Thursday, October 01, 2015


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.

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

Monday, September 28, 2015


Anton Corbijn's unmistakable stylings have made him one of the few rock photographers who has become as well known as the stars he photographs. But, after a long list of striking music videos and a superb theatrical debut with the Ian Curtis biopic Control, Mr. Corbijn has lined up a series of intriguing, leftfield filmmaking choices, of which Life is only the latest.

     On paper, it seemed to be right up the director's alley: it's the tale behind the 1955 photo shoot photographer Dennis Stock made with James Dean, eventually printed on Life magazine, at a time when East of Eden had not opened yet and the young actor was about to hit the big time. But both the script (by writer Luke Davies) and Mr. Corbijn's take on the story are not so much about pictures and photography as they are about fame and the media circus, something the director knows first-hand from his work with major music stars and which also played a part in Control. 

     The conceit of Life is that that iconic photo shoot - showing a moody Dean walking through a rainy Times Square and goofing around the family ranch in Indiana - was a direct result of a yearning for both actor and photographer to leave behind their salad days and move to the next level. For Stock, tired of the shooting-stills and red-carpet circuit and wanting to be taken seriously as a photo-reporter, capturing correctly the actor's charisma could be the golden ticket; for Dean, an Actors Studio alum uneasy about being groomed as just another teen idol, the photo shoot could kickstart things outside the studio orbit and allow him to be seen as a serious actor and not just another cog in Warner's PR machine.

     Stock and Dean are too different to effectively be friends; no bromance for Messrs. Corbijn and Davies, but a push-pull dynamic where the two young men recognise each other's talents but are too anxious about themselves to actually open up to the other. It's in that subterranean dynamic that Life makes sense and works best. Mr. Corbijn, who has proved before to be very attentive to his actors, effectively and adroitly directs Robert Pattinson and Dane de Haan. Mr. Pattinson is particularly strong in the less flashy role of Dennis Stock, smartly balancing ambition and insecurity; Mr. De Haan gets the short end of the stick as Dean, but still manages to capture well the mythical actor's shuffling attitude and presence. (Australian all-rounder Joel Edgerton also registers strongly as Stock's Magnum agent.)

     For all that, Life is strangely "lifeless", even listless - for a work directed by a photographer, it does tend to fall back all too often into the prestige-period-feel trap, especially since the 1950s are such an iconic era. But maybe that was Mr. Corbijn's bait-and-switch all along: if you come to Life expecting a photographer's film or another take on the Dean Myth, you'll be surprised that it's not quite that. It's a tale about breaking free of the system - while still playing its game.

Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, US, 2015, 111 minutes
Starring Robert Pattinson, Dane de Haan, Joel Edgerton, Alessandra Mastronardi, Stella Schnabel, Ben Kingsley
Directed by Anton Corbijn; written by Luke Davies; cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (widescreen); music by Owen Pallett; designer Anastasia Masaro; costumes by Gersha Phillips; editor Nick Fenton; produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Christina Piovesan, Benito Mueller and Wolfgang Mueller, for Téléfilm Canada, Filmfour, Screen Australia, Filmförderung Schleswig-Holstein, See-Saw Films, First Generation Films and Barry Films in association with Filmnation Entertainment, Cornerpiece Capital, Entertainment One, The Harold Greenberg Fund, Cross City Sales and The Movie Network
Screened September 18th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Friday, September 25, 2015


If you had a hankering to climb to the top of Mount Everest as a symbol of the "human adventure" at its greatest, you probably won't anymore after you've seen Baltasar Kormákur's film - its retelling of the tragic 1996 expedition that left five dead is possibly the best ad for not going there ever made. But, peculiarly enough, that's probably the reason why the latest big-studio endeavour by this Icelandic director is a more satisfying film than the initial reviews made it seem.

     Everest makes good use of state-of-the-art technology not as an end in itself but as a means to an end - that is, as a way to tell its story of human drama at the very edge of physical endurance, and to make the spectacular visuals a mere backdrop to its characters' issues and experiences. It helps that Mr. Kormákur has eschewed the proverbial film-star stunt casting and instead goes for solid ensemble players: the narrative is anchored around the ever-reliable craftsmen that are Jason Clarke, John Hawkes and Josh Brolin, with the great Emily Watson as equally great backup. Also, not for nothing is Everest originally a British project, shepherded by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner's stalwart prestige boutique Working Title: its adherence to no-nonsense realism over widescreen heroics is an apparently throwaway element that becomes crucial to the film's harrowingly stoic descent into tragedy, as the teams of Rob Hall (Mr. Clarke) and Scott Fischer (an underused Jake Gyllenhaal) overshoot their summit and are caught by a monstrous storm on their way down.

     In that sense, Everest follows on the footsteps of other directors who overlay the basics of melodrama onto hyper-realistic state-of-the-art backgrounds (see Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity and hopefully Robert Zemeckis' upcoming The Walk). But Everest does not offer the saving grace of a happy ending; there's no triumph of the human spirit to celebrate here. Instead, we have a "true-story" drama that follows the rules pretty faithfully but gains gravitas and strength as it moves forward, as Salvatore Totino's crisply breathtaking cinematography and the discretion with which 3D is used take a backseat to the carefully modulated set-up of a warm-hearted, eventually heart-breaking ensemble piece. A model of efficient, intelligent "B-team" journeyman filmmaking like Hollywood seldom cares about doing these days, Everest may not be the event masterpiece some expected, and that's actually a very good thing.

US, UK, Iceland, 2015, 121 minutes
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Martin Henderson, Elizabeth Debicki, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Jake Gyllenhaal
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur; written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, from the book by S. Beck Weathers and Peter G. Michaud Left for Dead and the Men's Journal article by Peter Wilkinson The Dead Zone; cinematographer Salvatore Totino; music by Dario Marianelli; designer Gary Freeman; costumes by Guy Speranza; editor Mick Audsley; effects supervisor Dadi Einarsson; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson, for Universal Pictures, Walden Media and Working Title Films in association with Cross Creek Pictures, RVK Studios and Free State Pictures
Screened September 15th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


If you didn't know that Turbo Kid started life as a short, you would probably still suspect something as the film unfolds: this is the first feature from a Quebecois trio of filmmakers (the husband-and-wife team of François Simard and Anouk Whissell, and her brother Yoann-Karl Whissell, collectively known as Roadkill Superstar) who already have a number of shorts under their belt, and at times you feel as if the plot is running on fumes. But that's also part and parcel of the charm of this avowed future-retro throwback to low-budget and direct-to-video eighties post-apocalyptic sci-fi: it's a cinephile's blink-and-you'll-miss-it spot-the-reference delight.

     Set in a futuristic wasteland where transport is done by bicycle due to lack of petrol, the film follows the orphaned teenage Kid's (Munro Chambers) coming-of-age, as he finds out that the old super-hero whose comic-books he collects ravenously, Turbo Rider, actually existed, and that the region's villainous overlord Zeus (Michael Ironside) is the man responsible for the death of his parents. If you dig deeper than just the obvious Mad Max and early Peter Jackson homages (the practical gore effects are Braindead to the hilt), as well as the jokey shoutouts to Soylent Green, The Terminator and early computer technology (ah, the analogue-synth-pulse soundtrack!), you'll find Turbo Kid invokes a lot more than that. There's 1980s American offbeat sci-fi like Nick Castle's The Last Starfighter or W. D. Richter's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, exploitation fare such as BMX Bandits, European western-spaghetti, post-apocalyptic manga such as Akira and some of Takashi Miike's post-modern free-for-alls. (And it does so with a lot more panache and ingeniousness than David Sandberg's much-ballyhooed but ultimately dispiriting Kung Fury.)

     The key about Turbo Kid is not so much its inscription in a long tradition of low-budget genre filmmaking, but the affection and genre smarts with which it does so, the pure genre-fan wide-eyed "I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this!" adrenaline of the project. It's turbo-charged (ahem) cliché all the way, but redeemed by its own awareness and celebration of derivativeness, its wish to recapture an earlier, "purer" way of filmmaking, unencumbered by focus groups or studio diktats. (Ironically, Turbo Kid started out as a short submitted on spec but not retained for the horror anthology The ABCs of Death. But we won't hold that against Roadkill Superstar.)

Canada, New Zealand, 2014, 93 minutes
Starring Munro Chambers, Laurence Leboeuf, Aaron Jeffery, Edwin Wright, Romano Orzari, Michael Ironside
Directed and written by Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell; cinematographer Jean-Philippe Bernier; composers Le Matos (Mr. Bernier and Jean-Nicolas Leupi); art director Sylvain Lemaitre; costumes Éric Poirier; make-up Olivier Xavier; effects supervisors Jean-François Ferland and Luke Haigh; editor, Mr. Haigh; producers Anne-Marie Gélinas, Ant Timpson, Benoît Beaulieu and Tim Riley, for EMA Films and T&A Films with the participation of Téléfilm Canada, New Zealand Film Commission and Super Channel 
Screened September 6th 2015, Lisbon, MOTELx screener 

Monday, September 21, 2015


On paper, there's something intriguing about Ryan Gosling's directorial debut: as if it were an extension of his hyper-romantic, retro-Halloween music project Dead Man's Bones shifting into Lynchian "Black Lodge/Red Room" territory via the formalist stylization of Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn. It's a heady brew for anyone to take on, let alone a recognizably talented actor without much prior film-making experience; no wonder Lost River is a mess, though it is so more out of awkwardness and over-reach than of lack of talent.

     Shot in the derelict Detroit that has become the poster city for the collapse of the American working-class, but set in a fictional, decaying town called Lost River, the film has become a much-maligned folly since its unveiling at Cannes in 2014. Long on atmospherics and style, even if borrowed heavily from David Lynch's surrealistic cabarets, Mr. Gosling's aiming at a somewhat fairy-tale-ish fable about grace and redemption, through the story of Bones (Iain de Caestecker), who yearns to make a new life for him and his family. Most everyone around him seems to hang on to a past that will never return, the best example being the grandmother next door (played by horror movie diva Barbara Steele) who lives literally locked inside the memories that threaten to collapse around her; Bones seems to be the only one looking forward to a future outside Lost River.

     But that fable never really coalesces narratively, with the shorthand of the heavy-handed visual symbolism insufficient to support its plot stretched thin, and Mr. Gosling is less interested in explaining the whys and the hows of the story than in enveloping the viewer in the decadent carny atmospheres he conjures elegantly but soullessly. The result is a film full of striking but hollow tableaux in search of a thread to hang on to, where you sense its creator barreled forward into it without actually giving a second thought to how it would all work together. There's a lot of talent here, and stuff worth checking out; it's like a direct, unfiltered transmission from Mr. Gosling's mind that illuminates his interests but seems to make little sense to those on the outside.

US, 2013, 95 minutes 
Starring Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker, Matt Smith, Reda Kateb, Barbara Steele, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed and written by Ryan Gosling; cinematographer Benoit Debie; composer Johnny Jewel; designer Beth Mickle; costumes Erin Benach; editors Valdis Óskarsdóttir and Nico Leunen; effects supervisor Janelle L. Croshaw; producers Marc Platt, Mr. Gosling, Adam Siegel, Michel Litvak and David Lancaster, for Marc Platt Productions, Phantasma Films and Bold Films
Screened September 8th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Thursday, September 17, 2015


For a moment - well, a good half hour to be honest - there's a breath of air in Woody Allen's by-now staid, musty world of cruel ironies and bored academics. Joaquin Phoenix is the latest actor to enter Allenland through the front gates, but not for him the traditional role as a "stand-in" or a substitute for Mr. Allen's neurotic central characters, even though he is playing a philosophy professor at an Eastern Seaboard college.

     No, Mr. Phoenix carries his very own baggage and acting style, and Mr. Allen lets him - that means that Irrational Man may very well be a worthy follow-up to Blue Jasmine, also carried by a superb and slightly un-Allenian Oscar-winning central performance from Cate Blanchett, and certainly a film making good use of its star's persona. Mr. Phoenix's Abe Lucas, a couldn't-care-less rock-star lecturer with unusual takes on moral philosophy, comes on like a hurricane or a bull in a china shop as he settles into the brownish, fusty, hopelessly comfortable Braylin campus. You kind of applaud the writer/director for letting into his cinema someone who would seem to be so far away from it, and maybe that would be the whole point of casting the actor.

     But it doesn't take too long, alas, to understand that Mr. Allen hasn't really given Mr. Phoenix anything of substance to work with. Irrational Man is a pale carbon copy of earlier and far superior Allen works like Crimes and Misdemeanors and, to a point, Match Point: as the professor becomes involved romantically with both a sex-starved colleague (Parker Posey) and a fascinated student (Emma Stone), a casual conversation heard at a diner will lead him towards the idea of committing the perfect crime as his way out of a personal and professional rut. Despite Mr. Phoenix soulfully over-the-top immersion in Abe Lucas' philosophically-inspired mania, the Hitchcockian narrative progression of the plot - starting off as a spin on Strangers on a Train and ending with a conclusion straight out Mr. Hitchcock's television half-hours - eventually denounces Irrational Man as a lesser, copy-paste job  from an accomodated old master that can't be bothered any more.

     And as you begin to sense that the actor is becoming too big for the film he's in, you also realise that Mr. Allen has lost whatever interest he had in either plot or character, eventually "disposing" of him in the most cynically dismissive way possible. Whatever promises that first half hour held - and one of the best recent lead performances in an Allen film - are totally wasted by the remainder of the running time. It feels a massive, cynical cop-out from a director who, while still being able to pull the odd rabbit out of a hat, seems here to be running on fumes.

US, 2015, 94 minutes
Cast Jamie Blackley, Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, Emma Stone
Director and screenwriter Woody Allen; cinematographer Darius Khondji; designer Santo Loquasto; costumes Suzy Benzinger; editor Alisa Lepselter; producers Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson, Gravier Productions and Perdido Productions
Screened September 4th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


It's way too easy to forget just how genuinely disarming was M. Night Shyamalan's meteoric rise as the saviour of intelligent entertainment in the 2000s. Out of the blue, an unknown director working within genre constraints managed to become a sensation by making morality plays about contemporary America's relationship to itself and the world under the guise of smart, well-crafted genre films.

     But what made Mr. Shyamalan's rise even more remarkable was that there was a sense there that it was all too good to be true. A precise polymath if there ever was one, writing, directing, producing and even occasionally acting, the director referenced classic American filmmaking more than anything, from Steven Spielberg's wide-eyed fantasies to Alfred Hitchcock's methodical constructions and Brian de Palma's twists, and he was taken under the wing of Mr. Spielberg's regular right-hand collaborators Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.

     It was all too simple, too magical, too good to be true for a director who hadn't "properly" "paid his dues" - and the rather unusual run of four really good films in a row (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village) made it seem as if he could do no wrong. Of course, Mr. Shyamalan bought into that hook, line and sinker, to the point of hubris - moving away from Disney, the studio that had nurtured him, when they posited some doubts about his pet project Lady in the Water. Eventually made at Warners, that film's disastrous reception effectively sent the director's career into a tailspin of which The Visit is the most determined attempt to pull out of.

     And, make no mistake about it, it's a very calculated career move, designed to regain face: a cheaply produced genre movie made without stars in the now standard found-footage mode. The Blair Witch Project started the entire found-footage mania back in 1999 - the same year Mr. Shyamalan broke wide with The Sixth Sense - but it was director Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity series, ten years later, that turned it into a genre staple thanks to the efforts of producer Jason Blum.

     Not surprisingly, Mr. Blum is also a producer of The Visit, a film that is so clearly constructed to prove Mr. Shyamalan still has "what it takes" to the point of appropriating a style of filming he had never shown much interest in. Once the lights come back up, you start to ask if there was any spontaneity involved at all and, in a way, it's understandable. The film maintains intact the director's knack for playing sly meta-narrative games: the title's "visit" refers to the trip teenage siblings Becca and Tyler (Olivia de Jonge and Ed Oxenbould) make to the Pennsylvania farm to meet their grandparents (Deanna Dunigan and Peter McRobbie) for the first time, but Becca is also filming the visit with her video camera.

     Part of her motivation for the visit is to learn more about the family's past and achieve some sort of reconciliation between her mother (Kathryn Hahn) and the grandparents, who haven't spoken in a long time, but slowly it becomes obvious to Becca and Tyler that not all is hunky dory with Nanna and Pop Pop. As the frights pile up and not even their jaded knowledge of thriller clichés can put the kids at ease, Mr. Shyamalan's careful paying out of plot points and constant, if self-deprecating, teasing threaten to bring down the entire house of cards as we wait, half-interested, half-bored, by the twist that is certain to come.

     When it does come, it's not that unexpected if you've been paying attention, but neither is it gratuitous or overegged; it just flattens the film somewhat, suggesting that Mr. Shyamalan is playing to his usual gallery without ever putting his whole self into the project, the whole game being so obviously rigged that it can't ever come off as truly inspired. To be sure, there's nothing inherently bad about The Visit; but its careful, maniacal precision suggests a film less propelled by a genuine storytelling desire than by a need to maintain a status.

US, Japan, 2015, 94 minutes
Cast Olivia de Jonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
Director and screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan; cinematographer Maryse Alberti; composer Paul Cantelon; designer Naaman Marshall; costumes Amy Westcott; editor Luke Ciarocchi; producers Marc Bienstock, Mr. Shyamalan and Jason Blum, Universal Pictures, Blinding Edge Pictures and Blumhouse Productions in association with Dentsu and Fuji Television Network
Screened September 3rd, 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening