Friday, September 19, 2014

JERSEY BOYS

Clint Eastwood no longer has anything to prove to anyone and can afford to pursue whatever projects he desires. That one of them should be Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's massively successful Broadway musical about the story of pop singer Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons isn't that much of a surprise if you factor in the actor/director's love of music (Honkytonk Man and Bird come immediately to mind). But it remains a peculiar choice for Mr. Eastwood since the New Jersey backdrop and the rock'n'roll and mobster connotations of the tale place it so squarely in Mean Streets Martin Scorsese territory - it's kind of Goodfellas meets That Thing You Do!, with Vincent Piazza imbuing his Tommy de Vito with the low-life swagger of a young De Niro or Ray Liotta, with a side of Chazz Palminteri's Bronx Tale to boot and a sprinkling of Sopranos-lite.

     Either way, the central dynamic in Jersey Boys lies in the band's constant see-sawing between two opposite poles. Angel-voiced singer Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and inspired songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) embody the essence of the American blue collar dream of hard work as a means to move up to the world; the smart but insecure guitarist Tommy is the breezy, shady grifter always out to con somebody else before he is conned. That tension between facade and reality, inside and outside, lies at the heart of the story as it has in so many Eastwood movies about people focussed to the point of obsession; a tension replicated in the adherence to the play's breaking-the-fourth-wall addresses to the audience and in the shifting of narrators between the four group members, presenting different (but not necessarily contradicting) versions of a same tale. And it is also replicated in Mr. Eastwood's desire to simultaneously follow the conventions and flaunt them openly: Jersey Boys is not your typical musical, where song and dance are inbuilt into the narrative flow, but a "jukebox" where the songs are used as both temporal markers and background commentary to the narrative.

     The narrative, however, is a standard rise-and-fall, rags-to-riches arc, filmed with all the awareness of the material's limitations and like an old-fashioned studio hand would have in the halcyon days of the studio system: deftly, economically, effectively, but also strangely anonymously, as indeed most of Mr. Eastwood's post-2008 work (The Changeling, Hereafter, J. Edgar). Hardly a strikeout - the director knows what he is doing - but neither is it a classic in the vein of later masterpieces such as Letters from Iwo Jima or Gran Torino. It's a film that would have needed a different energy, a different drive, to actually be more than just an amiable filming of a Broadway hit; there are enough tantalizing clues throughout of what it could have been, but the end result is somewhat not as big as the sum of the parts.

JERSEY BOYS
USA 2014
134 minutes
Cast John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken
Director Clint Eastwood; screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice; based on the stage play by Messrs. Brickman and Elice, Jersey Boys: The True Story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; songs by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe; cinematographer Tom Stern (colour, widescreen); designer James J. Murakami; costumes Deborah Hopper; editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; effects supervisor Michael Owens; choreographer Sergio Trujillo; producers Mr. Eastwood, Graham King and Robert Lorenz; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures, GK Films and The Malpaso Company in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
Screened August 29th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

OS MAIAS - CENAS DA VIDA ROMÂNTICA

If you're familiar with the highly stylized nature of the work of Portuguese director João Botelho, his take on José Maria Eça de Queiroz's late-19th century fresco Os Maias (the closest any novel has come to be "The Great Portuguese Novel") won't faze you. From his very first feature, 1981's Conversa Acabada, depicting the friendship between early 20th century poets Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Mr. Botelho has explored an almost painterly graphic sensibility and put it in service of a geometric, square-cornered formalism that can make his work heavy going for the average viewer. But, even when the films have not lived up to promise or premise, there has always been a very personal combination of distancing and passion that makes Mr. Botelho's work stand out from his generation of filmmakers and even of some of his avowed influences.

     Os Maias is a tragically romantic family saga doubling as riotous, savage picaresque of 19th century bourgeois mores; it is centred on the ill-fated love affair between Carlos da Maia (Graciano Dias), dashing young scion of a wealthy Lisbon family, and Maria Eduarda Castro Gomes (Maria Flor), a beautiful but mysterious new arrival to the city, but uses their passion as a magnifying glass to look at the decaying upper-class society and the rising nouveau-riche bourgeoisie. Mr. Botelho's take on the material is, deliberately, highly theatricalised, almost operatic in its lavish yet austere visuals. The narrative flow is rendered in elaborate tableaux, ravishingly photographed by João Ribeiro, that look staged for the benefit of an audience; they were entirely shot in a soundstage and use painted backdrops by artist João Queiroz as stand-ins for locations.

     The effect is meant to underline the concept of a society of spectacle that parades itself in public, where every gesture and pose is designed to be a status symbol. For the director, who in interviews has admitted his wish to use the novel as a mirror raised up to a contemporary Portuguese society with a lot in common to 19th century Lisbon, Os Maias becomes a "vanity fair" of gossipy social structures that delight in the irrelevant and dismiss the important; the film heightens it by focussing on artifice and design as a shortcut to emotion and truth, a sort of "meta-film" where what matters is what is hidden instead of what is visible.

     Is it too abstract or intellectual an approach to the book? It's really a tricky question to ask and even trickier to answer; the book is one of those unavoidable classics everyone who's come across it has an opinion about, but Mr. Botelho isn't worried about diluting his vision into a crowd-pleasing result. Quite the opposite: this is very clearly the director's vision of Os Maias, but his triumph is that the film is simultaneously faithful to his oeuvre and to the spirit of the novel, accessible to an audience unused to his tricks without giving up the novel's many layers of meaning. The film's overt artificialism and theatricality (from its use of black and white in the prologue onwards) also suggest a circle being closed with Mr. Botelho's earlier films (not only Conversa Acabada but also his black & white adaptation of Charles Dickens' Hard Times).

     It's by no means a perfect film: both in its three-hour "director's cut" and in its 2h20 "short cut", Os Maias may seem more of a succession of tableaux than an actual flowing narrative, unhelped by the stilted leads - Ms. Flor and Mr. Dias are too subdued and leaden to portray accurately the burning passion at the heart of their affair. This is particularly notable in the shorter version, more focussed on the love story; the longer director's cut balances it out more evenly with the social commentary, but remains somewhat askew since a brilliant Pedro Inês as Carlos' friend and sidekick, the impulsive, flamboyant João da Ega, anchors the satire to perfection. The result is a seductive music box of a film, simultaneously hyper-romantic and overly sober, that looks like one of those prestige costume dramas but subverts it through its smart, thoughtful, stylized approach; if you're expecting it to be bland and agreeable, you might have another think coming. Which is all for the best; unanimity is a bitch and if you're trying hard to please everyone you'll end up pleasing no one.

OS MAIAS - CENAS DA VIDA ROMÂNTICA
Portugal, Brasil 2014
186 minutes (director's cut)
139 minutes (general release version)
Cast Graciano Dias, Maria Flor, Pedro Inês, João Perry, Hugo Mestre Amaro, Maria João Pinho, Adriano Luz, Filipe Vargas, Marcello Urgeghe, Pedro Lacerda, Rita Blanco, José Manuel Mendes, André Gonçalves, Jorge Vaz de Carvalho
Director and screenwriter João Botelho; based on the novel by José Maria Eça de Queiroz, Os Maias; cinematographer João Ribeiro (colour, widescreen); art director Sílvia Grabowski; backdrops João Queiroz; costumes Tânia Franco; editor João Braz; producer Alexandre Oliveira; production companies Ar de Filmes in co-production with Raccord Produções, Bando à Parte and RTP
Screened August 19th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (general release version advance press screening), and September 1st 2014, ICA screening room, Lisbon (director's cut press screening)



OS MAIAS - TRAILER from Ar de Filmes on Vimeo.

Friday, September 05, 2014

QUE TA JOIE DEMEURE (Joy of Man's Desiring)

There is, of coure, enormous irony in calling a film about work - or, rather, about labour - Joy of Man's Desiring. The Bach quote is evidently twisted by Canadian Denis Côté in his latest feature, the seventh in a typically zig-zagging career, and one where the director and former film critic twists the documentary form for his own thoughtful, cerebral ends. On the surface, it appears to be a portrait of a number of labour-intensive Montréal working floors - carpentry, laundry, metallurgy - ironically employing mostly immigrants. But it turns out to be another form-defying hybrid, interrogating the contemporary nature of menial work in a radically shifting landscape where work itself is undergoing epoch-making changes, as the apparently spontaneous "conversations" between the "workers" turn out to be recurrent, scripted dialogue spoken by actors and thrown in the middle of actual documentary scenes - as if "work" would itself be just another performance.

     There's a sense that Joy of Man's Desiring does for people what the previous Bestiaire did for animals, observing beings in habitats that are not natural but have been adapted and modified on their behalf; as if the director's eye would be that of an entomologist bemusedly studying the personal lives of some small, insignificant creatures, much helped by Jessica Lee Gagné's crisp, hyper-real digital lensing, heightening and underlining the artificiality of Mr. Côté's construct. Joy of Man's Desiring belongs to the "parallel-track" of smaller-budget, smaller-scale films the Canadian director does in between his more "conventional" narrative fictions such as Vic & Flo Saw a Bear (though, frankly enough, "conventional" is hardly a word you'd apply to his playful, deliberately disorienting style). Though it works as a companion piece to Bestiaire, it's a more abstract, more playful and less acessible work, as thought-provoking but not as exciting, but confirming Mr. Côté pursues an intensely personal path as a director.

QUE TA JOIE DEMEURE
Canada 2014
69 minutes
Cast Guillaume Tremblay, Émilie Sigouin, Hamidou Savadogo, Ted Pluviose, Cassandre Emanuel, Olivier Aubin
Director and writer Denis Côté; cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné (colour); editor Nicolas Roy; producers Mr. Côté, Sylvain Corbeil and Nancy Grant; production company Metafilms
Screened February 7th 2014, Cinemaxx 6, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Forum press screening)


Thursday, September 04, 2014

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT

There was one great performance holding together Woody Allen's previous film, Blue Jasmine (Cate Blanchett in the title role), and there are two of them in Magic in the Moonlight, a much lighter but equally more disposable follow-up, by newcomers to the director's ever-shifting company of actors. They're the lovely Emma Stone, yet again explaining her dazzling comic timing, and the ever-impeccable Colin Firth, injecting a flush of heart in the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip British fop. Together with a regal Eileen Atkins, note-perfect as an aunt who no longer cares about what others may think, Ms. Stone and Mr. Firth are the real reasons to see Mr. Allen's latest production.

     This time, it's an agreeable but rather forgettable after-dinner mint set in the "roaring twenties" in the South of France, where perfectionist, exacting magician Stanley Crawford (Mr. Firth) is called in to unmask so-called psychic Sophie Baker (Ms. Stone), who has inveigled herself into the household of American steel barons, the Catledges. With magic yet again as a focal device for the plot (as in previous minor Allen entries The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Scoop), Mr. Allen pits faith and reason against each other in a battle of wits that ends up with Sophie and Stanley falling head over heels for each other.

     Clearly the main reference point (as, indeed, in the afore-mentioned films and many others in the director's oeuvre) is the screwball comedy of the 1930s and its mismatched couples who can't live with each other nor without each other. But the writer/director does not give Ms. Stone and Mr. Firth anything even close to, for instance, what Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant had to work with in the classic Bringing Up Baby; that they manage to infuse credibility and soul into these half-sketched characters and wit in the laboured, predictable situations is what raises Magic in the Moonlight from a lazy, assembly-line heritage comedy to something approaching a minor work derivative from earlier, better Allen movies. Even the typically excellent supporting cast is given virtually nothing to do - blink and you'll miss the usually so great Marcia Gay Harden, for instance. (And I can't help but think that Mr. Firth's Stanley is a direct take on Rex Harrison's immortal Professor Higgins from My Fair Lady, down to the entirely un-self-conscious misanthropy that shows up towards the film's denouement.)

     Never a true visual stylist, Mr. Allen also seems again to be directing in auto-pilot, his widescreen pans and picture-postcard set-ups aiming at quoting and referencing genre but, along with Darius Khondji's lush, golden-hued lensing, and the period-appropriate work from designer Anne Seibel and costumer Sonia Grande, suggesting instead eye candy to distract from the flimsiness of the plot. There's precious little magic here, though at least the ending comes as a welcome surprise that bucks the bitter trend of the director's recent, more scathing work.

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT
USA 2014
97 minutes
Cast Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver
Director and screenwriter Woody Allen; cinematographer Darius Khondji (colour, widescreen); designer Anne Seibel; costumes Sonia Grande; editor Alisa Lepselter; producers Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; production companies Gravier Productions and Dippermouth Productions, in association with Perdido Productions and Ske-Dat-De-Dat Productions
Screened August 27th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Monday, September 01, 2014

LOVE IS STRANGE

The first triumph of Ira Sachs' follow-up to his acclaimed award-winner Keep the Lights On is that Love Is Strange is neither a stereotypical "problem picture" nor a stereotypical "queer film". In fact, there is very little stereotypical about its unashamedly classic melodrama dressed in contemporary trappings. While, yes, it is a film about life in modern-day New York City, and yes, it does feature a same-sex relationship at its centre, this is not a flag-waving, fist-pumping standard-bearer for gay rights, but a remarkable story about growing old. Mr. Sachs, whose previous work ran the gamut from exciting to middling, seems to have hit the bullseye with this touching, heartbreaking tale of an aging couple who realize time has passed and left them behind, discarded like old heirlooms people don't really look twice at.

     Somewhere between Yasujiro Ozu's delicate miniatures of everyday living and the unabashed handkerchief quality of classic Hollywood - the clearer reference is Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow - Love Is Strange posits what happens when a happily partnered couple of 40 years find themselves in financial hardship and have to move in with friends and relatives. Music teacher George (Alfred Molina) is fired from his job at a Catholic school for having married his partner of 40 years, retired artist Ben (John Lithgow), meaning they can no longer afford their central New York flat - or, for that matter, any other flat. But neither can they find a place to stay together unless they move to the outer boroughs - impossible for George because of his private students - and the couple ends up separating. George moves in with the (stereotypically gay) couple of much younger police officers next door, creating an unspoken generation gap collision; Ben moves out with his nephew Elliott (Darren Burrows) and his family, becoming the "odd man out" in a household facing internal problems of his own, especially with Elliott's son Charlie (Charlie Tahan), an ill-at-ease teenager whose coming-of-age issues end up as the catalyst for the film's heartbreaking finale.

     That Love Is Strange is such a resonatingly moving experience is, in great part, due to Mr. Sachs' stellar casting and the ensemble's exquisitely tuned performances: Mr. Lithgow turns in a career-best role as Ben, who finds himself utterly lost apart from his other half, and Marisa Tomei, as Elliott's wife Kate, is in fine form as a character that works in some ways as the viewer's surrogate, the relative whose patience and kindness is stretched when dealing with a situation she has no control over. But, beyond that, it's a minutely judged and remarkably controlled melodrama where the same-sex relationship takes a complete backseat to the simplicity and restraint with which it takes up its premise; quaintly old-fashioned in its decision to tell a simple story simply, shockingly modern in its refusal to settle for easy clichés. Love Is Strange is nothing short of a masterpiece.

LOVE IS STRANGE
USA, Greece, Brazil 2014
94 minutes
Cast Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez, Christine Kirk, Marisa Tomei
Director Ira Sachs; screenwriters Mr. Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias; cinematographer Christos Voudouris (colour); designer Amy Williams; costumes Arjan Bhasin; editors Affonso Gonçalves and Michael Taylor; producers Lucas Joaquin, Jay van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Mr. Sachs and Jayne Baron Sherman; production companies Parts and Labor in co-production with Faliro House Productions, Film 50, Mutressa Movies and RT Features, in association with the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation
Screened February 6th 2014, CineStar 3, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama press screening)



Friday, August 29, 2014

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR

We have, literally, been here before - not just in the "hardboiled" crime thrillers whose hold on contemporary imagination persists since its 1940s/1950s introduction and heyday, but also in the stylized, chiaroscuro paneling that acclaimed/controversial artist Frank Miller created on paper with his Sin City series of graphic novels in the early 1990s and Robert Rodriguez impeccably transposed to the big screen nearly ten years ago. There's no doubt Mr. Miller managed to distill the essence of disenchanted, cynical post-war film noir in his visually striking work; there's even less doubt that Mr. Rodriguez's use of modern technology to bring the comics' vision to vivid, graphic life in his 2005 Sin City was an inspired gambit. His use of state-of-the-art technology to recreate the stylized artifice of the stories, having the all-star ensemble cast play against a green screen and placing it in digitally rendered sets straight out of Mr. Miller's artwork, developed into a truly artistic approach at once faithful to the origin material and extraordinarily cinematic.

     But this belated return to the universe of Basin City seems to have lost the "magic touch" of 2005. Though Mr. Rodriguez has always been at his best working within the restraints of "pulp fiction", revelling in the energy and in the tropes of disposable low-grade cinema (as seen in his Grindhouse contributions Planet Terror or Machete), there is a sense both he and Mr. Miller (again co-directing and contributing two new storylines for the film as well) are trying too hard to recapture the drive of the original film and end up not really succeeding.

     Part of it comes from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For being essentially more of the same; it's another set of visually stunning pulp noir tales within the well-codified universe of the genre, but with no discernible difference in approach or storytelling from the previous film. These could very well be "out-takes" from the 2005 production, heightened by the presence of returning cast members that are seriously underused, such as Mickey Rourke's good-hearted lug Marv or Bruce Willis' now ghostly incorruptible police officer (the use of 3D doesn't really add much either).

     Part of it is the creaking narrative: the four stories included aren't really interwoven, turning A Dame to Kill For into a portmanteau of isolated tales connected by the occasional common character and setting, and spending most of its running time on the titular storyline, adapted from one of the earliest Sin City comics. That tale of a Barbara-Stanwyckian femme fatale who seduces men for her own devious ways but makes the mistake of deciding to use the one man who truly loved her is, however, the saving grace of this sequel. Not only a smart riff on the hardboiled genre, it's the most cohesive and most fully realized of the four stories, also features another blisteringly stellar villain performance from the great Eva Green, ably backed by a coiled, moody Josh Brolin as her patsy.

     While there's no denying this is not so much a sequel determined by box-office expectations as it is a film borne out of the genuine desire of its makers to further explore the universe created in 2005, there is also no denying that A Dame to Kill For doesn't really go any further than the original went. It becomes a predictable, over-familiar thrill ride that no longer excites you as it did the first time around.

FRANK MILLER'S SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR
USA, France, India 2014
102 minutes
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Stacy Keach, Jaime King, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Meloni, Juno Temple, Marton Csokas, Jude Ciccolella, Julia Garner
Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller; screenwriter Mr. Miller; based on his stories "A Dame to Kill For" and "Just Another Saturday Night"; cinematographer and editor Mr. Rodriguez (b&w with colour elements, 3D); composers Mr. Rodriguez and Carl Thiel; designers Steve Joyner and Caylah Eddleblute; costumes Nina Proctor; co-editor Ian Silverstein; effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier; special make-up Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger; producers Mr. Rodriguez, Aaron Kaufman, Stephen L'Heureux, Sergei Bespalov, Alexei Rodniansky and Mark Manuel; production companies Aldamisa Entertainment, Troublemaker Studios, AR Films and Solipsist Films in co-production with Davis Films Productions, in association with Dimension Films, Prescience, Altus Media and Prime Focus Films
Screened August 22nd 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 6, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

JACK

Belief in one's work, the overarching desire to tell this story to the best of one's abilities, an almost irrepressible need to share a tale with the world; all of these are excellent reasons to invest yourself in a film, but are no guarantee that the results will be at the height of the ambitions. Such is the case with veteran German director Edward Berger's return to the big screen after a decade working in television: this well-meaning tale of a ten-year-old who pretty much runs the household while his mother is out and about carousing looks much like a rehash of earlier, better films, halfway between the social problem picture and the small-scale, art-house drama.

     Jack reminds you alternately of the urban, working-class grittiness of the Dardenne brothers, of the poetic look at a child's ability to blend in with her surroundings in Valérie Massadian's Nana, or of the Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda's tender, clear-eyed look at children caught in family affairs. In fact, Mr. Berger's film, developed over a few years and co-scripted with actress Nelle Mueller-Stöfen (who is also on-screen) is clearly indebted to Mr. Kore-eda's Nobody Knows while being far too close narratively to Swiss director Ursula Meier's more affecting Sister. As in Ms. Meier's film, the centre of the tale is a young man, Jack (the preternaturally confident Ivo Pietzcker), who lives in Berlin pretty much on his own and takes care of his younger brother Manuel (Georg Arms) while mother Sanna (Luise Heyer), who seems to have no fixed job and is prone to leaving the two kids on their own for days on end. Here, though, Ms. Mueller-Stöfen and Mr. Berger lead the story into a welcome absence of moral judgements, as Jack, taken into a social care center and missing the self-reliance and freedom of his previous life, eventually goes in search of his mother and tries to recapture what he once had.

     Presented as a sort of precocious, speeded-up coming of age tale about a boy forced to grow up way too fast and about to learn the hard way what taking responsibility means, Jack benefits strongly from the dry, matter-of-fact presentation of the narrative and Mr. Berger's attention to his actors, as well as a very strong sense of place. Unfortunately, the overly demonstrative score from Christoph Kaiser and Julian Maas tends to bring out the sentimental whimsy the director is trying to evade, and the general story arc comes out as overly schematic, hitting a number of apparently preset narrative beats that seem to format the film so it can fit in a specific festival, television and/or arthouse slot. It's honest, well-meaning, but ultimately utterly anonymous.

JACK
Germany 2014
102 minutes
Cast Ivo Pietzcker, Georg Arms, Luise Heyer, Nelle Mueller-Stöfen
Director Edward Berger; screenwriters Mr. Berger and Ms. Mueller-Stöfen; cinematographer Jens Harant (colour); composers Christoph M. Kaiser and Julian Maas; designer Christiane Rothe; costumes Esther Walz; editor Janine Herhoffer; producers Jan Krüger and René Römert; production companies Port-au-Prince Film und Kultur Produktion in co-production with Cine Plus Filmproduktion, Mixtvision Filmproduktion, Neue Bioskop Film and Zero West Filmproduktion, in association with Hessischer Rundfunk and ARTE
Screened February 7th 2014, Berlinale Palast, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)