to the group dynamics between the crew, led by the tough, no-nonsense Don Collier aka "Wardaddy" (Brad Pitt), one of those leaders men will follow into hell in the knowledge he will do his damnedest to bring them back alive. Mr. Pitt is excellent here in the elegant ballet between toughness and vulnerability the part requires, as a man who will stop at nothing to fulfill his mission but works hard at not letting the desperation and fear show, even though he will occasionally let his guard down when no one - except maybe his enemies - is looking.

     The relationship between Collier and Norman develops as a sort of "tough love" upbringing of an innocent, naïf young man by a father wanting to prepare him for the worst. Mr. Pitt's performance anchors the film with a rich, protean multiplicity of readings: parent, best friend, confessor, leader, tyrant, boss, savior, huckster.

     Fury is at its best in the claustrophobic but intense close-quarters scenes where the crew — Collier, Norman, latino "Gordo" (Ayer regular Michael Peña), Southern redneck Grady (Jon Bernthal) and devout evangelical Boyd (Shia LaBeouf) — shares more than even they would like to; the film becomes a sort of WWII version of Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, where the tank becomes a microcosm of the world outside in all its contradictions and humanity.

      One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that Mr. Ayer has no interest in either sugarcoating or apologizing for the violence meted out to enemies during World War II. The "Greatest Generation" so often lionized for their role in fighting for freedom is here portrayed, quite realistically, as men dealing with unspeakable horrors and attempting to make sense of the apparent randomness and futility of war, finding what respite they could in the rough camaraderie enjoyed in the few moments of calm between storms.

     That the film has a Fullerian, almost browbeating intensity is a very good thing and a credit to Mr. Ayer. But the writer/director may have over-reached in Fury's final stretch; by drawing the climactic battle out the way he does, what until then had been a punishingly backbreaking sense of workaday resilience gains an overly heroic, symbolic significance that seems to be there to give the audience a respite, and a reason for the all the mayhem that has come before.

     It's a shame, because what makes Fury such a fascinating work to come out of modern Hollywood - even though it was financed independently - is precisely its reluctance to go with standard good-vs-evil fireworks and give a more down to earth, realistic spin to the traditional hero narrative. The ending makes it seem as Mr. Ayer did not find the strength to take it all away; but there's still enough strength left to make sure it was not in vain. And with Fury, David Ayer proves he's more than just a smart screenwriter with a directing jones.

FURY
USA 2014
135 minutes
Cast Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs
Director and screenwriter David Ayer; cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (colour, widescreen); composer Steven Price; designer Andrew Menzies; costumes Owen Thornton; editors Dody Dorn and Jay Cassidy; visual effects Jerome Chen; producers Bill Block, Mr. Ayer, Ethan Smith and John Lesher; production companies QED International, Le Grisbi Productions and Crave Films in association with LStar Capital
Screened October 15th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, October 23, 2014

FADO CAMANÉ

Here's the thing. When you film the recordings of a music album, capturing the doubts, the questions, the essays, the stop-start attempts, the rehearsals, the conversation, how do you make it into an actual, fully-fledged documentary worthy of theatrical presentation and not just one of the standard industry-issue "making of" pieces offered as enticing bonuses to get you to buy the physical disc?

      In the case of Portuguese filmmaker Bruno de Almeida, that difference lies in his visual eye, in his clearly defined vision of a recording session as a group of workers assembling something.

     Fado Camané's grainy, black and white textures and the director's attention to eyes, faces, bodies, physical presences are all about the push and pull of people coming together to manufacture art, though this is manufacture as handicraft, artistic creation as a decision tree that whittles down possibilities.

     Fado Camané is, thus, a singer recording an album - the outstanding Portuguese Fado singer Camané and his 2008 studio album Sempre de Mim - and finding it as he goes along, with the help of the musicians, the recording engineer, the lyricists, the journalists who interview him during the recording, the producer, the cameramen who also interviews him.

     It's also a different beast than the original version of these images as - there you go - a 30-minute "making of" piece included in a limited edition release of the record. The six-year interval between the album's release and the film's completion means this is no shameless plug but rather an exploration of a creative, artistic process as exemplified in a series of recording sessions, a quest for artistic meaning that focuses on personalities and relationships.

     But, for all that, there's a sense that its timelessness is not enough to let Fado Camané carry its weight as a theatrical feature, that the attempt at interspersing theory (the sitdown interview segments) and practice (the actual recordings) is an acknowledgement that there's only so far you can go with this sort of material and you can't really bring nothing new to the table unless you completely reverse the approach - something that wouldn't work with an artist as sober and serious as Camané is.

      Fado Camané is thus a fascinating portrait of the way Camané records, of the way he approaches the songs and of how his musical director and producer José Mário Branco helps him get where he wants to be, smartly if unobtrusively handled by Mr. de Almeida; it is certainly more than just DVD bonus or late-night-slot television, but that doesn't make it more than just a solid, well-made music documentary.

FADO CAMANÉ
Portugal 2014
71 minutes
Director, producer and editor Bruno de Almeida; cinematographer Paulo Abreu (b&w); production companies BA Filmes and Museu do Fado in association with Warner Music Portugal
Screened October 14th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



FADO CAMANÉ de Bruno de Almeida Trailer from Arco Films on Vimeo.

Monday, October 20, 2014

XI YOU (Journey to the West)

The old adage "it's not the destination, it's the journey" is scrupulously followed to the hilt by acclaimed arthouse director Tsai Ming-liang in the series of short- and medium-length films he expanded from ill-received online short Walker, itself inspired by a monologue he staged in Taipei with his acting alter ego Lee Kang-sheng. In all of them, Mr. Lee moves in ultra-slow-motion along bustling city centres, creating a series of haunting and arresting images that follow exactly the director's self-admission that he is a creator of images more than a story-teller, and his desire to produce work that stands in sharp contrast to the speed of modern film and modern life.

     The hour-long Journey to the West is the sixth in the Walker series and takes its title from a classic of Chinese literature about the travels of a Buddhist monk into "the Western regions". The setting for Mr. Lee's zen feat of walking is now the streets of Marseille, and Mr. Tsai gives him a peculiar doppelgänger in the always cinematic presence of French actor Denis Lavant, who becomes a sort of "apprentice" or disciple, their choreographed movements developing into a sort of poetic zen burlesque, halfway between Buster Keaton, Andy Warhol, performance art and Jacques Tati. This analogue slow motion is framed in a suggestive, exquisitely realised series of trompe l'oeil and group long takes (there are only 14 shots in the entire hour-long film, a tour de force by DP Christophe Heberlé) that pretty much require an entirely different approach to the act of viewing — as was indeed the director's concept all along.

     It's worth asking if we're still in the realm of cinema as we knew it - the fact that the Walker series developed from a stage performance and is "travelling" through different places in films of varied length that deliberately shatter the classic story-telling format makes it closer to an artistic project, an art installation, maybe a mixed-media adventure - but either way, there's a glimpse of mischief and of playfulness in the film that you don't always find in Mr. Tsai's more structured features, suggesting his heart may now be in these less conventional works.

XI YOU
France, Taiwan 2013
56 minutes
Cast Lee Kang-sheng, Denis Lavant
Director and screenwriter Tsai Ming-liang; cinematographer Antoine Heberlé (colour); composer Sébastien Mauro; costumes Wang Chia Hui; editor Lei Zhen Qing; producers Vincent Wang and Fred Bellaïche; production companies House on Fire Productions, Neon Productions, Résurgences and Homegreen Film with the participation of ARTE France/La Lucarne
Screened February 9th 2014, Cinestar am Sony Center 3, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama press screening)


Friday, October 17, 2014

THE BABADOOK

First film that came to my mind while watching The Babadook: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay's utterly uncomfortable adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel about a mother trying to deal with an unwanted, unloved son. Second film that came to my mind: Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, because Essie Davis channels almost effortlessly the same fragility and overwhelmed nature as Mia Farrow did in that classic.

     Both are horror stories where the horror is not so much physical or present as it is suggested; they're films where what matters is ambiguous, unspoken, eerily ominous. For most of its length, Australian actress Jennifer Kent's feature directing debut is just such an expert exercise in mood-swinging, about the dark sides of motherhood, straddling a fine line between actual unexplainable phenomena and the hallucinatory manifestations of a troubled mind (or a guilty conscience?).

     Ms. Davis is terrific as Amelia, a frenzied, frazzled nurse at an old people's home who has never truly recovered from the death of her husband in a car crash, just when he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their child. Samuel, now six years old and played with preternatural poise by Noah Wiseman, is needless to say a problem child: he sees monsters all the time, builds monster-destroying weapons for fun, has problems fitting in with kids his age, whether at school or with the few relatives he still sees every now and then.

     Amelia's well-meaning, if ineffective, protectiveness seems to be doing no good to either of them, and a particularly acute crisis is awakened by an eerie book they find at home unaware of its provenance: the dark tale of a bogeyman called The Babadook. And as Samuel starts seeing the Babadook everywhere, an exhausted Amelia, already close to breaking point, starts behaving so oddly and assertively that the strange goings-on in the household become ambiguous. Is there really a sinister presence stalking Amelia and Samuel, or is it just the projection of a mother unable to deal with her demanding child?

     Either way, Ms. Kent handles it with great aplomb, winding the tale with measured, attentive confidence, expertly directing her excellent performers in what is essentially a two-hander, developed from a previous short film where she laid out the concept. The image of a helpless mom who just wishes her loud child would leave her alone for a moment may not be everyone's idea of motherhood, but it's probably closer to the truth than most would admit it - which is precisely why it's a shame that the Babadook as a metaphor for a fear there to be conquered loses its ambiguity in a spectacularly flattening ending that manages to be simultaneously utterly truthful and somewhat treacherous to what's come before (and about which no more shall be said). Not enough to spoil for good the enormous intelligence of Ms. Kent's very auspicious debut, but certainly enough to regret she did not take it as far as it could go.

THE BABADOOK
Australia 2013
93 minutes
Cast Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear
Director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent; cinematographer Radek Ledczuk (colour, widescreen); composer Jed Wurzel; designer Alex Holmes; costumes Heather Wallace; editor Simon Njoo; producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere; production companies Screen Australia and Causeway Films in association with South Australian Film Corporation, Smoking Gun Productions and Entertainment One
Screened October 9th 2014, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, October 16, 2014

LA CHAMBRE BLEUE (The Blue Room)

Blue is definitely not the warmest colour in Mathieu Amalric's fourth theatrical feature as a director. Quite the opposite: it's a cold, insidious, ominous hue that, from the hotel room where everything begins to the courtroom where it all ends, chills Julien Gahyde's life to the bone, chews him up then spits him out into darkness and suffering. All this provincial French maroon did was simply to let himself be seduced by the hypnotising Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), his (now unhappily) married old schoolmate he lusted after in his teens but that only now finally answers to his desires, with deadly results.

     It's film noir, yes, after a fashion, but then again not really; rather, it's Mr. Amalric, probably the finest French actor at work nowadays, exploring the mystery that lies between men and women, the chasm that separates their world views, deployed in a different, less welcoming way that in the previous On Tour (a much more generous movie, but one where his leading character was also struggling, lost in a world seemingly made for women). Here, Julien, played with a sort of shocked disbelief by the director himself, is literally manipulated, buffeted back and forth by the women around him and by the ever greying, windy, wintry weather, without even being aware of (or realising only too late) the equivocal web of deceit being woven around him.

     Woven by whom? That's Mr. Amalric's trick, by using a non-linear, fragmented narration that moves back and forth in time, each new jump revealing a little more of the puzzle in a judiciously planned and highly economical fashion, without wasting a single moment (The Blue Room comes in at a sharp, B-movie-like 75 minutes.) In so doing, the actor/director maintains a strong connection to the source material by celebrated mystery writer Georges Simenon, keeping true to his miniatural, observational style of letting an accumulation of small, apparently minor details slowly build the tale like a foundation inexorably constructed from the bottom up. That also means, however, the film becomes somewhat too clinical and deliberate.

     Unlike, say, David Fincher's much discussed Gone Girl, where the cynicism and disenchantment are at the heart of the plot and perfectly mirrored in the handling, here Mr. Amalric gives us a baffled, cerebral tale anchored in a passive hero that seems only too happy allow himself to be boxed in by fate (not surprisingly, DP Christophe Beaucarne frames it in the old "boxy" Academy ratio); its story of the flaws and faults of provincial bourgeoisie would have been straight up Claude Chabrol's alley, but lacks the gleefully savage satirical twist the late director would have given it. Aiming at the doomed romanticism of traditional noir but never really reaching it, The Blue Room is still a smart, thoughtful film, though not entirely successful.

LA CHAMBRE BLEUE
France 2014
75 minutes
Cast Mathieu Amalric, Léa Drucker, Stéphanie Cléau, Laurent Poitrenaux, Serge Bozon, Blutch
Director Mr. Amalric; screenwriters Ms. Cléau and Mr. Amalric; based on the novel The Blue Room by Georges Simenon; cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne (colour); composer Grégoire Hetzel; designer Christophe Offret; costumes Dorothée Guiraud; editor François Gédigier; producer Paulo Branco; production companies Alfama Films Production, Film(s) and ARTE France Cinéma
Screened October 7th 2014, Medeia Monumental 2 (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN

A film star will never make only great films. That is a given, and it's also one of the consequences of stardom and career management in an industry as dependent on perception and typecasting as Hollywood is. For some reason, the late Robin Williams, one of the most impressive and challenging American stand-up comedians, tended to be typecast in redemptive, saccharine roles that muzzled his quasi-anarchic, free-form comedic talent and underused his range; but when he was given free rein or cast against type in edgier works like Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King or Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo, you glimpsed another, more interesting actor exploring in a virtuoso way the darkness that underlies every comedian.

     His last starring role to open publicly before his death, though barely released without much fanfare, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is an all-star dud that makes ill use of not just Mr. Williams' talents but also of a remarkable cast that includes the great Melissa Leo and Peter Dinklage and brief guest cameos from the likes of Louis CK or James Earl Jones. The problem with this remake of the little-known Israeli film The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum does not lie in the premise: sour, cranky Brooklyn curmudgeon Henry Altmann (Mr. Williams) is diagnosed with a life-threatening condition and decides to make up to his family and friends for his hurtful ways, only to find he may in fact be beyond forgiveness. The problem is that this well-meaning but cringe-inducing riff on A Christmas Carol, with Mr. Williams in the Scrooge role and Mila Kunis as the harried doctor who, flustered by his unpleasantness, blurts out he only has 90 minutes to live, never finds the correct tone to work as either black comedy or family drama.

     Daniel Taplitz's sketchy, unfunny screenplay is signposted by any number of platitudes and mawkish twists that a "he said/she said" voiceover alternating the inner voices of Ms. Kunis and Mr. Williams only makes more banal. But what's most striking is how director Phil Alden Robinson, a screenwriter on his own and the man behind the well-remembered Field of Dreams, handles the whole thing: clumsily, desultorily, as if he was merely a hack-for-hire with no special attraction nor interest in the production. Even the actors seem to be in auto-pilot, seemingly in strictly for the paycheck or as a favour to somebody - and Mr. Williams himself is curiously subdued and one-dimensional in a role that seemed to call for his apoplectic fireworks. Everything in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn suggests a cast and crew going through the motions, unable to salvage an ill-advised enterprise but ploughing through it with whatever dignity they can muster - or whatever dignity the film allows it. And it adds one more film to the list of works that underused the many talents of a superb comedic actor.

THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN
USA, France 2013
83 minutes
Cast Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Peter Dinklage, Melissa Leo
Director Phil Alden Robinson; screenwriter Daniel Taplitz; based on the film The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum written and directed by Assi Dayan; cinematographer John Bailey (colour); composer Mateo Messina; designer Inbal Weinberg; costumes Emma Potter; editor Mark Yoshikawa; producers Bob Cooper, Daniel J. Walker and Tyler Mitchell; production companies Landscape Entertainment, Films de Force Majeure and Prominent Media Group in association with MICA Entertainment and Vedette Finance
Screened October 5th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Monday, October 13, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

A Walk Among the Tombstones could have been - indeed, should have been - one of those great 1970s B-series thrillers Don Siegel knew so well how to do, since that is so clearly where veteran screenwriter Scott Frank's heart is at. I, for once, am glad of it; I pretty much grew up watching them and it's a genre that has gotten in short supply over the years, and it's the sort of film that Mr. Frank goes for here, working in the type of noir-ish, disenchanted detective stories that made his name as a screenwriter (like Kenneth Branagh's underrated Dead Again and Steven Soderbergh's career rebirth Out of Sight). A Walk Among the Tombstones carries that sort of blue-collar grittiness, a downbeat masculinity and no-nonsense attitude that uses genre tropes as its strengths, using them as a narrative shorthand that avoids redundant or superfluous exposition.

     It's the second Hollywood attempt to bring to the screen novelist Lawrence Block's damaged private eye Matt Scudder after an ill-fated 1985 adaptation transplanted to California and scripted by Oliver Stone and directed by the late Hal Ashby. Mr. Frank returns the hero to the novelist's New York setting and has Scudder, an ex-alcoholic who left the NYPD and survives as an off-the-books, unlicensed investigator, hired to find out who killed the wife of a drug dealer, discovering it was the work of psychotic killers who are targeting drug dealers by kidnapping their wives and demanding ransom with no intention of releasing the women alive. The film thus becomes a morality play centred around a questioning private investigator: does the immorality of making your money selling drugs to innocent people trump the punishment meted out by self-appointed guardians of morality that are targeting innocents as well? (It's certainly no accident that, in Mr. Frank's telling, there are absolutely no women in sight; this is a purely male universe where women enter at their own peril.)

     That the dilemma is acutely felt by a man with moral failings of his own, and underlined by Mr. Frank's measured, serious tone, makes A Walk Among the Tombstones more layered than most standard thriller fare, as well as occasionally more heavy-handed: confirming what his previous directing job, 2006's The Lookout, suggested, what works in the written page as necessary exposition or process doesn't necessarily provide a motion picture with consistency of rhythm and tone, the director's moody, greyish tone and workmanlike illustrative handling occasionally dragging a bit too much, unable to propel the plot forward with the urgency demands. What Mr. Frank is, though, is a very fine director of actors, and Liam Neeson, a fine actor in his own who has become one of the most unlikely action heros of the last few years after the success of Taken, dons Scudder's world-weary coat to perfection, anchoring the film with a measured, expertly judged performance that helps make up for the longueurs. 

     Still, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a fine example of a mid-list genre film like they don't make anymore - and it leaves you asking why is it they don't.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES
USA 2013
113 minutes
Cast Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Brian Bradley, Mark Consuelos
Director and screenwriter Scott Frank; based on the novel A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block; cinematographer Mihai Malamare Jr. (colour, widescreen); composer Carlos Rafael Rivera; designer David Brisbin; costumes Betsy Heimann; editor Jill Savitt; producers Danny de Vito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Brian Oliver and Tobin Armbrust; production companies Exclusive Media Group, Jersey Films and Double Feature Films in association with Cross Creek Pictures, Manu Propia Entertainment, 1984 Private Defense Contractors, The Traveling Picture Show Company and Free State Pictures
Screened October 3rd 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Friday, October 10, 2014

VOUS N'AVEZ ENCORE RIEN VU (You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet)

Alain Resnais' next-to-last film was the one that first suggested, in its own structure and construction, that the French director was presenting a sort of "artistic testament", in the process launching observers into wondering whether he was saying goodbye in his own inimitable you. As we now know, You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet was not Mr. Resnais' final film - there was still the more light-hearted and less mournful, though equally melancholy, Life of Riley to come, but that plays more like a "coda" to this more mysterious and intriguing work.

     For You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, Mr. Resnais uses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as reworked by playwright Jean Anouilh to speak of art as the universal translation of human experience, as a connecting tissue that makes sense of life and death. Upon learning that the renowned stage director Antoine d'Anthac (Denis Podalydès) has died, a number of actors who worked with him in different productions of his reading of Mr. Anouilh's Eurydice are called to his final residence to hear his will and carry out his final desires: to watch the filmed rehearsals of a new production of the play, to decide whether it still makes sense to stage it once more. (For that purpose, the director asked Bruno Podalydès to create and direct a separate production of the play, whose footage was then interwoven into the film).

     The stately manor they're assembled in thus becomes, at the same time, a rehearsal room and a haunted house, peopled by the ghost of the late Antoine, addressing them from a video message shot in that very same great hall, but also by the different incarnations of the love story between Orpheus and Eurydice: as played on-screen by the young actors from the Compagnie de la Colombe (Vimala Pons and Sylvain Dieuaide), and as remembered in the hall by the actors who played it in different productions (Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi, and Anne Consigny and Lambert Wilson). In one of Mr. Resnais' loveliest meta-twists in the entire film, the ensemble cast (mainly composed of regulars in his revolving company of actors) effectively play themselves, or versions of themselves under their real names; and find themselves actually performing the dialogue and the stage directions in the hall as the filmed rehearsal is being screened - as if they were inhabited by the ineffable spirit of the characters being transported from screen to stage and vice-versa.

     Everything is thus constantly shifting through three different levels, three different interpretations of the same dialogue, with the manor itself undergoing visual transformations depending on who Mr. Resnais is focussing on at the moment, as the doubling effect and constant mise en abîme present entirely different ways of getting at the same emotion. You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet thus becomes a stunning master-class both in acting and in narrative presentation, with the trickster director at his best, though one that is dampened by the somewhat perfunctory, more functional than inspired bookends for the plot; there is a sense (as indeed there was as well in Life of Riley) that Mr. Resnais was more interested in the film's core device of different performance levels than in how to get there, cutting to the chase in a way that is slightly more arid than in some of his most recent films. And yet, for all that, this is definitive proof (if any more were needed) that Alain Resnais kept his fascination and playfulness right up until the end, and that he will be all the more sorely missed.

VOUS N'AVEZ ENCORE RIEN VU
France, Germany 2012
114 minutes
Cast Denis Podalydès, Andrzej Seweryn, Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Jean-Noël Brouté, Anne Consigny, Anny Duperey, Hippolyte Girardot, Gérard Lartigau, Michel Piccoli, Michel Robin, Jean-Chrétien Sibertin-Blanc, Michel Vuillermoz, Lambert Wilson, Vimala Pons, Sylvain Dieuaide, Fulvia Collongues, Vincent Chatraix, Jean-Christophe Folly, Vladimir Consigny, Laurent Ménoret, Lyn Thibault, Gabriel Dufay
Director Alain Resnais; filmed rehearsal directed by Bruno Podalydès; screenwriters Laurent Herbiet and Alex Reval; based on the stage plays Eurydice and Cher Antoine ou l'amour raté by Jean Anouilh; cinematographer Éric Gautier  (colour, widescreen); filmed rehearsal cinematographers Fabienne Octobre, Juliette Laterier and Claire Delatre (colour); composer Mark Snow; designer Jacques Saulnier; costumes Jackie Budin; filmed rehearsal costumes Rachel Quarmby-Spadaccini; editor Hervé de Luze; producer Jean-Louis Livi; production companies F Comme Film, Studio Canal, France 2 Cinéma, Alamode Film Distribution and Christmas In July
Screened October 1st 2014, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



Thursday, October 09, 2014

AIMER, BOIRE ET CHANTER (Life of Riley)

When first presented in the 2014 Berlinale, Life of Riley wasn't yet Alain Resnais' final film after a stellar career - though the question lingered often in the minds of assorted critics and observers, especially since its predecessor, 2012's You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, had also left the bittersweet taste of a testament. The lighter-hearted Life of Riley came across as an "appendix", a less mournful coda, and Mr. Resnais' death at 91 merely two weeks after its premiere in the Berlin competition, where it won the Alfred H. Bauer award for most innovative production, has only made it more so.

     The third adaptation by the late director of a work by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn after Intimate Exchanges was made into the diptych Smoking/No Smoking and Private Fears in Public Places became Coeurs, Life of Riley is also the slightest and lightest of the three - though, again, it gave Mr. Resnais free rein to his provocative audiovisual sleight of hand. Everything in this tale of three rural couples thrown into disarray by the surprise announcement of a disease revolves around George Riley, the title character who is diagnosed at the beginning of the film with only a few months to live. However, George is never present, never seen, never heard throughout the entire length, though his every decision impacts the life of the three couples of friends and neighbours who are also nursing their own wounds. Tamara and Jack (Caroline Silhol and Michel Vuillermoz), though preparing for their daughter's birthday, are very clearly floating apart especially since he's taken up a mistress; Kathryn and Colin's (Sabine Azéma and Hippolyte Girardot) marriage is also in the doldrums; Monica, George's ex, has taken up with the kind but somewhat overwhelmed Simeon (Sandrine Kiberlain and André Dussollier).

     The news becomes a catalyst for a round-robin of change and reevaluation between the three couples, with George being an absent but ever-present micro-manager of their lives as the three women find themselves gravitating towards him and the three men find themselves to be sidelined. Even seen before Mr. Resnais' death, it was hard to miss that George could be very easily construed as a metaphor for a film or stage director, a kindly demiurge throwing the dice from a safe distance and making sure people made course corrections in their busy lives. "Maybe he wanted us to stay young forever", says one of the women at some point, and if you add that to the genially boulevardier tone of this comedy of errors and to the celebratory aspect of its "live, drink and be merry" motto (expertly presented in its original French title), it suggests that was also Mr. Resnais' desire with this dinner mint of a movie.

     Nevertheless, this is a Resnais film and as such it is also yet another of his playful visual experimentations: unlike the studio-bound realism of Smoking/No Smoking, we have here an avowed artificialism, with designer Jacques Saulnier going for a series of cleverly sketched sets that suggest "all the world's a stage and all of us merely players", and the film interrupted occasionally by Roy Lichtenstein-inspired solo close-ups of the six leads. The actors, in the time-honoured tradition of the director's ensemble casts, bite heartily into their characters and it's their emotion and commitment that turn the theatrical sets into a mere backdrop for people acting out their lives before an audience. It is one of those cases where it's the director's trademark that anchors the film, Mr. Resnais' constant, effortless inter-weaving of film and theatre hybridizing the forms into a sophisticated, constantly shifting, tongue-in-cheek construct. (The women are involved in a local theatre production where George is also taking a role, and at some point Monica says "next time we'll go to the movies".)

     An openly minor yet still arresting work from a master filmmaker that couldn't simply do things in a linear way, Life of Riley playfully explored further his passions and obsessions without adding nothing much in the way of novelty. That it turned out to be Alain Resnais' farewell film gives it an added bitter-sweetness, and explains in retrospect the intimations of mortality Life of Riley gave out - but changes nothing in the film itself.

AIMER, BOIRE ET CHANTER
France 2013
108 minutes
Cast Sabine Azéma, Sandrine Kiberlain, Caroline Silhol, André Dussollier, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz
Director Alain Resnais; screenwriters Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval and Jean-Marie Besset; based on the stage play Life of Riley by Alan Ayckbourn; cinematographer Dominique Boilleret (colour, widescreen); composer Mark Snow; designer Jacques Saulnier; costumes Jackie Budin; editor Hervé de Luze; producer Jean-Louis Livi; production companies F Comme Film, France 2 Cinéma and Solivagus
Screened February 9th 2014, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 competition advance press screening)


Wednesday, October 08, 2014

ÜBER-ICH UND DU (Superegos)

German filmmaker Benjamin Heisenberg has quite the family name to live up to (yes, that Heisenberg), and it's hard not to see something of it in his third fiction feature film, coming after the well-received and intriguing The Robber. Nevertheless, it is a surprise to see him essay a more light-hearted, quasi-screwball tone in this slight but rather charming comedy, where an opportunistic swindler finds refuge with an aging, idiossyncratic psychiatrist.

     Austrian actor Georg Friedrich, as the wily small-time crook Nick who makes a living off selling stolen rare books, effortlessly plays straight man to the great André Wilms, enjoying a late-career renaissance, as renowned therapist Curt Ledig, whose many influential writings are still somewhat overshadowed by his equivocal relationship with the Nazi authorities. Hoping to lie low away from some unsavory characters to whom he owes money, Nick finds himself mistaken for a caretaker hired to look after Curt while his family is off on vacation, and soon realises he has no idea what he's let himself in for, since the older man is so clearly relishing being away from family control and exploring his new friend's mind (Curt hasn't taken on any new patients in decades). But the two men also end up involving each other in the issues they're facing - Nick's debts and uneasy relationship with women, Curt's aging and consequent loss of faculties and the speech he's preparing for an honouring ceremony.

     From an almost banal start, Mr. Heisenberg cranks up the zaniness, creating a stream-of-consciousness feel that is less about resolving the plot and playing well with plausibility but more about finding an escape valve, a release from daily issues by two people who have nothing left to lose (since they have obviously already lost their minds in a way). The problem is that the director's distancing, cerebral tone, a clear plus in The Robber, is less appropriate here, and Mr. Heisenberg doesn't let himself go off the rails as much as his actors do. The impeccable chemistry between Messrs. Wilms and Friedrich helps a great deal towards making Superegos an enjoyable, undemanding picture, and there are a number of smart, funny nonsensical touches throughout, but there's a sense that the film keeps more to the straight and narrow than it should - .

ÜBER-ICH UND DU
Germany, Switzerland, Austria 2014
94 minutes
Cast André Wilms, Georg Friedrich
Director Benjamin Heisenberg; screenwriters Josef Lechner and Mr. Heisenberg; cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider (colour); composer Lorenz Dangel; designer Renate Schmaderer; costumes Stephanie Rieß; editors Stefan Kälin and Andreas Wodraschke; producers Janine Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach and Maren Ade; production company Komplizen Film in co-production with Vega Film, Novotny & Novotny Filmproduktion and Peter Heilrath Filmproduktion
Screened February 9th 2014, Cinestar 3, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama press screening)


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

HISTORIA DEL MIEDO (History of Fear)

One of the most striking recent debut features from Latin America was Argentine director Jazmín López's opaque, dreamstate-infused Leones. History of Fear, her countryman Benjamín Naishtat's debut, follows in the footsteps of that film's exquisitely formalist ambiances, and indeed was backed by the same production company, Buenos Aires' Rei Cine. It's an equally striking work, if certainly denser and less accessible, suggesting that a new generation of Argentine filmmakers percolating up the festival stream are interested in experimenting with style as substance rather than exploring a more traditional narration.

     Yet, while History of Fear is a clearly slight piece that comes on, on occasion, as pointlessly and infuriatingly oblique, it also is a supremely well-crafted exercise in using the entire range of audiovisual possibilities of cinema to make a point through means other than standard narration. Its series of apparently unconnected episodes set in and around a gated community, involving both the residents and their employees, coalesce together not into a linear story but into a mosaic portrait of modern-day class inequalities, rendered visible through a collection of well-observed little daily episodes. Some of them are little cruelties, others absent-minded entitlements; but as the film moves on, they accumulate into a very disturbing sense of unreality pervading the moment, a sense that something is not quite right but people are pretending everything is just dandy, either through blithe ignorance or willful forgetfulness.

     Mr. Naishtat impeccably creates a humid, suffocatingly ominous mood of "calm before the storm", his methodically stylish set-ups constantly threatening to throw the viewer off balance. But whether something is really happening or the characters are simply projecting their fears and anxieties is entirely left to the viewer. History of Fear is the sort of abstract puzzle that will leave many scratching their heads but will reward those who look for something more in modern art cinema, and it leaves you very intrigued as to where Benjamín Naishtat will go from here.

HISTORIA DEL MIEDO 
Argentina, France, Uruguay, Germany, United Arab Emirates 2014
79 minutes
Cast Jonathan da Rosa, Claudia Cantero, César Bordón, Mara Bestelli, Mirella Pascual
Director and screenwriter Benjamín Naishtat; cinematographer Soledad Rodríguez (colour, widescreen); composer Pedro Musta; production and costume designer Marina Raggio; editors Fernando Epstein and Andrés Quaranta; producers Benjamín Domenech and Santiago Gallelli; production companies Rei Cine, Ecce Films, Mutante Cine and Vitakuben in association with KM29
Screened February 8th 2014, Cinemaxx 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)


Friday, October 03, 2014

GONE GIRL

"And you may ask yourself, this is not my beautiful life!", sings David Byrne in Talking Heads' classic song "Once in a Lifetime". That, in a nutshell, is where David Fincher wants to take you - and keep you in - during Gone Girl, before pretty much cutting you loose into nothingness as a viewer. In many ways, it's as disorienting a trip as his landmark serial thriller Seven was, only done with a much sharper blade; this adaptation of Gillian Flynn's best-seller (scripted by the writer herself) is a scathing indictment of an entire middle-class way of life and of its traps, conveniently and consciously disguised as the sort of prestige thriller where the star is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

     But Mr. Fincher, whose taste for glossy, smooth surfaces has led many to think of him mostly as a glorified adman, takes it into the grey-area moral tales he has always been so fond of, exploring the skeletons in the closet of a supposedly happy marriage. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears mysteriously on her fifth wedding anniversary, to the apparent astonishment of her loving husband Nick (Ben Affleck), but it soon becomes clear that their fairytale story (corn belt stud lands smart New York girl before family illness and financial recession force them to downsize and move back to Missouri) hides darker corners. Mr. Fincher has always enjoyed pulling the rug from under the viewer in his work, and he does so again here in a masterful piece of continuous misdirection and sleight of hand, constantly stripping the layers of paneled mirrors intricately inlaid.

     Gone Girl trades in the director's trademark paranoia, that sense that everything is just that little bit off, that powered Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' minimalist, moody score helps enormously). But, this time, those mirrors are not just a simple formal device; they are purposely woven into the film's own fabric, as part of its scathing social satire on modern life. Everybody in Gone Girl is desperate to maintain a semblance of status and position, to keep up with the Joneses, just as the noose is being tightened around their neck; almost as if the facade that Mr. Fincher revels in depicting to its most minute detail but in hushed, blended tones elegantly rendered by DP Jeff Cronenweth is the actual theme of the film rather than the "official" plotline. Gone Girl's take on the way Amy's disappearance is made into a cause in cable news, daytime television and online social media is also a signal of the director's by now well-established moralism - not, say, like Eric Rohmer's gentle "moral tales", but more like a more detached, wry, disenchanted observer of a society that he sees as flowing down a cesspool.

     That entomological, somewhat cynical approach, like a kid playing around with flies under a microscope, has seldom been as note-perfect for a film as it is for Ms. Flynn's tale of a man suddenly trapped under the bright glare of a media circus and of the woman whose absence has led him there. It's an approach that, here, also reminds of the late Claude Chabrol's delight in pointing out all the flaws and delusions of the well-off bourgeoisie, the almost juvenile sadistic glee with which the French director would set up traps for them to lose themselves into; Ms. Pike's scene-stealing performance as Amy has something of that mystery, coldness and danger that Mr. Chabrol's "heroines" (and occasional heroes) had.

     The usual accusations of misanthropy and misogyny are certainly going to follow Gone Girl everywhere (even though the film was written by a woman), but the truth is nobody gets out of this film unscathed. Certainly not the Dunnes (with Mr. Affleck in a solid performance that unabashedly reminds you of his own tabloid circus years ago - and that obviously helped in casting him for the role); but neither the investigating cops (a sympathetic but suspicious Kim Dickens and a completely prejudiced Patrick Fugit), nor Amy's parents (who milked her childhood for all it was worth and never reconciled with her decision to move to "the boonies"), not even the closest friends to either party (Neil Patrick Harris' obsessed friend, Carrie Coon as Nick's sister, who often fail at understanding what's really going on).

     By the end of Mr. Fincher's expertly wound clockwork mechanism, edited to within an inch of its life by Kirk Baxter, what started out as an apparently simple disappearance has become an unsettling, stifling, paranoid indictment of human frailty and the desire to be accepted, to fit in, to be true to oneself. It's all the more unsettling because it's all there for you to see, under the marble floors, behind the garage doors. This, indeed, is not your beautiful house.

GONE GIRL
USA 2014
148 minutes
Cast Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon
Director David Fincher; screenwriter Gillian Flynn; based on her novel Gone Girl; cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (colour, widescreen); composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; designer Donald Graham Burt; costumes Trish Summerville; editor Kirk Baxter; producers Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, Ceán Chaffin and Joshua Donen; production companies Twentieth Century-Fox and Regency Enterprises in association with TSG Entertainment
Screened September 29th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, October 02, 2014

CHARULATA

Given both men's connections with the much-discussed "Bengali Renaissance" movement, the meeting between filmmaker Satyajit Ray and writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was bound to happen. The second of three Tagore adaptations by Mr. Ray, Charulata, set in late 19th century Calcutta, has gone down as one of the Indian director's greatest achievements; little wonder, as it is in essence a Victorian parlour drama about forbidden love set against the background of an Indian elite dreaming of civilization and independence.

     As always with the director's work, it's practically impossible to look at this period piece strictly as costume drama, such is the universality of its story about a stifled, repressed housewife yearning for a release. Charulata, the doting but unfulfilled wife of society gentleman Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), is a close relative of The Big City's Arati (they're actually played by the same actress, the remarkable Madhabi Mukherjee). Both are women chafing at the restraints placed on them by the heavily patriarchal, conservative society they live in. But unlike Arati, who finds escape through her work, Charulata's role confines her to the palatial Dutt mansion, the less tangible activities of art and love as the only flights from its four walls: the writing everybody encourages her to keep doing, and the resulting dance of chaste, touch-and-go seduction between her and Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), Bhupati's cousin, in town for a visit.

     The story takes place against the political aspirations of 1870s Bengai bourgeoisie, with Bhupati devoting his energy and time to publish a newspaper meant to advance the cause of Indian independence; but so engrossed in it is he, and so taken with his idealism, that he completely neglects the practical aspects of daily life (his trust in Charulata's brother being sorely misplaced) and the fact his own wife has no absolute possibility or opportunity to seek her own independence (love as an equal of politics). This, however, is not used against anyone - Mr. Ray steering clear of preachiness or judgment, preferring to observe with a sympathetic eye and an infinite curiosity about human emotions what his characters are going through.

     Though the stuffiness of its claustrophobic, gas-lighted single décor is almost demanded by Mr. Tagore's source material and central to the film's meditation on a woman's fate, it is true that it does occasionally make Charulata seem a bit too fusty, too slow-moving - but that's forgetting just how smartly and quickly Mr. Ray could turn clichés on their side, and how the simplicity of classicism has always been his guiding light. Victorian parlour drama or not, Charulata is also a grade A "woman's picture" like Hollywood never quite could do them, being more than just a tale of forbidden love to take in an entire approach to life, politics and society.

CHARULATA
India 1964
119 minutes
Cast Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Shailen Mukherjee, Shyamal Ghosal, Gitali Roy, Subrata Sen, Bankim Ghosh
Director, screenwriter and composer Satyajit Ray; based on the novella The Broken Nest by Rabindranath Tagore; cinematographer Subrata Mitra (b&w); designer Bansi Chandragupta; editor Dulal Dutta; producer R. D. Bansal; production company RDB & Company
Screened September 22nd 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening) 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

MAHANAGAR (The Big City)

In most cases, the trouble with melodramas and problem pictures is how much the plotting seems to follow a linear, predictable arc of gantlets and obstacles lifted straight out from screenwriting 101 and more concerned with issues than with plausibility or character. Not so - quite the opposite - in Indian master filmmaker Satyajit Ray's 1963 masterpiece The Big City: its tale of hardships and struggle in the suburbs of Calcutta is simultaneously less predictable and more realistic than a mere synopsis would provide, while fitting perfectly into the director's recurrent theme of the contrast between tradition and modernity in a sprawling country attempting to stand on its own two feet.

     Inspired by a short story by celebrated Bengali writer Narendranath Mitra, The Big City tells of the daily life of the Majumdar family, struggling to pay the bills at the end of the month ever since husband Subrata's (Anil Chatterjee) elderly parents have moved in. Wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) eventually decides to look for a job - something frowned upon in a traditional household - but she soon finds she's been dealt a more complex hand than it seemed at first. The empowerment she feels from her successful entry in the workforce as a saleswoman for a knitting company becomes a threat to the entrenched patriarchy, from a father-in-law (Haren Chatterjee) that refuses to acknowledge her job to a boss (Haradhan Banerjee) who still sees her as docile and servile, ending in the problems that arise when bank teller Subrata loses his job in a bank run and Arati becomes the single moneymaker in the family.

     For all that, as always with the director, it's personality and character that are put to the fore: these are not characters created to explain or set an issue, rather fully-fledged people with feelings and doubts. This isn't so much the story of a family struggling to keep afloat, but the personal transformative journey of two people who learn about themselves the hard way: a woman who realises she does not have to remain in a passive homemaker role and can find other ways of feeling fulfilled, a man who finds a changing society is not only for him but for everyone else as well, both extraordinarily performed by Ms. Mukherjee and Mr. Chatterjee.

     Mr. Ray's exacting, quiet slow-burn approach, simplicity itself, douses any excesses or dangers that the story might have fallen in in lesser hands, while underlining just how perfectly attuned he was to the ever-changing challenges of modern life. The attention to revealing detail in the relationships is astounding, with apparently throwaway moments used as context-creating shortcuts (the young son's desire for gifts as a constant source of despair for an Arati afraid of bribing her son with toys; the boss's reverse racism towards the English patent in his dismissive treatment of fellow salesman Edith), painting in the corners of a background that never undermines the big picture at its heart.

     Extraordinarily assembled in its ebb-and-flow mesh network of criss-crossing stories and plot lines, The Big City is one of the Indian director's utter masterpieces, even if one of his least remembered ones. And also one of his most resonant and enthralling, 50 years later.

MAHANAGAR
India 1963
136 minutes
Cast Anil Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Haradhan Banerjee, Haren Chatterjee, Vicky Redwood, Jaya Bhaduri, Sefalika Devi, Prasenjit Sarkar
Director, screenwriter and composer Satyajit Ray; based on the short story by Narendranath Mitra, "Abataranika"; cinematographer Subrata Mitra (b&w); designer Bansi Chandragupta; editor Dulal Dutta; producer R. D. Bansal; production company RDB & Company
Screened September 19th 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)