Thursday, October 29, 2015

MARGUERITE

If you look at the name French director Xavier Giannoli gave to the heroine of his new feature, and if you're an attentive cinephile, you may have an inkling where he's coming from. Marguerite Dumont, like the great comic actress Margaret Dumont, "the fifth Marx Brother" in the words of Groucho himself, is a more than appropriate name for Catherine Frot's character - and it's a stunning, note-perfect performance, always hovering between utter cluelessness regarding how others see her and open-hearted generosity towards those around her.

     The tale of this wealthy "lady who lunches" from 1920s Paris, an aspiring but totally talentless artiste who follows her dream of becoming an opera singer, may be inspired by the real story of Florence Foster Jenkins, but it's not played for laughs at Marguerite's expense. Instead, it's a wonderful example of how to respect your character and your story, finding the exact balance of comedy and tragedy, as Ms. Frot and Mr. Giannoli take their time in unveiling the woman behind the surface.

     Married to a building magnate (André Marcon) with little time for her or inclination for the arts, with too much time and money on her hands, Marguerite doesn't look at music as a passing fad or a plaything to be explored until she is fed up. She isn't a mere dilettante trying on things for size; she is forthright and sincere in her love for music and desire to sing, and therein lies the key to Marguerite's poignancy, well pointed out in the growing respect those around her start finding for her.

     Even if Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and Hazel (Christa Théret), the journalist and the singer who work as the viewer's way into the private benefit recitals Marguerite gives, are initially incredulous, they come around to understand the love and dedication she puts into it, the fact that her heart is in it as much as theirs is. So who's the fraud here? Marguerite for believing in a talent she does not realise she does not have, or those around her who take advantage of her for their own ends?

     Mr. Giannoli wraps that inside an intriguing romantic battle for her heart - between Georges, the inattentive husband who slowly understands the role music plays for his wife, and Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), the devoted, over-protective butler who will stop at nothing to realize her dreams. Both love Marguerite unconditionally, and show it in opposite ways, but to what end? And if she is pursuing her dream come hell or high water, how can we fault her?

     It's an expertly crafted piece, shot in a beautifully textured widescreen by DP Glynn Speeckaert like a studio melodrama of the 1940s seen through a 1970s lens, flowing from classic melodrama about a woman following her heart into an ensemble piece about those she touches and back. And none of it would make any sense without Ms. Frot's wondrously generous performance at its heart, her Marguerite both mystifying and welcoming. Marguerite does not give you an answer, but makes you understand the woman.

MARGUERITE
France, Czech Republic, Belgium, 2015, 129 minutes
Starring Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret, Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide, Aubert Fenoy, Sophia Leboutte, Théo Cholti
Directed by Xavier Giannoli; written by Mr. Giannoli with the collaboration of Marcia Romano; cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert (widescreen); music by Ronan Maillard; production designer Martin Kurel; costume designer Pierre-Jean Larroque; film editor Cyril Nakache; produced by Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonnier, for Fidélité Films in association with Memento Films Distribution and in co-production with Gabriel, Sirena Film, Scope Pictures, France 3 Cinéma, Jouror Cinéma and CN5 Productions
Screened October 16th 2015, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

LYRISCH NITRAAT
Lyrical Nitrate

THE FORBIDDEN QUEST

There's a sense in which found footage films become a sort of playgrounds for fertile imaginations, a virtuoso toy box for skewed sensibilities that seem to enjoy recycling materials to bring out the hidden possibilities in them. My experiences at DocLisboa 2015 seem to have been working from an unwritten law that every film, regardless of its style or origin, contains in itself (as David Sylvian would put it) an "index of possibilities", some of which missed or waylaid.

     There are no misses in the double feature of Dutch director Peter Delpeut's work carefully curated by programmer Augusto M. Seabra: Lyrical Nitrate, a 50-minute themed assemblage of early silent footage, and his later, tantalizingly evocative fantasy feature The Forbidden Quest. In both films, the possibilities are endless and limited only by the viewer's scope, as Mr. Delpeut and his editor Menno Boerema manipulate bits and pieces of silent-era film.

     In Lyrical Nitrate, they shape them into mini-narratives that suggest an early double or triple bill, like an old-fashioned variety show that ends in a disturbingly dazzling exploration of nitrate decay, appropriately taken from a much damaged print of an Adam and Eve pageant and reminiscent of Bill Morrison's (later) work. The title is perfectly attuned to the film's carousel of moods, recapturing (with an irresistible metafictional wink, since it knows it's doing so) some of the wide-eyed magic of the early film spectators.

     In The Forbidden Quest, footage of polar expeditions is intercut with the narrative of ship's carpenter J. C. Sullivan (Joseph O'Conor), the only survivor of a doomed South Pole exploration aboard a Dutch vessel; it's a tale inspired, per the end credits, by Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne but in truth carries more of a Lovecraftian vibe of unspeakable, indescribable horror. The most interesting thing about The Forbidden Quest, though, is how surprisingly open it remains. Mr. Delpeut's device has the found footage salvaged and brought back to civilization by Sullivan, as an alleged record of the late crew's nightmarish voyage into a netherworld of archaic, pre-religion forces; but the limitations of the found footage material, stubbornly incapable of representing the outlandish supernatural experience of the crew of the Hollandia, end up activating the viewer's imagination in a bewitchingly old-fashioned way, by suggesting rather than describing. The seemingly abrupt ending, leaving the viewer asking what on Earth did he just see, turns out to be the perfect way to keep the work reverberating beyond its screening - just as the writers that inspired it managed to create a sense of the haunting that remained outside the printed page. This particular index of possibilities has no limits.

LYRISCH NITRAAT
Netherlands, 1990, 51 minutes
Directed and written by Peter Delpeut; edited by Menno Boerema; produced by Suzanne van Voorst for Yuca Film, in association with the Dutch Film Museum and in co-production with NOS-TV

THE FORBIDDEN QUEST
Netherlands, 1993, 76 minutes
Starring Joseph O'Conor and Roy Ward
Directed and written by Mr. Delpeut; English-language script by Jim Boekbinder; cinematographer Stef Tijdink; music by Loek Dikker; art directors Herman Coenen and Vincent de Pater; costume designer José Teunissen; film editor Mr. Boerema; produced by Ms. van Voorst for Ariel Film, in co-production with KRO TV

Both films screened October 24th 2015 at Culturgest, Lisbon, DocLisboa 2015 Riscos/New Visions sidebar screening

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

BELLA E PERDUTA
Lost and Beautiful

I hadn't exactly fallen in love with Pietro Marcello's previous essay, La Bocca del Lupo. That didn't stop me from being so haunted by his follow-up feature, Bella e Perduta, that I simply had to see it again and try to understand better why this elegiac, lyrical pastoral fable - an exquisite assemblage of documentary footage and make-it-up-as-you-go-along fiction co-written with Abel Ferrara collaborator Maurizio Braucci - moved me so.

     It's a moot point that it's not a film to everyone's taste. But in its earthen, resolutely local approach to story-telling and its digressive nature between record and myth, there is such a sincerity, such an ardent urgency to be part of the tradition and history of a country and a culture that you can't help be swayed by the almost effortless way in which Mr. Marcello syncs up its disparate elements. Beginning as a post-modern Pirandellian take on commedia dell'arte before moving into slow-cinema observation and abstraction à la Michelangelo Frammartino, the film evokes both Pier Paolo Pasolini's dionysian abandon and Robert Bresson's rigorous asceticism.

     It's also a masterful feat of sleight of hand, since the end result has little to do with the original intention of the project, which fell by the wayside as Mr. Marcello's initial subject, Campanian farmer Tommaso Cestrone, died unexpectedly in December 2013. Mr. Cestrone had devoted the last three years of his life to prop up, against all odds and out of his own pocket, the palace of Carditello, just because he believed such a place and such a reminder of history should not fall into disrepair. In many ways, Mr. Marcello's film does the same towards a much less clear but certainly vivid pan of Italian rural culture and history.

     The death of Mr. Cestrone swerved the project into a more fictional, improvised concept, as a figure of Italian lore, a "messenger between the living and the dead" in the shape of a Pulcinella (played by non-pro Sergio Vitolo), comes down to Earth from the bureaucracy of heaven to guide to safety Sarchiapone, a buffalo calf the farmer had taken under his wing. Pulcinella's route through Campania on the way to hand the calf to shepherd Gesuino (Gesuino Pittalis, effectively playing himself) is a small-scale version of Mr. Marcello's original project of travelling through Italy, but it performs the same function: allowing a glimpse into the passing of a rural world governed by seasons, where nature and man coexisted peacefully.

     Nothing if not ambitious in its big-hearted, forceful desire to make people aware of the beauty passing them by, Bella e Perduta becomes an intertwining of improvised fiction and documentary realism as the characters, whether real or invented, fulfill a sort of pre-ordained fatalism, become links in a never-ending story that, like all dreams and fables, speak the truth in tongues (or in this case, Italian dialect). That dream-like, almost storybook aspect of the initial shock becomes, in a second viewing, more of a requiem for a past being slowly drowned under the flood of civilization, a lament for something that was and no longer can be. But, in showing how Carditello thrived again after Mr. Cestrone's death drew the attention it had never had before, it's also a film suffused with hope for the future, an affirmation of the cyclical nature of life and of the endless possibilites for renewal it brings - its open spirituality, less overly religious than powerfully animist, is also part and parcel of the film's strengths and flaws.

     Flaws which, admittedly, do come through on the second viewing as well, especially as Bella e Perduta's central sections suddenly become stronger and more evocative and its ending more cloying than I'd remembered. Even while becoming aware of its shortcomings, though, the film never lost its grip on me, nor did it fail to move me with its exquisitely tuned sense of loss and hope. It's a remarkably delicate piece of filmmaking that has been minutely pored over and one of the most outstanding achievements I've seen in the area of cinéma du réel.

BELLA E PERDUTA
Italy, 2015, 87 minutes
With Tommaso Cestrone, Sergio Vitolo, Gesuino Pittalis, Claudio Casadio, Anna Redi, and the voice of Elio Germano
Directed by Pietro Marcello; written by Maurizio Braucci and Mr. Marcello; cinematography by Mr. Marcello and Salvatore Landi; music by Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci; production designer Antonella di Martino; film editor Sara Fgaier; produced by Ms. Fgaier and Mr. Marcello, for Avventurosa and Rai Cinema in association with Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, Istituto Luce Cinecitta and Mario Gallotti
Screened August 9th 2015, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno, Locarno Film Festival press screening, and October 22nd 2015, Culturgest, Lisbon, DocLisboa opening screening

Monday, October 26, 2015

CRIMSON PEAK

(updated October 30)

I find myself thinking of a little-remembered Kate Bush song called "Hammer Horror" - part love letter, part fond goodbye to the world of the rapturously seedy melodramas that once made the reputation of the British horror specialist studio. But those immune to its charms, those that don't really "get" why Hammer were Hammer, would look at Ms. Bush’s song bewilderingly.

     Well, the exact same thing is at the heart of Guillermo del Toro’s new film, Crimson Peak. It’s an exquisitely realized love letter to the long-gone halcyon days of gothic horror, of scare subordinated to story or mood, of lavish visuals as signifiers of their own, as important as plot or performance. But it’s one that those not already in on the joke, so to speak, won’t “get”.

     Before we move any further: Crimson Peak is also a somewhat annoyingly derivative addendum to the Mexican director’s work. Its plucky heroine, played pitch-perfect by Mia Wasikowska, is as much a prisoner of a labyrinth as Ivana Baquero’s Ofelia was in the director’s auteur breakthrough, Pan’s Labyrinth. And no matter how much you look at Crimson Peak as a bravura take on the stylized likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava’s giallos and Terence Fisher’s hyper-romantic horrors, it’s also a clear descendent of Mr. Del Toro’s award-winning dark fantasy.

     Ms. Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing is a preternaturally modern woman of early 20th century America, attracted to the glamorous if faded old-world stateliness of English aristocracy. Her whirlwind courtship and fall head over heels for the ruined but dashing baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston in full matinee idol mode) could be seen as a confession of the devotion and debt that genre literature owes to the British founding fathers, with Mary Shelley and Jane Austen being directly quoted in Mr. del Toro and Matthew Robbins’ sly script, one where even the most apparently throwaway piece plays a specific part.

     (Yes, yes, Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, I know, with the sinister governess being replaced by Jessica Chastain’s haughty, one-step-ahead-of-the-action sister Lucille.)

     For all its lush visuals and romantic accoutrements, though, Crimson Peak seems content with being an exquisite throwback to the golden age of gothic horror, an overwrought yet perfectly controlled melodrama presented with all the luxury Hollywood money can buy — and ironically money is also the hinge on which the plot turns. What Edith reads as love from Thomas is purely an utilitarian need for money to keep the dilapidated family manse going; the heart of the story lies in the opposition between an atavistic attachment to keep a dead past alive and going (Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe’s ancestral home, and its red clay pits) and a clear-eyed desire to move forward into the future. An added irony is that what Mr. del Toro is doing here moves nothing forward. Its bloody ending, as future and past fight in the shape of Edith and Lucille, merely underlines that.

     You can’t just dismiss Crimson Peak as a mere formal exercise, though. There’s too much heartfelt sincerity, too much commitment to make it “the best gothic ghost story ever”, too much lavish knowledge poured on every nook and cranny of Tom Sanders’ meticulous production design and DP Dan Laustsen’s sumptuous, velvety cinematography.

     This is clearly a passion project for the director, one to which everyone involved clearly responded with equal care and attention, and it’s one that (thankfully) flies in the face of studio focus groups and test screenings — it’s a film out of time and out of place, something that only someone with clout can pull off in these days of marketing-driven projects. Mr. del Toro clearly can (even though Crimson Peak is his second box-office under-achiever in a row, after the deliriously gonzo Godzilla-vs-Transformers Pacific Rim), and that alone is enough to pay attention to it. But it’s not clear this is a film that will get under the skin of anyone not previously into gothic romances. Pan’s Labyrinth (like his earlier Spanish Civil War ghost story The Devil’s Backbone) had a stronger connection to reality that the new film replaces with a stylized take on highly codified genre tropes.

     Like Kate Bush’s song, Crimson Peak is not for everyone. But if you “get it”, you’ll be happy you visited.

CRIMSON PEAK
US, 2015, 119 minutes
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by Mr. del Toro and Matthew Robbins; cinematographer Dan Laustsen; music by Fernando Velázquez; production designer Tom Sanders; costume designer Kate Hawley; film editor Bernat Vilaplana; visual effects supervised by Dennis Berardi; produced by Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mr. del Toro and Callum Greene, for Legendary Pictures and DDY Productions
Screened October 19th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Friday, October 23, 2015

PAWN SACRIFICE

It's absolutely fascinating to see how the American film industry approaches films that fall outside their current area of know-how. Pawn Sacrifice is not short of a proper Hollywood pedigree: starring Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire, and helmed by Edward Zwick, who directed Leonardo di Caprio in Blood Diamond and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, this independently-financed production premiered a year ago at Toronto to lukewarm reviews and basically has been bouncing around ever since, forlorn and underappreciated.

     Up to a point, it might be understandable - it's the kind of middlebrow adult drama that studios really don't know how to sell these days outside awards season, especially if it's a middling film with no show-off performances. But, while no masterpiece, Pawn Sacrifice is hardly middling, and though there are no "look-at-me!" performances here (the assembled cast is much too smart for that), Mr. Maguire is pitch-perfect as American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, whose obsession with the game leads him down a rabbit hole with a strong chance of no return.

     As scripted by British dramatist du jour Steven Knight, Fischer's story is one of a brilliant mind gone into overdrive; having channeled all his energy, willpower and worldview into the chessboard from a young age, everything else around him becomes secondary or even non-existant. His self-aggrandising statements, infuriating spoilt whims, outlandish paranoia and disregard for those around him arise from a stunted upbringing into a kind of idiot savant who only really truly comes to life, and becomes himself, in front of the board.

     Unfortunately, Fischer's rise to the fame coincides with the hottest moments of the Cold War, and Messrs. Zwick and Knight make sure we understand how he becomes unwittingly involved in the political gamesmanship, through the sponsoring of Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg). A lawyer with shady government connections, Marshall maneuvers backstage to make Fischer's wish to became world champion a proxy Cold War with the Russian masters, and especially the young player's stated nemesis Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Pawn Sacrifice asks whether Bobby Fischer's moment of triumph sent him over the edge, or whether he would get there on his own regardless; and Mr. Maguire makes sure we understand that he's not entirely aware of the ramifications of his actions outside his closed universe.

     Mr. Zwick is no Martin Scorsese; though the film is elegantly, attentively shot by DP Bradford Young, who conjures effortlessly the correct period feel for the various time frames, he can't make the chessboard sing like Mr. Scorsese did with the pool tables in The Color of Money. What he can do is let his actors ride a well-constructed script, and his smart cast bites into it with relish - besides Mr. Maguire and Mr. Stuhlbarg, full honors to Peter Sarsgaard, one of the most generally undervalued contemporary American actors, in yet another fully present supporting performance as Fischer's chess coach. It's a comforting film - proof that American film can still turn out decent, intelligent dramas like they knew how to in the sixties and seventies, outranking most of the Oscar bait dramas that glut theaters in the run-up to Christmas. Doesn't look like Pawn Sacrifice will be in that particular race, but there's more, and better, quality cinema here than in most of the usual suspects.

PAWN SACRIFICE
US, 2014, 114 minutes
Starring Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert
Directed by Edward Zwick; screenplay by Steven Knight, based on a story by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson and Mr. Knight; cinematographer Bradford Young (widescreen); composer James Newton Howard; production designer Isabelle Guay; costume designer Renée April; editor Steven Rosenblum; produced by Gail Katz, Mr. Maguire and Mr. Zwick, for MICA Entertainment, Material Pictures and Gail Katz Productions in association with Palmstar
Screened October 17th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Thursday, October 22, 2015

LE DERNIER LOUP
Wolf Totem

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! ...and now, wolves. It's true that French director Jean-Jacques Annaud seems to have a "gift" for directing animals, as proven by The Bear (bears) and Two Brothers (tigers), and apparently it was his ease at handling beasts rather than humans that ended up getting him the job to direct Wolf Totem after other directors (among which Peter Jackson) passed on the project.

     Even so, those are not the films most people associate with one of the rare French filmmakers to achieve an international career on his own terms, before wonder-boy Luc Besson took over with his genre-film assembly line; Quest for Fire, The Lover, The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet and Enemy at the Gates will ring more a bell with international audiences. Such films also best define the strengths and weaknesses of the director: an old-fashioned storyteller working within the mold of classic adventure cinema, a peculiar throwback to the prestige, big-budget cinéma de papa against which so much of Mr. Annaud's generation stood up to. In some ways, the director is tilting at windmills in a landscape where his favoured mode of production no longer is a shoo-in; and it's true that he wasn't the first choice to direct Wolf Totem, since Chinese authorities had given him the cold shoulder after he dared approach the issue of Tibetan independence in Seven Years in Tibet.

     True to form, though, this is not merely job for hire: set in Mongolia in the early seventies and following an ethnic Han chinese man's discovery and appreciation of the Mongol culture he was sent to help eliminate, this is very clearly in tune with the director's own sensibility. Based on a best-selling semi-autobiographical novel that became a record-breaking best-seller in China, the story of Chen Zhen (Shaofeng Feng), the urban teacher who becomes enamored of the millennial balance between nature and man that he is taught by the villagers he has been assigned to, is part exotic travelogue and part ecological animal adventure. The narrative hinges on the wolf as an essential element of the Mongol ecosystem that progress and small-mindedness threaten to destroy, through Chen's stubbornly defiant and heartwarming rearing of a surviving wolf cub who will eventually turn out to be the possible salvation to restore the nearly extinct community.

     In some ways it's Jack London's Call of the Wild reimagined as a fable for our wildlife extinction days, and a throwback to a certain type of big budget adventure movies of the mid fifties where the budget generously made available to Mr. Annaud by the Chinese production is all up there on the screen, in the breathtaking Mongolian landscapes crisply lensed in tasteful picture-postcard framing by DP Jean-Marie Dreujou and the extended pre-production that allowed a small pack of wolf cubs to be trained specifically for the film's purposes. That dogged practical-effects aspect is perfectly in tune with the (equally stubbornly) admirably old-fashioned approach at work here, somewhere between get-the-job-done classicism and musty academicism.

     It's a hackneyed, stilted, predictable plot that Mr. Annaud dutifully plods through, since it's clear that the director is much more interested in the adventurous opportunity of shooting on a remote location and attempting to honor a specific way of life that has been/is being left behind. For all the by-the-book elements that form the film's narrative, it's really the sense of a world that is slowly vanishing in front of your eyes (even if that world is made much more tangible in something like Tuya's Marriage or Tulpan) that carries Wolf Totem through, and that's why the film cannot just be dismissed as a cynical money-grab or a calculated attempt to conquer the Chinese market. There is a genuine, sincere respect for the Mongols and the wolves here - just like there is a genuine desire to make a film that bucks up the trend of big-budget whiz-bang eye-candy that's omnipresent today.

LE DERNIER LOUP
China, France, 2014, 118 minutes
Starring Shaofeng Feng, Shawn Dou, Ankhnyam Ragchaa, Yin Zhusheng, Basen Zhabu
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud; screenplay by Alain Godard, Mr. Annaud, Lu Wei and John Collee, based on the novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong; cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou (widescreen); composer James Horner; production designer Quan Rongzhe; costume designers Ma Yingbo and Wang Rong; effects supervisors Christian Rajaud and Guo Jianqian; film editor Reynald Bertrand; producers La Peikang, Xavier Castano and Mr. Annaud, for China Film Company, Repérage, Beijing Forbidden City Company, Mars Films, Wild Bunch, China Movie Channel, Beijing Phoenix Entertainment Company, Chinavision Media Group, Hérodiade Films and Loull Production
Screened October 1st 2015, São Jorge 3, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Monday, October 19, 2015

SICARIO

Let us bring up again that old Eliot chestnut, "the world won't end with a bang, but with a whimper", to remind us that Sicario begins with a bang (or rather, several), as a FBI SWAT team enters an Arizona charnel house of horrors, only to end, two hours later (and this is no spoiler) with a distraught, whimpering FBI agent asking what did she just live through. We can ask the same question ourselves: what were we just hit with?

     Sicario systematically puts up a genre scaffold, a framework that lures the viewer in, and just as systematically tears it down with each new development until its nominal heroine, a door-busting, no-nonsense FBI agent named Kate Macer and playes vibrantly by Emily Blunt, is left hanging from what's left by the skin of a finger nail. (It's a metaphor. There are no cliffhangers like that in the film.) The warning this is going to happen is, actually, perfectly enunciated by Benicio del Toro about a third of the way into the film: "Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will question everything you do. But, in the end, you will understand." And understand we do, in Denis Villeneuve's brilliantly dark and almost hopeless drug-war thriller, synthesizing a resolutely contemporary take on one of American cinema's most hardened tropes, the twisty thriller following a hero in search of justice.

     Taylor Sheridan's script is incredibly ambitious in its attempt to dramatize the many tentacles of contemporary drug trafficking, using as his way in Ms. Blunt's character, an agent who has been on the frontline of chasing drug and people traffickers assigned to an undercover operation to neutralize a Mexican kingpin where the book everything is supposed to be done by has just gone out the window. It falters uneasily when it tries to give a voice to the Mexicans who suffer the most from the drug war - a subplot about a Mexican cop on the take is so bare-bones it's almost cringeworthy, and nearly all of the characters on the Latino side of the border are purely functional archetypes not given much thought. But Mr. Sheridan packs a mean punch when it comes to fingering the political aspects the thing takes on the American side, designing a quicksand swampland of loose morals and means-justifying-the-end ironically set in the desert lands of Arizona, Texas and Mexico.

     Roger Deakins' roving camera, a surveillance object if there ever was one, moves implacably, almost inexorably above and on the surface of this desert, where derelict cars do double duty as entrances to a hellish underworld, coyote holes into which Kate is about to fall through like Alice on the other side of the looking-glass. Down is now up, left is now right, "truth, justice and the American way" quietly devolving into an almost lawless New Wild West, as seen through the get-the-job-done credo of Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war films and the cool, professional sheen of Michael Mann's contemporary noirs.

     Mr. Villeneuve may clearly be trespassing onto Steven Soderbergh territory here; Sicario could be a more focussed Traffic minus the mosaic plotting, but in fact there's more in common with the Canadian helmer's earlier Prisoners in the earnestness with which it approaches its tale (though, for my money, Sicario is the better film). I can't help but think of Mr. Villeneuve as an equivalent to Christopher Nolan: in an American film landscape where most everyone seems concerned with making entertainment, both directors are aiming for a scope and approach that is serious, certainly thoughtful, occasionally stern in its moralist approach, but trying to approach serious issues within an arena of genre filmmaking while refusing simple, black and white dichotomies. Sicario is notable for its refusal to sugarcoat the pill - there's a starkness, a darkness to the film, borne out of the disenchantment in its tale, of its realization there can be no escape from this vicious circle.

     Unlike the liberal thrillers of the 1970s (another reference all too present), where things were done with a view to making sure things got better, Sicario offers no easy fixes, no comforting solutions; this isn't going away and all we can do is contain it. The beating tempo editor Joe Walker creates highlights the fact that every new piece of the puzzle isn't going to fit neatly, everything is a challenge that changes the image you're trying to build. Halfway through the film's taut two-hour running time, you've lost all landmarks and are merely being buffeted back and forth by the twisting and turning plot, left as much in the dark as its heroine is, even though the director can't occasionally help tease the viewer with information hidden from her. After all, everything happens above her paygrade.

     Not everything works in Sicario, for sure; it certainly may not be the most original or illuminating take on its hot-button subject. But it's a smart, thoughtful, thought-provoking one, and above all a formally masterful feat of control and command from the director and his crew, turning the landscapes of Arizona and Mexico into a sort of parched, desolate, apocalyptic territory where nothing can survive but bloody violence. A place where the world does not end with a bang as much as it dries out with a whimper, all love and emotion wizened and worn out by weather until nothing is left but the desert. And it's a desert.

SICARIO
US, 2015, 121 minutes
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya. Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Taylor Sheridan; cinematography by Roger Deakins (widescreen); music by Jóhann Jóhannssón; production designer Patrice Vermette; costume designer Renée April; editor Joe Walker; produced by Basil Iwanyk, Edward R. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill and Thad Luckinbill, for Lionsgate, Black Label Media and Thunder Road Pictures.
Screened October 8th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening.


Friday, October 16, 2015

A UMA HORA INCERTA

I understand that saying this may be self-evident, but being a great screenwriter does not automatically make you a great director. The case of Portuguese veteran Carlos Saboga comes to the fore because the writer of Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon, with a good number of respectable credits in Portuguese cinema, fumbles so completely his sophomore effort as a director that it's a wonder this even got released.

     After an anonymous but not entirely disastrous debut with the throwaway Photo, A uma Hora Incerta is a bewildering jumble of characters and plotlines that might have made more sense on the printed page as a somewhat oneiric Gothic novella, but fails to even coalesce as a cohesive film. As in Photo, Mr. Saboga is seemingly following one story while actually advancing another, both set in Lisbon during World War II.

     Using the city's neutral status in the middle of war-torn Europe as a plot trigger, the tale takes mostly place in a shuttered family hotel, painted as a "black hole" that sucks everyone in, and circles around Ilda (Joana Ribeiro), a spoilt teenager who stays home after school in a bubble of her own, tending to an ailing, mute mother (Ana Padrão) and fantasizing about her strong-silent-type father (Paulo Pires). Said father is actually an inspector for the secret police, who takes a shine to a couple of mysterious French refugees (Judith Davis and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), and shelters them in the shed in the garden.

     Ilda finds out about the guests and goes into fits of protective, incestuous jealousy - but why she should feel this way, and why does his father bring home the refugees, is never properly explained, merely suggested only to be abandoned almost immediately as the film rotates to the next set of characters. Everything begins in media res, and nearly everyone is a mere narrative pretext for something to happen; most of the characters seem to be screenwriter's conceits rather than flesh-and-blood people, with little or nothing an actor can hang on to. The exceptions are Ms. Ribeiro, who finds in Ilda the correct mixture of defiance, desire, entitlement and vulnerability, and Pedro Lima as a sleazy, opportunistic police officer. Everyone else is left adrift in a film that comes off as a bizarre, disjointed cadavre exquis, suggesting something salvaged as best as possible in the editing suite.

     Photo wasn't much good, but at least it hung together; that's more than can be said for this, and it's all the more puzzling coming from a screenwriter with years of experience.

A UMA HORA INCERTA
Portugal, 2015, 74 minutes
Starring Joana Ribeiro, Paulo Pires, Judith Davis, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Filipa Areosa, Pedro Lima, Ana Padrão, Joana de Verona
Directed and written by Carlos Saboga; cinematography Mário Barroso (colour); composer Alain Jomy; art director Maria José Branco; costumes Marta do Vale; editor Monique Dartonne; producer Paulo Branco, for Leopardo Filmes
Screened September 17th 2015, Medeia Monumental 1, distributor press screening



A UMA HORA INCERTA, um filme de Carlos Saboga from Leopardo Filmes on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A WALK IN THE WOODS

What would Lawrence Kasdan have done with A Walk in the Woods? The question asks itself when you find regular accomplices of the Big Chill director in the credits of Ken Kwapis' feeble adaptation of Bill Bryson's loose memoir of pensioner-age-crisis: DP John Bailey and, especially, film editor Carol Littleton. It's a question made even more valid because the film's theme - two men working through "where did our lives go" together - is something Mr. Kasdan spent most of his career, with much more flair than Mr. Kwapis manages to apply here.

     In all honesty, the biggest surprise is why star and producer Robert Redford did not helm himself this passion project whose right he optioned years ago - allegedly with a mind to star in it alongside Paul Newman, something that makes a lot of sense at a climactic scene later in the movie - and settled instead for an unassuming minor-league director-for-hire. Whatever the reason, A Walk in the Woods is the film we have, and I'm sorry to say it's not as much of a film as it could have been.

     Mr. Bryson's tale of two geriatric old friends attempting one last hurrah, hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail, is played too much for laughs as a "naughty silly grandpas"/Grumpy Old Men heartwarming film, with little interest in the autumnal poignancy the plot and the casting of Mr. Redford and a grizzled Nick Nolte all but screams for. Even the attempts at showing off the beauty and grandeur of the natural landscapes traversed by Bryson and Katz come off as clumsy and clichéd; it's not inappropriate that the outdoors is secondary - the two friends aren't so much travelling the woods as they are travelling within themselves - but it's striking that it's shot so nonchalantly. And though Messrs. Redford and Nolte' easy-going professionalism and occasional leap are reasons enough to sit through A Walk in the Woods, it's almost criminal to have talents such as Mary Steenburgen and Emma Thompson on hand to give them absolutely nothing to do. A Walk in the Woods could have gone all the way, but doesn't really go anywhere; where's Mr. Kasdan when you need him?

A WALK IN THE WOODS
US, South Korea, 2015, 104 minutes
Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, Mary Steenburgen, Emma Thompson
Directed by Ken Kwapis; screenplay by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, based on the book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson; cinematography John Bailey (widescreen); composer Nathan Larson; production designer Gae S. Buckley; costume designer Leigh Leverett; editors Carol Littleton and Julie Garcés; produced by Mr. Redford, Mr. Holderman and Chip Diggins, for Route One Films and Wildwood Enterprises in association with Union Investment Partners, Surefire Entertainment Capital and IM Global
Screened October 6th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

THE WALK

We get it. For once, a dramatic film not only demands to be shot in stereoscopic 3D, it actually makes the most of the technique and shows how and for what it should be used. But there's a long stretch between using smartly a technique and making a great movie, and The Walk is not a great movie by any measure.

     True, only a fraction of those who will see Robert Zemeckis' film have heard of, let alone seen, James Marsh's 2007 documentary Man on Wire. Both films tell exactly the same story: that of French daredevil acrobat Philippe Petit's transcendentally insane feat of laying a wire between the two World Trade Center towers, over 400m in the air, and walk it with no safety net. Both Mr. Marsh's and Mr. Zemeckis' films trade in wide-eyed marvel, in the awareness of one singular, apparently off-centre element can modify completely your view of the world. Mr. Petit's feat of ingenuity is one such poetic gesture that rekindles one's faith in the power of magic and in the greatness of human nature. While Man on Wire explored the poignancy of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with those who lived through it, The Walk is a bowdlerized "novelization" - a lightly fictionalized, narratively compressed take, designed as a technologically peerless thrill ride, but one that, as so often in the work of Mr. Zemeckis, mistakes wonderment and spectacle for grace and emotion.

     Though Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pitch perfect as the maniacally, annoyingly irresistible Mr. Petit, the film often confuses cheekiness with intrusiveness, wit with whimsy. The result is a workaday drama about an overachieving egotist that only truly soars in the final half-hour, as Mr. Gordon-Levitt takes on the wire stretched tautly in the Manhattan skies: here, Mr. Zemeckis' state-of-the-art technology truly finds a sense of grace and wonder, fueled by the actor's almost levitating physicality and by the you-are-there immediacy of the pictures. But it's too small a pay-off for the investment asked of the viewer, and it only confirms how overrated the director's filmmaking has become ever since Forrest Gump. The Walk never goes as high as it wants to, and that is a shame.

THE WALK
US, 2015, 123 minutes
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte le Bon, James Badge Dale
Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Mr. Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, based on the memoir To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit; cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (widescreen); music by Alan Silvestri; production designer Naomi Shohan; costume designer Suttirat Larlarb; editor Jeremiah O'Driscoll; effects supervisor Kevin Baillie; produced by Steve Starkey, Mr. Zemeckis and Jack Rapke, for Tristar Pictures and Imagemovers in association with Lstar Capital
Screened October 2nd 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Monday, October 12, 2015

BLACK MASS

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it would have been a thinly veiled insult - or at least a dismissive reference - to say a movie looked like television. The tables have since turned, though; the renaissance of long-form serial television means it's now a compliment of the highest order to say a movie looks like a television. It's a back-handed compliment to be sure, and one that should very ambiguously be meted out to Black Mass, Scott Cooper's abridged adaptation of Boston newsmen Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's tale of infamous Southie mobster Whitey Bulger's decades-long collaboration with the FBI - a film with so many good things going for itself it's a shame it never really gets where it wants to go. It seems to hark back to Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese's new-Hollywood mobster classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas, but also to David Chase's groundbreaking Sopranos, in its desire to transcend the archetype and give actual flesh-and-blood humanity to its characters. Mr. Cooper has the cast to do it, starting with a seething Johnny Depp's brooding turn as Bulger; the director also has the wherewithal to create strong, starkly shot setpieces. What he doesn't have, weirdly enough - or doesn't give himself enough of - is time.

     Clocking in at two hours sharp, Black Mass's sprawling plot is being constantly cut short or pulled back to the central relationship between Bulger and Joel Edgerton's John Connolly, the ambitious FBI agent bewitched by the gangster's larger-than-life status. Most of the parallel threads seem to be there just to be ticked off in a perfunctory checklist; the story supposedly takes place over 20 years, but everything seems to flash by in a matter of months, while allegedly key characters are briefly introduced only to be discarded as quickly. Mr. Cooper is good enough that he allows his ensemble cast enough time to explain why they're cast (none more than Peter Sarsgaard's unhinged Brian Halloran), but not so good that he can wrestle the film into more than an underachieving gangster story, compressing a whole season of a TV series into a two-hour movie. We often complain a film goes on for too long; for once, this one doesn't go on for long enough.

BLACK MASS
US, UK, 2015, 123 minutes
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Juno Temple
Directed by Scott Cooper; screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based on the book Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill; cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (widescreen); music by Tom Holkenburg; production designer Stefania Cella; costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone; editor David Rosenbloom; producers John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Mr. Cooper, Patrick McCormick and Tyler Thompson, for Warner Bros. Pictures and Cross Creek Pictures in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Le Grisbi Productions, Free State Pictures, Head Gear Films and Vendian Entertainment
Screened September 25th 2015, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Friday, October 09, 2015

JOÃO BÉNARD DA COSTA - OUTROS AMARÃO AS COISAS QUE EU AMEI
João Bénard da Costa - Others Will Love the Things that I Loved

My self-evident love for Manuel Mozos' enveloping essayistic homage to the late João Bénard da Costa (1935-2009), cinephile extraordinaire and one of the most important figures in the history of the Portuguese Cinematheque, goes hand in hand with a strange, uneasy malaise about it. Basically, João Bénard da Costa - Outros Amarão as Coisas Que Eu Amei is a cinephile love letter that will make all the sense in the world if you know who its subject is. But if you don't know, will you still allow yourself to be enveloped by its lovingly assembled trip through memory lane?

     My doubts arise from the film itself, and from its avowed anchoring in the life and personality of Bénard da Costa, prolific writer, columnist and critic, as well as occasional actor in films by his longtime friend Manoel de Oliveira, rather than just director and programmer at the Cinematheque for over 25 years. Mr. Mozos' film is an exquisite, golden-hued collage built around a voiceover narration patiently compiled from Bénard da Costa's myriad writings on film, art and life (the voice reading them belongs to his son João Pedro); it studiously avoids any and all traditional biographical timelines to chart a impressionistic flyover of his life and artistic worldview, in a loosely chronological way.

     Outros Amarão as Coisas Que Eu Amei is also an inscrutably poignant requiem for a time and a culture that is now gone. In a progressively fragmented, atomised visual culture like the one we live in right now, the sort of "monomania" that the film presents can come off as quaint and old-fashioned. Bénard da Costa was very distrustful of the digital revolution, and thought it was a 35mm projection on a big screen of the theatre that gave cinema its true raison d'être; Mr. Mozos underscores his fetishisation of 35mm film through its use in moviolas used to view material from the programmer's favourite films (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Ordet, Portrait of Jennie, Johnny Guitar).

     "Welcome into his world", the film seems to say, before letting you loose inside it with scant regard for anchor points (no contextualization, not even identification of the film and music extracts used until the end credits). It's the sort of "inside job" that will be immediately identifiable by those who knew him or of him. If you don't, chances are you'll either be interested enough to want to know more about him, or be left bewildered and asking what all the fuss is about.

     Still, it is a stunningly realized evocation/invocation of its subject - and how lovely would it be for all great cinephiles to be remembered with such a tribute! - by a director who has found his groove as a sensitive assembler of filmic essays on the passage of time (with the great, mid-length Ruínas as the lodestar by which everything else is measured), with an uncanny ability to get "under the skin" of his subjects.


JOÃO BÉNARD DA COSTA - OUTROS AMARÃO AS COISAS QUE EU AMEI
Portugal, 2014, 76 minutes
Directed by Manuel Mozos; archival research by Mr. Mozos and Luís Nunes; voiceover spoken by João Pedro Bénard; cinematographer Inês Duarte (colour); editor Mr. Nunes; produced by Rui Alexandre Santos, for Rosa Filmes
Screened October 17th 2014, Lisbon (DocLisboa 2014 screener) and October 3rd 2015, Lisbon (distributor advance screener)


Thursday, October 01, 2015

THE MARTIAN

The Martian is a curious beast: a throwback to the can-do optimism of the American pioneer spirit wrapped up in a pachydermian rat's race of bureaucracy and PR spin, an ingenious B-team sci-fi drowned in an all-star big-budget extravaganza, a film that asks serious questions about what we want to do about outer space and wants to give serious answers to it while keeping it light-footed and spirited.

     It's also yet another film in British director Ridley Scott's post-Gladiator renaissance as Hollywood's reliable go-to blockbuster auteur - never mind that his artistic track record since that impressive, gritty return to the halcyon days of the sword-and-sandal epic has been seriously spotty. To ease your minds with no further ado: The Martian is an efficient time-passer, a likeable, wholesome entertainment for the entire family, but hardly in the same league of Mr. Scott's earliest classics such as Alien and Blade Runner (it's closer in league and tone to the intriguing misfire that was The Counselor, but it's no Prometheus - and that wasn't a classic either).

     The key issue seems to me very simple: the adaptation of Andy Weir's best-seller, smartly scripted by Drew Goddard (he of Cloverfield and The Cabin in the Woods), is an avowed exercise in genre tropes that posits what Robinson Crusoe on Mars could be with a wholesome, all-American tinkerer and pioneer, a sort of futuristic MacGyver, as the star. Matt Damon's Mark Watney, left behind for dead on the surface of the red planet when a freak storm forces the abort of a month-long research trip, has to deal with being alone and surviving until he can find a way to make contact with Earth and let them know he's still around.

     And that is exactly the film's sweet spot: having a relatable, easy-going film star with a guy-next-door vibe and acting chops carry the "last-man-on-planet" adventure. The problem is that, for that film to emerge, a more fleet-footed, easier-going director was required; Mr. Scott is by his own nature a careful framer who is at his best when deploying the whole gamut of artistic universe creation, and something as small-scale as The Martian is less about precision and more about spontaneity. That is also why, despite the narrative requirement of regular cutaways to the team back on Earth who is setting up a rescue mission or to his fellow mission survivors on their long trek home, these scenes are mostly bloated and surplus to requirements, wasting a perfectly fine cast of character actors in supporting-role archetypes.

     It's in Mr. Damon's nicely calibrated cheerfulness, his resourcefulness and determination to survive at any cost occasionally marred by the realization of his immense loneliness, that resides the beating heart of this overlong but not unpleasant film.

THE MARTIAN
US, United Kingdom, 2015, 140 minutes
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel The Martian by Andy Weir; cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; composer Harry Gregson-Williams; designer Arthur Max; costumes Janty Yates; editor Pietro Scalia; visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers; produced by Simon Kinberg, Mr. Scott, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood and Mark Huffam, for Twentieth Century Fox, Kinberg Genre Films and Scott Free Productions in association with TSG Entertainment Finance
Screened September 28th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon, distributor press screening