Monday, May 23, 2016

On X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Correspondence

Here’s the gist of this: anyone who complains that Shane Black’s highly enjoyable The Nice Guys isn’t “good enough” (it isn’t, but that’s so much beside the point it hurts) literally deserves an endless diet of cookie-cutter Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney fairytale makeovers (they’re the same thing by now, I suppose, since they’re all from the same supposedly money-spinning machine). This is all the more obvious seeing as the newest instalments of these assembly lines, Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse and James Bobin’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, are such crashing bores. 

To be fair, X-Men is the one Marvel franchise outside the reach of the company (having been licensed to Fox at a point where there was as yet no overarching masterplan in place) that has managed to maintain a semblance of personality and consistency among the monolithic identikit tributaries. But Apocalypse, by now the fourth series entry directed by Mr Singer, follows the same highly predictable arc of every other super-hero film so far: X-Men come together to fight dangerous threat to people of Earth (here the ur-mutant, all-powerful En Sabah Nur) in massive city-destroying battles (here it’s Cairo that bites the dust), while looking suitably dour and serious while doing it and battling their own personal issues.

This was, of course, one of the key things that made super-hero movies so interesting 20 years ago — realising these heroes were as broken and doubtful as we were — but by now it’s become simultaneously massively overused and massively underused. In Apocalypse, which is set in 1983 in the continuum that started with Matthew Vaughn’s insouciantly enjoyable prequel X-Men: First Class, you have a supremely talented cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and Oscar Isaac but with practically nothing to do other than show up and emote soulfully in between CGI-laden strife and destruction.

I used to think — based on The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil and Valkyrie — that Bryan Singer was, frankly, a more talented, ambitious director than he’s turned out to be. But even Simon Kinberg, the go-to writer and producer involved with the series for a while now, has been involved with more interesting stuff (like Ridley Scott’s The Martian or the Neill Blomkamp films) than Mr Singer, whose only recent non-X film was the non-starting Jack the Dragon Slayer and seems to have gotten stuck in the X groove. Cue Wesley Morris’ beauteous New York Times thinkpiece on the inherent evilness of superhero movies as a modern equivalent of a soul-sucking assembly line of purely utilitarian movies whose single-minded intent is make money for its producing studio. Apocalypse is certainly presented with as much professionalism as Hollywood can muster, but, really, just how much more can one filmgoer’s diet depend on superhero movies, especially when even the prestige stuff isn’t making much of an effort?

Case in point: the handsomely mounted but utterly pointless Alice Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to Tim Burton’s equally forgettable take on Alice in Wonderland that helped start off Disney’s newest franchise, real-action takes on the studio’s animated library. The only notable entry in the series so far has been Jon Favreau’s lively Jungle Book; Mr Burton’s version of Lewis Carroll’s classic read too much like a watered-down candy-coloured version of his traditional Gothic sensibility, but he never actually meant to direct the sequel that is now inevitably following, handed to Brit James Bobin, a former TV comedy director given his big break on the two recent Muppets films.

Mr Bobin’s second-tier status scans perfectly with the usual “hired hand” requirement for these big-budget productions, but the problem is not so much with his perfectly functional handling as it is with the idea that Alice in Wonderland required a sequel that has practically nothing of Carroll’s work in it. This Alice is an original script by Disney “staff” writer Linda Woolverton that seems custom-built to fit the studio’s line of strong female “princesses” — the grown-up Alice is here a dashing sailorwoman that blithely ignores Victorian London’s glass ceiling — but has little to nothing to do with Carroll’s books other than the title and a couple of borrowed characters, sending Alice traveling through time to save the Mad Hatter’s family and in the process effectively showing an “origin story” that explains Wonderland.

Now as we all know Wonderland is not to be explained, and that someone at Disney decided it should be (and in a film whose heroine, played by the very wonderful Mia Wasikowska, is still third-billed behind the effectively supporting performances of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen) is enough to explain what is so utterly wrong about Alice Through the Looking Glass: that it simply exists when there was no need for it, and that the film itself, despite the lavish care put on it and the obvious talents of the many involved, is unable to come up with a creative justification for its sheer existence.

One last example, if I may, comes from Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, he whose Cinema Paradiso became a worldwide sensation on the back of its Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. While Mr Tornatore has certainly aimed for further international success, he has never repeated the result. (To be honest, I liked it when I first saw it, but time has not been kind to it.)

The Correspondence, spoken in English and set in the UK, is a metaphysical weepie shot with all the glossy detachment of a fashion spread; its one good idea is to tell its love story between astrophysicist emeritus Jeremy Irons and his thesis student and off-campus lover Olga Kurylenko as a modern-day epistolary novel, substituting text and video messaging and emails for letters. The trick is that Mr Irons dies within the film’s first 20 minutes, yet his passionate messages to Ms. Kurylenko keep arriving; is he truly dead, but if so who is sending them?

To quote from Dr Sheldon Cooper, it’s grand malarkey with a side of poppycock, and many of the best weepies out there trade in exactly that kind of preposterousness. But Mr Tornatore wants to be taken so seriously that the po-faced, sweepingly dramatic handling merely underlines how gimmicky the whole thing is, even with an inspired score by Ennio Morricone (who still hasn’t lost his touch and actually comes up with the exact delicate lyricism the director never finds) and Mr Irons’ regal voice. That the film lies squarely on the shoulders of the lovely Ms Kurylenko but fails to give her anything worthwhile to work with, resulting in an awkward performance, is the clearest sign of what’s wrong with Mr Tornatore’s film: it’s an illusion with nothing to support it or take away from. Much as most of the big-budget stuff coming out of Hollywood these days.


US, 2016, 143 min; CAST James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn; DIR Bryan Singer; SCR Simon Kinberg; DP Newton Thomas Sigel (widescreen, 3D); MUS John Ottman; PROD DES Grant Major; COST DES Louise Mingenbach; ED Mr. Ottman and Michael Louis Hill; SPFX SUP John Dykstra; PROD Mr. Kinberg, Mr. Singer, Hutch Parker and Lauren Sjuler Donner; Twentieth Century-Fox, Bad Hat Harry Productions, Kinberg Genre Films, Hutch Parker Entertainment and The Donners’ Company in association with TSG Entertainment and Marvel Entertainment


US, 2016, 113 min; CAST Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Mia Wasikowska, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Barbara Windsor; DIR James Bobin; SCR Linda Woolverton; DP Stuart Dryburgh (3D); MUS Danny Elfman; PROD DES Dan Hennah; COST DES Colleen Atwood; ED Andrew Weisblum; SPFX SUP Ken Ralston and Jay Redd; PROD Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd and Tim Burton; Walt Disney Pictures, Roth Films, Team Todd and Tim Burton Productions


IT, 2015, 122 min; CAST Jeremy Irons, Olga Kurylenko; DIR/SCR Giuseppe Tornatore; DP Fabio Zamarion (widescreen); MUS Ennio Morricone; PROD DES Maurizio Sabatini; COST DES Gemma Mascagni; ED Massimo Quaglia; PROD Isabella Cocuzza and Arturo Paglia; Paco Cinematografica in co-production with RAI Cinema

Friday, May 13, 2016

On Jodie Foster's MONEY MONSTER

So, at this point, let’s face it: even though we all recognise Jodie Foster as someone serious and sincere in all of her endeavors, and George Clooney as that rare Hollywood star who actually puts his money where his mouth is, Money Monster may aim for a rabble-rousing quality regarding the current state of the US economy (and, by extension, the world’s), but it’s no Network nor even The Big Short. A nifty hostage thriller wrapped up in a topical shiny wrapper about the current economic and media landscape, Ms. Foster’s fourth feature as a director wants to be both a smart entertainment and a question-asking problem picture, following what happens when a desperate working-poor New Yorker (Jack O’Connell) gets on the set for the titular TV finance-as-entertainment programme and makes host Lee Gates (Mr. Clooney) hostage live on air, after Gates' stockmarket advice loses the poor schmuck his nest egg.

You can see why Money Monster is a film “of its moment”, even if, as we all know, the Hollywood process means the film has been in some sort of production for a couple of years now. But it’s a movie that never truly resolves itself to the heart’s content, even while supplying enjoyable genre smarts along the way and asking pointed questions about the media landscape we all love in. At some point, the big question it asks is not whether Wall Street is “bad” or whether it’s the greed of the bankers that brought the economic collapse, but when did we let ourselves become complacent to the point of allowing the hidden agendas of the media corporations spoonfeed us whatever it is they want us to believe in. (Julia Roberts’ seen-it-all producer quips cynically at the beginning film that Money Monster, the program, isn’t really journalism.) But it’s a question it doesn’t dwell overly on; after all, this is Hollywood, this is entertainment. 

It is one of the film’s labored ironies: a big-screen Hollywood star vehicle about the evil encroachment of always-on television that trades in the exact speed and multi-camera variables of a small-screen news program, literally overflowing into DP Matthew Libatique’s crisp widescreen compositions and Matt Chessé’s nimble editing. But it also helps in giving Money Monster, whose major setpieces take place almost in real time, a genuine energy, propelling it at a brisk pace and leaving just enough of its “talking points” on show for people to start gnawing at them at some point. 

As always, there’s more intelligence in Ms. Foster’s relationship with her cast than in her functional but workmanlike staging, allowing her to let them all make the most of their roles (even when there’s not much of a role there in the first place). It’s very much an ensemble piece, propelled by Ms. Roberts and Mr. O’Connell’s solid, anchoring performances while yet again proving Mr. Clooney to be an actor willing to insert darker notes within his comfort zone. But it’s also a film that feels more planned than spontaneous, as if directing didn’t come easy to the actress — the fact that the mechanics of the plot (devised by veteran film and TV writer Jim Kouf with his Grimm collaborator Alan di Fiore) are maybe too visible is a definite sign of her limitations. At the same time, the studious approach, without assigning blame or judging openly, carries over from Ms. Foster’s previous ventures as a director and certainly marks this as her movie.

But it’s precisely that measured tone that makes Money Monster ultimately frustrating and prevents it from rising above the mere genre piece, even though there are occasional neat moments where it succesfully bridges both worlds. It’s less outraged (and less outrageous) than The Big Short, but that’s also precisely why it fails to reach that film’s satirical bite — Ms. Foster is too cerebral and mild-mannered a director to go all the way. 

US, 2016, 99 minutes
CAST George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito; DIR Jodie Foster; SCR Jamie Linden, Alan di Fiore and Jim Kouf, from a story by Messrs. Di Fiore and Kouf; DP Matthew Libatique (widescreen); MUS Dominic Lewis; PROD DES Kevin Thompson; COST DES Susan Lyall; ED Matt Chessé; PROD Daniel Dubiecki, Lara Alameddine, Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov; Tristar Pictures, Smokehouse Pictures and Allegiance Theater in association with Lstar Capital

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

On Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendor

A good friend of mine thinks Apichatpong Weerasethakul, winner of the 2010 Cannes Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is an invention of contrary film critics with nothing better to do than big up an obscure Thai filmmaker. While I do think that his ascendancy to the front-lines of world art cinema has an element of serendipity — he was the right exotic cinéaste in the right place at the right time for a certain cadre of aspiring influencers — I also find there is genuine value in Mr Weerasethakul’s leisurely cinema, and that his slow-moving, dreamy rhythms provide more than adequate counter-programming for these days of fast-moving images surrounding us at every moment.

Formally the sixth feature of a protean career that encompasses art installations and short and mid-length experiences, Cemetery of Splendor is the director’s first full-length film since the highly controversial Palme d’Or awarded by the jury led by Tim Burton, but it’s also a film that streamlines further the director’s work towards a more accessible entrance point for non-aficionados. This poetic, somnambulist tale of an unlikely friendship struck between two volunteers and a patient at a rural hospital develops simultaneously as a slow-motion burlesque and an allusive fable of life, following Mr Weerasethakul’s recurring theme of the constant intertwining of past and present, history and society, magic and reality.

The patient (Banlop Lomnoi) is one of a series of Thai soldiers who have been struck with a “sleeping sickness”, a kind of catalepsy into which they fall and from which they awaken at random intervals. Volunteer Jen (regular collaborator Jenjira Pongpas Widner) learns from the psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) that the hospital is built on the site of a former palace and that the sleeping soldiers are “feeding” the spirits of the kings and warriors who still inhabit the place; at equally random intervals, some of those spirits assume human form and share fruit or chat with Jen, who also remembers the site’s previous incarnation as a school.

While a lot of the film’s socio-political subtext seems to pass by European viewers unable to grasp specific references to Thai society and culture, there’s still a sense of simplicity and tradition unfolding through Cemetery of Splendor, suggesting a director growing more comfortable in his work and his identity. The split-narrative “games of two halves” of previous films such as his breakthrough Tropical Malady or Syndromes and a Century are abandoned here as they had been in Uncle Boonmee, the multiple possibilities being seamlessly integrated into a single narrative line, and the casual interruptions of reality by fantasy suggest Jia Zhang-ke’s occasional singularities. The framing of the shots is exceedingly composed, with an inherently Tati-esque sense of staging and framing: things happen within the deceptively simple frame without DP Diego García’s camera necessarily drawing attention to it, but you can sense a precise intelligence directing from outside the tempo and development of each scene.

What’s probably more surprising about Cemetery of Splendor — and Mr. Weerasethakul’s oeuvre as a whole — is just how much the alleged obtuseness of his work is nowhere to be found. This is by no means “easy” or “disposable” cinema, but neither is it as inaccessible or as difficult as it is alleged. Quite the opposite: it’s light and airy, almost to the point of disintegrating, and its apparent quirkiness becomes its greatest strength as soon as you realize the naturalness, the ease with which it is woven into the tale’s fabric. This is not gratuitous exoticism, and Mr. Weerasethakul is certainly not pandering to international audiences: its dreaminess is universal rather than specifically Thai, merely a reflex of a society where ancestry and tradition remain more present, and grounded, than abroad. Maybe what we respond to in these deceptively oblique confections is precisely that sense that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is more attuned to the magic of the humdrum day-to-day life than we are.

TH, GB, FR, DE, MY, KR, MX, US, NO, 2015, 121 minutes
CAST Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram; DIR/SCR Apichatpong Weerasethakul; DP Diego García; PROD DES Akekarat Homlaor; COST DES Phim U-mari; ED Lee Chatametikool; PROD Mr. Weerasethakul, Keith Griffiths, Simon Field, Charles de Meux, Michael Weber and Hans W. Geißendörfer; Kick The Machine Films and Illuminations Films in co-production with Anna Sanders Films, Geißendörfer Film-und Fernsehproduktion, Match Factory Productions, ZDF/ARTE, Astro Shaw, Asia Culture Center/Asian Arts Theatre, Detalle Films, Louverture Films and Tordenfilm

Friday, May 06, 2016


Invisibility turned out to be a rather peculiar through-line for a number of my viewings this week. Whether this was a result of having kicked off the week with Oren Moverman's Time Out of Mind or just the juxtaposition of that film with Amy Berg's documentary piece on Janis Joplin, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's hypnotic Cemetery of Splendor, Joachim Trier's disappointingly lucid Louder than Bombs and Jacques Audiard's complex and confused Dheepan is anyone's guess, but nevertheless it's a theme that resonates very strongly in these social-media days where form and function, style and substance are constantly mistaken for each other.

But all of these films turned out to address the idea of invisibility in some way, none more so than Time Out of Mind, an earnest, intelligent adult drama that has not earned the recognition it truly deserves. It seems to be a recurrent problem for its writer/director; Mr. Moverman, who has worked with Todd Haynes and Ira Sachs, ran strong out of the gate with the fondly-remembered The Messenger, a film that reminded us of just how good Woody Harrelson can be, but has since stumbled on the US film scene's inability to know what to do with the sort of modest character-driven stories that he excels at. Time Out of Mind isn't helped by its subject matter - homelessness, as seen through the tale of George Hammond, who has been living on NYC's Skid Row for years now, and keeps shuttling from abandoned squats to hospital waiting rooms to bureaucratic controlled shelters.

With no personal papers or ID documents to his name, no address, no income, George is well and truly invisible; he has slipped out of the everyday world into a desolate limbo simultaneously outside and inside the city. Mr. Moverman and his DP, Bobby Bukowski, reinforce his isolation by shooting many scenes from the inside looking out - with slow, stately zoom pans from behind the windows and the doors across the street from where George is, showing how this man is lost in the city. That George is played by a bona fide Hollywood star, Richard Gere, is obviously not casual, it plays on the "there but for the grace of God go I" pledge that underlines a lot of basic, decent humanity.

But the casting of Mr. Gere is both Time Out of Mind's strength and its weakness. There's nothing at all wrong with the actor's performance, whose roles haven't often allowed him to go as deep as he can go (in his early days he was in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven and his big break came under Paul Schrader in American Gigolo), Mr. Moverman can't always make us forget that we're watching a movie star play a homeless man; even if the idea is to show there is still some dignity in this man, Mr. Gere seems occasionally too "groomed" to be entirely convincing, especially when up against Kyra Sedgwick's quasi-cameo as a cart lady or Ben Vereen's Dixon, the jabbering, confused homeless who befriends George in a shelter and starts tagging along. Also, the on-and-off relationship between George and his bartending daughter Maggie (Jena Malone) that seems to be one of the plot's engines turns out to feel like a bolted-on anchor to prevent the film from floating out into aimlessness, but it conforms a little bit too much to standard plot-driven melodrama to work entirely within this context.

For all that, the heart of Time Out of Mind is in the right place, and Mr. Moverman pulls it off through the quietly observational, empathetic moments where his almost candid camera simply watches Mr. Gere move through New York. In these moments it almost seems like a distant yet still related cousin to Lionel Rogosin's striking study of alcoholism and homelessness, On the Bowery, its plot just as loose and character-driven, all necessary information being parceled out in bribes as needed. It reminds you that both director and star are very underrated players in contemporary American cinema and that there's something really wrong when something like Time Out of Mind plays under the radar.

US, 2014, 121 minutes
CAST Richard Gere, Ben Vereen, Jena Malone, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeremy Strong, Yul Vazquez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Steve Buscemi; DIR/SCR Oren Moverman; based on a story by Jeffrey Caine and Mr. Moverman; DP Bobby Bukowski (widescreen); PROD DES Kelly McGehee; COST DES Catherine George; ED Alex Hall; PROD Mr. Gere, Lawrence Inglee, Caroline Kaplan, Edward Walson, Miranda Bailey and Bill Pohlad; Gere Productions and Blackbird Productions in association with Cold Iron Pictures, River Road Entertainment and QED International

Sunday, May 01, 2016

IndieLisboa 2016 #6

It was American filmmaker Robert Greene that mentioned the one obvious yet perfect definition I haven't been using for cinémas du réel or documentaire de creation over the past few years: "non-fiction cinema". I've read it elsewhere as well but for some reason I'd blocked it out (though in all fairness "non-fiction" it's a more difficult concept to translate into Portuguese than cinéma du réel). Anyway; my screenings at IndieLisboa started out with a couple of good examples of that blurring of the lines between fiction and documentary, even if more fictional or projected - Tamer el Said's very impressive In the Last Days of the City and Pablo Agüero's more experimental Eva No Duerme - and I wrapped them up with a great little one-two punch of revisits: the consecutive presentations, in the main competition, of Petra Costa and Léa Glob's Olmo and the Seagull and Mr Greene's Kate Plays Christine, two films that run the gamut of what non-fiction can mean.

Funnily enough, the seagull in Olmo and the Seagull's title is metaphorical - the film starts during a series of rehearsals for a new production of Tchekhov's play - but there are actual seagulls in Kate Plays Christine, calmly walking around the sands of Sarasota Beach as actress Kate Lyn Sheil takes stock of what's happening around her under dark stormy skies. It's a passing connection for sure, but it's also one that leads you into seeing more connections between these two very different films than meet the eye. They're both anchored around women literally on the verge of a nervous breakdown, they're both interested in performance as something that is constantly present in the lives of its heroines, they're both interested in the way women are perceived as,  professionally and personally.

Olmo and the Seagull is about an actress whose pregnancy makes her feel as if she is giving up on everything she worked towards all her life; Kate Plays Christine is about an actress researching for a film about a woman so frustrated about not being taken seriously that she prefers to commit suicide rather than to keep pushing on. Both films are about women at a crossroads in her own lives, but they're also both about the blurring of the lines between performance and real life, and about pushing that line to the point where the viewer is forced to ask much deeper questions, even though they're coming from entirely different spaces and places.

Olmo started life as a collaboration instigated by Copenhagen's CPH:DOX festival between Ms. Costa, a Brazilian director with one feature already under her belt, and Ms. Glob, a Danish newcomer, who chose to document a day in the life of an actress. But it turned out that, during the initial phase of the shoot, Olivia Corsini, the Paris-based Italian actress they decided to follow, became pregnant, and the film changed tack, becoming a sort of "diary" of her pregnancy. It also becomes clear, very early on, that this isn't a traditional documentary; a few scenes are self-evidently blocked and shot as reenactments, and occasionally you will hear offscreen voices asking Ms. Corsini and Serge Nicolaï, her life partner and fellow actor, to start all over again or change something in the performance. As for Kate Plays Christine, this long-gestating project of Mr. Greene (probably best known as editor to directors such as Alex Ross Perry but also an accomplished filmmaker of his own) was always designed around the questions left behind by the now-forgotten real-life suicide of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota anchorwoman who shot herself live on the air in 1974.

Ultimately, though, both films are about their nominal stars. Ms. Corsini in Olmo and the Seagull is grappling with the issues that motherhood brings to someone who until then was entirely devoted to the stage and to the craft of acting. The sheer physical needs of pregnancy, coupled with an unexpected health issue that restricts her ability to move freely, mean she will effectively have to eschew acting for the entire nine months, forcing an adjustment in her routine and her live that also has her questioning her choices. Ms. Sheil in Kate Plays Christine finds she has to invoke Ms. Chubbuck literally out of thin air; there's practically no surviving footage of her work as a newscaster and precious little documentation of her life, other than in the minds of the few survivors who worked with her 40 years ago. How much of her "character" corresponds to the real-life Christine and how much is it her personal interpretation or projection of who she might have been?

In that sense, both are, interestingly enough, also films about process - the process of building a life, of constructing a performance, of becoming someone (yourself? someone else?), only a process that is being witnessed by a camera - and does it actually change the project itself? Kate Plays Christine follows the actual immersion into a character, and very clearly takes the side of the actress as Mr. Greene and his crew occasionally enter the frame to give directions or ask questions, but also asks just where lie the limits of performance; where is the actress "in control" (or is she ever in control actually), and where does the character take over the actress? Ms. Sheil's own misgivings about the point of this process are also undoubtedly important. Why is it important to disinter this particular case from the muddy loam of forgotten fait-divers of 20th century America? In many ways, the film's own context explains the why - Christine Chubbuck's live suicide was a gloomy forewarning of a "society of spectacle" that was coalescing in the distance, the idea of real life itself as opium for the masses - but the questioning goes further, suggesting no innocence is possible when dealing with something this extreme.  It's a film that builds by patient accumulation of details, trusting the audience but also loyally warning it that this is going to be a tricky ride.

Olmo and the Seagull is a much more tricky beast: a very easy-going film at first sight, a second viewing reveals just how deceptive that lightness is. It's a work carefully edited to suggest that looseness, following the daily stream-of-consciousness of Ms. Corsini's thoughts - though this is not in fact the real Olivia Corsini, but a parallel "character" that feeds on the "real" person; a character that makes use of the actress's real vulnerability and exposure as building blocks to delve into other areas of performance. The compressed time frame (though the film takes place during the nine months of a normal pregnancy, it could be a sort of "highlights reel") is part of its ingeniously worked out structure; it's a very light, breezy film about very serious things, about how insecurity and openness go hand in hand if you're an actor, how real life and performance are almost inseparable even if you're not an actor, how we all have doubts and issues as you realize your life is a series of choices you're not always aware of making.

In that sense, I propose another way to look at both: as possible catalogues of paths spread out before the women at their core. Each step for Christine, Olivia and Kate is fraught with a significance entirely born from their status as women standing up for themselves in front of an audience, and whose choices are amplified and dissected because of that. How will they deal with it? And how real will that be?

DK, BR, PT, SE, FR, 2015, 83 minutes
CAST Olivia Corsini, Serge Nicolaï; DIR Petra Costa and Léa Glob; SCR Ms. Costa and Ms. Glob in collaboration with Ms. Corsini, Mr. Nicolaï, Martha Kiss Perrone, Moara Passoni and David Barker; DP Muhamed Hamdy, Lisa Persson and Nadir Carlsen; MUS Adam Taylor; ED Tina Baz and Marina Meliande with Mr. Barker, Affonso Gonçalves and Thor Martin Ochsner; PROD Charlotte Pedersen, Luís Urbano and Tiago Pavan; Zentropa Entertainments 5, Busca Vida Filmes and O Som e a Fúria in co-production with Zentropa Sweden, Film i Vast and Epicentre Films

US, GR, 2016, 112 minutes
CAST Kate Lyn Sheil; DIR/SCR/ED Robert Greene; DP Sean Price Williams; MUS Keegan de Witt; PROD DES John Dickson; COST Hannah Kitten and Diane Phelps; PROD Douglas Tirol and Susan Bedusa; Faliro House Productions and 4th Row Films in association with Prewar Cinema Productions

Thursday, April 28, 2016

IndieLisboa 2016 #5

So, more about IndieLisboa 2016's Portuguese selection. I've already touched upon Pedro Marques' The Room You Take, an intriguing but ultimately disappointing sophomore effort that would need a proper editing job to realize its full potential. Two more films have since played the feature-length competition - the fourth and final entry, José Barahona's Brazilian co-prod I Was in Lisbon and Thought of You, adapted from Brazilian writer Luiz Ruffato's popular novel, screens today - and albeit with different qualities and flaws, they're both equally disappointing.

Sérgio Tréfaut's Treblinka is a relative disappointment. It's by no means a bad movie, something that the director seems incapable of doing. And if you have followed his work ever since Lisboetas won the initial IndieLisboa competition in 2004 - and his work has indeed travelled - you will recognize many of his traits as a thoughtful storyteller who often takes roundabout paths to get where he wants to go. Having said that, Treblinka, the closest he has ever got to an essay film, doesn't really seem to want to go anywhere. It's partly by design, but also partly by accident; this short, hour-long feature began life as a documentary inspired by Marceline Loridan-Ivens' experience in the WWII Nazi death camps, but somewhere along the way became a sort of "phantom ride" through the railway tracks of 20th century memory.

Drawing on survivor Chil Rajchman's diary of his life in Treblinka, whose words are spoken off-screen in Russian, a silent unnamed survivor (iconic Portuguese actress Isabel Ruth, muse of the late Paulo Rocha) makes a trans-Siberian train journey haunted by the ghosts of her camp experiences. It's a screenscape as bleak and chilly as it is seductively enveloping, impeccably realized, but its intelligence isn't enough to distance it from the ever-growing pack of artworks about the Holocaust, and its slightness suggests it's either part of a longer, yet incomplete, whole, or an attempt at salvaging a different project that didn't quite turn out as expected. There's something here that reminded me of both Mr Tréfaut's earlier (and more fully realized) true-story essay-fiction, Viagem a Portugal, and of Mauro Herce's impressionistic Dead Slow Ahead, but I came out of Treblinka certainly impressed but not convinced.

Impressionistic, yes, but to the point of opaqueness, Marcelo Felix's sophomore effort Paul left me seriously bewildered. I'd really liked Eden's Ark, his 2011 essay on the recording of history and memory, but this new project, an overly ponderous meta-fictional set of nested Russian dolls surrounding a translator in the process of subtitling a film, lost me about halfway through with its somewhat mystifying insistence in leaving everything open-ended and unexplained. Per the press notes, and a very interesting interview I did with Mr Felix, that vagueness is by design as well, aiming at inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks as it dives from the framing narrative of the translator working on the subtitles into the film she is working on. This film, about a glass blower with identity issues, is designed as part documentary and part 1960s Russian filmmaking, spoken in... Estonian. A Tchekhovian spin-off that sees the blower's supervisor ambling through nature can either be seen a parallel plot line or an entirely different film - but do they exist, are they connected, or is everything merely extrapolated by the translator into her own projections? We'll never know, and despite the evident care with which Mr Felix constructs his labyrinth (shot with Volta à Terra director João Pedro Plácido as DP), after a while the apparent aimlessness of the project becomes a self-perpetuating motion that doesn't get anywhere, so there's not much reason to care anyway.

That's why it was such a pleasure to find something as forcefully personal and enjoyable as veteran João Botelho's take on Manoel de Oliveira's oeuvre, presented out of competition as a special screening. Mr Botelho is an idiosyncratic director with as many hits or misses, but he is also a full-blown cinephile, and one of the many who worships at the throne of the late director, who died in April 2015 at the extraordinary age of 107, as the defining figure of Portuguese cinema in the 20th century. Mr. de Oliveira himself had a small role in Mr. Botelho's debut, the wonderfully experimental Conversa Acabada, and many of the younger director's films reflected and refracted in some way the late master's influence. What he does in Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me is rather wonderfully genre-busting: neither a rigid biographical documentary nor a talking-heads job, closer in spirit to Manuel Mozos' impressionistic (that word again!) 2014 homage to João Bénard da Costa Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved, its almost like attending a master class on film, or seeing a visual equivalent of Robert Bresson's seminal book of aphorisms Notes on the Cinematographer.

Positing that Mr. de Oliveira never made films but, instead, "cinema", the film's first two-thirds are a marvelous primer on his work, with extensive inserts from many of his key pictures, narrated by Mr Botelho himself in a conversational, enthusiastic tone of voice. I have my doubts about the last third, where he dares to film a story Mr. de Oliveira wrote but never shot, as a black-and-white silent melodrama that emulates the style and attempts to invoke the spirit of his late master. For my money, Mr Botelho got there better with his 2008 feature The Northern Land, which could pass easily for a forgotten Oliveira, but the romantic gesture of showing just how much he owes to the director that has come to symbolize Portuguese auteurism is sincere and touching, and makes for a wonderfully enjoyable wotsit that is highly recommended to fans of both directors and to those who would like to know more about Portuguese film and especially Manoel de Oliveira's extraordinary career.

Treblinka Trailer ENG from Faux on Vimeo.

PT, 2016, 61 minutes
CAST Kirill Kashlikov, Isabel Ruth; NARRATION Mr. Kashlikov, Nina Guerra; DIR/SCR Sérgio Tréfaut, inspired by the book by Chil Rajchman Treblinka: A Survivor's Memory; DP João Ribeiro; MUS Alfredo Costa Monteiro; ED Pedro Marques; PROD Catarina Almeida and Mr. Tréfaut; Faux

Trailer - PAUL a film by Marcelo Felix (Portugal 2016) from C.R.I.M. on Vimeo.

PT, 2015, 71 minutes
CAST Alice Medeiros, Rómulo Ferreira, Crista Alfaiate, Mafalda Lencastre, Dimitris Mostrous; DIR/SCR/ED Marcelo Félix; DP João Pedro Plácido; MUS Sándor Veress; ART DIR Ana Simões; PROD Isabel Machado and Joana Ferreira; CRIM Produções

PT, 2016, 79 minutes
CAST Mariana Dias, António Durães, Ângela Marques, Maria João Pinho, Leonor Silveira, Marcelo Urgeghe, Miguel Nunes; DIR/SCR João Botelho; "The Gloved Woman" based on an original story by Manoel de Oliveira; DP João Ribeiro; MUS Nicholas McNair; ED João Braz; PROD Alexandre Oliveira; Ar de Filmes

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

IndieLisboa 2016 #4

IndieLisboa has been at the forefront of the "new Brazilian film" lobby in Portugal for a while now: they brought in Kleber Mendonça Filho's landmark Neighboring Sounds and followed that up with the maybe not as memorable but still pretty striking features from Marcelo LordelloRenata Pinheiro and André Novais Oliveira. This year's competition gave a shot to Anita Pinheiro da Silva's Kill Me Please (a film I wasn't overly enthralled by) but the festival did show out of competition Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull, probably the most celebrated Brazilian feature by a new director since Neighboring Sounds ever since it was unveiled at Venice last year.

Funnily enough, the Indie audience wasn't so thrilled; you could feel the bewilderment suspended in the room at the end of the packed screening, with a number of friends finding it overly stylized and mannered. For me, though, I must admit it's precisely that mannerism, its refusal to comply with expectations, that make Neon Bull such a good film as well a massive leap forward from the director's previous August Winds. 

What's so good about Neon Bull is that it's totally open. You don't know where the story is going to go next, let alone what it's all about, until the film is already halfway, and even then Mr Mascaro keeps pulling the rug from under you, with his elegantly, ravishingly photographed scenes (the DP is Mexican Diego García, who's worked with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Carlos Reygadas) that seem to go on for slightly longer than they should, or don't cut away the way you expect them to.

Tighter narratively than August Winds, Neon Bull is a chronicle of the daily life of a small group of ranch hands travelling through Northern Brazil with the bulls that are the real stars of the local "vaquejada" rodeos, assuming a lovely, leisurely pace that allows us to discover the characters in their own time and through what they do. Making good use of documentary footage and research in order to underlie its fictional tale, the film follows the emotional and friendly shorthand that exists between this particular crew: truck driver Galega (Maeve Jinkings, the closest this generation of Brazilian filmmakers has to a muse), her stubborn teenage daughter Cacá (Alyne Santana) and cowhand Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), a handsome roughneck with a sideline as a dress designer for Galega's own exotic dance sideline.

It's a skewed family unit if ever there was one, but an entirely accepted one in this seemingly conservative, rural world, and also a surrogate family that seems to have carved out its own niche while absolutely not corresponding at all to the standard gender behaviours - here, sexuality is seen as something joyous that transcends genders or inclinations, as a natural and naturally accepted part of life. Though Galega's husband has long left and Iremar doesn't have a steady girlfriend, it's immediately clear they are not really an item, which initially makes all the more surprising Mr Mascaro's decision to follow what happens when new elements are thrown into the mix - Junior (Vinicius de Oliveira), a preening, narcissistic substitute cowhand who comes in at short notice, and Geisy (Samya de Lavor), a pregnant security guard doubling as a door-to-door Avon lady.

Just as Neon Bull discovers what its characters are all about, so does the viewer feel as if she's discovering a world she didn't realise existed, giving depth, nuance and emotion to characters usually relegated to the stock archetypes of rural dramas. That sense of surprise and discovery, of a film that isn't doing what you expect it to or going where you thought it would, is one of the most powerful feelings in a modern film landscape seemingly built on signposting everything from a distance, but it's not the only reason why Neon Bull fully justifies the attention it has been getting. It's simply a damn good film, one that has actual people inside and tells their stories in a way that draws you in and keeps you hooked long after the actual screening's finished.

BR, UY, NL, 2015, 104 minutes
CAST Juliano Cazarré, Alyne Santana, Maeve Jinkings, Vinicius de Oliveira, Carlos Pessoa, Samya de Lavor, Josinaldo da Silva, Abigail Pereira, Roberto Berindelli; DIR Gabriel Mascaro; SCR Mr Mascaro with Daniel Bandeira, César Turim and Marcelo Gomes; DP Diego García (widescreen); MUS Otávio Santos and Cláudio Nascimento; ART DIR Maíra Mesquita; COST Flora Rebollo; ED Fernando Epstein with Eduardo Serrano; PROD Rachel Ellis; Desvia in co-production with Malbicho Cine, Viking Film and Canal Brasil