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)

Monday, July 21, 2014

OMAR

There are two issues - two inseparable issues - at stake when looking at Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad's Omar and, more widely, at any film that takes as its background the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first: is its tale specific to Israel and Palestine or could it take place anywhere else in the world? The answer, here, is that the basic plot of Omar isn't specifically Palestinian and could, in fact, be a Scorsese mob movie or a Parisian underworld thriller. Three childhood friends (Adam Bakri as the titular character, Samer Basharat and Eyad Hourani) are split apart by the demands of their chosen activities, while two of them (Messrs. Bakri and Basharat) are secretly in love with the sister (Leem Lubany) of the third, who also happens to be the designated "leader of the pack".

     What Mr. Abu-Assad has clearly tried to create here is a genre movie, a thriller where the hero finds himself tangled in a web of continuous deceit and must find his way out without knowing whom should he trust. That this cross-and-double-cross takes place within the highly charged pressure cooker of the West Bank gives it added tension, feeding into existentialist questions of devotion and betrayal. It feeds as well into the second issue at stake: can Omar be seen as just a film, can it transcend being seen as a political statement?

     Mr. Abu-Assad had achieved it in his acclaimed Paradise, Now! by doubling down and making that political statement his entire subject, but here, despite his protestations of not wanting Omar to be a political film, he really can't avoid it. The dramatic construction of his basic genre movie plot in the first third of the film is so by-the-numbers and predictable that it all but looks like a fragile scaffold erected purposely to advertise a message. The infamous barrier that bisects the Palestinian Territories, and serves as the film's key visual metaphor, becomes an ever-present obstacle that separates Omar from his dreams, but also a jump too high for the film's distinctly feet-on-the-ground feel; by the time the film finally gets into gear and starts a smart, looping questioning of truth and trust in an area where war is a daily, permanent state, the very basic scaffold isn't strong enough to support it.

     It's to Mr. Abu-Assad's credit that Omar gets better, more engrossing and more layered as it moves forward, but that initial half hour is so half-hearted that it throws off the film into the exact opposite of what the director meant. And it's a pity he didn't succeed here; we need more voices like Mr. Abu-Assad's, more interested in telling a story in its complexity and opening our eyes to important questions in different ways. There's really nothing much different in Omar to hold your attention.

OMAR
Palestine, USA, United Arab Emirates 2013
98 minutes
Cast Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Waleed F. Zuaiter, Samer Bisharat, Eyad Hourani
Director and screenwriter Hany Abu-Assad; cinematographer Ehab Assal (colour, widescreen); designer Nael Kanj (and Yoel Herzberg for the prison scenes); costumes Hamada Atallah; editors Martin Brinkler and Eyas Salman; producers Mr. Abu-Assad, Mr. Zuaiter and David Gerson, ZBros in co-production with Dubai Entertainment and Media Organisation in association with Enjaaz
Screened July 18th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Friday, July 18, 2014

THE ZERO THEOREM

It's a moot point just how much Terry Gilliam has carved his own niche; the former member of the revolutionary Monty Python comedy troupe has parlayed his nonsensical surrealism and his love of outlandish storytelling into one of most troubled careers in contemporary filmmaking. An auteur maudit if there ever was one, Mr. Gilliam has battled the industry every step of the way while amassing an almost inexhaustible supply of good will from fans, critics and filmgoers, but he remains nevertheless a very uneven director; his remarkable visual imagination can sometimes bring the best out of the truly disturbing dystopias he clearly favours for his subjects, and sometimes throws the projects so off-kilter it literally collapses in front of your very eyes.

     At his best, like in the previous The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Mr. Gilliam can access a strange brew of wonder and strangeness that not many directors can pull off. The Zero Theorem, alas, is not one of his finest films, its intriguing but ultimately underdeveloped plot (written by creative writing professor Pat Rushin) seeming too much of a retread of Brazil, the dark Orwellian cult classic whose production troubles have haunted the director ever since. As Brazil, this is about a low-level company man caught in something that transcends him in such a way it all but threatens to destroy the fabric of reality. 

     In a retro-futuristic, social-media-immersed London, one-track-minded computer scientist Qoren Leth is assigned by his corporate employer to crack the Zero Theorem, an equation whose successful resolution will show the universe is dominated by chaos, thus proving the futility and pointlessness of human life and the absence of deities. But Leth, a reclusive, misanthropic loner played just this side of psychotic by the great Christoph Waltz, is obsessed with the idea of the existence of a greater power that will make sense of his life, while devoting himself exclusively to an exotic data-crunching that plays far too much like some sort of video-game. 

     In many ways, The Zero Theorem is Mr. Gilliam's moody equivalent of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, only devoid of the wit to lighten up the darkness and nihilism at its center. Though sparkled with heart, some truly stunning visual ideas and the director's usual throwaway sight details (as well as his in-your-face, grotesque handheld plans), this is also a remarkably vitriolic, savagely angry object, a dense, unlikeable parable of modern society with all its chaos and madness, that only someone with the sheer clout of Mr. Gilliam could pull off. 

     In effect, there is a method to its madness: Peggy Lee's immortal question, "is that all there is?", is what is at the ultimately lonely centre of The Zero Theorem. It's a question the director entirely refuses to answer, leaving the viewer hanging on.

THE ZERO THEOREM
France, USA, United Kingdom, Romania 2013
106 minutes
Cast Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges
Director Terry Gilliam; screenwriter Pat Rushin; cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (colour); composer George Fenton; designer David Warren; costumes Carlo Poggioli; editor Mick Audsley; visual effects Nick Allder; producers Nicolas Chartier and Dean Zanuck; production companies Voltage Pictures, Asia & Europe Productions and Zanuck Independent Productions in association with Zephyr Films, Mediapro, Le Pacte, Wild Side Films, Picture Perfect Corporation and Film Capital Europe Funds
Screened July 14th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, July 17, 2014

IDA

It's sometimes extremely unfair to reduce a filmmaker's work to only one or two films out of an entire career, but it's also true that many filmmakers spend their entire working lives striving for the one film that will make people stand up and pay attention. For Britain-based, Polish expatriate Paweł Pawlikowski, the author of a number of well-regarded television documentaries and a few low-key fiction features, the austere, indelible Ida is that film - a thing of stark aesthetic beauty and smart, enveloping thoughtfulness, a little cinephile gem aimed at audiences that prefer to be provoked and challenged rather than just entertain. This is not to say Ida is a slog, because it isn't one, or a masterpiece, because it isn't one either; just an intelligent, affecting miniature of a film that wears its modesty and its honesty on its sleeve.

     Set in 1962 Poland, Mr. Pawlikowski's film is many different things at once: a road movie of self-discovery, and of discovery of the other, for two women of different generations; a meditation on the complex sociopolitical history of 20th century Poland; a portrait of personal awakening to the outside world. They're all framed through the omnipresence of the religion in Poland; title character Ida (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to be ordained a nun in the convent she has lived in since she can remember, when her superiors ask her to meet with her sole remaining family before taking her vows.

     Her visit with the worldly, and world-weary, aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) turns out to open a veritable "Pandora's box" of history and secrets Ida had no idea about, confronting her resolve and her decision to give herself to God. Wanda, who became an important figure in the Communist nomenklatura but carries a guilt all her own, reveals Ida is in fact the daughter of Jewish parents killed in hiding during WWII, and together they travel the Polish countryside in search of the unmarked graves of the Lebensteins (and, hopefully for Wanda, revealing to her niece the pleasures of the world of man as opposed to that of God).

     It would be very easy to look at the path of Ida and Wanda as a sort of "Stations of the Cross" path, were it not for the looseness with which Mr. Pawlikowski follows it and the intelligence with which the director and the two actresses trace out the personal journeys of the two women - between flesh and spirit, abstract and physical, divine and human. That Mr. Pawlikowski shoots it in the classic "boxed" Academy ratio and in a stark, luminous black & white (courtesy of first-time cinematographer Łukasz Żał, who took over from Ryszard Lenczewski early in the shoot), in a leisurely rhythm, will undoubtedly remind many of classic silent movies or some of the early triumphs of sound; the period setting also underlines that sense of a film coming from an entirely different approach to filmmaking.

     But it's also notable that these references do not come from any cinephile show-off - merely of a perfect fit between form and function, narrative and style. It may be a slight, slim tale of small lives lost in the great flow of modern history, but it's one very well told and performed; modesty is, after all, a virtue, in film as well as in life.

IDA
Poland, Denmark, United Kingdom 2013
82 minutes
Cast Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Joanna Kulig
Director Paweł Pawlikowski; screenwriters Mr. Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz; cinematographers Łukasz Żał and Ryszard Lenczewski (b&w); composer Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen; designers Katarzyna Sobańska and Marcel Sławiński; costumes Aleksandra Staszko; editor Jarosław Kamiński; producers Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol and Ewa Puszczynska; production companies Opus Film and Phoenix Film in co-production with Canal Plus Poland and Phoenix Film Poland, in association with Portobello Pictures
Screened July 4th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Monday, July 14, 2014

NIGHT MOVES

At its best, American director Kelly Reichardt's work has always dealt with the apparently unsurmountable chasm between the America of myth and legend and the America of hardscrabble reality, her characters constantly struggling to make things in response to the dream of a better future for everyone but not necessarily aware of how much they're "buying into" the American Dream. Night Moves follows her remarkable quasi-western Meek's Cutoff in the appropriation of genre as a framework for another meditation on an America that has lost its way, through the tale of an environmentalist protest action gone wrong.

     Bombing an Oregon dam to "set the river free" and protest the continuous destruction of the public good that is nature in the name of profit, sullen farm worker Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), gregarious former serviceman Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and carefree daddy's girl Dena (Dakota Fanning) are apparently going out on a limb and have really not given much thought to the consequences of what they're doing, let alone the reasons and purposes. Though they live "off the grid", either at natural farms or holistic retreats, they're still hemmed in at every point by the society around them - they drive everywhere, eat mostly pre-packaged food, use cellphones.

     These small ironies, coupled with the slow realisation that the three are not necessarily on the same page when it becomes obvious their action has claimed an unexpected victim suggest an element of "Sunday activism" involved, underlined by Ms. Reichardt's meticulously process-led handling of the events. Whatever tension exists in the progressively tightened grip of the plot comes not out of the usual acceleration of events but, rather, of its deceleration, the numbness of the daily routines and necessary chores to make the bombing happen; it's the overlay of context, expertly modulated to build mood and disquiet, that attests to the director's carefully classic, observational functionalism.

     For all that, and for the film's enormous intelligence and slowly unfolding moral weight, underlined by Christopher Blauvelt's nocturnal lensing, I can't help but feel that the requirements of a more traditional genre plot, even if distorted by Ms. Reichardt and novelist Jon Raymond, her usual screenwriting collaborator, somewhat hinder Night Moves rather than help it. The necessary waypoints that propel the plot forward seem somewhat predictable, and at odds with the director's traditional attention to quiet thoughtfulness and the cast's careful performances, almost as if Ms. Reichardt tried to blend two films into one. It works, for the most part, and this is still a valuable, smart production, but there's a sense this isn't as remarkable an effort as what has come before, that it is a stepping stone on the way to something else.

NIGHT MOVES
USA, Brazil 2013
112 minutes
Cast Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard, Alia Shawkat, Logan Miller, Kai Lennox, Katherine Waterston, James le Gros
Director and editor Kelly Reichardt; screenwriters Jon Raymond and Ms. Reichardt; cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (colour); composer Jeff Grace; designer Elliott Hostetter; costumes Vicki Farrell; producers Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Chris Maybach, Saemi Kim and Rodrigo Teixeira; production companies Maybach Film Productions, RT Features Entertainment and Filmscience in association with De Leon Productions
Screened June 19th 2014 (distributor DVD screener, Lisbon) and July 3rd 2014 (distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, Lisbon)

Thursday, July 03, 2014

VIOLETTE

Director, playwright and novelist Martin Provost started as an actor in the Comédie Française - and it shows in his films, featuring plum leading roles for talented actors to bite into but surrounded by a modern-day equivalent of the cinéma de papa against which the Nouvelle Vague rose. Violette is as good an example, and quite the paradox, as was the director's earlier Séraphine: a film about a free-spirited, unconventional artist struggling against the world wanting to box her in, but one that is itself fatally hemmed in by the limits of the prestige art biopic for upscale audiences.

     Just as he'd done with the 19th-century "outsider" artist Séraphine, Mr. Provost creates a story of personal salvation through the transcendent powers of art. Here, it's the rise of mid-20th century writer Violette Leduc, a powerhouse force of nature that literally wills her autobiographical work into shape through sheer bloody-minded obsession, toiling for a long time in obscurity and public incomprehension despite the continuous encouragement of a visionary mentor (in Violette's case, the legendary Simone de Beauvoir).

     In truth, Mr. Provost does not gloss over the writer's damning faults, of which there are many: her constant self-pitying, her depression, her insecurity, her fragility, and the continuous use of her self-victimization as a weapon to bludgeon others with (as De Beauvoir says at one point, "you can't really be friends with Violette"). The ever wondrous Emmanuelle Devos is appropriately fearless and remarkable as the tortured writer, as indeed is Sandrine Kiberlain as an imperious Simone de Beauvoir, creating the sense of real people suffering through real emotional turmoil. But her alchemical melding of unhappiness and life into living, thrilling art isn't matched by the film; while Mr. Provost often films Violette's writing literally pouring out of her hands onto the notebooks she uses, he never truly gives us a sense of the writing, merely of the circumstances and moments that lead to it, so that the viewer doesn't create a connection with it.

     And though these people exist within the film as multidimensional characters lovingly shaped by the cast, the film quickly conforms to the standard arc of the artist who must suffer before finding success - in this case the discovery of Faucon, the remote village that Violette finds casually and that becomes her refuge from the world, and her winning of the Goncourt prize in the mid-1960s with La Bâtarde. It's a well-meaning but rather dull journey out of the dark and into the light, brilliantly photographed by the great Yves Cape but that nevertheless ends on a picture-postcard landscape of acceptance and integration that, somehow, is never what Violette Leduc's work seems to be about.

     Still, Ms. Devos and Ms. Kiberlain are both mesmerizing enough to keep you interested throughout Violette's unruly length, and the light the film shines on this somewhat forgotten figure is certainly welcome.

VIOLETTE
France, Belgium 2013
132 minutes
Cast Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet, Catherine Hiegel, Jacques Bonnaffé, Olivier Py
Director Martin Provost; screenwriters Mr. Provost, Marc Abdelnour and René de Ceccatty; cinematographer Yves Cape (colour); designer Thierry François; costumes Madeline Fontaine; editor Ludo Troch; producers Miléna Poylo and Gilles Sacuto; production companies TS Productions in co-production with France 3 Cinéma, Climax Films and Belgacom
Screened June 30th 2014, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)