Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ROMA, CITTÀ APERTA
Rome, Open City

There's probably not much that hasn't been said yet about Roberto Rossellini's fourth feature film and one of the rallying cries of post-war Italian neo-realism. But it's important to underline just how, 70 years on, Rome, Open City remains a stupendously modern film, its combination of genre drama and topical urgency resolving itself in a more austere but no less complex predecessor of the contemporary mosaic film as practised by Tarantino or Iñárritu.

     This tale of the days of Rome's German occupation, shot on the streets of the Italian capital with a cast of mostly non-professionals and film scrounged here and there while WWII was still taking place, is not so much a traditional linear narrative as a "relay race" of episodes orbiting the hardships of life in an occupied city. From Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), the point man for the resistance whose hunt by German troops sets the ball rolling, Mr. Rosselini takes us to Pina (Anna Magnani), the former factory worker trying to make ends meet as best as she can, and from her the film moves, through her young son Marcello (Vito Annichiarico), to Father Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), the kindly Catholic priest whose involvement in the resistance goes much deeper than it seems.

     Working within the confines of an ever-shifting circle, Mr. Rossellini creates an impressionistic mosaic of lives in the balance whose wartime background remains eerily resonant and gains an impressive allegorical weight with the time since gone by; leaping fleetly from one character to the next, it prefers to confront the issues of loyalty, morality and humanity head-on, without necessarily becoming judgmental about the characters' motivations. There is, in truth, a sense of operatic drama throughout, but played within a chamber stage, reduced to dramatically shot and almost casually played conversations that seem to follow naturally from what came before, without necessarily working within the restricted framework of a traditional narrative.

     It is, of course, a fascinatingly dialectical work as is wont for the director - the constant seesawing between the spiritual and the earthly, as seen in the film's own shift between characters from different walks of life, or in the highly dramatic third act tableau at the German headquarters where everything that really matters comes through purely cinematic means.If the individual episodes that make up the bigger picture are by now staples of the WWII/resistance drama, it was not so when Rome, Open City premiered shortly after the war's end, and the apparent spontaneity with which the film follows its characters wherever they may lead remains one of its greatest strengths and keeps it still fascinating 70 years on.

ROMA CITTÀ APERTA
Italy 1945
103 minutes
Cast Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Vito Annichiarico, Nando Bruno, Harry Feist, Francesco Grandjacquet, Maria Michi, Marcello Pagliero, Edoardo Passarelli, Carlo Sindici, Akos Tolnay, Joop van Hulzen
Director Roberto Rossellini; screenwriters Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini; cinematographer Ubaldo Arata (b&w); composer Renzo Rossellini; art director Rosario Megna; editor Eraldo da Roma; production company Excelsa Film
Screened March 20th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Monday, March 30, 2015

LE MERAVIGLIE
The Wonders

As sensitively handled as it is - its tactile, earthen textures tactfully shot by DP Hélène Louvart perfectly in sync with its rural background - Italian director Alice Rohrwacher's sophomore effort isn't quite up narratively to its many intriguing suggestions. At heart, it's a coming-of-age tale for a teenager stuck between the natural yearnings of her age and a complicated, convoluted family who relies far too much on her. But The Wonders of the title seem to be more in the manner Ms. Rohrwacher shoots her way through the folds and side tracks of the plot rather than in the somewhat predictable beats that supply the narrative scaffolding.

     Just like 14-year old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who is torn between her responsibility as the seemingly most responsible person in the household and her desire for once to act her age, Ms. Rohrwacher seems torn between the need to anchor her tale to a recognisable reality and the desire to cut loose and follow the magic wherever it may take her. It's in the bookending sections of the film - a night-time prologue than sees a pack of hunters slowly make their way through the deep countryside of Etruria, and a remarkably single-take shot that makes visible the passage of time in the family's home - that The Wonders is truly wonderful; as it is, in fact, every time it surrenders to the simple beauty of nature and the satisfyingly archaic hardships of living and working off the land.

     It's there that Gelsomina lives with her three sisters and her parents, the German Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) and the Italian Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the director's sister), who make a living cultivating natural honey; they're always struggling for money, though, and Wolfgang has all the hallmarks of a radical, impulsive idealist without much of a head for business. His temper is key to the narrative: though he openly relies on the wise-beyond-her-years Gelsomina, who has a gift around bees and pretty much keeps the business going, he has little patience for the younger daughters and for his long-suffering wife, who often acts as an unheard voice of reason.

     His taking up of a young German boy (Luis Huilca Logroño), a petty thief on reeducational parole, to help with the harvesting and bottling of the honey, sends ripples through the family structure. At the same time, a seedy television programme comes to the region with the promise of a possible big payoff for the winner of a competition for locally-manufactured produce. While everyone sees that could help the farm raise the money it needs, the rigidity of Wolfgang's refusal to even contemplate participating offers Gelsomina a quandary she has to take responsibility for.

     It's from the superimposition of a quasi-Fellinian satire of media and celebrity culture (the programme is called Countryside Wonders) and the almost effortless magic of the natural world that the film takes its title. But despite some truly wondrous scenes, and a generosity of spirit that is visible in the unhurried, slow-burn performances, the general narrative arc veers far too much towards the pedestrian, with a list of obligatory markers dutifully checked as a means to get from point A to point B; nearly everyone other than Gelsomina is painted in reasonably broad strokes, more functional than truly fleshed out, fulfilling archetypes necessary to illustrate the plot. (One of the few exceptions is Milly Catena, the presenter of the TV programme, played by Monica Bellucci as a strange fairy godmother who seems to be the only one that doesn't condescend towards the young girl.)

     Yet, despite the sense this is just another coming-of-age tale merely differentiated by its magic-realist trappings, The Wonders does prove there is a talented filmmaker behind it, with Ms. Rohrwacher's sensitivity coming through loud and clear. It's visibly the work of someone who knows what she's doing and knows what she wants; if she keeps going this way, she'll get there sooner rather than later.

LE MERAVIGLIE
Italy, Switzerland, Germany 2014
107 minutes
Cast Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Sabine Timoteo, Monica Bellucci
Director and screenwriter Alice Rohrwacher; cinematographer Hélène Louvart (colour); composer Piero Crucitti; designer Emita Frigato; costumes Loredana Buscemi; editor Marco Spoletini; producers Carlo Cresto-Dina, Karl Baumgartner, Tiziana Soudani and Michael Weber; production companies Tempesta and Rai Cinema in co-production with Amka Films Productions, Pola Pandora Filmproduktion, RSI SRG SSR and ZDF/das kleine Fernsehspiel in collaboration with ARTE
Screened March 24th 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener DVD)


Sunday, March 29, 2015

THE VOICES

For better or worse, Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi definitely does not want to be defined as a film director by her celebrated debut Persepolis - an internationally acclaimed feature-length animation, co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, adapting her own successful graphic-novel memoir about growing up in Iran after the Islamic Republic came to power. She switched to live action for the follow-up Chicken with Plums, also co-directed with Mr. Paronnaud and adapted from her own work. And just as that film was a stylistic and narrative departure from Persepolis, so is The Voices, an American-backed, Germany-shot project she did not initiate (Mark Romanek had been mooted to direct it).

     In many ways, The Voices seems custom-made for Ms. Satrapi's approach to her unconventional heroes and heroines, and she shoots this strange tale with the same guts, abandon and playfulness common to the previous films. But is she playing Michael Perry's weirdly Charlie-Kaufmanesque script for laughs, for genre, for seriousness, for grotesque? What exactly is she aiming at with this fascinatingly weird, completely off-key film?

     Outwardly an all-American boy next door, Ryan Reynolds' Jerry Hickfang comes home every night, from his work in the shipping department of a bathtub company in a small Midwestern town, to a small flat above the local bowling alley, to spend time with his pets. It's when the cat starts to speak in a Scottish brogue that you start understanding what the title means. And his regular visits to a psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) who insists he must take his medication, plus his unhealthy interest in the "exotic" Englishwoman (Gemma Arterton) working in the accounting department suggest there's something darker and deeper at work inside him.

     There's really nothing remotely normal in Jerry, as Mr. Perry's script and Ms. Satrapi's visuals take their time in teasing out. Mr. Reynolds is game for the role, and he is enormously helpful in conveying that the character is not so much deliberately psychotic or vicious, rather scarred by social norms and misunderstandings that have damaged him beyond repair.

     But you can never really capture what is it that the director is holding out for: is she undermining or inverting the traditional structure of the slasher movie or of the serial killer thriller to put the viewer in the mind of the villain? Is she trying to create an inverted or reversed fairy tale about the moral dubiousness of the concepts of good and evil, though unsure on which side of the continuum it falls on? Is she aiming for some sort of dark, hallucinatory satire of conformism? Probably the best thing about The Voices is that Ms. Satrapi doesn't really choose; she simply follows the story wherever it leads her, and it leads her into some really dark corners she doesn't shy away from, entering a strange nether region of hallucinatory, incomprehensible madness that refuses to give the viewer any logical or reasonable anchors to hang on to.

     It's a film that intrigues and keeps you watching as much as it repels and makes you wonder where it's going; it's a surprisingly genre-defying object that proves just how much Ms. Satrapi is into taking risks and making films that don't fit people's perception of her work. Does that make the none-more-black humour and the gory, edgy satire of The Voices worth a look or a recommendation? I'm not sure, but I am sure this is really like nothing else I've seen all year so far - and that alone is enough to set it apart from everything else.

THE VOICES
USA, Germany 2014
104 minutes
Cast Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver
Director Marjane Satrapi; screenwriter Michael R. Perry; cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (colour, widescreen); composer Olivier Bernet; designer Udo Kramer; costumes Bettina Helmi; editor Stéphane Roche; effects supervisors Antoine Marbach, Damien Stumpf and Manfred Büttner; producers Matthew Rhodes, Adi Shankar, Roy Lee and Spencer Silna; production companies 1984 Private Defense Contractors, Mandalay Vision, Studio Babelsberg, Vertigo Entertainment, AOM productions, Dreiundzwanzigste Babelsberg Film, Elfte Babelsberg Film and Arri Film & TV Services in association with Panorama Media
Screened March 21st 2015, Lisbon 


Friday, March 27, 2015

ELSA & FRED

I'm pretty sure all of us have our examples of crap movies we're somehow fond of, but while Elsa & Fred certainly could fit that description, there's something else at work in Brit veteran Michael Radford's geriatric romantic comedy. It's a crap movie that somehow works, an utterly tone-deaf, off-key film that seems to have been assembled together with purely perfunctory and even somewhat clumsy professionalism - and yet you find it hard to somehow hold that against it. For all the many issues that Mr. Radford's remake of a little-known 2005 Hispanic comedy has, there's a cheerfulness and a sweetness it accords to its premise and to its lead characters, a kind of resilient dignity that pretty much makes up for its problems.

     The expression "embarrassment of riches" may have been invented for the cast brought together here: Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer in the leads, Marcia Gay Harden, Scott Bakula, James Brolin, Wendell Pierce and George Segal in supporting roles - though, to be fair, most of these are really brief one- or two-scene cameos. That makes it even more embarrassing that the film seems to not use any of them properly, or for that matter the New Orleans backdrop - there's a sense that the chequered, resilient recent history of the city may have been (next to Louisiana tax credits) another reason to set there Elsa & Fred, being the tale of two curmudgeonly seniors who refuse to play the role society expects of them.

     But there's nothing remotely specific to the city about the film, and in fact the film merely rolls out the classic tropes of the romantic comedy and simply asks its actors to be who the world knows them for. As Elsa, a ditzy fantasist whose outlandish tales seem to straddle a thin line between truth and invention, Ms. MacLaine simply plays a variation on her unconventional romantic heroines; as Fred, the reclusive widower who is moved in next door by his daughter to his great displeasure, Mr. Plummer mines the vein of stern on the outside, soft on the inside parents that The Sound of Music typecast him in.

     Their relationship progresses through the traditional boy-meets-girl-etc. arc, given an added gravitas by their age and by the health issues that very evidently will pop up, but even if there's nothing here to extend their range, at no point do the actors condescend. Instead, Ms. MacLaine and Mr. Plummer play it straight and solid, and Mr. Radford merely makes sure the film doesn't let them down. (Frankly, there's not much that can be said for his lackluster, awkward handling other than his respect for the actors.)

     The central plot device of Elsa's fascination with Fellini's La Dolce Vita and its famous Trevi fountain scene is the best example of everything this generally ill-advised movie actually gets right: as silly and outlandish as her dream may be, it's also genuine, and that means it's not something to be just dismissed. In an apparently throwaway line spoken towards the end by Ms. MacLaine lies what somehow redeems Elsa & Fred from its unsalvageable crapness: actors who know what they're doing, who are in tune with their characters, and a director who knows enough to let them do it for the good of his movie. "We're not exactly Anita and Marcello", she says, and that's just fine. The Trevi Fountain is there for everyone.

ELSA & FRED
USA, Mexico, Canada 2013
97 minutes
Cast Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harden, Wendell Pierce, Jared Gilman, Erika Alexander, Chris Noth, Scott Bakula, George Segal, Reg Rogers, James Brolin
Director Michael Radford; screenwriters Anna Pavignano and Mr. Radford; based on the film Elsa y Fred directed by Marcos Carnevale and written by Mr. Carnevale, Marcela Guery and Lily Ann Martin; cinematographer Michael McDonough (colour, widescreen); composer Luis Bacalov; designer Stephanie Carroll; costumes Gary Jones; editor Peter Boyle; producers Edward Saxon, Nicolas Veinberg, Matthias Ehrenberg, José Levy and Ricardo Kleinbaum; production companies Cuatro Plus Films in association with Río Negro Producciones, Defiant Pictures, Creative Andina, Media House Capital, Sisung Film Finance, Lotus Entertainment and Riverside Entertainment
Screened March 17th 2015, Lisbon


Thursday, March 26, 2015

AMOUR FOU

Despite what the title of Austrian director Jessica Hausner's fourth feature may suggest, there's not much amour and a whole lot of fou at stake in Amour Fou, a quietly disquieting questioning of social mores using as its premise the 19th-century double suicide of writer Heinrich von Kleist and his friend Henriette Vogel. Simultaneously deadpan and silently dramatic, wry and utterly despairing, humorous and dark, Amour Fou is a highly stylized period piece using Ms. Hausner's traditional observational techniques, extending the subterranean combat between the individual and the social through the eyes of Henriette (Birte Schnöink], an "invisible woman" if ever there was one.

     Married to a treasury official (Stephan Grossmann) and stifling under the social mores of early 19th century Prussia that merely require of her to be a decent wife and mother, Henriette finds herself inevitably attracted to the morbid, sensual romanticism of Kleist (Christoph Friedel), offering a glimpse into a secret life of the senses she has never been able to externalize. Ms. Hausner's smart, formalist aesthetics see Henriette placed in beautifully arranged dioramas, flattened tableaux vivants that DP Martin Gschlacht films with a glacial attention at framing and focus; Ms. Schnöink is constantly placed in the forefront, suggesting a trompe-l'oeil hyper-realist 3D effect where she is the only actual living person in a two-dimensional composition.

     This sense of life struggling to break free from the frame is heightened when Henriette is diagnosed with a possibly fatal tumor - leading her to accept Kleist's invitation for a double suicide, one that may represent love from her side but not so much from his. In fact, what she feels to be love from him is merely a series of clumsy misunderstandings made worse by the elaborate social mores of the period, confusing love with infatuation. Kleist's flights of language, initially meant for his beloved cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller), obfuscate the fact that Henriette is for him a mere means to an end, as much a prisoner of his designs as she was in her unhappy marriage.

     Love has no room in this tightly wound society where pragmatism seems to defy emotion - and that dovetails nicely with the sense that Ms. Hausner's stately formalist set-ups leech all life and emotion from her film. She is indeed a cerebral filmmaker, but Amour Fou is by design much more claustrophobic and bloodless than her previous Lourdes, and as such also a touch harder to swallow on a first sitting. But Ms. Hausner remains a director as interesting as (and inexplicably much less lauded than) her currently working compatriots such as Ulrich Seidl or Michael Haneke.

AMOUR FOU
Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, France 2014
96 minutes
Cast Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel, Stephan Grossmann, Sandra Hüller, Holger Handtke, Barbara Schnitzler, Alissa Wilms, Paraschiva Dragus
Director and screenwriter Jessica Hausner; cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (colour); designer Katharina Wöppermann; costumes Tanja Hausner; editor Karina Ressler; producers Mr. Gschlacht, Antonin Svoboda, Bruno Wagner, Bady Minck, Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu and Philippe Bober; production companies Coop99 Filmproduktion in co-production with Amour Fou Luxembourg, Essential Filmproduktion and Parisienne de Production, with the collaboration of ORF, ARTE France Cinéma and Westdeutscher Rundfunk
Screened March 17th 2015, Medeia Monumental 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



[AMO] Amour Fou - Trailer with english subtitles from Amour Fou on Vimeo.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

CAKE

It's fair to say it's not Jennifer Aniston's fault that Cake is such a wishy-washy, been-there-done-that melodrama. Much-ballyhooed as the film that would finally make people take her seriously as an actress and wipe out for good any memories of Friends and of her interminable series of comedies, Cake was a latecomer to the Oscar race and its buzz was short-lived, fizzling for good when, despite a Golden Globe win, Ms. Aniston was shut out of the Best Actress nominations.

     In all fairness, you don't need Cake to know she's a good actress (go look up the lightweight small-town, small-time drama The Good Girl), and as good as she is the film doesn't really go anywhere; its tale of a grieving, suicidal Angelena that's had enough of blinders and wallows in her very real pain is rather signposted narratively, somewhat tone-deaf and far too manipulative for its own good. For sure, there's a refreshing lack of reverence towards the very serious subjects it deals with: still recovering from a disastrous accident that has left her in constant pain, Claire (Ms. Aniston) pops pills and chugs down drinks like there's no tomorrow, refuses to believe in pat comforting words and generally barrels down the street with scant regard for propriety or manners.

     The problem is her desperate, overly honest cynicism can come across as too brittle and rude, and while that's part of what makes Claire an interesting character, director Daniel Barnz seems unsure how far to go and turns out to either overdo or underdo it throughout. In so doing, he also fails to make any of the characters surrounding Claire to exist as real people - even her faithful Mexican maid and caregiver Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza) is a walking cliché, so underwritten as to be almost offensive.

     And therein lies the rub: Cake is sympathetic to the plight of its protagonist, but so utterly unsympathetic to everyone else's issues that it becomes a well-meaning litany of the "first world problems" experienced by a privileged white woman. To make things worse, the real nature of Claire's accident and of her grieving is often teased - especially in a very dramatic way and when it's narratively convenient - but never truly explained.

     The coyness is such that it becomes an infuriating trademark of the film's well-meaning clumsiness: Mr. Barnz wants to have his cake and eat it too, but neither is the cake very good nor has he laid out the table properly. It's almost as the filmmakers thought the sheer presence of Ms. Aniston would be enough to overcome both scripting and handling issues, but, even if it is a good performance and the actress does flesh out her character, it's not enough. Cake ends up following a well-trod path and underusing its solid cast in throwaway, one-note supporting roles. There's an intriguing enough film buried somewhere in here, it's just that Mr. Barnz never found it.

CAKE
USA, China 2014
102 minutes
Cast Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Chris Messina, Lucy Punch, Britt Robertson, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington
Director Daniel Barnz; screenwriter Patrick Tobin; cinematographer Rachel Morrison (colour, widescreen); composer Christophe Beck; designer Joseph T. Garrity; costumes Karyn Wagner; editors Kristina Boden and Michelle Harrison; producers Ben Barnz, Kristin Hahn, Courtney Solomon and Mark Canton; production companies Cinelou Films, Echo Films and We're Not Brothers Productions in association with Shenghua Entertainment
Screened March 15th 2015, Lisbon

Saturday, March 21, 2015

LES COMBATTANTS
Love at First Fight

It's one of the oldest stories in the world: boy meets girl, and for love boy decides to change his life, maybe not necessarily for the best. It's given an added resonance in Thomas Cailley's surprising, energetic debut feature, by the current crisis environment in Europe, with young adults somewhat unsure of what the world has in store for them in an economic landscape where nothing is a given. For the young folk in the French coastal small town where everything takes place, it's either work with the family, move abroad or join the army.

     That sense of impending doom isn't necessarily a mere backdrop, but neither does Mr. Cailley overdo it in what is, at its heart, a coming-of-age romantic comedy, and an unusually playful one, divided in three different yet interconnected acts and starting from a bewildering "preface" at a funeral parlor that sets the tone.

     Act one: boy meets girl. Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) isn't sure of what he wants to do with his life, so for the moment he's joining his brother in the family's carpentry business, after the death of their father. But he keeps bumping into the headstrong Madeleine (Adèle Haenel); this no-nonsense, abrupt, clearly determined young woman thinks the world is going to hell and her quasi-survivalist attitude sees her want to join the army. She signs up for a two-week military tryout for the elite airborne troops and, fascinated by her determination, Arnaud leaves everything behind to go with her.

     Act two follows them as they get a taste of military life, which turns out to not be exactly what either of them expected, and in both that and the somewhat unexpected act three, Les Combattants makes clear what it is it's coming after: it's about life as an adventure and two young persons learning how to take it as it comes, discovering what it's all about and making the most of what it gives you. Arnaud and Madeleine strike a clumsy balance between the carelessness of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood, and in the process find out a lot about themselves: the young man turns out to not be as diffident as he thought himself to be, while the headstrong girl isn't quite the resourceful take-charge woman she imagines herself as.

     Mr. Cailley and his DP, brother David Cailley, shoot it in the golden hues of teenage Summers and fond memories, boosted by an apparently counter-intuitive but clearly well-judged pumping electronic score. What's interesting about Les Combattants is how the director keeps you on your toes: you never really know where the plot is headed yet it all makes absolute sense both in narrative and in characterisation. You never feel either Madeleine or Arnaud are "betraying" who they are with each new turn in the story, and Ms. Haenel and Mr. Azaïs' performances are perfectly attuned to that sense of openness and "blank slate" you have in your early twenties.

     The film's energy and directness are unusual in contemporary French cinema, a no-nonsense storytelling that shows instead of telling or thinking and meets head-on its characters as they try to make sense of the world around them. It's an exciting, engaging surprise of a movie.

LES COMBATTANTS
France 2014
98 minutes
 Cast Adèle Haenel, Kévin Azaïs, Antoine Laurent, Brigitte Roüan, William Lebghil, Thibaut Berducat, Nicolas Wanczycki, Frédéric Pellegeay, Steve Tientcheu
 Director Thomas Cailley; screenwriters Mr. Cailley and Claude le Pape; cinematographer David Cailley (colour); composers Lionel Flairs, Benoît Rault and Philippe Deshaies; designer Paul Chapelle; costumes Ariane Daurat; editor Lilian Corbeille; producer Pierre Guyard; production companies Nord-Ouest Films in co-production with Appaloosa Distribution
 Screened March 15th 2015, Lisbon


Friday, March 20, 2015

CINDERELLA

Two things made me curious to see how Disney would reinvent Cinderella as a live-action fantasy. The first was the presence of Kenneth Branagh as director, since his best takes on his beloved Shakespeare (especially his excellent full-length Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing) have generally shifted the temporal backgrounds into a sort of a-historical no-man's-land. The second was what sort of approach the studios would take to the fairy tale of the beautiful young woman who becomes effectively her evil stepmother's personal servant after the death of her widowed father: would they do the "reimagining" of something like Maleficent or Oz, the Great and Powerful?

     Alas, my curiosity was sorely disappointed. This Cinderella, as rewritten by About a Boy and The Golden Compass writer/director Chris Weitz, is merely a live-action opening-out of the original 1950 Disney animation, playing it straight in traditional fairy-tale territory. And Mr. Branagh seems pretty much to be slumming it for the paycheck, indulging his most decorative instincts without much inspiration.

     Even before getting to that, the central problem is clearly that Cinderella seems to fit in with Disney's shareholder-approved new master-plan of "mining" the studio's "intellectual property" to generate new blockbusters, and therefore what's required here is the dreaded "four-quadrant film" that will be everything to everybody and ensure box-office returns. Even though Disney backed last year Rob Marshall's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods - a film whose playfulness and reinvention of classic fairy tales effectively pre-empts any other serious look at the genre for the foreseeable future - this Cinderella plays it very safe.

     This could have been, in itself, interesting as a challenge: how can you do a straight fairy tale in an age where the post-modern, self-referential reading has become de rigueur? Maybe you can do it, but Mr. Branagh hasn't found the way. His Cinderella features eye-catching, inspired production design from the great Dante Ferretti and lavishly appointed costumes from the award-winning designer Sandy Powell, with all the impeccable craftsmanship you expect from British technicians. Its universe seems, in fact, to be somehow loosely connected with his mock-Victorian/Edwardian Shakespeares (and it even seems as if he's recycled a few shots and sets from earlier films). But where it counts - the heart - he is unable to give the tale the spin that would make it less generic and more relatable.

     Yes, archetype is part and parcel of fairy tale, but archetype is one thing and fleshing them out is another. Both the kindness and the villainy are here played broadly as befits a children's story, but that stylization sits oddly with the exquisitely detailed universe where everything takes place. In effect, everything is merely staged and play-acted rather than acted, substituting ostentation for emotion. Actors hit their marks and the camera records their performances, but other than Helena Bonham Carter's ditzy Fairy Godmother straight out of post-modernist pantomime and Derek Jacobi's understated, dignified performance as the dying king, everybody seems to be playing it either a little bit too earnestly or a little bit too wide, unhelped by Mr. Branagh's dull, rhythm-less handling. Even the typically magnetic Cate Blanchett (given first billing) as the stepmother seems in muted auto-pilot despite the ravishing gowns Ms. Powell puts her in.

     At heart, the issue is that this Cinderella - technically based on Charles Perrault's story but effectively remaking Disney's 1950 film - lacks the depth and dimensions that would make it resonate with modern day audiences, replacing it with a lavish production that works very well as dazzling eye candy but has just about the same amount of empty calories.

CINDERELLA
USA, United Kingdom 2015
105 minutes
 Cast Cate Blanchett, Lily James, James Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter
 Director Kenneth Branagh; screenwriter Chris Weitz; based on the short story Cinderella by Charles Perrault and on the Walt Disney animated feature directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson; cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (colour, widescreen); composer Patrick Doyle; designer Dante Ferretti; costumes Sandy Powell; editor Martin Walsh; effects supervisor Charley Henley; producers Simon Kinberg, Allison Shearmur and David Barron; production companies Disney Enterprises, Allison Shearmur Productions, Beaglepug Films and Kinberg Genre Films
 Screened March 13th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon [distributor press screening]


Thursday, March 19, 2015

KAZE TACHINU
The Wind Rises

"She flies like a dream", says a test pilot, near the end of The Wind Rises, to aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi after the maiden flight for Japan's latest military fighter plane. There is something ambiguous about the fact that a machine designed for death can be a dream; but director Hayao Miyazaki's swan song is a book of dreams. And, as is said earlier in the film, if there is a choice of a world with or without pyramids, Jiro Horikoshi would prefer one with pyramids, even if all they are are simply elaborate tombs.

     For Jiro, a fictionalized composite drawn from the real-life Mitsubishi aviation engineer of the 1930s and 40s Jiro Horikoshi and from a fictional short story by Tatsuo Hori, it's the pursuit of the dream that matters. And it's hard not to see in him a little bit of his own creator, the Japanese master animator who spent all his life pursuing his own dream and has pretty much all but bucked the trends of animated cinema in the past decades.

     Like Jiro, Mr. Miyazaki is a dreamer whose uneasy relationship with the world around him has given him a unique, almost poetc insight into the transfiguration of emotion into animated images. Though there exists indeed computer-generated imagery in The Wind Rises - as in the previous films from Mr. Miyazaki - this is a stubbornly handcrafted work, one whose inspiration is as smooth-flowing and natural as the fish bone that inspires Jiro's designs in an era where steel rivets and gun-grey metal seemed to be de rigueur. Look at the superb earthquake scene early on in the plot, when Jiro is returning to university to Tokyo - its fluid, hand-drawn animation may almost seem burlesque, but that spontaneity is what it gives its simultaneously awesome and terrifying nature. It's what makes this all but realistic earthquake more impressive than any CGI perfection could muster.

     At its best, animation is about weightlessness, about soaring free - and what better subject for animation than aviation, the ultimate human challenge to the pull of gravity? The Wind Rises is, then, an exercise in weightlessness, but also a tug-of-war between taking flight and staying put, between the dreams Jiro pursues and the chains that anchor him down to earth. He can only truly be himself at the drawing board - and, then, later, when he meets Naoko, the girl he helped save from the earthquake and who will much later reenter his life in a wonderfully poetic "meet cute" that highlights Mr. Miyazaki's delicate, elaborate touch with storytelling.

     The director has never been one to limit himself to what people think animation should be, and one of the most stunning aspects of The Wind Rises is that the apparently disconnected parallel plotting of the film (Jiro's work, dreams and personal life run along separate tracks for most of the story) turn out to connect beautifully at its end. I was much reminded of Brief Encounter in the way Mr. Miyazaki winds Jiro and Naoko's stories together, just as so much in this extraordinary work seems to pull into its orbit elements from earlier films (Porco Rosso and Howl's Flying Castle come most to mind).

     The visual references to German Expressionism and the constant quotes from Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain and the poetry of Paul Valéry also give the film a unique poignancy, borne out of the sense that Jiro's dreams take place in a placid world of elegance and beauty that is about to end dramatically as World War II looms into view. But, as the earthquake scene shows, in a country such as Japan, where nature takes precedence without asking permission, apocalypse is not a distant concept anyway.

     It would probably not be hard to find in what the director announced publicly as his final feature film a lot of career resonances, and indeed fans of Mr. Miyazaki will find here much to chew on. This brings us back to the idea that Jiro is a thinly-veiled match for Mr. Miyazaki, both men of dreams whose yearnings and desires set them apart from their contemporaries, using tradition as a means to move things forward. The Wind Rises could be "Miyazaki redux" and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's also a gloriously layered throwback to an earlier era of melodrama, melding together Oriental and Western elements in a film of extraordinary elegance and almost unspeakable precision. Indeed, The Wind Rises flies like a dream.

KAZE TACHINU
Japan 2013
127 minutes
 Original Japanese voice cast: Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Miori Takimoto, Masahiko Nishimura, Mansai Nomura, Jun Kunimura, Mirai Shida, Shinobu Otake, Morio Kazama, Keiko Takeshita
 Director and screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki; supervising animator Kitaro Kosaka; composer Joe Hisaishi; art director Yoji Takeshige; editor Takeshi Seyama; producer Toshio Suzuki; production companies Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network, Dentsu, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Walt Disney Japan, Mitsubishi Shoji, D-Rights, Toho Company and KDDI Corporation
 Screened March 11th 2015, Lisbon


Monday, March 16, 2015

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP

Following up on his smart remake of Brighton Rock, The American screenwriter Rowan Joffe's sophomore directing effort takes on S. J. Watson's best-selling pulp thriller about an amnesiac trying to piece together her past. In this well-made but rather disappointing film, Mr. Joffe is aiming at a would-be Hitchcockian take on something like Christopher Nolan's Memento, or a Dial M for Murder hinging on memory issues, where the plot is slowly revealed as the viewer follows the lead character's discoveries. But it turns out that Before I Go to Sleep is more of a Brian de Palma tease at the director's flashiest and least interesting.

     Christine (Nicole Kidman, very good in a Grace Kelly-ish sort of way) has no memory of anything before she woke up today, but as she heads into the bathroom, she finds all sorts of permanent reminders that show Ben (Colin Firth, proving there's more to him as an actor than the British gentleman), the man in bed next to her, is her husband. As he tells her every single day, after a horrible incident that left her unconscious, she is unable to form any new long-term memories; all she will learn in the course of the day will be undone as she goes to sleep. But after Ben leaves home for work, Christine receives a phone call from Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a neurologist who has been treating her for some time now; as he picks her up, he gently reminds he's given her a camera to film herself every day so the accumulating footage creates a permanent memory, a permanent record of her past.

     The poignancy and ingeniousness of this device as Christine finds out about herself from the recorded segments, however, is quickly subsumed into the thriller plot. This is set in motion when both Ben and Nasch's stories start not quite adding up, when flashes of a child and a close friend start coming into the frame, when she realises not everything is as clear-cut as it seems. This could open up a whole new path, as we witness the amnesiac Christine suddenly having to navigate issues of trust and belief - not only of those around her, but even of her own self and memories.

     And therein lies what makes Mr. Joffe's film simultaneously so intriguing and so frustrating: it's a great premise, glossily and handsomely presented so as to make the plot's innate implausibilities fall to the background in true thriller fashion. But once the pieces start falling into places it becomes very clear, and highly predictable, where it all is heading, and you realise how much of what was left behind was merely obfuscation and sleight-of-hand. Everything was there in clear sight if you were attentive enough to look at it, and when the big twist comes in at the hour mark, it's somewhat disappointing how easy it was to see it coming and how suddenly one-dimensional Before I Go to Sleep becomes.

     What until then was a really rather decent film about a woman trying to keep her grasp on reality suddenly becomes yet another run-of-the-mill woman-in-danger melodrama (not entirely powerless, but nearly), with a neatly-wrapped ending that leaves at least one string of the bow untied. As well as a sour after-taste: you somehow feel conned that you invested this much in a nicely-made but rather hollow film that doesn't really make the most of the not inconsiderable talents involved. Almost as if the genuinely intriguing mystery the first hour teases was chopped down due to commercial considerations.

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP
United Kingdom, USA 2013
92 minutes
 Cast Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff
 Director and screenwriter Rowan Joffe; based on the novel Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson; cinematographer Ben Davis (colour, widescreen); composer Edward Shearmur; designer Kave Quinn; costumes Michele Clapton; editor Melanie Ann Oliver; producers Liza Marshall, Mark Gill and Matt O'Toole; production companies Scott Free Productions and Millennium Films in association with Studiocanal Features
  Screened March 9th 2015, Lisbon


Friday, March 13, 2015

CITIZENFOUR

The word "polarizing", according to economist Robert Reich, is currently used to describe "anyone with a strong conviction, who tells it like it is, who challenges the status quo". That is, anyone whose actions raises important questions that shatter the conformity of society, politics and media, and to those who speak their minds, rightly or wrongly, in face of massive opposition. Certainly, Edward Snowden fits such a bill.

     A systems administrator with access to the secret American intelligence and surveillance networks, born in a military family in North Carolina, Mr. Snowden decided to make public the extent to which the American government (but not only) was using technology to maintain an "always-on" surveillance state, and in so doing became - depending on where you stand - either a heroic whistleblower or a miserable traitor.

     The truth, however, is more shaded: his actions have brought to the fore a growingly disturbing sense of encroaching Orwellianism, as the all-pervasive technology surrounding us and liable to empower an individual also welcomes in an all-seeing, all-controlling state as depicted in the British writer's classic dystopian novel 1984. And the disclosures of the extent of the surveillance programmes set up by the American National Security Agency and other intelligence and police agencies certainly raise important questions about the growingly porous borders of personal privacy.

     At the time of his 2013 disclosures, Mr. Snowden "recruited" American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and Brazil-based American journalist and columnist Glenn Greenwald to help him navigate the media in order to divulge the documents he had gained access to and wished to leak. Ms. Poitras and Mr. Greenwald were chosen by Mr. Snowden for their history of looking at the global consequences, unintended or otherwise, of momentous decisions made at a political level after the tragic events of 9/11.

     What Ms. Poitras does in Citizenfour, though, isn't simply a mere recap of the seven days during which her, Mr. Greenwald and British journalist Ewen MacAskill met Mr. Snowden in Hong Kong and strategized how best to make the information available. Using the "access-all-areas" footage shot in Mr. Snowden's hotel room in June 2013 as the centerpiece of this feature-length documentary, the filmmaker is instead creating a warts-and-all portrait of Snowden the man, as seen beyond the hall of mirrors of media attention and activist stands. Yes, Citizenfour narrates the process of leaking the information Mr. Snowden decided needed to be shared with the world, but in so doing it trains its camera on the man who made that decision.

     Ultimately, as Ms. Poitras' film shows, despite all of the help he may have had, the buck stops at him, and things are never how you think they were going to be. It's one thing to take a moral, idealistic stance, as Mr. Snowden clearly decided: "this is wrong, I can't be a part of this, I have to do something to stop it from happening." It's another thing to actually face the consequences of what it was he did. Citizenfour shows the "before" and the "after" of that decision; it depicts the category-5 hurricane Mr. Snowden deliberately walked into, then shows him standing in its eye like a deer caught in the headlights, suddenly realising what it was he did and willing to let the chips fall where they may.

     The very picture of a bright boy-next-door-made-good, once his identity is revealed publicly you can see something shift in Mr. Snowden, something become different, other, like a great weight has been placed on his shoulders and he is no longer as certain that he can carry it. Therein lies what makes Citizenfour a thrilling piece of filmmaking: it's a film that takes its time to let us know who the person at the centre of its story is, it reminds us that there are human beings at the heart of every decision ever made for good or bad, and that there are strong feelings underlining that decision.

     This is an openly activist documentary, in the sense that it tells us something is going on that is important for our society and polity and that we should not look away from. But it would just be a dry tract if it didn't take the time to explain why and to show us why other people think this is important. And what is important in Citizenfour is precisely that it shows us someone willing to lay himself on the line for what he believes in - something that comes out of a profound love for an ideal Mr. Snowden felt his country was not living up to. For that, Ms. Poitras films him with great respect but also a peculiar sense of disbelief that someone like him, willing to sacrifice everything for a greater ideal, can still exist in this day and age. A deer in the headlights, indeed.

CITIZENFOUR
Germany, USA, United Kingdom 2014
113 minutes
 Director Laura Poitras; cinematographers Ms. Poitras, Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin and Trevor Paglen; editor Mathilde Bonnefoy; producers Ms. Poitras, Ms. Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky; production companies Praxis Films in co-production with the Bertha Foundation, Britdoc Circle, Channel Four Television Corporation, Nord Deutschen Rundfunk and Bayerischen Rundfunk, in association with Participant Media and HBO Documentary Films
 Screened March 3rd 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, March 12, 2015

GETT
Gett - The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

It's safe to say that none of the recent new wave of Israeli film-making articulates the sense of existential questioning of modern-day Israel as Gett, third in a series of films written and directed by the sister-and-brother team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz about the life of Viviane Amsalem. After marriage in To Take a Wife and mourning in Seven Days, the Elkabetzes deal here with divorce, a sensitive topic in Israeli society, finding their recurring heroine (played with intense commitment by Ronit, an acclaimed actress in her own right) at the end of her tether.

     Estranged from her long-standing husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian), with whom she no longer lives, she wants the divorce he is not willing to grant her - according to Jewish law, the husband has to consent in front of a religious court of three rabbis to set the wife free; and even though he is the first to admit Viviane has been an excellent wife, Elisha simply will not give it to her. Gett lies, thus, at the confluence of modernity and tradition, religion and secularism, love and duty, understanding and intolerance, as it focusses in on a cross section of modern Israeli society brought out as witnesses and participants in  the divorce case.

     The Elkabetzes stage the trial in a radically simple yet incredibly fertile way: never leaving the single set of the courtroom where Viviane, Elisha, the judges, the lawyers and the witnesses work out where the truth is, avoiding as much as possible any sort of wide-angle or group shots, Jeanne Lapoirie's camera trained insistently on the faces and physical presence of each person. What matters is not so much what is said but what you can read in the faces and body language of all present, and the Elkabetzes' approach is to allow each their own individuality as they come face to face with the central theme of the film: the sense of dignity demanded by the long-suffering Viviane. She wants nothing other than take charge of her own life, despite Elisha's persistent denial to do so for reasons that will not be understood until much later (and, truly, one of the most remarkable aspects of Gett is that the siblings refuse to fall into the easy trap of boxing in these people as heroes or villains).

     In the struggle of wills and pride that follows, the film shifts constantly and consistently mood, from Kafkian absurdism to domestic tragedy, existential drama to raucous comedy, but always does so within the "white box" of the court room, refusing to lose sight of the key issue: a woman asking for a freedom she should not have to ask for. In a society that can be bewilderingly forward and sophisticated in some aspects yet quaintly parochial in others, the strangely old-fashioned patriarchal subtext of still requiring a religious divorce underlines how at the heart of Gett is a game of style rather than of substance - the appearance of the perfect marriage is more important than the misery those involved may be going through.

     As Elisha's stubbornness extends the trial far beyond everyone's threshold for patience, Gett turns out to chisel and polish its theme until you understand that, really, this is about people who do not want to let go of love, even though they may look at it, or define it, in different ways. Masterfully shot and paced, extraordinarily performed by a superb ensemble cast (that stands, nevertheless, on the shoulders of Ms. Elkabetz's arresting performance that could have come out from any of the great Italian divas of the 1950s), Gett is a perfect marriage of form and function. Truly, all human life is here.

GETT
Israel, France, Germany 2014 
116 minutes
 Cast Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Sasson Gabay
 Directors and screenwriters Ms. Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz; cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie (colour); composers Dikla and Shaul Beser; art director Ehud Gutterman; costumes Li Alembic; editor Joëlle Alexis; producers Sandrine Brauer, Mr. Elkabetz and Marie Masmonteil; production companies Deux Beaux Garçons Films, Elzevir & Compagnie and Riva Filmproduktion in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, in association with Films Distribution and CN4 Productions
 Screened February 26th 2015, São Jorge 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

DYING OF THE LIGHT

There is a stubbornness, a sense of faith and mission to Nicolas Cage's Evan Lake in Dying of the Light that puts you immediately in mind of the film's writer/director. Paul Schrader has never been the kind to "go gently into that good night", and his "fall" from one of the defining members of the 1970s "new Hollywood" into an also-ran filmmaker who struggles to get his films made (and, when he does get them made, seems to have to fight to have them seen) fits perfectly the character he has given Mr. Cage.

     Haunted by the "terrorist that got away" a quarter of a century earlier and that landed him effectively behind the desk, Lake has been diagnosed with incurable dementia just when the cold trail of Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim) grows hot again. Even though his superiors have clearly decided to ground him over the health issues, the agent flatly embarks on the mission anyway, travelling to Romania and Kenya in order to confront his nemesis.

     In many ways, Lake and Banir are two sides of the same coin, "true believers" who've never given up the "good fight" (depending, of course, on whose side you're on), hanging on for dear life even beyond all rhyme and reason - and that stubbornness is also relevant to the fact that Dying of the Light, a script that had been doing the Hollywood rounds for years, is another notch in Mr. Schrader's controversy belt. Following on from The Exorcist: Dominion, the 2003 horror thriller he was summarily dismissed from after the producers violently disliked his cut, and from the barely-released The Canyons, scripted by Bret Easton Ellis and starring Lindsay Lohan, the director was effectively shut out from editing Dying of the Light, and has disavowed the version commercially released alongside his cast and crew. (Even though he is prohibited of badmouthing it by contract, that hasn't stopped Mr. Schrader, Mr. Cage, co-star Anton Yelchin and exec producer Nicolas Winding Refn from making some waves.)

     While there's no doubt this was indeed shot by Mr. Schrader, and many of his recurrent themes (most notably the sense of grace and redemption that runs through his entire oeuvre) are present and correct, the film's halting rhythm, its uneasy balance between poignant character study and cheap, throwaway actioner, certainly press the point of a schizophrenic hack job trying to salvage the material shot into a borderline commercial property. Though if what you want is a run-of-the-mill, direct-to-VOD action quickie starring Nicolas Cage, there's not much point in hiring Paul Schrader to do it; and if you did hire Paul Schrader, then what's the point of bowdlerizing his work into a run-of-the-mill, direct-to-VOD action quickie?

     Of course, the question is: how much of Dying of the Light's weirdness was in the director's original cut and how much is the result of the producers' edit? Because, for all that, there's a sense that most of the script's set-ups are just something to be done with to set the stage for what really matters to Mr. Schrader. Plausibility flies off the window and plot holes accumulate so that he can hint at the poignancy of a man asking what his entire life was worth when everything he believes in can be taken from under him in no time at all. You can't help but think that's something paramount in the director's mind at the moment - and the sad fate of this film resonates eerily with its underlying melancholy.

     It may even be true that Mr. Schrader's original cut isn't that much better (the auteur theory can sometimes be betrayed by the actual facts). But, for now despite the fascinating backstory and the intimations of what could have been, Dying of the Light remains an unconvincing, uninspired bust.

DYING OF THE LIGHT
USA 2014
94 minutes
 Cast Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin, Alexander Karim, Irène Jacob
 Director and screenwriter Paul Schrader; cinematographer Gabriel Kosuth (colour, widescreen); composer Frederik Wiedmann; designer Russell Barnes; costumes Oana Paunescu; editor Tim Silano; producers Scott Clayton, Gary A. Hirsch, Todd Williams and David Grovic; production companies Grindstone Entertainment Group, Tin Res Entertainment and Over Under Media 
 Screened March 1st 2015, Lisbon


Monday, March 09, 2015

LEVIAFAN
Leviathan

There is something relentless, inexorable, about director Andrei Zvyagintsev's latest missive from contemporary Russia - a new moral mousetrap laced with dark gallows humour about a man's futile struggle against the establishment in a decaying small town in the Barents sea.

     Leviathan carries that singular sense of ominous Russian fatalism that can occasionally make it look far too much like a broadcast from a nihilist deity toying absent-mindedly with the frail hopes and dreams of human beings. Assuming, of course, that such a deity would exist - the darkness that runs through Mr. Zvyagintsev's fourth feature, where the Orthodox Church goes hand in hand with the corruption and pettiness of elected officials, seems to eject any sort of faith and hope, presenting instead a Promethean condemnation to eternal struggle.

     Prometheus, here, is Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who strives valiantly and beyond all reasonable expectations to hold on to his family's plot of prime-location real estate by the sea, even if it means losing his sullen teenage son and second wife in the process. The land is coveted by the local venal mayor Vadim (Roman Madianov), who, with church, government and justice in his pocket, has effectively all but expropriated it, and is just letting Kolya tire himself out before yanking it off him like a dog on a leash chasing a bone eternally out of reach.

     Much has been made of Leviathan's apparent finger-pointing at the regime of Vladimir Putin, its undisguised despair and displeasure for corruption and subjugation fitting in with the horror stories propagated in the media about contemporary Russia. But in fact Mr. Zvyagintsev is not talking so much exclusively of modern-day Russia as he is channelling a complaint about a state of affairs that transcends one government and seems in-built or in-bred. At the film's midpoint, a sublimely edgy picnic-cum-target-practice-trip sees local friends pull out old framed pictures of Soviet rulers, from Lenin and Stalin to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, to serve as practice targets; one of them says there's "not enough historical perspective yet" to add the current crop. The suggestion is that Putin is only the latest (and maybe not even the last) in a series of absolute rulers absolutely corrupted by absolute power.

     Certainly the issue is not exclusive to Russia and could be extended to all sorts of regimes all over the world, but when mixed with the peculiar dark, tempestuous melancholy of the "Russian soul", it reaches new heights. Hence Leviathan's exquisitely oblique x-ray of a country that seems unable to overcome an inexorable slide into the abyss, the breathtaking beauty of the landscape surrounding Kolya's quicksand destiny suggesting an immutable nature where all men will eventually succumb to time and go the way of the derelict fishing boats and beached-whale skeletons dotting the shore.

     It's not even a particularly original theme for Russian cinema - Boris Khlebnikov's A Long and Happy Life, with a similar David vs Goliath plot, or Yuri Bykov's The Fool, come to mind - but there is indeed something extraordinarily universal about its tale of a man stubbornly, and hopelessly, battling the establishment. The thoughtfulness of Mr. Zvyagintsev's prior Elena is here augmented by an expansive yet daunting combination of formalist aesthetics and moral questioning, the scenes between the mayor and the local bishop (Valery Grichko) raising obliquely many of the film's central questions about morality and truth in a place where such words can be, and are, routinely manipulated.

     Nobody ever said Leviathan was an easy film to see, or even to love, and it does seem to revel a bit too much in its meticulous construction, but that is also part of what makes it such a towering, mesmerizing picture: it's about, to quote from Brecht and Weill, "what keeps mankind alive".

LEVIAFAN
Russia 2014
141 minutes
 Cast Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madianov, Anna Ukolova, Aleksei Rozin, Sergei Pokhodaev, Valery Grichko, Sergei Bachursky, Platon Kamenev
 Director Andrei Zvyagintsev; screenwriters Oleg Negin and Mr. Zvyagintsev; cinematographer Mikhail Krichman (colour, widescreen); designer Andrei Ponkratov; costumes Anna Bartuli; editor Anna Mass; producers Aleksandr Rodniansky and Sergei Melkumov; production companies Non-Stop Production and the Ruarts Foundation for Contemporary Art
 Screened February 28th 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener DVD)


Sunday, March 08, 2015

THE HOMESMAN

The western is, with the musical, one of the most beloved genres of American cinema that has completely fallen by the wayside. A few people still believe its simple pleasures can be recreated and reconfigured for modern audiences, but experience has somewhat proven it is a beautiful yet somewhat utopian idea, despite the genuine achievements that this "twilight" era of the western has brought.

     The Coens' direct and indirect takes on the genre with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men and True Grit come to mind as examples of the continuing relevance of the genre's structures and storytelling in our days. The Coen reference is in fact quite appropriate, since Tommy Lee Jones' sophomore film as a director, The Homesman, could have very well made excellent material for the brothers. 

     Adapted from a novel by Glendon Swarthout, its loping, zig-zagging plot about a forceful spinster (Hilary Swank) and rowdy frontiersman (Mr. Lee Jones) transporting three settlers' wives gone mad from the Nebraska territory back to civilization, has precious few "western" tropes - no shootouts, no duels, no cavalry charges. Yet it offers a much clearer view of the harshness of the pioneer experience, a curious, episodic odyssey where the traditional landmarks of the genre are all present and correct but seem to be there merely as signposts for Mr. Lee Jones and his pitch-perfect cast to explore the sidetracks and shortcuts hidden behind the main path. 

     That outwardly The Homesman looks like a classic western, all storybook Little House on the Prairie pictorialism (ravishingly lensed in widescreen by Rodrigo Prieto), then shows itself to be a darker, more melancholy example of the genre, highlights just how much the idea of the genre remains yet needs to be approached differently to work properly in the new era of film that followed the disruption of the studio system. The Homesman fits easily into the current so-called "revisionist" mode, in no small part due to its being a proper "actor's film" where character development takes precedence over plot. The script, co-authored by the star/director, allows a dream list of veteran supporting actors to create a character with a few scenes and strokes (led by the towering, matching performances of Ms. Swank and Mr. Lee Jones).

     It should be pointed out that there are moments when you feel The Homesman would benefit from a more experienced director, or that this would also have been good material for Clint Eastwood to direct - but this shouldn't minimize the achievement of this strangely affecting little film that both eulogizes the classic western and proves it still has its place.

THE HOMESMAN
France, USA 2014
123 minutes
 Cast Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Jo Harvey Allen, Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Grace Gummer, Evan Jomes, Caroline Lagerfeld, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, Jesse Plemons, Sonja Richter, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep
 Director Mr. Lee Jones; screenwriters Mr. Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver; based on the novel The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout; cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (colour, widescreen); composer Marco Beltrami; designer Merideth Boswell; costumes Lahly Poore-Ericson; editors Roberto Silvi and Larry Madaras; producers Peter Brant, Brian Kennedy and Luc Besson; production companies Europacorp in association with Peter Brant Productions, The Javelina Film Company and Ithaca Films
 Screened February 27th 2015, Lisbon


Friday, March 06, 2015

BLACK SEA

There's a fascinating twist at the heart of Kevin Macdonald's submarine thriller Black Sea. It seems to be a combination of heist movie, about a gang preparing and pulling off a risky robbery, and old-fashioned WWII submarine thriller, about the tensions arising among men fulfilling a mission locked up in a literal underwater pressure cooker. But in Dennis Kelly's script, it's also a parable of modern day economic problems and class divisions between the haves and the have-nots, a study of working-class resentment for believing in a system hijacked against them at every possible juncture by the moneyed.

     In so doing, the Scottish director best known for The Last King of Scotland pulls off what is very possibly my favourite of all his fictional films (though, for disclosure's sake, I haven't seen his recent young-adult post-apocalyptic adventure How I Live Now, as yet unreleased locally). While the sense of a working-class gang taking on the establishment is something we've seen a lot in British films (from classics such as The Italian Job to more recent stuff like Ken Loach's The Angels' Share), there's never any doubt that it's the genre premise and structure that is propelling Black Sea forward: a ragtag crew of laid-off salvage workers find themselves 300 feet under the Black Sea in a rusting hulk of a submarine, seeking the millions of dollars in gold bullion forgotten inside a sunken German WWII vessel.

     The British social realist angle is there for sure, and is effectively presented in the film's opening stretch; and Mr. Macdonald gets the terse, claustrophobic feel just right, the film's all-male, no-nonsense ensemble perfectly dovetailing with his interest in camaraderie and tension and benefiting immensely from the assembled cast of solid British and Russian performers. Even granting that Mr. Kelly's script basically trades in archetypes, that is exactly at the essence of genre and that is what gives Black Sea a solid scaffolding to present his tale of men at work for the sake of a better life.

BLACK SEA
USA, United Kingdom 2014
 Cast Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, David Threlfall, Konstantin Khabenskiy, Sergey Puskepalis, Michael Smiley, Grigory Dobrygin, Sergey Veksler, Sergey Kolesnikov, Bobby Schofield, Jodie Whittaker
 Director Kevin Macdonald; screenwriter Dennis Kelly; cinematographer Christopher Ross (colour, widescreen); composer Ilan Eshkeri; designer Nick Palmer; costumes Natalie Ward; editor Justine Wright; effects supervisor Simon Hughes; producers Charles Steel and Mr. Macdonald; production companies Focus Features, Filmfour and Cowboy Films
 Screened February 27th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, March 05, 2015

CHAPPIE

The existence of something like Chappie in modern-day Hollywood deserves to be properly feted. South African director Neill Blomkamp may have the backing of one of the major studios and the blessing of big-shot directors, but he still shoots back home in South Africa with all of his local creative crew and weaves his distinctly local view into his films.

     Hence, Chappie is set in a near-future, crime-ridden, dysfunctional Johannesburg where robotics company Tetravaal makes a killing offering an all-purpose humanoid android for police work. This is the first, and the first ominous, sign that Mr. Blomkamp's third feature will mostly be rehashing District 9 and Elysium (itself already a notch below its predecessor) in a more diluted, less inspired fashion. But his interest for the new film lies elsewhere: Chappie is about artificial intelligence.

     The title character, a CGI creation superimposed over the physical performance of Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, is a sentient robot prototype; Tetravaal's star scientist Deon Wilson (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) modified one of the totalled police models with an artificial intelligence module he developed in his spare time. It's a fascinating premise that follows the "growing pains" of the experiment through a series of openly melodramatic, and occasionally hackneyed, plot devices: just as he is on the verge of success, Deon is kidnapped by a trio of small time thugs in dire need of fast cash to pay a debt, is forced to leave his creation with them just when it's taking its first baby steps, and is being stalked by a competing Tetravaal scientist and former special forces man (a rare villainous turn for Hugh Jackman) resenting Deon's success over the failure of his military-styled robot.

     The thought experiment ends up imprisoned inside a clumsy remake of Alex Proyas' superior AI-themed I, Robot, its Frankenstein-meets-Robocop mash-up suffering from too many script-writing holes and a serious imbalance between its sleek action sequences and the rather predictable and somewhat heavy-handed emotional content. Chappie isn't helped by the fact that the emotion has to be carried by less experienced actors - Mr. Patel and South African pop group Die Antwoord's skronky singers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (playing essentially alternate versions of themselves).

     Yet, the film works and keeps you on the edge of the seat - it's a tribute to Mr. Blomkamp's forceful handling, his bracingly smart "what ifs" bouncing off a series of rather striking visual devices and pop culture references that, for better or worse, reflect a worldview that doesn't come from the relative comfort of the Western civilization. It's that sense that you're watching something articulated in a different way, a film that's not afraid of wrapping up big ideas in the simple formatting of a blockbuster, that stops me from slotting Chappie in the "diminishing returns from a promising young director" category.

CHAPPIE
USA 2015
120 minutes
 Cast Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), Yo-Landi Visser (Anri du Toit), José Pablo Canillo, Brandon Auret, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman
 Director Neill Blomkamp; screenwriters Mr. Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; cinematographer Trent Opaloch (colour, widescreen); composer Hans Zimmer; designer Jules Cook; costumes Diana Cilliers; editors Julian Clarke and Mark Goldblatt; effects supervisor Chris Harvey; producers Mr. Blomkamp and Simon Kinberg; production companies Columbia Pictures, MRC II Distribution Company and Kinberg Genre Productions in association with Lstar Capital 
 Screened February 25th 2015, NOS Colombo 8, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, March 03, 2015

HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS

A crap film doesn't necessarily follow from a crap premise; the commitment of a cast or a director can go a long way toward rectifying a course mis-set or mis-handled by the writer. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Brit Peter Chelsom's screen version of French psychiatrist François Lelord's self-help pop-psychology best-seller.

     Hector and the Search for Happiness is one of those cases of an entirely misguided, tone-deaf production where even the best efforts of all involved are unable to save it from disaster - even though there's an intriguing playfulness in the film's premise as laid out in a curious opening stretch. Utterly bland, non-descript London psychiatrist Hector (Simon Pegg) has a perfectly ordered, laid-out life in front of him, with the perfect job, the perfect flat, the perfect wife (a note-perfect Rosamund Pike). It's all so perfect, in fact, he reaches some sort of (ever so proper) nervous breakdown, and self-medicates by going on a trip around the world to distill the essence of what makes people happy.

     What follows, sadly, is a mystifyingly interminable and incredibly clueless succession of episodes trading on all sorts of cultural stereotypes, as the well-meaning Hector, a sort of modern Candide traveling in first class and always able to make the most of even the most frightful experiences, is waylaid through Asia, Africa and America. None of this is the fault of the immensely likeable Mr. Pegg, a truly talented and sympathetic comedian whose commitment to Hector's bungling Britishness is irrepressible. In fact, his performance is one of the very few reasons to sit through this ragged, endless collection of uninspired self-help platitudes, handsomely shot on location by Kolja Brandt but so anonymously handled that it seems to be merely a film designed by commitee to hit as many offensive stereotypes as possible.

     Mr. Chelsom seems to be totally unable to hit the correct tone of whimsy such a fable would require to work; his deliberate reliance on a realist tone highlights the chasm between the airbrushed grittiness of the real world and the airheaded bubble of clueless, blind privilege Hector lives in. Cloying when it should be poignant, heavy-handed when it should be subtle, signposting from a distance with a thick black marker every single "uplifting" moment, Hector and the Search for Happiness fails to follow its very own pop psychology advice: it's not about the destination, it's about the journey. The journey, though, is a pain.

HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS
Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates 2014
120 minutes
 Cast Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, Rosamund Pike, Stellan Skarsgård, Jean Reno, Veronica Ferres, Barry Atsma, Ming Zhao, Togo Igawa, Christopher Plummer
 Director Peter Chelsom; screenwriters Maria von Heland, Mr. Chelsom and Tinker Lindsay; based on the novel Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord; cinematographer Kolja Brandt (colour, widescreen); composers Dan Mangan and Jesse Zubot; designer Michael Diner; costumes Guy Speranza; editor Claus Wehlisch; producers Judy Tossell, Klaus Dohle, Christine Haebler, Trish Dolman, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross and Christian Angermayer; production companies Egoli Tossell Film, Erfttal Film- und Fernsehproduktion and Screen Siren Pictures in co-production with Wild Bunch Germany and Construction Film, in association with Head Gear Films, Star Gate Films, Metrol Technology, Film House Germany, ARD-Degeto, Movie Central and The Movie Network
 Screened February 20th 2015, Lisbon


Monday, March 02, 2015

ESCOBAR - PARADISE LOST

Back when European film production had a neat line in no-frills exploitation movies to ride the topical wave of an issue of the moment, a project like Escobar - Paradise Lost would be custom-tailored for that market of neighborhood theatres: a sensationalist, fanciful thriller built on a ripped-from-the-headlines theme and with a true-crime figure. Italian actor Andrea di Stefano's feature directing debut is clearly a fiction, positing a young Canadian surfer's (Josh Hutcherson) unwitting entry into the extended family of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro), through a casual meet-cute and follow-up lightning-fast romance with his niece María (Claudia Traisac).

     It's nice to see Mr. di Stefano and his veteran co-screenwriter Francesca Marciano actually take the story seriously enough instead of playing up the tongue-in-cheek aspect, to try and create a plausible framework within a genre structure - yes, it's narratively signposted and hackneyed, though not much more than a Hollywood film on the same topic would be. But what makes it stand out is its openly operatic, high-strung melodramatic feel, underlined by Max Richter's slyly Morricone-like score and by the script's refusal to tie up its loose ends with a happy ending.

     Of course, since the Escobar Mr. di Stefano creates is a drug lord-as-rock star character, Mr. del Toro plays him as a larger-than-life, magnetic, whimsical personality, simultaneously playing God and mindful of God; the actor may be slumming it, but he slums it in a gloriously over-the-top fashion, while gradually injecting heft and darkness in a cartoon menace that becomes more scary as the film moves forward. Still, this is pretty much a game of two halves: the first hour is a dreamy, potentially naïve romance and the second a tense spaghetti-thriller, resulting in a somewhat schizophrenic piece whose tone veers all over the place and has a curious overlay of guilty pleasure all over it.

ESCOBAR - PARADISE LOST
France, Spain, Belgium 2014
119 minutes
 Cast Benicio del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Claudia Traisac, Brady Corbet, Carlos Bardem, Ana Girardot, Micke Moreno
 Director Andrea di Stefano; screenwriters Mr. di Stefano and Francesca Marciano; cinematographer Luis Sansans (colour, widescreen); composer Max Richter; designer Carlos Conti; costumes Marylin Fitoussi; editors David Brenner and Maryline Monthieux; producer Dimitri Rassam; production companies Chapter 2, Orange Studio, Pathé Production, Roxbury Pictures, Paradise Lost Film, Nexus Factory and Jouror Développement in co-production with Umedia
 Screened February 19th 2015, Lisbon


Sunday, March 01, 2015

UMA HISTÓRIA DE AMOR E FÚRIA
Rio 2096

It's reasonably unusual these days to see an animated feature film that is primarily aimed at adult audiences, so kudos to former Brazilian journalist and screenwriter Luiz Bolognesi for stepping into that particular breach with Uma História de Amor e Fúria - retitled internationally as Rio 2096 probably to highlight the "exoticism" of a feature animation from Brazil meant for grown-ups instead of kids.

     Mr. Bolognesi's script highlights the idea of Brazil as a country that has always been stuck between a rock and a high place, between the desire for self-determination of its people and the submission to outside influences and power. Shifting between fantasy and reality, the tale is seen through the eyes of 16th century native warrior Abeguar (voiced by Selton Mello); we first meet him attempting to lead his tribe against the treacherous ways of the colonists who manipulate the "heathens" for their own ends. Abeguar's failure leads him to lose everything and dooms him to walk his tribe's native grounds for eternity, searching for the next opportunity to try and push back the wave of evil - the native grounds being what would become the city of Rio de Janeiro.

     The film follows Abeguar's "rebirth" in three different eras of Brazilian history, always pushed into action by the "reincarnation" of his late wife Janaína (Camila Pitanga) and siding with the popular Davids against the ruling Goliath: as a 19th century farmer fighting the injustice of slavery, as a 20th century student fighting the military dictatorship, and in a future world against capitalist control of the water supply. As Mr. Bolognesi is a writer by trade, little wonder it's in the scripting that Rio 2096 stands out, despite the somewhat didactic aspects of the tale and the sense that the film could be "chopped up" into episodes; there is a clear ambition of creating a specifically Brazilian tale that can resonate globally in our days.

     However, the animation doesn't really soar, its general trait and movement too close to standard television work, competent and functional rather than inspired. There is a definitive effort from co-directors Jean de Moura, Marcelo de Moura and Bruno Monteiro to differentiate the specific eras through texture and line, as well as a very clear influence from someone like Frank Miller in the stylization of the violence. But despite the technical proficiency, the look of Rio 2096 is too "international" and not distinctive enough to set it apart; look at the superb closing credits sequence as a suggestion of how the film could have been a lot more striking and match its ambitions. As it is, Rio 2096 is a step above the mere curio, best seen as a first effort that can and will be improved on.

UMA HISTÓRIA DE AMOR E FÚRIA
Brazil 2012
75 minutes
 Voice cast Selton Mello, Camila Pitanga, Rodrigo Santoro
 Director and screenwriter Luiz Bolognesi; co-directors Jean de Moura and Marcelo de Moura; animation director Bruno Monteiro; additional script material by André Moreira Forni, Anna Caiado, Mr. Monteiro, Camilla Loyolla, Marcos Cesana, Paulo Crumbim and Sílvia Lourenço; composers Rica Amabis, Tejo Damasceno and Pupillo; art director Ms. Caiado; film editor Helena Maura; producers Caio Gullane, Fabiano Gullane, Laís Bodanzky, Mr. Bolognesi, Marcos Barreto, Débora Ivanov and Gabriel Lacerda; production companies Buriti Filmes and Gullane Entretenimento in co-production with Europa Filmes, Lightstar Studios, Mondo Cane Filmes, Estúdio Luno, HBO and Tele Image
 Screened February 17th 2015, Lisbon