Friday, May 31, 2013

DA-REUN NA-RA-E-SEO (IN ANOTHER COUNTRY)

Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo is a film teacher, and yet it is uncanny how much his cinema flaunts the well-established rules of what makes narrative film. Undoubtedly you need to know the rules inside out to be able to undo them the way he does: his films are usually modestly-budgeted affairs shot mostly on location with seemingly improvised stories that are mainly collages of episodes or situations around specific themes. Everything in Mr. Hong's cinema seems to be hanging together by a thread, and yet it all works; though, admittedly, those who are immune to the charms of slight flâneries about love and life, often soaked in the Korean rice liquor soju, may ask themselves what all the fuss is about.

     Mr. Hong has been regularly championed by critics who see in him the reincarnation of the can-do early spirit of the Nouvelle Vague, and often compared to the late French master Éric Rohmer, who worked within the same coordinates of deceiving slightness. The structure of Another Country, though, is closer to a contemporary of Mr. Rohmer, Alain Resnais, and to his experiments in narrative playfulness; and the "French connection" is made even clearer by the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead, letting - literally - her hair hang out as a French tourist come to the Korean seaside town of Mohang-ni. Or, rather, as three French tourists - since In Another Country features not one but three separate stories set in the same location, with Ms. Huppert playing three different tourists (though all named Anne): a film director returning home from the Jeongju festival, an adulteress about to meet her lover (Moon Sungkeun), a recent divorcee traveling with a friend (Yoon Yoojung) to forget her heartbreak. In fact, though, all three stories are merely a script-writing exercise by a film student (Joong Yoomi) bored at having to stay in Mohang-ni: there are recurrent characters in all (Yoo Joonsang's hapless lifeguard, for instance) played with as pieces in a chess board, their position changing according to the demands of each tale.

     In many ways, In Another Country is a sort of un-romantic comedy of errors, where the concept of "lost in translation" is put to the test. Anne doesn't speak Korean and everyone's English is pretty approximative, heightening yet another French connection to the boulevard and vaudeville comedies built on misunderstandings, but at the same time exploring Mr Hong's traditionally deadpan humour, so dry it reminds occasionally of Woody Allen. It's good to see that the presence of a European film star hasn't changed anything about Mr. Hong's work, though it merely underlines just how much of an acquired taste his cinema remains, its delights remaining too cinephile and rarefied for general admission, like an after-dinner liqueur.

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Yoo Joonsang, Joong Yumi, Yoon Yoojung, Moon Sungkeun, Kwon Haehyo, Moon Sori, Kim Youngoak
Director and writer: Hong Sangsoo
Cinematography: Park Yongyeol, Jee Yunejeong (colour)
Music: Jeong Yongjin
Editor: Hahm Sungwon
Producer: Kim Kyounghee (Jeonwonsa Film Company)
South Korea, 2012, 89 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, May 25th 2013

Thursday, May 30, 2013

DUPA DEALURI (BEYOND THE HILLS)

It's almost ten years since Cristi Puiu's harrowing The Death of Mr. Lazarescu revealed to the film world a remarkable generation of Romanian filmmakers that became known as the "Romanian New Wave". And while that film served as a formal and thematic blueprint for a lot of what came afterwards, most (but not all) of which was really very good, only a handful rose to the level of that masterpiece. To that rarefied handful should now be added Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu's follow-up to his Cannes Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The new film can be seen as a companion piece to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in its inexorable, implacable progression towards an avoidable tragedy that seems to become ever more unavoidable despite all the off-ramps present at any moment.

     Formally, Beyond the Hills isn't as rigid as most of what we have identified with Romanian cinema, but its commitment to the emotional truth of the characters, its focus on the naturalistic performances and its refusal to look away are all hallmarks of the style put to excellent use in this dramatization of a real-life case that happened a few years ago, where a young woman died after an attempted exorcism goes wrong. Mr. Mungiu rewinds the tale in chronological order and sets out, dispassionately and with an extraordinary sense of detail, the events that lead to it; at heart, Beyond the Hills is a game of power between love, religion and pragmatism, set in a broken-down society where the true feelings and needs of two young orphan girls are subject to what the world expects of them.

     Best friends in the orphanage they grew up in, Voichița (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) took different paths in life. Taken in by a foster family, Alina eventually moved to Germany to look for work; Voichița joined the local orthodox monastery and finds comfort in her work as a nun. Alina comes to visit Voichița, wanting to convince her to come to Germany, wanting to recapture what the girls had together in the orphanage (which may not have been strictly platonic, though the film never delves into it), but Voichița is unwilling to leave, and her friend's rebellious spirit creates serious discomfort among the monastery's strict framework, rigidly enforced by the well-meaning but fundamentalist priest (Valeriu Andriuță) who runs it with almost no money and a lot of faith. An epileptic fit that sends Alina to the hospital becomes the trigger of the tragedy, with everybody around her looking for the well-being of the girls but being unable to look at it outside their own worldview; hence Alina's psychological problems are seen as the devil's work, and the nuns' well-meaning attempts at healing her are seen as religious conditioning.

     That Mr. Mungiu hardly ever frames his actresses in extreme close-ups, preferring to place them always in relation to what surrounds them, merely underlines the claustrophobia they are condemned to by the strictures of a rural society still finding its way in the modern world. The apparent throwaway details only underline how hopeless both Alina and Voichița's attempt to find their own path is. Yet, as bleak as all this may seem, Mr. Mungiu's astounding formal and precise narrative control save it from miserabilism and turn it into a stunning work that refuses to pass judgment and looks dispassionately at the struggle to make sense of your life in the modern world.

Cast: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuță, Dana Tapalagă
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Screenplay: Mr. Mungiu, based on the books by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Spovedanie Ia Tanacu and Cartea Judecătorilor
Cinematography: Oleg Mutu (colour, widescreen)
Designers: Călin Papură, Mihaela Poenaru
Costumes: Dana Paparuz
Editor: Mircea Olteanu
Producer: Mr. Mungiu (Mobra Films in co-production with Why Not Productions, Les Films du Fleuve, France 3 Cinéma and Mandragora Movies)
Romania/France/Belgium, 2012, 152 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, May 20th 2013, and DVD screener, Lisbon, May 21st 2013

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

SHIRLEY - VISIONS OF REALITY

Seldom has the idea of a film as a series of tableaux been so literally appropriate as in the latest work from Austrian filmmaker and artist Gustav Deutsch. Shirley - Visions of Reality is a look at the US from the 1930s to the 1960s as seen through a series of micro-stories set in and inspired by paintings by American realist artist Edward Hopper, painstakingly reproduced and reconstructed in a  film studio as life-size sets. Each of 13 paintings is used as the setting for moments in the life of a fictional actress, Shirley (Stephanie Cumming), as she moves through life, houses, trips, situations, and milestones of world history taking place in the exact year of creation of each original painting.

     The "blowing-up" of Hopper's art into real rooms and furniture becomes a sort of conjuring trick, allowing Shirley to exist within them without betraying the original quality of the work, but suggesting the whole frame as a still-life of specific moments in the "American century". Mr. Deutsch is working strictly within the realm of fiction inspired by each of the paintings' meticulously recreated sets, but he does so within a clear, precise historical context feeding as much on actual events as on the mythical images of the United States art and film have imprinted on European viewers over the years. In doing so, Shirley - Visions of Reality becomes a strikingly "endless loop", both highly formal and tenderly emotional, where the "American dream" and the reality of past history cross paths, collide, mesh, entangle. That, among the theoretical construct of the film's continuous dialogue between art and life, Shirley manages to exist as a character with an inner life and a recognisable presence is much thanks to the excellent work of Ms. Cumming, a Canadian dancer and choreographer based in Vienna; conveyed mostly by presence and movement alone (most of the dialogue is spoken in voiceover), it is as if Ms. Cumming is performing a delicate choreography negotiated within the tight constraints demanded by the film's device.

     For his part, Mr. Deutsch creates, more than just a film, a mood, a tone whose constant (very American) striving towards hope and better days ahead is tempered by reality's continuous insistence that it can't always fulfill that endless optimism. In doing so, the film becomes a lovely meditation on the passing of time and on our relation with the world that surrounds us, bringing to life Mr. Hopper's classic paintings with an attention to detail and colour that reminds you of what these works have meant throughout the years and of their importance in the creation of an image for the American dream.

Cast: Stephanie Cumming, Christoph Bach
Director, writer, designer, editor: Gustav Deutsch
Painting and art supervisor: Hanna Schimek
Cinematography: Jerzy Palacz (colour)
Music: Christian Fennesz, David Sylvian
Costumes: Julia Cepp, Mija S. Rosa
Producer: Gabriele Kranzelbinder (KGP)
Austria, 2013, 93 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 Observatory screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 1, Lisbon, April 21st 2013


Monday, May 27, 2013

ELES VOLTAM (THEY WILL RETURN)

It's every kid's nightmare to be left alone in the world, and that is exactly what happens to Cristiane (Maria Luiza Tavares), the teenager left out by the side of the road in Brazilian director Marcelo Lordello's debut feature. Let out of the family car as punishment for a sibling quarrel with her brother Peu (Georgio Kokkosi), Cris is left to fend for herself after the parents fail to come back and Peu goes in search of them; with no money and her cellphone dead, she will have to find her way back through a landscape she doesn't really know - that of the Brazilian rural poor she had never truly been exposed to and on whose kindness she must now rely.

     While the class angle that is crucial to modern-day Brazil is an obvious element of Mr. Lordello's story - suggesting a complementary film to Kleber Mendonça Filho's acclaimed O Som ao Redor/Neighboring Sounds - the director doesn't push it too obviously, preferring to gently let us discover it as Cris herself discovers it. In Ms. Tavares' delicate performance, he makes us feel her fear and suspicion of those around them, and makes us understand why she would always seem to be cross at the world. But Cris is not only afraid, she is also curious and intrigued by what she finds outside of her bubble; in a way, she has been thrown into a limbo, away from her world but lost in another she does not belong to nor quite understands, where she has the time and the possibility to look at things anew and think about them differently. That limbo is what Mr. Lordello so elegantly creates with help from Ivo Lopes Araújo's sensitive cinematography and Eduardo Serrano's attentive editing. He allows both his character and his viewers the time and space to understand that Eles Voltam is more than just a tale of a spoilt brat confronted to a real world she had no idea of and often showed no interest in; it is also a coming-of-age tale of someone learning the hard way what growing up entails.

     As the film moves forward and Cris finds her way back to Recife, learning in the process the real reason why her parents never came back, she begins chafing at the upper-class cocoon she finds herself in and slowly gains a new appreciation for self-reliance. In a way, Eles Voltam is about finding something that was never lost in the first place.

Cast: Maria Luiza Tavares
Director and writer: Marcelo Lordello
Cinematography: Ivo Lopes Araújo (colour)
Music: Rodrigo Caçapa
Art director: Iomana Rocha
Costumes: Caroline Oliveira
Editor: Eduardo Serrano
Production: Trincheira Filmes in co-production with D7 Filmes and Plano 9 Produções
Brazil, 2012, 105 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition advance streaming screener, Lisbon, April 20th 2013



ELES VOLTAM TRAILER from Trincheira Filmes on Vimeo.

Friday, May 24, 2013

ARRUGAS (WRINKLES)

That animation is an art form not exclusive to children's films has become lost among the barrage of producers, distributors and marketers intent on single-handedly corner it as synonymous with Walt Disney and weekend matinees. While it's true that recent efforts from the major American studios have repositioned animation as more of a family medium working for kids as well as for grown-ups, films aimed squarely at older audiences have a harder time breaking through and are becoming rare birds. So all the more power to Spanish director Ignacio Ferreras for taking a risk on a seriously mature work: the film adaptation of illustrator Paco Roca's award-winning graphic novel about seniors living in a retirement home, following retired bank manager Emilio (voiced by Tacho González) as he's placed in care by a son who can no longer take care of him and learns to navigate both his new surroundings and the indignities of old age.

     It's often said that as they grow older seniors become closer to children - in essence, Arrugas is a sort of traditional high-school coming-of-age movie shifted to old age, with its characters learning to cope with the next stage of their lives and the new rules of the society they're moving into. But there's added poignancy in the fact that, unlike in high-school movies, the future is not there for the taking; the approach of death may be a disturbing enough theme for a film, but for Emilio death is not so much the matter as it is his realisation that he suffers from Alzheimer's disease and is confronted with his future self in the shape of Modesto, one of the patients in the facility who is patiently and lovingly cared for by his wife Dolores but seems to have no idea of where he is or even who he is. Emilio's disorientation, as well as his proud refusal to admit the true extent of his illness, is juxtaposed to his roommate Miguel (voiced by Álvaro Guevara), a former immigrant in Argentina who has no family and, retaining most of his health and wits, refuses to acknowledge his weaknesses while taking sheepish financial advantage from some of the others.

     Their push-and-pull relationship, blossoming into true friendship as both realise the inexorability of Alzheimer, forms the backbone of the episodic plot, but also reveals its limits; Arrugas works best when it's not trying to tell a narrative but rather articulate the emotions going through Emilio's head, his confusion between reality and memory a perfect showcase for the oneiric possibilities of animation. To their credit, neither Mr. Ferreras nor Mr. Roca (who co-scripted and had an active role in the production) shirk the tougher aspects of the situation nor sugarcoat the pill; and the way the film sketches most of its characters through action and behaviour rather than through narrative or dialogue exposition is attentive and lovely. But the need to give Arrugas a narrative structure ends up forcing a couple of predictable narrative choices that sell the theme short. Worst of all, while the traditional, hand-drawn animation is highly in tune with Mr. Roca's work and style, the general quality of the production seems to be more in line with the limited nature and flat visuals of television animation than with the visual polish and richness of detail you expect from a big-screen effort, especially when there's a real sensibility both for the general theme and for the background work.

     None of this detracts from the moving, judicious poignancy of the film, its refreshing lucidity and lack of sentimentality or morality (despite the occasional slip from Nani García's score); it's just a shame that Arrugas had everything going for itself, but doesn't really make the most of it.

Voice cast: Tacho González, Álvaro Guevara, Mabel Rivera
Director: Ignacio Ferreras
Animation supervisor: Baltasar Pedrosa
Screenplay: Ángel de la Cruz, Paco Roca, Mr. Ferreras, Rosanna Cecchini, from the graphic novel by Mr. Roca, Arrugas
Cinematography: David Cubero (colour)
Art director: Mr. Roca
Editor: Gemma Gassó
Music: Nani García
Producers: Manuel Cristobal, Enrique Aguirrezabala, Oriol Ivern (Perro Verde Films, The Elephant In The Black Box, Cromosoma and Galician Television)
Spain, 2011, 89 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, May 18th 2013


Thursday, May 23, 2013

THE LONELIEST PLANET

When you go off the beaten track, not everything you will find will necessarily be to your liking. Some people may seek adventure, but might balk at what that entails or reveals about others or about themselves. That grey area is exactly what Russian-American director Julia Loktev wants to explore in her third feature: the moment where the illusion of safety and comfort is stripped away to reveal unexpected, unpleasant truths. She does so through a somewhat arid and theoretical exploration of context, where the outside landscape remains immutable while those crossing it change as they move forward, in ways they weren't necessarily expecting.

     Essentially, The Loneliest Planet is a three-hander set in remote, mountainous Georgia (the former Russian republic, not the American state), putting in play the Western backpacking couple Nica and Alex (Hani Furstenberg and Gael García Bernal) and their local guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). Nica and Alex are young, in love and engaged to be married, and unafraid of the unusual experiences their exotic destinations bring them. But the old adage that it's not the destination, rather the journey that matters, is made dramatically visible here: the film pivots on one central incident set precisely at narrative midpoint, structuring it as a "before and after" tale that may bring to mind Michelangelo Antonioni's immortal L'Avventura set in a Werner Herzog landscape, or even Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff.

     Despite these references, though, this is Ms. Loktev's film through and through, as those who have seen her striking Day Night Day Night will remember; a formalist director if ever there was one, her fastidious compositions (brilliantly shot by talented Chilean DP Inti Briones) very carefully designed to always look just a touch off-kilter and leave something important hovering off the frame, she is also looking for a narrative symmetry radiating from a central point that changes her characters' point of view and the nature that surrounds them. What looks enticing one moment becomes forbidding the next, beautiful first, desolate the next; Nica and Alex's voyage of discovery turns out to have darker undertones, with the outer travelogue through breathtaking landscapes becoming more of an inner travelogue around an unmentioned elephant in the room. The central incident itself becomes less and less important, overtaken by what it reveals and suggests about the people who lived it, slowly coming to dominate the characters' thoughts and actions, with the actors (and especially the fiery Ms. Furstenberg) nicely playing off each other to make visible to the camera what is going on in their minds.

     Admittedly, The Loneliest Planet isn't particularly original or innovative (even its sly questioning of the real motives behind this kind of exotic first-world tourism remains somewhat unfinished), but there's a fierce intelligence and determination at work in Ms. Loktev's film to make it much more intriguing than it seems at first sight.

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze
Director: Julia Loktev
Screenplay: Ms. Loktev, based on the short story by Tom Bissell, "Expensive Trips Nowhere"
Cinematography: Inti Briones  (colour)
Music: Richard Skelton
Production and costume designer: Rabiah Troncelliti
Editors: Michael Taylor, Ms. Loktev
Sound design: Martín Hernández
Producers: Jay van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Helge Albers, Marie-Thérèse Guirgis  (Wild Invention, Parts and Labor and Flying Moon Filmproduktion in co-production with ZDF das kleine Fernsehspiel and ARTE)
USA/Germany, 2011, 113 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 3, Lisbon, May 14th 2013


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

BOBÔ

It's worth asking what exactly is director Inês Oliveira aiming at with her sophomore feature. Despite having made some confounding public statements about the controversial African practice of female genital mutilation in relation with Bobô, this turns out to be a very minor, undeveloped and unexplained plot strand, and what seems to be one of its central premises turns out to have been misleading. When Bobô reaches the end of its short running time, the viewer is left strangely bewildered by what exactly was the point of the film.

     Though it doesn't necessarily seem like it, this bewilderment does represent a marked improvement over Ms. Oliveira's debut feature, Cinerama, an almost incomprehensible piece plagued by production problems that appeared to mesh together three unconnected shorts into a somewhat jumbled, unfinished whole. Here, there is a narrative thread, as well as proper characters and a minimum of narrative momentum, retaining as well what was most interesting in Cinerama, the cool, patient eye for composition and event that had been visible in the director's previous shorts. There's a sense that Ms. Oliveira is expecting the layers of her story to unfold slowly as she follows the awkward contact between Sofia (Paula Garcia), a depressive architect who seems to live in seclusion in her Lisbon flat, and Mariama (Aissato Indjai), the African live-in maid her mother has arranged to come take care of the flat and maybe nudge Sofia enough to get out of her funk.

     Childhood is a key element in the film's narrative economy, as well as the one plot point that propels the film forward: there's a fully furnished but otherwise empty nursery in the flat that Sofia maintains it's her son's while keeping it off-limits to Mariama, but the child is never seen. Later, there's also the maid's daughter Bobô, who lives with her aunt and occasionally comes spend the day with Mariama and coaxes a genuine smile and friendliness from Sofia, and seems to be at the heart of a family row related to the grandmother who performs genital circumcisions and comes visit for a relative's wedding. Yet, the African strand is left pretty much undeveloped; the actual reason of the family row is more suggested than explained, as is the interest that Sofia has in African mysticism and the nightmares she occasionally has with a strange shaman-like feature, possibly related to the death under tragic circumstances of her brother.

     For all that, Bobô is another textbook example of the problem that stalks much contemporary Portuguese filmmakers. The actual narrative connections between Sofia's and Mariama's stories are generally evasive and forced, suggesting an insufficiently developed script or severe editing-room cuts, but in either case having ejected whatever connecting tissue the film required to make any sort of narrative sense to the average viewer. There's always the feeling that Bobô remains constantly elusive, failing to connect the dots dramatically. It's the work of a director who certainly has a visual eye (there's a fascinating sequence in an African wedding that has an intriguing documentary feel) and even a way with actors (the performances, especially Ms. Garcia's, are probably the best thing in the film) but may not know exactly what it is she wants or how to get there. It's her second question mark in a row.

Cast: Paula Garcia, Aissato Indjai
Director: Inês Oliveira
Screenplay: Rita Benis, Ms. Oliveira
Cinematography: Daniel Neves (colour)
Art directors: Maria José Branco, Nuno Gabriel Melo
Costumes: Margarida Morins
Editors: Rui Pedro Mourão, Patrícia Saramago, Ms. Oliveira
Producers: Luis Alvarães, Fernando Vendrell (David & Golias)
Portugal, 2013, 78 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 Portuguese competition advance press screening, Digital Master screening room, Lisbon, April 19th 2013


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

THE ACT OF KILLING

In one of the great (maybe the few?) classic Hollywood one-liners of recent vintage, Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men screams "you can't handle the truth!". The truth is precisely what is at stake in Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn's rabbit-hole of a documentary that is The Act of Killing, and you may not necessarily be able to handle it, but it certainly isn't there in the way you expect it to be.

     By asking the North Sumatran gangsters who killed thousands in mid-1960s Indonesia at the behest of the Suharto military regime to recreate their killing spree in a film, Mr. Oppenheimer and his co-directors, Ms. Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker, are opening Pandora's box, unleashing demons that can't quite be put back inside at a finger click. The fact that all of the Indonesian crew that worked on the film are protected in the credits under the guise of anonymity is enough proof of the inflammatory nature of the film, born out of another project Mr. Oppenheimer was working on in Indonesia. While shooting The Globalization Tapes, he wondered about putting on screen the plights and memories of the survivors and descendants of victims of the 1965/66 massacre of communists, left-leaning activists and ethnic Chinese, in short, those who either opposed the regime or were inconvenient; but found no takers. The "official story" had been rewritten to leave out the victims and no one would even dare set the record straight - as former enforcer Ali Zukaldry says at one point, "the Geneva Convention may be right today, but what about tomorrow?", in a chilling Orwellian rebuke to the definition of victory.

     Since the victims wouldn't step forward, Ms. Cynn and Mr. Oppenheimer inverted the premise, as the victors were in general more than happy to brag about their experiences; The Act of Killing focuses on the somewhat lawless region of North Sumatra, where rules are still today applied differently, and where the men who ran Suharto's death squads are not only alive and well but also in power and open about their past. The narrative through-line of the film, then, is the decision to ask the perpetrators to reenact their deeds under the guise of whatever their preferred Hollywood genre - horror, musical, gangster film, war movie - since many of them were small-time gangsters in the city of Medan, "preman" who lived as "free men" outside the constraints of the law, starting out as ticket touts outside the cinemas that played Hollywood movies and graduating to run their own outfits with the blessing of the authorities.

     Cinema was a huge part of the gangsters' life at the time, and getting to act in a film is probably the high point of their life. And, in the case of the now sexagenarian Anwar Congo, a sort of growing realisation of the true nature of his crimes, the recreation of the interrogations he ran in makeshift open-air torture chambers or banal offices renders him finally aware of the reality of his work. Schooled in the make-believe violence learnt at the silver screen, the real-life killings became in themselves a movie that only through being relived at a once-removed distance turns real. Mr. Zukaldry, a fellow enforcer who has moved from Medan and lives a quiet life with his wife and daughter, has made his peace with his conscience and, as he says, "Not everything true is good". He finds the whole exercise borderline dangerous, but not necessarily useless; for Mr. Congo, the reenactments show him the real extent of what he did, like his eyes were suddenly open.

     The result is equally, viscerally powerful for the viewer, and probably a lot more significant in making the history of this forgotten genocide relatable to the viewer than the original concept of letting the victims tell the tale. It's a lot more rattling to see them terrified when called upon to work as extras in the reenactments; it also makes us ask where do the filmmakers stand on all this, as you realise the "dance with the devil" the project required, touching on the unsavoury nature of contemporary Indonesian politics, having to deal daily with killers who are unrepentant about their deeds. But, at the same time, the directors are aware of the complexities of these people, who, for all their horrible deeds, are still human beings with their own feelings and aspirations. And there is a sly but equally disturbing suggestion that it's far too easy to distort the essence of Hollywood cinema for darker means - just as video games and music are often blamed for someone's violence, so is here the nature of genre films taken as a diseased influence in a real-life case of institutional violence that has gone almost unstudied. Ms. Cynn and Mr. Oppenheimer do not affirm it for sure, but merely play up the parallels, as indeed they do between "third world" and "first world" politics.

     In the end, The Act of Killing is a feverish, clammy exploration of the unintended ramifications of thought and deed, of personal and political responsibility, asking difficult questions without necessarily giving easy answers, but keeping one true course: the truth shall set you free, as John said in the Gospels.

Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn
Cinematography: Carlos Arango de Montis, Lars Skree, Anonymous (colour)
Editors: Niels Pagh Andersen, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Mariko Montpetit, Ariadna Fatjo-Vilas Mestre, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Erik Andersson
Producers: Signe Byrge Sørensen, Joram ten Brink, Anonymous, Ms. Cynn, Anne Köhncke, Mr. Oppenheimer, Michael Uwemedimo  (Final Cut For Real in co-production with Piraya Film and Novaya Zemlya, in association with Spring Films)
Denmark/Norway/United Kingdom, 2012, 160 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 Pulsar do Mundo sidebar advance streaming screener, Lisbon, April 18th 2013


Monday, May 20, 2013

CAMPO DE FLAMINGOS SEM FLAMINGOS

There is an evident irony both in the title of Campo de Flamingos sem Flamingos  - the literal translation is A Flamingo Field without Flamingos - and in its initial shot (of a television set tuned in to the news about the current recession). But that is neither a mean or bitter irony, and it isn't necessarily representative of the film directed by André Príncipe, better known as a photographer, artist and book publisher, though one with cinema studies and for whom cinema was always the starting point. A good example of that is that the three-month road trip during which Campo de Flamingos sem Flamingos was shot also generated a book of photographs, O Perfume do Boi, published at the end of 2012 while the film was in the editing stage.

     Finally premiered at the IndieLisboa festival in 2013, Campo de Flamingos could be seen as a contrasting/complementary twin to João Vladimiro's Lacrau as both are very personal takes on the observational documentary and on the essay-film, though leading in entirely different directions. Mr. Príncipe's film is the most accessible, though it's hardly a traditional piece of storytelling, eschewing voiceovers and musical illustration to let its quiet, unhurried eye and leisurely narrative blocks of footage - reminiscent, for instance, of Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter's clinical observations - be organised by the viewer. The road trip during which a micro-crew of three (Mr. Príncipe, DP Takashi Sugimoto and sound recordist Manuel Sá) travelled around in an RV loosely followed the millennial Portuguese border with Spain, and, in fact, is a search of the borders between nature and civilization, looking for something you can't quite place your finger on.

     In essence, it's a sense of identity still surviving in the porous borders between mankind and landscape, an ancestral memory hidden under rocks (literally, as one of the "characters" is an entomologist) and visible only to those willing to wallow through mud to find it (again literally, in the film's final shots) and not necessarily being sure you did find it. In fact, Campo de Flamingos sem Flamingos isn't so much about the goal but about the journey, much helped by editor Sandro Aguilar's nimble intercutting between footage of hunters or paintball gamers and that of landscape and beasts at home in nature. For all that, there's a sense that this is very much a photographer's film that wouldn't necessarily be out of place on a gallery wall, even if it's a welcoming work that wants to make its viewer think and not just show him pretty or witty pictures.

Director: André Príncipe
Camera: Takashi Sugimoto, Mr. Príncipe (colour)
Sound: Manuel Sá
Editor: Sandro Aguilar
Producers: Luís Urbano, Mr. Aguilar (O Som e a Fúria)
Portugal, 2013, 91 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 Portuguese competition screener DVD, Lisbon, April 17th 2013


Saturday, May 18, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY

The amount of copy being lavished pro and con Baz Luhrmann's over-reaching adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is enough to make you forget that it's just a film we're talking about here, not the be-all and end-all of modern cinematic art. It's true that the novel's status as a classic of American (and, indeed, world) literature is such that any attempt at filming it - and there have been enough attempts that fell short - is conjuring sacrilege merely by existing. And, obviously, the Australian director's baroque, excessive, kinetic style, seen as a charmingly irreverent dinner mint when he started out scrappily with Strictly Ballroom, became too much to critics and observers as he grew in ambition and budgets.

     Deep down, of course, Mr. Luhrmann is a showman extraordinaire, a Ziegfeld-type magician who wants to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, reconciling art and commerce, public and press, while running the gantlet of flippant, mordant putdowns from "serious" writers. That is exactly what makes The Great Gatsby perfect material for the director: just as Mr. Luhrmann's giddy overdoses of pop-culture-makeovers can seem gaudy show-offs, nouveau-riche grandstanding appropriating high culture in flamboyantly low ways, so is Jay Gatsby's reputation. The mysterious millionaire of pre-Great Depression New York builds an oversized monument to his secret love in the demonstrating mansion and the grand parties he gives there, all as a means to win back the girl he lost because he didn't come from "old money" or "old blood".

     In many ways, the director has forced his way into the "big boys club" by sheer force of will and grandiose displays of budget just as Gatsby does - and there is in The Great Gatsby something of the make-or-break film, especially since Mr. Luhrmann is playing here again the trump card of theatrical, over-signified tragedy he refined throughout his "red carpet trilogy" (and particularly in the masterful Moulin Rouge!), with the help of DP Simon Duggan's glossy, misty cinematography and the luxurious designs of wife and creative partner Catherine Martin. Yet, much in keeping with the source novel and, in fact, with a whole pan of period literature and cinema (especially the British heritage film), his version of Gatsby is a tragedy of love intertwined with class and money. Gatsby (a lovely performance from a confident, subtle Leonardo di Caprio), the epitome of the smooth operator if there ever was one, finds his life unraveling through his yearning for true love to bring light into his existence.

     The basic flaw in Mr. Luhrmann's approach, however, is that, though it's all about love, love itself hardly factors in the film. Or rather, it is shifted from the romantic and sexual roundelays orbiting Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, wan and distracted) and her boorish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, pitch-perfect), towards the fascination that narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, endearing) has for Gatsby. Nick recognises in Gatsby the man who has it all and synthesizes within himself all the virtues of the early 20th century man, and ends up being the millionaire's truest friend, thus filing The Great Gatsby into the recent category of the "bromance", that uneasy combination of friendship, brotherhood, admiration and fragility that has risen in modern film.

     Of course, the tale was always called The Great Gatsby, yet it is incredibly clear just how much Daisy - and indeed every other female character - are mere sketched, background figures here, to make way for a masculine battle of wills between Gatsby and Tom, with Nick as the observer who takes the true measure of both men. Both of them will stoop as low as they can in the name of the love they seem to hold in such high esteem but actually is no more than another trophy to range alongside polo awards or fine silk shirts. It's a masculine, almost primal fight, perfectly choreographed by Messrs. Di Caprio and Edgerton, underlining even more Mr. Luhrmann's approach of slowing down the film's tempo as the plot grows ever more dramatic.

     Starting out as a carefree, frantic jazz-age/hip-hop mash-up revelry that comes on like a rehash of the Moulin Rouge! concept, The Great Gatsby decelerates into a series of ravishingly filmed, if occasionally stilted, chamber set pieces, some of which (the central revelatory group scene at the hotel, where the truth comes out) are perfectly judged and excellently performed. For all that, though, there is certainly a sense that Mr. Luhrmann's theatrical tendencies may occasionally drown the human story at its heart, even if the book itself traded in the same dissonance between facade and interior. Yet the director has taken the bull by the horns in his very own way and come out bloody but unbowed, and by no means undiminished. This may not be the definitive Gatsby, but it's a solid, tantalizing take on it.

Cast: Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Thompson, Amitabh Bachchan
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay: Mr. Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Cinematography: Simon Duggan  (colour, widescreen, 3D)
Music: Craig Armstrong
Production and costume designer: Catherine Martin
Editors: Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond
Visual effects: Chris Godfrey
Producers: Mr. Luhrmann, Ms. Martin, Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Catherine Knapman (Warner Bros. Pictures, Bazmark Film and Red Wagon Entertainment in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and A&E Television)
Australia/USA, 2013, 142 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), May 13th 2013


Friday, May 17, 2013

RABBIT HOLE

It's somewhat unexpected to see John Cameron Mitchell, director of the very NSFW Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, helming such tony material as the film adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's 2007 Pulitzer-winning stage play, with a bona fide film star in the lead (Nicole Kidman, who also backs the project through her Blossom Films company). Then again, maybe it shouldn't be so unexpected; Mr. Mitchell has always prided himself on uncovering the raw, relatable human emotions at the heart of unexpected, troubled situations. Rabbit Hole fits that like a glove, as it is a film haunted by what was lost and can no longer be.

     Becca (Ms. Kidman), the distraught, steely woman at the heart of the film, is desperately trying to leave behind what can't be overcome - the tragic death in an accident of her young son Danny is the tragedy that hovers above the story and touches everything and everyone in it. Adapted by Mr. Lindsay-Abaire himself, the film sees Becca and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) reaching a point of no return in their marriage, struggling to cope with the pain but no longer finding solace in each other or in the routines they've set up. Ms. Kidman makes sure Becca's ruthless attempt at keeping her pain in check is a facade that cracks far too often, like a slow-motion car crash you can't take your eyes off of:  a black hole that sucks all attention and forces everything else to orbit around her, whether in the weekly therapy sessions she attends without much faith, or smarting around her family from her mother's (Dianne Wiest) attempts to draw her out by evoking the memory of a dead brother.

     In fact, though, more than a black hole, it's the title that best represents what these people are going through: a "rabbit hole" that is painful to cross and difficult to apprehend, an unavoidable and uncomfortable passage through time and space. The metaphor is made plain in a comic-book about parallel alternate universes being written by Jason (Miles Teller), the high school senior who can't overcome his own role in the child's death. Jason is one of Mr. Lindsay-Abaire and Mr. Mitchell's smartest coups in the film: the character's artwork and presence are slowly interspersed during the first act, but the real reason why Becca is orbiting the young man and the true nature of their connection is withheld until the last possible moment, thus allowing the viewer to make up his own story before the halfway revelation.

     It's also one of the key reasons for Mr. Mitchell's success in stepping up to the plate here: besides showing a dab hand as an actor's director, extracting excellent performances from the ensemble cast, the cozily diffuse, somewhat numb atmosphere he creates with the help of DP Frank de Marco and composer Anton Sanko, though a little overly understated, proves perfectly balanced. It steers Rabbit Hole away from what could have easily become a predictable three-handkerchief melodrama and towards a delicate yet no-nonsense tone that builds up its emotional impact slowly, by accretion, until, by the end, it hits you like a ton of bricks. That's a compliment, by the way.

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Miles Teller, Giancarlo Esposito, Jon Tenney, Sandra Oh
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Screenplay: David Lindsay-Abaire, from his stage play Rabbit Hole
Cinematography: Frank G. de Marco (colour)
Music: Anton Sanko
Designer: Kalina Ivanov
Costumes: Ann Roth
Editor: Joe Klotz
Producers: Gigi Pritzker, Ms. Kidman, Per Saari, Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech (Olympus Pictures, Blossom Films, Oddlot Entertainment)
USA, 2010, 91 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, May 11th 2013


Thursday, May 16, 2013

A REPÚBLICA DI MININUS

Whether you like it or not, most contemporary African cinema requires money from the "first world" to come to fruition and, nevertheless, still struggles to attract interest, gain visibility and deliver on its promise. In a 30-year career as director, Guinea-Bissau native Flora Gomes has only managed to direct five fiction features, all of which financed with European monies on shoe-string budgets; despite having secured American actor Danny Glover to play a key role in A República di Mininus, the film has attracted little interest since its completion in 2011.

     It's fair to say this is simply because it isn't a very good film, though it is an amiable, well-meaning one, spinning an interesting premise into an awkward, jumbled film; the initial scenes suggest we're in for a child-soldier tale, with a small band of armed teenage boys attacking a village, killing some of the adults and taking with them the survivors, but after this clumsy, tasteless opening the film switches to the big city and sets sail on its course of becoming a thoughtful children's fantasy. Basically, Mr. Gomes' film is set on a "land of make-believe", the title's "children's republic" - the big city where, after a military attack, all adults fled leaving only behind the kids, all of which realise they've stopped growing up, and one elder, former government adviser Dubem (Mr. Glover). The city becomes in effect a huge sandbox where the children "learn by doing", hopefully realising the promise that adults failed to deliver on.

     The arrival of a small party of survivors from the initial village attack - two girls, two boys and the subdued boy soldier Iron Hand (Hedviges Mamudo) - forces a confrontation: the rules are that they either are accepted by the others or leave the city, suggesting that this republic is a practical application of a tribal village finding a way to live together day by day. Mr. Gomes is painting the idea of democracy as something intrinsic to African traditions, and a bridge between past and present being understood in practice by the kids who will be the future, and the idea of kids playing at grown-ups is mirrored in the film's easy-going presentation. The cast of children is actively playing at being actors, taking the game as seriously as their characters play at being grown-ups, and often all the director does is partake of the kids' energy and commitment, remaining attentive to their physical presence, with Mr. Glover's kindly gaze that of a grandfather enjoying the children's games.

     All fine and dandy, but the problems lie elsewhere: in the shapeless scripting that leaves a number of plot points either unexplained or unresolved (though the film's short length may also suggest some of it could have been left on the cutting floor), in Mr. Gomes' rather non-descript and often amateurish handling, part of which may come from the need to hide the obviously low-budget production values; in DP João Ribeiro's unequal cinematography, going from flat TV movie lighting to some lovely landscape and location work; above all, in the decision to have the film entirely spoken in English, which may have been necessary for practical reasons but ends up having all the kids speak in an urban-American inflected English that undermines the Afrocentric attitude. But, for all those flaws, it's very hard to bear any ill will against A República di Mininus; it isn't a very good film, true, but the sincerity and naïveté with which it presents itself, the simplicity of its message, the general good cheer of the entire project making do with what little it's got, end up assuaging any qualms and sweeping away any condescendence. It is what it is, and it asks to not be taken for more than what it is.

Cast: Danny Glover, Hedviges Mamudo, Melanie de Vales Rafael, Joyce Simbine Saiete, Bruno Mauro Armindo Nhavene, Anaïs Adrianopoulos, Stephen Carew, Maurice Ngwakum
Director: Flora Gomes
Screenplay: Franck Moisnard, Mr. Gomes
Cinematography: João Ribeiro (colour)
Music: Youssou n'Dour, Papa Ouma Ngour
Designer: Tim Pannen
Costumes: Oumou Sy
Editor: Dominique Pâris
Producers: Maria João Mayer, François d'Artemare (Filmes do Tejo and Films de l'Après-Midi in co-production with Neue Metropolis Filmproduktion, Saga Film, RTP and Telecine Bissau Produções)
Portugal/France/Germany/Belgium/Guinea-Bissau, 2011, 78 minutes

Screened: producer advance DVD screener, Lisbon, May 8th 2013


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

LACRAU

Warmly received upon its premiere at the 2013 IndieLisboa festival, where it took home the prize for best Portuguese feature, João Vladimiro's sophomore feature Lacrau is a radical object meant to divide opinions and start off heated arguments. Little wonder: a labour of love shot over a number of years, this defiantly non-narrative project, juxtaposing the warmth and conviviality or community-based rural living and the ugly, industrial, artificially-lighted modern urbanism, belongs to a lineage of austere, quasi-experimental filmmaking, where documentary footage is transformed by its contextual editing and soundtracking. It's film intended as art, as meditation and process at the same time, striving for higher, deeper meanings, for an experience that is not merely passive but seeks to engage the viewer.

     More power to it, but the problem with Lacrau is not that it belongs to that lineage alongside directors such as Sergei Paradjanov, Michelangelo Frammartino or James Benning; it's that there's a chasm between ambition and realisation. The film's devotion to the countryside seems to have been learnt at the altar of the forgotten master António Reis; its construction through wordless, non-linear blocks of images intercut with quotes from Edmund Spenser and Stig Dagerman and soundtracked by a selection of contemporary and classical music suggests an experiment in pure sensorialism, an attempt at audiovisual transcendence. But in the process it becomes clear Mr. Vladimiro may have bitten off more than he could chew; Lacrau feels like a puzzle whose key may be far too personal or too well hidden for viewers to find. Luxuriating in a rigorous but occasionally hermetic juxtaposition of images and sounds, it becomes a quasi-abstract essay-film whose point is either obscure or lost in the process, pushing at times the limits of the viewer's availability in search of something it never quite reaches.

     It's very much a young man's film, one that wishes at the same time to show how far its director has grown and to encompass the entire universe, but hasn't yet been able to make sense of the map. For all that, there is an evident talent at work here and a worthy ambition of doing more than just "business as usual"; Lacrau is just a halfway point in that journey, but hardly an unanimous one.

Director and writer: João Vladimiro
Cinematography: Mr. Vladimiro, Pedro Pinho (colour)
Editors: Mr. Vladimiro, Luísa Homem
Sound: Mr. Vladimiro, Frederico Lobo, Miguel Martins
Producers: Mr. Vladimiro, João Matos (Terratreme Filmes in association with RTP)
Portugal, 2013, 102 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Culturgest, Lisbon, April 17th 2013



LACRAU, de JOÃO VLADIMIRO from TERRATREME FILMES on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

MA BELLE GOSSE (MY BLUE-EYED KID)

The fact that, early on in Franco-Canadian director Shalimar Preuss's debut feature, there's a handheld camera following behind a young girl makes you want to scream: enough already with the Dardenne brothers' playbook! Nevertheless, it's a shame that stylistic trope overshadows the good things in this amiable yet ultimately slight tale about coming of age. Ms. Preuss starts us off in media res, in the middle of a Summer family vacation in the isle of Ré off the French coast, where a boatload of kids, from tweens to teenagers, seem to exist in a perpetual, laughing limbo of leisurely, playful days alongside their parents. All but one: the surly 17-year old Maden (Lou Aziosmanoff), who keeps apart from the others, often alone in her room, keeping a secret only one of the others knows of. Maden is corresponding in secret with an inmate in the local prison, exchanging love letters.

     It's a startling choice - she is not yet "of age" and is too young to be a lonely woman who fantasizes about a love story with a jailbird. Ms. Preuss slowly reveals just enough to explain the reasons - through the slightly off family dynamics between her and her father François (Jocelyn Lagarrigue), who left the family years back and returns only for vacations, as well as with her twin cousins Judith and Céline (Manon Aziosmanoff and Nine Aziosmanoff), who learn of the secret but keep it to themselves at first. There's a sense that Maden is setting herself partly by choice rather than through any bullying at the hands of the other kids, but Ms. Preuss makes very clear that she is fundamentally looked at judgmentally by everyone else, only truly revealing herself in the letters she sends and receives.

     It's in the well-judged push-and-pull of family relationships doubled as a slow-burn drama of teenage angst that the director succeeds in holding the viewer's interest in Ma Belle Gosse, with a strong contribution from the easy performances of the ensemble cast and the warm, Mediterranean glare of Virginie Surdej's lensing. It's a shame, though, that the narrative never really "catches fire", preferring to flow moodily in an oblique, diffuse pattern that leaves too many things unexplained; that might have been the whole idea but pins on the film a sense of an uncoloured, unfilled sketch. Still, it's a thoughtful, sensitive work; judging by it, it's worth keeping an eye on Ms. Preuss.

Cast: Lou Aziosmanoff, Jocelyn Lagarrigue, Manon Aziosmanoff, Nine Aziosmanoff, Hélène Cinque, Victor Laforge, Rebecca Convenant, Sédrenn Lebrousse, Jean-Luc Mimault, Raphaël Lagarrigue, Georges Guéneau
Director: Shalimar Preuss
Screenplay: Ms. Preuss, Émilie Guilhen
Cinematography: Virginie Surdej  (colour)
Music: Vincent Ségal
Designer: Aurélie Descoins
Editor: Gustavo Vasco
Producer: Emmanuel Chaumet  (Ecce Films in co-production with Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains)
France, 2012, 83 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition advance streaming screener, Lisbon, April 14th 2013


Monday, May 13, 2013

ÄTA SOVA DÖ (EAT SLEEP DIE)

For her debut feature, Swedish director Gabriela Pichler spins a number of autobiographical elements - and even her own family members - into the fictional tale of a young girl caught in the wave of contemporary youth unemployment. While Ms. Pichler didn't quite suffer the same fate as her plucky heroine, she is herself born in Sweden from Bosnian and Austrian immigrant parents, and was a factory worker who gave up her job to study film.

     Coming from documentary studies and a background, she draws upon common immigrant experiences to depict the no-future cycle open to Raša, the hard-working daughter of a Montenegrin immigrant who is laid off from her factory job and realises she has little to no chance of finding a new one in her provincial area. Eat Sleep Die's title is pretty much the lot of the modern-day working poor, immigrant or not; while Raša (forcefully portrayed by the powerful Nermina Lukač) is young enough to go out and try to fend for herself, many of her fellow laid-off workers are older but have educational or social advantages she doesn't (like a driver's license). And her father (Milan Dragišić), who isn't as fluent in Swedish, is ailing and unable to keep up his odd jobs, making the household's well-being depend entirely on her.

     Yet, despite Ms. Lukač's performance and the total absence of sentiment in Ms. Pichler's approach to the story, there's little to make this well-made, assured debut feature stand apart from the many social problem pictures being produced since the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta. The strong sense of community present in the small town where Raša lives is a nice touch - she is perfectly integrated and nobody looks at her as an interloper or makes her feel unwelcome, in a change from the usual way immigrants are treated once things start going wrong in the community. And there is always a sense that Ms. Pichler is anchoring her fiction in a strong documented reality, one that never feels fake and shows another side of Sweden that doesn't usually come to the fore, with grayish-toned cinematography from Johan Lundborg. None of that, however, is enough to make Eat Sleep Die rise above its status as a debut effort that is solid and honest but has little distinguishing features.

Cast: Nermina Lukač, Milan Dragišić, Jonathan Lampinen, Peter Fält, Ružica Pichler
Director and writer: Gabriela Pichler
Cinematography: Johan Lundborg
Music: Andreas Svensson, Jonas Isaksson
Art directors: Jessika Jankert, Tobias Äkersson, Jessica Tarland
Costumes: Sandra Wollersdorf
Editors: Ms. Pichler, Mr. Lundborg
Producer: China Åhlund  (Anagram Film in co-production with Film i Skåne, Swedish Television and Film i Väst)
Sweden, 2012, 104 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition advance streaming screener, Lisbon, April 13th 2013


Saturday, May 11, 2013

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

In between some of the most beloved films of English cinema of the 1940s and 1950s and the tendencies towards gigantism of 1960s big-budget filmmaking, British director David Lean found a sweet spot with Lawrence of Arabia - the sweepingly enveloping romanticised biography of soldier/scholar T. E. Lawrence and of his adventures in the Middle East during World War I. A sweet spot between not only that very British, stiff-upper-lip quality and a more grandiose sense of spectacle, but also between the past and the present, between naïveté and disillusion.

     Mr. Lean's apparently stolid, middlebrow handling is in fact wholly aware of its own classical (some would say academic) limitations and willing to transcend them: just like Lawrence's trial by fire in the desert demands that he travels its length and comes out the other side, so does Lawrence of Arabia travel the expansive trappings of the period epic to find its own core of a character study gaudily wrapped in Freddie Young's sumptuous 70mm cinematography and Maurice Jarre's heroic score. It's all the more appropriate, as the film is essentially the tale of a man who found himself attempting to bridge two worlds but in some ways an outcast of either - a nearly four-hour character study under the guise of a Boy's Own imperial adventure, but one where the hero himself seems to believe his own PR a bit too much.

     In Peter O'Toole's star-making, all-consuming portrayal of Lawrence you see a man who believed all the things the British Empire fed him, and who seizes his moment as he rallies the Arab tribes to strike at the Turks in the name of an united Arabia, but who also finds himself confronted with the venal truth of politics and power games as he realises the consequences of his acts. In between the desert and the civilisation, the dream of absolute freedom and the reality of compromises, Lawrence tastes his own humanity; Mr. Lean's exacting framing and ponderous pacing is designed to bring us with him on that journey, by forcing the viewer to adjust to the slower rhythm of the desert, to focus on what matters. And what matters, here, are the characters, simultaneously lost and found under the harsh glare of the desert sun that is almost like a revelatory, interrogating light.

     Admittedly, Lawrence of Arabia is a film of two minds, one that manages to make its apparent contradictions work on its behalf: the all-star cast working in shorthand on what are essentially supporting roles, while the more detailed strokes are painted by Mr. O'Toole as Lawrence and Omar Sharif as his trusted friend Ali Ibn el Kharish; the striking desert landscapes ravishingly but harshly photographed by Freddie Young simultaneously hiding and suggesting the inner turmoil of Lawrence, a hero caught in a trap of his own making. His tragedy is that he can no longer renege on his heroics, born of a well-meaning yet foolishly naïf worldview, convinced his achievements freed him from the terrible practicality of politics.

     Illusions can be powerful things, and just as the dutiful rhetoric of colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai was denounced as something belonging to an earlier era, so does Lawrence realise the length of the chasm between his dream of Arab independence and the reality of colonial and military politics. Lawrence of Arabia is a film that is surprisingly more modern than its reputation would suggest it to be - but one done at a scale that no cost-conscious major studio, with its test-screened filmmaking-by-committee, would allow to happen nowadays. The loss is ours.

Cast: Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, I. S. Johar, Donald Wolfit, Omar Sharif, Peter O'Toole
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Cinematography: F. A. Young  (Technicolor, Super Panavision 70 widescreen)
Music: Maurice Jarre
Designer: John Box
Costumes: Phyllis Dalton
Editor: Anne V. Coates
Producer: Sam Spiegel (Horizon Pictures)
United Kingdom, 1962, 227 minutes (including overture and intermission music)

Screened: 4K restoration distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, May 3rd 2013


Friday, May 10, 2013

TO THE WONDER

After almost two decades out of public view, Terrence Malick's 1998 return to filmmaking with The Thin Red Line was merely the tip of an iceberg that has seen the reclusive director rapidly escalate his rhythm of productivity. To the Wonder, only his sixth feature, premiered at Venice a year after The Tree of Life won the Cannes Palme d'Or. But while, for better or worse, the conflicting reception of that rapturously spiritual film hardly diminished the director's stature as a creator in absolute formal control of his work, To the Wonder comes across as a pale follow-up; a less spiritual yet complementary work that nevertheless seems to suggest a filmmaker treading water, relying overly on the deployment of the stylistic tropes that have since become his trademarks (sweeping handheld tracking shots, natural lighting, non-linear narrative, absence of traditional dialogue replaced by oblique voiceovers).

     The new film reframes on a more prosaic scale the mystical quest for grace of The Tree of Life and the hope that love will eventually find a way, through a looser tale centred on people in crisis: Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a woman who against her better judgments follows her American lover (Ben Affleck) from Paris to Oklahoma only to find things are no longer the same between them, and father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest who is struggling with his own doubt. Worryingly, though, it's not just the characters who seem thrown into crisis; Mr. Malick's impressionist, sensory lyricism seems here the be-all and end-all of the film, as if its camerawork and pitch-perfect melding of sound, music and image would be enough to give the film its depth and structure.

     Yet his tracing of the push and pull of a love affair that moves back and forth as the lovers' feelings ebb and flow hits a brick wall in the absence of characters as such, merely puppets who seem to orbit around each other without ever really touching, disconnected from any attempt at a narrative throughline. (Not surprisingly, the characters' names are never heard throughout and only revealed in the end credit roll.) A good example of this is Mr. Affleck's engineer, a merely physical presence that does nothing but stare into the distance and gives off no sense of why two women would be interested in him; but then, neither does anyone else in the film ever project a sense of a real, live person, unlike in the previous work of the director. Character development may never have been Mr. Malick's forte, but the way he has disregarded it here is surprisingly superficial.

     Of course, the man hasn't forgotten his trade - as expected, To the Wonder looks and sounds glorious. Emmanuel Lubezki's warm tonal cinematography, the precision-tooled, sweeping editing, and the inspired mixing of classical pieces, source music, original compositions and sound design underline how extraordinary Mr. Malick's atmospheric talents remain. But there is also a sense that this is a bag of tricks the director knows inside out and deploys here as a smokescreen to hide the fact that there doesn't seem to be much new or even exciting here. It's also true that familiarity breeds contempt and at such short intervals (apparently, there is another project already shot and another one in production) there's a serious risk the director may be reducing his style to a formula to be repeated ad infinitum. But that alone isn't enough to hide the feeling that To the Wonder is Mr. Malick's most disappointing work so far, looking far too much as if he is coasting on his reputation and rarefied style.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
Director and writer: Terrence Malick
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Hanan Townshend, Daniel Lanois
Designer: Jack Fisk
Costumes: Jacqueline West
Editors: A. J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, Mark Yoshikawa
Producers: Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda (Brothers K Productions in association with Filmnation Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 112 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), May 2nd 2013


Thursday, May 09, 2013

PHOTO

A belated directorial debut for a veteran screenwriter with a thirty-year career, Photo is also a somewhat bewildering, cold film that never really answers its own questions - a textbook case of a film whose script suggests more than the director could achieve, all the more disappointing as screenwriter and director are one and the same. It's a shame, since Carlos Saboga (screenwriter, among others, for Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon) does have one good ace up his sleeve: to have a mystery be solved by someone who is in fact looking to solve an entirely different one. This, though, is wrapped up in a more conventional dovetailing of personal family history and wider political History, and in this case the Portuguese dictatorial regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, finally deposed in April 1974 by a military coup.

     Learning of her mother's death in Paris, estranged daughter Élisa (Anna Mouglalis) returns home to find a series of photographs where her mother, a renowned photo journalist, is seen with three Portuguese political exiles who were her friends with benefits. Realising one of them is the biological father she never met and her mother never talked of, Élisa decides to travel to Portugal to track them down, only to find that the identity of the father is inextricably linked with the mysterious death of the strongest candidate, Abel, shortly after coming back to Portugal two weeks before the coup.

     While the whole personal/political interlinking is in itself a tried and true trope of European films ever since the 1960s, the real problem is that Photo never really moves beyond an artificial, slightly detached game of hide and seek, where there are in effect practically no stakes other than Élisa's unexplained need-to-know. Ms. Mouglalis' performance is a one-note phone-in, completely unable to give the character any depth, and none of the extended cast of second-tier supporting players has much to work with; only Johan Leysen, as the "stepfather" who actually raised Élisa, manages to make the role exist beyond the plot requirements that place every actor/character on a game board as mere functional archetypes. Dramatically inert despite the solid technical credits, anonymously handled (and even somewhat half-hearted in its over-reliance on a French cast for a film that is supposedly all about Portugal), Photo doesn't have enough of a personality to stand on its own two feet, suggesting Mr. Saboga remains a better screenwriter than director.

Cast: Anna Mouglalis, Johan Leysen, Simão Cayatte, Didier Sandre, Rui Morrison, Ana Padrão, Anabela Brígida, José Neto, Hélène Patarot, Carla de Sá, Marisa Paredes
Director and screenwriter: Carlos Saboga
Cinematography: Mário Barroso (colour)
Art director: Maria José Branco
Costumes: Isabel Branco
Editor: Paulo Mil Homens
Producer: Paulo Branco (Alfama Films)
France/Portugal, 2012, 78 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 2 (Lisbon), April 30th 2013


Wednesday, May 08, 2013

SIMON KILLER

Afterschool revealed Brazilian-American director Antonio Campos as a striking talent, but that talent feels lost and searching for a way out in his long-delayed sophomore effort. Simon Killer has much in common with Afterschool's geometric, hypnotically formal handling, working as well as an unflinching look into the heart of dysfunctional youth in modern society. But the tale of a college graduate (Brady Corbet) let loose in Paris lacks the precision, focus and drive of the earlier film; you come out of Simon Killer certainly impressed with Mr. Campos' technical skills, but wondering exactly what did you just see, and, more to the point, what was it all about.

     In a way, the film is a sort of extension of Afterschool's concern with the idea that all our relationships are now mediated through archetypes and consensual imagery; whereas in the earlier film video was used as a revelatory tool, a way to undo the status quo, here Mr. Campos walks backward from that to show that it's the human mind that is in charge of that archetype, and that images are just as powerful as the ability of the human mind to develop story-telling as an equivocal concept. Simon says he's simply a student taking some time off in Europe, after breaking up with his girlfriend, but as the film progresses it's clear there is an element of wishful thinking, a not-quite-right feeling, in his stories - especially as he takes up with prostitute Victoria (Mati Diop), whom he convinces to join him in a blackmailing scheme with a view to a future life together that he may not intend to carry through.

     In Mr. Corbet's ever-shifting performance, you see Simon as a liquid that's constantly running in and out of every container, a disquieting, coldly calculist manipulator whose ends we can never fathom and, indeed, will not have entirely realised by the open-ended dénouement. While Mr. Campos' slow-burn, disquietingly smooth handling moves forward from Afterschool, there is a sense that he himself may be like Simon, lost in a foreign city without exactly knowing what it is that he is looking for. That aimlessness is at the same time the strength and the weakness of Simon Killer: the mystery of not knowing what comes next keeps the viewer watching, as do the excellent performances of both leads, but the decision to leave everything hanging in mid-air asks the question - is that mystery a feature or a bug?

Cast: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Constance Rousseau, Lila Salet
Director: Antonio Campos
Screenplay: Mr. Campos, from a story by Mr. Campos, Mr. Corbet, Ms. Diop
Cinematography: Joe Anderson  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi
Designer: Nicolas de Boiscuillé
Costumes: Laetitia Bouix
Editors: Zac Stuart-Pontier, Mr. Campos, Babak Jalali
Producers: Josh Mond, Sean Durkin, Matt Palmieri (Filmhaven Entertainment, Borderline Films)
USA, 2012, 105 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition advance streaming screener, Lisbon, April 9th 2013


Tuesday, May 07, 2013

FRANCINE

It's very unusual to see an award-winning actress giving her all in a small, no-budget project unlikely to receive a smidgen of the attraction her bigger-scale projects have. Kudos, then, to the great Melissa Leo for throwing herself headfirst into Melanie Shatzky and Brian Cassidy's Francine, a quasi-documental narrative fiction about an ex-con who is released into society without having really anywhere to fit into. Ms. Shatzky and Mr. Cassidy's previous projects (namely their previous feature The Patron Saints) were mostly documental, and this narrative feature makes use of their experience by following faithfully the odd, halting rhythms of Francine's return to the real world.

     A quiet, almost non-descript presence who seems to either disappear into the background or stand out because of her awkwardness, Francine seems to generate no chemistry at all with other people, coming across as a sort of dreamy, absent-minded simpleton who seems to be more at ease with animals - eventually becoming a sort of crazy cat lady whose only fulfilling jobs are those wherein she works with them (a stable, a veterinarian's practice). The wager is that the idea of following Ms. Leo's generous, brave performance as if it were a documentary will achieve a depth usually elusive in standard fictions. But despite the actress' undeniable commitment and a couple of stunning, moving scenes, Francine ends up being rather generic, even somewhat pointless; it thankfully evades the "social problem picture", but it never offers a scaffolding strong enough to build something else upon. It's a tour-de-force performance by a great actress that doesn't have enough of a film to support it, but that is reason enough to give it a look.

Cast: Melissa Leo
Directors and writers: Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky
Cinematography: Mr. Cassidy (colour, widescreen)
Production and costume designer: Christine Cole
Editors: Mr. Cassidy, Benjamin Gray, Ms. Shatzky
Producers: Joshua Blum, Katie Stern (Washington Square Films, Pigeon Projects)
USA/Canada, 2012, 75 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition advance streaming screener, Lisbon, April 8th 2013


Monday, May 06, 2013

LEONES

Debut features can have a "look at me!" attitude, born of the desire to show off the width of one's influences and knowledge and of the wish to create a striking calling card few will forget. Argentinian director Jazmín López's debut manages to be both but without the sense of a mere youthful exercise: it's a genuinely smart, disturbing, accomplished debut that wears its influences lightly within a very determined, clear-minded personality. Its slight narrative - five teenagers on their way to a vacation find themselves lost in the woods - unfolds mostly as an atmospheric series of long, one-take steadycam shots (around twenty, according to my count) that wander through nature alongside the cast.

     The camera's constant, nervous movement, soundtracked only by the party's footsteps and the sounds of nature, is a symbol of the disorientation and discomfort the five kids are feeling as they search in vain for the country house they've got lost in the way to. Of the five, only the nervous, uncomfortable Isabel (Julia Volpato) seems aware something is not quite right; none of the others seems overly worried that they're lost, left to their own devices and unsure of where they're heading to. The metaphor of growing up into adulthood may be self-evident, but is never pushed by Ms. López; she works instead into creating a fully immersive environment for the viewer to lose himself in alongside her cast, much helped by Julia Hoberman's extraordinary sound design work and DP Matías Mesa's careful attention to the ever-shifting lighting conditions.

     While Leones seems to be a moody companion piece to other ambient-heavy directors like Ms. López's countrymen Lucrecia Martel or Lisandro Alonso, or to Gus van Sant's most demanding experiments such as Gerry or Last Days, the film is very much its own beast: a smart visit to adolescence's emotional wasteland, with a stunning formal control unusual for such a young director. Leones may be a one-off or the first step in a long career, but either way it's one of the most extraordinary debuts I've seen in a long time.

Cast: Julia Volpato, Pablo Sigal, Macarena del Corro, Diego Vegezzi, Tomás Mackinlay
Director, writer, art director: Jazmín López
Cinematography: Matías Mesa (colour, widescreen)
Costumes: Barbi Aranschin
Editors: Benjamín Domenech, Ms. López, Andrea Kleinman
Sound design: Julia Hoberman
Producer: Matías Roveda (Rei Cine, Petit Film, Viking Film, Lemming Film and CEPA Audiovisual in association with ARTE and Cofinova 6)
Argentina/France/Netherlands, 2012, 82 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition, advance streaming screener, Lisbon, March 30th 2013, and official competition screening, Culturgest, Lisbon, April 22nd 2013


Saturday, May 04, 2013

ORLÉANS

One of a series of young contemporary directors working "off-format", outside the conventional strictures of genre and length, French filmmaker Virgil Vernier melds documentary and fiction in this hour-long character study set in the French town of Orléans around the festivities in honour of Joan of Arc. It's his ninth film in a 12-year career that has seen him move between short, medium and feature-length projects, between documentary and fiction, always observing the slightly off-key rhythms and modern life.

     Here, the initial premise takes place inside a strip club, where a number of girls share thoughts and gossip while preparing for the night to begin. Two stand apart, though, practising around the tiny stage's pole, and we soon realise they're apart by design and decision: the veteran Sylvia (Julia Auchynnikava) prefers to mind her own business and shows a few steps to the rookie Joanne (Andréa Brusque), who claims this is only a brief step before she moves to Paris to follow her dreams of being a dancer. They're sharing a room in a hotel across the street, where Sylvia asks Joanne if she really believes she will leave Orléans behind. All of this seems to be pure documentary, but as we follow the two girls on their daily pursuits through the city, visiting the local fun fair and meeting a girl who is portraying Joan of Arc in the festivities' climactic pageant, it becomes clear that Mr. Vernier is actually disguising a fictional kernel inside the appearance of documentary.

     The naturalistic performances, lensing from a distance and lenghty observational takes create an illusion that is particularly appropriate to the theme of the film: the distance between hope and reality, faith and resignation, how the daily routines end up crushing or dulling the wishes and desires for a better future. Just like Joan had to struggle to prove her worth in a much less patriarchal society, so do Joanne and Sylvia have to struggle to exist beyond their pre-determined role as trippers. For all that, Orléans never really soars; seemingly more of a half-finished sketch or an embryonic, undeveloped concept rather than a completed film, it's a slight but intriguing object that suggests Mr. Vernier is up to interesting if not yet fully understandable things.

Cast: Andréa Brusque, Julia Auchynnikava
Director and writer: Virgil Vernier
Cinematography: Tom Harari (colour)
Editors: Eulalie Korenfeld, Emma Augier
Producer: Jean-Christophe Reymond (Kazak Productions)
France, 2012, 59 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa 2013 official competition streaming screener, Lisbon, March 26th 2013


Friday, May 03, 2013

LEVIATHAN

It's become a truism to say that the only way to get the full measure of a film is to see it as it was meant to be seen: on a big screen. In my experience, though, I can remember few objects where the truism is more appropriate than Leviathan, since the environment where you will see it will irrevocably change your perception of it, even if the film itself doesn't; it simply reveals other layers, like a sensory sculpture that changes every time you look at it. My first exposure to Leviathan was streaming online on a home screen, and only later did I experience it "properly" in a theatre; the film was the same, but the response wasn't, especially as it is such a startlingly unique proposition.

     The film du jour in the auteurist set since its premiere in Locarno in September 2012, Leviathan was produced under the aegis of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, the experimental audiovisual structure run by Lucien Castaing-Taylor at the University of Harvard, and technically could be described as a documentary about a fishing boat trawling the Atlantic out of New Bedford - only it has no truck with the traditional documentary forms and seeks a sort of filmic equivalent of "automatic writing", a truer, abstract form of cinéma-vérité that would pretty much eject the idea of a programmatic point of view. Mr. Castaing-Taylor and his co-director, Véréna Paravel, attached cameras to the bodies of the fishermen, to the boat's deck, masts or rigs, filming from points of view that humans don't usually take, and assemble the footage to present us the routines of life and death aboard that are never ever seen, let alone in this way.

     Working mainly with long, uncut blocks of footage that seem to have been recorded without any human intervention, Ms. Paravel and Mr. Castaing-Taylor aren't interested in a traditional narrative frame and prefer to spool Leviathan as a sensory trip, a claustrophobic stay in the "belly of the beast" that is a modern fishing boat, dishing in its travels death and destruction to the seas so humans can live (and yet, in less than ideal circumstances, as one particularly ironic take shows). That alone says that this is by no means a conventional film (let alone a conventional documentary), and the extraordinary soundtrack, a collagist symphony of mechanical and natural sources put together by "sound composer" Ernst Karel and sound designer Jacob Ribicoff, only underlines its status as a kind of theme park ride where you are experiencing the film viscerally instead of passively looking at it.

     There can be a sense that there's far too much theory behind Leviathan, that its purely experiential approach may put it much closer to the concept of a multimedia abstract or a video art piece; in fact, Ms. Paravel and Mr. Castaing-Taylor have reworked the base footage into a series of site-specific installations that have traveled through several countries. And yet, there is a sense that to see Leviathan in a big screen, to become immersed in its haunting, stark visuals, its whiplash-inducing jerky camera movements and its white-noise soundtrack, is to really find the essence of what it is. I still have no idea what that essence is, but Leviathan is like nothing I've ever seen before.

Directors/cinematographers/editors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
Sound composition and mix: Ernst Karel
Sound design: Jacob Ribicoff
Producers: Mr. Castaing-Taylor, Ms. Paravel (Arrête Ton Cinéma, Sensory Ethnography Lab)
USA/United Kingdom/France, 2012, 87 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition; online streaming print, Lisbon, March 25th 2013; official competition screening, Culturgest, Lisbon, April 23rd 2013


Thursday, May 02, 2013

SPRING BREAKERS

You can't help but feel that Harmony Korine's fourth feature as director is a "20 years later" rejoinder to his breakthrough script for Larry Clark's epochal Kids. That is, another warts-and-all take on modern youth mores, following the adventures of four college co-eds over a drug-and-alcohol-fueled spring break binge in Florida, another "state of the union" address on "do you know what YOUR kids are doing?". Spring Breakers is that in a way, picking up on the idea of unsupervised teenagers out on their own devices, but also projecting it into a part-euphoric, part-melancholy meditation on the rite of passage, with its four heroines - Faith (Selena Gomez), Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) - literally going through the fire.

     However, instead of Mr. Clark's gritty urban-indie handling, Mr. Korine opts to go at it as a mash-up between a raucous teenage comedy in the American Pie/Project X mold and an expletive-laced satire of modern pop culture (the director's default mode ever since his directorial debut with the severely over-rated Gummo), with this spring break designed as a now-or-never shot at escaping the confines of a boxed-in college life into a neon fantasy of reality-show-level fame and fortune. With the help of master cinematographer Benoît Debie's over-saturated, fluorescent day-glo lensing and a driving electronic score marrying Electronic Dance Music star Skrillex's frenzied beats and Cliff Martinez' pulsing textures, Mr. Korine paints an alluring paradise of full-on hedonism that comes straight out of the girls' dreams of video-game muggings or Hollywood stardom, only to smash it down in the next moment as a fever dream with a heavy price tag.

     The irony is compounded by his casting of wholesome Disney Channel stars Ms. Gomez and Ms. Hudgens and soap regular Ms. Benson. The last two and Ms. Korine (the director's wife) play pretty much interchangeable blonde bimbos (only not as airheaded as they might seem at first glance), with Mr. Gomez as the brown-haired ingenue-slash-conscience of the lot, the one whose religious faith crashed headlong into the dark side of the lavish hedonistic lifestyle they're enjoying in St. Petersburg. That dark side comes up big time once low-rent drug dealer and aspiring rapper Alien (an inspired James Franco, as much a wannabe as the girls) shows up on the scene, a Big Bad Wolf that seduces the three blondes into joining him in his attempt at becoming king of the St. Pete streets (but for whom the reluctant Faith, a brown-haired Red Riding Hood if there was ever one, becomes the one that got away).

     In his usually provocative way, Mr. Korine raises more questions than he's ready or willing to answer (or answers them the wrong way). But neither is he interested in white-washing this amoral youthquake of girls who just want to have fun and are ready to disregard blithely the rules of the real world for its sake; there's a strangely grounded moral (or moralistic?) streak to Spring Breakers, as the film is presented in a way as a cautionary fairy tale in the "be-careful-what-you-wish-for" mode, while at the same time admitting that such caution sits uneasily in our media-obsessed times, where gangster behaviour has become pervasive in pop culture. Is Mr. Korine wanting to have his cake and eat it too? Possibly. That ambiguity is constantly present by design in his work, only much better hidden in this, undoubtedly my favourite (and, more arguably, the best) of his four features. You can even mistake it for the real thing, a foul-mouthed, transgressively (a)moral equivalent of American Pie. But whether you do or not, you'll be leaving the theatre with a tangy, sour taste on your candy-floss mouth.

Cast: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane
Director and writer: Harmony Korine
Cinematography: Benoît Debie (colour, widescreen)
Music: Cliff Martinez, Skrillex
Designer: Elliott Hostetter
Costumes: Heidi Bivens
Editor: Douglas Crise
Producers: Chris Hanley, Jordan Gertner, David Zander, Charles-Marie Anthonioz (Hero Entertainment, Muse Productions, Rabbit Bandini Productions and Radar Pictures in association with MJZ, O'Salvation, Pop Films, Division Film and Iconoclast)
USA/France, 2012, 93 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 Observatory screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), April 25th 2013


Wednesday, May 01, 2013

ELLE S'EN VA (ON MY WAY)

Catherine Deneuve's towering presence in the annals of French movie stardom as a reigning "ice queen" of distant, unapproachable beauty is a cliché the actress has been enjoyably destroying for the past few years with a series of performances that have been taking her age in stride. None more so than in this third feature from the multi-hyphenate actress, director and screenwriter Emmanuelle Bercot, a film that seems intent on using that image and tearing it apart by showing the beating heart of a real person under it, though it doesn't quite have a plan for it once it does. No matter; though Elle s'en va never quite gels together, it does send the viewer out of the theatre in a cheerful mood, in no small part thanks to Ms. Deneuve's regal performance as former beauty queen Bettie Charpentier, who runs a restaurant in the small coastal village she has spent all her life in.

     Finding the world crashing down around her as she struggles to make ends meet, Bettie one day simply has enough and runs off in her car on an aimless road trip away from the oppressive sense of dead end her life has gotten stuck in. But the road trip eventually does find an aim, as she gets a call out of nowhere from her estranged daughter Muriel (singer Camille), asking if Bettie will drive grandson Charly (Nemo Schiffman) to her paternal grandfather for a vacation. After a first half showing Bettie as lost and unsure, Ms. Bercot and Ms. Deneuve rebuild her as a woman who accepts herself and decides to start anew through the connection with the grandson she hardly knows; the director plays the actress off non-professional actors through most of the film (shot during an actual road trip) and has her battle for screen space with Mr. Schiffman (Ms. Bercot and DP Guillaume Schiffman's real-life son), who more than holds his own as Charly.

     In many ways, Bettie and Charly are kindred spirits who bring out the best in each other, but the script doesn't really make the most out of the premise, eventually harnessing the first half's freeform rhythm to a more predictable family-secret plot, with the obligatory happy end rounding off the plot. Admittedly, it's a bumpy ride with an engine that occasionally stalls, but it's also true that, for all that, Ms. Deneuve's game and lively performance and Ms. Bercot's adroitness at capturing it make up for whatever shortcomings Elle s'en va may have and make it a reasonably enjoyable, life-affirming comedy stuck in predictable trappings.

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nemo Schiffman, Claude Gensac, Gérard Garouste, Paul Hamy, Mylène Demongeot, Hafsia Herzi, Camille
Director: Emmanuelle Bercot
Screenplay: Ms. Bercot, Jérôme Tonnerre
Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman (colour, widescreen)
Designer: Éric Santoza
Costumes: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Julien Leloup
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier (Fidélité Films in co-production with Wild Bunch and Rhône-Alpes Cinéma)
France, 2013, 112 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 7, Berlin, February 15th 2013