Friday, February 24, 2012

WAR HORSE

Much has been made of Steven Spielberg having shot on location, in actual film, with real actors and real horses, this deliberate throwback to grand family entertainment of Hollywood's golden age, and of his debt to a certain tradition of British cinema - especially after the all-digital environments of The Adventures of Tintin. Certainly, this is one of the director's films where his love of cinema, his innate classicism and eloquent storytelling flair best come to the fore. War Horse asks the question of how well Mr. Spielberg could have fit the American studio system, and how much more the master he clearly is would be recognised if he had indeed been working within it in the 1940s/1950s. That such a system no longer exists is both heart and bane of War Horse, its impeccable cast of British stalwarts and defiantly hand-crafted production highlighting that it takes a director with the clout of Mr. Spielberg to mount such a movie today - and that even he can't fix the problems such a film eventually faces in this day and age.

     The biggest of those problems is simply that Michael Morpurgo's kids' book on which it (and Nick Stafford's extraordinary stage play) is based is much too slight to sustain a 150-minute epic, especially since the tale of Joey, the horse that travels from the fields of Devon to the trenches of World War I, and Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the farmer's son who has bonded with him, is already episodic in nature. Some of the episodes (namely the French pastoral and the tragic escape of two German underage soldiers) come off essentially as padding that might have worked on the page but does little or nothing to advance the plot, and the peripatetic arc of events risks reducing War Horse to a predictable series of sketches.

     That it doesn't, and that despite the staid moments the film remains so engrossing and even moving at times throughout, is thanks to Mr. Spielberg's skills as a visual storyteller, and the many pleasures he finds along the way (the way the film's opening, the British cavalry charge or the windmill execution say all that needs to be said through purely cinematic means are outstanding, for instance). There is almost a balletic grace in the way the film flows smoothly from one moment to another, its gentle rhythm, almost like a trot, masterfully shaped by the hands of editor Michael Kahn. It is almost as if Mr. Spielberg had decided to actually put in one film all that he is capable of as a filmmaker - and in doing so, he makes War Horse something more than just a vanity project (made more for himself than for an audience that may no longer exist for a film as old-fashioned as this is), but something less than a classic. But what a glorious less-than-classic this is!

Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell.
     Director, Steven Spielberg; screenplay, Lee Hall, Richard Curtis, from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse, and its stage adaptation by Nick Stafford; cinematography, Janusz Kaminski (Deluxe prints, widescreen); music, John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; costume designer, Joanna Johnston; editor, Michael Kahn; producers, Mr. Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy (Dreamworks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment, The Kennedy/Marshall Company), USA/India, 2011, 146 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 1 (Lisbon), February 17th 2012. 



Thursday, February 23, 2012

LA GUERRE EST DÉCLARÉE

DECLARATION OF WAR


There is far too much going on in French actress/director Valérie Donzelli's sophomore film to be able to focus exclusively on its cinematic qualities, good as they may be. This is simply because it's impossible, no matter how much you try, to separate the film's premise from the story it tells. And that is a tall order in itself, as La Guerre est déclarée is that tricky staple, the illness melodrama, describing what happens when the two-year-old child of a young Parisian couple (played by the director and Jérémie Elkaïm) is diagnosed with a malignant tumour.

     The big miracle of Ms. Donzelli's film is that it deliberately refuses the traps such a premise sets up, preferring to turn its attention away from the misery and drama to the insouciant energy of celebrating life, following the couple as they make sure that every single moment is meaningful and worthwhile, both for them and for their child. That alone would be enough to set La Guerre est déclarée apart, but it's even more amazing that Ms. Donzelli pulls it off so successfully for most of the film, by making it not so much about the illness as about the love story between the couple, slyly called Roméo and Juliette, and how they decide to make a pact to defy death by using that love as shield and armour against the dark days ahead.

     It doesn't work all the way: the battle against disease does sap your energies and, just as Roméo and Juliette are at some point spent and their attempt to laugh in the face of death turns into an exhausting routine, so does the film run out of the pop energy that boosted it, and begins skirting the edges of a conventional relationship melodrama, even if smarter and dryer-eyed than most. It was probably far too much to expect Ms. Donzelli to keep it up through an entire film, but it's no less an honourable try, not in the least because it's her own story that she is fictionalising in the film. It was her own, and her co-star and co-writer Mr. Elkaïm, child that was diagnosed with a malignant tumour, it was their own experience they are retelling (even though by the time the film was made they were no longer a couple), and even though it isn't a straight account of real events, that proximity to real life renders it a peculiar experience - leading into an unusual territory of personal exposure that is as exhilarating as it is uncomfortable, and that will inescapably shape your own perception.


Valérie Donzelli, Jérémie Elkaïm, César Desseix, Gabriel Elkaïm; Brigitte Sy, Elina Löwensohn, Michèle Moretti, Philippe Laudenbach, Bastien Bouillon; Béatrice de Staël, Anne le Ny, Frédéric Pierrot, Élisabeth Dion.
     Director, Ms. Donzelli; writers, Ms. Donzelli, Mr. Elkaïm; cinematography, Sébastien Buchmann (colour, widescreen); production designer, Gaëlle Usandivaras; costume designer, Élisabeth Méhu; editor, Pauline Gaillard; producer, Édouard Weil (Rectangle Productions in association with Wild Bunch, Cofinova 7, Uni Étoile 8, ARTE, Cofinova 6), France, 2011, 100 minutes.
     Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival 2011 competition advance DVD screener, Lisbon, November 6th 2011.


 
La Guerre est déclarée - Bande Annonce por wildbunch-distrib

Thursday, February 16, 2012

LE HAVRE

Over a 30-year career, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has carved himself a very particular niche in the world of contemporary arthouse cinema, as if he sidesteps most of everything everyone else is chasing and looks for something  else entirely, often hidden in the folds of classic film history. In that sense, Le Havre, his 16th full-length feature (and first in five years) brings nothing new to the table - still the same old deadpan humour (and veteran comedian Pierre Étaix has a brief supporting role), the carefully tended balance of despair and wide-eyed humour, the deliberate throwback to the cinema of an earlier age, charmingly stylized in the way it never tries to be self-consciously "modern" while knowing it can never be truly "classic".

     But Mr. Kaurismäki's wry stylisation is indeed leavened in Le Havre by a more openly humanist philosophy, by a deliberate engagement with a specific reality of the world outside his universe, through the tale, set in a popular neighborhood of the title French harbour town, of an illegal immigrant boy (Blondin Miguel) trying to evade the border patrol, taken in by a struggling shoeshine (a wonderful André Wilms) whose wife (Kati Outinen) is in the hospital with a possibly grave illness. Evoking deliberately the French cinema of the 1930s - whether in its Popular Front or dour, Quai des Brumes-like atmospherics - but also the later laconicisms of the polar (Melville is always around the corner, like in the ambiguous policeman played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin), Mr. Kaurismäki pulls off what may be his most accessible film, a fanciful yet heartwarming treat that is always fully aware of its status as a well-meaning fable but does not refuse to engage the world outside.

     Ironically, that engagement with the contemporary handling of illegal immigration in France is the film's weakest link - the intrusion of reality somehow shatters some of the old-fashioned magic of the film, highlights just how self-contained and self-centred the director's universe has become. Whether Le Havre will expand the director's following beyond his usual coterie of aficionados is anyone's guess, but it certainly is the ideal entry point for those who've been hearing about him for 30 years and haven't yet dipped their toes in.

André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel, Elina Salo, Evelyne Didi, Quoc-Dung Nguyen.
     Director/writer, Aki Kaurismäki; cinematography (colour, processing by Éclair), Timo Salminen; production designer, Wouter Zoon; costume designer, Frédéric Cambier; editor, Timo Linnasalo; producer, Mr. Kaurismäki (Sputnik, Pyramide Productions, Pandora Film, ARTE France Cinéma, ZDF/ARTE), Finland/France/Germany, 2011, 93 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, February 2nd 2012. 



Monday, February 13, 2012

PAIXÃO

It quickly becomes clear that Paixão isn't your traditional narrative film; rather a filmmaker's conceptual essay, a theoretical attempt at running with an abstract idea towards an artistic statement. It is, however, somewhat difficult to fathom exactly what is the artistic statement in Margarida Gil's fifth full-length feature, other than it is a dazzling photographed, exquisitely assembled aesthetic delight. But despite the lush visuals and setups, the film is narratively so rarefied and airless that it's worth asking what exactly Ms. Gil is trying to get at with this story of a grieving singer (Ana Brandão) who holds a budding writer (Carloto Cotta) hostage in a sound-proofed room in a decaying Lisbon palace under renovation.

     Is it suggesting that love is a tight-rope walk over a collapsing bridge, that emotional violence is inescapable in the modern world, that the absence of love will drive you to desperate acts? It's anyone's guess, and we're neither none the worse nor none the wiser by the end of this slight, 70-minute-plus-credits experience - film does not have to reveal instantly all of its secrets. But the fact remains that this is essentially an abstract construct entirely lacking in dramatic interest, the highly erudite literary dialogue co-written by novelist Maria Velho da Costa heightening the sense of an intellectual after-dinner treat, not even veteran Acácio de Almeida's sumptuous cinematography nor the best efforts of the actors (who we've seen put to better use elsewhere) raising it above a spare, dry opaqueness. This is simply so personal and idiossyncratic as to be accessible only to whatever fans this rare director may have, with little or no interest for general audiences and a career destined to remain in the fringes of the festival and arthouse circuit.

Ana Brandão, Carloto Cotta, Gonçalo Amorim, Sandra Faleiro.
     Director, Margarida Gil; screenplay, Ms. Gil, Maria Velho da Costa; cinematography, Acácio de Almeida (colour by Light Film); art director, Nuno Esteves; editor, Paulo Mil Homens; producer, Paulo Branco (Alfama Films Production, Clap Filmes), Portugal/France, 2011, 75 minutes.



Sunday, February 12, 2012

SALÒ O LE 120 GIORNATE DI SODOMA

SALÒ, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM


Seldom has the terrifying banality of evil been so forcefully depicted on screen as in Italian iconoclast Pier Paolo Pasolini's filmed testament, an oppressive, claustrophobic setting of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom in the final throes of WWII Italian fascism. Banned and/or censored in many places and still today a discomfiting, disquieting experience, Salò is not just an immediate, visceral one but especially an intellectual, allegorical one.

     The tale of four dignitaries that round up a group of local boys and girls to be subjected to an endless series of depraved games is obviously meant to resonate with the horrors of World War II and absolute power, but also with the subsequent oblivion and forgetfulness of them. Mr. Pasolini, though, does not forget, neither does he stop there; despite all the hullabaloo surrounding the film's disturbingly graphic depictions of coprophilia or torture, the offending visuals are actually few and far between and it's the spoken word that fleshes out the horror and makes it more disturbing. The continuous, endless narration, quoting at length from literary criticism works from Roland Barthes or Pierre Klossowski, creates a hypnotic vortex of humiliation and suggestion that heightens the film's increasingly progressing oppressiveness. The muted, bourgeois ambiance of the prologue and of the stately villa outside Salò - the site of Mussolini's Fascist Republic in the last days of WWII Italy - where everything takes place inexorably give way to a grotesque, claustrophobic entropy. As the unholy pleasures chased by the four men and their four female entertainers spiral into an endless loop of humiliation and sadism, the "little death" usually identified with the physical orgasm becomes purely mental, multiplied a thousandfold until nothing else remains but the sheer fatigue of addictive, self-consuming voyeurism.

     Designed as a nihilistic counterpoint to his earlier "trilogy of life" and as a first step in a "trilogy of death" that the director's brutal death shortly before the film's premiere in late 1975 left forever unfinished, Salò is a prime example of purely illustrative, intellectual film-making. Mr. Pasolini's geometric, almost neutral setups are essentially functional, merely at the service of the film's theoretical agenda of meditation on the nature and banality of power and evil, but have lost none of their capacity to disturb. It may no longer be necessarily shocking, but few films remain as thoughtfully provocative as this.


Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa de Giorgi, Hélène Surgère, Sonia Saviange.
     Director, Pier Paolo Pasolini; screenplay, Mr. Pasolini with Sergio Citti, from the book by the Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom; cinematography, Tonino delli Colli (colour by Technicolor); musical director, Ennio Morricone; production designer, Dante Ferretti; costume designer, Danilo Donati; editors, Nino Baragli, Enzo Ocone; producer, Alberto Grimaldi (Produzione Europee Associate, Les Productions Artistes Associés), Italy/France, 1975, 117 minutes.
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Dr. Félix Ribeiro Theatre, Lisbon, February 10th 2012. 

Please note: the trailer below includes images that may shock or disturb some viewers.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR

Though technically not directing a script of his own, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's touch as a screenwriter is all over his fifth directorial effort, a supernatural fantasy that treats a ghost story as romantic comedy and pulls off a dazzlingly tender, wistful celebration of love. Working from Philip Dunne's adaptation of a pseudonymous novel by little-known Scottish novelist Josephine Leslie, Mr. Mankiewicz creates a surprisingly modern portrait of a woman: Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney), a widow in turn-of-the-century England determined to escape the stifling social conventions to move to a seaside cottage with her child and maid after the death of a husband she never truly loved. There Lucy will find love in the shape of a ghost: the curmudgeonly and very dead seaman Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), with whom she strikes a deep friendship that merely underlines how this most pragmatic and common-sensed woman yearns for the human touch that has eluded her in the real world.

     While fitting into Hollywood's grand tradition of whimsical fantasy, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir also works as a crackerjack of a comedy, Ms. Tierney's airy elegance perfectly contrasting with Mr. Harrison' rakish, rogueish charms, and both actors delivering the fast-paced, quasi-screwball dialogue exquisitely. As the story moves from comedy to melodrama (as Lucy is wooed by George Sanders' seductive cad and begins to contemplate a new marriage), the film gains an added dimension of regret and sadness, highlighted by Mr. Mankiewicz's adroit pacing and smartly economical transitions marking the passing of time, and by Bernard Herrmann's lush, foreboding score. And it also becomes a prime example of Hollywood studio filmmaking giving birth to something that transcends it in surprisingly affecting, moving ways: a gentle, rueful meditation on love and loss, chance and regret.


Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, George Sanders; Edna Best, Vanessa Brown, Anna Lee, Robert Coote, Natalie Wood, Isobel Elson, Victoria Horne.
     Director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz; screenplay, Philip Dunne, from the novel by R. A. Dick, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; cinematography (b&w), Charles Lang Jr.; music, Bernard Herrmann; art directors, Richard Day, George Davis; wardrobe, Charles Le Maire, Eleanor Behm, Oleg Cassini; editor, Dorothy Spencer; producer, Fred Kohlmar (Twentieth Century-Fox), USA, 1947, 104 minutes.
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Dr. Félix Ribeiro Theatre, Lisbon, February 7th 2012. 



Friday, February 10, 2012

THE IRON LADY

A lot has been made of Phyllida Lloyd's treatment of the life of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher: alternately described as conservative propaganda in disguise or a rose-tinted hagiography of the Iron Lady herself, with some who knew her attacking it as not realistic enough. Well, that's the whole point: The Iron Lady isn't a run-of-the-mill personal biopic or a political biography, rather a feminist viewpoint on the strengths and tenacity of a woman who wouldn't take no for an answer and, almost against her own better expectations, ended up breaking a glass ceiling.

     Framing the film from Thatcher's present-day reclusion as a frail, absent-minded widow still incapable of letting go of her late husband's belongings is the key: it explains The Iron Lady as a time-shifting fantasia, theatrical in style and scope, telescoping everything towards Thatcher's refusal to be just another quiet mother and housewife and her drive to stand up for herself and show that England probably needed a good housewife's touch to get back in shape. By doing so, Ms. Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan sidestep any fraught political issues to focus on the personal and on Thatcher as someone who chose politics and who chose thoughts and ideas: to ask what is the price of power for someone who breaks that many rules, how can you deal with your irrelevance once the work is done.

     It ends up being frightening just how extraordinarily woman-centred the film is, its key scenes highlighting the outsider status of Thatcher within an "old boy"/"gentleman's club" culture of British Politics, her refusal to be seen but not heard, her endurance of the sly condescendence she was awarded, painting a portrait of someone whom you might love or hate but cannot ignore. That, precisely, is why the film disappoints so many people by refusing to conform to the idea of Thatcher as either Tory goddess or Tory nemesis: it's about Thatcher as a woman. Ms. Morgan's script isn't perfect - the telescoping and condensing can sometimes be far too drastic for comfort, and can leave far too much important context outside the frame - but its intuitive approach and Ms. Lloyd's fluid handling of the flashback structure certainly make a compelling case for viewing Thatcher not just as a politician but as a human being.

     Regardless of the script's failings, though, it's fairly obvious that half the film would always rely on whoever would be chosen to portray Thatcher, and Meryl Streep's wondrous performance pretty much wipes away any reluctance the film might create. Hers is an astounding tour de force where the actress fully disappears beneath the character, an uncanny portrayal that is not merely an impersonation but a truly inspired performance that gets under the skin to underline her struggle to remain a woman in a man's world that demanded of her to be either "mummy" (as she herself says in a key scene) or a bully. Even with someone else playing Thatcher, though, The Iron Lady would still be an intriguing film. Maybe just not as gripping.


Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent; Olivia Colman. 
     Director, Phyllida Lloyd; screenplay, Abi Morgan; cinematography, Elliot Davis (colour, digital intermediate and colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen); music, Thomas Newman; production designer, Simon Elliott; costume designer, Consolata Boyle; editor, Justine Wright; producer, Damian Jones (Pathé Productions, Film 4, The UK Film Council, DJ Films in association with Goldcrest Film Productions), UK, 2011, 105 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), January 25th 2012. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

LA CHAMBRE VERTE

THE GREEN ROOM


One of François Truffaut's least-remembered and least-known works, La Chambre verte was an intensely personal project, inspired by Henry James stories, that the director went ahead with knowing full well it would confound critics and audiences alike. It's a measure of Mr. Truffaut's awareness that this heightened, hyper-romantic requiem was an acquired taste that the film was indeed a flop upon release and remains pretty much a confidential, for-fans-only proposal. Set in the late 1920s, it follows widowed provincial journalist Julien Davenne's morbid, unhealthy obsession with the dead people in his life, brought on by his traumatising experiences in World War I in tandem with the sudden death of his wife a few months after their wedding.

      That Davenne is played by the director himself is appropriate, as the journalist wants to keep a tight leash on the world around him, holding out against all odds in the name of the dead who can no longer speak, becoming a fundamentalist keeper of the memory who does not take lightly to any deviation of the rigid moral framework he has set for himself. A man so driven to distraction by death and misery to the point he becomes devoted to memory, even when flirting tentatively with the charming auctioneer's secretary Cécilia (Nathalie Baye), Davenne can't help but try to bring her into his world where the dead cannot and should not be forgotten, but where Cécilia's desire to go on living has no place.

     Tenderly photographed in nocturnal, drooping shades by the great Nestor Almendros, moving with the halting, abrupt cuts that Mr. Truffaut was prone to, La Chambre verte develops inexorably into a grandiose tale of unrequited amour fou, underlined by the lush, dramatic score assembled from unused material from the late composer Maurice Jaubert and the quasi-operatic scope and scale of this strange tale. A ghost story in everything but name, though by no means even a traditional horror movie, it's certainly a disturbingly haunted movie, but one borne out of the desire to honour and remember - which makes its setting between the two great World Wars that for many people destroyed Western civilization as it was known even more disquieting.


François Truffaut, Nathalie Baye; Jean Dasté, Jean-Pierre Moulin, Antoine Vitez.
     Director, Mr. Truffaut; screenplay, Mr. Truffaut, Jean Gruault, inspired by the short stories by Henry James The Altar of the Dead and The Beast in the Jungle; cinematography, Nestor Almendros (colour by Eastmancolor); music, Maurice Jaubert; production designer, Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko; costume designers, Monique Dury, Christian Gasc; editor, Martine Barraqué; production, Les Films du Carrosse, Les Productions Artistes Associés, France, 1978, 94 minutes.
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Dr. Félix Ribeiro Theatre, Lisbon, February 4th 2012. 

Sunday, February 05, 2012

MADAME DE...

THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE...


Lighter than air, elegant beyond reproach, Madame de... can lay claim at being Max Ophüls' final complete and unadulterated statement; the later Lola Montès, though technically his last film and for many his greatest achievement, was initially butchered upon release by its backers, gaining a deserved reputation as a blunted masterpiece, and the director died while shooting Montparnasse 19, completed by Jacques Becker. It's not difficult to see Madame de... as such, as this endlessly fascinating, sophisticated picture seems all of a masterfully handled piece as it glides effortlessly from the frothiest treat of French coquetterie into a feverish, desperate romantic tragedy, traced through the whirling dance of a pair of diamond earrings whose secret sale sets in motion a snowballing butterfly effect.

     Mr. Ophüls' dazzling lightness of touch is evident from the very first shot, a playful pan that tracks the opulent possessions of the title character, the flirty and vapid Louise (Danielle Darrieux), whose elegant marriage to older military officer Henri (Charles Boyer) is more of habit and convenience than of truly love. The travels of the earrings, a wedding gift from the besotted husband, in a throwback to Mr. Ophüls earlier La Ronde, lead them into the hands of a seductive Italian diplomat posted to Paris, baron Fabrizio (Vittorio de Sica), who enters a chaste affair with the ever-elusive Louise - and the consummate flirter finds herself caught at her own game, her desperate, passionate desires for Fabrizio rendering her aware of the nature of true love.

     What had until then seemed like a lighter-than-air confection suddenly reveals its gravitas, as the intimations of danger and playing with fire that Mr. Ophüls meticulously inserted through his sweeping pans and glides and the impeccably framed staging of the actors blossoms into full-blown, quasi-operatic drama (not surprisingly, Georges van Parys' score weaves themes from Viennese operetta composer Oscar Straus). For all that, Madame de... never raises its voice, keeping a hushed, subdued tone of exquisite elegance and refinement that is essential for its surface charms to hide the heightened, grandiose passions bubbling under the surface.


Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio de Sica; Jean Debucourt, Jean Galland, Mireille Perrey; Paul Azaïs, Josselin, Hubert Noël; Lia di Leo.
     Director, Max Ophüls; screenplay, Marcel Achard, Mr. Ophüls, Annette Wademant, from the novel by Louise de Vilmorin, Madame de...; cinematography, Christian Matras (b&w); music, Oscar Straus, Georges van Parys; production designer, A. J. d'Eaubonne; costume designers, Georges Annenkov, Rosine Delamare; editor, Borys Lewin; producers, Henri Baum, Ralph Baum (Franco-London Films, Indusfilms, Rizzoli Film), France/Italy, 1953, 100 minutes.
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Dr. Félix Ribeiro Theatre, Lisbon, January 31st 2012. 

Saturday, February 04, 2012

CHRONICLE

What, on paper, looks like the latest twist on the "found footage" thriller vein (think The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity) turns out to be a much more surprising and smarter proposition. Josh Trank's feature debut is an unusually thoughtful meditation on the growing pains of adolescence seen through the filter of a warped super-hero movie, as three very different Seattle high school seniors - popular student Steve (Michael B. Jordan), swot Matt (Alex Russell) and bullied weakling Andrew (Dane de Haan) - acquire telekinetic powers after a close encounter with a mysterious pulsing crystal. Though playing by the time-honoured rules of teenage movies, Chronicle uses them to good effect, to depict the way the awareness of these unexplained powers slowly affect the boys' outlook on life and forces them to grow up faster, though not necessarily better.

     The story is told mostly through the footage that Andrew starts shooting just before the event to document the daily abuse he suffers at the hands of his drunken retired firefighter father (Michael Kelly), who will play an important part in the slow unravelling of Andrew's mind as he becomes aware of the opportunities opened up by his newfound powers. It may not be the most original of plotlines, and the regular shift from Andrew's footage to material shot through surveillance cameras or other people's cellphone or iPad cameras in retrospect stretches the credibility of the project a bit too much. But Mr. Trank handles it smartly enough, by coaxing excellent performances from his fresh cast of television actors, and in the way he builds up momentum and slowly moves the film from a realist, low-budget take on super-hero movies into a disturbingly surreal update of Brian de Palma's high-school nightmare Carrie, its breathtakingly surreal final blowout feeling for once entirely organic to the film and not a tacked-on ending.

     It's that sense of organic construction that raises Chronicle well above its competition and makes it a much smarter film, better attuned to the feelings of its target audience without pandering down or condescending to them, than most major-studio attempts at blockbusters, even though there is still a certain sense of focus-group here (see the film's Twilight-ish Seattle setting). Chronicle doesn't take the teenage years lightly, it actually gives them the sense of life-and-death importance that going through them often means, and that's what makes the difference.


Dane de Haan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw.
     Director, Josh Trank; screenplay, Max Landis, from a story by Mr. Landis, Mr. Trank; cinematography (colour, prints by DeLuxe, digital intermediate by Foto-Kem), Matthew Jensen; production designer, Stephen Altman; costume designer, Diana Cilliers; editor, Elliot Greenberg; producers, John Davis, Adam Schroeder (Twentieth Century-Fox, Davis Entertainment Company, in association with Dune Entertainment), USA, 2012, 84 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 11 (Lisbon), January 30th 2012.

Friday, February 03, 2012

THE MUPPETS

You would be forgiven for fearing the Muppets were long forgotten, pushed to the back of some dusty shelf in the Disney vault of underused characters, for lack of interest from both audiences and the studio's head honchos. It is therefore a relief and a pleasure to report that Jim Henson's sweetly subversive felt puppets are back in fine form in this update-cum-resurrection, masterminded by diehard superfan Jason Segel - Disney, thankfully and to their credit, seem to have been hands-off enough for the project to not look as corporate as it could be. This tale of the long-disbanded vaudeville gang getting back together for one last show to save their theatre from being sold to a greedy oilman manages not only to recapture the whirling anarchy of the original series, but also to put its own conundrum in the dead centre of the plot dreamt up by Mr. Segel and his regular writing partner Nicholas Stoller: how do you make the Muppets relevant in this day and age?

     The answer is very simple: you don't. The Muppets are pretty much given up as dead and buried by nearly everyone in the movie except by the lead, new muppet Walter (voiced by puppeteer Peter Linz), who's grown up in Smalltown as the younger brother to man-child Gary (Mr. Segel himself) and is the prime mover behind getting the gang back together. And the charm is that the Muppets, of course, don't really need to change to be relevant since they never were of their time to begin with - they were always out of time, so to speak, even back in the 1970s; that's the trick of the movie, seesawing between the wide-eyed innocence transported wholesale from their television heyday and the charmingly subversive comedy inherited from their cartoonish origins.

     It must be said The Muppets isn't a great movie: the nature of the puppets themselves, stubbornly analog in this CGI era, creates limitations to what first-timer James Bobin (a Brit schooled in television) can do, so he plays it far too safe without much inventiveness, and the Mickey-and-Judy let's-put-on-a-show plot can look a bit lazy. But Mr. Bobin makes up for it in the manic, cheerful energy and tempo that turn the film into a hugely enjoyable ride filled with love for the characters and the sense that their brand of offbeat, giddy humour, if handled right, never really goes out of fashion. And guess what? It doesn't.


Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones; Muppet performers, Steve Whitmire, Doug Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bob Baretta, Peter Vogel, Peter Linz.
     Director, James Bobin; screenplay, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller; cinematography, Don Burgess (colour by DeLuxe); music, Christophe Beck; production designer, Steve Saklad; costume designer, Rahel Afiley; editor, James Thomas; producers, David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman (Walt Disney Pictures), USA, 2011, 101 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo screening room (Lisbon), January 27th 2012.


 

Thursday, February 02, 2012

YOUNG ADULT

It's really not surprising that screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman's reunion after the extraordinarily successful Juno, while far superior, has failed to strike a chord with filmgoers, Academy voters and many critics. This artful subversion of the rules of romantic comedy picks apart at the formula of, say, My Best Friend's Wedding to rip it to shreds in a blizzard of well-observed despair and self-loathing, as the clichés of happy-ever-after rose-tinted glamour are revealed for the faked facade they are, hiding a harrowingly fragile humanity.

     It is also the story of a woman in crisis whose present seems so hopeless that she decides to recapture her past in a desperate last-stand action: Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a divorced ghost-writer of teenage novels whose cash-cow series is reaching its end, return to her Minnesota hometown to conquer her old high-school flame (Patrick Wilson), happily married and father to a newborn baby. But despite her outward appearance, the glamour queen high school days are long gone, and the only person she can fully trust and truly connect with turns out to be the one guy she never paid any attention to: class freak Matt (Patton Oswalt), whose bullying at the hands of the local jocks left him physically crippled for life, and whose sharp awareness allows him to see through Mavis' shtick to realise she is as much a misfit as he is. Mavis and Matt bond in an unlikely brotherhood of outsiders, as she finds herself forced to face her life in shambles and the inability to hide any longer behind her looks.

     Two bravura performances from Ms. Theron and Mr. Oswalt are made all the more remarkable by Ms. Cody's sharp-tongued but never gratuitously mean dialogue, and by Mr. Reitman's pitch-perfect, self-effacing handling of the script. And therein lies the tricky balancing act everyone involved successfully pulls off: there is nothing mean-spirited, sanctimonious or condescending in this tale of the pains of growing up, no matter how late; merely a rich sense of humanity, of flawed characters who don't necessarily learn the lessons they need to learn, of people stumbling along in life trying to make the best of whatever it is they're given to work with.

     By refusing to reduce its characters to stereotypes (even if the supporting characters skirt them, at times dangerously, through sheer lack of screen time), Young Adult steps well out of both romantic comedy and contemporary Hollywood's comfort zones. You laugh, yes, and you laugh a lot, but the laugh ends up strangled in your throat as you realise just how desperate is the underlying emotion. Juno was merely a teaser - Ms. Cody has grown in giant steps since then, and her script brings out the best in Mr. Reitman too. Young Adult is a small jewel.


Charlize Theron; Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser.
     Director, Jason Reitman; screenplay, Diablo Cody; cinematography, Eric Steelberg (prints by DeLuxe); music, Rolfe Kent; production designer, Kevin Thompson; costume designer, David Robinson; editor, Dana E. Glauberman; producers, Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith, Ms. Cody, Mason Novick, Mr. Reitman (Paramount Pictures, Mandate Pictures, Mr. Mudd, Right of Way Films, Denver & Delilah Films), USA, 2011, 93 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), January 24th 2012.