Tuesday, November 29, 2011

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

Few films are so exemplary of the powers and ways of cinephilia than Charles Laughton's sole directing effort, a dazzlingly unclassifiable dark fairy tale passing itself off as a piece of Southern Gothic. Generally disregarded on its 1955 release, it gained stature with time as critics and audiences started falling under its unique, expressionist spell and its uneven but powerfully intoxicating mix of high-art symbolism and exploitation.

      Borderline theatrical in its use of highly stylized sets and oblique camera set-ups, The Night of the Hunter is a journey into the heart of darkness of human evil as lived by two innocents who hold the key to a secret they have pledged never to reveal. The story is actually inspired by the real-life case of a West Virginia "Bluebeard" of the 1930s, who travelled around seducing rich widows then killing them for their money; here, Harry Powers becomes Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a false preacher who learns from a prison inmate the proceeds of the bank heist that landed him on death row are well hid, and insinuates himself into the family to find where the money is. The young children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jean Bruce) know but won't tell, leading Powell to murder their mother (Shelley Winters) and give chase as the kids escape downriver.

     As evil surrounds the children, the movie turns bleakly oppressive, installing a masterful atmosphere of dread that Mr. Laughton will keep taut until the ending; it is only when the kids are taken up by the kindly Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish) that the clouds begin to part and light floods into this parable stunningly photographed in expressionist chiaroscuro by the great Stanley Cortez. Not everything in The Night of the Hunter works; from the rushed ending to the strong overly religious symbolism sprinkled throughout, there are a fair amount of wrinkles very typical of the debut feature. But the magic conjured by Mr. Laughton's stubborn vision is such that those mishaps merely strengthen the film and give it an edge and a personality unlike any achieved in its contemporaries. Proving directing actors know best how to elicit career-best performances from fellow actors, Mr. Mitchum is electrifying and Ms. Gish every inch his match, even though they have but two scenes together in the whole of the film's arc. An oddity The Night of the Hunter may have been in its time, but if it remains one today it is for its sheer directorial flair and the unparalleled uniqueness of its approach.

Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters; Lillian Gish; James Gleason, Evelyn Warden, Peter Graves, Don Beddoe, Billy Chapin, Sally Jean Bruce, Gloria Castilo.
     Director, Charles Laughton; screenplay, James Agee, from the novel by Davis Grubb The Night of the Hunter; cinematography (b&w), Stanley Cortez; music, Walter Schumann; art director, Hilyard Brown; wardrobe, Jerry Bos; editor, Robert Golden; producer, Paul Gregory (Paul Gregory Productions), USA, 1955, 89 minutes. (US distributor, United Artists; current rights holder, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.) 
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 27th 2011. 



Friday, November 25, 2011

HABEMUS PAPAM

Italy/France
2011
105 minutes

Nanni Moretti's latest missive from dysfunctional Italy takes as its title the Latin pronouncement after a new pope has been chosen, which the actor/writer/director immediately sabotages by suggesting "no, we do not have a Pope" - as the newly-elected cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), a self-effacing man who has been elected as a compromise after the frontrunners failed to gain any advantage, breaks down and stalls the moment of accepting his job. No, we do not have a Pope for most of the length of Mr. Moretti's film, as Rome's finest psychiatrist (the director himself, in what is effectively a supporting role) is called in to treat the reluctant Holiness, and is kept a virtual prisoner in the premises along with all the other cardinals, while the unwilling Pope finds a way out and roams the city looking for guidance, whether human or divine.

     Despite what most people might expect, this is not an anti-religious tract - if anything, Mr. Moretti is debating the essence of religion as a connection between the human and the divine, but suggesting that the modern Catholic Church has lost track of its humanity - as much as it is a film about men on the verge of a nervous breakdown, swamped by the demands of their jobs in modern society, forced to perform a mask (or, more accurately a masque) for the benefit of the world outside. Whether this is Mr. Piccoli's confused but wise old man, Mr. Moretti's separated psychiatrist or the burnt-out actor unable to perform just his part in Tchekhov's The Seagull who Melville encounters on his walks out in the open, Habemus Papam asks how can we reconnect with our own selves when everything around us seems intent on blocking us from doing it. It's one of the director's central themes throughout his work (and there is the occasional throwback to earlier films, such as the constant references to Palombella Rossa's TV screens showing Doctor Zhivago), and he does so in the trademark Italian combination of raucous comedy and melancholy drama.

     That, however, is where Habemus Papam stops short of ranking with Mr. Moretti's greatest films: the film's two halves are out of balance. Mr. Piccoli's melancholy ramblings through Rome, trying to reconcile who he is with what he does, are pretty much choked by the riotous comedy of the conclave left behind in the Vatican, whose offhanded, smart gags pretty much drain away all the atmosphere the director successfully instils in its more serious, thoughtful complement. That doesn't make Habemus Papam a strike-out, merely a very good comedy that keeps up the tradition of classic Italian comedy Mr. Moretti has smartly updated throughout his career but falls short of being exceptional.

Starring Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti, Renato Scarpa, Jerzy Stuhr, Franco Graziosi; and with Margherita Buy.
     Director, Mr. Moretti; producers, Mr. Moretti and Domenico Procacci; written by Mr. Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Federica Pontremoli; music, Franco Piersanti; director of photography (Cinecittà), Alessandro Pesci; production designer, Paola Bizzarri; costume designer, Lina Nerli Taviani; film editor, Esmeralda Calabria.
     A Nanni Moretti-Domenico Procacci presentation; a Sacher Film/Fandango/Le Pacte/France 3 Cinéma co-production in association with Rai Cinema; with the participation of Sofica Coficup, a Backup Films fund, Canal Plus, France Télévisions, French National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image and Eurimages. (Italian distributors, 01 Distribution/Sacher Distribuzione. World sales, Fandango Portobello.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 11 (Lisbon), November 16th 2011. 



Thursday, November 24, 2011

A DANGEROUS METHOD

Canada/Germany/Switzerland/United Kingdom
2011
99 minutes

"Are they aware that we are bringing them the plague?", asks casually Michael Fassbender's Carl Gustav Jung of Viggo Mortensen's Sigmund Freud with Ellis Island on the horizon of their liner deck at one point in David Cronenberg's film adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure. This casual, offhand remark crystallises the crux of this oddly cold, angular, yet passionately enthralling film: after the plagues of the body, throughout his celebrated cycle of "body horror" films, the Canadian director has moved on to the plagues of the soul, looking, since Spider, to make visible the inward manifestations of the decay and liberation that have always fascinated him. Underneath A Dangerous Method's appearance of talky prestige piece, theatrical bonbon for upscale audiences, lies a fiery, passionate, exquisitely modulated tale of disquieting inner changes, as the 1900 arrival in a Zurich clinic of hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) sets Jung and Freud in a collision course that, over the next decade, will plant the seeds of modern psychiatry and open the pathways of the mind.

     Though outwardly it seems an atypical film for Mr. Cronenberg, it is in fact a continuation of his work through different ways. The exquisite, glacial, highly precise cutting and the heightened theatricality of the production and costume design and of the mise en scène make visible the fact that, in the socially regulated society of early 1900s Central Europe, only inside their own minds could people truly be themselves. Mr. Cronenberg makes sure that passion rests entirely in the performances of his malleable cast, and the actors respond with painstakingly detailed work. Ms. Knightley may have the most visible performance (the role demands her to start out in the throes of hysteria that can easily fall this side of laughable), but she throws herself into it with the vigour and gusto of an actress who has finally been given a challenge to overcome. But it's Mr. Fassbender's outstanding turn as Jung that is exemplary of the depth of feeling, rigour and intelligence that the director demanded and got from his cast; one that also applies to this masterful film whose wealth of possible subtexts and dimensions (political, sexual, social, personal, racial) are lightly worn rather than heavily underlined, confirming Mr. Cronenberg as a director who has refused to stand still and continues to explore and mature in ways not necessarily expected by his long-term followers.

Starring Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Gadon; and Vincent Cassel.
     Director, David Cronenberg; producer, Jeremy Thomas; screenplay, Christopher Hampton, based on his stage play The Talking Cure and on the book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method; music, Howard Shore; director of photography (colour by DeLuxe), Peter Suschitzky; production designer, James McAteer; costume designer, Denise Cronenberg; film editor, Ronald Sanders.
     A Jeremy Thomas presentation; a Lago Film/Prospero Pictures/Recorded Picture Company co-production, in association with Millbrook Pictures and Dangerous Method Film; with the participation of Téléfilm Canada, Ontario Media Development Corporation, Corus Entertainment, Deutscher Filmförderfonds, Filmförderungsanstalt, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Filmförderung Baden-Württemberg, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Elbe Film, Movie Central, The Movie Network; developed with the assistance of the UK Film Council's Development Fund; with assistance from the MEDIA Programme. (World sales, Hanway Films. US distributor, Sony Pictures Classics.) 
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), November 14th 2011.




 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

UNE CHAMBRE EN VILLE

France
1982
93 minutes

     There is always one problem in returning to a childhood haunt when you're older: your adult eyes may not look at things the same way. That is probably the least of the issues that make Une Chambre en ville such a fascinating, moving wreck of a film - by definition, there can only be one Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, and even if you were to try it a second time the stars might not align properly. They didn't for Jacques Demy's second go-around at a "popular opera" with entirely sung dialogue, this time a darker and even more stylized tale about the chance meeting between a metalworker (Richard Berry) and an unhappy bourgeois housewife (Dominique Sanda) in 1955 Nantes, against a background of labour struggles.

     This 1982 attempt at recapturing the magic of Mr. Demy's 1964 masterpiece was in fact a project the director had nurtured since the late 1960s and actually came close to shooting in the mid-1970s with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in the leads (Gaumont pulled the plug on the project after a run of failures, and Ms. Deneuve balked at the director's insistance of having a professional singer sing for her). Though passionately supported by the French critics at the time, Une Chambre en ville was a box-office failure and, in hindsight, it remains one of those "cursed" films whose fate seemed pre-ordained by the struggles they faced in getting to the screen. The deliberate, stylized artificialism of the musical form was out of touch with the more naturalistic landscape of French film drama in the 1970s and 1980s, and required versatile actors who could make it work within the heightened emotions demanded by Mr. Demy's operatic class tragedy. Neither Ms. Sanda nor Mr. Berry, fine actors though they are, are at ease with the demands of the material, too serious and surly to match the need for fantasy and lightness that fully sung dialogue requires, even if the voices on-screen aren't theirs. See, for instance, what Michel Piccoli does with his small supporting role as Ms. Sanda's husband, fully inhabiting the role and making it work within the film even dubbed by a singer.

     When putting Une Chambre en ville in its context, there is indeed a whiff of mothballs around such a deliberate throwback to the musical and to a specific form of musical that never really took much hold. But there is also an admirable stubbornness in Mr. Demy's sticking to his guns through thick and thin and against all odds, and the fact that Une Chambre en ville actually retains the interest and the emotion of the viewer unflaggingly despite all the obvious issues only underlines Mr. Demy's absolutely superb handling of the project's variables and his unique sense of staging. That only makes it more sad that he had to work with Michel Colombier's fussy, over-arranged, over-egged score, much less memorable than Michel Legrand would have made it (for the record, Mr. Demy originally offered the film to Mr. Legrand, who passed on it, unconvinced by the script). The result turns out to be a strangely memorable film, a car crash you can't avert your eyes from, a fusty heirloom you really don't want to let go of.

Starring Dominique Sanda, Danielle Darrieux, Richard Berry, Michel Piccoli; with Fabienne Guyon, Anna Gaylor, Jean-François Stévenin, Jean-Louis Rolland, Marie-France Roussel, Georges Blaness, Mapie Folliard, Monique Creteur, Gil Warga, Nicolas Hossein, Yann Dedet, Antoine Mikola, Patrick Joly.
     Directed and written by Jacques Demy; music by Michel Colombier; director of photography (colour by GTC), Jean Penzer; production designer, Bernard Evein; costume designer, Rosalie Varda; film editor, Sabine Mamou.
     A Christine Gouze-Renal presentation of a Progefi/TF1 Films Production/UGC/Top 1 co-production. (Original French distributor, Europe 1-UGC Distribution. World sales, Ciné-Tamaris.)
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 17th 2011. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

LA BAIE DES ANGES

BAY OF ANGELS


France
1963
83 minutes

     Jacques Demy kicks off his sophomore effort with a repeat performance of the roving car shot that started off his debut Lola - with the camera pulling back in a speedy rush as Jeanne Moreau is left behind walking by the beach promenade in Nice, as Michel Legrand's hyper-romantic main theme soars around it. But La Baie des Anges isn't a musical, as both the director's reputation and this virtuoso entrance might suggest; rather a dark yet breezy take on gambling as a metaphor for life, underlining yet again Mr. Demy's fascination with the power of imagination and projection to raise man off his feet. It does retain, however, the director's trademark fluid, eminently musical handling; against the ensemble flavour of Lola he composes here a fugue for two instruments/characters, Claude Mann's stifled Parisian bank teller Jean, and Jeanne Moreau's compulsive gambler Jackie, who has abandoned everything for her passion.

     The two meet cute in Nice then share a passionate affair where love and money, risk and reward intertwine as he allows her to push the boundaries of his inbuilt cautiousness. The tell-all moment comes as Jean enters the Nice casino through a hall of mirrors that seems to disperse and multiply its reflections, as if he were about to enter a maze of emotions he may very well get lost in and will no longer control. And, in effect, La Baie des Anges works on that level as a coming-of-age tale, as a fiery Jean takes his fate in his hands and learns what it means to be a man (Mr. Mann's effaced, sulky presence is, in that respect, simply perfect for the project). Ms. Moreau, who was instrumental in getting the film made, is excellent as Jackie, the woman who has given up everything for the game, alternately calculating and seducing, vulnerable and invincible.

     Mr. Demy keeps La Baie des Anges moving along breezily yet never loses sight of the combination of fascination and horror, triumph and despair induced by gambling, resulting in one of the most enthralling films ever made about it, simultaneously stylized and incisive, artificial and heartfelt - even though the seemingly tacked-on ending that moves the film into fable territory is a severe letdown after the brutally honest take on the subject that came before.

Starring Jeanne Moreau; Claude Mann; with Paul Guers.
     Directed and written by Jacques Demy; music by Michel Legrand; director of photography (b&w), Jean Rabier; production designer, Bernard Evein; film editor, Anne-Marie Cotret.
     A P. E. Decharme presentation of a Sud-Pacifique Films production. (Original French distributor, Consortium Pathé. World sales, Ciné-Tamaris.)
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 17th 2011. 



Thursday, November 17, 2011

LA PIEL QUE HABITO

THE SKIN I LIVE IN


Spain/USA
2011
120 minutes

You might be in for quite a shock when faced against the "new Almodóvar" - if you are expecting yet another exquisitely handled, quirky, heart-warming melodrama of love and friendship, that's what not what La Piel que Habito is. Thankfully - as after the baroque back-and-forths of the masterful La Mala Educación (Bad Education), the Spanish director had turned the auto-pilot on and coasted on his not inconsiderate reputation for a while. La Piel que Habito is a throwback to earlier, edgier works such as Matador and La Ley del Deseo (Law of Desire), with added virtuosity and a darker, more cruel streak; an over-egged pudding best described as a Cronenbergian study in perversity, part Frankenstein part The Island of Dr. Moreau.

     For this adaptation of French writer Thierry Jonquet's mystery novel Mygale (translated into many languages as Tarantula), Mr. Almodóvar reconnects with the actor he helped turn into a star in his mid-1980s films, Antonio Banderas, placing him at the centre of his spooky tale. Mr. Banderas, suave and effortlessly cruel, plays renowned plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, opposite the ravishing Elena Anaya as the mysterious, perfect woman he maintains in a gilded captivity in his out-of-town clinic, whose origin is known only to him. As the director unwinds the strands of his exotic tale, La Piel que Habito moves from futuristic sci-fi overtones into an gothic revenge thriller involving the surgeon's half-brother, his long-time housekeeper, his late wife and daughter and a young man unfortunately caught in the twists and turns of this meditation on obsession and perfection, all of it shaken and stirred in the mixer of Mr. Almodóvar's cinephile sensibility.

     The result is the director's most openly formalist picture, exquisitely photographed and edited by regular accomplices José Luis Alcaine and José Salcedo, controlled to within an inch of its life - and, maybe precisely because of that, as airless and obsessed with its own visuals as Ledgard is with creating the perfect skin for his mysterious guest/prisoner. It is almost as if Mr. Almodóvar had allowed himself to be led astray by the dazzling perfection of the image he is seeking, but forgot to let some air into this impeccable designer home to make it cosy and accessible. La Piel que Habito is a superb formal achievement, but one that arrives at the expense of the director's usual quirkiness, here reduced to a minimum; ironically, despite the madness that permeates it, it's a far too sage film. Still, it's good to see Mr. Almodóvar taking risks again, and especially in such a sumptuous, masterly way.

Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Álamo, Eduard Fernández, José Luis Gómez.
     Directed by Pedro Almodóvar; produced by Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García; screenplay by Pedro Almodóvar and Agustín Almodóvar, based on the novel by Thierry Jonquet, Tarantula; music by Alberto Iglesias; director of photography (colour by Fotofilm Deluxe), José Luis Alcaine; art director, Antxon Gómez; costume designers, Paco Delgado, Jean-Paul Gaultier; film editor, José Salcedo.
     An El Deseo presentation/production, in association with Blue Lake Entertainment, Filmnation Entertainment; with support from the Spanish Institute for Cinema and the Audiovisual Arts; with funding from the Spanish Official Credit Institute; with the participation of TVE, Canal Plus Spain and the Galician and Castille-La Mancha regions. (World sales, Filmnation Entertainment.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), November 9th 2011. 



Sunday, November 13, 2011

HAI SHANG CHUAN QI

I WISH I KNEW


China
2010
114 minutes

"I Wish I Know" is an old Dick Haymes tune of the 1940s, used by Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke as a Proustian madeleine crystallising the essence of the latest in his series of documentaries about the inevitable course of history, here seen through the eyes of 18 Shanghainese from many different areas, including a number of colleagues such as Wang Toon and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Following on from Still Life and 24 City, Mr. Jia very gently introduces a few fictional overlays (performed by regular collaborators Zhao Tao and Lim Giong) in-between the recollections of earlier (but not necessarily better) days in the 20th century where Shanghai seemed to be at the heart of Chinese political, social and cultural upheavals, and he does so by resolutely showing us as little as possible of that "old Shanghai", as well as of the "new Shanghai" rising in its stead. Instead, Mr. Jia prefers to construct a "Shanghai of the mind", more important for what remains in the memories of those who have lived in the city than for that actually remained physically on the streets and squares.

     Ravishingly photographed by the director's usual DP, Yu Likwai, in warm, enveloping tones, I Wish I Knew is not without its faults, the greatest of which its relatively open-ended structure; while the film glows more as a river of souvenirs than as a conventionally built narrative, the lack of closure at the end suggests this particular version could be one of many possible permutations. Not that there is anything wrong with that; just that it makes for a somewhat less focused, more diffuse film than is usual with Mr. Jia, despite being otherwise an engaging and often moving piece.

With Zhao Tao, Lim Giong.
     Directed and written by Jia Zhang-ke; produced by Wang Tianyun, Yu Likwai, Meg Jin, Lin Ye, Xiong Yong; music by Mr. Lim; director of photography (colour, processing by Shanghai Film Technology Plant), Mr. Yu; art director, Zhang Xiaobing; wardrobe stylist, Liu Qiang; film editor, Zhang Jia. 
     A Shanghai Film Group Corporation/Xstream Pictures/NCU Group/Star Art Vision/Bojie Media presentation/production, in association with the Bureau of the Shanghai World Expo Coordination, supported by China Film Co-Production Corporation. (Chinese distributor, Shanghai East Film Distribution Company. World sales, MK2.)
     Screened: distributor advance DVD screener, Lisbon, November 12th 2011. 


I Wish I Knew (Trailer) from filmswelike on Vimeo.

Friday, November 11, 2011

THE IDES OF MARCH

USA
2011
99 minutes

The taunting words of Sarah Palin ring in my ear at the end of George Clooney's look into the seedy underside of modern American electoral politics: "how's that hopey-changey thing working for ya?". It's a fairly logical comment to make, since Mr. Clooney's adaptation of Beau Willimon's stage play based on his own experience as a campaign aide is about the realisation of the massive gulf between idealism and pragmatism, and the role of political campaigners in ensuring that neither gets in the way of the victory they seek. As embodied by Ryan Gosling, America's finest young actor of the moment, wonderboy aide Stephen Meyers is in for a rude awakening as his faith in governor Mike Morris (Mr. Clooney, playing up a glint of steel under his suave facade), running for Democratic candidate to the American presidency, and his belief in politics as a road to change, is shaken to the core by the down-and-dirty reality. Meyers finds himself at the centre of a brewing storm involving his own inexperience, an eager young intern (Evan Rachel Wood), a veteran journalist (a tarty Marisa Tomei) and rival campaign directors (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti).

     Formally, The Ides of March brings nothing new to the table, either in Mr. Clooney's self-effacing, highly functional handling or in the script's by-the-book hitting of all the right narrative marks. What raises it into the hallowed tradition of Hollywood political films is, first, the sharp quality of the dialogue, expertly delivered by all concerned; then, the depth and intelligence of said cast, able to flesh out stock characters in only a handful of scenes; finally, Mr. Clooney's wisdom in letting the actors run the show and be there for them, realising that the film lives or dies by their performances not only individually but as a whole, down to his own performance as Morris, so downplayed and discrete you might not even remember he's in the cast. Still, this is very much Mr. Gosling's film through and through and he runs off with the movie with a stellar performance, more than holding his own in his big scenes with acknowledged powerhouses such as Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Giamatti.


     The Ides of March's sharply disappointed tone of world-weariness, clearly inherited from the work of classic liberal filmmakers such as Alan J. Pakula or Martin Ritt, comes up at just the right moment in these times of highly polarised partisan politics and general disillusionment with political affairs. That isn't enough to make it into a bona fide classic, but it definitely makes it an important, timely film.

Starring Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright; and Evan Rachel Wood.
     Directed by Mr. Clooney; produced by Grant Heslov, Mr. Clooney, Brian Oliver; screenplay by Mr. Clooney, Mr. Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on the stage play by Mr. Willimon, Farragut North; music by Alexandre Desplat; director of photography (colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen), Phedon Papamichael; production designer, Sharon Seymour; costume designer, Louise Frogley; film editor, Stephen Mirrione.
     An Exclusive Media Group/Cross Creek Pictures presentation, in association with Crystal City Entertainment, of a Smokehouse/Appian Way production. (US distributor, Columbia Pictures. World sales, Exclusive Media Group.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo screening room (Lisbon), November 3rd 2011. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

IN TIME

USA
2011
109 minutes

It's simultaneously unfair and irresistible to define writer/director Andrew Niccol's latest mindbending concept as the sum total of ideas nicked from earlier films - irresistible because you can see all the "origin quotes", unfair because what Mr. Niccol does with them is something unique and intensely disturbing. Essentially an insouciant take on Bonnie & Clyde set in a retro-futuristic dystopia with shades of the director's earlier cult hit GattacaLogan's Run and Metropolis via Godard's Alphaville, In Time takes place in a world where humans are genetically programmed to stop aging at 25 - but where time is literally money, as everyone has only one more year to live unless they can add time to their inbuilt obsolescence clock, with the result that the rich can live forever and the poor die young. At heart, In Time is a writer's piece, as seen in the constant substitutions of time for money in the sharp, neo-noir dialogue and in the occasionally disturbing layering of youth and death throughout - never have carpe diem and "living each minute as if it were your last" been literally put to such good use in a Hollywood blockbuster.

     In Time's premise is so strong that, much aided by Roger Deakins' elegantly cool lensing and Alex McDowell's evocative production design (using real-life Los Angeles locations to visualize a hyper-stylized near future), it survives the shifts in gear into a fast-moving thriller: odd couple Justin Timberlake (as a guy from the wrong side of town falsely accused of murder) and Amanda Seyfried (as a millionaire's daughter fed up with the status quo) join forces to fight the powers that be, chased by dogged cop Cillian Murphy and ruthless villain Alex Pettyfer. It's in this attempt at marrying his high-concept dystopia with the demands of commercial filmmaking (probably to ensure that In Time wouldn't follow in the footsteps of Gattaca, under-appreciated on release only to become a cult classic on video) that Mr. Niccol lets his side down: you can feel the premise losing some of its underlying strength and gravity to become a smart and sexy actioner with a brain. Still, we should be thankful for small mercies: even this underused noggin is enough to raise In Time above nearly all of the Hollywood competition for the year.

Starring Amanda Seyfried, Justin Timberlake, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Olivia Wilde, Matt Bomer, Johnny Galecki, Collins Pennie; and Alex Pettyfer.
     Directed and written by Andrew Niccol; produced by Mr. Niccol, Eric Newman, Marc Abraham; music by Craig Armstrong; director of photography (colour by DeLuxe, widescreen), Roger Deakins; production designer, Alex McDowell; costume designer, Colleen Atwood; film editor, Zach Staenberg.
     A Regency Enterprises presentation of a New Regency/Strike Entertainment production. (US distributor and world sales, Twentieth Century-Fox.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), November 2nd 2011.

Monday, November 07, 2011

ABENDLAND

Austria/Germany
2011
91 minutes

Austrian documentarist Nikolaus Geyrhalter's latest project deploys his usual method of shooting footage all over the world according to a specific theme, then assemble a selection of the material in a wordless storytelling that makes its points without any editorialising and exclusively through visual montages and juxtaposition. On Abendland, though, this method (which worked with poignant or disturbing results in the previous Our Daily Bread) seems to have been taken to its limits, the collage format apparently too rigid for the looser concept of night-time occupations, from mail sorters and paramedics to policemen doing the rounds and Oktoberfest waiters.

     Mr. Geyrhalter's methodical assemblages are by now a routine unto itself and the irony that might be found in juxtaposing footage of London close-circuit-camera analysts with blustering MPs at the European Parliament in Brussels, or Spanish cops patrolling the shores of Melilla to avoid any illegal immigrants to come ashore with mindless ravers at a Dutch festival quickly seems somewhat forced and, above all, lacking in the desired sense of poetry. And the mesmerizing effect of the director's trademark static long takes is blunted by the apparent disconnection between all these events happening all over the world with night as their single common theme. The end result, as impeccably done and clinically observational as is Mr. Geyrhalter's wont, is also bizarrely superfluous and much less engaging than usual.

Directed and photographed (colour, processing by Listo, Synchro Film) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter; produced by Mr. Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Michael Kitzberger, Wolfgang Widerhofer; screenplay by Mr. Widerhofer, Maria Arlamovsky, Mr. Geyrhalter, based on a dramatic structure by Mr. Widerhofer; film editor, Mr. Widerhofer; sound designer, Daniel Fritz.
     A Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion production in cooperation with ORF and ZDF/3sat, with the support of the Austrian Film Institute and Vienna Film Fund. (World sales, Autlook Films.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 22nd 2011. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

BLUE MERIDIAN

Belgium
2010
82 minutes

There is something fascinatingly singular about Belgian director Sofie Benoot's leisurely travelogue of the American South. Maybe it's the impeccable framings, reminding of William Eggleston's photography; maybe the way her interviews are always conducted from a distance, with the people always clearly visible in their place of work; maybe the slow-moving pans across the landscape of the modern South, surviving as well as it can in between its fondly-remembered history, its impoverished present and its uncertain future. Crisply photographed and smartly edited, Blue Meridian follows the course of the Mississippi river from Cairo, Illinois, all the way down to Venice, Louisiana, "the end of the world" as one of its residents puts it, because there is nothing beyond the river except the water that may swallow the city if it rises any higher.

     Ms. Denoot shows how the people are the essential wealth of the South, and how kindness and racism, pride and friendliness coexist in them; how everything they do and think is coloured by the history of this struggling land that, in the words of another interviewee, "goes on just like it has been" for ages. Whether they rail against the government for their gross negligence over the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans or against the yankees for having crushed the Confederacy in the Civil War, the director brings out the resilience and pride of the underdog that seems to surface throughout her encounters, mingled with the joy of community and generosity that is a staple of the American character. It's clear that Ms. Denoot and her crew made a point to see beyond the stereotypes, even though they're unavoidable, resulting in a stylish, compassionate, smart portrait.

Directed by Sofie Benoot; produced by Marie Logie; camera (colour), Fairuz; sound, Kwinten van Laethem and Senjan Jansen; film editors, Tom Denoyette and Ms. Benoot.
     An Auguste Orts production in co-production with Atelier Graphoui and CBA - Brussels Audiovisual Centre; with help from the Centre for Cinema and Audiovisual of the Belgian French Community, Wallon Teledistributors, Belgian National Lottery and Region Brussels-Capital; with support from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Canvas, Sint-Lukas College Brussels, Flemish Community Commission. (World sales, Auguste Orts.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 22nd 2011. 




Blue Meridian - Trailer from kc nOna on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

TAHRIR - LIBERATION SQUARE

Italy/France
2011
93 minutes

"Tomorrow I need to go to work." "No you don't, you're not going to go to work tomorrow." That's it, case closed, as a young woman at Cairo's Tahrir Square lays down the law to a fellow protester in the early days of the square's occupation by disgruntled Egyptians in January 2011. Cairo wasn't the beginning of the "Arab Spring" that swept the Arab world in the early months of 2011, but it remains one of its high points, thanks to the stubborn determination of protesters such as that young woman to stay put until the Mubarak regime collapsed thoroughly (but has it really?).

     Those are the unsung heroes Italian documentary filmmaker Stefano Savona follows with his Canon 5D camera through the three weeks of occupation. Mr. Savona, a former archaeologist who knows Cairo well, flew there once the revolution that wasn't one began, to document what has happening down on the ground, among the crowd assembled in Tahrir. Avoiding any sort of editorializing or voiceover, the film is essentially a 90-minute foot soldier's eye-view of the unfolding events, always uncertain of what is going on; alternately, the scene in the square is a block party celebrating power to the people, a campus battle using pavement stones, a quiet fireside chat about dreams and hopes, a disgusted reaction to a televised speech. You can feel the electricity, the rage, the disappointment flow through the crowd as they realise their power as a group is much bigger (and much more fragile) than they think.


     Tahrir - Liberation Square is hardly a perfect film, and to Mr. Savona's credit that's not what he was looking for; it is, instead, a snapshot of history in the making, taken as events unfolded and filtered through the reactions of half a dozen locals the director follows through the course of these three weeks. It ends up as a heartfelt portrait of a moment in a country in transition, with all the pros and cons of such an approach, giving it an incalculable value as a document.

Directed and photographed (in colour) by Stefano Savona; produced by Penelope Bortoluzzi, Marco Alessi, Carla Quarto di Palo; film editor, Ms. Bortoluzzi.
     A Picofilms/Dugong production in collaboration with RAI 3, Cécile Lestrade/Alter Ego and Périphérie Centre de Création Cinématographique. (World sales, Picofilms.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 21st 2011.

Friday, November 04, 2011

THE THING

USA/Japan
2011
103 minutes

It must be said from the get-go that there is nothing inherently wrong with Dutch adman Matthijs van Heijningen's take on John W. Campbell's twice-previously filmed short story "Who Goes There?". The tale of an Antarctic expedition that finds and releases a malevolent, terrifying shape-shifting alien creature is adequately presented as a no-nonsense B-grade horror/sci-fi programmer, efficiently accomplished by a second-tier cast and crew. The only thing The Thing has going against it is its honourable list of predecessors: the 1951 black-and-white classic directed by Christian Nyby and masterminded by Howard Hawks, and John Carpenter's 1982 colour-saturated freakout, widely panned at the time but since reappraised as a genre classic.

     The nicest thing that can be said about Mr. van Heijningen's film is that the production doesn't pretend to be a remake of either, but rather a prequel to Mr. Carpenter's take on the material, telling the story of the Norwegian crew whose destroyed installations are found by Kurt Russell in that film. That doesn't make what comes next any less duplicating of the 1982 Thing, down to the diabolical, Boschian metamorphosis of the Thing itself, or make it any less of a soulless attempt at remaking what didn't need to be remade at all, but at least it defuses any ill will towards the film and the professionalism of its makers. Or, in short: not badly done, and probably would stand up quite well by itself if there hadn't been two previous films, but since there have been, what's the point?

Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Adewale Akinnoye-Agbaje, Eric Christian Olsen, Trond Espen Sein. 
     Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen; produced by Marc Abraham, Eric Newman; screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the short story by John W. Campbell, "Who Goes There?"; music by Marco Beltrami; director of photography (colour, Panavision widescreen), Michel Abramowicz; production designer, Sean Haworth; costume designer, Luis Sequeira; film editors, Julian Clarke, Peter Boyle; visual effects supervisor, Jesper Kjölsrud; special make-up and effects, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr.
     A Universal Pictures/Morgan Creek Productions presentation of a Strike Entertainment production, in association with Dentsu. (US distributor and world sales, Universal Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), October 28th 2011.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

IN FILM NIST

THIS IS NOT A FILM


Iran
2011
74 minutes

Glib as the pun may be, there is no denying that Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb' self-proclaimed "effort" delivers exactly what its title says. This Is Not a Film, indeed, though it certainly is cinema - self-referential, meta-fictional, partly cinéma-vérité partly on-camera improvisation, following a day in the home-bound life of Mr. Panahi as he waits to hear about the appeal of the harsh sentence he was given by the Iranian courts: a six-year jail term and a twenty-year interdiction of directing and/or writing a film. The equally Kafkian response to the Kafkian predicament Mr. Panahi finds himself in - what is a filmmaker to do when he cannot do a film? - is to make a film that isn't one.

     Mission accomplished in ingenious but rather silent ways, in what is essentially a combination of defiant political statement and rough-around-the-edges film-essay on what it means to film, what makes a film, what can an image mean. Initially, the director attemps to recreate before Mr. Mirtahmasb's camera, as the ultimate make-believe, the film he'd started working on before all his material was confiscated and his sentence was pronounced - the story of a young woman who is locked inside by her own parents to prevent her from enrolling in an arts course in college. But soon Mr. Panahi gives up in frustration, asking "what is the use of filming when you could just tell the story?".

     Mssrs. Panahi and Mirtahmasb (who have both been imprisoned since This Is Not a Film's Cannes 2011 premiere) raise important questions on the role, nature and identity of film, but that doesn't make this an easy watch. Not that it should be - we are not in entertainment territory here; Mr. Panahi's condition is horrible, and there are harrowing moments of emotion leavened by the odd humorous moment (involving either the director's daughter's pet iguana or his uselessness at cooking meals). But there's only so much you can do with watching two film directors think their way out of such a predicament, and the film only really comes alive when other people unexpectedly show up, from the downstairs neighbour with the loud dog to the sympathetic but ambiguous provisional caretaker. This Is Not a Film indeed: just an important statement whose inarguable political dimension ends up taking precedence over its filmic qualities.

An effort (directed, written, photographed, edited) by Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
     (World sales, Wide Management.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance press screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), October 18th 2011. 

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A NOSSA FORMA DE VIDA

Portugal
2011
104 minutes

It's extremely likely that Pedro Filipe Marques' debut feature will be almost inintelligible to foreign viewers who are not aware of Portuguese mores and history - and yet, the kernel of humanity that lies inside this alternatingly infuriating, heartwarming and hilarious observational piece is so common as to be universal. Armando and Fernanda, the two elderly residents of an Oporto tower block flat, are like any other elderly couple whiling away their twilight years: he tinkers around the house, she does the housework and shops for groceries, they watch TV or read the newspaper, both hardly ever step outside their self-contained, self-created bubble.

     What makes all the difference is that the Cunha couple are taken as a microcosm of the Portuguese working-class experience - as seen through the film's debut with a music box playing the Internationale. Armando is an unreconstructed communist sympathizer, who visited Russia and remains in awe of the illusions created by the socialist states; Fernanda is a typical housewife fed a diet of soap operas and scandal news and more interested in the comings ans goings on her street than in politics. Together, their vision of the world is the same as that of hundreds of thousands of Portuguese who came of age during the Salazar regime or the heady years that followed the 1974 revolution, in a collision course with contemporary celebrity culture and self-serving ignorance. And yet, Mr. Marques is never mean, haughty or cynical about his subjects; he simply lays out their combination of street smarts and naïveté to paint an affectionate portrait of a certain Portuguese experience.

     That Mr. Marques is the grandson of the Cunhas may explain the access granted to the camera, as well as the tendency to let some scenes go on for too long (the version screened was a 104-minute workprint, trimmed by 15 minutes for the final cut) - but it's a relief that there is no nepotism in sight and, when the result is as sparklingly insightful as this is, a slight case of overlength is no problem at all.

Director, camera (in colour) and sound, Pedro Filipe Marques; produced by Inês Gonçalves, Mr. Marques; film editors, Mr. Marques, Tomás Baltazar.
     A Noland Films presentation/production.
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance screener, Lisbon, October 16th 2011. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

VODKA FACTORY

Sweden/Switzerland/Poland/Finland
2010
89 minutes

Many contemporary documentary filmmakers are making the leap into what has generally been described as "fictions of reality" - the applying of narrative techniques from traditional narrative cinema to non-fiction material. Polish director Jerzy Sladkowski's Russia-set feature is a strong example of this presentation of real-life footage within a narrative framework: at its heart lies a disenchanted, rather gloomy portrait of contemporary small-town Russia where people make ends meet stoically as best they can while the bright lights of the big city Moscow woo from a distance.

     Mr. Sladkowski presents it through the tale of twenty-something vodka factory worker Valya, a single mother who dreams of stardom as an actress in Moscow and neglects her young son from a brief, ill-advised marriage in order to pursue her dreams of fame, whether taking belly-dancing lessons, making a photographic portfolio, going out on benders with friends or enrolling in acting classes for which she is painfully ill-prepared. All the while, her long-suffering, hard-working bus-conductor mother finds herself often stuck with the boy, and Valya's colleagues at the factory alternately lecture her on the dangers to which she is voluntarily offering herself and bemoan their own inability to leave Zhigulevsk. But what is better - to take risks and leave for other pastures, risking delusion for the sake of a far-fetched dream (and it's far too obvious that, beyond her desire, Valya seems to have no special talent that will allow her to make it), or just stay in this smalltown where nothing ever changes (as one of Valya's co-workers says, "we've rusted in this factory")?

     Mr. Sladkowski gives no answer and merely lays out the quandary in a series of disturbingly raw sequences, borderline intrusive, where we see the dead end street Zhigulevsk can be seen as, and the serious choices many of these young women take on lightly, almost irresponsibly. It's worth wondering how this is all going to end, but the fact that this isn't a narrative but rather real life, adds to Vodka Factory an added punch. A punch that takes a while to be felt but that, when it does, makes us look at all the Russian internet brides and immigrant prostitutes in a whole new way.

Directed by Jerzy Sladkowski; produced by Antonio Russo Merenda; music by Henryk Kurniak; director of photography (colour), Wojciech Staron; sound recordists, Shamil Ismailov, Alexei Moisenko; film editor, Agnieszka Bojanowska.
     A Hysteria Film presentation/production, in co-production with ARTE G. E. I. E., Swedish Television and Polish Television 1, with the support of the Swedish Film Institute and of the Polish Film Institute, in collaboration with YLE. (World sales, Hysteria Film.)
     Screened: DocLisboa 2011 advance screener, Lisbon, October 20th 2011.