Tuesday, December 31, 2013

HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR

"You have seen nothing in Hiroshima." "I have seen everything in Hiroshima." These are two of the most immediately recognisable lines of dialogue in the history of 20th century cinema. Over 50 years later, the film where they were first spoken remains quite like nothing else ever done in modern film - a singularity not only for its time and position in history, but also in the career of its filmmakers, director Alain Resnais - whose debut feature this was - and novelist Marguerite Duras - who had never written for the screen before. Mr. Resnais has continued to explore the mysterious realms of love and memory in the narrative puzzles of his stellar career, though never quite with the dramatic urgency, the nearly powerless seriousness which he displays in Hiroshima mon amour. Ms. Duras, whose work straddled writing and cinema, has seldom attained again the forbidden heights of Hiroshima, even though she came very close in the wondrous India Song.

     For all the abstract, angular, shapes this presents as it unfolds in the shape of an allegorical play using the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima as a starting point, at its heart this is a love story: that of an actress (Emmanuelle Riva) whose presence in the city (to shoot a film for peace) and liaison with a local architect (Eiji Okada) rekindles her memories of a forbidden wartime love with a German soldier. Ms. Riva is remarkable as this woman yearning to move forward but finding herself unable to in a city where everything reminds her of the hometown she abandoned as a pariah. That the personal and the political, the "little history" and the "big History" are so intertwined together is also something that replaces Hiroshima mon amour in its proper context, as a contemporary of the artistic earthquake known as Nouvelle Vague that swept French cinema in the late 1950s/1960s, and as a manifestation of the post-war uneasiness that pervaded society and art.

     Though not as playful as Mr. Resnais' later work, this is definitely a forerunner of his experiments with narrative strategies, having started out as a documentary project that eventually metamorphosed into a fiction using the tragic fate of the city as a wider symptom of the world it lives in; Hiroshima mon amour itself starts out like an apparent documentary slowly contaminated by the narrative arc Ms. Duras created, itself connected to her trademarks of women at odds with the rules of society. That tightrope is part of what maintains the film so resolutely contemporary in a landscape where the borders between fiction and non-fiction are blurrier by the hour, but even if they weren't there, very little in Hiroshima has dated; it remains as stark and impressive, as touching and demanding, as it was in 1959.

Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas, Pierre Barbaud, Bernard Fresson
Director: Alain Resnais
Screenwriter: Marguerite Duras
Cinematography: Sacha Vierny, Michio Takahashi  (b&w)
Music: Georges Delerue, Giovanni Fusco
Designers: Minoru Esaka, Antoine "Mayo" Mallianakis, Pétri
Costumes: Gérard Collery
Editors: Henri Colpi, Jasmine Chasney, Anne Sarraute
Production: Argos Films, Como Films, Daiei Motion Picture Company, Pathé Overseas Productions
France/Japan, 1959, 90 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, December 30th 2013


Monday, December 30, 2013

CASABLANCA

By now, much has been said and written about Casablanca's rather unique status in the history of American cinema: how a run-of-the-mill major-studio concoction that could have been just another standard potboiler of the period became, instead, a sterling example of the almost magical perfection the Hollywood studio system could conjure almost unwittingly. A shameless dovetailing of romantic melodrama about star-crossed lovers, wartime propaganda piece and Hollywood exotica, Casablanca has a lot more tongue-in-cheek sly wit going on than most people will remember.

     It's the heightened romance between Humphrey Bogart's scarred, hardened American expat Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman's love-battered Ilse Lund that everyone thinks of first and has gone down on history books. But the heart of the film lies elsewhere - in Claude Rains' captain Renault, the venal yet resourceful Casablanca chief of police, as his detached, survivalist pragmatism, expertly conveyed by Mr. Rains with a glint in his eye, best reflects Casablanca's context and place in the Hollywood scheme of things. Just as Renault's quiet state of things is shaken by the arrival of Resistance fighter Viktor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his Nazi nemesis, major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), Casablanca was never designed as anything other than tony entertainment, but found itself suddenly dragged - even if not entirely unwillingly - into a bigger role than it was ever expected to play.

     It was the passage of time that gave it its patine as a classic - that and its almost perfect example of Hollywood's routine skill and professionalism, as seen in Arthur Edeson's perfectly contrasted photography, in the exactingly soft-focused film-star close-ups of Ms. Bergman, in Warner veteran Michael Curtiz's to-the-point handling. It's a film that trades knowingly in archetypes, as so many contemporary studio productions did, and that never hid its status as 1940s hokum; it could almost be a parody of itself, and it's occasionally touch-and-go, but it somehow believes in itself with such a softer heart, its perfect match of actors and roles giving it the romantic, timeless feel it needs. And its very status as period hokum is the precise reason why it became the classic it is now: it crystallises a filmmaking era like few other productions of the time have.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenwriters: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, from the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, Everybody Comes to Rick's
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson  (b&w)
Music: Max Steiner
Art director: Carl Jules Weyl
Wardrobe: Orry-Kelly
Editor: Owen Marks
Producer: Hal B. Wallis (Warner Bros. Pictures)
USA, 1942, 102 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, December 28th 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

LE PASSÉ (The Past)

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi was propelled into the leading edge of international cinema with the sweeping triumph of A Separation, his 2011 film that started off winning the Golden Bear in Berlin and went on the win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. That The Past was made in France, in French, with a mainly French cast and French backing, may appear at first a "sellout" from a director who managed to straddle a thin line between recognition at home and credibility abroad, and who may now seem to be abandoning the constant difficulties of filming within Iran for the greater freedoms of the world.

     But, in fact, The Past changes not an iota in Mr. Farhadi's work and themes. Its tale of a family struggling with secrets wouldn't need any major changes to take place in Teheran, just as the central issue of A Separation could have equally taken place in France; misunderstandings and family tensions are as universal as they come and, if anything, the new film only shows the director refining his methodical, deliberate way. This is a more assured, more confident film, though that refinement and poise don't really stretch it, thematically and structurally, beyond what About Elly or A Separation achieved - so to speak, it's "variations on a theme", expertly created and performed though without bringing anything much new to the table. Not that should be, or indeed is, a problem; what has always been striking about Mr. Farhadi's work is how much he doesn't conform to the idea we make of modern art-house Iranian cinema, being much less opaque and more classically Western in content and approach; more Claude Sautet, for instance, than Abbas Kiarostami, looking at things from a position of genuine curiosity and interest in how ordinary people respond to things instead of hiding it all behind metaphors or symbols.

     At its heart, The Past is a rather old-fashioned drama about a woman divided: Anne-Marie (Bérénice Bejo) has to deal with a rebellious teenage daughter who makes no secret of her displeasure with mother's new engagement, and the arrival of her second husband to finalise their divorce forces her to confront a series of unresolved issues and misunderstandings that will affect everyone in the household over these few days. Part of what's so good about The Past is how the layers unfold carefully: while the men seem to be the centre of the plot (first Ali Mosaffa as the husband returning to sign the papers, then Tahar Rahim as the fiancé with family issues of his own), in their relationship both with Anne-Marie and her daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), the women are in fact the constant at the heart of the film. As, in fact, is doubt - the key to The Past and to all of the director's previous movies is that inability of fully and truly erasing it from the human heart once it makes its way inside, and what he shows us is how it's what makes us human. In Teheran or in Paris or elsewhere in the world.

Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi, with the collaboration of Massoumeh Lahidji
Cinematography: Mahmood Kalari  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Yevgeny Galperin, Iuli Galperin
Designer: Claude Lenoir
Costumes: Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Producer: Alexandre Mallet-Guy  (Memento Films Production, France 3 Cinéma and BIM Distribuzione in co-production with Alvy Distribution and CN3 Productions)
France/Italy, 2013, 130 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14 (Lisbon), December 13th 2013


Thursday, December 26, 2013

SHORT TERM 12

Destin Daniel Cretton's sophomore film started life in 2009 as an award-winning short film, but you wouldn't necessarily notice it from this successful expansion into a feature-length work, entirely rewritten, reshot and recast. In fact, Short Term 12 should have been Mr. Cretton's feature debut had he found the money at the time; instead, he ended up directing another feature, I Am Not a Hipster, designed as a "calling card" to get financing, but that debut didn't register as strongly as Short Term 12 has, snowballing all the way into critical raves, instant cult status and even an inside track for the award season.

     The explanation for the love the film has received is pretty simple: though this is in essence a "problem picture" set in the world of at-risk teenagers, Mr. Cretton doesn't go in for the pious, well-meaning "everything will be OK" posture and doesn't paint his characters into hero or villain corners. Instead, he prefers to underline the flawed, human characteristics of everyone involved, the haunting, tender emotions of not just the kids who find their way into this particular temporary home but also of those who are supposed to take care of them and make them feel all right. Such is the case of Grace (Brie Larson, in a wonderfully rounded career-making performance), one of the supervisors, who is undergoing issues of her own with her live-in boyfriend and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and takes a special interest in newly-arrived Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a sullen teenager with serious father issues.

     The reasons for Grace's interest will become known with time, which is the point where Mr. Cretton's scripting can seem somewhat formulaic: the roundelay of personal stories may seem a bit too neatly arranged and organised despite the apparently messy handheld handling. Yet the open flaws and intense empathy the cast pours into the film shine through, preventing Short Term 12 from falling into the well-meaning trap of so many problem pictures. Instead - probably because the director himself worked as a carer - the film rings true in the little details and the sense of lived-in space that cuts through any crap. And, more significantly, it allows the actors enough breathing space to inhabit characters, plot and tempo. It's a poised, secure film that doesn't take anything for granted, an honest, serious, engrossing piece of work that moves the viewer without ever becoming mawkish or manipulative.

Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stansfield, Kevin Hernandez, Melora Walters
Director and screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cinematography: Brett Pawlak (colour, widescreen)
Music: Joel P. West
Designer: Rachel Myers
Costumes: Mirren Gordon Crozier, Joy Cretton
Editor: Nat Sanders
Producers: Maren Olson, Asher Goldstein, Joshua Astrachan, Ron Najor (Animal Kingdom and Traction Media in association with The San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation)
USA, 2013, 93 minutes

Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival competition advance screener, Lisbon, November 7th 2013


Monday, December 23, 2013

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

The tale of the unlucky fictional New York City folk singer of the 1960s Llewyn Davis looks like perfect Coen brothers fodder on paper: another of their takes on the unfathomable small cruelties of daily life a sad, misfit-loser hero must confront. Yet, following a pattern that has been mellowed by age (think their remake of True Grit), Inside Llewyn Davis tempers the siblings' wry, deadpan humour with a more empathetic, understanding tone, probably because the focus of their attention here was already so self-important to begin with.

     Much has been made, since Inside Llewyn Davis was unveiled at Cannes 2013, that this would be the folk equivalent of the brothers' wildly popular O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their smart, country and bluegrass-inflected retelling of the Odyssey in the Depression-era South; there's even a ginger tabby cat called Ulysses. But it's a decoy; the new film has a melancholy tone underlined by Bruno Delbonnel's frosty, wintry palette and Oscar Isaac's soulful performance as the titular Llewyn Davis, an also-ran folk singer whose attempt to get out of a rut eventually leads him to question what he's doing with his life, stuck as he is in a sort of Groundhog Day loop of endlessly similar days.

     Set during the folk revival centred around Greenwich Village a mythical but not unduly or overly mythologized past -, and suggested and inspired by true-life figures (notably the "father figure" and "backseat driver" of the scene that was the late Dave van Ronk), Inside Llewyn Davis is all fictional though, and yet remarkably faithful to the reality of struggling artists, confronted with the encroaching step of consumer society, and whether their commitment to art leads anywhere. Their hero is painted as a beautiful loser forced by the world around him, but also by his own failings and all too human shortcomings, to keep on rolling the boulder up the hill, like a Prometheus fated to fail for being - quote unquote - "king Midas' idiot brother". It's one of the Coen's less scathing, more lucid and entertaining, and more affecting films - one where nothing seems to happen but an accumulation of incident that seems slender as a plot line yet transports so much feeling and meaning throughout.

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake
Directors, screenwriters and (under the alias Roderick Jaynes) editors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel  (colour)
Musical director: T-Bone Burnett
Designer: Jess Gonchor
Costumes: Mary Zophres
Producers: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen  (Studiocanal and Mike Zoss Productions in association with Anton Capital Entertainment)
France/United Kingdom/USA, 2012, 105 minutes

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

Nominated for two 2013 Academy Awards (Best Cinematography; Best Sound Mixing)


Monday, December 16, 2013

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM

While we usually tend to identify a biopic with the traditional Hollywood style of reverent, quasi-heroic takes on the important figures being portrayed, that has never been by any means an American exclusive. Case in point: this biopic of the late Nelson Mandela, a project masterminded for long years by South African producer Anant Singh after he secured from the man himself the rights for his autobiography (Mandela is said to have preferred to keep the film "in country", so to speak), but nevertheless as staid and reverent as it would be had it been an American or British production.

     British director Justin Chadwick's take on Mandela's autobiogaphy is a stodgy biopic-by-numbers that opts for the "selected highlights" approach to his life, from his initial coming-of-age Xhosa rite, following to his work as a lawyer in Johannesburg along Oliver Tambo, his growing involvement in the fight against apartheid, his courtship of Winnie Madikizela (a fiery Naomie Harris), his nearly 30-year prison term and his eventual release to become the leader of a new South Africa. There's nothing inherently wrong in that approach, even if the film's seal of approval from the Mandela family and friends (who served as consultants) will always mean this is the "official version of history". What is a problem is that you don't feel a little more commitment or a slightly skewed approach; take, for instance, Oliver Hirschbiegel's Diana, which might not have been a good film but at least did approach its subject from a different viewpoint than expected (granted, that wasn't an officially sanctioned project).

     None of that is forthcoming here: Idris Elba's noble portrayal of Mandela is certainly successful in getting at Mandela the person rather than Mandela the symbol (the best I've seen so far, including Morgan Freeman's in Clint Eastwood's minor Invictus), but Mr. Chadwick still plays up the symbolism at every possible juncture; while his actor colours in the areas meticulously, the director works in broad strokes, to occasionally strong but often predictably formatted, good-vs-evil results. But that was what was required of the British TV veteran: a bland "Reader's Digest" take on Mandela's life, an illustrated storybook that does not dishonour his life and memory. Mandela remains an inspiring figure, but this uninvolving film merely takes on the inspirational mantle to tell us in detail what we already knew.

Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge
Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenwriter: William Nicholson, from the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Cinematography: Lol Crawley  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Alex Heffes
Designer: Johnny Breedt
Costumes: Diana Cilliers, Ruy Filipe
Editor: Rick Russell
Producers: Anant Singh, David M. Thompson (Videovision Entertainment in association with Distant Horizon, Origin Pictures, Pathé Productions, Long Walk to Freedom, Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa and National Empowerment Fund)
South Africa/United Kingdom, 2013, 147 minutes

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

Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Original Song ("Ordinary Love")


Friday, December 13, 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Now that the second of the three projected instalments is out, it can no longer be denied that there's little in Peter Jackson's version of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit of the passion that drove his masterful adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. In order to justify the bulking up of the slender novel, Mr. Jackson and his co-writers have introduced plot lines and characters either alluded to in Tolkien's many additional writings or non-existant in any of them - the most egregious being the return of Legolas from The Lord of the Rings and a newly-created Elven warrior Tauriel.

     By itself this isn't problematic - the director's fidelity to the spirit if not the letter of the universe is certainly not in question - but by this second film, taking in the journey of Bilbo Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield's company of dwarves into Mirkwood, Lake-town and Erebor en route to the confrontation with the dragon Smaug, The Hobbit becomes more and more a video-game-like honeycomb of set pieces, quests to be completed, theme park rides in waiting. In the process, it's very clear that, in taking over the adaptation from Guillermo del Toro (meant to direct until he bowed out due to backers MGM's continuing financial issues), Mr. Jackson was working out of duty rather than desire.

      The rare moments in The Desolation of Smaug where you feel a glimpse of the magic the director brought to the three Lord of the Rings pictures are the harder-driving adventure sequences (the spiders of Mirkwood, the escape from the Wood-Elves, the hide-and-seek with Smaug). There's a kinship there with Mr. Jackson's way with genre tropes, with the episodic dimension of the plot suggesting as well there could be an attempt at some sort of contemporary equivalent of old-fashioned serials (in which case the nearly three-hour running time is very much ill-advised, as there's an impression of sludging through it all for little or no reward given the brutal cliffhanging ending). And, despite all the self-evident technical excellence, there's an enormous feeling of a cash cow being milked for purely mercenary reasons, essentially demeaning the visible effort and care being put into the work.

Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Mr. Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie (colour, widescreen)
Music: Howard Shore
Designer: Dan Hennah
Costumes: Bob Buck, Ann Maskray, Richard Taylor
Visual effects: Mr. Taylor, Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton
Editor: Jabez Olsson
Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Ms. Walsh, Mr. Jackson (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, New Line Cinema and Wingnut Films)
USA/New Zealand, 2013, 160 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo Imax, Lisbon, December 11th 2013

Nominated for three 2013 Academy Awards (Visual Effects; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing) 


Thursday, December 12, 2013

YI DAI ZONG SHI (The Grandmaster)

As dazzlingly shot, sumptuously presented and breathtakingly romantic as it is, Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster sees the Hong Kong filmmaker, now working well within the mainstream Chinese system, come dangerously close to self-parody. Though on the surface an incursion into martial arts films under the guise of a loose biography of 20th century martial arts master Ip Man, who would later become known as the master under whom Bruce Lee studied, The Grandmaster is in fact yet another one of Mr. Wong's melancholy tales of unrequited love, another moodpiece of silences, brooding longings and fleeting moments of passion.

     Here, that comes through the unspoken and never admitted romance between the unassuming, married Ip Man (Mr. Wong's regular accomplice Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and the impulsive, haughty Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), daughter of retiring kung fu master Gong Baosen. The love story is channeled into the precision-tooled art of martial arts moves, its flowing gestures and ritualised elements, lovingly and stylishly photographed and edited for maximum effect, becoming in effect a sort of courtship between equals.

     But for all the exquisite technical work (Philippe le Sourd's cinematography is never less than a wonder to behold), The Grandmaster reveals Mr. Wong is seriously treading water, devolving into a series of enthralling but ultimately hollow set pieces only lightly threaded together. The biographical aspects take a backseat in the narrative to the impossible relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er, suggesting that the director is in fact remaking once more the masterful In the Mood for Love; the narrative, in the meantime, is yet again treated by Mr. Wong as a mere clothesline, an excuse to let loose his unique, by now trademarked visual stylings, as visible in the fact that some of the supporting characters seem to have no real justification for appearing in the film. Ultimately, The Grandmaster becomes a mere perfectionist, decorative application of the formula Mr. Wong has been working with since In the Mood for Love, and it's a damn shame that it is.

Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Ziyi Zhang, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Xiao Shenyang, Song Hye-kyo
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Screenwriters: Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng, Mr. Wong, from a story by Mr. Wong
Cinematography: Philippe le Sourd  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi, Nathaniel Mechaly
Designers: William Chang Suk-ping, Alfred Yau Wai-ming
Costumes: Mr. Chang
Editors: Mr. Chang, Benjamin Courtines, Poon Hung-yiu
Martial arts choreography: Yuen Wo-ping
Producers: Mr. Wong, Jacky Pang Yee-wah  (Jet-Tone Films and SIL-Metropole Organisation in association with Annapurna Pictures, Block 2 Pictures and Bona International Film Group)
Hong Kong/China/France/USA, 2013, 123 minutes 

Screened: Berlin International Film Festival official out-of-competition screening, Cinemaxx 7, Berlin, February 7th 2013; distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon, November 29th 2013

Nominated for two 2013 Academy Awards (Cinematography; Costume Design)


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

NICHNASTI PA'AM LAGAN (Once I Entered a Garden)

A filmmaker who has always made a point of grounding his work in his own personal experience, Israeli provocateur Avi Mograbi has been exploring the mosaic tapestry of Middle Eastern and, more specifically, Israeli identity throughout the particular way he looks at and sees his homeland. Throughout his work he has been chronicling in a unique way the contemporary moral questions that the Middle Eastern cauldron throws up at regular intervals, with the weight of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict assuming a paramount importance in pieces such as Z32.

     While Avenge But One of Thine Own Eyes remains his most powerful statement in terms of a political view of the conflict, Once I Entered a Garden explores the issue differently by turning to the historical identity of a region whose constantly shifting borders seem to make the whole antagonistic history of Arabs and Jews a minor blip in the great forces of history. "You can't escape your own history", so is said ad some point, and Mr. Mograbi explores here the intertwined history of both ethnic groups by traveling with his teacher of Arabic language, Ali al-Azhari, a Palestinian who married an Israeli woman and lives in Tel Aviv, and enlisting him to help find the director's own Arab ancestors.

     The true central figure of Once I Entered a Garden, though, is Ali's daughter, Yasmine, a young child who belongs to two worlds and yet is stuck in a no man's land. On a day trip to Saffieyeh, the village near Nazareth where Mr. Al-Azhari was born, they find it perfectly integrated into Israeli society and full of "do not trespass" signs, bothering Yasmin no end as she is unable to understand the arbitrary divisions that mean she is not allowed in a local children's park. These divisions without whom her elders can't seem to be able to live will eventually erode in time, suggesting a hope for the future that Messrs. Al-Azhari and Mograbi may not live to see, as their time shall pass and conflict will no longer seem inevitable.


     Once I Entered a Garden is richer in Mr. Mograbi's usual dry, garrulous humour that often makes him a sort of Israeli counterpart to Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, and his welcoming, encompassing style where the film is not only his but also of his co-workers -  Mr. Al-Azhari's and even DP Philippe Bellaïche's. Though it may at first seem slightly more unfocussed, it actually becomes, as you let it unfold and sink in, one of Mr. Mograbi's most elaborate, enveloping and touching moments - one where it's really about the people making the film and how they fit and can make a difference in a bigger picture.

Director: Avi Mograbi
Screenwriters: Mr. Mograbi, Noam Enbar
Cinematography: Philippe Bellaïche
Music: Mr. Enbar
Editors: Mr. Mograbi, Rainer M. Trinkler
Producers: Serge Lalou, Mr. Mograbi, Samir (Les Films d'Ici, Avi Mograbi Films and Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion)
France/Israel/Switzerland, 2012, 103 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 official competition screener, Lisbon, October 17th 2013


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

TIAN ZHU DING (A Touch of Sin)

One of the most attentive and inspired chroniclers of modern China, Jia Zhang-ke's look at the evolving social issues of the "Middle Kingdom" hits new and more disturbing heights, in a sprawling compendium of tales of violence in the contemporary provincial areas of a country where progress and money have taken over simple human dignity. Allegedly inspired by classic martial arts films but unmistakably Mr. Jia's in style and mood, A Touch of Sin is based on actual events that took place in China and consists of four criss-crossing vignettes ripped from the headlines about four working-class people struggling to make ends meet and rise above their exploited nature - realising that society will not move a muscle to defend them.

     Dahai (Jiang Wu) is incensed that his village has been taken over by greedy moneymen who funnel the profits to their own pockets; San'er (Wang Baoqiang) finds there's much power involved in brandishing a gun; Xiaoyiu (Zhao Tao) is harassed by both the wife of her married lover and by the customers of the sauna she works in as a receptionist; Yiaohui (Luo Lanshan) realises his future is merely switching between two low-paying factory jobs.

     Mr. Jia's work has always been extremely attentive to mood and character, and the way he weaves fiction and documentary into his films has helped him carve a unique place in contemporary cinema; the more straight-forward episodic nature of A Touch of Sin is in no way a departure for him, but their relay structure, while a welcome relief from the fad of intercut mosaic films that ought surely to have been outlawed by now, raises other issues. The relentless bleakness of the content, its compassionate but never condescending look into the penny-pinching, daily bullying and humiliation these people go through, can suggest this is too much of a message film, presenting far too bluntly the need for compassion and humanity in a society convulsed by consumer wealth and moral injustice than in previous, great films by Mr. Jia such as I Wish I Knew or The World. And yet, that may be also be due to the film's structure and length - by the time we reach the last and bleakest of the four tales and the supposedly hopeful coda of an ever-remaining faith in the future, it may all seem like overkill, regardless of A Touch of Sin being of a piece with everything else the director has made so far.

     The film does maintain his observational look at people, his almost effortless magic in recognising the beauty of small moments as well as the refusal to let his characters become mere archetypes or symbols and exist as fully rounded, three-dimensional people, with DP Yu Lik Wai's crystal-clear framing of these people and their surroundings always explaining what's at stake here. Reckoned by some observers as an attempt to engage more deeply and directly with the issues of contemporary China - and stumbling on the local authorities' unwillingness to allow a local release - A Touch of Sin may not be one of Mr. Jia's masterpieces, but despite any doubts is yet another excellent film from one of the finest filmmakers in the world right now.

Cast: Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan
Director and screenwriter: Jia Zhang-ke
Cinematography: Yu Lik Wai  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Lim Giong
Art director: Liu Weixin
Costumes: Wang Tao
Editors: Lin Xudong, Matthieu Laclau
Producer: Shozo Ichiyama  (Xtream Pictures, Office Kitano and Shanghai Film Group Corporation in association with Shanxi Film Group, Bandai Visual and Bitters End)
China/Japan, 2013, 130 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, November 28th 2013


Monday, December 09, 2013

OLDBOY

While the remake is not something inherently problematic by itself, when it adds little or nothing to the original and/or is made for purely mercenary reasons it can be a soulless, pointless exercise. Despite the pedigree of all involved, Spike Lee's take on Korean director Park Chan-wook's cult sensation Oldboy never really hides its mercenary motivations, even if the director's well-known cheek and abrasiveness is present and correct. The original's brutal, numbing violence remains pretty much intact in Mr. Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich's take on the Korean adaptation of a Japanese graphic novel, messing enough with the original to make it more of an overt comment on contemporary America but retaining most of what made the original narrative so distinctive.

     The hapless salaryman lockd up for a generation to make amends for a fault he cannot remember is here all-American adman jerk Joe Doucett (a coiled, raging Josh Brolin), an undignified mess of machismo, arrogance and entitlement who sees his life collapse down the drain in one single night, the very same he is kidnapped mysteriously and thrown into a non-descript motel room that is actually a jail in disguise. Finally released 20 years later, three presidents, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War and countless other things have changed America; and during his time away so has Joe, from aspiring "one percenter" to wrathful vengeance machine atoning for his guilty conscience. He pieces together the mystery behind his penance with the help of kindly nurse Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) and bartender and old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli), only to realise he has always been a mere pawn in the hands of a "master of the universe" (an unctuously villainous Sharlto Copley) - one of the men he had wanted to become.

     Messrs. Lee and Protosevich successfully inject this subtext into the original narrative (with the film's constant surveillance issue also bringing to mind the current NSA scandals) but are otherwise content to respect Mr. Park's tone of gleeful, morally questioning and questionable satire, without truly adding anything else to the material. Worse, in attempting a new take on one of the original's signature scenes and failing, the director actually proves how pointless it is to try to remake a film that lived so much off its connection to a particular film culture for an audience that ideally wouldn't have been exposed to it - since there's little doubt that the idea behind remaking Oldboy as a "mainstream" American movie was to get it out of the "ghetto" "foreign films" have become in the US, while entirely unaware that its sheer "Korean-ness" would be part of its attraction.

     It's clear Mr. Lee tried to appropriate the material as his own (the constant references to New York's Chinatown suggest an attempt to work the celebrated "grindhouse" double bills of heavily dubbed Eastern kung fu movies into the film's tapestry), but the circumstantial issues surrounding its release suggest he didn't have his way with Oldboy: his three-hour director's cut was reportedly refused by the producers, leaving both Mr. Lee and Mr. Brolin sorely disappointed, and resulting in a streamlined 103-minute version that is actually shorter than the two-hour original and was half-heartedly released by its US distributor, about to be shuttered and folded. There's a sense that this Oldboy lost its footing somewhere in the end zone and in so doing wasted the good stuff it had going for itself.

Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Samuel L. Jackson (uncredited)
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Mark Protosevich, from the screenplay by Hwang Jo-yun, Im Jun-hyung and Park Chan-wook for Park Chan-wook's film Oldboy
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Roque Baños
Designer: Sharon Seymour
Costumes: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Producers: Roy Lee, Doug Davison, Nathan Kahane  (Good Universe, Vertigo Entertainment and 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks)
USA, 2013, 103 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, November 26th 2013


Friday, December 06, 2013

JIMMY P., PSYCHOTHÉRAPIE D'UN INDIEN DES PLAINES (Jimmy P., Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian)

I will admit to having a few issues with French director Arnaud Desplechin, a critics' darling whose work has always struck me as overly cerebral and very un-spontaneous, something quite astounding for a director with such a knack for actors; his works are typical of a certain style of thoughtful French "dinner mint" movies more enjoyable to think about afterwards than while they're actually on. I'd begun warming up to Mr. Desplechin with his wonderful all-star family tale Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), but after five years away, Jimmy P. seems to bring back with a vengeance everything that struck me as too conceptual and symbolic in works like Rois et reine (Kings and Queen) or Esther Kahn.

     Taking his cue from Romanian-born French "psycho-anthropologist" Georges Devereux's memoir of treating Native American Jimmy Picard in the late 1940s, the director seems here to be exploring a highly idealised concept of the connection between outsiders. Picard, a WWII veteran suffering from psychic troubles that we'd later call post-traumatic stress disease, is part of an ethnic minority still treated as second-class citizens, even though his care at the Nebraska hospital Devereux is treating him in is stellar. Devereux is a published but misunderstood scholar seeking to be taken seriously and aiming at tenure. Yet, despite the best efforts of such wonderful actors as Benicio del Toro (playing Picard as a hurting, bewildered man who has no idea what's going on in his head) and Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric (playing Devereux as a wide-eyed bon vivant who believes in himself when no one else does), it's clear Mr. Desplechin lost his way.

     In attempting to display his own love for and homage to American post-war cinema, rendering the social and personal undercurrents that fed so much of the great films of the 1950s, the director merely stumbles head-on on a series of earnest but overdone clichés and creates a bewilderingly pointless case history doubling up as a sort of précis of psychotherapy under another name. It's also clear that he was aiming at using psychotherapy as a window into this new post-war world, a door opening into a possible understanding of the new demands being made on returning veterans by a shifting society. That he fails so staggeringly to do anything other than a fervent cheerleader for the greatness of therapy may be attributed to his fondness for theories above practice, for ideas above people; we leave the screening without being any closer to its characters than we were when we went in. Despite solid technical work all around and the excellence of the two leading men, this is simply a big miss.

Cast: Benicio del Toro, Mathieu Amalric, Gina McKee, Larry Pine, Joseph Cross, Elya Baskin, Gary Former, Michelle Thrush, Misty Upham, Jennifer Podemski, Michael Greyeyes, A. Martinez
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Screenwriters: Mr. Desplechin, Julie Peyr, Kent Jones, from the book by Georges Devereux, Psychothérapie d'un indien des plaines: réalité et rêve
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Howard Shore
Designer: Dina Goldman
Costumes: David Robinson
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Producers: Jennifer Roth, Pascal Caucheteux, Grégoire Sorlat  (Why Not Productions in co-production with Wild Bunch, Orange Studio, France 2 Cinéma, Hérodiade Films and Le Pacte, in association with Canal Plus, Ciné Plus, France Télévisions and Smuggler Films)
France/USA, 2013, 117 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 1, November 25th 2013


Monday, December 02, 2013

SHADOW DANCER

Award-winning British filmmaker James Marsh has been alternating documentary and fiction for a while now, but it's for the documentary side that he's better known, thanks to works such as Oscar winner Man on Wire or Project Nim. That should have changed with this adaptation of Tom Bradby's novel set in 1993, at the tail end of the Northern Irish Troubles: a smart, thoughtful, adult thriller entirely shot in hushed tones and muffled colours, as wide-ranging in its questions as Mr. Marsh's documentary work. The word "Troubles" is never even mentioned in the film, being unnecessary to this story of a Belfast woman stuck in a claustrophobic cycle of violence she no longer wants to be a part of, and set in motion with a virtually dialogue-free superb post-credit sequence propelled by mood and handling alone.

     Those ten minutes, following a period prologue, introduce us to Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) as she prepares to set a bomb in the London transit system only to be captured by British intelligence. Counter-terrorism agent Mac (Clive Owen) offers her the chance to make a new start in exchange for informing in the still-active group led by her brother Gerry (Aiden Gillen), unwilling to participate in the peace process. While this is a reasonably conventional starting point, what follows is, in some way, rather startling, since it looks at the reverse side of terrorism (regardless from its origins): it posits terrorism and counter-terrorism as both sides of a single, bureaucratic coin, a fossilised structure that seems to move of its own accord, a hierarchical, institutionalised chain of command where both Collette and Mac (two strong, coiled performances from Ms. Riseborough and Mr. Owen) are mere cogs, trapped in apparently endless recursive loops where one death begets another.

     Despite a few action scenes, Mr. Marsh's steady, inquisitive camera avoids deliberately any standard action film tropes, focussing on the damages to the personal lives of those who live daily under the shadow of death. The initial period prologue that explains where Collette comes from will eventually pay off in the film's closing scenes, and the director's choice of hushed, banal, almost cozy settings suggest just how much normality is impossible in these circumstances, with Collette's red coat referring both to the blood that has been shed and to her desire to stand out and move away from her grim surroundings. It's that focus on the personal that makes Shadow Dancer such a fit with Mr. Marsh's documentary work and a welcome, thoughtful thriller.

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Bríd Brennan, David Wilmot, Gillian Anderson, Clive Owen
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Tom Bradby, from his novel Shadow Dancer
Cinematography: Rob Hardy  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Designer: Jon Henson
Costumes: Lorna Marie Mugan
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Producers: Chris Coen, Andrew Lowe, Ed Guiney (The British Film Institute, BBC Films, Unanimous Entertainment, Element Pictures and Wild Bunch in association with Lipsync Productions and the Irish Film Board)
United Kingdom/Ireland/France, 2012, 102 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 23rd 2013