Monday, September 30, 2013

THE CONJURING

Surprisingly enough for someone who helped launch the "torture porn" movement with the original Saw, Australian James Wan has become one of the most interesting directors working in modern horror cinema by deliberately returning to an earlier take on the genre: the traditional, "dark ride" film that eschews the ironies and meta-fictional, self-referential tricks that became all the rage in the 1990s. While The Conjuring seems at first a mere retread of Mr. Wan's previous Insidious in its "haunted house" structure, it's a superior film in no small part thanks to the tony cast assembles for this fact-based throwback to paranormal thrillers such as The Amityville Horror or Poltergeist (a film that was already a very obvious reference in Insidious).

     Just as in the more spectacular but less controlled Insidious (or even his non-horror revenge thriller Death Sentence), Mr. Wan posits the otherworldly and the paranormal as challenges for a tight-knit nuclear family - here two families, actually: the working-class Perrons, who move into a rural suburbia house to find it haunted by a demonic presence and have to fight it as a family, and the Warrens, investigators of the paranormal whose balance of science and faith seems amplified by their strength as a unit. What the director does is play off the family as a unit at constant risk, threatened in their own sanctum, and let his cast drive the emotional throb of the film - a smart decision when you have the ever-excellent Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor toplining, respectively as Lorraine Warren and Carolyn Perron. It's genre filmmaking with an edge, rediscovering the power of acting and handling to generate mood and suspense, keeping visual effects and traditional scares to the essential minimum.

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes
Cinematography: John R. Leonetti (colour, widescreen)
Music: Joseph Bishara
Designer: Julie Berghoff
Costumes: Kristin M. Burke
Editor: Kirk Morri
Producers: Tony de Rosa-Grund, Peter Safran, Rob Cowan  (New Line Cinema, Safran Company, Evergreen Media Group)
USA, 2013, 112 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, September 10th 2013


Friday, September 20, 2013

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

Ambition is a tricky thing for a filmmaker to show. It's something usually encouraged when it results in a remarkable film, but not so much when the work falls short of its intentions, or when the talent doesn't seem to match it. I'm as guilty as anyone of falling into that trap every now and then - I'm only human - but, as a rule, I prefer films that strive to go somewhere else, somewhere other, even if they end up falling by the wayside. It's the case of Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, a genuinely solid and intelligent film that bites off more than it can chew, with the director climbing the next flight of steps upwards after the acclaim received by Blue Valentine, his poignant tale of a dissolving marriage.

     The new film is more ambitious in scale, cast and plot - it comes across occasionally as a chip off the James Gray block - but is also eerily reminding of the ambitions of seventies American cinema, its existentialist tone and gritty, colour-drained suburban setting asking pointed questions about the world we live in, now as much as then. Also, and this is where Mr. Cianfrance may be overegging the pudding, it's also an attempt at a sort of low-key, classicist family saga, replacing Blue Valentine's mangled chronology with a relay narrative in three sequential acts, where the sins of the fathers are visited upon sons who, unwittingly, seem to be following in their parents' footsteps.

     Set in Schenectady, NY - an Indian word that means "the place beyond the pines" - the film has a seed of a plot, planted in the first third and slowly growing like a tree from there: carny biker Luke (Ryan Gosling) finds he has a baby son he wasn't aware of, settles in town and takes a sideline as a bank robber to provide for him, even though the mother (Eva Mendes) has a perfectly fine family life with a boyfriend (Mahershala Ali). That decision sets the ball rolling towards a fateful meeting between Luke and rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), both of them wanting to pursue their own paths, out of the overbearing shadows of their own fathers, and then into the casual meeting, years later, of their now-teenage sons (Dane de Haan and Emory Cohen).

     Haunting is, in fact, the key word for Mr. Cianfrance's films - there's always a peculiar mood in them, between the downbeat and the hopeful, a cautious, maybe over-cautious optimism, underlined here by the gritty, unself-conscious camerawork by Sean Bobbitt, and by the tentative, bewildered way nearly every single character tries to articulate what it is they want, need and desire. For all that, the ambition of The Place Beyond the Pines can't quite be pulled off by the film's leisurely running time, the jerking rhythms and the occasionally predictable plot construction; the film's narrative and visual rhymes throughout can be too obvious without necessarily losing their elegance, and it all fits together so neatly it becomes awkward, more of a screenwriter's conceit than an organic whole. But there's no denying there's guts and emotion in The Place Beyond the Pines, nor that Derek Cianfrance is one of the very best young contemporary American filmmakers. Even when you can't quite pull it off, being ambitious doesn't have to be that bad a thing.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane de Haan, Emory Cohen, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood, Harris Yulin, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenplay: Mr. Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder, from a story by Mr. Cianfrance and Mr. Coccio
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt (colour, widescreen)
Music: Mike Patton
Designer: Inbal Weinberg
Costumes: Erin Benach
Editors: Jim Helton, Ron Patane
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell, Alex Orlovsky (Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Electric City Entertainment in association with Verisimilitude)
USA, 2012, 140 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, September 10th 2013


Thursday, September 19, 2013

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA

That Steven Soderbergh had to go to cable TV channel HBO to finance Behind the Candelabra, his long-gestating biopic of late-period Liberace, is symptomatic of the caution that surrounds the current Hollywood production system: if you have to go to cable to finance a risqué tale that would otherwise be Academy Award fodder, starring two bona fide film stars, directed by a proven helmer and with a producer with a track record, what hope would there be today for something such as Brokeback Mountain?

     In all fairness, you ought to not go into Behind the Candelabra expecting a traditional biopic, though the director does wink at it knowledgeably every now and then. It's not unlikely that the big issue the studios had with Mr. Soderbergh's film was the open outing of Liberace's gaudy, out-and-out camp as an acceptable form of homosexuality. But for the director it's very clear the homosexuality per se is not an issue. There's an obvious throughline from Behind the Candelabra to many of his recent movies, dealing with the commodification of affection, love as a currency - see The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike, to a lesser extent Side Effects. In this tale of the love affair between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and foster kid Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), Mr. Soderbergh tells the tale of a glamorous entertainer who literally seduces his lovers through his wealth and fame, only to discard them when they start chafing at being mere possessions, but also of a lonely man who thinks he will be loved only if he pays for that love, who mistakes love for possession; it's a classic tale of people (male or female) looking for love in the wrong places that has been told so many times in Hollywood. (This makes it even stranger that Hollywood would have recoiled at financing a tale it has told, in many different guises, throughout the years.)

     Mr. Douglas is an uncannily reptilian Liberace, equal parts charm and steel, superbly channeling into the entertainer an effete but equally predatory version of Wall Street's Gordon Gekko. Mr. Damon plays up the innocence of a young man led astray, even if he is not as innocent as he seems or likes to be (he does take personal advantage of the pleasures the pianist's wealth allows him). Mr. Soderbergh shoots, frames and edits everything in his clinically detached mode, creating a peculiar distance between Richard la Gravenese's classically-designed melodrama about the rise and fall of a love affair (if a peculiar one) - and that dispassionate take on a love affair that was less dispassionate than it may seem at first seems perfectly apt for the cheap, cardboard and tinsel make-believe of casino entertainment. The idea is to show the two sides - and that is something Mr. Soderbergh has always done very well. That such a film should be deemed too leftfield for theatrical audiences in the US beggars belief - no wonder the director has decided to turn his back on theatrical feature films for now.

Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser, Debbie Reynolds
Director, cinematographer (as Peter Andrews) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard): Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Richard la Gravenese, from the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson
Musical director: Marvin Hamlisch
Designer: Howard Cummings
Costumes: Ellen Mirojnick
Producer: Jerry Weintraub (HBO Films and JW Productions)
USA, 2013, 118 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, August 5th 2013


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

EL SUR

It was George Steiner who once spoke of the past as a golden world where everything was good, and that such an idea was a purely artificial construct, built out of the way time erodes memory and memory tries to hold onto what it can retain of the actual past (usually the good bits).

     I thought of this because of the way Víctor Erice's marvelously evocative sophomore feature, El Sur, frames so much of the past it dwells on in golden hues, faces and eyes positively radiating out of the darkness (not for nothing does the film begin with what seems to be a sunrise very slowly making its way along a darkened bedroom). But also because El Sur is a memoir, its voiceover spoken by a woman remembering her coming of age as a young girl during the mid-fifties, in the cold, chilly North of Spain, to where her physician father (a wonderful Omero Antonutti) moved from the South in search of a job. And also because this memoir of the inquisitive, gregarious Estrella (played first by Sonsoles Aranguren as a child and then by Iciar Bollaín as a teenager) focuses not so much on the golden moments of a childhood, but on the questions, the secrets, the unspoken family mysteries that the film never truly reveals but whose motives or reasons it hints at repeatedly.

     This is partly by design - Mr. Erice's work has never been openly explanatory - but partly by default: financial issues and disagreements with producer Elías Querejeta meant the director never shot the second half of his adaptation of writer Adelaida García Morales' novella, leaving El Sur an unfinished movie. The "South" of the title, the place Dr. Agustín came from originally, a land of heat and past Estrella has never been to but yearns to visit, holding an almost magical meaning in the family, is never seen in the truncated film - and yet El Sur is an entirely self-contained structure, one you would never recognise as half the film Mr. Erice intended, such is its airtight yet loose-limbed structure, its reliance on mood, performance, emotion to fill in the narrative blanks. Its patient accumulation of minutely detailed small nothings - images, visions, objects, lines of dialogue, places - coalesce into a heartbreaking tale of family love and loss, of the almost imperceptible crossing of the border between the wide-eyed wonder of childhood and the unavoidable disappointment of adult life, with cinema (yet again) as the poisoned apple that speeds up that process.

     As exquisitely pictorial as the director's debut The Spirit of the Beehive but even more diffuse and enchantingly enveloping, it's an absolutely wondrous picture; most directors will never reach the exalted level this incomplete film reaches almost effortlessly. It may very well be Mr. Erice's masterpiece.

Cast: Omero Antonutti, Sonsoles Aranguren, Iciar Bollaín, Lola Cardona, Rafaela Aparicio, Aurore Clément, María Caro, Francisco Merino, José Vivó, Germaine Montero
Director: Víctor Erice
Screenplay: Mr. Erice, from the novella El Sur by Adelaida García Morales
Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine  (colour)
Designer: Antonio Belizon
Costumes: Maiki Marin
Editor: Pablo G. del Amo
Producer: Elías Querejeta  (Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematograficas, Chloë Productions)
Spain/France, 1983, 93 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, August 31st 2013


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

KON-TIKI

There is something to be said - a nostalgia, maybe, though the word may be a bit too strong - for a film that attempts to recapture the sense of wonder and adventure of the pre-technological days before CGI effects and the internet effaced any mystery; a time where the British coined the phrase "Boy's Own adventure" to signify those character-forming, grand exotic adventures that shaped a certain idea of resilience, fortitude and daring. Kon-Tiki is precisely that, being a retelling of the true story of Danish explorer Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 sea trip from Peru to Polynesia in a raft made only of natural materials and carried by wind and sea current alone, in order to prove his counter-intuitive scientific theory about the ascendancy of the Polynesian natives.

     For screenwriter Petter Skavlan and directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the passage of the Kon-Tiki is one of the last great "old-fashioned" adventures of the modern age; though Heyerdahl was savvy about the need to stoke media attention with his exploits, the technology of the day was often as much of a hindrance as of a help. Hence its presentation in a reasonably "classic" style, following the assembling of the expedition and of the crew until its arrival in Polynesia, handsomely widescreened and breathtakingly photographed by DP Geir Hartly Andreassen. Yet, Messrs. Rønning and Sandberg also handle it in typically restrained Scandinavian fashion, avoiding unnecessary diversions and paying special attention to the human factor of the adventure, whether in the relationships between the crew of five or in the motivations and doubts of the charismatic yet occasionally abrupt Heyerdahl (Pål Hagen), the only character to be fully developed, with a past and a family that in many ways helped shape his adventurous tendencies.

     For all that, and despite the sense that the directors are deliberately going for a human-sized throwback to a more wholesome type of adventure film, Kon-Tiki suffers from that very same Scandinavian sense of modesty; it's an efficient, functional, well-made film rather than a glorious or inspired one, with little narrative or stylistic flourishes. (Practical to the point of being shot twice, once in Danish for the home market and once in English for world markets, as per the old silent-movie practice of shooting simultaneously different versions of the same story for different countries.) It's just a good story, told competently rather than ravishingly, and in that way perhaps closer to the idea of an old-fashioned Boy's Own adventure than we'd like to think.

Cast: Pål Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgård, Jakob Oftebro, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Agnes Kittelsen
Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Screenplay: Petter Skavlan
Cinematography: Geir Hartly Andreassen (colour, widescreen)
Music: Johan Söderqvist
Designer: Karl Júlíasson
Costumes: Stine Gudmundsen-Holmorgen, Louize Nissen
Editors: Per-Erik Eriksen, Martin Stoltz
Visual effects: Arne Kaupang
Producers: Jeremy Thomas, Aage Aaberge (Nordisk Film and Recorded Picture Company in association with Aircontactgruppen, DCM Productions, Solbakken, Roenbergfilm, Motion Blur, Henrik Bergesen, Film 3, Film i Väst and Filmlance International)
Denmark/United Kingdom/Germany/Sweden, 2012, 113 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, September 5th 2013


Monday, September 16, 2013

BLUE JASMINE

By the time Blue Jasmine comes to its conclusion, you ask yourself what will become of its ranting, depressed, unpleasant lead character. You wonder if she is going to become the proverbial crazy cat lady - without the cat, though - or if the future holds something better for her. This being a Woody Allen, though, and the writer/director having given a wide berth to his most bitter and disillusioned instincts in much of his latest work, I wouldn't necessarily hold out for a happy post-ending. Cate Blanchett's Jasmine, a disgraced New York socialite forced to downsize her life of luxury after her husband (Alec Baldwin, seen only in flashbacks) is outed as a high-end crook, has a hard time engaging with reality anyway. She much prefers to live inside her cocoon of gilded memories, even though she may be lying to herself as she did for so long in order to fake a happiness entirely dependent on material possessions.

     But, magically, Ms. Blanchett's nuanced performance and Mr. Allen's attention to it bring out something else in Jasmine than merely a nasty, aloof social climber biding her time to find a new on-ramp to the fast lane. There's a cluelessness matched with a desperation, a panicked fear of loneliness, a wide-eyed innocence reflexting someone who has never truly had to do anything for herself. That intense humanity redeems Blue Jasmine's muddled, nastier edges, ones Mr. Allen has given free rein recently in works such as Cassandra's Dream or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The setting here is San Francisco, where the needy Jasmine has relocated to live at her half-sister Ginger's (Sally Hawkins) place while she gets back on track and where most of the passive-aggressive fights they have with each other and with Ginger's boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) happen.

     The opposition between facade and reality, wealth and poverty, may be (is) somewhat cliched but it's hard not to look at Blue Jasmine as the modern-day equivalent of a Depression-era comedy laced with bile, its topical social comment being somewhat unusual for what Mr. Allen usually offers us. And, despite Ms. Blanchett's performance and the always great Ms. Hawkins, there's also a sense the film is less than the sum of its parts, prolonging the idea that the director's later work has really become a connect-the-dots formula freshened by elements specific to each film. Still, there's that performance, and the realisation that Jasmine, née Jeannette, is not a cartoon villainess but a complex, confused human being who took a series of wrong turns, and the film does right by her.

Cast: Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Louis C. K., Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director and writer: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe  (colour, widescreen)
Designer: Santo Loquasto
Costumes: Suzy Benzinger
Editor: Alicia Lepselter
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson  (Gravier Productions, Perdido Productions)
USA, 2013, 98 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14 (Lisbon), August 22nd 2013

Winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Actress (Cate Blanchett)
Nominated for two other Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actress - Sally Hawkins; Best Original Screenplay)


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

EL ESPÍRITU DE LA COLMENA (THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE)

A debut feature is always tricky to look at in hindsight - from a distance, knowing what became of its director, the film may gain an entirely new slant that was either unexpected or unforeseeable at the time, resulting in a skewed reading that eschews its contemporary context. But a few of them stand out for their unique excellence, regardless of its follow-ups or its director's career. The Spirit of the Beehive, the first feature by Spanish director Victor Erice, is squarely in this category, while being something else entirely: a work that foresees everything its director would do later and encapsulates his interests and fascinations, yet standing apart in the nature of its multifaceted relationship with cinema and reality, in its textural achievement and exquisite detailing. It remains a singular moment in the European - and indeed in the world - cinema of the 1970s.

     Very little seems to happen in the course of its 90 minutes, yet there is an entire universe glimpsed inside, as mirrored (not so) metaphorically by the beehives that give the film its title, carefully nurtured by Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez). He is the patriarch of an aristocratic family that seems fallen into hard times, living in a godforsaken corner of 1940 rural Spain shortly after the end of the Civil War - a village where, beyond his own (much younger) wife and children, only the children and the elderly remain. The two children, siblings Isabel (Isabel Tellería) and Ana (Ana Torrent) are the focus of attention for Mr. Erice - and especially the way a showing of James Whale's Frankenstein put on by an itinerant projectionist feeds their imaginations, as Mary Shelley's eerie tale begins pervading her reality as they play in the desolate fields and tease each other with the possibility of a fugitive sheltering in a deserted farmhouse at the edge of the village. An entirely recognisable, drab reality thus becomes the all-too-real background the girls, and especially the younger and more susceptible Ana, use as trampoline to create their own fantasy world, never truly shown by Mr. Erice but rather suggested and shaped by a careful, painstakingly painterly eye that remains, even today, highly unusual for a debuting director.

     The Spirit of the Beehive slowly weaves a spellbinding web of images and sounds, "distant voices, still lives" to quote from the equally ravishing Terence Davies, that convey at the same time the pure innocence of childhood and its liminal border with adult cruelty, the wide-eyed engagement with a creation that becomes as real as the outside world but that is constantly threatening to overcome its borders. As Mr. Davies, Mr. Erice is working here in the interstices of historical experience and personal, human emotion, leaving visible yet unspoken the painful wounds left behind by the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing military regime that was still in charge as The Spirit of the Beehive was shot and released - all through a remarkably diffuse mood of dread and enchantment halfway between fairy tale and horror movie, one that only children could conjure effortlessly and that only adult filmmakers attuned to that unique frequency could recreate with such outstanding, delicate care. It's a masterpiece - Mr. Erice's first but by no means his only.

Cast: Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent, Isabel Tellería, Lali Soldevila, Miguel Picazo
Director: Victor Erice
Screenplay: Ángel Fernández-Santos, Mr. Erice
Cinematography: Luís Cuadrado  (colour)
Music: Luis de Pablo
Designer: Adolfo Cofiño
Editor: Pablo G. del Amo
Producer: Elías Querejeta  (Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematograficas)
Spain, 1973, 97 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, August 31st 2013


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

SANMA NO AJI (AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON)

The final film from venerable Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, An Autumn Afternoon is yet another delicate miniature, another sweeping look at changing times and mores, again putting to perfect effect the director's almost magical way with style - his static, shot/reverse shots reminding of the early days of silent film yet become radically, outrageously modern when juxtaposed with DP Yuharu Atsuta's dazzling colour palette and the tale's gentle, almost comedic nature. In some ways, An Autumn Afternoon could be a wiser, quieter Eastern cousin of Vincente Minnelli's family comedies, in the way Mr. Ozu and his co-writer Kogo Noda tease melancholy and humour from the predicament their hero, widower Shuhei Hirayama (the ever-wonderful Chishu Ryu), is facing. Hirayama is thinking more and more of marrying off Michiko (Shima Iwashita), the grown-up daughter who is still living at home, taking care both of him and younger daughter Kazuo (Shinichiro Mikami), though he understands he will be alone when that happens.

     What gives the story a whole other depth are the satellite plots feeding into this central thread: the reunion with an old school teacher who never let his daughter marry and is now making ends meet in a noodle shop; the marriage of an old friend to a much younger woman; the domestic issues of his modern, consumerist older son Koichi (Keiji Sada) and his wife; Michiko's infatuation with a friend of her brother's; the shadow of the wartime past hanging over pretty much every moment of Hirayama's life. As always with Mr. Ozu, everything is perfectly balanced and poised, every element carefully positioned on a jigsaw puzzle board whose image is only revealed once the film is ending and all the pieces are together. That's when the emotional floodgates open and even what might be (wrongly) construed as a "minor Ozu" becomes yet another glorious example of life recreated flawlessly as fiction, here laced with the melancholy hindsight that this was the last of the director's films before his death in 1963. Mr. Ozu was a master of this patient construction and his wise, quiet camera was the perfect viewfinder for these tales of daily heartbreak and laughter.

Cast: Chishu Ryu, Shima Iwashita, Keiji Sada, Mariko Okada, Teruo Yoshida, Noriko Maki, Shinichiro Mikami, Noburo Nakamura, Eijiro Tono, Kuniko Miyake, Kyoko Kishida, Michiyo Tanaki, Ryuji Kita, Toyo Takahashi, Shinobu Asayi, Masao Oda, Daisuke Kato, Haruko Suimura, Tsusai Sugamaru, Yasuo Ogata
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Mr. Ozu
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta (colour)
Music: Takanobu Saito
Designers: Tatsuo Hamada, Shigeo Ogiwara
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Producer: Shizuo Yamamouchi  (Shochiku Eiga)
Japan, 1962, 113 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, September 3rd 2013


Monday, September 09, 2013

TOKYO MONOGATARI (TOKYO STORY)

"Isn't life disappointing?", asks the pouting, disillusioned Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa). "Yes, nothing but disappointment", says Noriko (Setsuko Hara) with a polite but borderline desperate smile in her face. And in the juxtaposition of that innocuous phrase and Noriko's quiet desperation, the emotional floodgates open, and you understand in a blinding flash why Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 classic Tokyo Story remains one of the all-time greatest movies in film history.

     On the surface, it's a deceivingly straight-forward piece of folksy melodrama, about the Hirayamas (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), an aged rural couple who head to Tokyo to visit their grown-up children only to find themselves a burden on their busy city lives - only Noriko, the widow of their son lost in WWII, welcomes their presence. In Mr. Ozu's hands, this becomes an elegant, quietly haunting tale of everyday heartbreak and tragedy, confidently deploying a cinematic style that dates back to the director's beginnings in the silent era limned to its purest form. As repurposed to the contemporary age, Mr. Ozu's static compositional framings and basic shot/reverse shot head-ons gain an austere simplicity that only underlines Tokyo Story's central comment on how things change yet remain the same, framed by the specificities of the Japanese social construct yet essentially universal.

     This "Tokyo story" scripted by the director with his regular collaborator, Kogo Noda, could pretty much take place through the ages and the countries, having been lived by every family who sees its children grow up and flee the nest; the timelessness of its generation gap is only heightened by the timeless quality of the stately, black-and-white Academy-ratio visuals. And it's in that timelessness that resides Mr. Ozu's ability to recognise and bring to the surface genuine love, genuine feeling, genuine emotion, as transmitted through the miraculous alchemy of writing and performance, artistry and technique.  Tokyo Story is a timeless masterpiece.

Cast: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyoko Kagawa, Eijiro Tono, Noburo Nakamura, Shiro Osaka, Hisao Toake
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Mr. Ozu
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta  (b&w)
Music: Takanobu Saito
Designer: Tatsuo Hamada
Costumes: Taizo Saito
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto  (Shochiku Eiga)
Japan, 1953, 136 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, September 3rd 2013


Friday, September 06, 2013

THE BUTLER

It seems hard to believe that the Lee Daniels that directs The Butler in such a stately, bland manner is the same Lee Daniels responsible for the deliriously misguided trash-fest The Paperboy or the in-your-face modern melodrama of Precious - Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Like him or hate him - and Mr. Daniels is not the kind of director who resides in the middle - at least there was a personality, an energy shining through those films, wildly different in tone as they were. But The Butler, a fictional tale inspired by a true story told by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, seems more like the work of a smooth, by-the-numbers Hollywood hack-for-hire, all sanded edges and neatly packaged bromides straight out from the Hallmark Hall of Fame movies of the week or Stanley Kramer's well-meaning but ponderous social pictures of the fifties and sixties.

     Because, essentially, that is what The Butler is: an uplifting, nicely pasteurized look at the struggle for racial equality and civil rights in the United States over the 20th century, as seen through the experience of a black man born in the Deep South in the 1920s that rises to become head butler at the White House for a number of administrations. Danny Strong's script suggests, intriguingly, that Cecil Gaines - a fictional construct loosely based on real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, played with restraint by Forest Whitaker - was somewhere between Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man - someone who is only noticed when required - and the "token black man" trotted out for white people to feel good about themselves, but was as well a truly important stop on the road towards equality. But it does so within a rather conventionally melodramatic episodic structure, allowing some incomprehensibly miscast stars a few blink-and-you'll-miss-me cameos while reducing the history of the struggles for racial equality to a checklist of standard historical melodrama; an overlong pageant that never truly articulates personal and political, History and life, in revelatory or intriguing ways.

     Gaines' presence at the political decisions behind the events, often intercut with the experiences of his activist son Louis (David Oyelowo) on the "other side" of the barricade, quickly becomes the black equivalent of Forrest Gump's presence at the key moments of 20th century American history in Robert Zemeckis' overrated Oscar-winning fantasy. The film thus becomes a sort of fleeting, overlong photo album where events follow events without really ever stopping to explain their importance. Worse, it becomes obvious that Mr. Daniels' heart seems to be a lot more in the personal tale of Gaines and his family - his relationship with long-suffering wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and fellow White House workers James Holloway and Carter Wilson (Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr.), the prickly antagonism with Louis.

     Mr. Whitaker is at his most dignified and stalwart in the title role, but even his serene presence can't help the feeling that The Butler treats its subject as if the only way you could render it for general consumption was as an anonymously non-confrontational glossy prestige drama that mostly lacks the bite and strength Mr. Daniels brought to previous projects. That does not diminish its importance as a starting point to discuss race in the contemporary American society (following on from 2012's wildly successful The Help), but it does lead you to ask why did it have to be so soothingly dull.

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenplay: Danny Strong, from the Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, "A Butler Well Served by This Election"
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn (colour)
Music: Rodrigo Leão
Designer: Tim Galvin
Costumes: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Joe Klotz
Producers: Pamela Oas Williams, Laura Ziskin, Mr. Daniels, Buddy Patrick, Cassian Elwes (AI Films and Laura Ziskin Productions in association with Windy Hill Pictures, Follow Through Productions, Salamander Pictures, Pam Williams Productions and IM Global)
USA, 2013, 132 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, August 28th 2013


Thursday, September 05, 2013

CSAK A SZÉL (JUST THE WIND)

The mere existence of a film like Just the Wind is a political statement. It comes from a country whose film industry is in a rather precarious state, and whose political drift has been singled out with concern by European and American politician; and it tackles head on demanding subject matter - the equally precarious state of the Roma community in modern-day Hungary, taking its lead from a true event that took place a few years ago. Viewed this way, it's no wonder Just the Wind won the Jury Grand Prix in the 2012 Berlin festival - it's the exact sort of social-problem picture the Berlinale usually heartily defends.

     But it becomes clear from the get-go that writer/director Bence Fliegauf is not making your usual social-realist pamphlet for his fifth feature. Instead, he creates what is mostly a sensory moodpiece about a day in the life of a Gypsy family living in the Hungarian countryside, following them as they go about their daily routines under the shadow of a series of violent and apparently random murders in their community. As a caucasian Hungarian police officer says at some point, the victims are all "good gypsies" - those who struggle to accomodate a society that still mistrusts and mistreats them - and so is the family Mr. Fliegauf follows, portrayed by non-professional actors. Mother Birdy (Katalin Toldi) works two jobs to support her two school-going teenage children Anna and Río (Gyöngy Lendvai and Lajos Sárkány), while trying to save up to join the father in Canada. Even so, they are constantly seen as second-rate citizens, as the director makes clear by creating through purely cinematic tropes an ominous, disquieting atmosphere, ensuring the viewer never knows more than the characters themselves do about what's going on.

     Despite his assured handling and visual flair, extended to Zoltán Lovasi's cinematography and the evocative sound and music design (by the director with Tamás Beke), there's a sense, though, that Mr. Fliegauf never really trusts his skills enough to convey the message, and that he lays on the oppressive claustrophobia far too thickly. While the script takes great pains to equally denounce the casual, inbred racism of the Hungarians and the Roms' prickly, proud outbursts, most every other character seems to fit an archetype rather than a personality. And the decision to physically incorporate the awkward encounters Birdy and her children have with the locals, meant no doubt as part of a cycle of buildup and release, turns out to be too conventional and predictable for the film's intended loose, free-form structure - making Just the Wind one of those films that you admire from a distance for their stylistic know-how but fail to connect with emotionally. The exception is the shockingly powerful finale, whose elliptical suggestions perfectly fit most of the film that came before.

Cast: Katalin Toldi, Gyöngy Lendvai, Lajos Sárkány, György Toldi
Director, writer and art director: Bence Fliegauf
Cinematography: Zoltán Lovasi  (colour)
Music and sound design: Mr. Fliegauf, Tamás Beke
Costumes: Sosa Juristovszky
Producers: Mónika Mecs, András Muhi, Erno Mesterházy  (Inforg M&M Film, The Post Republic and Paprika Films)
Hungary/Germany/France, 2012, 98 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia King 3 (Lisbon), August 26th 2013