Thursday, April 28, 2016

IndieLisboa 2016 #5

So, more about IndieLisboa 2016's Portuguese selection. I've already touched upon Pedro Marques' The Room You Take, an intriguing but ultimately disappointing sophomore effort that would need a proper editing job to realize its full potential. Two more films have since played the feature-length competition - the fourth and final entry, José Barahona's Brazilian co-prod I Was in Lisbon and Thought of You, adapted from Brazilian writer Luiz Ruffato's popular novel, screens today - and albeit with different qualities and flaws, they're both equally disappointing.

Sérgio Tréfaut's Treblinka is a relative disappointment. It's by no means a bad movie, something that the director seems incapable of doing. And if you have followed his work ever since Lisboetas won the initial IndieLisboa competition in 2004 - and his work has indeed travelled - you will recognize many of his traits as a thoughtful storyteller who often takes roundabout paths to get where he wants to go. Having said that, Treblinka, the closest he has ever got to an essay film, doesn't really seem to want to go anywhere. It's partly by design, but also partly by accident; this short, hour-long feature began life as a documentary inspired by Marceline Loridan-Ivens' experience in the WWII Nazi death camps, but somewhere along the way became a sort of "phantom ride" through the railway tracks of 20th century memory.

Drawing on survivor Chil Rajchman's diary of his life in Treblinka, whose words are spoken off-screen in Russian, a silent unnamed survivor (iconic Portuguese actress Isabel Ruth, muse of the late Paulo Rocha) makes a trans-Siberian train journey haunted by the ghosts of her camp experiences. It's a screenscape as bleak and chilly as it is seductively enveloping, impeccably realized, but its intelligence isn't enough to distance it from the ever-growing pack of artworks about the Holocaust, and its slightness suggests it's either part of a longer, yet incomplete, whole, or an attempt at salvaging a different project that didn't quite turn out as expected. There's something here that reminded me of both Mr Tréfaut's earlier (and more fully realized) true-story essay-fiction, Viagem a Portugal, and of Mauro Herce's impressionistic Dead Slow Ahead, but I came out of Treblinka certainly impressed but not convinced.

Impressionistic, yes, but to the point of opaqueness, Marcelo Felix's sophomore effort Paul left me seriously bewildered. I'd really liked Eden's Ark, his 2011 essay on the recording of history and memory, but this new project, an overly ponderous meta-fictional set of nested Russian dolls surrounding a translator in the process of subtitling a film, lost me about halfway through with its somewhat mystifying insistence in leaving everything open-ended and unexplained. Per the press notes, and a very interesting interview I did with Mr Felix, that vagueness is by design as well, aiming at inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks as it dives from the framing narrative of the translator working on the subtitles into the film she is working on. This film, about a glass blower with identity issues, is designed as part documentary and part 1960s Russian filmmaking, spoken in... Estonian. A Tchekhovian spin-off that sees the blower's supervisor ambling through nature can either be seen a parallel plot line or an entirely different film - but do they exist, are they connected, or is everything merely extrapolated by the translator into her own projections? We'll never know, and despite the evident care with which Mr Felix constructs his labyrinth (shot with Volta à Terra director João Pedro Plácido as DP), after a while the apparent aimlessness of the project becomes a self-perpetuating motion that doesn't get anywhere, so there's not much reason to care anyway.

That's why it was such a pleasure to find something as forcefully personal and enjoyable as veteran João Botelho's take on Manoel de Oliveira's oeuvre, presented out of competition as a special screening. Mr Botelho is an idiosyncratic director with as many hits or misses, but he is also a full-blown cinephile, and one of the many who worships at the throne of the late director, who died in April 2015 at the extraordinary age of 107, as the defining figure of Portuguese cinema in the 20th century. Mr. de Oliveira himself had a small role in Mr. Botelho's debut, the wonderfully experimental Conversa Acabada, and many of the younger director's films reflected and refracted in some way the late master's influence. What he does in Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me is rather wonderfully genre-busting: neither a rigid biographical documentary nor a talking-heads job, closer in spirit to Manuel Mozos' impressionistic (that word again!) 2014 homage to João Bénard da Costa Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved, its almost like attending a master class on film, or seeing a visual equivalent of Robert Bresson's seminal book of aphorisms Notes on the Cinematographer.

Positing that Mr. de Oliveira never made films but, instead, "cinema", the film's first two-thirds are a marvelous primer on his work, with extensive inserts from many of his key pictures, narrated by Mr Botelho himself in a conversational, enthusiastic tone of voice. I have my doubts about the last third, where he dares to film a story Mr. de Oliveira wrote but never shot, as a black-and-white silent melodrama that emulates the style and attempts to invoke the spirit of his late master. For my money, Mr Botelho got there better with his 2008 feature The Northern Land, which could pass easily for a forgotten Oliveira, but the romantic gesture of showing just how much he owes to the director that has come to symbolize Portuguese auteurism is sincere and touching, and makes for a wonderfully enjoyable wotsit that is highly recommended to fans of both directors and to those who would like to know more about Portuguese film and especially Manoel de Oliveira's extraordinary career.

Treblinka Trailer ENG from Faux on Vimeo.

PT, 2016, 61 minutes
CAST Kirill Kashlikov, Isabel Ruth; NARRATION Mr. Kashlikov, Nina Guerra; DIR/SCR Sérgio Tréfaut, inspired by the book by Chil Rajchman Treblinka: A Survivor's Memory; DP João Ribeiro; MUS Alfredo Costa Monteiro; ED Pedro Marques; PROD Catarina Almeida and Mr. Tréfaut; Faux

Trailer - PAUL a film by Marcelo Felix (Portugal 2016) from C.R.I.M. on Vimeo.

PT, 2015, 71 minutes
CAST Alice Medeiros, Rómulo Ferreira, Crista Alfaiate, Mafalda Lencastre, Dimitris Mostrous; DIR/SCR/ED Marcelo Félix; DP João Pedro Plácido; MUS Sándor Veress; ART DIR Ana Simões; PROD Isabel Machado and Joana Ferreira; CRIM Produções

PT, 2016, 79 minutes
CAST Mariana Dias, António Durães, Ângela Marques, Maria João Pinho, Leonor Silveira, Marcelo Urgeghe, Miguel Nunes; DIR/SCR João Botelho; "The Gloved Woman" based on an original story by Manoel de Oliveira; DP João Ribeiro; MUS Nicholas McNair; ED João Braz; PROD Alexandre Oliveira; Ar de Filmes

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

IndieLisboa 2016 #4

IndieLisboa has been at the forefront of the "new Brazilian film" lobby in Portugal for a while now: they brought in Kleber Mendonça Filho's landmark Neighboring Sounds and followed that up with the maybe not as memorable but still pretty striking features from Marcelo LordelloRenata Pinheiro and André Novais Oliveira. This year's competition gave a shot to Anita Pinheiro da Silva's Kill Me Please (a film I wasn't overly enthralled by) but the festival did show out of competition Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull, probably the most celebrated Brazilian feature by a new director since Neighboring Sounds ever since it was unveiled at Venice last year.

Funnily enough, the Indie audience wasn't so thrilled; you could feel the bewilderment suspended in the room at the end of the packed screening, with a number of friends finding it overly stylized and mannered. For me, though, I must admit it's precisely that mannerism, its refusal to comply with expectations, that make Neon Bull such a good film as well a massive leap forward from the director's previous August Winds. 

What's so good about Neon Bull is that it's totally open. You don't know where the story is going to go next, let alone what it's all about, until the film is already halfway, and even then Mr Mascaro keeps pulling the rug from under you, with his elegantly, ravishingly photographed scenes (the DP is Mexican Diego García, who's worked with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Carlos Reygadas) that seem to go on for slightly longer than they should, or don't cut away the way you expect them to.

Tighter narratively than August Winds, Neon Bull is a chronicle of the daily life of a small group of ranch hands travelling through Northern Brazil with the bulls that are the real stars of the local "vaquejada" rodeos, assuming a lovely, leisurely pace that allows us to discover the characters in their own time and through what they do. Making good use of documentary footage and research in order to underlie its fictional tale, the film follows the emotional and friendly shorthand that exists between this particular crew: truck driver Galega (Maeve Jinkings, the closest this generation of Brazilian filmmakers has to a muse), her stubborn teenage daughter Cacá (Alyne Santana) and cowhand Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), a handsome roughneck with a sideline as a dress designer for Galega's own exotic dance sideline.

It's a skewed family unit if ever there was one, but an entirely accepted one in this seemingly conservative, rural world, and also a surrogate family that seems to have carved out its own niche while absolutely not corresponding at all to the standard gender behaviours - here, sexuality is seen as something joyous that transcends genders or inclinations, as a natural and naturally accepted part of life. Though Galega's husband has long left and Iremar doesn't have a steady girlfriend, it's immediately clear they are not really an item, which initially makes all the more surprising Mr Mascaro's decision to follow what happens when new elements are thrown into the mix - Junior (Vinicius de Oliveira), a preening, narcissistic substitute cowhand who comes in at short notice, and Geisy (Samya de Lavor), a pregnant security guard doubling as a door-to-door Avon lady.

Just as Neon Bull discovers what its characters are all about, so does the viewer feel as if she's discovering a world she didn't realise existed, giving depth, nuance and emotion to characters usually relegated to the stock archetypes of rural dramas. That sense of surprise and discovery, of a film that isn't doing what you expect it to or going where you thought it would, is one of the most powerful feelings in a modern film landscape seemingly built on signposting everything from a distance, but it's not the only reason why Neon Bull fully justifies the attention it has been getting. It's simply a damn good film, one that has actual people inside and tells their stories in a way that draws you in and keeps you hooked long after the actual screening's finished.

BR, UY, NL, 2015, 104 minutes
CAST Juliano Cazarré, Alyne Santana, Maeve Jinkings, Vinicius de Oliveira, Carlos Pessoa, Samya de Lavor, Josinaldo da Silva, Abigail Pereira, Roberto Berindelli; DIR Gabriel Mascaro; SCR Mr Mascaro with Daniel Bandeira, César Turim and Marcelo Gomes; DP Diego García (widescreen); MUS Otávio Santos and Cláudio Nascimento; ART DIR Maíra Mesquita; COST Flora Rebollo; ED Fernando Epstein with Eduardo Serrano; PROD Rachel Ellis; Desvia in co-production with Malbicho Cine, Viking Film and Canal Brasil

Monday, April 25, 2016

IndieLisboa 2016 #3

I've always found it somewhat weird that Portugal's current premier film festival is somewhat unable to attract top-tier Portuguese films for its competition. Weird it may be, but you really have to know the specifics of the local milieu, and its constant cut-throat jockeying for position and status, to understand why this is. Some of it is understandable - for someone like Pedro Costa, a competition berth at Indie is a step back from Locarno or Cannes, unable to provide the larger exposure an A-list festival gives. Some of it isn't.

The truth of the matter is, it seems to be a struggle just making sure IndieLisboa even has a competitive section for Portuguese features, and while the festival tries hard every year, it still has to settle for what it can. Also, the fact that so much of the current Portuguese production is working within the mode of creative non-fiction means an unavoidable overlap with what the documentary fest DocLisboa is looking for for its own competition. And yet, the festival has been able to excavate the occasional gem or signpost directors (for instance, Gonçalo Tocha, whose It's the Earth, not the Moon swept the festival circuit a couple of years ago, won the Portuguese competition with his 2007 debut Balaou).

So, to this year's Portuguese crop: four features in the official competition, but sadly none that will stick in the mind the way some of its predecessors did. First off the gate over the weekend was The Room You Take, the second feature from film editor Pedro Filipe Marques, who worked with both Mr Costa (in Colossal Youth) and Miguel Gomes (co-editing the Arabian Nights triptych) and made quite a splash in 2011 with his debut A Nossa Forma de Vida. That film was a patient, observational window into the daily life of an elderly couple (the director's own grandparents); its follow-up is equally observational but much more ambitious and sprawling and, ultimately, disappointing.

The irony is that, while Mr Marques has extensive experience as an editor, The Room You Take feels like an unfinished edit. Less a straight-forward documentary than a metaphorical essay, the film purports to be a meditation on the current state of culture in Portugal: starting off from the demolition of a Lisbon theatre, it asks what place can a spectator take in a country where venues are shutting down or being demolished, and where culture is an afterthought long being given lip service by the powers that be.

The film aims to shake that complacency and lead the viewer into asking what can he do to reverse course, but it does so in quite a roundabout way; over the course of nearly three hours, Mr Marques cross-edits between animals in a zoo, actors in their dressing-rooms before or after a theatre performance and the ruins of the ABC theatre. His camera is constantly placed in the unseen "reverse shot" position, as a viewer/voyeur placed where the actors usually are and looking not at the stage but beyond it, and in so doing underlines how, in a way, everyone, even the viewer, is always performing for an audience, even if it is only an audience of one (or, in one case of pre-performance jitters, two).

Though it shares the observational qualities of A Nossa Forma de Vida, The Room You Take lacks the clarity and linearity of its predecessor. Its sprawling length often feels as if Mr Marques was reluctant to let go of specific sequences even if they added nothing to or merely reiterated what had come before; the prose-poetic voiceover clarifies as much as obfuscates what the director wants to say with the film. As much as I liked parts of it, it felt to me as if The Room You Take was a journey aiming towards a destination it never actually reached.

PT, 2016, 167 minutes
DIR/CAM, Pedro Filipe Marques; SCR/ED, Mr Marques and Rita Palma; PROD Marta Pessoa, Ms. Palma, Mr. Marques and João Pinto Nogueira; Três Vinténs

Saturday, April 23, 2016

IndieLisboa 2016 #2

The fun thing about festivals is how apparently unrelated films suddenly strike up a connection that may not necessarily be the obvious one. I was thinking of bringing together two of the festival darlings of the 2015/2016 season, both screened by IndieLisboa 2016, by virtue of their country of origin - Brazil, going through an effervescent flowering of idiosyncratic, inventive filmmaking that could not have surfaced elsewhere.

But I'll leave Gabriel Mascaro's absolutely fascinating Neon Bull to a later column, since it makes a lot more sense to bring together fellow Brazilian Anita Rocha da Silveira's faux-slasher-of-the-mind Kill Me Please (screened in the main feature competition strand) with American first-timer Robert Eggers', ahem, bewitching The Witch (presented in the Boca do Inferno sidebar, designed for edgier, more challenging fare). It makes sense because both play within the boundaries of genre film but are not strictly speaking genre pieces: they actually belong together in the coming-of-age catalogue.

In The Witch, set in Puritan New England sometime in the late 17th century and inspired by local folk lore, a deeply religious family ostracized by their settlement by virtue of their purist, fundamentalist approach to worshipping, is forced to survive on its own at the edge of the woods. After the youngest of the five children, a mere baby, disappears mysteriously, the family begins to fray at the edges. If this wasn't a desolate New England winter, shot by Jarin Blaschke in pale, chilly natural light, and the cast wasn't speaking in polished, ancient English, the psychodrama developing within the homestead could very well be set in any modern family reeling from a major trauma.

Trapped in the conventions of her role as the dutiful, duty-bound eldest daughter, but the only one alert enough to fully understand the dynamics at play in her parents' troubled relationship, the teenage Thomasin (formidably played by Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes the lightning rod around which the family ebbs and flows. As the noose seems to close in on the family after the disappearance of baby Samuel, and her coming of age becomes the (ahem) scapegoat for all the evils befalling the farm, Thomasin starts boiling with a witches' brew (ahem) of repressed anger, disdain for hypocrisy and desire for freedom.

The Witch can (and probably will) be seen as a metaphor of the original sin of American dysfunction (the contrast between puritanism and abandon, mind and body) or as a genre film that refuses genre (its "scares" coming not from a pre-determined checklist of narrative tropes but from an expert deployment by its preternaturally talented director of cinematic means, both visual and aural). But what The Witch really is, in fact, is a slanted take on The Crucible redesigned as a chamber drama; the harrowing tale of one girl's bloody, tortuous path to finding herself and her truth in a society determined to decide what's best for her.

In that sense, Anya Taylor-Joy's Thomasin is a kindred spirit of Valentina Herszage's Bia in Anita Rocha da Silveira's debut feature. Kill Me Please is set in modern-day Rio de Janeiro, or more precisely in the relatively new Barra da Tijuca area, among gleaming high-rise condominiums inhabited by upper-class families, and Bia gets more of what is going than she lets on. A latch-key kid with pretty much the free run of the house while her mother is out cavorting with her new boyfriend and her older brother pines for the girlfriend who's broken up with him, she is "one of the girls" while standing apart from the others, first tentatively but, by the end of the film, defiantly.

Bia, along with her girlfriend clique, is morbidly fascinated by the news of a serial killer prowling the area and targeting young, beautiful women - it's one such attack that Kill Me Please stages in its pre-credit sequence, in a pretty obvious homage to the halcyon days of the giallo (Argento, Carpenter, De Palma, you name it). Yet the film is much closer, in practice and spirit and down to its bright, cleanly composed framings, to the 1980s high-school movies of John Hughes or Amy Heckerling (the recurrence of a strange, cultish evangelical pastor turns it into a sort of Footloose where dance is replaced by death).

Ms Rocha da Silveira is interested in the effect this proximity to death has on the kids' young, impressionable minds. In the heady cauldron of groupthink, emotional questioning and burgeoning sexuality that hits every teenager at the same time, the arrival of sudden, violent, bloody death introduces a strange element; a sort of collective hallucination under which Kill Me Please works for most of its length, its young heroes hypnotized by the closeness of the first orgasm's petite mort and the murdered women's grande mort.

The director does not hide her sympathy for the kids; unlike in The Witch, the family unit is entirely absent of Kill Me Please, with the teenagers left to their own devices (most of which, truthfully, are electronic). Bia has to learn to navigate the pitfalls of desire and doubt on her own, with no help from those around her, who are as confused as her if not more. But, while The Witch, grounded on a recognizable if distant reality, works both as genre and comment on genre, Kill Me Please engages more with the codes, approaches, tropes and comments than with its execution. In so doing, this formalist faux-slasher becomes a disappointingly arid viewing experience, its ideas spread too thin or too all over the place to sustain a feature running time. Still, it's a first feature and we tend to expect too much from first features these days; there's enough here to justify keeping an eye on Anita Rocha da Silveira.

(to be continued)

US, BR, GB, 2015, 92 minutes
CAST Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson; DIR/SCR, Robert Eggers; DP, Jarin Blaschke; MUS, Mark Korven; PROD DES, Craig Lathrop; COST, Linda Muir; ED, Louise Ford; PROD, Jay van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Daniel Bekerman and Rodrigo Teixeira; Parts & Labor, RT Features, Maiden Voyage Pictures, Mott Street Pictures and Rooks Nest Entertainment in association with Code Red Productions, Scythia Films, Pulse Films and Special Projects.

BR, AR, 2015, 104 minutes
CAST Valentina Herszage, Mari Oliveira, Júlia Roliz, Dora Friend, Carol Baptista, Vítor Mayer, Lorena Comparato, Bernardo Marinho; DIR/SCR, Anita Rocha da Silveira; DP, João Atala; MUS, Bernardo Uzeda, Rodrigo Gorky and Pedro d'Eyrot; PROD DES, Dina Salem Levy; COST, Ana Carolina Lopes; ED, Marília Moraes; PROD, Vânia Catani; Bananeira Filmes in co-production with Imovision, Tele Cine Productions and Rei Cine

Friday, April 22, 2016

IndieLisboa 2016 #1

The irony seems to me inescapable: I've just moved house after a very long time (a process all of us go through but that I truly do not wish on anyone) and I restart my regular chronicling here with a film that begins with... moving house.

Tamer el Said's In the Last Days of the City isn't really so much about moving house, though, as it is about moving on, a peculiar thing to say about a film that its director didn't really move on from for a long time. Set in 2009 but shot over two years (wrapped before the 2011 events in Cairo's Tahrir Square), and taking another four years to reach its first screening, In the Last Days of the City has all the hallmarks of a personal essay film yet is openly fictional. A very modern beast that applies the grammar of modern cinéma du réel, layering reality and fiction, documentary and narrative, into a tale that is all about the now yet keeps its eyes on what was before.

This wasn't the first film I saw this year on my hometown film festival, the ever wonderful IndieLisboa, which I've been following professionally and personally since its first edition in 2004 and that I think has grown in stature over the years. Some of this year's films I've seen before, in other festivals; some I screened online or in press screenings due to interview or story deadlines. The official IndieLisboa opener was Whit Stillman's delightful Love and Friendship, adapting an early Jane Austen novella and proving the director's deftly arch wit fits the writer's comedies of manners like a glove; it's Mr Stillman's first official commercial release in Portugal ever, so I'll get back to it at a later date. The Portuguese feature contingent in competition has also been screened already, and I'll also be catching up with it in further posts on the festival as they come up.

But In the Last Days of the City was the first coup de coeur, as the French say. I'd missed it at the Berlinale Forum, where it premiered earlier this year, and its selection for Indie's official feature competition allowed me to catch up with it. Beautifully shot by Bassem Fayad as a constant dialogue between real life and the screens mediating it (computer monitors, shop windows, TV screens), the film follows a couple of months in the life of Cairo filmmaker Khalid. The passive, self-doubting Khalid is overwhelmed by life: his struggle to find a new and suitable flat, his mother's illness, his romantic break-up with a partner who's leaving the city to live abroad, his inability to find the thread to the film he's shooting and editing. And yet...

And yet, life goes on. Khalid may be trying to hold on to the Cairo he's always loved and that he feels is slipping away from him, as anti-government demonstrations, soccer fanaticism, devout Islamism seem to burst the bubble of his storybook Cairo. But life goes on nevertheless, and while In the Last Days of the City may be a requiem for what was, there's no reactionary nostalgia involved, only an impressionistic record of the fleeting moments in time that stick with us, a memento to be treasured. At one point one of the characters says "Cairo is like a siren", and the film envelops the viewer with its sensuous, hypnotic call, but Mr El Said never lets us forget it's just that: a siren's call.

A siren of another type was also visible in the festival's Silvestre sidebar: Evita, the myth most of us remember from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, but also the phenomenon that swept Argentinian politics and society in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Eva Doesn't Sleep, Argentinian director Pablo Agüero's fourth feature, uses the strange true story of the travails her corpse suffered from her death at 33 in 1952 onwards to create a slanted, oblique take on history and myth-making.

Shot by Iván Gierasinchuk in desaturated tones in tiny, claustrophobic interiors and intercutting actual newsreels of the three time periods it's set in, Eva Doesn't Sleep is an audaciously off-kilter historical fantasia, divided in three acts set over 25 years. It doesn't always hit its marks; at its best, its psycho-geographical take on the way this woman imprinted herself on such a patriarchal culture, and how successive political regimes both use and abuse myths to their own means, makes inventive use of its theatrical, stylized settings. (I could very well see it as a theatrical production.)

But the film hits a stumbling block with the presence of Denis Lavant in its central section, as a French "military consultant" responsible for removing and disposing of Evita's embalmed corpse. Unlike Gael García Bernal, who dims his star power in a small role and fits perfectly into the ensemble, Mr Lavant's presence stands literally out of the film and breaks the spell - you're not watching a character, you're watching Denis Lavant, and for me that was a deal-breaker. It didn't make Eva Doesn't Sleep any less interesting, but it blocked it from being more than a striking, flawed experiment.

(to be continued)

EG, DE, GB, 2016, 119 minutes
CAST Khalid Abdalla, Maryam Saleh, Hanan Yousef, Laila Samy, Bassem Fayad, Basim Hajar, Hayder Helo, Mohamed Gaber, Islam Kamal, Aly Sobhy, Fadila Tawfik, Etimad Ali Hassan. Zeinab Mostafa; DIR Tamer el Said; SCR Mr. El Said and Rasha Salti; DP Mr. Fayad; MUS Amélie Legrand and Victor Moïse; PROD DES Salah Marei; COS DES Zeina Kiwan; ED Mohamed A. Gawad, Vartan Avakian and Barbara Bossuet; PROD Mr. El Said and Mr. Abdalla; Zero Production in co-production with Sunnyland Film, Mengamuk Films and Autonomous

AR, FR, ES, 2015, 85 minutes
CAST Gael García Bernal, Denis Lavant, Daniel Fanego, Imanol Arias, Miguel Ángel Solá; DIR Pablo Agüero; SCR Mr. Agüero with the collaboration of Santiago Amigorena and Marcelo Larraquy; DP Iván Gierasinchuk; ART DIR Mariela Rípodas; COS DES Valentina Bari; ED Stéphane Elmadjian; MUS Valentin Portron; PROD Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin and Vanessa Ragone; JBA Production and Haddock Films in co-production with Tornasol Films and Tita B Productions, in association with Pyramide

Sunday, April 03, 2016


USA, 1988, 104 minutes

It had been a long while since I'd caught up with Who Framed Roger Rabbit and there is something to be said for catching up on a film with hindsight on what happened in the 30 years since. When I first saw it, I remember that chill going up my spine of venturing into a universe nobody had ever experienced before. When Bob Hoskins, as private eye Eddie Valiant in an alternate 1947 Hollywood where cartoon characters actually co-exist with real humans, drives into the tunnel and comes out the other side inside the gravity-defying Toontown, I remember the butterflies in my stomach I had felt when I first saw Tron or, later, The Congress - that sense of suddenly losing all landmarks and tethers to normality.

And yet. all these years later, it's the rest of the film that sticks with me - the extraordinarily perfect melding of Richard Williams' traditional, hand-crafted animation with the three-dimensional settings and human actors, the way Who Framed Roger Rabbit cleverly combines the tropes of hardboiled detective stories and the anything-goes anarchy of classic cartoons. By comparison, Mr. Hoskins' Toontown interlude seems haphazard and forced, a somewhat unsuccessful experience that seems to have been salvaged in the editing room from a longer setpiece - it's as if the film only works in the "twilight zone" where animation meets the real world, rather than the other way around.

For all its flaws, the film remains a treasure of technical and creative ingenuity, though I ask myself how much comes from Mr. Zemeckis, who never scaled these peaks again, and how much from master animator Williams (whom the production accomodated at length), exec producer Steven Spielberg and then Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. What I'm even more struck about, though, is just how much Who Framed Roger Rabbit mirrors the plot of the ultimate modern noir, Roman Polanski's Chinatown, in its mix of the personal and the social (the plot hinges on a shady corporation's attempt to wrest control of L. A.'s traffic system, to which our hero is the only obstacle). Let it go, Eddie. It's Chinatoon.

CAST Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Fleischer, Stubby Kaye, Joanna Cassidy
DIR Robert Zemeckis; ANIM DIR Richard Williams; SCR Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, based on the novel by Gary K. Wolf Who Censored Roger Rabbit; DP Dean Cundey; MUS Alan Silvestri; PROD DES Elliot Scott, Roger Cain; COST DES Joanna Johnston; VFX SUP Ken Ralston, George Gibbs; ED Arthur Schmidt; PROD Robert Watts, Frank Marshall; a Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment production in association with Silver Screen Partners III