Friday, November 29, 2013

LA VIE D'ADÈLE, CHAPITRES 1 ET 2 (Blue Is the Warmest Color)

If you're coming at Blue Is the Warmest Color lured in and tantalized by the lesbian sex scenes that have generated so much ink, boy are you in for a disappointment. What French director Abdellatif Kechiche's latest film, winner of the 2013 Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival, is about is quite the opposite. It's not about sex (not even about homosexuality), it's about life; and sex is a part of it, just like love is, only not the central one. And life is what Mr. Kechiche's cinema has always been about, with this deliberately unfaithful adaptation of Julie Maroh's graphic novel fitting in just perfectly: it's a story of people on the outside looking in and wanting to belong while having a hard time doing so, as were the school kids of L'Esquive (Games of Love and Chance), the laid-off worker trying to set himself up as a restaurateur in the masterful La Graine et le mulet (Couscous/The Secret of the Grain), or the African carny of Black Venus. As always in the director's work, there will be no punches pulled and no flinching allowed from truth and life.

     At its heart, Blue Is the Warmest Color is the coming-of-age tale of Adèle (unbelievably poised first-timer Adèle Exarchopoulos), a suburban high school senior who finds herself drawn to the older, blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux). A chance encounter and they fall madly in love with each other, and Mr. Kechiche's film traces the rise and fall of their love story over a few years and three hours of screen time as the voyage of self-discovery that leads Adèle into full adulthood: her first love, her first job, her first relationship, her first heartbreak. He does so through his usual upfront, leisurely process of eliciting long, almost spontaneous scenes in order for the characters to breathe and gain a roundness most fast-cut narratives don't allow for.

     Letting things go on for as long as needed for the character to exist and the story to develop organically, though, puts demands on the film's length and narrative structure and the viewer's interest that, for the first time in Mr. Kechiche's short oeuvre, the film itself may not support. There has always been an intensity, a dramatic crescendo in the director's work that is replaced in Blue Is the Warmest Color by an ebb-and-flow rhythm that may be more life-like (and more like life) but also condemns it to peaks and troughs where the lows may "feed" the highs but can seem surplus to storytelling requirements.

     At its best - and that is whenever both Ms. Exarchopoulos and Ms. Seydoux are on screen - Blue Is the Warmest Color is an outstanding, richly layered picture that manages to find its humanity in the little things of life, the little gestures that make a relationship, a home, a conversation. Elsewhere, there's a sense that Mr. Kechiche is holding out, uncertainly, for something to happen, for something to be revealed, like Hafsia Herzi wearing herself out dancing to forget about the delay of the couscous in The Secret of the Grain or Yahima Torrès allowing her body to be explored in Black Venus. Yet, whereas in those films the waiting eventually paid off (even if in a negative way), here the mundanity of the subject matter (a girl coming of age and going through her first real love story) mean the stakes of waiting are much smaller; there's only a broken heart depending on it, even if a broken heart may be the most painful thing in the world.

     Ultimately, Mr. Kechiche's increasingly minute micro-management of his films reaches a limit in this unwieldy but intermittently thrilling three hours: as his camera has pulled in closer and closer to his characters and their stories, from the collective to the individual, his films have become longer and longer and have gained the depth and weight of a self-important, serious novel. Blue Is the Warmest Color is not the masterpiece it could have been and that, at times, it seems to want to be, though; a grandiose archway whose supporting pillars may be a bit too fragile for its features.

Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Screenwriters: Mr. Kechiche, Ghalya Lacroix, from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh Blue Is the Warmest Color
Cinematography: Sofian el Fani (colour, widescreen)
Editors: Camille Toubkis, Albertine Lastera, Ms. Lacroix, Jean-Marie Lengellé, Sophie Brunet
Producers: Brahim Chioua, Vincent Maraval, Mr. Kechiche  (Wild Bunch and Quat'Sous Films in co-production with France 2 Cinéma, Scope Pictures, RTBF and Vertigo Films)
France/Belgium/Spain, 2013, 180 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 2, Lisbon, November 15th 2013


Thursday, November 28, 2013

TERRA DE NINGUÉM

Moving confidently into the long form, Portuguese filmmaker and video artist Salomé Lamas proposes with Terra de Ninguém a curious, intriguing investigation on the nature and limits of documentary film. Divided into a series of chapters punctuated by interludes where the director reads from her shooting notes, Terra de Ninguém sees Portuguese mercenary Paulo de Figueiredo talk about his life in front of a camera. His tale sees him move from an elite commando in Portugal's late 1960s/early 1970s colonial wars in Africa to becoming a gun for hire across the world but especially in the terrorism-ravaged 1970s/1980s Spain, for which he was actually tried and convicted.

     But what seems at first to be a parallel history of Portugal during its post-revolutionary period of the mid- to late 1970s becomes shiftier by the minute, as the minimalistic approach of Ms. Lamas - carefully lighted, fixed set-ups framing Mr. Figueiredo interspersed by black-card chapter headings, the questioning always off-camera and unheard, the total lack of sound illustration as music - heightens the fragility and reliance on a single interviewee as the only source for much of this story. In the notes she reads from, Ms. Lamas says that a lot of what is said by Mr. Figueiredo cannot be confirmed - so is it unconfirmable truth, fantasy or half-and-half?

     By training the standard mode of filming documentary on a narrator who may not be fully reliable, Terra de Ninguém reveals its conceptual nature that justifies its title - not a single "no man's land", but many: the limbo occupied by Mr. Figueiredo after his return from the war, the place his tale holds within the traditional narrative structures of cinema, Ms. Lamas' own position as a filmmaker (not part of the traditional film world, where she trained and studied, but neither entirely absent of it), the way the film seems to shift almost imperceptibly between these many levels of thought and reality.

Director: Salomé Lamas
Cinematography: Takashi Sugimoto  (colour)
Editor: Telmo Churro
Producers: Luís Urbano, Sandro Aguilar (O Som e a Fúria)
Portugal, 2012, 72 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener DVD, Lisbon, October 20th 2012



TERRANINGUEM TRAILER BERLIM from O SOM E A FÚRIA on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

THE ISLAND OF ST. MATTHEWS

You will be forgiven for looking for a cinematic framework to look from at artist and filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson's tale of how flooding affected the history of a small Mississippi community. And, yes, both Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild and Spike Lee's Katrina documentary When the Levee Breaks come to mind, but that is part media laziness and part desire to find some reference point for a work that is unavoidably about recent American history and its take on those who are "left behind", but goes about it in a specifically artistic, non-linear way.

     With over 100 works to his credit and a professorship in Virginia, Mr. Everson is an artist with background in photography and sculpture whose film work of variable length and format has mostly been connected with the avant-garde, artistic and experimental cinema worlds. The Island of St. Matthews is a meditation on the memories lost and found in the flooding of the African-American community of Westport, Mississippi, where his parents come from; despite being regularly threatened by the Tombigbee river, the place was seriously damaged by a 1973 flood, here remembered by the older inhabitants, that led to the building of a dam that isolated Westport. Shooting in 16mm with locals who talk freely of the experience, intercut with water-skiing footage and a tour of the dam locks, Mr. Everson is at the same time making an almost-ethnographic record of community habits and memories no longer physically available - everything was lost in the flood - and framing it as an art project on its recording and presentation.

     While on other films that uncertainty of tone between "classical" documentary, narrative fiction and artistic license is part of what makes them intriguing, however, in The Island of St. Matthews it creates a dry, arid structure that seems to hang far too loosely, never truly coming together as a complete work. While certainly fascinating as a thought experiment on the African-American experience, it also practically demands some outside contextualizing to make sense for the viewer, and one that seems to be part of a bigger, multi-media art project outside of which it seems lost.

Director, writer and editor: Kevin Jerome Everson
Cinematography: Taka Suzuki, Lindsey Arturo  (colour)
Music: Bonnie Gordon
Costumes: Shirley Williams
Producer: Madeleine Molyneaux  (DAC Trilobite-Arts)
USA, 2013, 65 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 Competition screener, Lisbon, October 14th 2013


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

VIRGEM MARGARIDA (Virgin Margarida)

There's a very thin line involved in supporting filmmaking from countries with little or no tradition: no matter how precarious the conditions are, and how worthwhile the efforts are, if the films aren't all that good you run the risk of either seeming condescending or cruel. And yet, most of contemporary filmmaking from the African countries that were Portuguese colonies fits that bill to a T. Angolan, Mozambican, Guinean cinema is so fragile and riddled with issues as to exist only with a healthy dollop of pan-European institutional support; few directors have managed to break through or maintain a constant production, and the finished product more often than not tries so hard to fit conventional ideas of what an "African film" should be that it all but fails to establish an identity.

     Brazilian-Mozambican veteran Licínio Azevedo's Virgin Margarida is a good example of the problems: a great premise and the director, cast and crew's best efforts are simply not enough to make you overlook the many problems with the film, inspired by real-life events that took place in post-colonial Mozambique in the mid-1970s. It deals with the forced relocation of city prostitutes and dancers to "reeducation centers" in the countryside, meant to transform these victims of bourgeois decadence and male patriarchy into whole-hearted daughters of the socialist revolution that would stay home, tend to the children and the crops and populate the home front of new African socialism. Mr. Azevedo had previously directed a documentary about the subject, and used several of the actual stories he recorded to string together his tale of a group of women who are caught in a raid and forcibly taken to one of these camps without a word to their families, in what was presented as a stab at self-improvement but only turned out to substitute hypocritically one patriarchal system for another.

     The political aspect of the tale comes out very forcefully in Mr. Azevedo and Jacques Akchoti's strongly melodramatic screenplay, but nearly everything else in it both undermines and underlines the good intentions. Technically, the film is named for Margarida (Sumeia Maculuva), an illiterate teenager who was caught by mistake and protests her innocence and virginity throughout. But in effect Margarida is but a supporting character in the tale, the actual leads being the martinet camp commander Maria João (Hermelinda Cimela), and the one girl who fights back at the system, sassy streetwalker Rosa (Iva Mugalela). When your own title character is a secondary presence, there's something wrong; but the script practically gives no back story to its characters, other than brief, perfunctory scenes during the credit sequence (Maria João's background is more clearly established than that of Rosa or Margarida), and fails to properly establish its timeline (it's never made clear just for how long the events depicted run). What was meant as a denunciation of a great ill committed towards Mozambican women becomes closer to a service comedy-drama, with the women chafing at being "in the army now", and the dramatic potential of the tale dissipates quickly.

     Technically non-descript, despite some lovely location lensing by Mario Masini, and with the mostly non-professional cast all over the place in terms of performances, Virgin Margarida ends up squandering all it has going for it: the honesty, good will and efforts of all involved stumble badly on its awkwardness and modest budget, the enthusiasm and desire to make this great tale understandable to Western audiences ends up stripping it of its local specifics. It could have been a great film about Africa, it ends up as a forgettable TV movie.

Cast: Sumeia Maculuva, Iva Mugalela, Hermelinda Cimela, Rosa Mário, Ana Maria Albino, Odília Cossa, Ilda Gonzales, Elliot Alex
Director: Licínio Azevedo
Screenplay: Mr. Azevedo, Jacques Akchoti
Cinematography: Mario Masini  (colour)
Music: Moreira Chonguiça
Art director: José Vian
Costumes: Lucha d'Orey
Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid
Producers: Paulo Pimenta, Pandora da Cunha Telles, Pablo Iraola, Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin, Mariano Bartolomeu  (Ébano Multimedia, Ukbar Filmes, JBA Productions and Dreadlocks)
Mozambique/Portugal/France/Angola, 2012, 83 minutes

Screened: distributor advance screener, Lisbon, November 15th 2013



Monday, November 25, 2013

L'INCONNU DU LAC (Stranger by the Lake)

There have been few "specialty" films in recent times to have been as rapturously received as Alain Guiraudie's intriguing yet finally underwhelming drama since its unveiling in the Cannes 2013 Un Certain Regard sidebar. Somewhere between a wry sex comedy and a fatalistic, old-fashioned film noir, Stranger by the Lake is an apparent twist on the classic thriller trope of the innocent who fell head over heels for a criminal - only, in this case, everything takes place under the sun, in a small beach by a lake in rural France, and the lovers are gay men who use the beach as a Summertime cruising spot. Simultaneously classic and modern in style, both transgressive and respectful of genre tropes, Mr. Guiraudie's latest has made critics and film buffs swoon thanks to its cinephile references and stylistic approaches.

     Unfolding over a series of days, with the same establishing shot of the improvised parking lot marking the passage of time in an abstract ritualised manner, the story sees local regular Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) strike a friendship with the straight loner Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao), who comes apparently just for time alone, and take up an impulsive relationship with the handsome, muscular Michel (Christophe Paou). Soon after, though, Franck sees Michel kill a rather jealous boyfriend, in a sequence shot from a distance that combines the ambiguity of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (is Franck seeing what he thinks he's seeing?) with the voyeurism of Brian de Palma's early 1980s suspensers (why can't Frank look away from it?). As most thrillers, Stranger by the Lake is a tale of erotic lust and romantic desire intertwined and transposed to the open-secret underground aspect of gay life that is seldom pushed into the open; hence the near-constant references to William Friedkin's controversial Cruising, which was also set in an underground of sex and desire.

     It's precisely that unlikely mash-up of genre and niche that has made Mr. Guiraudie's film such a hit with the arthouse crowd, eventually taking to its literal consequence that very French concept of la petite mort, orgasm as the death of something inside. It's a tale that goes deeper and darker as it moves forward, its darkness eventually conquering the brightly illuminated Summer sun, exposing in the process the loneliness and need for contact and caress of the "strangers" passing by the "lake". Yet the explicit sex scenes, which merely transpose into homosexuality what has been a fixture in heterosexual cinema for a long time, surround the film with a whiff of provocative transgression that can distract from the central concept of the danger of love. And Mr. Guiraudie's distancing, abstract handling can become occasionally too rigid and mannered for comfort, while making a point of always placing its characters in the landscape to both contrast and underline their humanity. There's always a sense that the director is holding back a story of caution thrown to the wind in the name of personal release; and, in that push and pull that mirrors the push and pull itself of desire and survival instinct in his lead character, Stranger by the Lake ends up in a curious, suggestive limbo, neither a total washout nor a complete success.

Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumcao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, Gilbert Traïna, Emmanuel Daumas, Sébastien Badachaoui, Gilles Guérin, François Labarthe
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Screenplay: Mr. Guiraudie, with the collaboration of Roy Genty and Laurent Lunetta
Cinematography: Claire Mathon  (colour, widescreen)
Art directors: Mr. Genty, Mr. Labarthe, Mr. Lunetta
Editor: Jean-Christophe Hym
Producer: Sylvie Pialat  (Les Films du Worso in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, M141 Productions, Films de Force Majeure)
France, 2013, 96 minutes

Screened: distributor advance screener, Lisbon, November 14th 2013



Friday, November 22, 2013

THE COUNSELOR

Just as some films seem to be charmed from the outset, others seem to be jinxed - judging by the generally hostile response to it, The Counselor seems to fall in the latter category. Its hip all-star cast toplined by man of the moment Michael Fassbender, name director and tony pedigree seem to have become an albatross round the neck of the project; the whiff of pre-packaged Hollywood Oscar bait surrounded what had originally excited many observers, after beginning as novelist Cormac McCarthy's first original film screenplay.

     In truth, whoever thought Mr. McCarthy's story would make a sure-fire blockbuster must have been out of his mind; it's a startlingly violent trip down his terse, abstract storytelling and bleak worldview, as dazzlingly written (with his trademark hardboiled dialogue) as it is defiantly dislikeable and confrontational. It's the tale of a drug deal gone wrong that destroys the fragile cocoon of a high-flying, high-maintenance Dallas defense lawyer (Mr. Fassbender) who dabbles in the "dark arts" of shady money-making deals. Part "no one here gets out alive", part "no good deed goes unpunished", The Counselor is a highly stylized, claustrophobically downbeat trip down Southern gothic and noir territories. Its characters are known by a single name - or, in some cases, like that of Mr. Fassbender's Counselor, not even that - and left open enough for the actors to imprint themselves on them; more strikingly so in an unexpected, against-type turn by Cameron Diaz as a leopard-spot-tattooed gangster moll with no shame nor scruples.

     But Mr. McCarthy's suffocating morality play, as inexorable in its fatalism as both previous film adaptations of his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road, has not found its match in the glossy aesthetics of director Ridley Scott, who committed to the script early on and just out of the intriguing Prometheus. Theoretically, writer and director would be complementary - Mr. McCarthy an expert, minimalist sketcher, Mr. Scott a visual maximalist - but the end result suggests they crossed each other without actually ever meeting. As in many of the director's contemporary-set films, there's a sense he is more concerned about the look and the style of the film than about the ideas, though it must be said there's a welcome embrace of the story's violence and it ends up one of his least mannered films. An undeniably talented image-maker, Mr. Scott turns out here to be an overbearing illustrator, in an adroit, professional and reasonably consistent way - but without ever making this borderline biblical tale of crime and punishment as gripping as it had the potential to be. But why all of this seems to have irritated people to the point of calling The Counselor a memorable bust of a movie - when so many worse projects go by, ahem, scot free - is fairly beyond me.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Cormac McCarthy
Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Designer: Arthur Max
Costumes: Janty Yates
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Producers: Mr. Scott, Nick Wechsler, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz  (Fox 2000 Pictures, Scott Free Productions, Nick Wechsler Productions and Chockstone Pictures in association with TSG Entertainment Finance, Ingenious Media and Big Screen Productions)
USA/United Kingdom, 2013, 117 minutes

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


Thursday, November 21, 2013

STORIES WE TELL

The key line that explains what's going on in Stories We Tell is said at one point by one of the "storytellers" in Sarah Polley's third feature: "when you're in the middle of a story, it isn't a story at all". It's only afterwards that you feel the need to make sense of it by organising and smoothing it out. But what if that isn't the whole story? What if behind that story we organize there's another, more elusive, more jagged? And what if the truth is somewhere else entirely, hiding in between all those stories? Ms. Polley, a generally intelligent actress with a taste for left turns and challenging roles, has extended her refusal of conventions into her own directing projects. But Stories We Tell is the most personal, intriguing and accomplished of the three films, picking up on her own, and her parents', life stories as a case study.

     At the centre of the film is Ms. Polley's own identity as the youngest of three siblings born to English father Michael, a former actor who became company man to support the family, and Canadian mother Diane, who worked as an actress and casting director and died of cancer while Sarah was still young. An old family jest about her lack of likeness with her father Michael turns out to be a "clue" that led to a revelation many years later, and the film is the tale of Ms. Polley's discovery of her real lineage, as well as a confrontation of the different takes on truth as admitted by her family and its circle of friends in on-camera interviews intercut with super-8 home movies. The apparent documentary aspect of the search gives way to a sort of refracting mirror, where the different versions of the tale cannot be taken at face value; the process of sorting through them is made visible in the film itself, as we begin doubting what we are seeing, asking how much of it is actual, reenactment or fiction; all of it underlining the notion of storytelling as tales we weave, as much to ourselves as to others, in order to make sense of things, out of elements of truth and wish-fulfillment.

     As a director, Stories We Tell confirms Ms. Polley continues to have issues of tempo and rhythm, taking longer than she should to set up her pieces (even when it ends up underlining the payoff) and occasionally getting lost in redundancies or underselling her project. And, admittedly, there is always a sense that, despite the director's emotional commitment to the project, it may be a more enticing object theoretically and conceptually than as a film. But the questions it asks, and the way she asks them, make Stories We Tell as fascinating as it is unusual, and its flaws are part of its fascination.

Cast: Rebecca Jenkins, Peter Evans, Alex Hatz
Director: Sarah Polley
Screenwriters: Ms. Polley, with narration written by Michael Polley
Cinematographer: Iris Ng  (colour)
Designer: Lea Carlson
Costumes: Sarah Armstrong
Editor: Michael Munn
Producer: Anita Lee  (National Film Board of Canada)
Canada, 2012, 108 minutes

Screened: distributor advance screener DVD, Lisbon, November 10th 2013


and now for something completely different: THIS IS WHERE WE STAND

This is the current state of things in Portuguese cinema.

In September, emergency funding was announced to keep the Portuguese Cinemathèque afloat until the end of the year. 

At the announcement of the proposal for the State Budget in early October, the secretary of state for Culture, Jorge Barreto Xavier, announced the budget would include funding for the Cinemathèque coming from a cultural investment fund, even though the total amount of money allocated to the institution would still be approximately 25% smaller than in 2013. 

2014 state funding for the arts as a whole was also initially presented as going to be slightly higher, but in fact the individual state institutions are all allocated less money than in 2013. 

In mid-November, José Pedro Ribeiro, president of the Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual since 2005, quit his post after having warned repeatedly he would do so, and refused to stay in the job until a successor had been chosen; his vice-president resigned as well. There was no explanation for the exit. 

In the same day, Maria João Seixas, director of the Portuguese Cinemathèque since 2010, also revealed she would leave the post; as the applications opened at the end of October calling for candidates to the job, she decided not to apply. 

As of today, the pay-TV and telecommunications operators haven't yet paid the annual contributions towards film funding due by law, totaling 11 million euros. The secretary of state for Culture has already said the Government is not in a position to make up for the uncollected money and says it will consider judicial proceedings if necessary.  

Pay-TV and communications operators think the new act unconstitutional and say they want to have a bigger say in the types of films produced with their monies. Which is to say, only films that have a shot at commercial success and making back their money. No Portuguese film, however, even those who become successful, has a shot at recouping the investment in the Portuguese market alone. 

The most-seen film with Portuguese monies involved is not technically a Portuguese film: Bille August's pan-European production Night Train to Lisbon, spoken in English with a multinational cast and released in March, had approx. 60,000 viewers and €305,000 in box-office. 

As a comparison, Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine has tallied 75,000 viewers and €400,000 in box-office. Lee Daniels' The Butler, one of the year's success stories, has 180,000 viewers and €925,000 in box-office, and Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, has underperformed, with only 107,000 viewers and €700,000 in box-office. 

The second most-seen Portuguese film was Tino Navarro's sci-fi thriller RPG (23,000 viewers, €120,000 in box-office), and the third Bairro, a production of the TVI television channel, (19,000 viewers and €97,000 in box-office). These are the sort of films the pay-TV operators will gladly pony up money for. 

Also, Portuguese films continue to reap awards internationally. Joaquim Pinto's What Now? Remind Me won three awards at the prestigious Locarno festival and the DocLisboa documentary festival in Lisbon. Gonçalo Tocha's A Mãe e o Mar and Vítor Gonçalves' A Vida Invisível were selected for the Rome festival. Salomé Lamas' Terra de Ninguém was also awarded at Documenta Madrid. João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata's The Last Time I Saw Macao, with a stellar international run of festival and theatrical screenings, attracted 2,400 viewers in Portugal and made €11,000 in box-office. João Viana's A Batalha de Tabatô, also presented in a series of international festivals and winner of a special mention in the Berlinale, recorded 600 admissions and €2600 in box office. These are the sort of films that the pay-TV operators refuse to finance. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

PAYS BARBARE

"Each time has its own fascism", say found-footage experts Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi in their latest, challenging essay-film - a brutally demanding assemblage of private archival footage, mainly home movies from Italy's fascist colonial past. If you have never been exposed to the duo's extensive work with the manipulation of pre-existing, often anonymous or newsreel film archives and their experimental, pointedly political approach, Pays barbare may come as quite a shock - Ms. Ricci Lucchi and Mr. Gianikian, whose background is in fine arts and have been toiling quietly in their rarefied niche for nearly 40 years now, certainly do not make it easy for the casual viewer to join in. Tough luck, though: Pays barbare is an acid, chilling comment on today's world as seen across the distant chasms of time and memory, and the "barbaric country" that gives it its title are in fact the African countries that 1930s Italy "conquered".

     The main focus of Mussolini's African adventures seen here are Libya and Ethiopia, with Ms. Ricci Lucchi and Mr. Gianikian picking up on the naïve yet scarily condescending representation of the natives as "savage aliens" to create a mesmeric, singularly disturbing portrait of imperialist mores and thoughts: the racism, either casual or deliberate, is far-ranging enough to be shocking and bewildering at the same time, and Pays barbare dissects it as much as it pokes gleeful satire at it. That the period images and camera settings too often remind us of European and American film exotica of the time, whether silent or sound, merely underline the point: these wholly unrealistic images end up serving the political purpose of subjugation better than any truly realistic ethnography could have done.

     The film's initial ten minutes are silent, giving afterward way to the director's highly stylized commentary voiceover and to the atmospheric soundscapes of Keith Ullrich and dissonant piano pieces of Giovanna Marini (her singing in particular can be utterly grating and take away from the film's demanding, absorbing universe). Throughout its short but intense length, Pays barbare slowly becomes a haunting meditation on the exact meaning of "barbarism" - and, as pop singer Morrissey once pithily put it, "barbarism begins at home".

Directors, screenwriters and editors: Yervant Gianikian, Angela Ricci Lucchi
Music: Giovanna Marini, Keith Ullrich
Producers: Sylvie Brenet, Serge Lalou (Les Films d'Ici in co-production with ARTE France La Lucarne)
France, 2013, 63 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 advance screener, Lisbon, October 12th 2013


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

THE FIFTH ESTATE

Throughout Bill Condon's take on the "Wikileaks affair", I kept half expecting someone to shout at some point the equivalent of Jack Nicholson' legendary one-liner in A Few Good Men: "You can't handle the truth!" Because that's the sort of film The Fifth Estate wants to be: an important, standard-bearing drama about an important subject - in this case, the shifting ethics and forms of contemporary journalism, as seen through the rise of "citizen media" such as Julian Assange's attention-grabbing website. All fine and dandy, except it does so by trying to make that subject conform to the time-honoured tropes of the liberal thriller of 1970s Hollywood, padding its dance between idealism and pragmatism with an attempt at remaining scrupulously neutral that does it no favours.

     It's clear that, for Mr. Condon, what really matters is the push-and-pull relationship between Mr. Assange, the mysterious, dashing Australian hacker (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his foil, grounded German IT man Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). Their tale, as they start a revolution in their own backyard, so to speak, to see it gradually spin into something bigger than themselves, is the same of any visionary inventor or modern technology start-up, with time, experience, power and fame gaining up on them and eventually conspiring to divide them. Only there's a volatile element added to the mix - the "small" matter of ethics as raised by the struggle between idealism and pragmatism. The truth is, the electricity of Messrs. Cumberbatch and Brühl's performances, the way they play the ups and downs in the relationship between Mr. Assange and Mr. Berg, would be enough to make The Fifth Estate a fascinating film, especially since the way they gradually learn more about each other ends up mirroring their own takes on what Wikileaks should be and how to run it.

     Instead, though, Mr. Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer prefer to shy away of the personal issues (somewhat understandably since both are living persons and Mr. Assange made a point of denouncing the production even before it started shooting), and prefer to frame them as one among various sub-plots. The "old media", alternately cynical about and fascinated with the "scoops" the upstart website finds; an American administration both embarrassed and worried by what Wikileaks pulls up from under the carpet; a Libyan informer whose life may have been endangered by its revelations.

     In doing so, Messrs. Condon and Singer only yield to the key question for legacy media: is looking at things from the past the best way to respond to the future? They tell the very modern tale of The Fifth Estate in a very classic framework, merely highlighting how inadequate that approach is. Even the single striking visual idea of a film that is otherwise professionally functional and anonymous - picturing Wikileaks as a never-ending, open-plan newspaper office out of All the President's Men or Billy Wilder's The Apartment - merely shows how The Fifth Estate attempts to comprehend the world in terms of a format that may no longer make sense for today's fast-moving news cycle. It doesn't make it a bad film, just an under-achieving one that doesn't entirely make justice to the story it tells.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Josh Singer, from the books by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, and David Leigh with Luke Harding, Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy
Cinematography: Tobias Schliessler  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Carter Burwell
Designer: Mark Tildesley
Costumes: Shay Cunliffe
Editor: Virginia Katz
Producers: Steve Golin, Michael Sugar (Dreamworks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Anonymous Content Pictures, Afterworks and FBO in association with Participant Media)
United Kingdom/Belgium/USA/India, 2013, 128 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, November 11th 2013


Monday, November 18, 2013

THE WAY, WAY BACK

For the 14-year Duncan (Liam James), this is shaping up to be the worst Summer ever: stuck in an Eastern Seaboard beach town where he knows no one and no one much cares about wanting to know him, with his divorced mother (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend, a clueless but self-important car salesman (Steve Carell). No wonder he's despondent, and in looking for a lifesaver Duncan stumbles on a old-fashioned, past-its-prime water park; by befriending its infuriatingly irresponsible and free-spirited manager (Sam Rockwell), Duncan will gain a measure of self-worth that will put him on the road to growing up and leaving his despondency behind. In short, The Way, Way Back is another faux-independent coming-of-age tale lent credence by its star cast, but one with enough stand-out features to be worth the look.

     The best thing about this directorial debut from the screenwriting duo of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, co-writers of Alexander Payne's The Descendants and television sitcom actors, is its messiness, awkwardness and loping rhythm; Messrs. Faxon and Rash make a point of underlining - as in a particularly strong sequence around a board game - the quietly desperate moodiness of folks who will do anything to fit in and belong somewhere, to the point of becoming miserable. Their attention to the actors, adults and teenagers, and to how they inhabit these sad-sack characters (all, in their way, teenagers looking to grow up) is what redeems The Way, Way Back from its surfeit of subplots, seen-this-all-before plotting and bland filming style. They're all fragile, frail, real people, never just mere screenwriter conceits, and the writers-directors manage to coax lovely performances from the ensemble cast (though we would always welcome more of Allison Janney) and especially from Mr. James and Annasophia Robb (as Ms. Janney's daughter).

Cast: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Annasophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet
Directors and screenwriters: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Cinematography: John Bailey  (colour)
Music: Rob Simonsen
Designer: Mark Ricker
Costumes: Ann Roth, Michelle Matland
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Producers: Kevin J. Walsh, Tom Rice  (Fox Searchlight Pictures, Sycamore Pictures, Doubleyou, Oddlot Entertainment and The Walsh Company in association with What Just Happened Productions and TSG Entertainment Finance)
USA, 2013, 104 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 9th 2013


Friday, November 15, 2013

LA VÉNUS À LA FOURRURE (Venus in Fur)

Let's, for a moment, ignore the reputation of Roman Polanski as an agent provocateur, a controversial artist that fell foul of public opinion and a savage, provocative satirist whose work has nearly always been a refracted mirror of his own autobiography. Even if you had no idea about who he is and what he has done, you would certainly be struck by the effortlessly masterful tone of his adaptation of David Ives' theatrical riff on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs. A huis-clos for two actors in a single setting, in lesser hands this multi-tiered exploration of lust and power would be a stilted piece of filmed theatre; in Mr. Polanski's, it's a dazzlingly playful example of how to make an engaging, engrossing, highly cinematic film that wears its theatrical origin lightly.

     The premise of Mr. Ives' play is a hall of mirrors expanded from Sacher-Masoch's book: in a Parisian theatre, a director (Mathieu Amalric) is auditioning for a stage adaptation of Venus in Furs, and an actress (Emannuelle Seigner) shows up late. Cajoling the director into staying late to allow her a shot at the role of Vanda, she slowly reveals a remarkable understanding of the character that allows the book's games of lust and power to become flesh right there on stage. There are many suggestions as to where Vanda, as she calls herself, comes from: is she maybe a supernatural presence, or merely a prankster taking an elaborate gag too far? In truth, though, these are merely hints, and tantalizing ones at that, for what is in effect the script's central symbolism: an eternal battle of the sexes being fought yet again between Vanda and Thomas, the director, a re-enacting of the dances of power and control between consenting adults of opposite sexes.

     This is the point where a knowledge of Mr. Polanski's previous work kicks in: interspersed throughout the increasingly intense back-and-forth between book, play and reality, underlining the director's ease at turning theatre into cinema, are blink-and-you'll-miss-it references to other films, suggesting that, as Carnage was in its own way, Venus in Fur is a look back and a settling of accounts with his own past. After all, Mr. Amalric, in a regal performance, is almost like a physical double of Mr. Polanski in the role of the director/demiurge, acting opposite his director's own wife, Ms. Seigner, in a career-best performance. The film's ambiguity about lust, desire, sex, punishment, love, seems to mirror knowingly all of the controversies that have chased Mr. Polanski over the years. And with each new level of ambiguity the text explores, the richer and darker the film becomes, to the point of mutating into a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of references that feeds not only on the past of its makers but also on the viewer's response and relationship with the public personas of all involved.

     There is, admittedly, nothing really new about Venus in Fur's tale or structure; there doesn't need to be when a master filmmaker is at the controls. Just a breathtaking moment of modern cinema.

Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: David Ives, Roman Polanski, from the play by Mr. Ives, Venus in Fur
Cinematography: Pawel Edelman  (colour)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Jean Rabasse
Costumes: Dinah Collin
Editors: Margot Meynier, Hervé de Luze
Producers: Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde  (RP Productions and Monolith Films in association with the Polish Film Institute, Manon 3 and Mars Films)
France/Poland, 2013, 96 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, November 7th 2013


Thursday, November 14, 2013

THE ARMSTRONG LIE

Certainly the hardest working director in contemporary American documentary - The Armstrong Lie is his fourth feature in the past 18 months - Alex Gibney has made his name with hard-hitting, almost hard-news-like exposés of social, political and dysfunctional structures and secret agendas. But seldom has Mr. Gibney been so personally involved and his instincts as questioned as in his relationship with the since-disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

     What initially began as a documentary on Mr. Armstrong's return to the Tour de France in 2009 after a longish hiatus, seen by many as a "whitewash" or "puff piece" on a figure that was already controversial at the time for the accusations of doping that swirled around him despite his successful comeback from cancer surgery, ended up shelved. Real life caught up with both the director and his subject as Mr. Armstrong eventually admitted publically the extent of his lie, drawing Mr. Gibney back to the unfinished project. The end result, then, is not so much a tale of the rise and fall of the athlete as a bicycle racing star, but also a questioning of unquestioning media and institutions, an investigation into the nature of truth and lies where morality is constantly shifting, and a film about storytelling as the "new normal" of celebrity culture.

     What's at stake in The Armstrong Lie is not so much whether the cyclist actually took performance-enhancing drugs; pretty much everybody on the Tour de France did during the 2000s, and to pretend otherwise is to feign an idealism that, sadly, seems to no longer have either space or place in professional sporting events. Mr. Gibney is much more interested in asking, and eventually understanding, why Mr. Armstrong would insist on keeping up a facade of lies and how so many kept on believing in him even after red flags started coming up - and, more to the point, why he himself, an experienced "myth-buster", found himself fooled by the athlete's practiced "myth-making".

     But there's never really an answer to that, other than admitting that people do prefer to believe in the lie for the sake of some peace of mind or the avoidance of constant disappointment. The Armstrong Lie asks a lot more questions than it knows how, or wants, to answer within its running time, and Mr. Armstrong himself seems oddly detached, unwilling to actually admit or explain why he did what he did. What Mr. Gibney ends up doing is a zippy primer of the case against the cyclist, one that exposes the moral bankruptcy at the heart of many modern spectator sports organizations while meditating on what fame and power do to people, but leaves the filmmaker as lost as its viewer as to the whys, the hows, and the whether it'll happen again. The truth is out there, but can it set you free?

Director and screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti  (colour)
Music: David Kahne
Editors: Andy Grieve, Tim Squyres, Lindy Jankura
Producers: Frank Marshall, Matt Tolmach, Mr. Gibney  (The Kennedy/Marshall Company in association with Jigsaw Productions and Matt Tolmach Productions)
USA, 2013, 123 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, Lisbon, November 6th 2013


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

E AGORA? LEMBRA-ME (What Now? Remind Me)

Part essay film, part personal memoir, Joaquim Pinto's sprawling, protean mosaic What Now? Remind Me has become the latest Portuguese sensation in the global festival circuit, after three awards at its competitive premiere at Locarno and the top prize at the DocLisboa documentary festival. It's hardly a surprise that this challenging work follows on the footsteps of two other festival favourites that started out at Locarno: It's the Earth, Not the Moon, Gonçalo Tocha's equally sprawling chronicle of a little Azorean island; and The Last Time I Saw Macau, João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata's playful documentary of the mind. For starters, all three films refuse to fit pre-existing, pre-formatted categories, stubbornly following their own muse into more fluid territories. All of them are highly personal films, vulnerable extensions of their makers' viewpoints, perspectives and experiences.

     Technically, I suppose What Now? Remind Me is a sort of "visual notebook" shot by the HIV-positive Mr. Pinto over the course of a year during which he shuttled between Lisbon and Madrid, undergoing an experimental therapy for hepatitis C. A director, producer and soundman with extensive credits in Portuguese filmmaking over the past three decades, from the same generation of filmmakers as Pedro Costa, Joaquim Leitão or Vítor Gonçalves, Mr. Pinto has directed three features and a handful of documentaries and produced João César Monteiro's breakthrough film Recollections of the Yellow House. In many ways, his experience as a filmmaker fashions What Now? as a sort of "scratch pad" of possible ideas for films, a huge mash-up of virtual worlds flickering in and out of existence as he shapes a collage of possibilities tried out at some length. A memory and memorial for those left behind, his friends who died of AIDS from the mid-1980s onwards; a recorded diary of appointments, meetings and visits with doctors and friends; a look at the growing rural patch of land Mr. Pinto and his life and work partner Nuno Leonel share in the countryside, punctuated by a series of extreme close-ups of natural life; a meditation on the power of art to make sense of human experience...

     In that sense, What Now? is also a sister project to It's the Earth, Not the Moon and The Last Time I Saw Macau: a film that starts out recognisably, with a premise and a project, before eventually becoming "contaminated" by unforeseen twists and turns and meandering off-course into a more free-form, purely sensory experience. The fact that the finished film runs nearly three hours can make it a bit of an endurance test and suggest that Mr. Pinto, who co-edited with Mr. Leonel, may have wanted to pack far too much into the end result, fit to burst with half-finished ideas. But that is also part and parcel of its unruly charm, since there's a very strong element of a record assembled for posterity, a struggle to make sure memories and experiences remain accessible and relevant; another point in common with the two previously mentioned films, whose clearer documentary aspects record remote places whose culture and history is less recognised than it should be. In Mr. Pinto's film, that remote place is his own life, and through it a whole pan of Portuguese filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s. That alone would make What Now? Remind Me an important work, but there's much more to it than such a limiting, reductive definition.

Director: Joaquim Pinto
Cinematographers and editors: Mr. Pinto, Nuno Leonel  (colour)
Producers: Joana Ferreira, Christine Reeh, Isabel Machado (C. R. I. M. Produções and Presente Edições de Autor)
Portugal, 2013, 165 minutes

Screened: 2013 Queer Lisboa Film Festival official out of competition screening, São Jorge 1, Lisbon, September 22nd 2013


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

EL SOL DEL MEMBRILLO (The Quince Tree Sun aka Dream of Light)

In his quest for a purely sensory, emotionally evocative filmmaking, Spanish master Victor Erice took a side-step with this unusual piece on the work of painter Antonio López, and on his struggle to capture on canvas the perfection of a sun ray hitting a quince tree just so on the backyard of his Madrid studio over the course of a few weeks (during which the building is actually undergoing renovation). El Sol del Membrillo is not exactly of a different piece than his two previous works The Spirit of the Beehive and El Sur, with which it shares a passionate, exquisite pictorialism and an interest in showing rather than telling; but I find it a side-step because it is really not a narrative feature, rather a combination documentary/essay film on the nature of art, time and memory, on the transformation of reality through personal experience.

     Just like little Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive created a heightened reality influenced by cinema, and Estrella in El Sur remembered her early Northern years in golden-hued colours, so does Mr. López attempt to recreate and capture reality through his eyes, and through the medium of art. The film becomes as well a recursive loop, a comment on itself that, while accompanying the back and forth of the artistic creation, talks of its own creation as a film; watching the artist at work is like watching the filmmaker, who is also an artist, at work. And, at heart, all art is but a useless attempt to record that which is unrecordable or attain that which is unattainable, as the painter will eventually discover that the quince tree will not stay in the state he wishes to record.

     The side-step, then, is more formal than conceptual: the longest of the director's only three features and the only non-fictional one, El Sol del Membrillo attempts to mirror in its construction and structure the experience of time during the creation, the way it simultaneously stands still and moves forward, and to make it understandable and relatable for a viewer. In many ways, the film was an early predecessor of what is currently known as the cinéma du réel, films that fashion reality into a cinematic structure that transcends the category of documentary, as if attempting to find its vérité through other forms of cinéma. Its thematic approach, however, makes it a whole other beast from Mr. Erice's other work; fascinating as a conceptual think-piece and as a record of the unrecordable (here comes the recursive loop again), yet a more demanding, less immediately rewarding cinematic experience.

Director: Victor Erice
Screenwriters: Antonio López, Mr. Erice, inspired by a work by Mr. López
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe, Ángel Luis Fernández, José Luis López Linares  (colour)
Music: Pascal Gaigné
Editor: Juan Ignacio San Mateo
Producer: María Moreno  (María Moreno Producciones Cinematograficas in association with Igeldo Zine Produkzioak and Euskal Media)
Spain, 1992, 139 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, August 31st 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

ALCESTE À BICYCLETTE (CYCLING WITH MOLIÈRE)

At the heart of Alceste à bicyclette there's a quite strong idea: to use the writing of legendary 17th-century playwright Molière as an examination of the motives and moods of two actors rehearsing the play. In this case, The Misanthrope and its tale of a recluse, bitter nobleman, serves as a look inside the minds of Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson) and Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini), friendly actors with entirely different agendasGauthier is the star of a medical TV series that wants to be taken seriously and plans on putting on the play as a vehicle to prove his talents, visiting Serge, who withdrew to the countryside after a rejection of the business' practices and a personal breakdown, in an attempt to lure him back to the stage for a supporting role.

     The Misanthrope's structure, plot and dialogue thus becomes a coded reflection of their own power games as Serge, himself a disappointed misanthrope, strings Gauthier along by forcing him into a series of impromptu rehearsals of the play, uncovering the various levels of affection and competitiveness at stake. However, such a strong idea would require a stronger director than Philippe le Guay, who despite having scripted the film (with the help of noted writer Emmanuel Carrère) allows it to become mired in a swamp of indifferent handling and over-writing, with a rather forced love interest and broad, picturesque comedy expanding the film into side plots that are merely utilitarian and feel like it. Worse, Mr. le Guay seems to feel the need to "bring to life" the rehearsal scenes through constant (and pointless) camera movements that clutter the frame needlessly, when all he needed to do would be to just shoot the performances simply to propel the tale forward.

     It's a shame because the performances are there, with Messrs. Luchini and Wilson navigating smoothly the many levels of complexity of their characters as actors effectively uncovering themselves through the masks they're wearing, and the cautionary tale of blind ambition that underscores the entire story comes through rather well. But the decision to disguise the bitter, disenchanted exploration of the actor's psyche as a tony, cosy comedy of feuding egos never really meshes, throwing Alceste à bicyclette into a limbo it never really comes out of.

Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Lambert Wilson, Maya Sansa
Director: Philippe le Guay
Screenwriter: Mr. le Guay, with the collaboration of Emmanuel Carrère, from a story by Mr. Luchini and Mr. le Guay
Cinematography: Jean-Claude Larrieu  (colour)
Music: Jorge Arriagada
Designer: Françoise Dupertuis
Costumes: Élisabeth Tavernier
Editor: Monica Coleman
Producer: Anne-Dominique Toussaint  (Les Films des Tournelles, Pathé Production, Appaloosa Dévéloppement and France 2 Cinéma)
France, 2012, 105 minutes

Screened: distributor advance screener DVD, Lisbon, November 2nd 2013


Friday, November 08, 2013

LAST VEGAS

It comes partly as a relief and partly as a shock that Last Vegas isn't the mindless senior-citizen take on The Hangover everything about it suggests. But the script by Crazy, Stupid, Love. screenwriter Dan Fogelman, about four childhood friends from 1950s Brooklyn coming together in Las Vegas to celebrate the belated wedding of the only one of them to have never married, gives Jon Turteltaub's buddy comedy a surprising amount of heart and thoughtfulness, fleshing out the film's high concept with some perceptive, age-appropriate humour. The groom is actually the only one who is still active, both professionally and personally; everyone else is retired and ailing, though not as much from their health issues as from the lack of living their health issues force upon them. For the "Flatbush Four", this Vegas bachelor-party weekend becomes an escape from the drudgery of a closely monitored daily life of medications, loneliness and retirement communities - and if you think this is the cue for the regretful, tear-jerking "last hurrah" that, for instance, Fisher Stevens' Stand-Up Guys was, you've got another think coming.

     Mr. Fogelman refuses to play either the pity or the humiliation cards, crafting instead an engaging, complex group of characters fleshed out by a cast who, though typecast, is having the time of their life. Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline play the comic relief, with Mr. Kline particularly relishing the opportunity to play the straight man, while Michael Douglas and Robert de Niro, whose characters are locked in an old romantic rivalry and are connected by a rather unusual secret, expertly modulate the tension. The presence of an equally age-appropriate love interest played by Mary Steenburgen, as a lounge singer who reinvented herself late in life and interests both Messrs. Douglas and De Niro, brings in an intriguing, added touch that raises the bar both narratively and dramatically.

     Mr. Turteltaub, as the modern-day equivalent of an old Hollywood workaday director, handles the project in perfectly anonymous, illustrative manner, with a rather unpleasant sheen of product placement for one of the Sin City's luxurious hotels. But, thankfully, the performances are so engaging that Last Vegas becomes a funny, enjoyable entertainment, led by four pros hitting it out of the ball park without even raising a sweat.

Cast: Michael Douglas, Robert de Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Romany Malco, Jerry Ferrara, Roger Bart, Joanna Gleason
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Screenwriter: Dan Fogelman
Cinematography: David Hennings  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Designer: David J. Bomba
Costumes: Dayna Pink
Editor: David Rennie
Producers: Laurence Mark, Amy Baer  (CBS Films, Good Universe, Laurence Mark Productions)
USA, 2013, 105 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, October 31st 2013


Thursday, November 07, 2013

MUD

If Take Shelter was the confirmation of American filmmaker Jeff Nichols, Mud sees the director facing the "growing pains" of someone who is stretching, exploring the territory he staked out for himself. Though his third feature remains solidly grounded in his eye for the small-town, working-class communities of his native South, Mud is also a more expansive, more conventionally narrative work, and his first film with "proper" film stars - namely Matthew McConaughey, in another of his astounding run of roles that have reminded people of how good an actor he can be (Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy).

     Mr. McConaughey exudes the right amount of charm, doubt, vulnerability and determination required by his role as Mud, running for his life after killing a man and found out in a little island in an Arkansas riverbed by two local teenagers. Though he's nominally the title hero, Mud is actually the tale of Ellis (the extraordinary Tye Sheridan), the quieter and most thoughtful of the two kids, as he decides to help Mud rebuild a boat shipwrecked on the islet after a storm to escape with the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon in a brief supporting role). Mr. Nichols leisurely tells his story as a coming-of-age tale of a kid stuck between romance and reality; Ellis hears the call of the wide open spaces of his backyard and of the adventure hiding just beyond the river bend, and his choice to help the larger-than-life Mud is reaction and response to the disappointment of the real life around him, with feuding parents threatening to divorce and the very real possibility that his father will lose his livelihood if they do. Since his parents' love story is on the way out, Ellis is determined to make sure Mud's will come true, come with may.

     Mr. Nichols may play it out a bit too leisurely (the film comes in at slightly over two hours) but, given this is a tale of the South, it makes entire sense, especially the way he roots it in the communities scattered by the riverside as opposed to the more urbane, boxed environments of the city. Just as the director is exploring the narrative limits of his Southern tales, so is Ellis walking blind into whatever life is throwing at him - and any issues the film's length may create are more than made up for by the director's attention to mood (laidback, heavy with foreboding), tempo and cast (every single supporting role is smartly sketched in just a couple of scenes). Mud may not be as striking as Take Shelter, and it may not extend Mr. Nichols' reach as much as we'd all like him to, but if all tentative steps forward were as confident as this we'd all be much better off. And it's a great movie from one of the most consistent American filmmakers working at the moment.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Jay McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Paul Sparks, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
Director and screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Cinematography: Adam Stone (colour, widescreen)
Music: David Wingo
Designer: Richard A. Wright
Costumes: Kari Perkins
Editor: Julie Monroe
Producers: Sarah Green, Aaron Ryder, Lisa Maria Falcone  (Everest Entertainment, Brace Cove Productions and Filmnation Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 131 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, October 27th 2013


Wednesday, November 06, 2013

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

British director Paul Greengrass having become the "poster boy" for smart, aware modern action cinema is no bad thing in itself. The more like him we have, the better off we'll all be - even though it is kind of disappointing that, in anointing him, people tend to minimize the exploits of Kathryn Bigelow, who works pretty much in the same territory, as Captain Phillips, a film that is also well up her usual thematic alley, amply proves. Scripted by another thoughtful director - Billy Ray, of Shattered Glass and Breach - Captain Phillips is a retelling of the 2009 real-life hijacking by Somali prates of the Maersk Alabama container ship, adapted from the memoir by the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, played here by Tom Hanks.

     It's the kind of fact-based thriller that Mr. Greengrass - who started out in British news television, became known with the equally fact-based Bloody Sunday and whose finest American film remains the harrowing United 93 - has form in: the kinetic, immersive take on the events, exemplified by the use of handheld camera (here manned by the great British cinematographer Barry Ackroyd) and by the urgent pace of the editing (stand up Christopher Rouse), always work alongside the issues the director wants to highlight, rather than undermining them. Captain Phillips pits, in fact, two crews against each other: that of the container ship, blue-collar professionals one and all, and the Somali pirates led by the apparently fearless Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who have nothing to lose anymore and are, in a way, doing as much their jobs and whatever it takes to put food on their table.

     For all its steadily mounting pace and outward trappings of action thriller, the key to the film lies in the face-offs between Phillips and Muse once he is taken hostage; the audience may be predisposed to be on the side of the American, as Mr. Hanks is adept at playing these kinds of non-descript American everymen caught in events beyond their control, but both he and Mr. Greengrass smartly allow Mr. Abdi to shine and more than hold his own as the film slowly makes its wider thoughts visible. Even though the outcome may be pre-ordained by the growing involvement of the American military, the director is not interested in making the audience simply see this as an action movie or a prestige true-story film, and knowing of his past, a manicheistic "us-vs.-them" card was always out of the question. Instead, Captain Phillips is laid out as a tale of the dire consequences of a world economy gone haywire, where people do what they have to do to put food on the table while trying not to be swallowed by a ruthless, relentless system.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenwriter: Billy Ray, from the book by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd (colour, widescreen)
Music: Henry Jackman
Designer: Paul Kirby
Costumes: Mark Bridges
Editor: Christopher Rouse
Producers: Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael de Luca (Columbia Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Michael de Luca Productions and Trigger Street Productions)
USA, 2013, 134 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, Lisbon, October 11th 2013

Nominated for six 2013 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor - Barkhad Abdi; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing)



Tuesday, November 05, 2013

GRAND CENTRAL

There are a lot of interesting things going on in French director Rebecca Zlotowski's sophomore feature. Foremost among them is the unusual setting for what appears to be a story of men who do the dirty jobs noone else does, influenced by classic American filmmaking of rowdy masculine heroics - a nuclear power station somewhere in France. Newcomer Gary (Tahar Rahim) isn't learned enough to do anything other than grunt cleanup work - the most dangerous occupation in the whole premises - and finds himself practically parachuted into a tight-knit community of hard-drinking, hard-living working-class men who live in a nearby trailer park under the shadow of radiation sickness.

     There are, of course, women as well here - and from the start Gary has only eyes for Karole (Léa Seydoux), the bride-to-be of one of his workmates, the burly Toni (Denis Ménochet). Whether Gary's growingly feverish obsession with Karole comes from the pressure-cooker atmosphere he finds himself in or from something else in his past is never properly explained by Ms. Zlotowski, who makes a point of withholding as much information as she can about every character's past as well as of underlining the ominous mood surrounding them - a sense of impending doom that may come from nowhere at any given moment.

     Despite that, though, and despite the underplayed social commentary (these workers are in many ways the lowest-possible rung in the station's hierarchical food chain), there's a sense that the director sets everything in its proper place but never really knows where she wants to take it, piling pressure upon pressure upon its characters until a surprisingly non-committal ending suggests they're caught in traps (not only) of their own making. Though everyone in the film is uneasy about settling for what they're given and yearn for something else, that seems precisely to be what Ms. Zlotowski does by settling in Grand Central for a well-known mode of French restrained psychological drama when the clues and the premises were there for something other, visible in the excellent ensemble performances of the cast (with a special shoutout to the always excellent Olivier Gourmet, whose veteran Gilles is the moral and narrative centrepiece of the story).

Cast: Tahar Rahim, Léa Seydoux, Olivier Gourmet, Denis Ménochet, Johan Libéreau
Director: Rebecca Zlotowski
Screenwriters: Gaëlle Macé, Ms. Zlotowski, from a story by Ms. Macé
Cinematography: Georges Lechaptois (colour)
Music: Rob
Designer: Antoine Platteau
Costumes: Chattoune
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Producer: Frédéric Jouve (Les Films Velvet in co-production with France 3 Cinéma, Rhône-Alpes Cinéma and KGP Kranzelbinder Gabriele Produktion) 
France/Austria, 2013, 94 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon, October 10th 2013


Monday, November 04, 2013

AU BOUT DU CONTE (UNDER THE RAINBOW)

The screenwriting duo of actors Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri first came to prominence on the French stage, and expanded their recognition to the big screen through the good efforts of Alain Resnais, for whom they adapted Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges as the Smoking/No Smoking diptych, and later wrote the scintillating, Dennis Potter-esque On Connaît la chanson (Same Old Song). The duo parlayed their success as writers with Ms. Jaoui moving into the director's chair in 2000 with Le Goût des autres (The Taste of Others), setting a pattern of engaging, urbane, adult ensemble comedies - but one where the sense of diminishing returns was pretty much inescapable as each new film seemed to become just more of the same.

     Au bout du conte is the team's attempt at refreshing the formula by injecting a more whimsical, fanciful tone, playfully throwing around the conventions of fairy tales and attempting a more colourful, less staid handling. Though again an ensemble comedy set in contemporary Paris, its centre is a tale of puppy love between Laura (Agathe Bonitzer) and Sandro (Arthur Dupont), whose meet cute in a costume party reverses the Cinderella motif: he's the one who loses his shoe upon leaving in a hurry to pick up his mother from work. But her relationship also echoes the tale of the Red Riding Hood, as Laura goes to visit her aunt Marianne (Ms. Jaoui) only to meet the Big Bad Wolf on the way in the shape of womanizing musical agent Maxime Wolf (Benjamin Biolay).

     Set off this are a welter of other stories of which the most present is the relationship between Marianne and Sandro's dad Pierre (Mr. Bacri); she's attempting to deal with her separation and her daughter's retreat into religion, he's obsessed with an old acquaintance of his dad's prediction that he'll die within the month. It's by far the strongest of the many plot threads dealing with faith, hope and love thrown around a film that is looser than Ms. Jaoui's usual work, unafraid to fall flat on her face in trying new things. But the clever whimsicality of the sprawling script seems to demand a firmer directing hand than the actress, who is more at ease with the actors and isn't entirely in control of the film's tone, the occasionally burlesque, baroque visuals and stylized production design ill at ease with the dialogue's colloquial, natural feeling. I was reminded precisely of Mr. Resnais, whose usual narrative playfulness would have done wonders for the wit and cleverness Au bout du conte manifests throughout.

     For all that, it's a funny, charming comedy, one that really comes together in its second half, once all the characters and plot elements are laid out, performed with the usual care we recognise from Ms. Jaoui's films by an ensemble cast that makes the most out of her and Mr. Bacri's pointed, smart dialogue.

Cast: Agathe Bonitzer, Arthur Dupont, Valérie Crouzet, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Dominique Valadié, Benjamin Biolay, Agnès Jaoui, Laurent Poitrenaux, Béatrice Rosen, Didier Sandre, Nina Meurisse, Clément Roussier
Director: Ms. Jaoui
Screenwriters: Ms. Jaoui, Mr. Bacri
Cinematography: Lubomir Bakchev  (colour)
Music: Fernando Fiszbein
Designer: François Emmanuelli
Costumes: Nathalie Raoul
Editor: Fabrice Rouaud
Production: Les Films A4 in co-production with France 2 Cinéma, Memento Films Productions, La Cinéfacture and Hérodiade Films
Framce, 2012, 112 minutes

Screened: screener DVD, Lisbon, October 10th 2013


Friday, November 01, 2013

PRISONERS

For his Hollywood debut, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve hits the jackpot, so to speak: an all-star cast and crew at the service of the sort of prestige drama that Academy Award voters lap up breathlessly, but also a script (by Aaron Guzikowski) that had long been part of the infamous "Black List" of top-shelf unproduced scripts, using the thriller conventions to discuss matters of faith and justice. All certainly very self-important on paper, and the film can't help but leach some of that self-awareness into its greyish, portentous palette of visuals, inexorable length and downbeat mood. Yet, there's also something more to Prisoners, in the way the film charts the loss of security and the disorientation of lost landmarks that dog the American working class at the moment.

     Here, the disappearance and probable kidnapping of two young girls from a Pittsburgh suburb throw the father of one of them, survivalist contractor Keller Dover (a wiry, jagged Hugh Jackman) into disarray, as his role as protector and provider for the family is suddenly exposed as an illusion he has no control over. Attempting to wrestle back control of his life, Dover charges into unthought, uncalled-for vigilantism while Loki, the detective running the investigation (Jake Gyllenhaal, coiled and brooding), is baffled by the contradictory, mysterious clues that circle back to a stunted, child-like young man (Paul Dano) that can be either perpetrator or accomplice but seems unaware of his exact role. It's a dicey story to balance exactly and Mr. Villeneuve manages to stay just the right side of it, careful not to edge too far into over-earnestness or over-seriousness, helped by the structure of Mr. Guzikowski's script as a two-sided police procedural following both Dover and Loki's enquiries.

     But by intermingling both the procedural and the personal elements, Prisoners can't help but remind one of Clint Eastwood's earlier Mystic River, with whom it shares thematic links, the working-class setting and an equally fatalistic worldview (as well as Mr. Eastwood's regular editors, Joel Cox and Gary Roach). And, while there's absolutely nothing to be faulted in the presentation or construction of the film, the thought creeps in that it's all a bit too smoothly finished and purposefully restrained for comfort. There are thoughtful, important questions asked - about faith (Keller's religious views render the difficulty of his predicament all the more harrowing, and religion will play an important role in the eventual dénouement), about justice (his decision to take the matter into his own hands is an uncomfortable reminder of Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo) - but there's also the impression that Prisoners ends up keeping a respectful distance from those edges and never really leaves the comfort zone it has mapped out for itself. For all that, it is a thought-provoking, confident, smart proposition; a fine example of a genre film that deals intelligently with the contemporary world, even if it doesn't go as far as one would like.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Aaron Guzikowski
Cinematography: Roger A. Deakins  (colour)
Music: Jóhann Jóhansson
Designer: Patrice Vermette
Costumes: Renée April
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
Producers: Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner (Alcon Entertainment, 8:38 Productions and Madhouse Entertainment)
USA, 2013, 153 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, October 9th 2013

Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Cinematography