Monday, June 30, 2014

VIOLA

The playfulness and apparent "throw-away-ness" of Matías Piñeiro's Viola, its sense of wide-eyed aimlessness and openness to the world that surrounds its quasi-absence of plot is the key to the Argentine filmmaker's status as a darling of the cutting-edge film-critic community. And, indeed, there is a sense of freedom, an intriguing, almost fascinating incompleteness in the director's work, as well as a wry, deliberately off-beat comic sensibility, all of it coupled with an almost abstract feel, as if it were a sort of choreography of chaos. During its hour-long running time, I was reminded more than once of fellow Argentine Alejo Moguillansky's loopy, on-the-move Beckett homage Castro - and, not entirely unsurprisingly, Mr. Moguillansky is the editor of Viola, as indeed of most of Mr. Piñeiro's previous work.

     The second in a group of films loosely inspired by Shakespeare after the medium-length Rosalinda, Viola is a non-linear riff on Twelfth Night that seems to make a perverse point out of going nowhere, preferring to design itself as a relay race between characters and situations loosely interconnected. Whatever plot there is is a series of meetings, conversations and near-misses between (mostly) young women in Buenos Aires, from a courier for her boyfriend's music playlist service (wittily called Metropolis) to an actress performing in a Shakespeare staging, as cleverly and breezily presented (Fernando Lockett's cinematography is a pleasure to behold) as it is head-scratchingly puzzling - not that a film can't be transported by mood alone, but for some reason Viola keeps tantalizing you with possibilities that it never truly follows through on. There's a sense that this is really a divertissement put on by a group of friends for their own pleasure, seemingly invented as they go along, leaving everything suspended in mid-air or mid-sentence. Whether you will fall under the spell of Mr. Piñeiro's film depends essentially on your own tolerance towards more free-spirited, non-linear propositions; personally, I found it as endearing and intriguing as frustrating.

VIOLA
Argentina 2012
62 minutes
Cast María Villar, Agustina Muñoz, Elisa Carricajo, Romina Paula, Laura Paredes, Gabi Saidón, Esteban Bigliardi, Julián Tello, Julia Martínez Rubio
Director and screenwriter Matías Piñeiro; cinematographer Fernando Lockett (colour); composers Mr. Tello and John Aylward; art director Agustina Costa; editor Alejo Moguillansky; producer Melanie Schapiro; production company Revolver Films in association with Universidad del Cine and Alta Definición Argentina
Screened November 11th 2013, Lisbon (Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival screener)



Trailer-Viola from Matias Piñeiro on Vimeo.

Friday, June 27, 2014

MON ÂME PAR TOI GUÉRIE (One of a Kind)

Frédi is a broken man. We think we know why as we watch him pull over into a trailer park on a bike in his battered old leather jacket and pick up a couple of beers from the fridge to share with an older man. But the pleasure in François Dupeyron's urgent, constantly shifting drama is to find there are more, different, reasons for Frédi's despondency, and to actually see him glue back together the broken pieces as he comes to terms with the unusual circumstances of his life.

     As portrayed with a winning generosity and heart by the great French actor Grégory Gadebois, Frédi is a sensitive, big-hearted giant whose touchy relationship with his ex-wife and irregular epileptic seizures conspire to keep his head down. He lives in a trailer park outside a coastal French town, near his drinking buddies and his laid-off father (the great Jean-Pierre Darroussin), downing beers at a fast rate, occasionally going out for casual sex with a local prostitute and still smarting from the recent death of his mother. Mr. Dupeyron had been attempting to set up this adaptation of his own 2009 novel for years without success, until he finally shot it with a reduced budget in a freeform, handheld style; while he maintains his film solidly anchored on a working-class reality that reminds me of the Marseille filmmaker Robert Guédiguian, he injects just the right amount of mystery and supernatural to add an intriguing overlay to his story.

     Frédi's late mother has handed him down a "gift", that of healing by touch, coupled with a sensitivity, an "aura" if you'd like, that allows him to diagnose the actual reason for the ailments. Reluctant at first to exercise his gifts, unable to deal head-on with the misery and despair of those who come to him as a last resort, Frédi eventually realises, after a devastating accident, that his only way out is to embrace things head-on instead of refusing them - a metaphor for engaging with the world, for making the most of your life, that leads him to cross paths with the alcoholic wreck that is Nina (Céline Sallette). In her the kind giant recognises a kindred spirit, someone who hides from the real world for fear of not being strong enough to deal with it, in a standard trope of the French relationship drama that Mr. Dupeyron happily tears apart through his focus on the moment and the urgency, on the individual scenes and on the relationship between the characters.

     The introduction of Frédi's mystical powers and the director's focus on long, intimate takes that never feel obtrusive bring a suggestion of Bruno Dumont's demanding opaqueness (and that merely underlines how Mr. Dupeyron, throughout his idiossyncratic career, has never really managed to create a filmmaking, auteurist identity). But at the same time, Mon âme par toi guérie wears its heart on its sleeve with such transparency and honesty, and is so generous with what it gives to and receives from its cast, that all the obvious traps such a film might find itself mired in are somehow magically avoided. Part of it is the forcefulness of Mr. Dupeyron's handling, tracing a conservative narrative arc through focusing on all the off-beats of the plot, part of it is the magnificent performances of a cast that runs with the hurt and joy of these characters as if they were born to play them, led by the regal Mr. Gadebois in one of those performances that make you want to stand up and cheer. This is by no means a perfect film - slightly overlong, occasionally redundant, skirting gaucheness through its overbearing honesty - but that only makes it a more endearing, fascinating piece of work.

MON ÂME PAR TOI GUÉRIE
France 2013
124 minutes
Cast Grégory Gadebois, Céline Sallette, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Marie Payen, Philippe Rebbot, Stéphan Wojtowicz
Director and screenwriter François Dupeyron; based on the novel by Mr. Dupeyron Chacun pour soi, Dieu s'en fout; cinematographer Yves Angelo (colour, widescreen); music Nina Hagen, Roman Reg, Jean-Christophe Dorado aka Vanupié and The Swingsons; designer Bernard Bridon; costumes Catherine Bouchard; editor Dominique Faysse; producer Paulo Branco; production companies Alfama Films in co-production with Kinology
Screened June 19th 2014, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, June 26, 2014

LOCKE

Ivan Locke may very well be "the best man in England", as is said at one point, but his painful "pilgrim's progress" while on the road to London only underlines how hard it can be to do the right thing and how wrong can it also be. Over the course of a motorway road movie that never leaves either its one set or its one actor, writer/director Steven Knight crystallizes a single moment in life where a man has to choose between hell and high water, aware that the right thing is anything but a zero sum game. With a demanding, important job coming up in the morning in his capacity as a construction foreman but a one-night stand about to give birth early to his unexpected child in London, Locke has to juggle work, marriage and life in order to do what he believes to be right.

     The key to the second directing effort from the writer of Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things lies in the unusual device Mr. Knight has chosen for his tale of yet another man at a crossroads: only one actor on screen inside a moving car in nearly real time. All information is conveyed purely through dialogue as Locke makes and takes hands-free phone calls and occasionally attempts to rationalise his decision by talking to himself or, more adequately, the absent father whose example has led him to this situation. Though other actors pitch in as the disembodied voices on the phone, Locke is essentially a one-man show and the always great Tom Hardy repays Mr. Knight's confidence in him with a sterling, delicately handled performance, entirely based on posture, voice and face work. His almost casual intensity, simultaneously coiled and relaxed, able to effortlessly pull up the right emotion at the right moment with an almost eerie rightness, is the acting equivalent of precision driving in a film that can occasionally feel as if it's running around in circles.

     Though the narrative construction of Mr. Knight's script is impeccable, there's really only so much cutaways and different angles you can shoot in such a limited set. The writer/director was right to choose an actor whose sheer presence and enthusiasm would make up for the aesthetic limitations both his handling and the film's constraints show (the many motorway shots can occasionally suggest an over-expanded driving montage, and the score by usually spot-on composer Dickon Hinchliffe is more intrusive than it should be). Despite the smartness of the film's formal experiment and the strength of its scripting, Locke's intimacy can feel somewhat too small for the big screen, the depth of field of its widescreen threatening to drown what might have made a first-rate TV drama. But the intelligence with which Mr. Hardy and Mr. Knight feed off each other throughout, with the actor pushing the script to new heights and the director making the most of his actor's performance, more than make up for any shortcomings. It's a modest, smart film that simply wants to tell a good story well, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

LOCKE
United Kingdom, USA 2013
84 minutes
Cast Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels
Director and screenwriter Steven Knight; cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (color, widescreen); composer Dickon Hinchliffe; costumes Nigel Egerton; editor Justine Wright; producers Paul Webster and Guy Heeley; production companies IM Global and Shoebox Films
Screened June 6th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

TOM À LA FERME (Tom at the Farm)

For his fourth feature, Canadian wonder boy Xavier Dolan adapts Michel Marc Bouchard's stage play and ejects most of the pop culture flourishes that had become trademarks of his previous, self-penned films. It's a strong suggestion that, with this claustrophobic three-hander set in rural Canada, Mr. Dolan, only just 24 at the time of its completion, wanted to make clear that he could also be an adult, sober filmmaker, in a sort of "rite of passage" to shut up those who still see him as a flash in the pan or as a yet unformed talent.

     But while it is, in fact, sober and very focused, Tom à la ferme is not exactly the "grown-up" film Mr. Dolan might have set out to do. For me it's not as mature as the sprawling Laurence Anyways: while it's always laudable to see a filmmaker stretching, the self-contained Cold Comfort Farm claustrophobia of the new film is less of a fit for Mr. Dolan's flashy sensibility than the more expansive gestures of previous work. Gabriel Yared's Bernard Herrmann-ish score creates a Hitchcockian tension, extended by the pressure cooker atmosphere expertly ramped up by the director, but that the plot doesn't really have much sustenance for.

     While the film is in constant danger of bursting apart at the seams, it's to Mr. Dolan's credit that the result sets up such an oppressive, disquieting mood and opens out successfully Mr. Bouchard's play, showing what happens when gay, urbane ad man Tom (played by the director) travels to the countryside for the funeral of his boyfriend and finds himself at the mercy of the menacing older brother. Hyper-macho, seemingly homophobic and estranged from the community around him, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) has created an elaborate fantasy to hide from his mother (Lise Roy) that his brother, who left for the big city as soon as he could, was gay. What follows is an outlandish take on the Stockholm Syndrome where Tom and Francis circle each other warily with a combination of disgust and desire, seeking to hold on to something of the dearly departed and finding much of their own identity interlocked with it in ways they can't quite explain.

     But the unusual ménage à trois with the deceased brings out a few suggestions of past misdeeds that the film never really exploits properly, and becomes a sort of "intermission" in the real life of all involved, a sort of poison-pill that makes things get worse before they get better. Though handled with determination and poise, this gives Tom à la ferme a sense that this is more of an exercise for the filmmaker than a truly heartfelt project; an attempt to cut back on the flamboyance and come out with something more adult, taking on the questions of identity present throughout his films in a way that might be less abrasive for wider audiences. And while Mr. Dolan does come up with the goods in purely practical terms, the film does come across as an overly serious, almost calculated ploy. Nevertheless, it has been thrilling to watch the multi-hyphenate filmmaker "grow up in public" ever since his very promising debut J'ai tué ma mère, and if this seems to be a step back from Laurence Anyways, it does prove that there are more arrows to his bow than most think.

TOM À LA FERME
France, Canada 2013
103 minutes
Cast Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu
Director, costume designer and editor Mr. Dolan; screenwriters Mr. Dolan and Michel Marc Bouchard; based on the stage play by Mr. Bouchard Tom à la ferme; cinematographer André Turpin (colour); composer Gabriel Yared; art director Colombe Raby; producers Nathanaël Karmitz, Charles Gillibert and Mr. Dolan; production companies MK2 Productions and Sons of Manual in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma
Screened June 11th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

ENEMY

Reuniting with his Prisoners star Jake Gyllenhaal for an equally moody but much less accessible project, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve exquisitely weaves a disquieting web of mysteries and anxieties in this adaptation of the late Nobel winning writer José Saramago's novel The Double. In it, a morose, lonely teacher accidentally discovers the existence of a perfect doppelgänger of his, living on the other side of town, and accelerating a collision course between them. Under the sign of the book's epigraph - "chaos is order as yet undeciphered" - Mr. Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón guide the material toward a nightmarish tale of the Twilight Zone, the existence of these two identical people who lead different lives and seem the exact anthesis of each other remaining an unsolved puzzle that can suggest parallel realities crashing together, a ripple on the fabric of reality, or maybe even a pure hallucination presented as reality.

     For all intents and purposes, Enemy remains a formally remarkable thought experiment playing out in a permanently foggy, sickly lighted metropolis that could be a Matrix-like simulacrum, such is its functional lack of identity and personality. Inside this claustrophobic, swamp-like universe, Mr. Gyllenhaal crafts two expertly modulated performances; his adroitness at evoking the personalities of Alex, the slouched, uneasy history teacher, and Anthony, the self-confident, well-off actor vastly contributes to the underlying danger and constant questioning of the film's suggestive mood. That Enemy really offers no solution to its central narrative puzzle (how can the co-existence of these "doubles" be explained) isn't necessarily a problem, but the key issue that has hindered previous adaptations of Saramago works is the need to reconfigure for the big screen a surreal, fantastical tone that seems to grow of its own accord out of the routine of reality.

     Instead, both the director and the writer underline the eerieness and the strangeness of the events in a reality where everything feels slightly off and unreal, stripping the tale of its existential, regular-joe questioning to move it towards genre brain-teaser. And it's certainly an intriguing enough brain-teaser for most of its length, eventually ending up running on an empty tank, unsure how or why to get out of the cul-de-sac it has closed itself into. Whether by default or by design ends up being irrelevant for the viewer, who will undoubtedly find his brain being far too much teased by the film's unconventional and, ultimately, unsatisfying ending.

ENEMY
Canada, Spain 2013
91 minutes
Cast Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini
Director Denis Villeneuve; screenwriter Javier Gullón; based on the novel by José Saramago The Double; cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc (colour, widescreen); composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans; designer Patrice Vermette; costumes Renée April; editor Matthew Hannam; producers Niv Fichman and Miguel A. Faura; production companies Rhombus Media and Roxbury Pictures in co-production with Microscope and Mecanismo Films
Screened June 5th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Monday, June 23, 2014

YVES SAINT-LAURENT

In the battle of the competing biopics of fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, actor Jalil Lespert's "official" entry got first to the finish line. Unlike Bertrand Bonello's competing version, which has no claim to being an "official", standard biopic, Mr. Lespert's was sanctioned by the designer's estate and especially his surviving partner and guardian of the heritage, Pierre Bergé, from whom it received full cooperation. As such, it is far from memorable, though hardly a sycophantic hagiography, merely a handsome yet forgettable story focusing almost entirely in Saint-Laurent's years as a designer.

     From his understudy days at Christian Dior through his disastrous run-ins with the authorities over his military service at the time of the war in Algeria, to the founding and triumph of his own fashion house, Saint-Laurent is portrayed as an inspired but insecure man who sought refuge in his work and could cut people off at a fingersnap, and whose long-lasting romantic relationship with Mr. Bergé was fraught with issues. This is where Mr. Lespert's film, based on the official biography fashion journalist Laurence Benaïm wrote while the designer was still living, sets itself apart from other biopics: it does not hide nor makes a fuss over the homosexuality of its central figure, instead treating it with a straight-forwardness and normality highly unusual for such a traditional, classically formatted biopic. It's highly unlikely that an American equivalent would be as open and frank about it as Yves Saint-Laurent is, which is also a consequence given its subject.

     But that frankness is really the only interesting feature of this stilted and good-looking but ultimately very shallow film. While it's clear that for Saint-Laurent fashion was the be-all and end-all of his life, the film never really explores why, settling in for a series of elegantly presented fashion shows intercut with the designer's search for himself as he deals with the real world and the impossible demands his perfectionism makes. There's never a sense of a narrative arc, replaced by an episodic stream of "selected highlights", and were the couple not wonderfully played by Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne, who make Saint-Laurent and Bergé come alive and feel thrillingly real, Yves Saint-Laurent would be merely a pretty fashion spread you skim over without really engaging. With Messrs. Niney and Gallienne, it's merely a wasted opportunity and eye candy for fashionistas.

YVES SAINT-LAURENT
France 2013
105 minutes
Cast Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlotte le Bon, Laura Smet, Marie de Villepin, Nikolai Kinski, Ruben Alves, Astrid Whetnall, Marianne Basler, Jean-Édouard Bodziak, Adeline d'Hermy, Xavier Lafitte, Alexandre Steiger, Philippe Morier-Genoud, Anne Alvaro
Director Jalil Lespert; screenwriters Marie-France Huster, Mr. Lespert and Jacques Fieschi; based on the book by Laurence Benaïm Yves Saint-Laurent; cinematography Thomas Hardmeier (colour, widescreen); composer Ibrahim Maalouf; designer Aline Bonetto; costumes Madeline Fontaine; editor François Gédigier with Nicolas Criqui; producers Wassim Béji and Yannick Bolloré; production companies WY Productions, SND, Ciné France 1888, Hérodiade Films and Umedia in association with Ufund
Screened May 13th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



Friday, June 20, 2014

LES GARÇONS ET GUILLAUME, À TABLE! (Me, Myself and Mum)

Not every local phenomenon can - or even will - translate abroad, but by virtue of its unusual take on a universal subject, acclaimed French actor Guillaume Gallienne's film may well hit the mark outside France, where it became a huge commercial hit and made a killing at the local César awards ceremony. This is because Les garçons et Guillaume, à table! deals, often very funnily, with the pains of growing up and accepting yourself as you grow out of adolescence and into adult life. It's a story of triumph over adversity, of finding your own voice and sticking to it against thick and thin - and it's also a very personal tale for Mr. Gallienne, who is essentially staging his own coming of age in this adaptation of his deliriously successful one-man-show that played to packed houses in Paris.

     Everybody in the Gallienne family is convinced Guillaume is gay from a very young age, when in fact he's just a confused boy more in touch with his feminine side than most everyone else, compounded by an unending love and admiration for his forceful mother - making this not so much a gay coming-out story as a straight coming-out story (in fairness, it's the sort of thing only a French filmmaker would even try to film and get away with). That Les garçons et Guillaume, à table! has its origins in a stage performance is something that Mr. Gallienne, also starring, directing and scripting, smartly decides to show from the beginning (with a long steadycam tracking shot as he crosses the warren of backstage rooms and corridors to get to the stage where he begins unraveling his tale).

     But where, on stage, the actor was on his own and conjured up the characters from thin air, on screen it's a different thing, with the story opening out to let other actors perform the other roles in true-to-life settings, exception made to the mother who is a force of nature (Mr. Gallienne plays both her and his own younger self through the magic of digital trickery). And suddenly the storytelling aspect that's good about the premise, an actor revealing his true personality through performance and narration, becomes an afterthought. Though elegantly shot and with a few inspired plot devices, the film does resolve itself into a pacy but predictable revue of (often funny) comedy sketches that milk the drag aspect for all it's worth, with the stage performance device surfacing irregularly as a transition between episodes.

     More interestingly (if not more comfortably), it's also a film that upends political correctness with a genuinely disarming sense of humour, revealing just how much of the coming-out queer cinema tropes have been influenced by traditional coming-of-age tales; whether Mr. Gallienne wants to reclaim them wittingly or that is just a side effect of his retelling of his own peculiar experience is up to the individual viewer. What there can be no doubt about is the excellence of the actor's performance at the centre of Les garçons et Guillaume, à table!, with Mr. Gallienne perfectly in control of tone and precisely modulating his multiple performances; while this is not just filmed theatre, there's a sense it's never quite a fully fledged film either.

LES GARÇONS ET GUILLAUME, À TABLE!
France, Belgium 2013
87 minutes
Cast Guillaume Gallienne, André Marcon, Françoise Fabian, Nanou Garcia, Diane Kruger, Reda Kateb
Director Mr. Gallienne; screenwriters Mr. Gallienne with Claude Mathieu and Nicolas Vassiliev; based on the stage play by Mr. Gallienne, Les garçons et Guillaume, à table!; cinematographer Glynn Speckaert (colour, widescreen); composer Marie-Jeanne Séréro; designer Sylvie Olivé; costumes Olivier Beriot; make-up Dominique Colladant; editor Valérie Deseine; producers Édouard Weil, Cyril Colbeau-Justin and Jean-Baptiste Dupont; production companies LGM Films, Rectangle Productions, Don't Be Shy Productions, Gaumont and France 3 Cinéma in co-production with Nexus Factory and uFilms
Screened June 9th 2014 (DVD)


Thursday, June 19, 2014

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

Is there a correct answer to the quandary presented by the title of American director Jim Jarmusch's latest film? The invocations of romanticism presented by Only Lovers Left Alive fit in just perfectly with all of the recent work by the veteran of the US' truly independent film scene; over the past two decades, he has been quietly amassing a series of hyper-romantic elegies for a mythical "state of the art" that has been slowly vanishing from under his feet. Ever since the regretful zen noir of the glorious Ghost Dog, nearly all of the director's films have been hushed laments for what once was and no longer can be (none more so, maybe, than his most high-profile work in a long time, Broken Flowers).

     The metaphor could not be plainer than in Only Lovers Left Alive, whose nominal heroes are vampires, the eternal undead; only Mr. Jarmusch's vampires, portrayed soulfully by the ever wondrous Tilda Swinton and a surprising Tom Hiddleston, are aristocrats. They're a vanishing breed of artful, understated elegance, the essence of what makes mankind human distilled into a purity of blood, a generosity of gaze, an attention to detail; all of it setting this genteel elite apart from the "illiterate zombie philistines" condemned to short, miserable lives and unable to appreciate the beauty and art of all that surrounds them.

     It might seem the recipe for a nihilistic, reactionary rant against the passing of the time and the dying of the light; but there's hardly anything nihilistic or reactionary in the film, thanks to Mr. Jarmusch's trademark wry, self-deprecating, self-aware humour. Eve and Adam, his undead heroes, seem to revel in the quiet domesticity of a long-time couple (there are times where Only Lovers Left Alive seems like a nocturnal, subversive sitcom), enjoy long drives at night, affect a numbed, too-cool-for-school existence, seem to live in a cloistered world of their own. Their paradise is a decrepit Detroit mansion, a haven from which the unstoppable lust of Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska, playing the snake) eventually chases them. And, when push comes to shove, even these aesthetes that seem to hover above us will allow their animal nature to come to the fore.

     Does all of this make Only Lovers Left Alive a mere tongue-in-cheek provocation or a sincerely genuine proposition? Personally, I think it the latter, its elegy for what was and the need to move forward climaxing at the impossibly romantic ending that reminds me (improbably, yes, I know) of John Wayne's graveside talks in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Regardless, this is a spellbinding, masterful work, a slow-motion love story guided with infinite elegance by Mr. Jarmusch's hyper-classic handling, hypnotising the viewer through the layered electrics of Jozef van Wissem's score (with contributions from the director's own rock band, Sqürl) and the hushed, earthy nocturnal tones of Yorick le Saux's murky cinematography. These vampires who remain desperately in love against all odds are, like all of Mr. Jarmusch's heroes, the art lovers, the misfits, the freaks, the people struggling to survive in a world that seems to no longer appreciate what living is worth. That they are the undead is yet another smart, self-aware wink in a film whose nooks and crannies are a who's who of what's what in pop culture.

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
United Kingdom, Germany, USA, Greece, France 2013
123 minutes
Cast Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi, John Hurt
Director and writer Jim Jarmusch; cinematographer Yorick le Saux (colour); composer Jozef van Wissem; additional music by Sqürl; designer Marco Bittner Rosser; costumes Bina Daigeler; editor Affonso Gonçalves; producers Jeremy Thomas and Reinhard Brundig; production companies Recorded Picture Company, Pandora Film and Snow Wolf Productions in co-production with ARD-Degeto, Lago Film and Neue Road Movies Filmproduktion, in association with Faliro House Productions, Le Pacte and Hanway Films
Screened May 27th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

MALEFICENT

It takes a bona fide film star to get something like Maleficent made (even if not just in this day and age), and while there aren't that many these days, Angelina Jolie's public image more than fits the bill. But, as always with Hollywood tentpoles, a film star by herself can't save below-par material or flawed executions. This revisionist take on the story of the curse-casting villainess in Sleeping Beauty could have made for an intriguing film, but the result is a (perhaps unwitting) future camp classic, a compendium of how to waste a perfectly good premise on a dismal object.

     The fault isn't Ms Jolie's: she is pitch perfect as Maleficent, the determined guardian of the enchanted kingdom of Moors, whose betrayal at the hands of future king Stefan (Sharlto Copley) turns her into the vengeful, cruel witch of the fairy tale. The actress moves effortlessly from charm and kindness to poisonous, playful wit and sorrowful thoughtfulness, giving Maleficent the right amount of seriousness without ever losing sight that her performance needs a fair amount of humour to work, and always making sure the audience - whether grown-up or young - is with her every step of the way.

     The problem is elsewhere. Debuting helmer Robert Stromberg, an Oscar-winning designer and effects artist who has worked with James Cameron and Tim Burton, doesn't follow Ms. Jolie's lead and over-eggs the pudding, the decorative, baroque set designs, flamboyant swooping shots and the visual bombast continuously distracting the viewer. The actress is creating a character, shading it as much as she can; the director seems more interested in supplying ideas for possible theme park rides. What comes out is a stilted, awkward film that wants to touch as many bases as it could be (family fantasy, female empowerment drama, parable of maternity) but ultimately falls short of all of them, wanting to have its cake and eat it too but tripping over itself in the process.

     There is a more nuanced and less simplistic revision of the villain role in a Disney fairy tale here, as some critics have correctly noted. But it quickly gets buried in the blockbuster spectacle requirements that drown any subtlety Maleficent might aspire to, wasting a wonderful supporting cast in almost non-existent roles (Elle Fanning has, literally, nothing to do as the super-sweet Aurora, and it's shameful to have Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville only to give them farcical pantomime roles). It's a charmless reworking, worth seeing only for Ms. Jolie's performance - one that disproves the need for any further special effects.

MALEFICENT
USA 2014
97 minutes
Cast Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville
Director Robert Stromberg; screenwriter Linda Woolverton; based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault Sleeping Beauty and on the Walt Disney adaptation by Erdman Penner; cinematographer Dean Semler (colour, widescreen); composer James Newton Howard; designers Gary Freeman and Dylan Cole; costumes Anna B. Sheppard; editors Chris Lebenzon and Richard Pearson; effects supervisor Carey Villegas; special make-up Rick Baker; producer Joe Roth; production companies Walt Disney Studios and Roth Films
Screened June 4th 2014 (distributor press screening, NOS Alvaláxia 6, Lisbon)


Monday, June 09, 2014

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

Of all the possible genres that Seth MacFarlane could spoof, what possessed him to go choose the only one that might not mean a thing to general-interest contemporary audiences who have not grown up with westerns? After the successful twisted fairytale of Ted, Mr. MacFarlane must have had the choice of his material, so his decision to make a comedy western rings wilfully perverse - a defiant admission of love for a genre that has all but disappeared from a modern day Hollywood that is financially-minded as never before, as well as a show of confidence in his ability to pull it off in the contemporary climate. (Misguided, judging from the film's cool box-office reception.)

     In that sense, A Million Ways to Die in the West is as nostalgic, and as inherently personal, in its love of old-fashioned Hollywood as was Ted. There, the 1980s Spielbergian fantasy was given a raucous, self-deprecating sheen; here, it's the classic underdog western, the tale of the farming pioneer battling the harsh life of the Wild West frontier, that is given a subversive, realist twist. Mr. MacFarlane's hero, aggrieved sheep farmer Albert Stark (played by the director himself) bemoans throughout the film the absence of "all mod cons" in 1882 Arizona, the aggravation of living somewhere where anything can happen and anyone can die at any minute - making him a modern-day neurotic anachronistically transplanted to the 1880s.

     Still, behind all that, this is just like Ted: at heart a classic romantic comedy, the tale of the "bro" who wants to hang on to the right girl in his life, playing the usual arc "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" under cover of Saturday afternoon matinee make-believe juvenile heroics. But A Million Ways to Die in the West does not work as well as Ted did, and not because Mr. MacFarlane trades in anachronistic if fairly funny jokes; it doesn't work as well because the hyphenate star (acting, directing, producing and writing) continues to be a purely functional director with little visual sense and a sense of rhythm and tempo straight out of television comedy, and because he can't cut the film down to size. If "brevity is the soul of wit", to quote from Shakespeare, then Mr. MacFarlane allows himself to run well over time, without quite knowing when to stop.

     It's a shame, because while this is not another Blazing Saddles (made when westerns were still relevant and with a lot more scathing affection in 90 minutes than A Million Ways to Die in the West can muster in nearly two hours), it has much to enjoy, especially for genre fans who will recognise there's really not a nasty bone in the film's ribbing of reworking of western clichés, trashing it out of love rather than out of spite. There's another great comic turn from the criminally underrated Charlize Theron and a superb supporting double act from Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi. And, above all, there's the madness of wanting to do a spoof western in an era where the genre is retreating more and more in cinephile minds. That doesn't make A Million Ways to Die in the West more than a fun if forgettable film, but that it is this much fun might not have been expected.

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST
USA 2014
116 minutes
Cast Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson
Director Mr. MacFarlane; screenwriters Mr. MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild; cinematographer Michael Barrett (colour, widescreen); composer Joel McNeely; designer Stephen Lineweaver; wardrobe Cindy Evans; editor Jeff Freeman; visual effects Blair Clark; producers Scott Stuber, Jason Clark and Mr. MacFarlane; production companies Universal Pictures, Media Rights Capital, Fuzzy Door Productions and Bluegrass Films
Screened May 30th 2014 (distributor press screening, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon)


Friday, June 06, 2014

FADING GIGOLO

The desire to be a filmmaker and the talent to be a filmmaker do not always coexist in the same package, and one's success in one area of filmmaking doesn't necessarily translate into other areas. The case in point hero is John Turturro, a wonderful, smart, hard-working actor with an enviable Rolodex whose work as a film director has mostly been mired in awkward, embarrassingly half-baked projects wasting interesting premises and ideas.

     In many ways, the problem with Mr. Turturro's work is not in the conception but in the execution; as the would-be Dennis Potter-ish musical Romance and Cigarettes suggested, the actor tends to cram far too much into films whose meagre, flimsy construction can't support such over-egging. Fading Gigolo is more of the same, with enough ideas to fill two or three films uneasily balanced on top of each other and cancelling each other out. It's a failed attempt at a NYC fairy tale that aims for Paul Auster whimsy or Jim Jarmusch cool but ends up falling flat on its face.

     For all that, it must be said that neither this film nor his previous work are vanity projects; though here Mr. Turturro also takes the nominal lead role of Fioravante, a struggling New Yorker jack-of-all-trades, Fading Gigolo isn't a one-man-show but an ensemble piece where the actor/director/screenwriter spreads the love around a stellar, and very unlikely, cast. It's in that cast that lies the director's ace up his sleeve: the presence of Woody Allen in one of his rare acting jobs outside his own films, as the engine that sets the plot rolling, Murray, a bookseller and crafty salesman about to close up shop that entices Fioravante to become a Latin lover for hire for two women looking for a ménage à trois. (The two women are Sharon Stone and Sofía Vergara, as well-off straight Manhattanites and best friends.)

     Essentially, Mr. Allen plays a variation on himself (no stretch there), and is the "Jewish chorus" deus ex machina that makes all the characters collide. Not only does Murray get himself a new source of income as Fioravante's "pimp", but also hooks him up with, of all people, Orthodox Jewish widower Avigail (Vanessa Paradis - no, really), who comes at first for a back massage and ends up braving her community's disapproval (and especially that of the local policeman who pines for her from a distance, played by Liev Schreiber) to befriend the unlikely gigolo.

     Ethnic farce, sweet-natured romance and celebration of New York's melting-pot thus collide in what could have looked good on paper but turns out to fall entirely flat: Mr. Turturro never finds the correct tone to make it all work. Fading Gigolo is too gritty to work as a fairy tale, too farcical to work as romance, too realistic to be whimsical, too fanciful to be taken seriously; flitting uneasily between the sweet and the raunchy, the chaste and the raucous, and wasting in the process the best efforts of a cast eager to join in the fun. It's an amiable, well-meaning but utterly misguided and occasionally embarrassing effort.

FADING GIGOLO
USA 2013
90 minutes
Cast John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara
Director and screenwriter Mr. Turturro; cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo (colour); designer Lester Cohen; costumes Donna Zakowska; editor Simona Paggi with Robert Frazen; producers Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, Bill Block and Paul Hanson; production company Antidote Films
Screened May 23rd 2014 (distributor press screening, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon)


Thursday, June 05, 2014

A VIDA INVISÍVEL (The Invisible Life)

With his second feature film, Portuguese director Vítor Gonçalves enters rarefied company, as one of the few recluse directors in world cinema to return from a lengthy working hiatus. Part of the youthful film-school generation that came to light in 1980s Portugal, alongside Pedro Costa, Joaquim Leitão or João Canijo, Mr. Gonçalves seemed for too long to be a one-off director, his only credit being 1986's Uma Rapariga no Verão, a slender debut effort that never gained a proper commercial release; over a quarter century later, after a career spent mostly as a film school teacher, he has finally produced this follow-up (though for all practical effects this is his debut for most viewers).

     And it shows. The story of a man in stasis, unable to break free of the routine of his days until a tragic event forces a reckoning with his life, is an intriguingly suggestive metaphor of a director easing back into "real life" from a self-imposed exile. His character, mid-level bureaucrat Hugo Macedo (Filipe Duarte), finds he has to leave behind the hushed, wintry existence he has taken refuge in when his boss and mentor (João Perry) is hospitalized with a terminal illness. A Vida Invisível is a sort of "invisible film" itself; everything that happens in it seems to take place inside sound-proofed walls and never raises its voice, its inward-looking, cerebral tone very typical of the art cinema that has come to be identified with Portuguese auteurs. Much of it cannot be truly understood outside its context, and the awareness of Mr. Gonçalves' quarter-century hiatus, and the meta-dimension it gives it, doesn't automatically make up for the many issues it has.

     Prime amongst them is its somewhat dated, very 1980s-ish penchant for vague, diffuse, timeless tales and settings; it is never made clear what exactly Hugo does for a living, and he lives and works among mid-century furniture in a stylized mix of past and present. This gives the film a sense of an old script dusted off and reworked, though the central issue of a man coming to grips with his life is certainly timeless. But the film's slow rhythm and hushed tones also suggest that Mr. Gonçalves has pretty much picked up where he left off in 1986, unhelped by Leonardo Simões' uneven cinematography, capable of some dazzling games with light and shadow but also occasionally lost in the harsh grain of the digital photography.

     The result suggest that the years since may have passed the director by - an honest, decent but rather rigid film, one with a number of good things going for it but that needed a firmer, more experienced hand to pull off what it wants to do. For all intents and purposes, it's a sophomore work and it's unfair to ask it to be any more than that. But, given it's been a quarter century since Vítor Gonçalves' debut, would it be wrong to expect more than just this?

A VIDA INVISÍVEL
Portugal, United Kingdom 2013
102 minutes
Cast Filipe Duarte, João Perry, Maria João Pinho
Director Vítor Gonçalves; screenwriters Mr. Gonçalves, Mónica Santana Baptista and Jorge Braz Santos; cinematographer Leonardo Simões (colour); composer Sinan C. Savaskan; art director Patrícia Maravilha; costumes Sílvia Siopa and Paula Guerreiro; editors Rodrigo Pereira and Rui Alexandre Santos; producers Pedro Fernandes Duarte, Mr. Santos, Maria João Sigalho and Christopher Young; production companies Rosa Filmes and Young Films
Screened April 30th 2014 (distributor private screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon)


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

EDGE OF TOMORROW

After X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow is the second major Summer tentpole to play with the paradoxes of time travel - in this case applying the Groundhog Day recipe of a man trapped in an infinite loop to a science-fiction alien-invasion tale out of Independence Day. The kicker in Doug Liman's film is that the man being buffeted by the ironies of having to repeat a day ad eternum is a soldier on the front line of the final assault on the invading aliens - the futuristic equivalent of the WWII "D-day" landings on the French shores. Not just any soldier, but the Army PR man who "sold" the assault to the unsuspecting public, unwillingly demoted to rank private and forced onto the "tip of the spear". And, as fate would have it, it's this untrained, untested, unwilling fighter that turns out to hold the key to end the conflict once and for all...

     Unless he is played by Tom Cruise, in which case the entire concept of a man learning how to sacrifice himself for the greater good goes entirely down the drain. Mr. Cruise is not known, and ever since his major breakthrough nearly 30 years ago in Top Gun has not been known, for his "vulnerable" characters. And even if his all-American heroic image gets rumpled and dragged in the dirt in the first 20 minutes of Edge of Tomorrow (courtesy of a gleefully sadistic master sergeant played with gusto by Bill Paxton), it doesn't take too long for "normality" to resume its course, as the former advertising executive becomes a consummate one-man fighting machine thanks to the temporal anomaly he's found himself in.

     This turns Edge of Tomorrow in one of those cases of a film that wouldn't have been green-lighted without a star of Mr. Cruise's calibre, but that buckles severely under the strain of a cinematic persona that goes against its grain. It's not the first time this happens to the actor - Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds could have been a masterpiece with an entirely different star, since it was hellishly difficult accepting Mr. Cruise as a blue-collar deadbeat dad who finds himself on the run from the invading aliens. Edge of Tomorrow isn't as serious a case; director Doug Liman, known for kickstarting the Bourne franchise (but whose Bourne Identity was the least interesting in the series), is not Mr. Spielberg, and directs with a functional but ultimately anonymous hand. But still, despite its fairly derivative recycling of earlier, better films, it turns out to be a smartly intriguing premise wasted on a vehicle for a star that's clearly wrong for the part. This is made all the worse by the presence of British actress Emily Blunt opposite Mr. Cruise, since she hits the exact spot of vulnerability, steeliness and relatability to an audience that was never the forte of a star seemingly more and more past his prime.

EDGE OF TOMORROW
USA, Australia 2014
113 minutes
Cast Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson
Director Doug Liman; screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth; based on the novel by Hiroshi Sakuzaka, All You Need Is Kill; cinematography Dion Beebe (colour, widescreen); composer Christophe Beck; designer Oliver Scholl; costumes Kate Hawley; editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings; effects supervisor Nick Davis; producers Erwin Stoff, Tom Lassally, Jeffrey Silver, Gregory Jacobs and Jason Hoffs; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures and 3 Arts Entertainment in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment and Viz Productions
Screened May 26th 2014 (distributor press screening, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon)


Monday, June 02, 2014

A ERVA DO RATO (The Herb of the Rat)

Veteran Brazilian filmmaker Júlio Bressane is one of a generation of underground directors that blossomed in the shadow of the early 1960s Cinema Novo movement. And though he remains very much a cult proposition, both in his native country and abroad, time has conferred upon him the acclaim earned by a 50-year career spent doing things his way; Mr. Bressane is a living link with the 1960s, feverishly inventive generation of Glauber Rocha and the later Tropicalistas, and an avowed influence for the current generation of independent regional auteurs that has been coming to the fore in the 2000s.

     But, despite the "underground"/"radical" tag of many of his films, A Erva do Rato, currently his next-to-latest movie, is an elegantly enveloping and disquietingly diffuse "Brazilian Gothic", openly inspired (but not directly based on) two short stories from 19th-century writer Machado de Assis. It starts with a casual meeting in a cemetery between a man and a woman who will never be named (Selton Mello and Alessandra Negrini), the only characters in a two-hander that is by turns luminously cinematic, atmospherically literary and harshly theatrical in nature, without ever leaving the confines of the house where both live.

     Formally exquisite and narratively opaque, A Erva do Rato is less of a traditional, linear storyline, more of an edgy metaphorical exploration of sexuality as seen through a relationship literally born from death (the Man and the Woman meet in a cemetery where both are visiting the deceased) and rotting from the inside equally as literally. There is no sexual relationship between them throughout, as the Man seems to sublimate the sex they don't have through the fetishized sexual photography while the Woman can only give herself pleasure with the rats that prowl the house and nibble on the husband's pictures. What Mr. Bressane means by it all, though, is entirely up to the viewer and his tolerance level to the spell the director casts almost effortlessly.

     The conflagration of love, sex and death at work here has something of the accursed poet or of the fearless explorer of the darkest corners of the human psyche, but in going too far deep into the rabbit hole the director may have lost his way - A Erva do Rato has a rhythmic, musical sense of construction that invites repetition as much as redundancy, and at moments it feels too much as if Mr. Bressane delights too much in the form and not enough in the function. For all that, you may come out of the screening not understanding fully what it is you have just seen, but the ride is haunting enough to keep you guessing for a while.

A ERVA DO RATO
Brazil 2008
83 minutes
Cast Alessandra Negrini, Selton Mello
Director Júlio Bressane; screenwriters Rosa Dias, Mr. Bressane; cinematography Walter Carvalho (colour, widescreen); composer Guilherme Vaz; art director Moa Batsow; costumes Ellen Millet; editor Rodrigo Lima; producer Marcello Ludwig Maia; production companies República Pureza Filmes and TB Produções in co-production with Labo Cine do Brasil
Screened May 21st 2014 (DVD)