Saturday, March 31, 2012

WE BOUGHT A ZOO

Cameron Crowe seems to be a true one-off in modern-day American filmmaking: he continues to be able to make his small-scale, genre-defying, human-interest films within a major-studio system that is clearly less and less interested in such things, even though they don't make that much money and are usually hard-sells for the marketing departments. Mr. Crowe is also, surprisingly, as close as you can get (along with folks like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, or Steven Soderbergh) to what passes for a French-style auteur in modern American cinema: exploiting a number of recurrent themes throughout his films, following almost always his lead characters' struggle to find their space and their way in contemporary society. We Bought a Zoo isn't an original script of his; rather an adaptation of journalist Benjamin Mee's memoir of plunging headfirst into the adventure of buying a small zoo and getting it back in shape, originally scripted by The Devil Wears Prada's Aline Brosh McKenna, then tweaked by Mr. Crowe himself to the point where it becomes a twin to his earlier, ill-received Elizabethtown.

     As in that fiercely underestimated movie, the death of a loved one serves as a catalyst to assess and change one's life (in a departure from the book, Mr. Mee's wife is already dead when the film starts, when in real life her disease was part of the reason for the life-change). And the fact that the film deals with the stresses and anxieties of mourning in a suddenly unbalanced family unit makes it an unlikely companion piece to Alexander Payne's underwhelming The Descendants, only in a softer, cuddlier, less cynical mood. Mr. Crowe has always had a tendency for the sentimental, and the presence of animals and kids sharing the limelight with Matt Damon (in fine form as Mr. Mee) and Scarlett Johansson (a surprisingly tough cookie as the zoo's animal warden, a character straight out of old-fashioned romantic comedies) will no doubt tick many viewers off.

     Yet it would be a mistake to discount We Bought a Zoo because of its self-evident family film trappings. The true heart of the movie lies in the need to start again that was already the trigger for Elizabethtown, only where that was a tale of atonement and redemption from failure, this one is its positive, following someone who needs to move forward and back into the community he has let himself stray away from. Community has always been a strong word in Mr. Crowe's films and especially in his more personal work - think Singles or Almost Famous - and he has always had a way with dialogue and character-building that is closer to the old-fashioned classics he tries to emulate; that is exactly what he does in We Bought a Zoo, admittedly in a minor key, as his film slowly shows itself to be a throwback to Golden-Age romantic comedies where characters and situations were always less self-evident and more complex than they seemed at first. The kids and the animals are an added bonus to the gentle beating heart of this sweet, fully-rounded comedy of finding what it is you want out of life.

Matt Damon; Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, John Michael Higgins, Angus MacFadyen, Peter Riegert.
     Director, Cameron Crowe; screenplay, Aline Brosh McKenna, Mr. Crowe, from the book by Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo; cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto (colour by DeLuxe); music, Jon Thor Birgisson; production designer, Clay Griffith; costume designer, Deborah L. Scott; editor, Mark Livolsi; producers, Julie Yorn, Mr. Crowe, Rick Yorn (Twentieth Century-Fox, LBI Entertainment, Vinyl Films in association with Dune Entertainment), USA, 2011, 123 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Amoreiras 1 (Lisbon), March 16th 2012.


 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A VINGANÇA DE UMA MULHER

That Rita Azevedo Gomes trained as an artist is self-evident from the beautiful visuals of A Vingança de uma Mulher, the fourth official full-length fiction in an unruly career spent mainly outside mainstream circuits. This adaptation of a short story by 19th century French writer Barbey d'Aurevilly, about a Spanish noblewoman (the wondrous Rita Durão) who takes her revenge on her tyrannical husband by becoming a prostitute in Lisbon, is the most conventionally narrative of her works, but it is an "arthouse" picture in the narrowest sense of the word. Everything in its stiff, theatrical scaffolding is reminiscent of a specific period of highly austere Portuguese arthouse cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, of the early late-period movies of centenary master Manoel de Oliveira mixed with the late João César Monteiro's poverty-row aesthetics and provocative themes and the stark beauty of João Botelho's early, more stylized works. Not surprisingly, A Vingança de uma Mulher carries a certain musty odour of a film out of sync with its time.

     Yet that belittles the immense coherence of the project, and its deliberately sparse, theatrical quality, with narrator/stage manager João Pedro Bénard serving as a "guide" that leads the viewer in and out of the story, leading us behind a richly red, almost Lynchian curtain where a series of deliberately staid, artificial tableaux awaits. There are, to be sure, moments where that artifice breaks down under the weight of everything Ms. Azevedo Gomes wants it to carry (such as the constant game between illusion and reality, life and theatre) where the heightening of the emotion through the reduction of everything to an essence of actors performing on sets before a camera turns to a claustrophobic, borderline sterile puppet theatre. But the moments where A Vingança de uma Mulher threatens to collapse into irrelevance are saved by the director's sheer bloody-mindedness, by the lush visuals created by veteran DP Acácio de Almeida and production designer Pedro Sá, and especially by the heart-stopping, fully inhabited performance of Ms. Durão as the duchess of Sierra Leone, her feline physical presence, fierce eyes and effortless command of space a sight to behold. None of them make A Vingança de uma Mulher less claustrophobic, but they reveal the depth of thought and intelligence that went into its creation and the demands it makes of its viewers. For those willing to follow Ms. Durão down the rabbit-hole, it can be quite a journey.

Rita Durão, Fernando Rodrigues, Marie Carré, Francisco Nascimento, Hugo Tourita, Duarte Martins, António Azevedo Gomes, João Pedro Bénard; Isabel Ruth.
     Director/writer, Rita Azevedo Gomes, from the short story by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, "The Revenge of a Woman"; cinematography, Acácio de Almeida (colour); art director, Pedro Sá; wardrobe, Isabel Quadros; editor, Patrícia Saramago; producers, Christine Reeh, Isabel Machado, Joana Ferreira (CRIM Produções), Portugal, 2011, 100 minutes.
     Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival 2011 competition advance DVD screener, Lisbon, October 31st 2011. 



Saturday, March 17, 2012

NETWORK

There are any number of reasons why Network hasn't lost its power to disturb, outrage and provoke in the 35 years since it was shot. Yet the essential reason isn't necessarily the most obvious: the prescience of the wayward, wicked, manipulative paths of television as seen through the fable of a veteran newscaster (Peter Finch) at an also-ran television network whose on-air breakdown is turned into ratings gold by a ruthlessly ambitious head of programming (Faye Dunaway).

     The biggest reason is in fact how much this satirical yet deadly serious screed was already a film out of time at the time of its production - a sad, rueful look at the state of modern television by men who had made their careers when television was something else entirely. Both director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky started out in the live television of 1950s New York, and the film's structure and essentially studio-bound settings clearly peg it as a television play opened-out into the big screen, with Mr. Lumet's fluid handling often resorting to lengthy takes holding the actors' faces for as long as they can hold it, like you would in a television play, yet fully aware that this isn't television. No sir, this is cinema, and first-rate cinema.

     The film's outlandish premise, taking the argument that a TV network will stoop as low as it can go to ensure a ratings hits, hinged on what Mr. Chayefsky projected from the state of 1970s American television, with anonymous, bottom-line-focussed conglomerates gobbling up cultural industries, and the future that has since come to pass has both fulfilled and betrayed the screenwriter's vision - and this is really a case of a director and a cast working to fulfill the writer's vision (not for nothing do the main titles read as if it were a play, "Network by Paddy Chayefsky"). The anything-for-a-hit mentality has certainly taken hold, the news-as-entertainment concept hasn't yet been taken to its logical extreme though it seems a matter of time.

     Not everything works as intended; the subplot of ultra-radical terrorist organisation the Ecumenical Liberation Army comes off as the most openly satirical and dated element in the film, and Mr. Lumet was never big on comedy, so the sly tone required is never present. But somehow, that doesn't detract at all from the calculatedly calibrated careering juggernaut of Mr. Chayefsky's script, with the director carefully managing its snowballing thrust as the argument is taken to its absurdly logical consequence. Upon release back in 1976, Roger Ebert said the film might well survive where better, tidier, more perfect movies wouldn't. He was right. In 2012, Network remains alert, urgent, timely.

Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall.
     Director, Sidney Lumet; screenplay, Paddy Chayefsky; cinematography, Owen Roizman (prints by Metrocolor); music, Elliot Lawrence; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; costume designer, Theoni V. Aldredge; editor, Alan Heim; producer, Howard Gottfried (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), USA, 1976, 121 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, March 14th 2012. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

JOHN CARTER

I would venture that the most frustrating thing for any filmmaker is to have his film scrutinised and/or dismissed for any reason bar the only one that matters - its quality or artistry. Such is the case with Pixar animator Andrew Stanton's live-action debut John Carter, a lively throwback to classic Hollywood whose wide-eyed love of old-fashioned derring-do and solid if stodgy world-making has been completely sidetracked by the negative buzz surrounding its inflated budget and box-office under-performance, leading it to be dismissed as a Hollywood-gone-wild unmitigated disaster. The sad thing about it is John Carter is actually a pretty good adventure film whose ambitions and mindset are so alien to Hollywood's current herd mentality and scope that it would have been all but impossible for any studio to realise what exactly they had in their hands and how to package it.

     The tale of Civil War-era Confederate cavalryman John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), mysteriously teleported to a ludicrously fantastic planet Mars prey to a civil war of its own, was an early creation of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs pushed back into the shadows after Tarzan, but that has been irregularly revived in the comic-book format. Mr. Stanton, scripting with Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon, remains faithful to the original set-up and plot, but gives it a lustrous steampunk sheen, updating the technology just enough to mesh well with the story's mash-up of classic schoolboy adventure tropes and exotic safari tale given a fantastic-planet paint job. The director being a Pixar alum, it's little wonder that the story is a lot more solid than usual for a sci-fi/adventure blockbuster, particularly in the way that it draws a credible, lived-in world while leaving all the specific details blurred and many blanks unfilled.

     It's as a live-action director that Mr. Stanton is less assured; the film has a halting, jagged rhythm, occasionally suggesting a visual juggler struggling to keep all his balls in the air successfully at once, and the breathless sequence of setpieces eventually become a case of "too much of a good thing". And while its untested leads, Mr. Kitsch (looking like a young Johnny Depp) and Lynn Collins as feisty Martian princess Dejah Thoris, are perfectly fine, neither of them brings that gusto and energy that could make these breakthrough roles; it's the suavely sinister Mark Strong, as the shape-shifting villain Matai Shang, and Willem Dafoe voicing the CGI-animated four-armed, tusked Thark warrior Tars Tarkas, that run away with the film.

     So, perfect it certainly isn't, and it does have a certain quality of runaway imagination tripping over itself, a sense of a director stretching beyond his powers at the moment. But in the greater scheme of things that is really not much of a problem: the great pleasures to be derived from John Carter come from the simplicity of a classically derivative, B-picture-influenced adventure movie, done with care and cleverness by a prodigiously creative fanboy, and one that has more respect for its audience, love of film and storytelling ambition that most of what Hollywood greenlights these days. It's not perfect, but it's great, smart fun. More than you can say about most would-be contemporary blockbusters.


Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Daryl Sabara; Thomas Haden Church; Willem Dafoe.
     Director, Andrew Stanton; screenplay, Mr. Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon, from the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars; cinematography, Dan Mindel (colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen); music, Michael Giacchino; production designer, Nathan Crowley; costume designer, Mayes C. Rubeo; editor, Eric Zumbrunnen; visual effects supervisors, Peter Chiang, Sue Rowe; producers, Jim Morris, Lindsey Collins, Colin Wilson (Walt Disney Pictures), USA, 2012, 132 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), March 12th 2012. 



Thursday, March 15, 2012

ENTER THE VOID

Love it or leave it - there is no other way to put the evident response to the latest challenge from Franco-Argentine director Gaspar Noé (Irréversible), a surreal son et lumière trip following (yes, you're reading right) the wanderings of the spirit of a newly-deceased smalltime drug dealer through the oneiric maze of his memories and experiences in a garish, neon-lit ersatz Tokyo. All of it shot in subjective camera, through the "eyes" of the dead man, in a floating, non-stop, constantly on the move "shakycam" ported over from Irréversible's initial oppressive reel and punctuated by (yes, you're still reading right) drug-fuelled hallucinations and graphic shock cuts that involve aborted foetuses and pumping penises.

     There is, however, method to what appears be Mr. Noé's madness. Somewhere between 2001's Stargate sequence and a Ken Russell film, or Blade Runner seen through the eyes of Fernando Arrabal or Alejandro Jodorowsky, Enter the Void is a meditation on the circle of life whose trance-like visuaç thrill ride hides a serious look at the old adage "life is but a dream". We follow Oscar (Nathaniel Brown as an adult, Jesse Kuhn as a boy) through his trip back and forth in time to make sense (or not) of what his life was all about, and of how the choices he made have gotten him and his stripper sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta as an adult, Emily Alyn Lind as a girl) to this fate in Tokyo's seedier districts.

     Yet it's clear that the film's extended running time (137 minutes in a "shorter" version that merely lops off a 17-minute film reel from the 154-minute "full length" cut) works against it; the dazzling visual tour de force of day-glo visuals and constantly moving camera threaten to tip the scales away from its search for meaning and towards a mere provocative novelty, reducing it to the status of a mere exercise in technique. But what technique, effortlessly combining actual live footage with digital enhancements and effects to create a bewilderingly hypnotic sensory experience. And Mr. Noé, having already proven he is a thoughtful, challenging filmmaker, insists in stretching the boundaries of what cinema can do, even if he trips over himself in that process. Regardless of whether you like it or not, there has never been something quite like Enter the Void, and that's a good thing, because even when it fails there is more guts and more love of cinema in this one-off than in most of what passes for film nowadays.

Paz de la Huerta, Nathaniel Brown, Cyril Roy, Olly Alexander, Masato Tanno, Ed Spear, Emily Alyn Lind, Jesse Kuhn, Nobu Imai, Sakiko Fukuhara, Janice Sicotte-Beliveau, Sarah Stockbridge, Stuart Miller, Yemi.
     Director, Gaspar Noé; screenplay, Mr. Noé, with Lucile Hadzihalilovic; cinematography (colour, processing by B-Mac and Imagica, widescreen), Benoît Debie; digital colorist, Yves le Pellet; production designers, Kikuo Ohta, Jean Carrière; costume designers, Tony Crosbie, Nicoletta Massone; editors, Mr. Noé, Marc Boucrot, Jérôme Pesnel; sound designer, Thomas Bangalter; visual effects art director, Pierre Buffin; visual effects supervisor, Geoffroy Niquet; producers, Brahim Chioua, Vincent Maraval, Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier, Pierre Buffin, Susanne Marian, Peter Hermann (Wild Bunch, Fidélité Films, BUF Compagnie, Les Cinémas de la Zone in associate production with Essential Filmproduktion, BIM Distribuzione, Paranoid Films), France/Germany/Italy/Canada, 2010, 137 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance DVD screener, Lisbon, February 22nd 2012. 



Saturday, March 10, 2012

KILL LIST

One of the most singular and unusual genre pictures to come out of England - or, for that matter, from most everywhere - in recent years, Kill List starts off as a regular slice of British realist drama about a family torn apart by financial and professional issues, before taking a genuinely disquieting turn into a rabbit hole from which it most steadfastly refuses to come back out.

     Director, co-writer and co-editor Ben Wheatley's sophomore effort not only offers a fresh take on genre conventions, it manages to seamlessly transition from a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh-style drama to all-out surrealism, in a stubbornly outlandish third act that brings to mind David Lynch's opaque narrative choices. And, in Mr. Wheatley's quietly unnerving tale of two contract hitmen whose latest job puts them face to face with disturbing signs of a wider conspiracy at work, a surprisingly open-ended narrative approach underlines just how much the true mastery of genre lies in mood, atmosphere and handling rather than in narrative. As former Army buddies and now contract killers Jay (an outstanding Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) follow their latest "kill list" and find mystifying clues popping up in unexpected locations, and Jay becomes increasingly unhinged, Mr. Wheatley delivers an unnervingly blank slate where the viewer can project anything he really wants to see, and in doing so magnifies immensely the claustrophobic mystery at its heart.

     While certainly not a masterpiece - its obliqueness may grate and occasionally plays against it, and the suggestions of paganism that hark back to that staple of British horror that is The Wicker Man can seem more calculated than sincere - Kill List is a genuine original, one that cleverly straddles the worlds of genre film and arthouse meditation with the utmost confidence of someone who doesn't think they're mutually exclusive.

Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, Myanna Buring, Emma Fryer.
     Director, Ben Wheatley; screenplay, Mr. Wheatley, Amy Jump, with additional improvised material by the cast; cinematography, Laurie Rose (colour, widescreen); music, Jim Williams; production designer, David Butterworth; costume designer, Lance Milligan; editors, Robin Hill, Mr. Wheatley, Ms. Jump; producers, Claire Jones, Andy Starke (Warp X and Rook Films for The UK Film Council and Filmfour in association with Screen Yorkshire, in association with Nonstop Entertainment and Madman Entertainment), UK/Australia/Sweden, 2011, 95 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, March 1st 2012. 

Friday, March 09, 2012

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Designed as the centrepiece keystone of the current reinvention of the long-dormant Hammer studio, Susan Hill's Edwardian haunted-house tale has been reconfigured by Eden Lake director James Watkins and Kick Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman as a smart and stylish, if creakily old-fashioned, moodpiece, showcasing Daniel Radcliffe in his first major post-Harry Potter role. He plays London junior solicitor Arthur Kipps, a lonely widower who has been raising his son alone in the four years since his wife died during childbirth, who finds himself investigating the mysterious goings-on in the cold-comfort Northern village of Crythin Gifford, where he was sent to sort the estate of a newly-deceased client and ends up investigating a vengeful ghost whom the locals consider responsible for the deaths of their children.

     Mr. Radcliffe is a solid lead even if the role isn't particularly demanding, and gets classy supporting work from steady hands Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer as the only sympathetic locals. But what's surprising about The Woman in Black is just how much it steers clear from blood, gore and other shock cuts and cues every five minutes, to focus instead on classics such as (gasp!) character development, (double gasp!) tension buildup or (triple gasp!) disquieting atmospherics, bringing fond memories of a time where horror was not about shocking the viewer gratuitously. That may make Mr. Watkins' sophomore feature a bit too stodgy and creaky for modern audiences raised on cheap thrills - the plot doesn't really help - but ensures as well a certain perennial quality to the film, much helped by the economical handling that refuses to go overboard and focuses on the necessary only, with some truly unnerving moments and a clever use of locations.

     A little more personality might not have come amiss, but The Woman in Black is so out of step with what passes for horror these days that it is refreshingly welcome.

     Daniel Radcliffe; Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White, Roger Allam.
     Director, James Watkins; screenplay, Jane Goldman, from the novel by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black; cinematography (colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen), Tim Maurice-Jones; music, Marco Beltrami; production designer, Kave Quinn; costume designer, Keith Madden; editor, Jon Harris; producers, Richard Jackson, Simon Oakes, Brian Oliver (Hammer Films, Alliance Films, The UK Film Council, Cross Creek Pictures, Talisman Films, Exclusive Media Group, in co-production with Filmgate Films and Film i Väst), UK/USA/Sweden, 2011, 94 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo screening room, Lisbon, February 28th 2012. 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

FLORBELA

Director Vicente Alves do Ó's 2011 film Quinze Pontos na Alma was one of the most unwittingly dismaying debuts in recent Portuguese cinema: a sincere but awkward love letter to vintage Hollywood, whose desire to fit a lifetime's worth of cinephilia resulted in an indigestible mess of glossy, over-the-top nostalgia. Mr. Alves do Ó's sophomore work, Florbela is more muted and reasonably more structured, but the tighter narrative arc is again drowned by his penchant for stylised, larger-than-life melodrama - brought crashing down by the director's inability to harness his love of genre in the service of the plot.

     Loosely based on the life of early 1900s Portuguese poet Florbela Espanca, portrayed by Dalila Carmo, Mr. Alves do Ó creates a biographical fantasy focussed on her quasi-incestuous relationship with her brother, military pilot Apeles (Ivo Canelas), as they share a final weekend in Lisbon before he flies off on mission, while she struggles to adapt to the life of a housewife after her third marriage to straight-arrow doctor Mário Lage (Albano Jerónimo). However, any pretensions of a look at Florbela as a poet are quickly dashed by the absence of any of her work in the film, preferring instead to focus on the risqué triangle between her, Apeles and Mário, and even there seemingly unable to give any depth to the characters beyond the standard pre-selected attributes of high melodrama (patient husband, heartbroken brother, writer suffering for her art). Instead of a look at how her life fed into her work, we are served a throwback to the prestige woman's picture that, despite consistent performances from the well cast leads, remains as hollow and shallow as Mr. Alves do Ó's previous film, where sincerity and an almost desperate desire for cinema trump the sense of an inexperienced director clutching at straws. More polished but just as awkward as its predecessor, Florbela is a script in search of a director that can do it justice.


Dalila Carmo, Albano Jerónimo, Ivo Canelas.
     Director and writer, Vicente Alves do Ó; cinematography, Luís Branquinho (colour, widescreen); music, Guga Bernardo; production and costume designer, Sílvia Grabowski; editor, João Braz; producers, Pandora da Cunha Telles, Pablo Iraola (Ukbar Filmes), Portugal, 2012, 119 minutes. 
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 2 (Lisbon), February 10th 2012. 




"Florbela", de Vicente Alves do Ó [Trailer] from Ukbar Filmes on Vimeo.

Friday, March 02, 2012

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

Few recent films have attracted as much critical loathing as Stephen Daldry's visually lush but tone-deaf adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about a precocious New York boy coping with the death of his father. On paper perfect Oscar bait, due to its prestige sheen, tony cast and literary origins, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close ended up attracting a heap of critical revulsion, some of which well deserved, due to its head-on, bull-in-a-china-shop approach to the open wound of American society that is 9/11.

     Just as in the source novel, 11-year-old Oskar Schell's doting dad died in the Twin Towers collapse, and the film doesn't shy away from the images rolling around Oskar's mind of falling men, in what is a jarring, ill-advised recurrent visual motif that is wholly unnecessary to the film's elegant structure. It's not the only blunder Mr. Daldry and Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth commit in streamlining the book's sprawling conceit for the purposes of filmic movement. There's a really good narrative, dealing with death and mourning, hiding in here somewhere, visible in how Oskar's "expedition" into New York City looking for the lock where a key his father left behind will fit brings him in touch with other New Yorkers, and in how the sharing of their individual stories and life experiences works as a process of communal grief.

     But Messrs. Daldry and Roth are never really interested in those other stories other than as props to Oskar's own tale, flattening everything into a neat, predictable, conventional storyline arc instead of embracing the chaos and hurt that would give it an actual beating heart instead of just a simple emotion-milking machine. The final act, in particular, suggests that everything in this undoubtedly sincere but ultimately very awkward movie was an enormous manipulation with little or no regard for the emotional truth of its underlying concept. And yet, the uniform excellence of the performances and especially of the stunning first-timer, non-pro Thomas Horn as Oskar, along with the occasional elegance and flair of Mr. Daldry's handling, make it very hard to totally dismiss a film that wants to deal with 9/11 in an adult way, even if it then squanders that desire and hides its quivering, uncertain heart underneath a gloopy glazing of prime and often ill-judged schmaltz.

Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn; Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell; Max von Sydow.
     Director, Stephen Daldry; screenplay, Eric Roth, from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; cinematography, Chris Menges (colour by DeLuxe, widescreen); music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, K. K. Barrett; costume designer, Ann Roth; editor, Claire Simpson; producer, Scott Rudin (Warner Bros. Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions), USA, 2011, 129 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), February 23rd 2011. 



Thursday, March 01, 2012

SHAME

Never has the definition of the orgasm as "la petite mort" been so accurate and acutely explored on the big screen as by artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen in his sophomore feature. Its hero, New York high-flyer Brandon (impeccably inhabited by Michael Fassbender), seems to live only for his obvious addiction to sex, one where every new orgasm seems like yet another step in his becoming an emotional cadaver, someone for whom instinct has replaced feeling, joy totally chased from his world. Such is the premise Mr. McQueen and his co-screenwriter, playwright Abi Morgan, present the viewer with in a work that is as remarkable and challenging as the director's acclaimed debut Hunger, but more narratively fluent and more conventionally structured.

     Though sex addiction is the evident starting point of the tale, what Shame really is about at the bottom is people coming to terms with themselves. Brandon lives in a comfortable but self-reinforcing cocoon, an illusion of pristine, distant contact where commitment is off-limits and romanticism replaced by mechanical, atavistic desire. But the unexpected arrival of his chaotic sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a lounge singer in town for a run of shows, throws a spanner in the works and forces him to face the desperation and joylessness behind the facade of a successful ladies' man.

     Mr. McQueen's work is as extraordinarily formalist here as it was in Hunger, yet never for its own sake, rather in order to point out a hidden emotional truth in the characters. He therefore goes back to the audacious long takes that were one of the most striking elements in his debut, but uses them now in the service of the story as windows into his characters' souls, from the remarkable speechless subway opening to the stupendous close-up of Ms. Mulligan's wondrous, decelerated cover version of "New York, New York". In this the director is much helped by the all-out commitment of his actors and especially of the fearlessly intense Mr. Fassbender, though Ms. Mulligan finally transcends her gamine image in a role that suggests a better choice of parts might lift her to Michelle Williams status. By the time the old cliche of the cleansing rain comes round towards the end of the film, Brandon's circle of emotions - almost like a trip through Dante's circles of hell - has been made complete and the title's programmatic nature made visible without the word ever having been uttered throughout, leaving the viewer utterly shaken and trying to make sense of what he's just seen.

     A film that lingers in one's mind for weeks, maybe even months after we've seen it, even if not as strikingly unique as Hunger (whose quasi-experimental stylings have been all but smoothed out here), Shame is the second masterpiece in a row from Mr. McQueen.


Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie.
     Director, Steve McQueen; writers, Mr. McQueen, Abi Morgan; cinematography (colour by Deluxe, widescreen), Sean Bobbitt; music, Harry Escott; production designer, Judy Becker; costume designer, David Robinson; editor, Joe Walker; producers, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman (See-Saw Films for Film 4 and the UK Film Council, in association with Alliance Films, Lipsync Productions and Hanway Films), UK, 2011, 100 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo screening room, Lisbon, February 16th 2012.