Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

We knew of Swedish director Roy Andersson's maniacally detailed, blink-and-you'll-miss-it slow-motion existential burlesque from the two previous films in the so-called "Trilogy of the Living" - 2000's Songs from the Second Floor and 2007's You, the Living. Going into this third and final instalment, it's worth pointing out how much of an acquired taste Mr. Andersson's style is; the very epitome of what has been, somewhat derisively, described as "slow cinema" with its existential concerns, oblique narratives and formalist structures, the fact is the Swedish helmer's films are also often extremely funny and never wilfully obscure, even if what they seem to be building towards may prove to be just out of reach.

     To sum up: each film is composed of thematically-linked but apparently unrelated sketches, nonsensical and melancholy, minutely controlled tableaux staging those little nagging annoyances we struggle with daily that eventually blow up into full-fledged crises, carrying the unmistakable smell of "loserdom", the daily and almost futile struggle to make something out of nothing and improve one's lot through patient work. Though formally A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence brings nothing new to the director's by now equally unmistakable and admirable formal stylings, impeccably framed and held as ever, the new film lets in some fresh air, some hope in his often claustrophobic, inescapable world.

     There are, for the first time in the entire trilogy, expressions of regret, remorse, hope, kindness; scenes of love and simple pleasure that surround what is the strongest narrative throughline of the three films, the misadventures of Sam (Nils Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), disheartened salesmen of comic novelties who face the dank greyness of humdrum city life. Around these sad clowns, and against their desperate and yet often very funny struggles, Mr. Andersson places small, dialogue-less glimpses of love and happiness; their wanderings are the gravitational centre of the film's loosely connected tableaux, with everything else radiating from them through tangents or contiguities, underlining the film's central theme as the ultimate nature of human relationships.

     This is perfectly made out in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch's two tours-de-force: the nightmare scene of the "fire drum organ", and its follow-up dialogue between Sam and Jonathan, and the episode where, while stopping at a cafe for directions, the two salesmen witness 18th-century Swedish king Carl XII storm in on his way to a campaign that will prove disastrous. Both grab at the key idea of a diseased society that feeds and preys on its young and on the "other" to keep itself afloat (I couldn't help but see some shades of Göran Olsson's Concerning Violence, though the films couldn't be more different), but also question whether the naked, opportunistic exploitation of capitalism is the only possible engine for survival (the film seems to suggest that the patience required for the basic need for human contact is there if you only become attentive enough to it).

     Yet, despite A Pigeon Sat on a Branch seeming to be just "another Roy Andersson movie", behind the stellar visuals and technical mastery visible throughout, there definitely is a more hopeful, less despairing tone than in the previous films, a slightly stronger uplift that brings Mr. Andersson closer to the bonhomie of silent burlesque comedy and especially of his formal master that is Jacques Tati, where the payoff of the patient technical layering of gags and scene-setting is never just what we think it is. The director is, for sure, an acquired taste; for those who've already acquired it there's more to enjoy, for those who haven't this may actually be the strongest, smartest entry point.

Sweden, Norway, Germany, France, 2014
100 minutes
Cast Nils Westblom, Holger Andersson
Director and screenwriter Roy Andersson; cinematographers István Borbás and Gergely Pálos (colour); designers Ulf Jonsson, Julia Tegström, Nicklas Nilsson, Sandra Parment and Isabel Sjöstrand; costumes Ms. Tegström; editor Alexandra Strauss; producer Pernilla Sandström; production companies Roy Andersson Filmproduktion in co-production with 4 1/2 Fiksjon, Essential Filmproduktion, Parisienne de Production, Swedish Television, ARTE France Cinéma and ZDF/ARTE
screened June 18th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Thursday, June 25, 2015


Is there a way to film Gustave Flaubert's classic novel Madame Bovary without short-changing the book in the process? It's a good question - not just restricted to Flaubert's work, but that seems most vital to novels like this one, that don't translate easily to narrative work. Sophie Barthes otherwise admirably thoughtful adaptation doesn't answer it very well and it does short-change the book somehow, though there is certainly intelligence in it.

     The script by the director and her producer Felipe Marino reimagines clearly the tale of the adulteress Emma Bovary (played by current go-to actress Mia Wasikowska) in 19th century rural Normandy for the modern age of austerity, focussing it on consumerism, status, credit while taking a few liberties with the plot. Ms. Barthes' Emma remains childless and has a fling with the dashing marquess d'Andervilliers instead of the rakish Rodolphe Boulanger (who remains absent throughout), but the most important aspect of this reading is she never truly becomes anything other than a young woman straight out of convent education, stifled by the world around her. The small provincial society of Yonville, ravishingly shot on French location by the great cinematographer Andrij Parekh, has strictly defined parameters - suggested ever so elegantly by the way the village residents look at Emma, always looking back distantly at her.

     The doctor's wife, though, through no great fault of her own but rather of her own education, remains a wide-eyed dreamer let loose in a candy store of sensuality, all too enamoured of the shiny toys she becomes addicted to to fully understand the trap she has let herself fall into. It's a trap that hasn't necessarily been set on purpose for her only; most of what happens in this Bovary derives from the judgmental strictures of 19th century patriarchal society, a rigid system where status makes the rules more than talent or personality. Chafing against the greyness surrounding her, Emma blooms with the quivering anticipation of the moment she will find herself elevated above her surroundings - but, with her hands tied, she must instead fall down ignominious chutes as someone who mistook a bright lamp for the sun and must be punished for her impudence.

     Ms. Barthes and Ms. Wasikowska are very good at contouring the elaborately spring-loaded traps Emma walks into; the actress is careful to not make Emma too much of a victim, though she is assuredly one as well, while making sure she is not a defenseless, powerless woman. Instead, she is painted as defiantly headstrong but utterly deluded, who in some way deserves what she has coming while begging the question - could it ever have been any other way? But Ms. Barthes is unable to make what surrounds Emma truly come to life. The moments where she gives herself away or receives her emotional comeuppance are handled with such restraint and care that they become inert, never truly scaling the heights of passion required to make Emma's fall all the more harrowing.

     We're left with Rhys Ifans' suave, almost oily merchant Lheureux as the "forked-tongue serpent" that tantalizes Emma with credit for her lush tastes as the perfect (if obvious) metaphor of the cynicism of cheap credit, and with a handsome film that is no catastrophe but doesn't really make the most out the multitudes contained in its origin story.

USA, Germany, Belgium, United Kingdom. France, 2014
118 minutes
Cast Mia Wasikowska, Rhys Ifans, Ezra Miller, Logan Marshall Green, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Laura Carmichael, Olivier Gourmet, Paul Giamatti
Director Sophie Barthes; screenwriters Felipe Marino and Ms. Barthes from the novel by Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary; cinematographer Andrij Parekh (colour, widescreen); composers Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine; designer Benoît Barouh; costumes Valérie Ranchoux and Christian Gasc; editor Mikkel E. G. Nielsen; producers Joe Neurauter, Mr. Marino, Ms. Barthes and Jaime Mateus-Tique; production companies Occupant Entertainment, A Company Filmproduktion, Left Field Ventures and Scope Pictures in association with Radiant Films International, Prescience Film Finance, VP Finance, Altus Media, Aden Films, Aleph Motion Pictures, Gem Films and Steel Fish Pictures
screened June 16th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Stray Dogs

Malaysian-Chinese director Tsai Ming Liang has said, more than once, that he sees himself more as a creator of images than as a storyteller - and the way his oeuvre has developed over the years has done nothing to disprove such an adage, with each new work moving further and further away from any sort of conventional landmarks. With Stray Dogs, his tenth feature, you get an almost plotless, often dialogue-free mood-piece stringing together a series of dazzling, self-contained long takes that seem to engulf any sort of momentum or development the film may have.

     Less of a traditional narrative than a series of evocative scenes involving the need for affection in a growingly impersonal world - a theme that has resonated throughout Mr. Tsai's career - Stray Dogs is a wonder to look at as much as, sadly, it is a challenge to sit through. His work was never that strong narratively to begin with, but somehow it seems as his attempts at creating feature-length pieces has taken a back seat to more mixed-media, experimental work such as the on-going series of Walker shorts whose latest example is the zen maturity of Journey to the West.

     The film's overarching concept of a destitute family man (played by Mr. Tsai's usual stand-in, Lee Kang Sheng) working as a human billboard to provide for his children in the absence of their mother could be construed as the reverse of the mysterious "walker" Mr. Lee plays in the parallel shorts: a man who struggles to move and stands still, lost in his own dreams of possibly recreating the nuclear family he let go of. The problem lies in the sense that Mr. Tsai's style isn't here to serve a narrative but to lead the viewer into a more rarified, sensory dimension that is constantly subtracting elements necessary to its full comprehension.

     It's closer in spirit to an art installation unfolding in time, divided very clearly into three acts, to which Mr. Tsai attributes a different female actress - the second, and longest act, is the one where the more recognisable narrative elements come together, with Stray Dogs eventually dissolving, in its final third, into a Lynchian Möbius strip of dreams and aspirations that demand total devotion from the viewer. Personally, I have my doubts that, at nearly two and a half hours, the cinema screen is the ideal place to watch it, but I could be wrong, and either way this is indeed a ravishing, exquisitely controlled visual experience.

Taiwan, France, 2013
136 minutes
Cast Lee Kang Sheng, Yang Kuei Mei, Lu Yi Ching, Chen Shiang Chyi, Lee Yi Cheng, Lee Yi Chieh, Wu Jin Kai
Director Tsai Ming Liang; screenwriters Tung Cheng Yu, Mr. Tsai and Peng Fei; cinematographers Liao Pen Jung and Sung Wen Zhong (colour, widescreen); art directors Masa Liu and Mr. Tsai; costumes Wang Chia Hui; editor Lei Zhen Qing; producers Vincent Wang and Mr. Lee; production companies Homegreen Films and JBA Production in association with House on Fire Productions and Urban Distribution International
Screened June 14th 2015, Lisbon

STRAY DOGS (trailer) from Cinema Guild on Vimeo.

Monday, June 22, 2015


In these days of The Walking Dead and iZombie, maybe the idea of a "realistic" zombie drama shouldn't seem to be so surprising. Still, the debut feature by the British-born motion graphics artist Henry Hobson is a striking, strange proposition; a film that thinks so much outside the box you're never sure if it actually fits anywhere, an utterly tear-free zombie equivalent of the terminal-disease melodramas that we can trace back to something as far back as Alexandre Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias or as recently as John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.

     But this is also a film where Arnold Schwarzenegger essays a rare dramatic role, and an essentially supporting one, that doesn't require him to flex his muscles or dispose of villains with sound-bite sentences (and, by the way, acquits himself more than honorably). And this is definitely not a horror movie, since it's not at all about survival; what it is is a pared-down, bleached-out tone poem about mortality, set in a future, not entirely post-apocalyptic America in the throes of the so-called "necro-ambulist" virus, in effect a contagious disease (echoing contemporary global scares like Ebola or SARS) that turns those affected into living dead.

     The titular Maggie (played with quiet resourcefulness by an Abigail Breslin channeling the young Claire Danes) is a rural high-schooler who has caught it and, after running away to protect her family from her, is brought back home by her father Wade (Mr. Schwarzenegger). What follows is Maggie's slow goodbyes to life, every step of it magnified by the constant presence of the horror awaiting her in the close-knit small town she lived in and by the love of those around her; like some sort of horrible lottery she was chosen for without possibility of appeal, Maggie is the girl forced to grow up in an accelerated period of time. Key to the film's tonal control is a scene in a beach party where Maggie's best friend takes her for a last moment of joy and teenage fun with her friends, positing the horror as something that is just there, forcing a "new normal" upon everybody.

     Maggie abounds in lyrical ruralist imagery clearly influenced by both Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols, in a curious combination of small-scale, intimate drama and end-of-the-world anxiety that has a lot in common with both Mr. Nichols' Take Shelter and the first act of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. That is part of what makes it a more distinctive film than most, even if there's a general feel that John Scott 3's script is a bit too thin for feature length; there's a sense of a passion project for all involved (including Mr. Schwarzenegger, who is also credited as producer), and of a calling card that reveals Mr. Hobson to be perfectly at ease in both narrative and atmospheric control. No masterpiece, but a smart, intriguing film.

USA, Switzerland, 2014
95 minutes
Cast Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
Director Henry Hobson; screenwriter John Scott 3; cinematographer Lukas Ettlin (widescreen); composer David Wingo; designer Gabor Norman; costumes Claire Breaux; editor Jane Rizzo; producers Colin Bates, Joey Tufaro, Matthew Baer, Bill Johnson, Ara Keshishian, Trevor Kaufman, Mr. Schwarzenegger and Pierre-Ange le Pogam; production companies Grindstone Entertainment Group, Gold Star Films, Lotus Entertainment, Matt Baer Films and Sly Predator Productions in association with Silver Reel
Screened June 13th 2015, Lisbon

Saturday, June 20, 2015


After an unwelcome, fallow interregnum during which it seemed to rest its laurels on its vaunted history, animation powerhouse Pixar finally corrects course: Inside Out is the studio's first film in five years (since the masterful Toy Story 3) to live up to the standard we were led to expect - perhaps unrealistically, as it's almost impossible to pull masterpieces out of a hat.

     To clarify, Inside Out isn't a masterpiece - the scripting hits a snag halfway through, of which more later - but it is the long-awaited return to first-rate form by the studio. Masterminded by Pixar veteran Pete Docter, whose last outing was the equally genre-defying Up, the new film is entirely set inside an 11-year old's brain, following what happens when Riley's (Kaitlyn Dias) move to San Francisco with her family creates a "perfect storm" of conflicting emotions.

     Mr. Docter and his co-director, Ronnie del Carmen, design Riley's brain as a state-of-the-art "control centre" or ship's deck, manned by five key anthropomorphised emotions that take turns in running the machine, but actually mostly run by the chirpy, always-on Joy (a delightful Amy Poehler). But the move sets everyone on edge, and a couple of fumbles by the morose, clumsy Sadness (Phyllis Smith) effectively shut both her and Joy outside the control centre, leaving Riley scared, unbalanced, angry and uncertain of what the future holds now that she's been taken out of her comfort zone.

     Shifting between the "inside" and the "outside" of the brain, showing what's going on in Riley's brain to explain why she is behaving the way she does in life, Mr. Docter's film never really lets on how extraordinarily layered its tale actually is. That is partly by design - the "eye candy" is as wondrously drawn and detailed as anything in the Pixar canon, from the idea of each memory as a multi-coloured globe stored away in an endless library to forgetfulness as a huge abyss into which blackened, ashen memories are thrown into, through the idea of the "train of thought" that is an actual train travelling through the brain.

     The visuals help translate with almost effortless immediacy the complexity of the concepts behind the plot. But the "story first" ethos of the studio is again put to good use in the expert threading of emotion with experience as Riley, Joy, Sadness, the anxious Fear (Bill Hader), the distant Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and the forceful Anger (a brilliantly cast Lewis Black) learn to navigate the "real world" with its sudden changes.

     What's most impressive is just how Messrs. Docter and Del Carmen, and co-writers Meg Lefauve and Josh Cooley, turn out to perfectly capture the volatile, ephemeral nature of memory and thought and how such fleeting, apparently casual moments become so massively central to our personality - Inside Out gets just right that sense of gangly awkwardness that every tween and teenager goes through at some point, and makes it very clear that just because you grow up you don't automatically get all the answers to all the questions.

     Still, I do have some issues with the script, especially in the film's second act, as Joy and Sadness look for a way back to "headquarters" and team up with Riley's long-lost imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Their trip through memory lane sidesteps into some overly Disney-ish, kiddie-oriented strands that seem custom-tailored to maintain younger viewers interested.

     It's not out of character for the film nor is it suggesting of any "slumming", and it makes all the sense in the plot; but for a studio that prided itself in assuming the best and the smartest from its audiences, it seems a little bit like hedging its bets in a film whose conceptualism may have seemed a bit too far-fetched for the marketing folk at Disney. But if that's the price to pay to get back to Pixar's top-notch form, hey, I'll take it any day of the week, and Inside Out fully deserves to be up there with the studio's best output.

USA, 2015
94 minutes
Voice cast Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Director Pete Docter; co-director Ronnie del Carmen; screenwriters Mr. Docter, Meg Lefauve and Josh Cooley from a story by Messrs. Docter and Del Carmen; directors of photography Patrick Lin and Kim White (colour); composer Michael Giacchino; designer Ralph Eggleston; editor Kevin Nolting; producer Jonas Rivera; production companies Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios
screened June 12th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Friday, June 19, 2015


The less said about the idiocy that is San Andreas the better. No, seriously. Don't get me wrong - when disaster porn is halfway decent, I'll gladly own up to the guilty pleasure of watching Hollywood invent outlandish catastrophes to unleash on a cast of troupers making the rent money (Airport '77 anyone? The Poseidon Adventure?) But ever since Roland Emmerich brought the genre back and jumped the shark with the utterly laughable 2012, it's clear disaster films have pretty much fallen on hard times. True, not that they've ever been that good; but there was something intriguing in watching producers like Irwin Allen and Jennings Lang trying to reclaim the concept of big-budget spectacle by super-sizing TV-level soap opera mosaics with added visual effects.

     It worked for a brief period of time - the highpoint is probably The Towering Inferno, carried by the can't miss-combo of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen - but we're 40 years later and Dwayne Johnson, as nice a guy and sympathetic an actor as he is, is nowhere near the same league. Not even Paul Giamatti, roped in to do his usual sterling supporting work and cash the paycheque, can save this piece of utterly cynical disaster porn where the visual effects don't seem to be the only thing computer-generated. Of course, you don't expect stellar writing and Oscar-quality performances from a disaster movie, especially when it's clearly coming from a B-team. But Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse's scripting is so self-obvious it comes close to parody, and his overlaying of the classic "comedy of remarriage" tropes to spice it up turn out to be entirely inappropriate.

    The film posits a cataclysmic "swarm of earthquakes" running through California along the San Andreas Fault, destroying Los Angeles and San Francisco. It also posits that Mr. Johnson, playing a L. A. Fire Department helicopter pilot, joins forces with his ex-wife Carla Gugino and takes off for San Francisco to look for and reunite with the couple's teenage daughter Alexandra Daddario. It's all so predictable, throwaway and humorless - not even Mr. Johnson's trademark levity improves things - that it becomes disheartening to see a film that has no art or inspiration at all, that is a mere mix-and-match series of Lego bricks assembled in a purely functional way with one single goal: to serve as the pretext for another demonstration of state-of-the-art visual effects. However, by itself, that no longer cuts it in these days where state-of-the-art visual effects are no longer wow-inducing.

   San Andreas is nothing more than a carny attraction that attempts to put lipstick on a rickety pig and pass it off as the bearded woman, but never manages to convince.

USA, Australia, 2015
114 minutes
Cast Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti
Director Brad Peyton; screenwriter Carlton Cuse, based on a story by Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore; cinematographer Steve Yedlin (colour, widescreen); composer Andrew Lockington; designer Barry Chusid; costumes Wendy Chuck; editor Bob Ducsay; effects supervisor Colin Strause; producer Beau Flynn; production companies New Line Cinema and FPC in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
Screened June 11th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 6, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Arthouse darling Apichatpong Weerasethakul enjoys melding the animist, fantastical traditions of his native Thailand with a dreamy, resolutely personal take on modern narrative cinema - I've always liked to think of him like Wong Kar-wai if he'd gotten lost in the jungles of Borneo and surrendered to a sort of "sleeping sickness" (no wonder sleep, dreams and illnesses recur so often in Mr. Weerasethakul's films). The director has also been at the intersection of film and the arts in the current global cultural landscape, feeling equally at ease with narrative and non-linearity, art installations and traditional film.

     Following his 2010 international breakthrough with the Cannes Palme d'Or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the hour-long Mekong Hotel is a leisurely, mischievous stopgap, simultaneously throwback and throwaway, foiling what was expected of an auteur who had just been anointed by the world's most important film festival. A playful work that seems spontaneously improvised or whimsically constructed on location (but in fact reuses material created for an earlier project that never got off the ground), Mekong Hotel takes entirely place in a riverside hotel in the off-season, following the comings and goings of both real-life guests and phantom figures in a sort of "twilight zone".

     The film evokes in passing the 2011 monsoon floods that affected Thailand, but remains strongly grounded in the place itself, with a sense - never truly explained or resolved - that everything happens in a series of super-imposed alternate realities with no interval or space between them; like an analogue multiverse where the same person can be a jobbing actor rehearsing a role, a visiting tourist and a man possessed by ghosts or demons within a same framework. Almost single-handedly created by Mr. Weerasethakul with a few of his regular cast members, Mekong Hotel is a "seize-the-moment" kind of film, looser and freer than a large-scale feature; a little holiday memento whose soulful roughness prevents it from being a fully-fledged "statement". It's a curious little work that completists and fans will appreciate more than the dabbler intrigued by Uncle Boonmee.

Thailand, United Kingdom, France, 2012
61 minutes
Cast Jenjira Pongpas, Maiyatan Techaparn, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Chai Bhatana, Chatchai Suban, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and producer Mr. Weerasethakul; composer Mr. Bhatana; production companies Kick the Machine Films Company and Illuminations Films in association with ARTE France - La Lucarne
Screened June 4th 2015, Lisbon, DVD 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


There is a tradition in documentary filmmaking that, in effect, the filmmaker is "on the side of the good", ie, giving voice to the dispossessed and the oppressed, to those who otherwise would not have a voice to speak of. That was the reason why The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn's disturbing non-fiction look at the Indonesian massacres of 1965-1966, became a cause célèbre after its 2012 release.

     Here was a documentary that told its story through the voice of the oppressors who remained in local power since, dealing with the killings through the nightmarishly audacious approach of allowing them to recreate their actions through fictional reenactments in the manner of Hollywood cinema. The victims were not heard throughout. This was partly by default, as the survivors and relatives of the government-sanctioned massacre feared repercussions or retaliations from speaking out against the perpetrators, but also partly by design; Mr. Oppenheimer was striving for a freer, less structured approach, one he prefers to call "non-fiction" rather than "documentary", creating in the process a sort of "negative space" that revealed the presence of the victims through their very absence.

     At first sight, The Look of Silence seems to be making up for that, shifting the approach from the criminals bragging about their cruelty to one victim who stands up for all of them. Optometrist Adi Rukun wasn't born yet at the time of the massacres, but even his own birth - two years after Ramli, the brother he never met, was killed - makes him a stand-in both for those who survived and for those who only now begin understanding what this was all about.

     Mr. Oppenheimer's camera follows Mr. Rukun from house to house in a quixotic desire to make peace with the perpetrators and hope for some sort of reconciliation that may help salve the wounds left open. The footage was mostly shot after The Act of Killing was edited but before it was released, suggesting a film made in the same limbo that the people it depicts are living through: a work made in hope that the social dynamics in Indonesia would change enough for a true conversation on the subject to rise to the surface, but unsure whether its very existence would be enough to kickstart it.

     Mr. Rukun asks much harder, pointed questions than Mr. Oppenheimer did, and in the knee-jerk reactions to his probing the viewer finds both an explanation of why The Act of Killing was the way it was and the next step in the tale's development. The Act of Killing was a film about flaunting your power, about the power of propaganda and fear as seen from the victors' side; The Look of Silence sees that power from the side of the vanquished and talks of stoicity and despair in the face of it. Nearly everyone says to Mr. Rukun throughout that "the past is past", that there's little point in going over it yet again, in sticking your finger in an open wound only to make it worse; better to forget and move on but, of course, the duty of history and memory make sure you can't and shouldn't forget, since it's haunting us here, every day.

     For Mr. Oppenheimer, again co-directing with a local who remains anonymous in the credits, as do all of the Indonesian crew, The Look of Silence slowly transcends the idea of mere justification to become a ritual wound-cleansing exercise, a diagnosis to see how deep it goes. It's clear that at the time of the shoot it was still raw and bleeding profusely; the powerful are genuinely taken aback by this mild attack on their power, wishing they could just make it go away; the survivors and victims become mostly terrified that one of them is standing up to ask difficult questions.

     Mr. Oppenheimer's camera works both as protection and back-up for Mr. Rukun, who gains something of the heroic stature of so many classic Hollywood films where the lead stands up for what's right against the cruelty and injustice that surround him. It's yet another reference to the powers of narrative fiction that underlined The Act of Killing, and to the power of Hollywood as a whole to shape our relationship with the world. Like its predecessor, but in a more conventional, less challenging way, The Look of Silence shakes that foundation by simply asking us to look at these images and see them for what they are. There are no answers coming out of this movie; just a conversation starting, or rather moving forward and moving on.

Denmark, Indonesia, Finland, Norway, United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, 2014
103 minutes
Directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous; cinematographer Lars Skree (colour); editor Niels Pagh Andersen; producer Signe Byrge Sørensen; production companies Final Cut For Real in co-production with Anonymous, Making Movies and Piraya Films, in association with Spring Films, ZDF, ARTE, DRK, NRK, YLE, VPRO and Vision Machine Film Project
screened June 3rd 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Monday, June 15, 2015


If Hollywood is going to hit us round the head with all the continuing reboots and sequels and the like, at least let them all be of the calibre of the recent Mad Max reboot - or, at the very least, of this return to Michael Crichton's ressuscitated dinosaur park, personally handed by benign overlord Steven Spielberg to sophomore director Colin Trevorrow. Jurassic World is nothing so much as a super-sized variation on Jurassic Park, only set not in a private preview visit but on a fully-fledged park, an interactive dinosaur zoo, that has been functioning for a while now (one of the nicest tricks on the new film is a scene set in the remainder of the original 1993 park), and with the kids in danger (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) being the teenage nephews of Claire (a perky Bryce Dallas Howard), the park's number-crunching manager. The problems arise once the higher-ups unveil a new attraction, the Indominus rex, a genetically-engineered super-predator part T-Rex and part "classified species" who turns out to be a dysfunctional, blood-thirsty beast.

     No prizes for originality in the screenplay (allegedly heavily rewritten by Mr. Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly from an original script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who helped reboot Planet of the Apes), but then originality was never the point, taking a backseat to efficiency and effectiveness. It's clear that Mr. Spielberg, credited as executive producer, maintained a strong hand on the tiller in the finished film, and that Mr. Trevorrow was selected for his ability to turn out a well-crafted, old-fashioned monster movie with enough attention to character development to raise it above the current cookie-cutter assembly-line blockbusters.

     That is actually the most striking of Jurassic World's achievements: it exists on its own continuum with classic Hollywood adventures rather than with modern-day frenzied action spectacle, taking almost an hour to build up plot and character before unleashing the action. Ms. Howard and Chris Pratt as the park's "velociraptor ranger" are a well-matched pair that enliven their stock characters with some sassy repartee straight out from 1940s Hollywood, and Mr. Trevorrow shoots the action sequences in a clear-sighted, exceedingly viewer-friendly style (look at the final dino blowout, shot with flowing, sweeping long pans instead of the almost abstract quick-cut preferred of contemporary directors). And it's interesting that the film's classic qualities dovetail neatly with its implied critique of entertainment for entertainment's sake, of bottom-line-mandated Barnum & Bailey eating its own young that was never the idea when Mr. Spielberg introduced the modern blockbuster 40 years ago with Jaws.

     For all that, you can't really underline just how much Jurassic World remains "just" a popcorn summer sequel, but if all popcorn summer sequels were this solid we'd be better off.

USA, Japan, 2015
124 minutes
Cast Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent d'Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, B. D. Wong, Judy Greer, Irrfan Khan
Director Colin Trevorrow; screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly and Mr. Trevorrow; based upon a story by Mr. Jaffa and Ms. Silver and characters from the book Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton; cinematographer John Schwartzman (colour, widescreen); composer Michael Giacchino; designer Edward Verreaux; costumes Daniel Orlandi; editor Kevin Stitt; effects supervisors Tim Alexander and Glen McIntosh; producers Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley; production companies Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment in association with Legendary Pictures, Dentsu and Fuji Television Network
screened June 9th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


It may seem reductive, yet it's very tempting to see writer/director Noah Baumbach's latest film as part of a string of dominos that react to the ones surrounding it. Greenberg's burnt-out, sun-drenched Los Angeles bitterness begat the cool, breezy, New-York-freewheeling Frances Ha, which in turn begets the balancing act of While We're Young, simultaneously a reaction to and against both previous films.

     A New York equivalent of Greenberg, dealing with the comeuppance of the intellectual bourgeoisie that is also contaminated by the carefree insouciance of a much younger generation, While We're Young is quite the mess, but a genuinely endearing one. It's a game of two halves whose first half looks backward to the past and stalls for time until the second part finally unlocks the game's speed and power.

     At heart, it's yet another tale of people stuck in limbo, wondering where their lives went while they were looking elsewhere. In this case, these people are frustrated documentary director Josh and his wife Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), feeling stalled in their careers and isolated in their personal lives. A chance meeting leads Josh to befriend aspiring filmmaker Jamie and his wife Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a couple of cool Bushwick hipsters that seem to embody the youthfulness Josh and Cornelia pine for and whose mere presence seems to rejuvenate the older couple.

     There's no free lunch, though. In trying to recapture that elusive excitement of what was before, Josh and Cornelia eventually come to the conclusion you really can't go home again; it can be such an incredibly seductive idea, especially for Josh, who's been struggling to finish a sprawling sophomore feature and is basically attempting to avoid his own fears, but it only leads to a more eye-opening, if personally disappointing, wake-up call. Mr. Stiller has apparently become the ideal "hero" for Mr. Baumbach; his wiry, stop-start edginess is perfect for Josh's hyperactive over-engineering, as indeed in Greenberg before him.

     Whereas both that and Frances Ha were admittedly trained on a single character, While We're Young wants to be more of an ensemble piece, though it doesn't really work very well at such despite a rather interesting choice of casting (Mr. Driver returns from his supporting turn in Frances Ha in a much darker character, but both female characters are somewhat underscripted). The film harks back simultaneously to a halcyon idea of "NYC films" while postulating very clearly there's no time like the present and it's silly to hold on to wasted time.

     It's that smart, thoughtful back and forth between past and present, classic and modern, change and stasis, that makes While We're Young much more interesting than its apparent mean-spirited single-mindedness would mean: it's not just Mr. Baumbach going through the motions, even if you'll be forgiven for thinking so.

USA, 2014
97 minutes
Cast Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin
Director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach; cinematographer Sam Levy (colour); composer James Murphy; designer Adam Stockhausen; costumes Ann Roth; editor Jennifer Lame; producers Scott Rudin, Mr. Baumbach, Lila Yacoub and Eli Bush; production company IAC Films
screened June 2nd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Friday, June 05, 2015


No matter how good an actress or actor is - and I venture we all agree Helen Mirren is very good - you can't expect a home run in every single movie, Such is the case with Woman in Gold, British TV director Simon Curtis' follow-up to the entertaining but disposable My Week with Marilyn: it's a strictly by-the-numbers prestige job custom-tailored for the audience Harvey Weinstein worked so hard to schmooze in the 1990s, with an English grande dame in a human-interest story based on true events, so rote and unappealing it's a wonder there's actually a great story at its origin as well as a great performance at its centre.

     Mr. Curtis, whose TV credits include Cranford and David Copperfield, seems somewhat out of his league in a tale that shuttles between Los Angeles and a Vienna portrayed as stately eye candy. It's difficult to think the Austrian capital could be shot in a more stilted, touristy way, but that's the least of the problems with this bowdlerized version of the process opposing Austrian Jewish exile Maria Altmann to the Austrian government over the restitution of five Klimt paintings expropriated from her family when the Nazis annexed the country in 1938. One of the paintings is the celebrated classic that gives the film its title, depicting none other than Maria's aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer.

     We expect our Hollywood "based on true events" films to be reasonably fantastical. Yet there's so much that is wrong with Woman in Gold that what could have been an intriguing battle for the "soul" of a country against the "whitewashing" of history ends up becoming a trite underdog story; a courtroom drama full of switches and surprises punctuated by flashbacks reeking of cardboard villainy and pantomime goodness. The tale draws from Jane Chablani's BBC documentary Stealing Klimt, but this is hidden away at the end of the credits while upfront Alexi Kaye Campbell's script purports to be based on "the life stories of Maria Altmann and E. Randol Schoenberg", her lawyer.

     At times, especially when Ms. Mirren's Maria forcefully makes clear that her issue lies in the need for the recognition of the wrongs done to her family, you glimpse what the film could have been if the story hadn't been "dumbed down" into a wholesome tale of a woman coming to terms with her past and a young man owning up to his family's lineage. This would be Mr. Schoenberg, son of one of her friends and grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg, who initially takes the job for the money and the opportunity to make a name for himself but has a change of heart when faced with the callousness of Austrian bureaucracy. As played by the always pleasing Ryan Reynolds, however, Randy is purely a stock character given no particular personality.

     All of this wouldn't be so much of an issue if there wasn't such artlessness and cause-and-effect clumsiness in the telling, effectively reducing a fascinating story to a series of Holocaust-movie clichés. In many ways, Woman in Gold is Stephen Frears' Philomena without the moral complexity that film's script kept in and reduced to a series of easily digestible platitudes. All hail Ms. Mirren, then, whose unabashed stiff-upper-lip professionalism allows her to actually create, sustain and enrich a character: her Maria Altmann is a living, breathing, feeling woman, someone whom you can see dealing with all that the situation entails, unlike all others around her, mere archetypes fulfilling strictly functional roles in a script mechanic that's as anonymous as it is offensive.

     There is nothing to be said about Woman in Gold except that Helen Mirren is great in it, which in itself is not particularly original either.

USA, United Kingdom, 2015
109 minutes
Cast Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes
Director Simon Curtis; screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell; inspired by the BBC TV documentary by Jane Chablani Stealing Klimt; cinematographer Ross Emery (colour, widescreen); composers Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer; designer Jim Clay; costumes Beatrix Pasztor; editor Peter Lambert; producers David M. Thompson and Kris Thykier; production companies The Weinstein Company, BBC Films and Origin Pictures
screened June 1st 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Stations of the Cross

The thing about film festivals is that, sometimes, you do end up missing the forest for the trees; there's always "the one that gets away" despite all your best attempts. Such was the case with German director Dietrich Brüggemann's fourth feature: I just couldn't fit it into my Berlin schedule in 2014 despite good words from friends and colleagues, so it's only belatedly, and for what seems to be a confidential local release, that I get to approach it.

     The fact that Kreuzweg won the best screenplay prize seems to be one of those bewilderingly diplomatic jury decisions - there's so much more about the film that calls attention to itself before the script, to be honest - and I can understand that the film can seem a bit redundant. I was instantly reminded of two other films about impressionable young girls and their reliance on religion: Camino, Spaniard Javier Fesser's 2008 scathing if sprawling tragic satire about a teenager seeking martyrdom, and 2005's Requiem, German Hans-Joachim Schmid's more measured and affecting exploration of a mentally unstable young woman teetering on the brink of womanhood.

     Despite these obvious connections, Mr. Brüggemann's film, inspired apparently by the director's own experience growing up in a purist-conservative Catholic sect, is its own, very impressive beast; it's the film's crisply formalist structure that gives its strength, simultaneously bringing it closer and further to Bruno Dumont territory. Transported by the incredible performance of Lea van Acken, as its title suggests Kreuzweg stages the "Way of the Cross" run by Maria, a high schooler raised in a conservative Catholic sect, as her confirmation ceremony approaches. The oldest of the four Göttler children living in rural Germany, Maria is also usually in the crosshairs of her strict mother's; Mrs. Göttler (an imperious Franziska Weisz) has raised the bar of devotion impossibly high for the 14-year old to be able to clear it, while nobody around will stand up to the mother's unwitting bullying (let alone the ineffectual father).

     Aware that the unbalanced family dynamics will never tilt in her favour, Maria realises that only in devoting herself blindly to an idea of sacrifice can she find herself - and the "stations of the cross" meticulously constructed by Mr. Brüggemann render it implacably inexorable. The director, who also scripted with his sister, treats the religious core of the story with enough respect that it does not come across as shrill denunciation or score-setting, but approaches the issue with a light enough touch that religion can be a stand-in for many other things - coming of age is the obvious comparison, as Maria's exacerbated feelings towards religion are the sublimated equivalent of a young head-strong girl's wide-eyed discovery of puppy love or individual rebeliousness.

     Constructing Maria's via crucis in tableaux that deliberately invoke religious iconography and underline the way that it has influenced Western imagery over the centuries, Mr. Brüggemann shoots it as long single takes. Kreuzweg is composed of 14 long-take one-shots, one for each "station of the cross", with the camera in a stationary position (only in three of the 14 shots does the camera move), creating not only an alluring formal effect but also underlining in greater ways the film's core message: how can a teenager find her way in a society that fails to recognise her individuality and strives to have her conform to a pre-determined image? Kreuzweg may be dour, wry, demanding, but it's an exceedingly smart, thoughtful, accomplished work, a little gem of a film that neither forces itself intrusively nor calls attention to itself.

Germany, 2014
110 minutes
Cast Lea van Acken, Franziska Weisz, Florian Stetter, Lucie Aron, Moritz Knapp
Director Dietrich Brüggemann; screenwriters Mr. Brüggemann and Anna Brüggemann; cinematographer Alexander Sass (widescreen, colour); designer Klaus-Peter Platten; costumes Bettina Marx; editor Vincent Assmann; producers Jochen Laube, Leif Alexis and Fabian Maubach; production companies UFA Fiction in co-production with SWR, ARTE and Cine Plus Filmproduktion
screened May 31st 2015, DVD, Lisbon