Friday, February 27, 2015

BIG EYES

"Subtle doesn't sell" - that's the motto of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), shameless self-promoter and marketer extraordinaire in 1950s San Francisco. You'd think Tim Burton, by now, wouldn't need to follow that particular piece of advice; he's made a pretty good career out of getting people to accept his skewed, slightly off-key sensibility.

     And Big Eyes, telling the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the real artist behind the big-eyed waifs that became an art sensation in 1950s/60s America, would be just the perfect to film to assert it again. After a series of uninspired, Burton-by-numbers big-budget spectacles coasting on his reputation, a smaller-scale, low-key drama like this could be just what the doctor ordered.

     Alas, no such luck. There's nary a hint of subtlety or a trace of personality in this parable of media frenzy and unrecognised stifled talent. The mousy Margaret, a commercial artist with a lousy taste in men and a daughter to feed, allows the charming but ruthlessly scheming Walter to pass off her paintings as his own then ride the wave as his gift for (self-)promotion builds up a veritable cottage industry.

     There are all sorts of ideas swirling around in the script by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, but at heart this isn't a story about the drive to succeed, rather about the strength to survive. Here, Margaret was fending for herself in a patriarchal society where being a single woman raising a child on her own was not yet socially acceptable; her sensibility seemed to highlight the menace and pain underneath suburban conformity, but was misunderstood and misappropriated to the point of becoming a whole new conformism in itself. The success of her paintings, discredited by serious artists and critics but selling by the thousands to the average, art-illiterate consumer, also points out how art is a distinctly treacherous ground for absolutes.

     But, for all that, Mr. Burton never seems to truly choose one of these possible paths and instead merely passes them by, preferring to take the least interesting road: that of the abused woman who allowed herself to be taken advantage of and suffered in silence until she could no longer take it. It's a choice that requires a kind of more grounded, direct, realist filmmaking than Mr. Burton usually does and where his strengths tend to lie; whereas the beauty in his masterful Big Fish was in the liberties that embellished the actual truth of the facts, there's nothing of the sort here, just a rather dull trudge through melodrama leading to a rather run-of-the-mill courtroom drama finale.

     There's no lack of talent in front of and behind the camera in Big Eyes, but there seems to be no hunger nor brio (even the typically professional Ms. Adams and Mr. Waltz seem more subdued than usual, and the star supporting cast is basically wasted in glorified cameos). And while it's true that what Mr. Burton has been doing lately hasn't really been challenging (him or us) at all, this seems like the wrong sort of challenge for him to take on.

BIG EYES
USA 2014
106 minutes
 Cast Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
 Director Tim Burton; screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (colour); composer Danny Elfman; designer Rick Heinrichs; costumes Colleen Atwood; editor J. C. Bond; producers Lynette Howell, Mr. Alexander, Mr. Karaszewski and Mr. Burton; production companies The Weinstein Company, Tim Burton Productions and Electric City Entertainment
Screened February 2nd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

AMOR, PLÁSTICO E BARULHO
Love, Plastic and Noise

Amor, Plástico e Barulho could be construed as a tropical take on A Star Is Born about a star on the way up and another on the way down - only nobody in its tale could actually be called a proper star outside the reasonably small scene where everything happens. It could also be a less cruel version of King of Comedy, except these resolutely small-time rural singers never really make it to the big time.

     Sort of a rags-to-rags story whose stars never really reach the riches they're aiming for, the feature debut from Brazilian director Renata Pinheiro is actually something else - That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks' tale of the meteoric rise and fall of an American pop band in the early sixties, reconfigured for the world of Northern Brazilian rural bands peddling cheap, bawdy, backing-tape titillation at local dances and daytime television. Success, here, isn't measured nationally or globally, but just at regional levels, with everyone working hard and struggling just to stand still.

     Ms. Pinheiro's project never condescends, pities or makes fun of its two lead characters, competing singers in one such band who cross paths at different stages of their careers. Jaqueline (Maeve Jinkings) has reached "the top" and has a recognisable hit on her hands, but soon finds out there's really nowhere else to go, unable to parlay that small popularity into bigger, more solid gigs. Shelly (Nash Laila), on the other hand, is the new backing dancer whose big break comes at the expense of Jaqueline and seems all set to groom her to follow her up.

     The director shows just how much work goes into making it even to a rickety, improvised stage at a derelict warehouse, and uses it to highlight both the allure and the disappointment of such ambitions. "Fame", here, is merely an endless treadmill of wannabes that replace each other in a never-ending assembly line, feeding on dreams that are seemingly bound to be dashed. Jaqueline and Shelly are working girls vying for the preferences of the small time DJ or band leader, aspiring to make it out of the circuit but in truth never realising that, if they do, they'll just get to a new level of the very same circuit.

     Ms. Pinheiro's camera never loses sight of the big picture surrounding the two women, while playing it straight as a character study about people making do with the raw hand they've been dealt. And she does so with a bitter-sweet yet vibrant, colourful energy that is respectful of both characters and background. Amor, Plástico e Barulho finds the exact sweet spot between giving up and moving forward, critiquing and understanding, shedding light on a small microcosm that turns out to be very significative of the world that surrounds it. It's yet another stellar example of the vibrant new cinema coming out of Brazil.

AMOR, PLÁSTICO E BARULHO
Brazil 2013
83 minutes
 Cast Nash Laila, Maeve Jinkings, Samuel Vieira, Leo Pyrata
 Director Renata Pinheiro; screenwriters Ms. Pinheiro and Sérgio Oliveira, with collaboration from Ezequiel Peri and René Guerra; cinematographer Fernando Lockett (colour); composers DJ Dolores and Yuri Queiroga; art director Dani Vilela; costumes Joana Gatis; editor Eva Randolph; production company Aroma Filmes in co-production with Boulevard Filmes
Screened April 20th 2014, Lisbon (IndieLisboa 2014 official competition screener)


Sunday, February 22, 2015

CARICATURISTES, FANTASSINS DE LA DÉMOCRATIE
Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy

After the January shooting on the Charlie Hebdo offices that killed 11 people, French director Stéphanie Valloatto's documentary on the struggle of political cartoonists, focusing on a dozen artists from all over the world, gains a whole new relevance.

     Finished and premiered (at the Cannes festival in 2014) nearly a year before the Paris tragedy, it is at heart a piece of activist cinema, as its title makes clear. Made under the aegis of the Cartooning for Peace association, it's meant to highlight the struggles and stakes that political satire faces in our contemporary world and how much political cartoons are an important part of democracy and free speech, while proposing a bird's eye view of the "state of the world" today.

     Though Ms. Valloatto is the nominal director, Cartoonists seems clearly masterminded by its producer and co-writer, Franco-Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu; his filmmaking throughout the years (to be fair often more well-meaning than artistically interesting) has tended towards "problem pictures" yearning for good will and peace among all peoples, and there's a strong through-line that leads into this documentary. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does suggest why Cartoonists is intrinsically awkward if competent: it's a politically correct film about a politically incorrect vocation.

     If a cartoonist's work is to express anger, and the enemy is political correctness, as one of the interviewees adroitly says, there is much about Cartoonists that is politically correct. It starts with the fact that perhaps the single most polarizing and important cartooning issue in recent years, the Danish Muhammad cartoons that ignited a firestorm around the world, is mentioned merely in passing and late in the film. And as laudable as it is to train the camera on other names and other countries and not focus on that alone, it's certainly bizarre that Ms. Valloatto edits in so much that comes off as staged for the camera and somewhat surplus to requirements (like many of the moments at Russian cartoonist Mikhail Zlatkovsky's dacha, for instance).

     I came out of it with the sense that Cartoonists merely skims the surface of its subject, and that there's a truly great documentary hiding within its footage. This is just not it. And while its subject alone gives it a relevance it undoubtedly deserves in a post-Charlie Hebdo context, that context also glaringly points out its shortcomings.

CARICATURISTES, FANTASSINS DE LA DÉMOCRATIE
France, Belgium, Italy 2014
103 minutes
 Director Stéphanie Valloatto; screenwriters Radu Mihaileanu and Ms. Valloatto; composer Armand Amar; cinematographer Cyrille Blanc (colour); editor Marie-Jo Audiard; producers Mr. Mihaileanu and Ms. Blanc; production companies Oï Oï Oï Productions, Cinextra Productions, Orange Studio and France 3 Cinéma in co-production with Panache Productions, La Compagnie Cinématographique and B-Movies in collaboration with Istituto Luce-Cinecittà
Screened February 15th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

TUSEN GANGER GOD NATT
A Thousand Times Good Night

You have to admire a film that explains very clearly what it wants to say in a short amount of time, with a clear eye and practically no doubt. Such are the first 20 minutes of Norwegian director Erik Poppe's A Thousand Times Good Night: a war photographer is led somewhere in a desert and witnesses the final preparations of a suicide bomber about to head out on her lethal mission. That both the are women is a significant matter.

     That's where the film that we think A Thousand Time Good Night is going to be ends, and that's where it loses our admiration. After the bomb goes off early and Rebecca is unexpectedly injured, Mr. Poppe follows her back to her picture-postcard perfect life in rural Ireland, and the film falls prey to a tasteful, well-meaning rehash of first-world moral problems.

     The convalescing photographer is faced with a choice, between a job that she clings on to like a profession of faith and a moral compass in a world gone haywire and a family she hardly ever sees and somehow resents her for not being around enough. There's undoubtedly a good film to be made from this theme, and the Norwegian director, himself a former war zone photographer, hedges his bets by casting Juliette Binoche as Rebecca. The French actress' frightening intelligence and commitment is visible in every single frame, as the divided Rebecca questions motives and allegiances and, faced with the ever-changing landscape of the modern press, asks if it's worth continuing to sacrifice herself and her family.

     But this is yet another case of Ms. Binoche's attraction to meaty roles in films that end up beneath her talents; Mr. Poppe is unable to put into her mouth anything other than well-meaning platitudes that articulate these issues in warmed-over soundbites, and relies far too much on melodramatic tropes and conventions that reek of predictability from the get-go. Very much like his heroine who is most herself when at work, the director seems much more at ease in the heat of the action, in the three separate occasions when Rebecca is "on location", and doesn't quite know where to go when she's home - which, unfortunately, is most of the picture. A Thousand Times Good Night is tasteful issue cinema - too tasteful by half, lacking the vibrancy and guts it needed to work.

TUSEN GANGER GOD NATT
Norway, Sweden, Ireland 2013
113 minutes
Cast Juliette Binoche, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Larry Mullen Jr., Mads Ousdal, Lauryn Canny, Adrianna Cramer Curtis
Director Erik Poppe; screenwriter Harald Rosenløw Eeg; from a story by Mr. Poppe and Mr. Rosenløw Eeg; cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund (colour, widescreen); composer Armand Amar; designer Eleanor Wood; costumes Judith Williams; editor Sofia Lindgren; producers Stein B. Kvae and Finn Gjerdrum; production companies Paradox in co-production with Zentropa International Sweden, Newgrange Pictures and Film i Vast
Screened February 13th 2015, Lisbon


Friday, February 20, 2015

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE

Navigating a curious, old-fashioned path through the American cookie-cutter studio system, Matthew Vaughn began as producer to lad-film-director extraordinaire Guy Ritchie but has by now overtaken his former protegé as a director in the "having your cake and eating it too" stakes. While Mr. Ritchie has stuck to thrillers and caper comedies, Mr. Vaughn has moved straight into the comic-book fantasy that is Hollywood's current stock-in-trade, but bringing into it a more sarcastic British sensibility, as seen first in his take on Neil Gaiman's twisted fairy-tale Stardust. 

     The director progressed from the super-hero spoof-cum-subversion Kick-Ass to the "real thing" with the frothy, James-Bond-y X-Men: First Class; Kingsman: The Secret Service, a new adaptation from a comic book by Kick-Ass authors Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, brings together the former's tongue-in-cheek, uneasy ultra-violence with the latter's sixties-influenced spy caper.

     It's as if Mr. Vaughn, working as always with his regular screenwriting partner Jane Goldman, brought together Ian Fleming's casually Anglo-centric gentleman-brute spy adventures with the giggly, fun fair roller-coaster rush of a blockbuster and then laced it with some cynical, dispassionate satire of modern society to create a disquietingly riotous mash-up infused with the self-mocking spirit of British kitchen-sink realism. And if the combination seems to make little or no sense, once you see it on screen it's so self-evident it's shocking - even if Kingsman, which has all the trappings of a potential franchise starter, has no qualms about sabotaging that possibility under its own feet.

     At the heart of the film is the age-old issue of the British class system, seen through the eyes of working-class wideboy Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the twenty-something son of a widow who's since shacked up with a local thug and who is seemingly pre-ordained to a life of petty crime and odd jobs. Unbeknownst to him, his late father belonged to a private, secret intelligence agency and one of his colleagues, dapper gentleman Harry Hart (a pitch-perfect Colin Firth) gives Eggsy a shot at making it as a field operative in the Kingsmen, an institution started after WWI by scions of the British aristocracy, even though pretty much everyone involved is doubtful a man from such lowly stock can make it.

     The concept of class is extended through the piece's evident villain, eccentric Silicon Valley philanthropist Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson, enjoying every minute of it), who is bent on saving the planet for a chosen elite carefully selected through venality and allegiance rather than through natural selection. The apocalyptic scenario that is part and parcel of every self-respecting spy caper hardly ever came true, but Mr. Vaughn is unapologetic about showing the violence meted out in the process of cleansing Earth from its "surplus" through Valentine's technology-delivered megalomaniac plan.

     Just like the graphic violence that disturbed a lot of people in Kick-Ass, he has no qualms about a daringly drawn-out sequence in a fundamentalist church that quickly twists the tables on the general breeziness of Kingsman while leading to the plot's biggest surprise and turning the film on its head. As the film progresses, Mr. Vaughn extends the violence into a daringly conceptual, almost-cartoonish satirical climax whose audacity in upending everything reminds of Stanley Kubrick's sharp, bitter tone in Dr. Strangelove. This is not comparing the director to Mr. Kubrick, far from it; but it is notable that Kingsman is such an incredibly self-aware proposition, with a couple of recurring dialogue lines openly invoking the love of its characters for the "classic Bond movies", where a well-judged quip and an outlandish plan would always be sorted within the running time.

     Mr. Vaughn knows too well that sort of film is no longer possible in this day and age, and proceeds to prove why that is, but refuses to deny himself the pleasures of contradiction by pining for that breeziness and working it steadfastly throughout. The Kingsman agents are outfitted head to toe by a prestigious London bespoke tailor that doubles as their headquarters, but their gentlemanliness runs of the risk of becoming far too quaint and old-fashioned for a world that has changed. Hence Kingsman's much more provocative and daring nature, twisting the rulebook on its head to find itself closer to something like the ill-tempered, graphic satire of British sci-fi magazine 2000AD than to standard spy stuff, modern while glancing at the past.

     All of that, plus a plot that's occasionally too twisty for its own good and a sense that Mr. Vaughn isn't always entirely sure where to draw the line, may suggest that Kingsman is biting off more than it can chew. And, for sure, it is a surreally grotesque trip that you either love or hate (or maybe even both at the same time...). But it makes its points without beatng around the bush, and doesn't apologize or tiptoe around its issues - it pretty much steam rollers through them. Over the top? Yes, of course. That's the whole point.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
USA, United Kingdom 2015
129 minutes
Cast Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill, Michael Caine
Director Matthew Vaughn; screenwriters Jane Goldman and Mr. Vaughn, based on the comic books The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons; cinematographer George Richmond (colour, widescreen); composers Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson; designer Paul Kirby; costumes Arianne Phillips; editors Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris; effects supervisors Steve Begg, Paul Docherty and John Bruno; producers Mr. Vaughn, David Reid and Adam Bohling; production companies Twentieth Century-Fox and Cloudy Productions in association with MARV Films and TSG Entertainment Finance
Screened February 13th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, February 19, 2015

INHERENT VICE

Fact: Paul Thomas Anderson has been trying to pull off the "Great American Movie" ever since I remember. Or, even better, creating a sort of "daisy-chain" of "Great American Movies" that work together as a mosaic of America, the not-so-beautiful, as seen from the inside of its underside.

     After the 19th-century ruthlessness of There Will Be Blood and the post-war aimlessness of the seriously underrated The Master, Mr. Anderson fasts forward to 1970 with this take on the celebrated writer Thomas Pynchon's 2009 deconstructed detective novel (allegedly blessed by Mr. Pynchon himself). Inherent Vice is set in that liminal zone between historical eras, at the heart of the disruption of "what used to be" but before "what will be" comes into focus, and portrays an America asking what went wrong after "having it so good" for so long, and beginning to understand that the post-Summer of Love free-for-all does not necessarily have the answer.

     Grasping at the straws of power and money while trying to find out where they will be next coming from, it's a study in the uneasy cohabitation of the "old guard" and the "new guard" in that seedy underbelly of a Los Angeles whose free'n'easy sunshine betrays much darkness cracking underneath.

     Nowhere as in Inherent Vice has the director been more redolent of Robert Altman's deceptively shambling mosaics (and, indeed, it's difficult to not look at the film without thinking of Mr. Altman's much-derided take on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye). Though there's a nominal hero in Joaquin Phoenix's easy-living private eye Doc Sportello, he's as much viewer's surrogate as witness to a pageant of Californian life parading by him, a continual relay race of characters that come in and out of focus and populate a sense of time and place that coalesces around both Mr. Phoenix and the would-be femme fatale that gets the ball rolling, Doc's former flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (guilelessly played by Katherine Waterston).

     The plot is as convoluted as any of Mr. Chandler's (or James Ellroy's) novels and derives from the exact same concept: the apparently open-and-shut missing woman case becomes the doorway to a concentric plot that uncovers weird scenes under the carpet, greed as the basic motivation for everything and money and drugs as its instruments.

     Inherent Vice could be a pothead Chinatown or a Chandler-on-acid satire, and its playfulness is no doubt inherited from Mr. Pynchon's novel, but it's all heightened by the straight-forwardness classicism with which Mr. Anderson films everything. Had he dialed back on the trappings required by the period setting and played it straight as a classic noir, there's no doubt that it could have worked as a traditional tale - but that's not counting on the pervasive hazy, air-headed smoke that is central to the director's take on noir.

     Since the genre has always been as much mood and tone as narrative, Inherent Vice sets up gladly all of the genre hallmarks only to present them as an endless series of smokescreens, sleights of hand that show just how much they're mere tools to reach an end. There is a plot - sort of - but no tidy wrap-ups nor a conventional happy ending (though there is a kind of ending). Instead, we have a meta-fictional construct that follows the rules while bending them to its own effort.

     And since noir is often about love and hope, that's exactly what Inherent Vice is about, only in a twisted, playful way that meshes the sensibilities of Mr. Pynchon's writing and Mr. Anderson's filmmaking. In so doing, it confirms how much the director is one of the most idiosyncratic directors currently working in American cinema, and one of the very few that can assume the legacy of the formally adventurous yet classically-inspired "New Hollywood" directors of the 1970s.

     Inherent Vice is not a spoof nor an ersatz - it's its own, defiantly assured, mash-up, one where logic seems to go up in smoke and stays there if you're willing to look for it in the clouds. And the latest in Mr. Anderson's great series of Great American Movies.

INHERENT VICE
USA 2014
148 minutes
 Cast Joaquín Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Martin Short, Jefferson Mays
 Director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson; based on the novel Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon; cinematographer Robert Elswit (colour); composer Jonny Greenwood; designer David Crank; costumes Mark Bridges; editor Leslie Jones; producers Joanne Sellar, Daniel Lupi and Mr. Anderson; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures and the Ghoulardi Film Company in association with IAC Films and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
 Screened January 23rd 2015, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)