Monday, August 31, 2015

L'EXTRAVAGANT VOYAGE DU JEUNE ET PRODIGIEUX T. S. SPIVET
The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet

There is a very inspired line early on in The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet that perfectly captures a glimpse of the magic this fascinating misfire aims at. "What if imagination started where science ended?" The words are uttered by a tired old British scientist (Mairtin O'Carrigan) giving a perfunctory lecture to a bunch of bored high-schoolers in Butte, Montana; it's the old story of endless optimism vs. backward-looking conservatism, progress vs. stasis, as seen through the eyes of 10-year old scientific whiz-kid Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) who just happened to stumble on it and decides there and then to solve the conundrum of perpetual motion.

     That opposition may also be that of the vanguard and the mainstream, and what makes it all the more intriguing is that it's being aired in a film by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose own work has often traded in nostalgia and retro whimsy visualized through state-of-the-art effects and techniques. For someone whose work is so grounded in a mythological past, his films have always been about moving on into your own story and learning to live in your own skin; this adaptation of Reif Larsen's 2009 novel may see him move from a folkloric idea of mid-century Paris to mid-century picture-postcard Americana, but there's more of an emptiness behind the facades here than in any of Mr. Jeunet's previous work.

     Running away from the Montana ranch where he lives with his family, T. S. literally "rides the rails" to reach Washington, where he has been awarded a prestigious scientific prize by the Smithsonian (with no idea the winner is in fact a precocious boy wonder from the heartland). And the ten-year-old installs himself for the duration in an all-American RV carried on a flatbed car - the perfect materialisation of a certain American dream of modern freedom, shiny and picture-perfect, but in fact simply a showroom model inhabited by a cardboard family where nothing works as advertised, and that is traveling backward to the train's direction.

     It's as if this backward-looking dream is carrying T. S. out of his comfort zone, though, refreshingly, he isn't so much a bullied or unloved kid as a boy whose resourcefulness allowed him to carve out his own world in an off-kilter family where everyone seemed to find refuge in their own worlds: an absent-minded entomologist mother (Helena Bonham Carter), a cowboy rancher father (Callum Keith Rennie), a gadfly celebrity-obsessed sister (Niamh Wilson). It's hard not to think of the Spivets' refuges as an escape and underlining of their own inabilities to deal with the void brought on by the tragic accidental death of T. S.' twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies, seen only in flashbacks), but thankfully the film avoids lazy editorialization.

     I have to admit that, on a first try, I couldn't quite wrap my head around The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet - it seemed a strange tonal misfire, a film that veered far too wildly from visual busy-ness to a strangely heightened lyricism while running free with an adoring Americana as seen through the eyes of a European fan. (Not unsurprisingly, the film performed below par in France, was barely released elsewhere and was blackballed by the Weinstein Company in America, where it finally came out two years later on a perfunctory, unpromoted opening.)

     On closer viewing, though, it dawned on me that it wasn't so much a problem of the film itself as of the viewer and of the expectations he brings into the film knowing it's from the director of Amélie and Delicatessen. It is an unmoored, all-over-the-place object whose open descent into satire in the third act (wasting the considerable talents of the all-too-rare Judy Davis as a conniving Smithsonian media handler) seems to be parachuted in from an entirely different movie. But at its heart lies a gentle story of a kid learning to deal with life the best way he can, shot with intelligence and a touching sincerity. The fact that T. S. Spivet was conceived in 3D probably explains why the film isn't as visually baroque and super-charged as the director's usual, which is all for the better, and its picture-postcard visuals are integral to the story's unfolding.


L'EXTRAVAGANT VOYAGE DU JEUNE ET PRODIGIEUX T. S. SPIVET
France, Canada, US, 2013
105 minutes
Cast Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie, Kyle Catlett, Niamh Wilson, Jakob Davies, Rick Mercer, Dominique Pinon, Julian Richings, Richard Jutras, Mairtin O'Carrigan, Michel Perron, Dawn Ford, Harry Standjofski, Susan Glover, James Bradford
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; screenwriters Mr. Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant; from the novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen; cinematographer Thomas Hardmeier; composer Denis Sanacore; designer Aline Bonetto; costumes Madeline Fontaine; editor Hervé Schneid; effects supervisor Alain Carsoux; producers Frédéric Brillion, Gilles Legrand, Mr. Jeunet and Suzanne Girard, Épithète Films, Tapioca Films and Filmarto in co-production with Gaumont and France 2 Cinéma, in association with OCS, France Télévisions, Téléfilm Canada, CBC, Movie Central and The Movie Network
Screened August 24th 2015, Lisbon, DVD

Friday, August 28, 2015

BANDE DE FILLES
Girlhood

Cheap, I know. But I can't help go back to the Spice Girls' "girl power" motto-mantra, and that initial rush of "tell me what you want what you really really want" the-world-is-yours-teenage-empowerment, as a starting point to talk of French director Céline Sciamma's wonderful third feature. Girlhood is all about "girl power", whether absent, latent or present, refusing to perpetuate the idea of what a film about the "disaffected project youths" should be, giving it the finger at every possible occasion. (Or almost.)

     Girlhood undercuts viewer expectations from the start - with an American football game that turns out to be played by an all-female team from a Paris suburb - and its centre piece scene features four black girls, dressed up to the nines, letting their flags fly to the sound of Rihanna's "Diamonds". In between, our heroine Marieme (the great Karidja Touré) must run the gauntlet of what it means to be a black girl living in the Parisian suburbs that turn out to be ghettos in all but name. She is condemned by the world around her to a pre-ordained social position, destined to be a second-class citizen with little to no say on her fate - not only by the strictures of a society that would box her in with little regard to her actual desires, talents and ambitions, but even by her own blood kin, duplicating those same strictures within their own sub-culture.

     Even the haven Marieme finds with the sassy schoolyard rebels she begins to hang out with - Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré), who talk back and take charge in what end up being equally masculine kick-ass stuff - turns out to be temporary. It's just another set of obstacles to overcome as each new experience propels this inquisitive, restless girl, yearning for a "normality" that the world seems to refuse her, towards adulthood. In the superb "Diamonds" sequence, Girlhood captures perfectly the defiance and the desires of a generation left to fend for itself, growing up without a light at the end of the tunnel, and yet still dancing on the edge of an abyss.

     Ms. Sciamma does so by refusing to victimize the girls, over-play the "problem picture" card or pretend there can be a magic exit for all this. Instead, she prefers to treat Marieme and the others as complex, full-bodied young women stuck in complex circumstances, learning about themselves and how to navigate their surroundings as best they can. Even if the narrative progression is occasionally hackneyed due to its obligatory passages (almost like rituals for this sort of film), the way Ms. Sciamma articulates it is extremely alluring - in "blocks" centred on the girls' experiences, interspersed with fades to black that leave out what is unnecessary, focussing on what really matters with an intensity, a clear-eyed look and a generosity that avoid boxing them in and reducing them to mere archetypes. It's always shot with a cool, intelligent eye, taking into account that this is an empowering film about standing up to the world around you and owning up to your decisions.

     It's what's inside that counts, not the colour of your skin, what gender you are, who do you hang out with, where do you come from. What Marieme really, really wants is to be herself - and this wonderfully generous film about her, and her friends, lets her be herself.

BANDE DE FILLES
France, 2014
113 minutes
Cast Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré
Director, screenwriter and costume designer Céline Sciamma; cinematographer Crystel Fournier; composer Jean-Baptiste de Laubier; designer Thomas Grézaud; editor Julien Lacheray; producer Bénédicte Couvreur, Hold-Up Films & Productions and Lilies Films in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma
Screened August 22, 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener


Thursday, August 27, 2015

AS MIL E UMA NOITES
Arabian Nights

Less than six months after its unveiling at Cannes' Director's Fortnight, it's clear that Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights has become one of the - if not the - major cinephile events of 2015. A madly ambitious, endlessly playful object that deliberately blurs reality and fiction with little regard for narrative conventions, Arabian Nights is an attempt at a mosaic portrait of a specific time and place: Portugal in the 2010s, a country in the throes of a brutal economic recession and damaging austerity policies that shake social foundations to its core. It becomes, thus, simultaneously a political and artistic statement, a film pressed to be "of its time" while also meant to remain valid for "the time to come". The artistic statement is propelled by the urgency of capturing the social mood of the country in a specific period before it dissipates, through an attempt at finding a way to frame and represent it beyond basic agit-prop terms. (Not that Mr. Gomes would ever stoop to those.)

     The artistic choices made by the filmmakers also influence the way the politics are discussed and represented, however, to the point Arabian Nights itself becomes a protean shape-shifter that never stops long enough to get a fix on any one form: from laughter to tears, from reportage to fantasy, all organised under the aegis of storytelling as a way to record and make sense of time and history. It's storytelling as a (pre-)requisite for survival, as was the case with Scheherazade in the original collection of Persian tales. Hence, Arabian Nights as seen as Mr. Gomes and his team of regular collaborators is a way to make sense of and appropriate that which cannot be appropriated in any other way, but without betraying either those whose stories are being told, or the filmmaker's own identity.

     This is crucial to the success of the project, because Arabian Nights' origin lies in a series of true stories representative of the effects of austerity in Portugal, researched by a small team of journalists hired by the production. These reports were then cherry-picked and reworked by Mr. Gomes and his screenwriters, long-standing collaborators Mariana Ricardo and co-editor Telmo Churro, eventually reaching the screen as neither straight documentary nor pure fiction, but instead as individual elements of a greater mosaic that blends both modes. What's "true" and what's not takes a back seat to capturing truthfully the mood and thoughts of "the people". (It's all true. And yet...)

     The film's gargantuan structure, hit upon during the editing phase, derives from this urgency to bear witness: what started out as a single feature contractually bound to two and a half hours morphed into a six-hour statement divided in three two-hour films. Mr. Gomes is a music fan and the first thing that came to my mind after a full viewing of the triptych was the Clash's sprawling 1980 triple album Sandinista!. Like that record, Arabian Nights gains full relevance and significance as a whole greater than the sum of its parts and seen in the intended sequence of its three "volumes", regardless of the quality of its stand-alone elements.

     That each of the three episodes is very different in tone, and that even within each of them there are ups and downs, is par for the course. And it's also part of the challenge that Arabian Nights poses to the modern-day viewer. Even if the whole is presented as easily digestible two-hour morsels, these work simultaneously with and against the current ADHD mode of viewing a film - on a tablet, on a computer, on the home television, as a DVD, as a streaming file, in small mouthfuls. While each of the three episodes is itself sub-divided into further instalments (in the manner of a continuing feuilleton or serial), it's extremely important to follow the series in its proper order to get the full effect. Not for nothing are the most alluring and "accessible" episodes of the lot front-loaded in Volume 1, The Restless One, a film that also conceptualizes the project as a wide-eyed adventure in reality, full of possibilities and opportunities, shifting more openly between "documentary" and "fiction", "us" and "them".

     It starts out almost autobiographically (or as much as it can be in the work of a director that has made a point of always saying nothing is ever, only, what it seems): by setting Mr. Gomes himself as a clueless, ambitious filmmaker who may have bitten off more than he could chew in pursuing this project, and is entirely unsure as to how to make a movie out of the materials reality has handed to him. Behind this, in fact, lies a filmmaker laying his cards out in the open and seducing his audience with a disarming combination of braggadocio and virtuosity, before beginning to juggle his pins with outrageous ease and a very real sense of responsibility.

     The Arabian Nights concept turns out to be Mr. Gomes' way of adjusting to the tonal and modal shifts inherent to the project, by presenting each tale as self-contained in tone and narrative yet part of an over-arching, fluid structure. The Scheherazade so enchantingly portrayed throughout the three Volumes by Crista Alfaiate is, both in her confidence and her doubts, an alter-ego of Mr. Gomes: a master storyteller dealing with the repercussions and the consequences of her storytelling choices, and her own learning process of what it means to be a storyteller. That is, to let the story take over and lead you wherever it may, relinquishing control of it in the very same process of harnessing it.

     Moving from satirical burlesque to poignant melodrama while deftly balancing reality and invention, Arabian Nights might give you whiplash in the constant shifting of style and genre, none more so than in the first of the three films, where the rules of the game are laid out and beautifully explained. As a viewer, it's important to note how the cumulative effect works: the dazzling Volume 1, with its effortless segue from off-colour humour to popular fable coloured by the urgency of desperation, leaves you hungry for more as you admire both the conceptual daring of the project and the apparent ease with which it's all so expertly laid out. This first episode is also the one where the lines are more blurred - from an openly fictional, outlandish narrative performed by professional actors to a fictional drama that integrates real life elements into its narrative thread, having non-professionals play themselves alongside actors playing invented roles.

     Like in all of Mr. Gomes' previous features, this only confirms Mr. Gomes' realization that the classic forms of storytelling have become quaint throwbacks that fail to take into account how life and the narrative conventions we use to make sense of it have changed. The main difference is that, where A Cara que Mereces, Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu worked roughly in two-part structures, Arabian Nights blossoms into a sort of polyphonic chorale, each tale a "voice" that changes and colours its surroundings.

     The slighly desperate, progressively darker tone of Volume 2, The Desolate One, with the roundelays of a surreal trial that seems to indict all of society and a suburban apartment block where everybody struggles, suggests a fiendish carousel that digs deeper into the mud with each new turn. But that sense of getting stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea would make little sense without the quirky defiance of Volume 1, and only after the apparent fork in the road of Volume 3, The Charmed One, does everything reveal itself a whole.

     Mostly given out to what seems at first a bewilderingly overlong tale about amateur songbird trainers, Volume 3's detour into a more straight-forward documentary record of a blue-collar, underground reality also highlights the resilience and escape valves that the less fortunate Portuguese seem to cling to in the worst of times - the hope of beauty and possibility found in even the smallest, darkest of places. That this is also the bittersweet final tale of the film, juxtaposed to Scheherazade's own acceptance of the destiny she has been dealt and her full awareness of her role, is extremely significant.

     To make sure his Arabian Nights reflect accurately the experience of living in a crisis-ridden country, Mr. Gomes could not make his film other than in the process of making it, of telling his story/stories - just as the viewer does not truly understand it other than during the process of seeing it and letting it sink in. In fact, it's one of those cases where the work seems to open endless possibilities and readings as the three Volumes become a single film in the viewer's memory, sinking in slowly as a sprawling yet intimate epic transmogrification of "modern life as rubbish". Even this piece, intended initially as a capsule review of Volume 1, changed and evolved into what it is now - and I'm pretty sure I might just come back to it later and add as Arabian Nights continues weaving invisible webs of connections inside my mind.

AS MIL E UMA NOITES
Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland, 2015
VOLUME 1, O INQUIETO: 125 minutes
VOLUME 2, O DESOLADO: 132 minutes
VOLUME 3, O ENCANTADO: 125 minutes
Cast Crista Alfaiate, Rogério Samora, Maria Rueff, Adriano Luz, Dinarte Branco, Américo Silva, Diogo Dória, Bruno Bravo, Carloto Cotta, Basirou Diallo, Fernanda Loureiro, Aníbal Fabrica, Paulo Carvalho, Francisco Gaspar, Luísa Cruz, Margarida Carpinteiro, Gonçalo Waddington, Teresa Madruga, João Pedro Bénard, Joana de Verona, Bernardo Alves, Jing Jing Guo
Director Miguel Gomes; screenwriters Mr. Gomes, Mariana Ricardo and Telmo Churro; cinematographers Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Mário Castanheira and Lisa Persson (widescreen); designers Bruno Duarte and Artur Pinheiro; costumes Sílvia Grabowski and Lucha d'Orey; editors Mr. Churro, Pedro Filipe Marques and Mr. Gomes; producers Luís Urbano and Sandro Aguilar, O Som e a Fúria in co-production with Shellac Sud, Komplizen Film, Box Productions, ARTE, ZDF, RTP, RTS SSG SSR, Agat Films and Michel Merkt
Screened July 3rd 2015, Teatro Municipal de Vila do Conde, Curtas Vila do Conde 2015 opening screening



As Mil e Uma Noites, Volume 1, O Inquieto - TRAILER from O SOM E A FÚRIA on Vimeo.




Monday, August 24, 2015

MÉTAMORPHOSES
Metamorphoses

This isn't the first time that French novelist and filmmaker Christophe Honoré attempts to update a classic piece of writing for modern days. But his take on Ovid's epic of mythology and love Metamorphoses is nowhere near as successful as his 2008 version of Madame de Lafayette's epistolary novel La Princesse de Clèves - for my money, that film, La Belle personne, remains Mr. Honoré's best work so far by a mile, whereas Metamorphoses is a wasteful misfire.

     It's nice to see the flop of his 2011 Demy homage Beloved hasn't curtailed his artistic ambitions, but neither does it seem to have taught him any lessons; if anything, the new film is as sprawling and episodic as its predecessor, and its tone as sharply misjudged. In effect another tale of the causes, effects and consequences of love, Metamorphoses never truly holds together as a film, with Mr. Honoré unable to give Ovid's tales the light, ethereal touch they need to make sense transposed to modern days.

     In this version, the 15 books of mythical stories are reduced to a handful of tales as witnessed by or told by others to Europa (Amira Akili), a sulky, unhappy teenage taken away by the dashing Jupiter (Sébastien Harel). Jupiter first appears as a truck driver to take her with him to a magical reality just underlying our own, and he's the first of three storytellers she follows (the remainder are Damien Chapelle's passive-agressive Bacchus and George Babluani's possessed Orpheus).

     Thus the film becomes a "greatest hits" album of the book's tales set in and around contemporary French locations, given the occasionally witty, spot-on twist (Narcissus as a self-possessed skater), aiming at a sort of hipster pastoral midway between the 1970s' "free love" psychedelia and contemporary post-modernism. Reminding immensely of Pasolini, it's a work too poseur and superficial to reach the Italian filmmaker's pagan energy. Mr. Honoré's film comes off more as a sort of half-baked idea that seems to have never been properly thought out, which is pretty surprising for a director who began his career as a novelist.

     André Chemetoff's lovely widescreen lensing and the spot-on modern Romantic quotes on the soundtrack (Debussy, Ravel, Webern and so on) aren't nearly enough to make up for Metamorphoses' gauche, naïf attempts at magical realism and the director's tendency to over-signify everything. It's a film in need of a lightness of touch that Mr. Honoré has proved to own in the past but that seems to have been misplaced somewhere he can't find.

MÉTAMORPHOSES
France, 2014
102 minutes
Cast: Amira Akili, Sébastien Hirel, Mélodie Richard, Damien Chapelle, George Babluani
Director/writer: Christophe Honoré; based on the poem Metamorphoses by Ovid; cinematographer André Chemetoff (widescreen); designer Samuel Deshors; costumes Pascaline Chavanne; editor Chantal Hymans; producer Philippe Martin, Films Pelléas in co-production with France 3 Cinéma and Le Pacte
Screened: August 21st 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener


Friday, August 21, 2015

IT FOLLOWS

The title of American director David Robert Mitchell's film is a literal summary of its simple premise: "it" is an invisible supernatural force of unexplained origin and motive, and "it" "follows", ie, "it" doesn't let go of those "it" touches until they either pass "it" on or "it" kills them. But "it follows" can also be seen as a literal description of the film's own inscription in, and reflection of, the canon of modern American horror cinema.

     Mr. Mitchell's sophomore feature works both as a piece of no-nonsense, "lowbrow" genre entertainment within a classic framework, à la John Carpenter, and as a meticulously thought-out, stylishly shot exercise in mise en scène, à la Stanley Kubrick - Halloween meets The Shining, if you'd like. And both influences are visible all over the film: Mr. Carpenter's use of fluid camera movements and pulsing, minimalist electronic soundtracks, Mr. Kubrick's perfectly geometric camera setups and implacable sense of a vise tightening around the characters, married to Mr. Mitchell's determination to leave entirely unexplained where and how this indefatigable, supernatural force comes from.

     It Follows thus become a sleek, streamlined missile of a film that, in a third possible meaning of its title, emulates its own villain by dispassionately "following" its characters - suburban Detroit high-schooler Jay (Maika Monroe), who "catches" "it" through sex with a casual acquaintance, along with her sister and their best friend neighbours - through a purposely opaque thrill ride entirely composed of impeccably staged set pieces. Behind all of that, the film also works as a meta-commentary of horror movies themselves, by using all the standard elements of a modern-day teen-oriented genre entry and stripping them down to the essence of tension and atmosphere, in a continuous, ominous loop of tension and release.

     The sexually transmitted curse of "it" is no surrogate for any sort of disease or contamination, but instead a metaphor for coming of age, for growing up, losing your innocence and freedom once the threshold of adulthood is crossed and responsibility rears its ugly head. Not for nothing is the film's suburban setting straight out of classic mid-eighties Spielberg (and shot with the same combination of dread and possibility).

     But, in fact, It Follows opens as many interpretations as you want to read, without ever losing touch of what makes a horror film truly scary: the sense that you can relate to the characters, that it could be you dealing with all this (and, in some way, it is you). Add the fact that Mr. Mitchell refuses to have his teenagers behave stupidly just for the sake of plot development - quite the contrary, in fact - and shoots everything with an overarching, if occasionally glib and clinical, sense of style. It's a breathtakingly packaged exercise in horror style that may be a bit too abstract to please everyone but that shows real talent and real intelligence.

IT FOLLOWS
US, 2014
100 minutes
Cast Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
Director and screenwriter David Robert Mitchell; cinematographer Michael Gioulakis (widescreen); composer Disasterpeace (aka Richard Vreeland); designer Michael T. Perry; costumes Kimberly Leitz-McCauley; make-up effects Robert Kurtzman; editor Julio C. Perez IV; producers Rebecca Green, Laura D. Smith, Mr. Mitchell, David Kaplan and Erik Rommesmo; production companies Northern Lights Films and Animal Kingdom Films in association with Two Flints
Screened August 20th 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener


Thursday, August 20, 2015

SONGS FROM THE NORTH

You should be forewarned: South Korean-born, US-based self-defined "film essayist" Soon-mi Yoo is not trying to cash in on the ever-present fascination with the secretive, isolated pariah state of North Korea. Songs from the North is no hard-hitting exposé, nor does it seek any sort of definitive truth on the subject. She is much more interested, and genuinely so, in the country itself and in the people who live there, and in the chasm that self-evidently lies between personal reality and collective rhetoric in a place where individualism is permanently subsumed into groupthink and devotion to the Kim dynasty.

     Over the course of her brief, slight "poetic essay", Ms. Yoo strives to capture unguarded moments of North Koreans in the carefully managed group tours and arranged photo opportunities she ran into during three separate visits, as if she's trying to understand how much of "us" we can see in "them". Songs from the North asks more questions that it really wants to answer, preferring to let them hang there, unanswered, over the footage the director has tantalizingly assembled. Part of it is material shot during her trips, and there are Aldo excerpts of an interview with her own father talking about the heady days of the Korean War and the country's carving, but most of the short running time is taken with a deftly researched wealth of archival material. Much of that comes from North Korean film, ceremonies and stage spectaculars, staggering in their openly propagandistic tone and heavily old-fashioned melodrama.

     By shifting between the three modes of footage, Ms. Yoo creates a kaleidoscope whose connecting thread is a strange nostalgia of an idealized, pre-separation past, as manifested in the sweepingly romantic popular songs (many of which composed by the country's founder Kim Il Sung) that serve as the film's motif and title. If the director didn't necessarily mean for her gently kaleidoscopic assemblage to offer any sort of answer or explanation, neither does it really shed light on that "other" she wants to find "us" in. Her decision to avoid any sort of voiceover, replacing it with discrete title cards, seems to be entirely in tune with the film's realization that there's enough going on in the footage that nothing more is necessary, but at the same time it creates a rational, analytical distance from it that keeps the viewer at a remove, unable to truly connect with what is being shown.

     Wafting with the breeze or the tide without truly aiming for a specific arrival point, letting the wind carry it so to speak, Songs from the North becomes a sort of unfinished quilt where you can notice traces of the underlying design before wondering what led its artisan to change direction. A cabinet of curiosities, if you will, that unveils some of what is going on in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea but makes you none the wiser as to what it all means. Not that you could, of course.

SONGS FROM THE NORTH
US, Portugal, 2014
73 minutes
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor Soon-mi Yoo; producers Ms. Yoo and Haden Guest; production company Rosa Filmes
Screened August 8th, 2014, La Sala, Locarno (Locarno Film Festival Cineasti del Presente official screening) and August 20th, 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener)



Songs From the North, a film by Soon-Mi Yoo - Trailer from Rosa Filmes on Vimeo.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3

There's a case to be made for the B-movie smarts of James Wan and Leigh Whannell as one of the most consistent success stories of recent years in the often undervalued horror genre. But it all comes crashing down with the third instalment in the haunted-house franchise the duo started five years ago. Mr. Wan having left for the big leagues to anonymously steer the Fast and Furious franchise to its hyper-kinetic jump-the-shark point (though retaining here a producer's credit), Mr. Whannell, making his first film as a director with this Chapter 3, makes a mess of this half-hearted "prequel" that gives a sort of "origin story" to the involvement of psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) in episodes 1 and 2.

     Following what happens when Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), a distraught, moody high-schooler, attempts to contact her deceased mother and summons instead a whole other breed of ghosts, Chapter 3 is set before the events of the previous films and focuses as well on Elise's rationale for using once more the paranormal powers she had given up on using after one too many close calls with the beyond. There's an obvious earnestness to its tale of grieving people asking why their loved ones have gone, but it's the sort of earnestness that needs to be held in check to refrain from mawkishness, and the debuting director fails that particular test.

     At its heart, the series has always been an uncomplicated, derivative take on the demonic-possession and haunted-house movies, with a strong Poltergeist influence, but it's clear that, here, Mr. Whannell is unable to balance his script's disparate layers into a cohesive whole. Chapter 3 veers in tone from the overly saccharine to the knowingly sarcastic (the introduction late in the game of the "ghost hunters" played by Angus Sampson and Mr. Whannell is played for far more laughs than it should). It brings nothing new to the series' intriguing premise of a netherworld of tormented souls reaching for a connection to reality, and often looks like a succession of predictable fairground dark-ride scares you can see coming from a mile off. It turns out to be a predictable, disposable would-be thrill ride that has none of the no-nonsense efficiency of the original.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3
USA, 2015
97 minutes
Cast Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Lin Shaye
Director and screenwriter Mr. Whannell; cinematographer Brian Pearson (widescreen); composer Joseph Bishara; designer Jennifer Spence; costumes Ariyela Wald-Cohain; editor Tim Alverson; producers Jason Blum, Oren Peli and James Wan; production companies Entertainment One Films, Blumhouse Productions and Oren Peli Productions
Screened August 2nd 2015, Lisbon

Saturday, August 08, 2015

TRAINWRECK

"Monogamy isn't realistic!" That's the motto Gordon Townsend taught to his two tween daughters when he separated from their mother. Older daughter Amy certainly took that to heart to the point that now, 25 years later, she will not commit to any sort of romantic or emotional relationship with a man - boyfriend or even casual sex date.

     She is the female equivalent of the "players" who bed every girl in sight but never commit to any and that have been grist for the Hollywood romantic comedy mill for years now - and that's the first good thing about Judd Apatow's newest comedy. Trainwreck "breaks down" the "glass ceiling" of mainstream American comedy by turning the tables and giving a female character centre stage in what otherwise be a male-centred film.

     The second good thing - and that is, in fact, the key to Trainwreck - is that Mr. Apatow does it by empowering an actress that isn't a made star to take the lead role and write the script as a vehicle custom-tailored to her personal sensibility instead of fitting her around a cookie-cutter formula. This is the current American "it" comedian Amy Schumer, who proves you don't need to be a runway model to be sexy and you don't need to be a freak to be funny. She is an average girl living an average life in modern-day New York - a "working girl" to quote from Mike Nichols' late eighties comedy, to whom Mr. Apatow pays tribute early on in a smart sight gag.

     And Ms. Schumer also knows how to smartly keep within romantic comedy traditions while demolishing them inexorably, as she provides the "sex change" twists that make Trainwreck such a satisfying film: as a writer for a rowdy "lad magazine" assigned an interview with milquetoast sports physician Aaron Conners (Bill Hader) who has become the toast of the sports world, Amy (Ms. Schumer) finds herself falling for this man, so different from the airheaded loverboys and wannabes she beds on a regular basis. But does she really want to embrace that change?

     Therein lies the trick: Ms. Schumer is twisting the rules in such a way that there can no longer be any sort of excuse to play them in the same old same old way, no need to stick to the tried and true (and tired). The greatest thing about Trainwreck, though, is that it's not just funny for funny's sake; this is a fully character-driven piece where you're not having fun at the expense of anyone but laughing along with everyone's foibles. These, from Amy to her more grounded sister Annie (Brie Larson) through Aaron's star patient Lebron James (yes, that Lebron James, a natural-born comedian) and the sarcastic homeless guy outside Amy's flat (Dave Attell), are people like you and me, who deal with the same problems we do. Yes, Amy is a bit of a trainwreck as the title puts it, but she is also running away from herself and trying to avoid confronting her issues, and that only makes her more endearing and more vulnerable.

     It's also a better film than previous female-centred Apatow productions such as Bridesmaids, probably because it's directed by the man himself with his usual attention to detail and character and refusal to just pull off a laughter machine (but also his clumsy, all-over-the-place sense of rhythm). It' marks Mr. Apatow's proper return to form as well after a couple of underachieving films, even if still somewhat over-long at two hours - that's also part of what makes it so good: the sense that this a straight-forward character comedy that knows when to be serious and when to crack a joke. And yes, Ms. Schumer should by rights become a star. More to the point, this is the best comedy Hollywood has made in a long while, and there's still hope for the genre.

TRAINWRECK
USA, Japan, 2015
124 minutes
Cast Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, Ezra Miller, Dave Attell, Tilda Swinton, Lebron James
Director Judd Apatow; screenwriter Ms. Schumer; cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (widescreen); composer Jon Brion; designer Kevin Thompson; costumes Leesa Evans; editors William Kerr and Paul Zucker; producers Mr. Apatow and Barry Mendel; production companies Universal Pictures and Apatow Production in association with Dentsu and Fuji Television Network
screened July 29th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Friday, August 07, 2015

THE FACE OF LOVE

How does Annette Bening do it? Because, boy, does she do it - without even attempting to hide the wrinkles in her face and, more generally, her age (and women in Hollywood, once they age, are not seen the same way men are), Ms. Bening remains a beautiful woman who seems to radiate confidence, commitment and sincerity in every single role she takes on. She is probably one of the very few actresses who could give Meryl Streep a run for her money - if given the chance, which, unfortunately, she, and many of the others, aren't.

     But even if she does not get the big first-choice roles, Ms. Bening makes every role she gets worthy of a first choice. Case in point: this intriguing but ultimately underachieving melodrama, an old-fashioned woman's picture glossily handled by sophomore director Arie Posin, where Ms. Bening plays Nikki, a distraught widow who falls hard in love with a man who seems to be a perfect ringer for her dead architect husband. Her perfect life having collapsed from under her feet when Garrett (Ed Harris) unexpectedly dies skinny-dipping from under her feet during a vacation, Nikki fails to find something to live for until a chance encounter in a museum with a man (also played by Mr. Harris) who could have been Garrett's perfect twin.

     He's not, and Mr. Posin, also co-scripting, tantalizingly toys the viewer with any alluring possibility; since the film is mostly seen from Nikki's point of view, for a lot of its length you're unsure whether Tom is really that close physically to Garrett or if she is just projecting his own desires on the relationship she tentatively enters into with him. Ms. Bening's performance is pitch-perfect, her chemistry with Mr. Harris superb, and Mr. Posin lets both actors run away with their roles, enriching a film that is handsomely shot but ultimately keeps backing away from committing to any of the possibilities it opens.

     The actors end up committing to the film more than the director does, which is a shame for a project that starts out deliberately invoking Hitchcock's Vertigo (with a strategically placed poster for the film) only to peter out into a half-hearted melodrama threatening to fall into superior soap opera. There's Ms. Bening, though, and that pretty much is enough as proof that the right actress can do wonders for a film.

THE FACE OF LOVE
USA, 2013
88 minutes
Cast Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Jess Weixler, Amy Brenneman, Robin Williams
Director Arie Posin; screenwriters Matthew McDuffie and Mr. Posin; cinematographer Antonio Riestra (colour); composer Marcelo Zarvos; designer Jeannine Oppewall; costumes Judianna Makovsky; editors Matt Maddox and Mr. Posin; producers Bonnie Curtis and Julie Lynn; production companies Mockingbird Pictures in association with Trinity Diversified Film Fund
screened July 28th 2015, Lisbon, DVD

Thursday, August 06, 2015

LOIN DES HOMMES
Far from Men

It's hard to look at David Oelhoffen's debut feature - an ambitious adaptation of Albert Camus' 1957 short story "The Guest" - without seeing in it a quasi-western about an upstanding citizen bound by a code of honour, having to deal with the dictate of his conscience as he is tasked with taking a criminal to the authorities. Even though Loin des hommes is set in Algeria in 1954, at the very beginning of the Algerian war, and there is much more to it than meets the eye, the way Mr. Oelhoffen sets up and handles what is essentially an outdoors chamber piece is very redolent of the Wild West - such is the desolate setting it takes place in, the antique way in which it all happens even though it's set in the middle of the 20th century.

     The upstanding citizen, Daru (played by an accent-free Viggo Mortensen in French and Arabic as required by the script), is a French teacher in charge of a remote all-Algerian primary school, who does not see his pupils - or the natives for that matter - as "the other" as most other French colonists do, since he himself is of Spanish immigrant stock. The man he is charged with bringing to justice is Mohammed (Reda Kateb), a Muslim villager who killed a cousin over a land dispute.

     Two outcasts thrown together by circumstance, Daru and Mohammed are apparently the last remnants of an idea of cohabitation and neutrality in a place rapidly descending into outright tension between Algerian independence fighters and the French colonisers and their military. As Daru, ever-reluctant to take a man to his death, and Mohammed, resigned to what fate has put in store for him, the two men strike a strong bond; their journey through the Atlas is shot with stately determination in a Figures in a Landscape way by DP Guillaume Deffontaines, making the most of the stunning landscapes of the Algerian mountains.

     Mr. Oelhoffen is incredibly attuned to his outstanding casting choices; Mr. Mortensen, channeling the strong silent types from American westerns, imbues Daru with a masterfully suggested inner life, Mr. Kateb exudes passion and hopelessness in a delicate alternance. But despite the performances, an incredibly strong opening and an equally strong ending stretch, Loin des hommes' peripatetic mid-section seems to simultaneously over-embroider and over-elaborate on the film's central theme. The plotting isn't necessarily at fault, neither is the choice to let landscape and situation have as big a say in the narrative as dialogue or acting. It's just that the succession of episodes, like an odyssey where every step has a role to play and works towards a cumulative effec, lessens the general effect, gives it less of a flow and more of a series of tasks that need to be accomplished.

     It's a flaw made all the more striking in a debut feature, which, for all intents and purposes, is what Loin des hommes is. But that doesn't take away from the film's many commendable strengths and its feel as a smart, existential meditation on man's relationship with man.

LOIN DES HOMMES
France, USA, 2014
101 minutes
Cast Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb
Director David Oelhoffen; screenwriters Mr. Oelhoffen with Antoine Lecomblez, from the short story "The Guest" by Albert Camus; cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines (widescreen); composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; designer Stéphane Taillasson; costumes Khadija Zeggaï; editor Juliette Welfling; producers Marc du Pontavice and Matthew Gledhill; production companies One World Films in co-production with Pathé Production, Perceval Pictures, Kaléo Films and Jouror Développement, in association with B Media 2012 Backup Media, Indéfilms 2, SofiTVCiné and Cinémage 8
Screened July 28th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Monday, August 03, 2015

PREDESTINATION

There's a wonderful metaphor underlying Predestination, the third feature from the Australian siblings Michael and Peter Spierig: story-telling as shaping everything we do and choose, the stories we write for and tell ourselves as the key to understanding ourselves and the world around us. That's where the film twists the knife deeper in and takes the idea further, by blending that idea with that of the freak outsider seeking revenge for a slight or for a bad hand dealt him by fate - and doing so within an airtight and tightly wound sci-fi brain-teaser.

     Adapting very faithfully a classic 1958 short story by Robert A. Heinlein, Predestination is a sort of Möbius strip, a temporal loop that eats its own tail like the mythical Ouroboros snake, as it shifts back and forth in time along with one of a handful of top-secret "temporal agents" charged with smoothing over wrinkles in time. The film begins with one of those agents returning to "the future", seriously injured, and undergoing plastic surgery to become Ethan Hawke; sent back in time to 1970 to try and stop a mysterious mass bomber, he passes himself as a barman in a seedy NYC joint and gets to meet a mysterious man with a strange past, who tells him the story of a young woman raised in an orphanage (Sarah Snook) and promised things she was not given...

     From hereon, all bets are off, as the Spierigs, following pretty closely the short story's plot, painstaking set up a series of events that can only be fully understood once the third act gets underway. Exemplary in the way it maximizes its very obvious low-budget without sacrificing style or creativity in its high concept, Predestination is a magnificent riot of retro-futuristic design (the film's future, set in the 1990s, suggests an alternate, slighly askew modern world), harnessed by a complex, thought-provoking story that plays with multiple time frames and interlocked narratives to great effect.

     The key to making the film work is very simple: the original story is so good you leave it as intact as possible, and that's exactly what they do, requiring no extraordinary special effects other than a couple of good, committed actors. Sarah Snook, in a rather demanding part that asks of her to actually be more than just one character, is excellent and more than holds her own against the ever-reliable Mr. Hawke, in a return visit to the Spierigs after their first collaboration in 2008's impressively ingenious vampire-with-a-twist drama Daybreakers. Plus, it's all done with no Hollywood money whatsoever - here's hoping the brothers can continue trotting out nifty, smart little B-movies like Predestination without having to cross over to the "dark side".

PREDESTINATION
Australia, 2013
98 minutes
Cast Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor
Directors and screenwriters Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig; based on the short story "All You Zombies" by Robert A. Heinlein; cinematographer Ben Nott (widescreen); composer Peter Spierig; designer Matthew Putland; costumes Wendy Cork; editor Matt Villa; make-up designer Steve Boyle; producers Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan, Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig; production companies Screen Australia, Blacklab Entertainment and Wolfhound Pictures in association with Screen Queensland
screened July 22nd 2015, Lisbon, DVD