Monday, October 20, 2014

XI YOU (Journey to the West)

The old adage "it's not the destination, it's the journey" is scrupulously followed to the hilt by acclaimed arthouse director Tsai Ming-liang in the series of short- and medium-length films he expanded from ill-received online short Walker, itself inspired by a monologue he staged in Taipei with his acting alter ego Lee Kang-sheng. In all of them, Mr. Lee moves in ultra-slow-motion along bustling city centres, creating a series of haunting and arresting images that follow exactly the director's self-admission that he is a creator of images more than a story-teller, and his desire to produce work that stands in sharp contrast to the speed of modern film and modern life.

     The hour-long Journey to the West is the sixth in the Walker series and takes its title from a classic of Chinese literature about the travels of a Buddhist monk into "the Western regions". The setting for Mr. Lee's zen feat of walking is now the streets of Marseille, and Mr. Tsai gives him a peculiar doppelgänger in the always cinematic presence of French actor Denis Lavant, who becomes a sort of "apprentice" or disciple, their choreographed movements developing into a sort of poetic zen burlesque, halfway between Buster Keaton, Andy Warhol, performance art and Jacques Tati. This analogue slow motion is framed in a suggestive, exquisitely realised series of trompe l'oeil and group long takes (there are only 14 shots in the entire hour-long film, a tour de force by DP Christophe Heberlé) that pretty much require an entirely different approach to the act of viewing — as was indeed the director's concept all along.

     It's worth asking if we're still in the realm of cinema as we knew it - the fact that the Walker series developed from a stage performance and is "travelling" through different places in films of varied length that deliberately shatter the classic story-telling format makes it closer to an artistic project, an art installation, maybe a mixed-media adventure - but either way, there's a glimpse of mischief and of playfulness in the film that you don't always find in Mr. Tsai's more structured features, suggesting his heart may now be in these less conventional works.

XI YOU
France, Taiwan 2013
56 minutes
Cast Lee Kang-sheng, Denis Lavant
Director and screenwriter Tsai Ming-liang; cinematographer Antoine Heberlé (colour); composer Sébastien Mauro; costumes Wang Chia Hui; editor Lei Zhen Qing; producers Vincent Wang and Fred Bellaïche; production companies House on Fire Productions, Neon Productions, Résurgences and Homegreen Film with the participation of ARTE France/La Lucarne
Screened February 9th 2014, Cinestar am Sony Center 3, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama press screening)


Friday, October 17, 2014

THE BABADOOK

First film that came to my mind while watching The Babadook: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay's utterly uncomfortable adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel about a mother trying to deal with an unwanted, unloved son. Second film that came to my mind: Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, because Essie Davis channels almost effortlessly the same fragility and overwhelmed nature as Mia Farrow did in that classic.

     Both are horror stories where the horror is not so much physical or present as it is suggested; they're films where what matters is ambiguous, unspoken, eerily ominous. For most of its length, Australian actress Jennifer Kent's feature directing debut is just such an expert exercise in mood-swinging, about the dark sides of motherhood, straddling a fine line between actual unexplainable phenomena and the hallucinatory manifestations of a troubled mind (or a guilty conscience?).

     Ms. Davis is terrific as Amelia, a frenzied, frazzled nurse at an old people's home who has never truly recovered from the death of her husband in a car crash, just when he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their child. Samuel, now six years old and played with preternatural poise by Noah Wiseman, is needless to say a problem child: he sees monsters all the time, builds monster-destroying weapons for fun, has problems fitting in with kids his age, whether at school or with the few relatives he still sees every now and then.

     Amelia's well-meaning, if ineffective, protectiveness seems to be doing no good to either of them, and a particularly acute crisis is awakened by an eerie book they find at home unaware of its provenance: the dark tale of a bogeyman called The Babadook. And as Samuel starts seeing the Babadook everywhere, an exhausted Amelia, already close to breaking point, starts behaving so oddly and assertively that the strange goings-on in the household become ambiguous. Is there really a sinister presence stalking Amelia and Samuel, or is it just the projection of a mother unable to deal with her demanding child?

     Either way, Ms. Kent handles it with great aplomb, winding the tale with measured, attentive confidence, expertly directing her excellent performers in what is essentially a two-hander, developed from a previous short film where she laid out the concept. The image of a helpless mom who just wishes her loud child would leave her alone for a moment may not be everyone's idea of motherhood, but it's probably closer to the truth than most would admit it - which is precisely why it's a shame that the Babadook as a metaphor for a fear there to be conquered loses its ambiguity in a spectacularly flattening ending that manages to be simultaneously utterly truthful and somewhat treacherous to what's come before (and about which no more shall be said). Not enough to spoil for good the enormous intelligence of Ms. Kent's very auspicious debut, but certainly enough to regret she did not take it as far as it could go.

THE BABADOOK
Australia 2013
93 minutes
Cast Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear
Director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent; cinematographer Radek Ledczuk (colour, widescreen); composer Jed Wurzel; designer Alex Holmes; costumes Heather Wallace; editor Simon Njoo; producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere; production companies Screen Australia and Causeway Films in association with South Australian Film Corporation, Smoking Gun Productions and Entertainment One
Screened October 9th 2014, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, October 16, 2014

LA CHAMBRE BLEUE (The Blue Room)

Blue is definitely not the warmest colour in Mathieu Amalric's fourth theatrical feature as a director. Quite the opposite: it's a cold, insidious, ominous hue that, from the hotel room where everything begins to the courtroom where it all ends, chills Julien Gahyde's life to the bone, chews him up then spits him out into darkness and suffering. All this provincial French maroon did was simply to let himself be seduced by the hypnotising Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), his (now unhappily) married old schoolmate he lusted after in his teens but that only now finally answers to his desires, with deadly results.

     It's film noir, yes, after a fashion, but then again not really; rather, it's Mr. Amalric, probably the finest French actor at work nowadays, exploring the mystery that lies between men and women, the chasm that separates their world views, deployed in a different, less welcoming way that in the previous On Tour (a much more generous movie, but one where his leading character was also struggling, lost in a world seemingly made for women). Here, Julien, played with a sort of shocked disbelief by the director himself, is literally manipulated, buffeted back and forth by the women around him and by the ever greying, windy, wintry weather, without even being aware of (or realising only too late) the equivocal web of deceit being woven around him.

     Woven by whom? That's Mr. Amalric's trick, by using a non-linear, fragmented narration that moves back and forth in time, each new jump revealing a little more of the puzzle in a judiciously planned and highly economical fashion, without wasting a single moment (The Blue Room comes in at a sharp, B-movie-like 75 minutes.) In so doing, the actor/director maintains a strong connection to the source material by celebrated mystery writer Georges Simenon, keeping true to his miniatural, observational style of letting an accumulation of small, apparently minor details slowly build the tale like a foundation inexorably constructed from the bottom up. That also means, however, the film becomes somewhat too clinical and deliberate.

     Unlike, say, David Fincher's much discussed Gone Girl, where the cynicism and disenchantment are at the heart of the plot and perfectly mirrored in the handling, here Mr. Amalric gives us a baffled, cerebral tale anchored in a passive hero that seems only too happy allow himself to be boxed in by fate (not surprisingly, DP Christophe Beaucarne frames it in the old "boxy" Academy ratio); its story of the flaws and faults of provincial bourgeoisie would have been straight up Claude Chabrol's alley, but lacks the gleefully savage satirical twist the late director would have given it. Aiming at the doomed romanticism of traditional noir but never really reaching it, The Blue Room is still a smart, thoughtful film, though not entirely successful.

LA CHAMBRE BLEUE
France 2014
75 minutes
Cast Mathieu Amalric, Léa Drucker, Stéphanie Cléau, Laurent Poitrenaux, Serge Bozon, Blutch
Director Mr. Amalric; screenwriters Ms. Cléau and Mr. Amalric; based on the novel The Blue Room by Georges Simenon; cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne (colour); composer Grégoire Hetzel; designer Christophe Offret; costumes Dorothée Guiraud; editor François Gédigier; producer Paulo Branco; production companies Alfama Films Production, Film(s) and ARTE France Cinéma
Screened October 7th 2014, Medeia Monumental 2 (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN

A film star will never make only great films. That is a given, and it's also one of the consequences of stardom and career management in an industry as dependent on perception and typecasting as Hollywood is. For some reason, the late Robin Williams, one of the most impressive and challenging American stand-up comedians, tended to be typecast in redemptive, saccharine roles that muzzled his quasi-anarchic, free-form comedic talent and underused his range; but when he was given free rein or cast against type in edgier works like Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King or Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo, you glimpsed another, more interesting actor exploring in a virtuoso way the darkness that underlies every comedian.

     His last starring role to open publicly before his death, though barely released without much fanfare, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is an all-star dud that makes ill use of not just Mr. Williams' talents but also of a remarkable cast that includes the great Melissa Leo and Peter Dinklage and brief guest cameos from the likes of Louis CK or James Earl Jones. The problem with this remake of the little-known Israeli film The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum does not lie in the premise: sour, cranky Brooklyn curmudgeon Henry Altmann (Mr. Williams) is diagnosed with a life-threatening condition and decides to make up to his family and friends for his hurtful ways, only to find he may in fact be beyond forgiveness. The problem is that this well-meaning but cringe-inducing riff on A Christmas Carol, with Mr. Williams in the Scrooge role and Mila Kunis as the harried doctor who, flustered by his unpleasantness, blurts out he only has 90 minutes to live, never finds the correct tone to work as either black comedy or family drama.

     Daniel Taplitz's sketchy, unfunny screenplay is signposted by any number of platitudes and mawkish twists that a "he said/she said" voiceover alternating the inner voices of Ms. Kunis and Mr. Williams only makes more banal. But what's most striking is how director Phil Alden Robinson, a screenwriter on his own and the man behind the well-remembered Field of Dreams, handles the whole thing: clumsily, desultorily, as if he was merely a hack-for-hire with no special attraction nor interest in the production. Even the actors seem to be in auto-pilot, seemingly in strictly for the paycheck or as a favour to somebody - and Mr. Williams himself is curiously subdued and one-dimensional in a role that seemed to call for his apoplectic fireworks. Everything in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn suggests a cast and crew going through the motions, unable to salvage an ill-advised enterprise but ploughing through it with whatever dignity they can muster - or whatever dignity the film allows it. And it adds one more film to the list of works that underused the many talents of a superb comedic actor.

THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN
USA, France 2013
83 minutes
Cast Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Peter Dinklage, Melissa Leo
Director Phil Alden Robinson; screenwriter Daniel Taplitz; based on the film The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum written and directed by Assi Dayan; cinematographer John Bailey (colour); composer Mateo Messina; designer Inbal Weinberg; costumes Emma Potter; editor Mark Yoshikawa; producers Bob Cooper, Daniel J. Walker and Tyler Mitchell; production companies Landscape Entertainment, Films de Force Majeure and Prominent Media Group in association with MICA Entertainment and Vedette Finance
Screened October 5th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Monday, October 13, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

A Walk Among the Tombstones could have been - indeed, should have been - one of those great 1970s B-series thrillers Don Siegel knew so well how to do, since that is so clearly where veteran screenwriter Scott Frank's heart is at. I, for once, am glad of it; I pretty much grew up watching them and it's a genre that has gotten in short supply over the years, and it's the sort of film that Mr. Frank goes for here, working in the type of noir-ish, disenchanted detective stories that made his name as a screenwriter (like Kenneth Branagh's underrated Dead Again and Steven Soderbergh's career rebirth Out of Sight). A Walk Among the Tombstones carries that sort of blue-collar grittiness, a downbeat masculinity and no-nonsense attitude that uses genre tropes as its strengths, using them as a narrative shorthand that avoids redundant or superfluous exposition.

     It's the second Hollywood attempt to bring to the screen novelist Lawrence Block's damaged private eye Matt Scudder after an ill-fated 1985 adaptation transplanted to California and scripted by Oliver Stone and directed by the late Hal Ashby. Mr. Frank returns the hero to the novelist's New York setting and has Scudder, an ex-alcoholic who left the NYPD and survives as an off-the-books, unlicensed investigator, hired to find out who killed the wife of a drug dealer, discovering it was the work of psychotic killers who are targeting drug dealers by kidnapping their wives and demanding ransom with no intention of releasing the women alive. The film thus becomes a morality play centred around a questioning private investigator: does the immorality of making your money selling drugs to innocent people trump the punishment meted out by self-appointed guardians of morality that are targeting innocents as well? (It's certainly no accident that, in Mr. Frank's telling, there are absolutely no women in sight; this is a purely male universe where women enter at their own peril.)

     That the dilemma is acutely felt by a man with moral failings of his own, and underlined by Mr. Frank's measured, serious tone, makes A Walk Among the Tombstones more layered than most standard thriller fare, as well as occasionally more heavy-handed: confirming what his previous directing job, 2006's The Lookout, suggested, what works in the written page as necessary exposition or process doesn't necessarily provide a motion picture with consistency of rhythm and tone, the director's moody, greyish tone and workmanlike illustrative handling occasionally dragging a bit too much, unable to propel the plot forward with the urgency demands. What Mr. Frank is, though, is a very fine director of actors, and Liam Neeson, a fine actor in his own who has become one of the most unlikely action heros of the last few years after the success of Taken, dons Scudder's world-weary coat to perfection, anchoring the film with a measured, expertly judged performance that helps make up for the longueurs. 

     Still, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a fine example of a mid-list genre film like they don't make anymore - and it leaves you asking why is it they don't.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES
USA 2013
113 minutes
Cast Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Brian Bradley, Mark Consuelos
Director and screenwriter Scott Frank; based on the novel A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block; cinematographer Mihai Malamare Jr. (colour, widescreen); composer Carlos Rafael Rivera; designer David Brisbin; costumes Betsy Heimann; editor Jill Savitt; producers Danny de Vito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Brian Oliver and Tobin Armbrust; production companies Exclusive Media Group, Jersey Films and Double Feature Films in association with Cross Creek Pictures, Manu Propia Entertainment, 1984 Private Defense Contractors, The Traveling Picture Show Company and Free State Pictures
Screened October 3rd 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Friday, October 10, 2014

VOUS N'AVEZ ENCORE RIEN VU (You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet)

Alain Resnais' next-to-last film was the one that first suggested, in its own structure and construction, that the French director was presenting a sort of "artistic testament", in the process launching observers into wondering whether he was saying goodbye in his own inimitable you. As we now know, You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet was not Mr. Resnais' final film - there was still the more light-hearted and less mournful, though equally melancholy, Life of Riley to come, but that plays more like a "coda" to this more mysterious and intriguing work.

     For You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, Mr. Resnais uses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as reworked by playwright Jean Anouilh to speak of art as the universal translation of human experience, as a connecting tissue that makes sense of life and death. Upon learning that the renowned stage director Antoine d'Anthac (Denis Podalydès) has died, a number of actors who worked with him in different productions of his reading of Mr. Anouilh's Eurydice are called to his final residence to hear his will and carry out his final desires: to watch the filmed rehearsals of a new production of the play, to decide whether it still makes sense to stage it once more. (For that purpose, the director asked Bruno Podalydès to create and direct a separate production of the play, whose footage was then interwoven into the film).

     The stately manor they're assembled in thus becomes, at the same time, a rehearsal room and a haunted house, peopled by the ghost of the late Antoine, addressing them from a video message shot in that very same great hall, but also by the different incarnations of the love story between Orpheus and Eurydice: as played on-screen by the young actors from the Compagnie de la Colombe (Vimala Pons and Sylvain Dieuaide), and as remembered in the hall by the actors who played it in different productions (Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi, and Anne Consigny and Lambert Wilson). In one of Mr. Resnais' loveliest meta-twists in the entire film, the ensemble cast (mainly composed of regulars in his revolving company of actors) effectively play themselves, or versions of themselves under their real names; and find themselves actually performing the dialogue and the stage directions in the hall as the filmed rehearsal is being screened - as if they were inhabited by the ineffable spirit of the characters being transported from screen to stage and vice-versa.

     Everything is thus constantly shifting through three different levels, three different interpretations of the same dialogue, with the manor itself undergoing visual transformations depending on who Mr. Resnais is focussing on at the moment, as the doubling effect and constant mise en abîme present entirely different ways of getting at the same emotion. You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet thus becomes a stunning master-class both in acting and in narrative presentation, with the trickster director at his best, though one that is dampened by the somewhat perfunctory, more functional than inspired bookends for the plot; there is a sense (as indeed there was as well in Life of Riley) that Mr. Resnais was more interested in the film's core device of different performance levels than in how to get there, cutting to the chase in a way that is slightly more arid than in some of his most recent films. And yet, for all that, this is definitive proof (if any more were needed) that Alain Resnais kept his fascination and playfulness right up until the end, and that he will be all the more sorely missed.

VOUS N'AVEZ ENCORE RIEN VU
France, Germany 2012
114 minutes
Cast Denis Podalydès, Andrzej Seweryn, Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Jean-Noël Brouté, Anne Consigny, Anny Duperey, Hippolyte Girardot, Gérard Lartigau, Michel Piccoli, Michel Robin, Jean-Chrétien Sibertin-Blanc, Michel Vuillermoz, Lambert Wilson, Vimala Pons, Sylvain Dieuaide, Fulvia Collongues, Vincent Chatraix, Jean-Christophe Folly, Vladimir Consigny, Laurent Ménoret, Lyn Thibault, Gabriel Dufay
Director Alain Resnais; filmed rehearsal directed by Bruno Podalydès; screenwriters Laurent Herbiet and Alex Reval; based on the stage plays Eurydice and Cher Antoine ou l'amour raté by Jean Anouilh; cinematographer Éric Gautier  (colour, widescreen); filmed rehearsal cinematographers Fabienne Octobre, Juliette Laterier and Claire Delatre (colour); composer Mark Snow; designer Jacques Saulnier; costumes Jackie Budin; filmed rehearsal costumes Rachel Quarmby-Spadaccini; editor Hervé de Luze; producer Jean-Louis Livi; production companies F Comme Film, Studio Canal, France 2 Cinéma, Alamode Film Distribution and Christmas In July
Screened October 1st 2014, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



Thursday, October 09, 2014

AIMER, BOIRE ET CHANTER (Life of Riley)

When first presented in the 2014 Berlinale, Life of Riley wasn't yet Alain Resnais' final film after a stellar career - though the question lingered often in the minds of assorted critics and observers, especially since its predecessor, 2012's You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, had also left the bittersweet taste of a testament. The lighter-hearted Life of Riley came across as an "appendix", a less mournful coda, and Mr. Resnais' death at 91 merely two weeks after its premiere in the Berlin competition, where it won the Alfred H. Bauer award for most innovative production, has only made it more so.

     The third adaptation by the late director of a work by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn after Intimate Exchanges was made into the diptych Smoking/No Smoking and Private Fears in Public Places became Coeurs, Life of Riley is also the slightest and lightest of the three - though, again, it gave Mr. Resnais free rein to his provocative audiovisual sleight of hand. Everything in this tale of three rural couples thrown into disarray by the surprise announcement of a disease revolves around George Riley, the title character who is diagnosed at the beginning of the film with only a few months to live. However, George is never present, never seen, never heard throughout the entire length, though his every decision impacts the life of the three couples of friends and neighbours who are also nursing their own wounds. Tamara and Jack (Caroline Silhol and Michel Vuillermoz), though preparing for their daughter's birthday, are very clearly floating apart especially since he's taken up a mistress; Kathryn and Colin's (Sabine Azéma and Hippolyte Girardot) marriage is also in the doldrums; Monica, George's ex, has taken up with the kind but somewhat overwhelmed Simeon (Sandrine Kiberlain and André Dussollier).

     The news becomes a catalyst for a round-robin of change and reevaluation between the three couples, with George being an absent but ever-present micro-manager of their lives as the three women find themselves gravitating towards him and the three men find themselves to be sidelined. Even seen before Mr. Resnais' death, it was hard to miss that George could be very easily construed as a metaphor for a film or stage director, a kindly demiurge throwing the dice from a safe distance and making sure people made course corrections in their busy lives. "Maybe he wanted us to stay young forever", says one of the women at some point, and if you add that to the genially boulevardier tone of this comedy of errors and to the celebratory aspect of its "live, drink and be merry" motto (expertly presented in its original French title), it suggests that was also Mr. Resnais' desire with this dinner mint of a movie.

     Nevertheless, this is a Resnais film and as such it is also yet another of his playful visual experimentations: unlike the studio-bound realism of Smoking/No Smoking, we have here an avowed artificialism, with designer Jacques Saulnier going for a series of cleverly sketched sets that suggest "all the world's a stage and all of us merely players", and the film interrupted occasionally by Roy Lichtenstein-inspired solo close-ups of the six leads. The actors, in the time-honoured tradition of the director's ensemble casts, bite heartily into their characters and it's their emotion and commitment that turn the theatrical sets into a mere backdrop for people acting out their lives before an audience. It is one of those cases where it's the director's trademark that anchors the film, Mr. Resnais' constant, effortless inter-weaving of film and theatre hybridizing the forms into a sophisticated, constantly shifting, tongue-in-cheek construct. (The women are involved in a local theatre production where George is also taking a role, and at some point Monica says "next time we'll go to the movies".)

     An openly minor yet still arresting work from a master filmmaker that couldn't simply do things in a linear way, Life of Riley playfully explored further his passions and obsessions without adding nothing much in the way of novelty. That it turned out to be Alain Resnais' farewell film gives it an added bitter-sweetness, and explains in retrospect the intimations of mortality Life of Riley gave out - but changes nothing in the film itself.

AIMER, BOIRE ET CHANTER
France 2013
108 minutes
Cast Sabine Azéma, Sandrine Kiberlain, Caroline Silhol, André Dussollier, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz
Director Alain Resnais; screenwriters Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval and Jean-Marie Besset; based on the stage play Life of Riley by Alan Ayckbourn; cinematographer Dominique Boilleret (colour, widescreen); composer Mark Snow; designer Jacques Saulnier; costumes Jackie Budin; editor Hervé de Luze; producer Jean-Louis Livi; production companies F Comme Film, France 2 Cinéma and Solivagus
Screened February 9th 2014, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 competition advance press screening)