Friday, October 31, 2014

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY

Patricia Highsmith's tales of Americans adrift in Europe, stumbling their way into unexpectedly existential, amoral situations, have long fascinated cinema, and have even originated some pretty good films. In many ways, a lot of it is due to the late writer's interest in the inherently cinematic duality of the doppelgänger, made visible in the identity theft at the heart of the Ripley series since The Talented Mr. Ripley.

    The Two Faces of January, Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini's directorial debut, comes across as a sort of second-tier Talented Mr. Ripley set under the hot Summer sun of 1962 Greece, with the two male leads passing themselves off as what they are not and recognising kindred spirits in each other. Both are small-time con artists who have shed a skin and are yearning to live the dream they were promised but can't access other than through less legal ways.

     These, however, are not exactly innocents abroad; rather people in a somewhat strange pilgrimage to exorcise demons or run from their pasts. Chester McFarland (Viggo Mortensen, channelling a young Ed Harris) is a World War II veteran living it large after eloping to Europe with the money entrusted to him by investors. Rydal Keener (a subdued, almost bland Oscar Isaac) is the son of a scholar tasting freedom from a life pre-ordained by a suffocating family and skimming off rich tourists who have more money they know what to do with.

     A casual meet in Athens, expatriates enjoying time together, takes a turn for the worse when Rydal is unwitting witness to Chester's attempt to hide the dead body of a private detective sent on his trail. Escaping before the police cotton on to the crime, the fast friendship between the two men, having become a kind of surrogate father and son, deteriorates quickly as Chester realises Rydal is attracted to his wife, the lovely Colette (Kirsten Dunst making the most of a thankless, supporting role).

      To his credit, Mr. Amini strives valiantly to maintain the wry, detached tone of Highsmith's novels, the almost casual way with which the tiniest detail mushrooms into a full-blown butterfly effect, her characters struggling with the unavoidable. But he is unable to give The Two Faces of January the added edge that would underline the hunger, the desperation for self-reinvention that is the engine for both Chester and Rydal's actions.

     Instead, the director falls back on that standard British mode of elegant, understated period film making, the impeccable production and Marcel Zyskind's widescreen Kodachrome cinematography seemingly ripped out of a 1960s thriller - which might have been the whole point.  But in so doing, The Two Faces of January becomes a tasteful, thoughtful, rather bloodless film - which is precisely what the writer was railing against with her disappointed characters.

     There is, to be sure, nothing intrinsically wrong per se with this handsome production, well performed and well handled if with some anonymity. It's just that this kind of vacuum-sealed, well-appointed film somehow evades the exact existentialism that was at the heart of the novel: there's no weariness, just ennui.

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY
France, United Kingdom, USA 2013
97 minutes
Cast Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, David Warshofsky
Director and screenwriter Hossein Amini; based on the novel The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith; cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (colour, widescreen); composer Alberto Iglesias; designer Michael Carlin; costumes Steven Noble; editors Nicolas Chaudeurge and Jon Harris; producers Tom Sternberg, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robyn Slovo; production companies Studiocanal, Working Title Films, Timnick Films and Mirage Enterprises in association with Anton Capital Entertainment
Screened November 27th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

DER ANSTÄNDIGE (The Decent One)

Here's the question I could never get out of my mind while seeing The Decent One, Vanessa Lapa's scrupulously researched and impeccably assembled montage of archive footage about the infamous head of Hitler's SS, Heinrich Himmler: what is it truly about?

     Is it about our never-ending fascination as to why and how the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany was possible, with the existential struggle between Good and Evil of World War II? Is it about trying to understand the mentality that made Nazism possible? Is it about the disconnect involved in being perfectly normal family men with a genocidal, lethal job?

     In attempting to reconcile the callous bureaucracy and chilling cruelty of the Nazi regime with Himmler's personal life, Ms. Lapa, an Israeli journalist and filmmaker born in Belgium and the descendent of Holocaust survivors, is trying to understand dispassionately what drove a man like the feared SS leader to direct such barbaric acts. In many ways, The Decent One - the title suggesting the perfectly average family life Himmler led, shown in extracts from his correspondence - tries to engage its subject with journalistic zeal and an archivist's attention to the minutiae of the context in which everything happened.

     The accumulation of inexhaustibly researched material (a wealth of which comes from Himmler's family archives and had never been made public before), however, as the (almost too) bloodless end result proves, brings the viewer no nearer to a glimpse of the reason why.

     What the film does portray, chillingly, is a sort of underlining of Hannah Arendt's commentary of the "banality of evil", the sense that the kernel of the horror behind the Holocaust lies almost forgotten underneath a labyrinthine series of layers of bureaucracy and protocol; the idea that the machinery of war and genocide, and its minutely reported and noted process, was in fact the real heart of the regime, a desire for order, hierarchy, respect to be maintained at all costs (the much vaunted German efficiency becoming a tragically distorted negative of itself).

     The Decent One doesn't necessarily answer the questions it poses, and that's not necessarily a bad thing since it reminds the viewer of the reasons why they must continue to be posed. But I also couldn't help think that, at some point, Ms. Lapa also loses sight of the answers because she is too absorbed in the technical challenge of having to construct her film entirely out of archive footage (and some of her artistic choices, especially when it comes to sound effects and music score, are laid on a bit too thick for effect). It's a challenge she meets head on magnificently, resulting in an undeniably important historical document, but one that, underwriting everything that's been said before, leaves you none the wiser.

DER ANSTÄNDIGE
Israel, Austria, Germany 2013
96 minutes
Director and producer Vanessa Lapa; screenwriters Ms. Lapa and Ori Weisbrod; composers Jonathan Sheffer, Daniel Salomon and Gil Feldman; editors Noam Amit and Sharon Brook; production company Realworks in co-production with Felix Breisach Medienwerkstatt, ORF, MDR and WDR
Screened February 9th 2014, Kino International, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama official screening)


Monday, October 27, 2014

GETÚLIO

Brazil has been a lot in the news lately, what with the soccer world cup, public protests and presidential elections - all the more reason to be attentive to the strikingly inventive and interesting independent cinema the country is now producing. The first foray into narrative fiction from documentary filmmaker João Jardim, best known abroad for his work with Lucy Walker in the glossy, well-meaning documentary Waste Land, triangulates many of these issues into a fictionalised take on the last few days in the life of Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas, who died by his own hand in 1954.

      Mr. Jardim is seeking that sweet spot between popular mainstream and auteur filmmaking that Walter Salles, Fernando Meirelles and José Padilha reached before him - and, as so many others before him, he also fails to find it. Despite an excellent ensemble cast led by Tony Ramos as an aged, disenchanted Vargas, Getúlio is a hurried, harried, jumbled primer in Brazil's mid-century history as a political thriller and a glossy, over-stylized City of God also-ran, full of camera trickery and flashy visuals, as a narrative film.

     At times, there's a sense that Mr. Jardim and his talented DP Walter Carvalho are aiming for a sort of Oliver Stone stream-of-consciousness visual overload. But where Mr. Stone's maximalist approach in films such as Nixon or JFK was justified by his need to find a visual equivalent to the labyrinth of theories, contexts, places and characters his sprawling plots required, Getúlio seldom leaves the Catete presidential palace where everything takes place.

     His reliance on both jittery handheld cameras and sweeping, stately pans and set-ups tends therefore to read more as a solution to keep his parlour political thriller from feeling hemmed in. The key to its plot, though, is precisely that Getúlio Vargas, a former dictator who was democratically elected for a third term, was indeed hemmed in by the circumstances, trapped in a prison of his own making, running round like a hamster in a wheel.

     The film follows the last few days of the president's life, as a botched hit on crusading journalist Carlos Lacerda (Alexandre Borges) that kills an Air Force officer is traced back to members of the president's own security guard and unravels his government as internecine factions start jousting for power in a post-Getúlio world. Both in Mr. Ramos' exquisitely judged performance and in the script by George Moura, Teresa Frota and Mr. Jardim, Getúlio is a tale of a man lost in its own entropy, weathering a storm that is spinning out of control, and realising that the events have overtaken him to a point nothing he can do - except his death - can put things right.

     But that core of calm at the centre of the hurricane is drowned by all the huffing and puffing around him, with the constant back-and-forth between aides (and mostly his own daughter Alzira, played by Drica Moraes) eventually becoming the film, a continuous series of interferences (and that includes the rather obtrusive dream sequences) that distract from its lead character. It's as if Getúlio were a ghost, already dead, but without knowing it, and the film forgot to look into that, preferring to explore only the chaos around him.

     Undeniably proficient technically, Getúlio is nevertheless a disheartening experience, as you sense Mr. Jardim is constantly missing the forest for the trees. Nowhere more than in the close-up of Mr. Ramos as Getúlio remembers his now dead older son, a close-up that in its handheld intrusiveness and tone-deafness with what's at stake around him becomes the exact opposite of what the director wants to evoke. In trying too hard to reach for the centre, Getúlio gets lost all over the place.

GETÚLIO
Brazil, Portugal 2014
101 minutes
Cast Tony Ramos, Drica Moraes, Alexandre Borges, Adriano Garib, Fernando Luís, Leonardo Medeiros, Marcelo Medici, Alexandre Nero, Jackson Antunes, Thiago Justino, Clarisse Abujamra, Michel Bercovitch, José Raposo, Cláudio Tovar, Daniel Dantas, Fernando Eiras, Paulo Giardini, Murilo Grossi
Director João Jardim; screenwriters George Moura and Teresa Frota with Mr. Jardim; based on a story by Mr. Jardim; cinematographer Walter Carvalho (colour, widescreen); composer Federico Jusid; art director Tiago Marques; costumes Marcelo Pies, Valéria Stefani; editors Joana Ventura, Pedro Bronz; producers Pedro Borges, Mr. Jardim, Flávia Borges; production companies Copacabana Filmes e Produções and Fogo Azul Filmes in co-production with Globo Filmes, Telecine Productions, Midas Filmes, MGM Latin America and RTP
Screened October 24th 2014, Lisbon (distributor screener DVD)



Friday, October 24, 2014

FURY

War is hell, goes the saying we've all heard so many times. But screenwriter David Ayer's fifth - and finest - feature as director is intent on saying it in a more visceral, blunt way, without pulling any punches just because there's a Hollywood star top-lining its cast.

     Entirely set in and around an American tank in the final stretch of World War II, as the Allied push into Berlin meets fanatical, desperate resistance, Fury is part classic platoon picture about men under pressure, part acute character study of men in war, but is notable for refusing the standard war-movie heroics, replaced by a disenchanted, downbeat tone.

     Mr. Ayer, who served in the American Navy submarine service, is clearly fascinated by the dynamics of male bonding and the pressure involved in snap decisions on edgy situations, blurring the line between right and wrong; he came to prominence with his script for Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, and his work as both screenwriter (The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue) and director (Street Kings, End of Watch) betrays his fascination with the close-quarters push-and-pull of men on a mission.

     Fury encapsulates all of his recurring themes in a script that is very redolent of Training Day, with a newcomer being taught the ropes of a job that turns out much harder and tougher to swallow than he could have expected. Here, it's the coming of age of Norman Ellison (an excellent Logan Lerman), a pool typist parachuted into a veteran tank crew who has just lost one of its gunners and who has survived against all odds in a branch with a high death rate due to the many structural weaknesses of American tanks, especially when up against the technically superior German vehicles.

     For the inexperienced Norman, the next few days are going to be a rude awakening, the realities of violent conflict encroaching on him as Mr. Ayer telescopes the experience of war into a heightened, dazed, bloody blur. Only base survival instincts and nimbleness will keep you alive, but Norman also has to prove himself to a crew that has been hardened and numbed by war.

     The director is particularly attentive to the group dynamics between the crew, led by the tough, no-nonsense Don Collier aka "Wardaddy" (Brad Pitt), one of those leaders men will follow into hell in the knowledge he will do his damnedest to bring them back alive. Mr. Pitt is excellent here in the elegant ballet between toughness and vulnerability the part requires, as a man who will stop at nothing to fulfill his mission but works hard at not letting the desperation and fear show, even though he will occasionally let his guard down when no one - except maybe his enemies - is looking.

     The relationship between Collier and Norman develops as a sort of "tough love" upbringing of an innocent, naïf young man by a father wanting to prepare him for the worst. Mr. Pitt's performance anchors the film with a rich, protean multiplicity of readings: parent, best friend, confessor, leader, tyrant, boss, savior, huckster.

     Fury is at its best in the claustrophobic but intense close-quarters scenes where the crew — Collier, Norman, latino "Gordo" (Ayer regular Michael Peña), Southern redneck Grady (Jon Bernthal) and devout evangelical Boyd (Shia LaBeouf) — shares more than even they would like to; the film becomes a sort of WWII version of Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, where the tank becomes a microcosm of the world outside in all its contradictions and humanity.

      One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that Mr. Ayer has no interest in either sugarcoating or apologizing for the violence meted out to enemies during World War II. The "Greatest Generation" so often lionized for their role in fighting for freedom is here portrayed, quite realistically, as men dealing with unspeakable horrors and attempting to make sense of the apparent randomness and futility of war, finding what respite they could in the rough camaraderie enjoyed in the few moments of calm between storms.

     That the film has a Fullerian, almost browbeating intensity is a very good thing and a credit to Mr. Ayer. But the writer/director may have over-reached in Fury's final stretch; by drawing the climactic battle out the way he does, what until then had been a punishingly backbreaking sense of workaday resilience gains an overly heroic, symbolic significance that seems to be there to give the audience a respite, and a reason for the all the mayhem that has come before.

     It's a shame, because what makes Fury such a fascinating work to come out of modern Hollywood - even though it was financed independently - is precisely its reluctance to go with standard good-vs-evil fireworks and give a more down to earth, realistic spin to the traditional hero narrative. The ending makes it seem as Mr. Ayer did not find the strength to take it all away; but there's still enough strength left to make sure it was not in vain. And with Fury, David Ayer proves he's more than just a smart screenwriter with a directing jones.

FURY
USA 2014
135 minutes
Cast Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs
Director and screenwriter David Ayer; cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (colour, widescreen); composer Steven Price; designer Andrew Menzies; costumes Owen Thornton; editors Dody Dorn and Jay Cassidy; visual effects Jerome Chen; producers Bill Block, Mr. Ayer, Ethan Smith and John Lesher; production companies QED International, Le Grisbi Productions and Crave Films in association with LStar Capital
Screened October 15th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, October 23, 2014

FADO CAMANÉ

Here's the thing. When you film the recordings of a music album, capturing the doubts, the questions, the essays, the stop-start attempts, the rehearsals, the conversation, how do you make it into an actual, fully-fledged documentary worthy of theatrical presentation and not just one of the standard industry-issue "making of" pieces offered as enticing bonuses to get you to buy the physical disc?

      In the case of Portuguese filmmaker Bruno de Almeida, that difference lies in his visual eye, in his clearly defined vision of a recording session as a group of workers assembling something.

     Fado Camané's grainy, black and white textures and the director's attention to eyes, faces, bodies, physical presences are all about the push and pull of people coming together to manufacture art, though this is manufacture as handicraft, artistic creation as a decision tree that whittles down possibilities.

     Fado Camané is, thus, a singer recording an album - the outstanding Portuguese Fado singer Camané and his 2008 studio album Sempre de Mim - and finding it as he goes along, with the help of the musicians, the recording engineer, the lyricists, the journalists who interview him during the recording, the producer, the cameramen who also interviews him.

     It's also a different beast than the original version of these images as - there you go - a 30-minute "making of" piece included in a limited edition release of the record. The six-year interval between the album's release and the film's completion means this is no shameless plug but rather an exploration of a creative, artistic process as exemplified in a series of recording sessions, a quest for artistic meaning that focuses on personalities and relationships.

     But, for all that, there's a sense that its timelessness is not enough to let Fado Camané carry its weight as a theatrical feature, that the attempt at interspersing theory (the sitdown interview segments) and practice (the actual recordings) is an acknowledgement that there's only so far you can go with this sort of material and you can't really bring nothing new to the table unless you completely reverse the approach - something that wouldn't work with an artist as sober and serious as Camané is.

      Fado Camané is thus a fascinating portrait of the way Camané records, of the way he approaches the songs and of how his musical director and producer José Mário Branco helps him get where he wants to be, smartly if unobtrusively handled by Mr. de Almeida; it is certainly more than just DVD bonus or late-night-slot television, but that doesn't make it more than just a solid, well-made music documentary.

FADO CAMANÉ
Portugal 2014
71 minutes
Director, producer and editor Bruno de Almeida; cinematographer Paulo Abreu (b&w); production companies BA Filmes and Museu do Fado in association with Warner Music Portugal
Screened October 14th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



FADO CAMANÉ de Bruno de Almeida Trailer from Arco Films on Vimeo.

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)