Monday, April 30, 2012

THE COLOR WHEEL

There has been a generation of American independent filmmakers conveniently boxed in under the "mumblecore" label, due to its talkative profile, ultra-low-budget DIY aesthetics and fixation with the personal lives of its characters. While this resolutely non-mainstream genre has generated a few breakout talents - such as the polymath Duplass brothers, Lynn Shelton's affiliated comedy Humpday or actress Greta Gerwig - most of it remains an acquired niche taste loved and hated in equal parts. With his sophomore feature after the resolutely less obvious Impolex, hyphenate Alex Ross Perry marries the mumblecore aesthetics to the current American fashion for uncomfortable adult comedy, constructing a painfully embarrassing odyssey for his lead characters, awkward nerd Colin and his brassy sister JR, that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "sibling rivalry". Played by Mr. Ross Perry and his co-writer Carlen Altman, Colin and JR simply do not get along, but he can't turn her down when she asks his help to pick up her belongings from her ex-boyfriend's house (who also happens to have been her teacher).

     What follows is a parade of sad-sack, passive-aggressive confrontations between two awkward losers and a society that thrives on exploiting their weaknesses, stylishly if clunkily shot in 16mm black-and-white film on pre-existing American Northeast locations, and resolving itself in a series of tableaux that could be a smart equivalent to the Stations of the Cross. Yet the pathos from the pesky daily confrontations between real life and dreams and wishes is persistently undermined by the haphazard nature of the footage, whose set-ups and editing lack the formal elegance someone like Jean-Luc Godard was able to give this sort of guerrilla filmmaking environment. The circular motifs of the overwritten dialogue, delivered in rapid fire by a nonchalant cast of non-pros and friends, only heighten the general lack of structure of the film, and very quickly The Color Wheel is overwhelmed by the sense, so prevalent in mumblecore, of a gang of friends exercising their filmmaking chops unencumbered by any need to communicate other than with themselves. There are, though, two saving graces: Sean Price Williams' evocative cinematography and Carlen Altman's unaffected, sympathetic presence as JR, leavening the film's heavy-going load.

Carlen Altman, Bob Byington; Kate Lyn Sheil, Anna Bak-Kvapil, Ry Russo-Young, Roy Thomas, Craig Butta, C. Mason Wells, Alex Ross Perry.
     Director and editor, Mr. Ross Perry; screenplay, Ms. Altman, Mr. Ross Perry; cinematography, Sean Price Williams (black & white); music, Preston Spurlock; art director, Ms. Bak-Kvapil; producer, Mr. Ross Perry (Dorset Films), USA, 2011, 83 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 7th 2012.



Sunday, April 29, 2012

DE JUEVES A DOMINGO

The latest entry in what's been defined by some as "slow cinema", Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor's debut feature is a leisurely subtle look at a family holiday where things aren't quite what they seem. The leisure lies in the fact that the film takes place in long takes almost entirely inside or around the family's station wagon, throughout a long weekend trip to rural Chile with a detour to visit some family land. The subtlety is that the whole trip is seen through the eyes of the teenage daughter Lucia (Santi Ahumada), who realises there is something wrong between her parents (Paola Giannini and Francisco Pérez-Bannen) while feeling it tantalizingly out of reach to her.

     Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of Ms. Sotomayor's film, following in the footsteps of other strong Latin-American female directors like Lucrecia Martel (whose cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez is also the DP here) and Paula Markovitch. All of them have made children the centrepoints of their films and eschew a standard narrative to leave things unsaid or half-suggested, but Ms. Sotomayor seems to leave things far too opaque or insufficiently fleshed out for far too long. The soothing, lethargic rhythm perfectly captures that peculiar boredom and pressure-cooker atmosphere of long car trips, but the director may have bitten off more than she could chew for a debut feature. That she did so, though, and in such a fearless manner, is entirely to her credit and Ms. Sotomayor is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Francisco Pérez-Bannen, Paola Giannini; Santi Ahumada, Emiliano Freifeld.
     Director/writer, Dominga Sotomayor; cinematography (colour, processing by Chilefilms), Bárbara Álvarez; art director, Estefanía Larraín; costumes, Juana Díaz; editors, Danielle Fillios, Catalina Marín; producers, Benjamín Domenech, Gregorio González (Forastero, Cinestación, Circe Films), Chile/Netherlands, 2012, 100 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 6th 2012.



Saturday, April 28, 2012

VOIE RAPIDE

As far as calling cards go, French director Christophe Sahr could do worse than Voie Rapide, a well-made but rather non-descript look at the modern-day struggles of a young working-class husband faced with a moral dilemma. But while there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the script, originally workshopped at French film school Femis, neither the first-time director nor his co-writers and, crucially enough, his star Johan Libéreau manage to go the distance despite many intriguing leads that are solved in ways a bit too pat. Voie Rapide revolves around Alex (Mr. Libéreau), an unambitious, suburban warehouse worker who married too young and has a baby daughter he doesn't seem to care much ; what he really lives for is his impressively decked out car, a bright-yellow tuned-up convertible where he hangs out with his best friend, older mechanic Max (Guillaume Saunel), and the occasional street race. On his return from a ride, though, Alex hits fatally a young man and flees the site of the accident with a broken windshield and serious dents in the car's body, in a scene that Mr. Sahr shoots in a way that suggests it might not have entirely been Alex's fault. For the young man everything in his tightly compartmentalized life unravels from then on, his short fuse blowing up at regular intervals (a very smart scene with his mother suggests family issues and a genetic origin for this trait), driving away both his wife and his friends while finding himself following the mother of the boy he killed, a nurse at the local hospital. This is where Voie Rapide proves to be intriguing: in the way Mr. Sahr expertly lays out the limits of the life Alex has allowed himself to be trapped by, and then showing just how easily it can all come down once he puts a foot wrong. But Mr. Libéreau is unable to give any depth to a character that required first-rate acting to transcend the character's innate lack of sympathy; and this casting choice, coupled with the formally neutral, linear handling and the somewhat predictable narrative, fatally wounds a film that ends up being merely an appropriate, well-made professional calling card.

Johan Libéreau, Christa Théret, Guillaume Saunel, Isabelle Candelier.
     Director, Christophe Sahr; screenplay, Mr. Sahr, Olivier Gorce, Élodie Montlibert; cinematography, Julien Poupard (colour, processing by Sylicone, Panavision widescreen); music, Martin Wheeler; designer and costumes, Sidney Dubois; editor, Isabelle Poudevigne; producer, Florence Borelly (Sésame Films), France, 2011, 89 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 3rd 2012. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

INTO THE ABYSS

At the beginning of Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog's stentorian Bavarian accent asks priest Richard Lopez about being the chaplain to the execution of death row prisoners; in a roundabout way, Mr. Lopez's answer involves encounters with squirrels. Squirrels aren't in the same league as the albino crocodiles in Mr. Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams or the iguanas in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But then Into the Abyss is more restrained and less esoteric than either, and likely to be one of the high-water marks in the German director's 21st century renaissance, along with his strongest, finest documentary in his current golden run of non-fiction work.

     A case study of a senseless 2001 triple homicide in a small town 30 miles outside Houston, committed by two teenagers from the "wrong side of the tracks", Into the Abyss was born from a television project about the death penalty in America - four-part serial On Death Row, aired on Investigation Discovery in March 2012 - but was spun out as a standalone theatrical feature after the director became haunted by the trail of suffering left behind by Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Though Mr. Herzog is clearly against the death penalty - claiming it's the only reason he has not taken American citizenship - the film is neither denunciation nor screed; rather, a chillingly forensic retracing of the circumstances of the crime and of its consequences, assembled by the director as slyly damning study of American social tensions and a level-headed look at the human cost of crime and inequality.

     Mr. Burkett was sentenced to life, Mr. Perry to death, and Mr. Herzog had 30 minutes to interview each of them in 2010, a week before the execution was due to take place; that footage is placed at the core of the film, interspersed with period archival footage from the police archives and contemporary interviews, but are in no way its centre, especially given the shifting nature of their statements. That honour falls to the testimony of the victims' surviving family members, to former death row prison guard Fred Allen, who has since become a committed anti-death-penalty activist, and of Mr. Burkett's father Delbert, a convicted criminal serving a jail sentence across the road from his son and who blames himself for his son's deeds. Harrowingly intense, as is Mr. Herzog's custom, despite its soberly judged pace and poise, Into the Abyss says more about heartland America, with no trace of prejudice and an open-eyed, lucid humanism, than a thousand reality shows or special news reports ever could.

Director, Werner Herzog; cinematography (colour), Peter Zeitlinger; music, Mark Degli Antoni; editor, Joe Bini; producer, Erik Nelson (Creative Differences Productions and Skellig Rock Productions, in association with Spring Films, Werner Herzog Film and More4), USA/United Kingdom/Germany, 2011, 107 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance screener, Lisbon, April 21st 2012. 


Thursday, April 26, 2012

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

Let's put it this way: This Must Be the Place is probably the weirdest, most far-out, least "explainable" film you're bound to see all year, and that's as much for the good as it is for the bad. Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's hyper-stylized, surreal American Gothic road-trip through modern-day America follows a mischievous Sean Penn as Robert Smith (from The Cure) lookalike Cheyenne, a retired rock star whose trip to New York for his Holocaust-survivor father's funeral sends him on a curveball journey in search of a concentration camp guard, with Talking Heads' classic "This Must Be the Place" as the film's musical leit-motiv. And if this sounds strange enough, the many encounters of Cheyenne, both in the Dublin suburb where he's been living for the past 30 years with his firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand) and in his American travels, are even more bizarre.


     This Must Be the Place looks a lot like a 1970s film in its willing refusal to follow narrative linearity and traditional filmmaking codes, as well as co-opting a name cast into playing along with a deliberate waywardness - that freedom alone is enough to give it a go, since nowadays everybody toes the line instead of releasing truly bizarre propositions like this one. It also has a lot of common, in its non-linear, surreal way, with Mr. Sorrentino's previous fantasy on the life of Giulio Andreotti, Il Divo, and like in that film the director overeggs the pudding with his dazzlingly choreographed camera movements and extraordinary flair for image composition, baroque and overblown to the point of crushing down the film. And yet, while the plot doesn't really seem to go much anywhere, This Must Be the Place slowly frames itself as a melancholy journey of discovery, as Cheyenne's singular, almost whimsical journey back home also turns out to be a journey into himself, finding out what is it he's been missing ever since he cloistered himself in Dublin.

     That that melancholy comes through loud and clear in between the seemingly non-sequitur travels of Cheyenne and the strikingly angular geometry of the visuals is due to both Mr. Penn's fragile, mannered performance and Mr. Sorrentino's way with harnessing a mood rather than tell a story. It may not work all the way, it may not even work for many viewers (judging from the love it or hate it reviews it has been receiving since its revelation at Cannes 2011). But hats off to Mr. Penn and Mr. Sorrentino for daring to stray off the beaten path and take a risk on the zany side.

Sean Penn; Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce van Patten, David Byrne; Frances McDormand. 
     Director, Paolo Sorrentino; screenplay, Mr. Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello; cinematography, Luca Bigazzi (Technicolor, Technovision widescreen); music, David Byrne; designer, Stefania Cella; costumes, Karen Patch; editor, Cristiano Travaglioli; producers, Nicola Giuliano, Andrea Occhipinti, Francesca Cima, Mario Spedaletti (Indigo Film, Lucky Red and Medusa Film in co-production with ARP, France 2 Cinéma and Element Pictures), Italy/France/Ireland, 2011, 118 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, April 22nd 2012.



Sunday, April 22, 2012

TERRAFERMA

Italian director Emanuele Crialese wants to have his cake and eat it too. His films usually marry a small-scale, intimately personal story with wider social questions, micro and macro brought together in a "shotgun marriage" that doesn't really do justice to either. Terraferma, awarded the Special Jury Prize in Venice 2011, is no exception, and infuriatingly so, since its wedding of coming-of-age story to indignant problem picture is often awkward, leaving the viewer asking whether it wouldn't have been better to have chosen either one or the other.

     Set in the same Sicilian island of Linosa where Mr. Crialese also set his breakthrough feature, 2002's Respiro, Terraferma follows the coming-of-age of 20-year old Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), son and grandson of fishermen who wants nothing more than to follow the family tradition even though it no longer guarantees a good life. His mother Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro) wants a different future for him, one that he begins to embrace as they rent out their home to tourists during the Summer, but everything changes when his grandfather Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) saves illegal boat people from drowning in the Mediterranean and his boat is confiscated by the authorities. Torn between simple compassion and the rigidity of laws, as the family reluctantly shelters the young Ethiopian woman (Timnit T.) and her newborn baby they saved from drowning, Filippo must navigate the first shoals of adulthood.

     This is where everything collapses: Mr. Crialese trades in overly simplistic generalizations - the villains, such as the fiscal policeman that impounds the boat, are cartoonishly evil or money-grubbing, the heroes are modest and humble, the immigrants saints dreaming of a better life - and unwilling to turn his characters into fully rounded human beings. There's a feeling that the coming-of-age story by itself would have made a much better, more nuanced film, and that the social agenda involved (the film was supported by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees) is shoehorned to the forefront. The ambiguous ending is also a bizarre cop-out after all that's come before - if Mr. Crialese wanted us so evidently to take sides in the dilemmas involved, it makes no sense to not offer any closure to the story he is telling. There's no denying that the director's heart is in the right place, but the end result is a little bit like Filippo's dilemma: a mess.

Filippo Pucillo, Donatella Finocchiaro, Mimmo Cuticchio, Giuseppe Fiorello, Timnit T.; Claudio Santamaria.
     Director, Emmanuele Crialese; screenplay, Mr. Crialese, Vittorio Moroni, from a story by Mr. Crialese; cinematography, Fabio Cianchetti (colour, processing by Cinecittà, widescreen); music, Franco Piersanti; designer, Paolo Bonfini; costumes, Eva Coen; editor, Simona Paggi; producers, Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz (Cattleya in association with Rai Cinema, in co-production with Babe Films and France 2 Cinéma), Italy/France, 2011, 90 minutes.
     Screened: DVD screener, Lisbon, April 20th 2012. 



Friday, April 20, 2012

CAPITÃES DA AREIA

Brazilian writer Jorge Amado's 1937 classic about the abandoned and orphan street kids of São Salvador da Bahia, unlike many of his later, more picaresque novels, is a harder book to adapt for the screen; its sprawling cast of characters and episodic structure resist all attempts at reduction to the tight span of a 90-minute narrative (though a little-seen early-seventies version handled by Jonathan Livingston Seagull director Hall Bartlett exists). You might expect a relative of the novelist to have some sort of flair for the material; but his granddaughter Cecília Amado, making her feature debut after rising through the ranks on television and co-directing with DP Guy Gonçalves, turns Capitães da Areia into a candy-coloured, period version of City of God or a Brazilian take on Slumdog Millionaire - all strobe editing effects, picture postcard cinematography and gliding pans. It's not entirely inappropriate conceptually - Capitães da Areia was the City of God of its day, in a way - but it turns out to be an anachronism for the material at hand.

     Ms. Amado's attempts at translating visually the energy of the non-pro cast of kids come off as too modern and fast-paced for a story supposedly taking place in the late 1930s but that has surprisingly little period feel, unhelped by the hyperactive score from pop star Carlinhos Brown, whose contemporary take on classic Bahian rhythms jars when juxtaposed to a period setting where people were listening to 78 discs on hand-cranked gramophones. That the film doesn't really work is also due to the script by Ms. Amado and Hilton Lacerda, threading a series of episodes from the novel with, at its centre, the puppy-love triangle of gang leader Pedro Bala (Jean Luís Amorim), artistic-leaning Professor (Robério Lima) and orphan girl Dora (Ana Graciela Conceição). This focus loses much of the detail that made the book so affecting, while introducing characters and story arcs that are neither properly developed nor successfully finalised. While it is certainly a well-meaning, honest effort, it bowdlerizes the book to an extent that makes it seem as pandering to an audience that has no idea of the novel's stature, using the flashy visuals to make it more relevant to contemporary audiences.

Jean Luís Amorim, Ana Graciela Conceição, Robério Lima, Israel Gouvêa de Souza, Paulo Abade.
     Director, Cecília Amado; screenplay, Ms. Amado, Hilton Lacerda, from the novel by Jorge Amado, Captains of the Sands; cinematography and co-director, Guy Gonçalves (colour, processing by Labocine do Brasil); music, Carlinhos Brown; art director, Adrian Cooper; costumes, Marjorie Gueller; editor, Eduardo Hartung; producers, Ms. Amado, Bruno Stroppiana (Lagoa Cultural & Esportiva and Maga Filmes in co-production with Freeway Entertainment Licensing, Labocine do Brasil, Araçá Azul Cinema & Video, MGN Filmes and Riofilme), Brazil/Portugal, 2011, 98 minutes.
     Screened: DVD screener, Lisbon, April 15th 2012. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

ASSIM ASSIM

A Portuguese attempt at a mosaic romantic comedy in the mould of Garry Marshall's Valentine's Day (never a good idea to start with) with a series of stories and characters criss-crossing in contemporary Lisbon, the debut feature of regular TV helmer Sérgio Graciano is a disappointingly shallow collection of flatly handled, predictably scripted shorts set end to end to make a feature. Expanded from his own award-winning short repurposed as the opening segment - possibly the most interesting and accomplished of the threaded stories - Assim Assim is a lazy, non-descript piece of work whose conversational tone and episodic structure make it more appropriate for the lesser narrative demands of the small screen.

     Worse, the scripting never rises beyond the lazy joke or the cliched setup and never makes sense as a full-length feature, the roundelay that connects all the characters seemingly more of a writer's contrivance rather than organic. For instance, there is no logic to the hospital-set episode other than to introduce three characters that will not reappear and point out their connections to two other characters that were bit players in previous episodes. As written, the characters are basically nothing more than archetypes with little to no personality and not enough screen time to make much of an impression, so it's up to the actors to do their best, but even so only a couple of them truly resonate. Rita Blanco (a disappointed wife abandoned by her husband), Margarida Carpinteiro (a lonely old lady who uses the hospital visit to find some human contact) and Nuno Lopes (a volatile lover still pining for his previous girlfriend) are the most successful. Most others, including such estimable performers as Ana Brandão, Dinarte Branco or Miguel Guilherme, fall prey to the broadly sketched nature of the humour at work here, in some occasions borderline awkward.

     While it's always laudable to see a young director moving forward with a debut feature with a minimal, self-raised budget, and wanting to make a film that will resonate with a wider audience, it's really a shame that the end result is more of a slapped-together TV sitcom than an actual feature.

Albano Jerónimo, Ana Brandão, Cleia Almeida, Dinarte Branco, Eva Barros, Gonçalo Waddington, Inês Rosado, Isabel Abreu, Ivo Canelas, Joana Santos, João Arrais, Joaquim Horta, Margarida Carpinteiro, Miguel Guilherme, Nuno Lopes, Pedro Lacerda, Rita Blanco, Sabri Lucas, Sílvia Filipe, Tomás Alves.
     Director, Sérgio Graciano; screenplay, Pedro Lopes; cinematography, Miguel Manso (colour); music, André Joaquim; art director, Inês Pedro; costumes, Dora Luís; editor, Miguel Oliveira; producer, Ana Sofia Morais (Filarmónica Filmes), Portugal, 2012, 98 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), April 4th 2012.



Wednesday, April 18, 2012

ET MAINTENANT ON VA OÙ?

WHERE DO WE GO NOW?


Five years ago, Nadine Labaki achieved a considerable succés d'estime with her directing debut Caramel, an amiable but somewhat thin romantic comedy set in a hairdressing salon in post-war Beyrouth. Et maintenant, on va où? delves as deep into her homeland's troublesome conflicts as much as Caramel sidestepped them entirely, but is no leaden meditation on the cost of wars of religion; rather, Ms. Labaki extends her breezy, down-home style into this ensemble comedy that skewers the insanity of wars with a light touch, through a plot that owes both to Greek theatre and classic Italian comedy.

     In a remote Lebanese village mostly cut off from the world due to war (the absence of computers and cellphones suggesting the story's fable-like timelessness), the setting up of a TV aerial and consequent ratcheting up of tension reawakens religious conflict among the men. It's up to the women, fed up with the pointless mortality of a war that has already claimed too many males from the village, to try and stop them by whatever (often funny) means necessary - involving Russian whores, foodstuffs spiked with drugs or just plain treachery. A stronger, steadier effort than Caramel, Et maintenant, on va où? is visually more functional than inspired, not surprisingly since it's clear Ms. Labaki, also co-writing and acting, much prefers to focus on her actors and on the fluidity of their exchanges rather than on any great visual flourishes.

     Where the film is severely let down is by her insistance in interspersing musical numbers through the film, in an hommage to classic Arabic cinema; Ms. Labaki doesn't have the style to pull it off - excepting the stunningly choreographed, wordless opening where the women of the village visit the cemetery - and neither the subject nor the comedic treatment support it successfully. Instead, it's the director's excellent management of her ensemble cast and of its energy levels, working not only to their best advantages but also to the script's, that turn Et maintenant, on va où? into a charming, lively comedy that deals smartly with a difficult subject.

Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Layla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julien Farhat, Ali Haidar, Kevin Abboud, Petra Saghbini, Mostafa Al Sakka, Sasseen Kawzally, Caroline Labaki, Anjo Rihane, Mohammad Akil, Gisèle Smeden, Khalil Bou Khalil, Samir Awad, Ziad Abou Absi, Adel Karam, Oxana Chihane, Anneta Bousaleh, Olga Yerofyeyeva, Yulia Maroun, Oksana Beloglazova.
     Director, Nadine Labaki; screenplay, Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Rodney Al Haddad, with Thomas Bidegain; cinematography, Christophe Offenstein (colour, processing by The Postoffice, Quinta/LTC, widescreen); music, Khaled Mouzanar; lyrics, Tania Saleh; designer, Cynthia Zahar; costumes, Caroline Labaki; editor, Véronique Lange; producer, Anne-Dominique Toussaint (Films des Tournelles, Pathé, Films de Beyrouth, United Artistic Group, Chaocorp, France 2 Cinéma, Prima TV in association with the Doha Film Institute), France/Lebanon/Italy/Egypt, 2011, 102 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, April 15th 2012. 



Friday, April 13, 2012

3

After the globetrotting, star-studded big budgets of Perfume and The International, German director Tom Tykwer uses 3 as a return to the more modest, fluidly modern, insouciant moviemaking of his breakthrough feature Lola Rennt. But, instead of relaunching the director's career, 3 is more akin to a holding pattern that reveals his cinematic nous as a triumph of style and packaging over substance. First unveiled to mild disinterest in the 2010 Venice Film Festival, Mr. Tykwer's take on the time-honoured romantic threesome mixes it up by having both cultural scientist Hanna (Sophie Rois) and art engineer Simon (Sebastian Schipper), a childless, unmarried couple of 20 years, fall separately for genetic scientist Adam (Devid Striesow), who feels equally attracted to both.

     For Mr. Tykwer, the presence of the not casually named Adam becomes the "genetic cure" that will rekindle Hanna and Simon's lethargic relationship and push it towards new paths, while seriously risking breaking it apart. This coldly deterministic view is echoed by the film's gliding, smooth rhythm, shiny modern Berlin surfaces and visual tricks (split screens, ethereal animations, floating frames), suggesting not so much an organic film as a sort of chimerical lab experiment, a sophisticatedly futuristic take on classic romantic comedy.

     But, while the presentation is flawless and Ms. Rois and Mr. Schipper really dig into their characters, 3 never really takes off beyond the mere thought experiment. It's a construct whose ambition collides full on with Mr. Tykwer's total absence of a thrusting narrative thread, making 3 a sleek but disposable ride, instantly forgettable, whose pulsing, intriguing introduction suggests a braver, smarter film that never materialises.

Sophie Rois, Sebastian Schipper, Devid Striesow; Angela Winkler.
     Director/writer, Tom Tykwer; cinematography, Frank Griebe (colour, widescreen); music, Mr. Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, Gabriel Mounsey; designer, Uli Hanisch; costumes, Polly Matthies; editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy; producer, Stefan Arndt (X-Filme Creative Pool in co-production with WDR, ARD-Degeto, ARTE), Germany, 2010, 119 minutes.
     Screened: Venice Film Festival 2010 - official competition press screening, Casino - Sala Perla (Venice), September 9th 2010.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

LINHA VERMELHA

Somewhere between a film essay and a backstage documentary lies José Filipe Costa's feature documentary Linha Vermelha, a fascinating if abstract look at the story behind one of the most legendary of all political films. Torre Bela was the record of an episode in the period after the Portuguese revolution of 1974, when a group of poor farmworkers took over the huge Torre Bela estate in the South Central Ribatejo area, abandoned by their aristocratic owners, to farm it collectively as a cooperative. Supervised by German director Thomas Harlan, the son of infamous Jew Suss director Veit Harlan, Torre Bela was designed as an "open-source" film, with Mr. Harlan's team making the footage shot on location available for free to anyone wishing to use it to make their own take on the episode. There is talk of a four-hour "director's cut", but after its 1976 premiere the film has existed in a number of wildly variable edits and versions.


     Linha Vermelha started out as a "compare-and-contrast" exercise focused on the lives of the men and women involved in the occupation, but Mr. Costa realized the strange power Mr. Harlan's images have since gained, the way they have crystallized in many people's minds - including of those who lived through the period - a certain image of the 1974 revolution. Switching to using the original film itself as the subject of his work, Mr. Costa interviewed Mr. Harlan (using only the recorded sound of their conversations) as well as part of the crew and cast to reveal Torre Bela as a "narrative documentary"; the key scene that lingers in the minds of those who have seen it is a controversial entrance by the farmworkers in the actual manor where the former owners lived, presented as the first time any of them had been inside but being in fact a "staged" entry with people perfectly aware they were being filmed and goofing off in front of the camera. In the process, Linha Vermelha becomes a sort of theoretical investigation on the limits and definitions of documentary and fiction, revealing Torre Bela as a construct that did not invent reality but instead shaped it into a narrative befitting the purpose of an activist director that wanted to project a certain image of the revolution.

     Mr. Costa's elegant zooms in and out of the film, using the actual 35mm film stock of Torre Bela as a visual motif and the original sound reels as an audio motif interspersed with contemporary footage and interviews, underline how a viewer's interest can be spiked and directed by the simple manipulation of the basic elements of cinema, and how everyone involved in the production realized just how much they themselves were projecting their own experiences and visions of what the revolution should be. While it may be tricky going for a general interest audience, it's a fascinating insight into film history and film theory whose cerebral aspects are carefully balanced to not put anyone off.

Director/writer, José Filipe Costa; camera, Paulo Menezes, Pedro Pinto, João Ribeiro (colour); editor, João Braz; producers, João Matos, Mr. Costa (Terratreme Filmes), Portugal, 2011, 86 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 2 (Lisbon), March 20th 2012.



Saturday, April 07, 2012

IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY

Angelina Jolie directing a hard-hitting drama about the Balkan war of the mid-1990s? The words "worthy", "dull" and "vanity project" come to mind. "Worthy" it most certainly is, but "dull" should be replaced with "harrowing", and there is nothing remotely vain about In the Land of Blood and Honey. Ms. Jolie's clout may have helped her get the film off the ground, but this was never about her; more about honouring the work she has been doing as a humanitarian, and using her leverage to tell a story that, sadly, most people won't want to see. Not entirely her fault: as modern war has grown less clear-cut by the day, there can no longer be black-and-white, easy-to-follow war stories and heroes as there used to be. And the particular grimness of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, literally pitting neighbour against neighbour and turning prosperous cities into war zones practically overnight, makes it even harder.

     That is the reason why In the Land of Blood and Honey's refusal to openly take sides has not surprisingly reawakened tensions, since Ms. Jolie is deliberately blurring things through her tale of push-and-pull attraction between Muslim Bosnian Ajla (Zana Marjanović) and Serbian officer Danjel (Goran Kostić). They almost were lovers before war broke out and threw them on opposite sides, and now she finds herself imprisoned at his mercy, but unsure of the depth of his love and desire to protect her. Shifting her viewpoint from one to the other, painting Danjel as a man bound by family ties he finds hard to turn back on and Ajla as a woman who has nothing left to lose, Ms. Jolie constructs her script as a series of episodes that make their points forcefully but don't necessarily flow organically. The temptation of cheap melodrama or of an overarching, predictable narrative that will make the grimness palatable to audiences never goes away, so all the more credit to her for keeping up the film's tempo and getting excellent performances from her native cast (especially from Mr. Kostić, who has a tougher character arc to go through), even if the film's rushed ending unfortunately throws away the patience with which Ms. Jolie spent most of her leisurely running time setting up characters and situations.

     But, while this is by no means a masterpiece and it is doubtful that it will find an audience beyond those interested in the subject, In the Land of Blood and Honey is certainly not the throwaway vanity project many were predicting, revealing an actress that knows very well what she wants to do behind the camera and - much like the characters she has portrayed through her career - gets it done.

Zana Marjanović, Goran Kostić; Branko Djurić, Vanesa Glodjo, Nikola Djurićko; Rade Šerbedžija.
     Director/writer, Angelina Jolie; cinematography, Dean Semler (colour, Panavision widescreen); music, Gabriel Yared; designer, Jon Hutman; costumes, Gabriele Binder; editor, Patricia Rommel; producers, Ms. Jolie, Graham King, Tim Headington, Tim Moore (GK Films), USA, 2011, 127 minutes.
     Screened: screener DVD, Lisbon, April 2nd 2012. 

Friday, April 06, 2012

ATTACK THE BLOCK

A smart, funny take on the classic B-movie trope of kids left to their own devices to fight an alien invasion, Attack the Block's unique selling point is its setting in a South London council block, with the kids being a teenage gang of disaffected kids facing an enemy they've only known from TV, DVD and video games. What first-time director Joe Cornish does with it is not only perfectly respecting of the genre's time-honoured codes, down to the effortless quotes of the 1980s Spielberg era of teenage adventures, but also subversively smart in the way it mixes in the comedy stylings Mr. Cornish is known for and a couple of poignantly accurate but sparingly used social drama elements.

     B-movies have always been somewhat free from the need to carry "a message", which is why so many filmmakers have been able to use them as reflections of society at the time of its shooting, making the way Mr. Cornish uses those social elements as mere colouring that does not distract from the central kids-vs-aliens concept. Thus many of these tough posturing kids end up coming from pretty normal households and the only one who doesn't, self-appointed gang leader Moses (played by intense non-pro John Boyega), is the only one that would fit the stereotype but evades it by its actions. Also, the actual "alien invasion" turns out to be a surprising, and rather unusual, twist on the genre that earns points for originality. Mr. Cornish effectively harnesses the energy that the teenage cast radiates and channels it into the film's deftly, neatly organised structure, making Attack the Block into one zippy, highly enjoyable 90 minutes that breathe a very British fresh air into a genre that American blockbusters have bloated beyond recognition.

John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard; Luke Treadaway, Jumayn Hunter, Danielle Vitalis, Paige Meade, Michael Ajao, Sammy Williams; Nick Frost.
     Director/writer, Joe Cornish; cinematography (colour by Technicolor, widescreen), Tom Townend; music, Steven Price; designer, Marcus Rowland; costumes, Rosa Dias; editor, Jonathan Amos; visual effects, Ged Wright; creature effects, Mike Elizalde; producers, Nina Park, James Wilson (Big Talk Pictures for Studiocanal Features, Filmfour and The UK Film Council), UK/France, 2011, 88 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, March 31st 2012. 



Thursday, April 05, 2012

TABU

Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto may have turned former film critic Miguel Gomes into the "next international big thing" of Portuguese cinema after Manoel de Oliveira, João César Monteiro and Pedro Costa; but its exquisitely stylized follow-up Tabu looks set to confirm and expand such a characterization. A giant leap forward for a director that succumbed once too often to a stubbornly inscrutable private joke in his previous shorts and two features, it is also a film that is nothing like them - or, for that matter, anything else around at the moment - while maintaining a strong connecting thread to both A Cara que Mereces and Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto.

     Shot on film in dreamy, Academy-ratio black and white courtesy of DP Rui Poças, it's a cheeky, irreverent but deeply heartfelt take on the tropes of classic cinema and of exotic adventure films, expressing a love of artifice as a way of digging deeper into the truth. It is also a poignant, melancholy look at a glamorous past that never was that glamorous to begin with and the troublesome colonial history of mid-20th century Portugal. As all of Mr. Gomes' previous films, Tabu is a game of two halves, programmatically named "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost": it begins in present-day Lisbon as disappointed activist Pilar (Teresa Madruga) witnesses the final days of her neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly compulsive gambler and superstitious dowager haunted by some past sin in the days when she had a farm in Africa.

     At the halfway point, a dying Aurora calls for a mysterious Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), leading into a long flashback narrated by Mr. Espírito Santo in a regal voiceover sublimely timed to the languid rhythm and flow of a melodrama that plays in essence like a silent movie set in 1960s Mozambique. There the younger Aurora (now played by Ana Moreira) led an adventurous life and leads a torrid affair with the younger Ventura (Carloto Cotta), its stylized passions standing in contrast to the first half's desolate, lonely dead-ends in anonymous urban jungles.

     Mr. Gomes never truly lets go of the pointed irreverence that marked his two previous features, of the deadpan humour that occasionally leavens the oppressively potent passions (a recurring gag has a melancholy pet crocodile known as Crocodile Dandy). This is fine as it goes but occasionally too clever for its own good, jolting the viewer from the enveloping, hypnotic trance Mr. Poças' dazzling cinematography and the director's loving but never gratuitous cinephilia construct. (Silent stylist F. W. Murnau is referenced throughout, not only in the film's title and the character's name - Aurora, besides being a current name, is also the Portuguese word for "sunrise" and the local title for Mr. Murnau's classic Sunrise; but Mr. Gomes has also quoted Hollywood's backlot safari movies and the Tarzan series as references.) It also underlines the sense of provocation and us-against-the-world stand that Mr. Gomes and his regular crew made a point of in the previous features, their desire to create something uniquely personal that stands separate from whatever main stream Portuguese filmmaking is working in at whatever moment.

      But those inside winks, irritating as they may be for some viewers, cannot hide the fact this is a gorgeously shot, admirably performed, utterly accomplished piece of work that marks a giant stride for a director that has grown up into one of the premier modern European filmmakers. Tabu is a wondrous film.


Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Henrique Espírito Santo, Carloto Cotta, Isabel Cardoso, Ivo Müller, Manuel Mesquita.
     Director, Miguel Gomes; screenplay, Mr. Gomes, Mariana Ricardo; cinematography (b&w), Rui Poças; art director, Bruno Duarte; costume designer, Sílvia Grabowski; editors, Telmo Churro, Mr. Gomes; producers, Luís Urbano, Sandro Aguilar (O Som e a Fúria, Komplizen Film, Gullane Produções, Shellac Sud, ZDF/ARTE), Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France, 2012, 118 minutes.
     Screened: private screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), February 8th 2012.