Tuesday, July 30, 2013

THE WE AND THE I

French director Michel Gondry became known mostly for his enchantingly leftfield and often inspired pop videos; but that has not always translated well into feature filmmaking, though he has one bona fide classic under his belt, the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the nearly ten years that have passed since that masterpiece, though, Mr. Gondry has been unable to find a narrative script that does justice to his arresting, hand-crafted, DIY approach to visual fireworks, culminating in his surrender to blockbuster tropes in the rather anonymous The Green Hornet. There is, however, an alternate side to his work, a lower-key, lower-budget parallel career made visible in smaller-scale personal projects such as Dave Chappelle's Block Party and the documentary The Thorn in the Heart, to which The We and the I wholeheartedly belongs.

     Born out of a lengthy workshop with teenagers from a Bronx community center, The We and the I starts out as a very "sober" film in visual terms. It's entirely set inside a NYC public-transit bus, dropping off a loud group of high school students along its (fictional) South Bronx route after school ends for summer. Mr. Gondry basically lets the kids free to do whatever it is high school kids do: the film is essentially a microcosm of unfiltered teenage life concentrated within the moving bus in almost real time, the youngsters playing pretty much versions of themselves within a fictional narrative suggested by their own experiences. They display the constant push and pull of wanting to belong and be accepted within the wider group, while still remaining true to themselves and to their personality - hence "the we and the I" of the title, suggesting the never-ending attempt at striking a difficult balance between individual and social. There is one central thread recurring throughout the entire "trip": the courtship of on-and-off sweethearts Teresa (Teresa Lynn) and Michael (Michael Brodie), swerving from groupthink to standing up for themselves as they interact with a busload of schoolmates who all feel the same issues in different ways.

     Mr. Gondry constructs the film very smartly: random and chaotic at first, it coalesces slowly as the bus moves onwards, gaining depth and emotional strength as the kids get out on their stops (even if they remain connected through cellphones and text messages), and finally articulating clearly its whole raison d'être in the excellent third act. It's a less "visual" object than we're used to from the director, even though there are a few winks at his DIY effect wizardry, but it's also a much more mature and serious work beneath all the teenagers-on-the-loose appearance. In fact, it's been a long while since Mr. Gondry has produced such a genuinely satisfying narrative feature, and it's all the more surprising that he has done so with such a modest, unassuming work.

Cast: Michael Brodie, Teresa Lynn, Raymond Delgado, Jonathan Ortiz, Jonathan Worrell, Alex Barrios, Laidychen Carrasco, Meghan Murphy, Chenkon II Carrasco, Jacobchen Carrasco, Konchen Carrasco, Raymond Rios, Kenny Quinonez, Amanda Mercado, Manuel Rivera, Jillian Rice, Chantelle-Lisa Davis, BrandonDiaz, Luis Figueroa, Marlene Perez, Patricia Persaud, Carolina Noboa, Esmeralda Herrera, Justin McMillan, Elijah Canada, Shade Blanch, Marie E. Raphael, Alexis Davila, Kendrick Martinez, Patricia Collazo, Linda Collazo, Evonny Escoto, Nicole Janine, Jazmine Rivera, Darius Davis, Omar Mualimmak, Hector Maldonado, Mia Lobo
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenplay: Mr. Gondry, Jeff Grimshaw, Paul Proch
Cinematography: Alex Disenhof (colour)
Designer: Tommaso Orteno
Costumes: Sarah Mae Burton
Editor: Jeff Buchanan
Producers: Mr. Gondry, Julie Fong, Raffi Adlan, Georges Bermann (Partizan Films)
France/Great Britain/USA, 2012, 104 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, July 21st 2013


Monday, July 29, 2013

ONLY GOD FORGIVES

Danish director terrible Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to the celebrated if divisive stylized neo-noir Drive is, simultaneously, the flip-side and the logical extension of that film. And it's entirely in keeping with the director's flashy yet visceral and often pretentious previous work. Melding the visual stylization and genre codification that made Drive the talk of the global town in 2011 with the most outlandish head-trips of earlier films such as Fear X or Valhalla Rising, Only God Forgives burrows deeper into the rabbit hole of style-as-substance; it's less a narrative thriller than a multimedia installation with blood red neon as its colour motif.

     The tale of American expats in Bangkok falling foul of the city's mysterious all-seeing enforcer, the film seems to be constantly floating in a sort of numb, hazy hallucination, heightened by the gliding slow-motion pans of DP Larry Smith's camera and the pulsing electro swooshes of Cliff Martinez's score. It could very well be all in the mind of Thai boxing impresario Julian (Ryan Gosling, returning from Drive), whose depraved brother has died at the hands of the almost supernatural Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), and whose Gorgon of a mother (a surprising Kristin Scott Thomas) flies out for revenge and retribution. Julian is constantly observing but always out of the central narrative loop, and his passive presence underlines how much Only God Forgives is not so much filmed as it is choreographed - everything placed precisely where Mr. Refn wants it to be, and nowhere else.

     All of that, plus the opaqueness of the narrative thread (eventually disintegrating towards the end), says this is obviously deliberate. Mr. Refn seems to take some dark pleasure in losing the audience in the myriad folds of his twisting films as he burrows deeper into his obsessional territories, something that makes all the sense in the world when you realise he has dedicated his film to legendary midnight-movie maestro Alejandro Jodorowsky. But, for all that, there's also a growing sense the director is not only losing his audience but himself as well - the progressive, almost Lynchian disintegration of plot, the practical absence of well-rounded characters, substituted by archetypes, reduce Only God Forgives to a pageant of boldly coloured, often violent tableaux that look ravishing but bring nothing to the table. Mr. Refn may be cornering himself into a role of agent provocateur that his evident directing talent is far too great for.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
Director and writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cinematography: Larry Smith (colour)
Music: Cliff Martinez
Designer: Beth Mickle
Costumes: Wasitchaya Mochanakul
Editor: Matthew Newman
Producers: Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval (Gaumont, Wild Bunch, Space Rocket Nation and Motel Movies in association with Bold Films, Danish Radio Filmklubben and Nordisk Film Shortcut)
France/Denmark/USA/Sweden, 2012, 89 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), July 18th 2013


Thursday, July 25, 2013

V TUMANE (IN THE FOG)

Belarusian director Sergei Loznitsa first came to prominence through his formalist, patient documentaries, but on making the switch to narrative fiction with the harrowing My Joy he created a nightmarish, free-flowing mosaic of modern Russia (and its former republics) as a lawless place where anything can happen and, often, does. That surreal, narrative free-flowing structure mirrored many of his contemporaries' satirical, surrealistic looks at post-Perestroika society; in In the Fog, it gives way to a more traditionally narrative but no less surreal tale, as Mr. Loznitsa adapts writer Vasil Bykov's novel about an episode of WWII anti-Nazi resistance.

     Shot with the director's usual attention to camerawork and staging, with yet another stunning job from cinematographer Oleg Mutu, making excellent use of locations whose symbolic value is undeniable, Mr. Loznitsa yet agains explores the tragic fatalism that is so often connected to the Slavic character, highlighting the bitter ironies of war as a seemingly permanent mindset through the past hundred years. While the narrative itself is nominally linear, the director sets it in shuffled blocks that share each a unity of time, assembled as flashbacks that slowly fill in the blanks behind the central event: anti-Nazi resistant Burov (Vlad Abashin) picks up railroad worker Sushenya (Vladimir Svirsky), suspected of having sold out his fellow workers to the Nazi authorities for an act of sabotage.

     But the trek towards Sushenya's execution is full of obstacles, and, as Mr. Loznitsa is nothing if not a constantly questioning director, it becomes a moral journey for both men and for the third member of the party, the opportunistic, unscrupulous Voitik (Sergei Kolesov). All find themselves caught in the butterfly effect of decisions often made in light of each man's moral fibre, or lack of such, asking themselves what is the right way to act in a world that is seemingly so bereft of any sort of compass. Unfolding patiently but deliberately, In the Fog is a film that proves Mr. Loznitsa's masterful control of formal and narrative elements. Even if its "war-is-hell" theme may bring little that is new, the director is a mesmerizingly talented filmmaker and his growing confidence with the narrative format suggests that there is still a lot more to be expected from him in the future.

Cast: Vladimir Svirsky, Vlad Abashin, Sergei Kolesov, Yulia Peresild
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Screenplay: Mr. Loznitsa, from the novel by Vasil Bykov, V Tumane
Cinematography: Oleg Mutu (colour, widescreen)
Designer: Kirill Shuvalov
Costumes: Dorota Roqueplo
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Producer: Heino Deckert (Majade Fiction, GP Kinokompaniya, Rija Films, Lemming Film, Belarusfilm, ZDF/ARTE)
Germany/Russia/Latvia/Netherlands/Belarus, 2012, 127 minutes

Screened: distributor advance screener DVD, Lisbon, July 20th 2013


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

POST TENEBRAS LUX

Mexican director Carlos Reygadas may have finally convinced many of his talent as a filmmaker with the Mennonite drama Silent Light, but the confrontational, defiantly radical nature of his cinema as revealed in earlier films Japon and Battle in Heaven is back with a vengeance in Post Tenebras Lux. It's the sort of film whose non-linear, purely sensory ebb and flow seems tailor-made to entrance and exasperate in equal manner, and as such it is proof that Mr. Reygadas' artistic pursuits do not dovetail with any sort of "career arc" or "progression".

     Openly personal in nature - the director's own children have central roles in the film, which was shot in his family's rural house in Mexico - Post Tenebras Lux is a deliberately labyrinthine mosaic of half-dreamed, half-remembered images, shuffling tenses and places in a virtuoso yet opaque manner. The film's apparently haphazard plot strands hint at a thoughtful, highly talented filmmaker sketching a series of possible film ideas or narrative threads dealing with class, history, wealth and poverty, tradition and modernity, thought and emotion. In many ways, that juxtaposition of concept and image, of something being transmitted through audiovisual means alone, makes Post Tenebras Lux a sort of pagan equivalent to Terrence Malick's sacred ruminations in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder; a series of son et lumière epiphanies, as formally seductive as they are conceptually oblique. The difference is Mr. Reygadas takes his experiments much further, and into more rarefiedly opaque regions.

     The central thread, if one can call it that, follows the uneasy class cohabitation between the privileged white man living in the country with his wife and kids (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and the impoverished native Mexican hired help (Willebaldo Torres). That subliminal tension plays a very strong part in giving Post Tenebras Lux its sub-surface dread, a disquiet made visible through the bizarre devil figure that appears briefly onscreen at the film's bookends, but also in the private plot threads that Mr. Reygadas allows each of them. For all that, though, and despite the director's insistence on long takes where things happen organically from the inside out, there's always the sense Post Tenebras Lux is essentially a cryptic notebook aimed at the filmmaker himself rather than at its viewers; a personal, somewhat futile exercise whose full meaning will never be truly attained except by those "in the know" but whose general interest remains, thanks to the sheer visual talent of the breathtaking visuals created by Mr. Reygadas and his master cinematographer Alexis Zabé.

Cast: Rut Reygadas, Eleazar Reygadas, Nathalia Acevedo, Adolfo Jiménez Castro, Willebaldo Torres
Director and writer: Carlos Reygadas
Cinematography: Alexis Zabé  (colour)
Designer: Geraldo Tagle
Editor: Natalia López
Producers: Jaime Romandia, Mr. Reygadas (No Dream Cinema and Mantarraya Producciones in co-production with Le Pacte, ARTE France Cinéma, FOPROCINE, IMCINE, The Match Factory and Topkapi Films) 
Mexico/France, 2012, 115 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, June 18th 2013

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

LORE

Coming-of-age movies about teenagers forced to grow up quickly through difficult times are a dime a dozen, but it's safe to say none has ever quite been like Australian director Cate Shortland's Lore, her sophomore feature after the well-received Somersault. Nominally, Lore is the tale of a young girl whose world is turned upside down when war knocks on her door, taking away her parents and forcing her to become surrogate mother to her four siblings and lead them to safety at their grandmother's on the other side of the country. No prizes for noticing the Red Riding Hood parallels, but Ms. Shortland if anything underplays the fairy-tale references, letting the story itself - adapted from a novel by Rachel Seiffert - bring them bobbing up to the surface every now and then.

     In having to rely on herself and her wits to make it through a destroyed country with four younger children in tow, Lore (a consummately mature performance by Saskia Rosendahl), is violently confronted with the world outside the cocoon she was raised in. There's a curious connection between her dejected road trip through an impoverished nation and that depicted in Marcelo Lordello's Eles Voltam, where a teenager left by the roadside is forced to traverse an impoverished Brazil to return home. That sense of loss, disorientation, indecision, the feeling that everything has just been upended, carries more than a trace of André Téchiné's Strayed, another film about people thrown out of their cocoons by war.

     What makes the difference in Ms. Shortland's film, though, is its WWII setting: Lore is the eldest daughter of a high-ranking SS officer with responsibilities in the Holocaust, and it's defeated Germany that she and her siblings have to cross on their way from the Black Forest to the Baltic Sea where the grandmother lives. Lore's statute as a child of the Hitler Youths gives a whole new twist to her confrontation with the world outside - not only is she a normal teenager having to learn to manoeuvre the adult world, she also carries the added stigma of having been raised within a cocoon that reality is violently destroying around her. Lore now has to navigate blindly an ever-shifting world where all facades have crumbled and the sheer weight of the Hitler years falls squarely on her shoulders.

     What's so smart about Ms. Shortland's film is that, by depicting the gradual awakening to the world of a girl educated in a strict, cult-like manner, Nazism thus becomes an allegory for all kinds of fundamentalism and intolerance. Lore is no pure, innocent child - more like a deer in the headlights - but Ms. Shortland does not pretend otherwise, and in so doing gives her a humanity and a complexity that are usually absent from the far too easy shorthand clichés used to depict 1930s and 1940s Germany. There is no shorthand in Lore; instead, there's a sense of dread and wonder, born out of Lore and the Dressler kids' trek through a wilderness as idyllic as it is terrifying, with Adam Arkapaw's terrifically sensitive outdoor lensing capturing the majesty and awe of landscapes that become tell-tale signs of what the kids are going through. In that sense, Lore is indeed a take on the classic, dark, character-building fairy-tale (long before the Disneyfied, sanitized versions), but also a film that isn't afraid of facing the dark. That, indeed, is also what coming of age means; facing your fears and coming out the other side, from a teenager into an adult.

      Smart, sensitive, thought-provoking, Lore is one of the most unexpected surprises I've had at the movies in a long time.

Cast: Saskia Rosendahl, Kai Malina, Nele Trebs, Ursina Lardi, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Mika Seidel, André Frid, Eva-Maria Hagen
Director: Cate Shortland
Screenplay: Ms. Shortland, Robin Mukherjee, from the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert
Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw (colour, widescreen)
Music: Max Richter
Designer: Silke Fischer
Costumes: Stefanie Bieker
Editor: Veronika Jenet
Producers: Karsten Stöter, Liz Watts, Paul Welsh, Benny Drechsel (Rohfilm, Porchlight Films, Edge City Films)
Australia/Germany, 2012, 109 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, June 11th 2013


Monday, July 22, 2013

WORLD WAR Z

Someone must have thought it was a good idea to hand Marc Forster the reins of the big-screen adaptation of Max Brooks' best-selling tale of an Earth swept by a rabies-like virus that turns its sufferers into ravenous flesh-eaters, ie zombies. After all, one of the Swiss director's earliest Hollywood forays was the moody genre piece Stay, and he had not only directed Halle Berry to an Oscar in Monster's Ball, but also helmed the Charlie Kaufmanesque comedy Stranger than Fiction. But ever since those early successes, Mr. Forster has revealed himself a singularly anonymous talent, making a hash of Daniel Craig's sophomore James Bond effort Quantum of Solace (one of the popular franchise's least-appreciated titles) and becoming the sort of "hack-for-hire" his earlier choices did not suggest, in ultimately generic mid-range titles such as The Kite Runner or Machine Gun Preacher.

     That he would still be given a plum directing job like World War Z despite his singular lack of personality might not be expected, but it does make some sense if you think of this as yet another of the current "filmmaking-by-committee" major studio productions. That the film eventually ended up a troubled production whose delays were well-reported, with a partly reshot ending, shouldn't necessarily be counted against Mr. Forster, but that the final result still manages to be clinically absent and extremely derivative should.

     As freely adapted from Mr. Brooks' novel by a quartet of experienced screenwriters who took turns swinging at the bat (Matthew Michael Carnahan of Lions for Lambs, J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame, Cloverfield's Drew Goddard and polymath-du-jour Damon Lindelof, who rewrote the entire third act), the premise ends up very close to Zack Snyder's excellent remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. A mysterious disease comes out of nowhere and infects society as a wildfire, leaving the straggling survivors struggling to find an explanation - and, here, a cure as well. It's not just the premise, though; the main titles, created in both cases by master designer Kyle Cooper, use news and archival footage to suggest this biological catastrophe was unleashed by man himself, in a more streamlined and cleaned-up manner in World War Z than in the grungier, more R-rated effort for Dawn of the Dead. Mr. Snyder's film followed the epidemic through the eyes of normal people caught up in it; Mr. Forster's follows his through the eyes of United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), who travels the collapsing world attempting to trace back the epidemic and see if it can be cured.

     The opening scenes, with a normal Philadelphia morning becoming a disaster zone in no time at all, are the best in the film; quietly unnerving in their sudden descent of chaos on civilization, they do remind of Steven Spielberg's remarkable set-up in War of the Worlds. But, save for the tensely judged Korean military base interlude to where Lane traces back one of the earliest flare-ups, World War Z slowly devolves into a series of episodes (or video-game missions) that seem hung together with thin string wire and are more excuses for zombie mayhem (and toned down zombie mayhem at that, for the sake of ratings probably) than proper narrative movement, recycling ideas and situations from earlier, better films.

     To be sure, there are many interesting ideas being thrown about in the hydra-headed script, from the idea of Jerusalem as a city under siege to the maze-like laboratory where the climactic setpiece takes place. And Mr. Pitt, who also produced the film, is a likeable, believable hero, relatable in a way that Tom Cruise, for example, could have never conjured. But what's lacking in World War Z is any sort of progression, of sequence, of drama, as if it would be enough for the film to line up a series of individually striking sequences that hang together in a slapdash way, with most of the supporting characters being all but discarded throughout without ever becoming more than passing filler. From its strong beginnings, World War Z descends into a hollow attempt at a thoughtful blockbuster - a sort of zombie movie if ever there was one, going through the motions without ever seeming as if it believes in them.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, David Morse
Director: Marc Forster
Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, from a story by Mr. Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski, and the novel by Max Brooks, World War Z
Cinematography: Ben Seresin (colour, widescreen)
Music: Marco Beltrami, Matthew Bellamy
Designer: Nigel Phelps
Costumes: Mayes C. Rubeo
Editors: Roger Barton, Matt Chessé
Visual effects: Scott Farrar
Producers: Mr. Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Ian Bryce (Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, Plan B Entertainment and 2Dux2 in association with Hemisphere Media Capital and GK Films)
USA, 2013, 116 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 6, June 12th 2013


Thursday, July 18, 2013

PACIFIC RIM

It's hidden in plain sight at the tail end of the end credit roll. But if you didn't stay that long, it still wouldn't come as a surprise that Guillermo del Toro dedicates Pacific Rim to the memory of visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla creator Ishiro Honda. In essence, this state-of-the-art visual-effects extravaganza is an old-fashioned double-feature monster movie, part WWII suicide mission war film, part outlandish futuristic serial - turning the Battle of Britain into a last stand of a few brave robot pilots against inter-dimensional alien monsters laying waste to Earth. It's just that it was given a tentpole budget and sprinkled with the deliberately skewed, surrealist sensibility of the Mexican director, as a counterpoint to the very basic storyline of giant mechanical robots battling oversized monsters.

     Mr. Del Toro effectively mashes up the classic concept of the 1950s monster movie as warped mirror of modernity (Godzilla as the obvious model) with the sheer playfulness of a scaled up children's toy (think of a less sophisticated, humanized Transformers), showing all the glee of a ten-year old given free rein with the biggest toy box ever. Therein lies both the film's strength and its weakness. Mr. Del Toro's glee in creating a digital-steampunk universe that is both futuristic and throwback, superbly realised by production designers Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier and lensed by his regular DP Guillermo Navarro, is the pure decision of a director who has never forgotten the fanboy in himself and is very simply doing here the exact type of film he would love to see. What makes Pacific Rim such a singular, strikingly personal blockbuster is the awareness that the film teems with small, surreal details only the Mexican knows how to pull off, from the sly broad humour of the two "mad" scientist researchers (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) to the outlandish conceptions of The Breach, the inter-dimensional portal that connects our universe and the origin world of the Kaiju.

     But that full-on immersion in this 2020 Earth on the brink of apocalypse at the claws of the alien Kaiju monsters comes at the expense of... knowing when to stop. All of this is stifled by the need to fulfill the quota of spectacular monsters-vs.-robots battles, staged in virtuoso manner but drowned out by Ramin Djawadi's pompous, overbearing score, all the while extending the film beyond its "natural" length into a bloated, two-hour-plus attempt at a tentpole Summer franchise that may be too fanboyish in its set of references to hit a nerve with a general audience. More isn't necessarily better, and there's always a sense that Pacific Rim is consistently teetering on the brink of derivative irrelevance, with a stylish or humorous pirouette saving it in extremis.

     There is, however, no denying the impressive conception of the project, and Mr. Del Toro's insistence in casting character actors for what is essentially an ensemble piece is another proof that the Mexican helmer isn't working on the same wavelength of hacks for hire. Pacific Rim never takes itself seriously enough to become ponderous, and never forgets that it is essentially a disposable Summer diversion, an oversized genre film.

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Travis Beacham, Mr. Del Toro, from a story by Mr. Beacham
Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Designers: Andrew Neskoromny, Carol Spier
Costumes: Kate Hawley
Editors: John Gilroy, Peter Amundson
Visual effects: John Knoll, James E. Price, Hal Hickel
Producers: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mr. Del Toro, Mary Parent (Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, DDY)
USA, 2013, 130 minutes

Screened: AMC Metreon 11, San Francisco, July 12th 2013