Friday, August 01, 2014

CÂND SE LASĂ SEARA PESTE BUCUREȘTI SAU METABOLISM (When Night Falls in Bucharest or Metabolism)

If we were to attribute specific "roles" to each of the directors revealed by the Romanian "new wave" of consistently solid and intelligent filmmaking, Corneliu Porumboiu might be tagged as "the conceptualist", setting himself a different challenge with each new project while retaining a very wry, deadpan sense of humour. 12:08 East of Bucharest, his 2007 debut, was entirely set in a television studio where host and guests were discussing the day of the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu; 2009's Police, Adjective was a "grammatical procedural" where morality depended on the meaning of a word.

     Now, When Night Falls in Bucharest or Metabolism is a meta-fiction where the future of cinema and a director's affair with his actress collide through a way of approaching and seeing the world that seems to be receding fast. What comes out of this apparently cerebral exercise is a winningly ingenious and insightful tale that works simultaneously in a number of very different layers. Its basic narrative engine is the brief affair between film director Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache) and actress Alina (Diana Avrămuț), with a nude scene that he has written for her as peak and centre of their common attraction. A side plot sees Paul tell his harried producer Magda (Mihaela Serbu) that he isn't feeling too well, faking a stomach bug and a hospital trip so he can actually rehearse that scene with Alina.

     Over this, Mr. Porumboiu layers a meditation on the intrinsic contemporary nature of film, and the way technology is changing the rhythms and structures of creating a film or setting up a performance. Respecting the Romanian tradition of long takes and absence of music other than within the frame, When Night Falls... has only 17 shots in its entire 90-minute length and starts off with a one-take 11-minute shot, running the length of an actual film roll, following Paul and Alina on a night-time drive around Bucharest discussing analogue vs digital and what films will look like in the future. The gist of the argument is that your idea of cinema changes according to where you come from; used to shooting in film with a big camera for the big screen, Paul says he sees the world through the limits of an 11-minute roll, whereas digital has no limit whatsoever and what people will watch in 50 years will still be called films but will probably be something else we do not know how to describe or to recognise.

     As always, Mr. Porumboiu sets himself squarely in the centre of the gulf between thought and action, theory and practice, mind and body: ambiguity and equivocation are central to his films' plots, and language as a revealer and obfuscator plays again an important part, even if here that language is as much verbal as it is visual (but film language is still a language). It's, undoubtedly, a thinkpiece of a film, and a self-referential one at that, but it's hardly austere or dry, preferring instead to use a traditional film narrative as a jumping point into different and intriguing directions.

CÂND SE LASĂ SEARA PESTE BUCUREȘTI SAU METABOLISM
Romania, France 2013
86 minutes
Cast Diana Avrămuț, Bogdan Dumitrache
Director and screenwriter Corneliu Porumboiu; cinematographer Tudor Mircea (colour, widescreen); designer Mihaela Poenaru; costumes Monica Florescu; editor Dana Bunescu; producers Marcela Ursu and Sylvie Pialat; production companies 42KM Film and Les Films du Worso
Screened July 25th 2014, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)


Thursday, July 31, 2014

BEIT-LEHEM (Bethlehem)

It's far too easy - and lazy - to look at Israeli director Yuval Adler's debut, Bethlehem, as "the other side" of Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad's underwhelming Omar. Far too easy but somewhat unavoidable, since, despite the films' different origins, their story and approach are pretty much the same, focussing as they both do on a Palestinian youngster treading a tight rope between two equally dangerous sides. But where Omar viewed it from the (Palestinian) point of view of Omar, the young man whose fateful decision to join the fighting leaves him literally stranded in no man's land, Bethlehem hovers between both sides of the border. On one hand, Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i), the impulsive, volatile teenage brother of a Bethlehem resistance hotshot, who has turned informant for the Israelis; on the other, Razi (Tsahi Halevy), his Israeli handler, stuck between his job to manipulate Sanfur to get vital information and the affection he has grown to have for a kid he knows better than his own children.

     As Omar, Bethlehem explores key issues of trust and truth, and asks if it is at all possible for it to exist in such a complex environment. It invokes more openly, however, a genre film tradition; and its assurance, both formal and narrative, suggests Mr. Adler was going for a Michael Mann-ish "moral thriller", where the no-nonsense straight-forward narrative is given an added layer of doubt and questioning (some have compared it, exaggerating but not entirely off the mark, to the Internal Affairs trilogy). That the director doesn't quite pull it off is clearly a matter of experience and models, as Bethlehem still has too much of a TV procedural feel, rather than a big-screen proposition. But it is also because the larger political issues surrounding it would daunt anyone attempting to set a story in modern day Palestine, and they can't help but contaminate the way you look at the film even before you've seen it.

   Very clearly, though, Mr. Adler is not necessarily picking sides and the decision to anchor his story on the relationship between agent and handler gives it more of a genre dimension. In effect, Razi is a surrogate father for Sanfur, who, with an absent older brother and an ineffectual father, lacks an understanding role model at a key point in his growing-up, and the Israeli is so acutely aware of it he becomes very reluctant to betray so openly the confidence the boy places in him. Bethlehem thus suggests a look at role models and father figures in a society where an-eye-for-an-eye violence is the rule and where traditional concepts of good and evil no longer apply, within the confines of a modern thriller framework, before being engulfed by the urgency of the situation it tells of and running the risk of becoming yet another "issues movie".

BEIT-LEHEM
Israel, Belgium, Germany 2012
100 minutes
Cast Shadi Mar'i, Tsahi Halevy, Hitham Omari
Director Yuval Adler; screenwriters Mr. Adler and Ali Wakad; cinematographer Yaron Scharf (colour); composer Ishai Adar; art director Yoav Sinai; costumes Li Alembik; editor Ron Omer; producers Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Talia Kleinhendler, Sébastien Delloye, Diana Elbaum. Benoît Roland, Steve Hudson and Sonja Ewers; production companies Pie Films in co-production with Entre Chien et Loup and Gringo Films
Screened July 24th 2014, Cinema City Alvalade 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

AKIBIYORI (Late Autumn)

Underlining every film by the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu is a sense of community, of people who share more than just a workplace, a neighbourhood, a past. The continuous need to balance your own needs as an individual within a larger community is, again, at the heart of the gently heartbreaking dilemmas in Late Autumn, a film that can be seen as a sort of "first draft" for the director's later (and final film) An Autumn Afternoon

     To be blunt, Late Autumn may seem unfocussed and sprawling throughout its somewhat excessive length, almost as if Mr. Ozu's usual masterful hand for elegantly bringing together multi-stranded narratives had failed him here. Not quite true, of course, though seeing it after An Autumn Afternoon clearly plays up the similarities; as in that 1962 tale of a widower marrying off his daughter, but also as in so many other of the director's films, marriage, the ultimate social contract, is the plot engine.

     The enchanting Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) won't even consider the idea so as not to leave alone her widowed mother Akiko (Setsuko Hara). To the rescue come three "gallant knights" - Messrs. Mamiya (Shin Saburi), Hirayama (Ryushi Kita) and Toguchi (Nobuo Nakamura), college friends of her late husband who have always harboured a soft spot for Akiko, and who decide not only to help Ayako find a husband but also to find one for her mother as well. What plays out next, under the guise of a comedy of errors in sustained slow-motion where the community around both women is both a hindrance and a help, is in fact a melancholy meditation on the inexorable passage of time, as Akiko and Ayako both accept and resist the roles attributed to them while reserving the right to make their own decisions and live their own lives.

     The Autumnal nature of the plot - underlined in the film's titles, both original (meaning "a cold Autumn day") and international - is another of the links to An Autumn Afternoon, certainly the better film of the two; the plot here may admittedly be creakier than usual (the script is credited to Mr. Ozu and his regular screenwriter Kogo Noda, from a story by Ton Satomi, who also inspired the vastly superior Equinox Flower), but it's no less moving for that and it is also a good excuse for the director to deploy his superb control of mood and rhythm, with some of the most poignant ellipses in his work.

AKIBIYORI
Japan 1960
129 minutes
Cast Setsuko Hara, Yoko Tsukasa, Mariko Okada, Keiji Sada, Miyuki Kiwano, Shinichiro Mikami, Shin Saburi
Director Yasujiro Ozu; screenwriters Kogo Noda and Mr. Ozu; based on the novel by Ton Satomi, Akibiyori; cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta (colour); composer Takanobu Saito; art director Tatsuo Hamada; costumes Toshikazu Sugiyama; editor Yoshiyasu Hamamura; producer Shizuo Yamanouchi; production company Shochiku Eiga
Screened July 23rd 2014, Lisbon (DVD)


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

OHAYO (Good Morning)

Good Morning starts with schoolboys coming home from classes while playing a farting game. It's the sort of breezy gag (if you'll pardon the pun) you wouldn't normally expect from the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, but it's an integral part of his bullet-proof plotting for this gently burlesque mosaic comedy, one that treats the director's regular theme of the passing of time with a whole other lightness and bonhomie. The four schoolboys returning home are neighbours from a low-income Tokyo suburb who spend their evenings gathering to watch sumo wrestling on a neighbour's television. As children, they are not yet fully conversant in the rigid social codes that underline adult society, and as such brothers Minoru (Koji Shitara) and Izamu (Masahiko Shimazu), fed up with being told off by their parents (Kuniko Miyake and Chishu Ryu) for being inconvenient chatterboxes, decide to stop speaking altogether until the parents relent and buy them their own TV set.

     It's an unlikely possibility in an impoverished neighbourhood where many are unemployed or earn just enough to scrape along, but such is Mr. Ozu and his regular screenwriter Kogo Noda's exquisite narrative control that Good Morning works simultaneously as a gentle, rueful fable of childhood lessons and a humanist, slice-of-life tale of community. The farting competition from the early scenes reappears regularly as another symptom of the kids' wish to escape a far too serious and feckless adult world where grown-ups keep saying niceties they don't mean and never cut to the chase. Mr. Ozu juxtaposes Minoru and Izamu's silence with the continual comedy of errors born out of the local gossips who seem to relish every tiny humiliation, while positing the true spirit of community as self-reliant and generous; the result is an elaborate lattice of resilience and character that underlines his kind observation of a society in flux between a painful past and an uncertain future.

     Here, that observation is presented in a sort of divertimento of deadpan, visual humour that often reminds of the great French master Jacques Tati in its almost geometric, elaborately presented wry gags, infused by Toshiro Mayuzumi's chirpy, Mozartian score with a mischievous glee, eventually leading to everything being put back in its proper place. Good Morning is a lovely, lovely film.

OHAYO
Japan 1959
94 minutes
Cast Keiji Sada, Yoshiko Kuga, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Miyake, Haruko Sugimura, Koji Shitara, Masahiko Shimazu, Kyoko Izumi, Toyo Takahashi, Sadako Sawamura, Eijiro Tono, Teruko Nagaoka, Eiko Miyoshi, Haruo Tanaka, Akira Oizumi
Director Yasujiro Ozu; screenwriters Mr. Ozu and Kogo Noda; cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta (colour); composer Toshiro Mayuzumi; art director Tatsuo Hamada; editor Yoshiyasu Hamamura; producer Shizuo Yamanouchi; production company Shochiku Eiga
Screened July 22nd 2014, Lisbon (DVD)


Monday, July 28, 2014

HIGANBANA (Equinox Flower)

It can be said of many acclaimed auteurs that, if you've seen a couple of their movies, you've seen them all. The late Japanese maestro Yasujiro Ozu's reliance on a tight-knit core of actors and technicians, as well as his unique, delicately austere style and his apparently limited choice of themes, can indeed suggest his movies are essentially variations on a theme. But, even if that were true, what delightful, elegantly diverse variations they are, and how remarkable it is that his apparently identical films seem to reveal new facets and open new doors with each viewing!

     His first colour film, the exquisitely delicate Equinox Flower posits Mr. Ozu's constant theme of the passage of time under the guise of a wise, understated comedy of manners about a father (Shin Saburi) whose tolerance for modern mores seems to vanish when it's his daughter (Ineko Arima) defending them. As so often in Mr. Ozu's work, it's the silent struggle between tradition and progress that lies at the heart of its dramatic plotting, with Setsuko, the daughter, unwilling to follow through with the arranged marriage his father is thinking of for her, without even pausing to consider what it is she wants. Hirayama's dilemma is reflected in two parallel plots involving two other girls: Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga), who left home at odds with her father to fend for herself, and Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto), who is very much in charge of her own life.

     Structured to perfection, the film's gentle ebb and flow of daily, apparently small events leads up to a patiently designed mosaic of life, heightened by Yuharo Atsuta's dazzlingly restored palette, whose colourful expressionism is almost as rich as Douglas Sirk's contemporary Universal melodramas (though Takanobu Saito's violin-soaked score may be a bit too heavy-handed to work at times). It's a supremely elegant film, an almost effortless transition into colour for Mr. Ozu, whose contrasting setups of family homes and modern skyscrapers underlines the film's main theme of a new generation that will not follow blindly in their parents' footsteps. And, though the story circles the three girls in marrying age, the real hero is Mr. Saburi's Wataru Hirayama, the salaryman who will change his curmudgeonly ways with a little push from the women around him. It's another wondrous slice of life from a director that elevated such tales to high art.

HIGANBANA
Japan 1958
118 minutes
Cast Shin Saburi, Kinuyo Tanaka, Ineko Arima, Yoshiko Kuga, Keiji Sada, Teiji Takahashi, Miyuki Kuwano, Chishu Ryu, Chieko Naniwa, Fujiko Yamamoto
Director Yasujiro Ozu; screenwriters Kogo Noda and Mr. Ozu; based on the novel by Ton Satomi, Higanbana; cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta (colour); composer Takanobu Saito; art director Tatsuo Hamada; costumes Yuji Nagashima; editor Yoshiyasu Hamamura; producer Shizuo Yamanouchi; production company Shochiku Eiga
Screened July 21st 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Friday, July 25, 2014

SNOWPIERCER

That action films need not be mindless is self-evident, despite Hollywood's recent best attempts to prove otherwise; that science fiction often reflects the concerns and moods at the time of its production is also self-evident, despite the recent addiction to super-hero tales that American studios can't seem to shake. Thankfully, there's Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer to cleanse the attentive cinephile's palate, with the South Korean director of the acclaimed The Host pointedly entering American blockbuster premise territory with his skewed, off-beat feel.

     An almost entirely South Korean-financed production, spoken in English and shot in Europe with a multinational cast, adapting a 1982 French graphic novel, Snowpiercer, like The Host's monster-movie concept, takes on a dystopian sci-fi premise Hollywood wouldn't refuse and layers the brutally honest violent treatment we've come to expect from Mr. Bong's generation of Korean filmmakers (one of which, Oldboy's Park Chan-wook, serves as producer here). It's a film that seems almost custom designed - and stubbornly so - to fall between two stools, blaze its own trail and refuse any sort of concessions (as, indeed, is proved by the silent battle of wits the director and producers fought, and won, with Harvey Weinstein over his wish to reedit and shorten the film for US release). And it's not surprising, since Mr. Bong's career, from Memories of Murder through to Mother, has always taken place within a merry mash-up of genres rooted in the concept of family and sacrifice.

     The "family", in Snowpiercer, is not exactly connected by blood ties - but rather a community linked by its situation, a community of miserable survivors from the global apocalypse packed together like despised sardines in the back carriages of the film's titular train. It's 2031 and the Snowpiercer is a perpetual-motion train traveling a circular route through the old world in the 17 years since a failed experiment to reverse global warning froze the Earth to death, with the wealthy living in comfort and pleasure at the front of the train and the wretched oppressed in the back - a sort of moving equivalent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis where the proletariat has had enough. Led by the seething Curtis (Chris Evans) and the wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt), the lower-class rises to take over the rigidly structured train.

     Snowpiercer thus becomes a self-evident metaphor of the social inequality that has been in the news a lot lately, gaining an added élan from the much-talked about #occupy movement and of the Arab revolutions that raged during the film's pre-production and shoot (though, to be clear, the concept was already present in the original graphic novel written by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette). But Mr. Bong is not interested in a purely rousing feel, and here is where the sacrificial aspect of his filmmaking comes through; there is a price to pay for taking over the train, revealed slowly as Curtis and his sidekicks move forward, positing at every point tough choices where nothing comes easy or free. Setting up a challenge to the system thus becomes a painful set of choices between the lesser of two evils, graphically visible in the director's refusal to soften or cut away from the violence - it's the eternal class struggle made visible and amplified by the sheer fight for survival in a world where these may be the very last of their kind.

     Expertly balancing exposition and action, Snowpiercer is alternately thoughtful and exciting, in ways very few action movies even strive for these days, allowing for the viewer to take away something more than just a mindless visual effects overdose - virtually absent here, as Mr. Bong much prefers to work within the confines of the baroque sets of Czech designer Ondrej Nekvasil and use their limitations to create a number of compelling setpieces. Admittedly, there's little effect of surprise here if you know what the director has done before, and there's often a sense that Snowpiercer rattles along more professionally than excitingly (though a very good lead, Mr. Evans lacks the charisma to rally the viewers around him, and occasionally there's a sense the train is in fact the lead character of the film). But, for all that, this is such a smart action movie and the current alternatives are so far beneath its level that any pickiness about Snowpiercer's many qualities should be promptly shooed away.

SNOWPIERCER
South Korea 2013
126 minutes
Cast Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ko Asung, Alison Pill, Vlad Ivanov, Luke Pasqualino, John Hurt, Ed Harris
Director Bong Joon-ho; screenwriters Mr. Bong and Kelly Masterson; based on a story by Mr. Bong and on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette; cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo; composer Marco Beltrami; designer Ondrej Nekvasil; costumes Catherine George; editors Steve M. Choe and Changju Kim; effects supervisor Eric Durst; producers Hong Tae-sung, Steven Nam, Park Chan-wook and Lee Tae-hun; production companies CJ Entertainment, Moho Film and Opus Pictures in association with Union Investment Partners
Screened July 15th 2014, Cinema City Campo Pequeno 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

THE IMMIGRANT

There's a very strong case to be made that James Gray is becoming the greatest contemporary American director most folk haven't heard of: a filmmaker working in the classic Hollywood genre tradition of melodrama and crime movies and aiming at a more mature, adult audience, but born a quarter century too late to receive his due from a bottom-line-oriented City of Angels; a filmmaker critics swoon over all over the world but whose films are barely released in his own native country.

     Only his fifth feature in a 20-year career spent mostly working on the independent side of the industry, The Immigrant was partly financed by French production and distribution powerhouse Wild Bunch and premiered in competition at Cannes, where it received a rapturous welcome from many European critics but was also dismissed as a "so what" proposition by many others. Not surprisingly: the new film is openly patterned as an old-fashioned period melodrama and, as such, looks, on paper, a very self-conscious attempt to fulfill the expectations the admirers have for Mr. Gray. And, yet, unlike his previous and somewhat disappointing Two Lovers, The Immigrant is probably the director's first truly outstanding film, despite the excellent result of his mob films The Yards and We Own the Night; the closest Mr. Gray has come to what many describe him as, and the more comfortable he feels within that as well.

     Set in 1921 New York under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the tale sees immigrant Ewa Cybulska (a self-sacrificial Marion Cotillard), separated from her sick sister and left to her own devices upon arrival to Ellis Island, saved from being repatriated to her Polish homeland by the intervention of Bruno Weiss (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix, in the film's most nuanced, troubling performance). He is up to no good, as one would expect, and that no good is having her work as a prostitute in one of the many underground saloons in these times of Prohibition, but there's more to it as well, as it becomes clear when Bruno's cousin, magician Emil aka "Orlando" (Jeremy Renner), enters the picture.

     The love triangle between Ewa, Bruno and Emil becomes the centre of this unabashedly melodramatic plot, to which Mr. Gray applies an equally unabashed operatic, hyper-romantic treatment, treading without stumbling the very thin line between seriousness and levity. It is, however, an operatic, hyper-romantic approach twice removed, as seen first through the filters of cinema itself and, second, specifically through the filter of post-modern, 1970s American cinema. On one hand, the deliberately stately pace of Mr. Gray's portentous yet elegant camera movements and Darius Khondji's muted, feathered palette suggest an amber-hued take on the 1970s return to classic Hollywood as seen in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather or Peter Bogdanovich's work. (More on this later.) On the other, the attention to period detail and dramatic arc suggests as well the epic, slice-of-life feel of Sergio Leone's grandiose testament Once Upon a Time in America (visible, for instance, in Christopher Spelman's very Morricone score) or the sweepingly romantic stylings of Luchino Visconti.

     But the disappointed, disaffected impossibility of a traditional happy ending in a story that deliberately turns the myth of the American dream inside out sets The Immigrant squarely in the sequence of the post-studio "new Hollywood" of the 1970s and its twisting deconstructions of classic genres. It's, in short, a melodrama fully cognizant of its desire to recapture a certain type of Hollywood film and also of its practical impossibility; it aims for a high wire act that, to Mr. Gray's credit, it successfully and brilliantly pulls off, by being at the same time classic and modern, wide-eyed and cynical, and above all always, always sincere.

     It's the closest that Mr. Gray has come to the best work of one of the key directors of 1970s American cinema, Martin Scorsese, who has been an inexplicably intangible absence/presence in his work: the film of a virtuoso, romantic cinephile seeking the purest cinematic translation of raw emotion and classical storytelling. And, in doing so, Mr. Gray has come the closest both to his talent and to what people have always wished him to be. A tricky balancing act, magically achieved, and a simply great movie.

THE IMMIGRANT
France, USA 2013
117 minutes
Cast Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Director James Gray; screenwriters Mr. Gray and Richard Menello; cinematographer Darius Khondji (colour, widescreen); composer Christopher Spelman; designer Happy Massee; costumes Patricia Norris; editors John Axelrad and Kayla M. Emter; producers Greg Shapiro, Christopher Woodrow, Anthony Katagas and Mr. Gray; production companies Wild Bunch, Worldview Entertainment, Keep Your Head and Kingsgate Films
Screened July 15th 2014, NOS Alvalaxia 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)