Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Lists are what they are. At my workplace, Público, I am usually asked my ten films of the year ranked preferentially; only new films commercially released in Portugal from Jan 1 to Dec 31 are valid, so no repertory, re-releases or unreleased festival screenings. My personal list is then subsumed into the collective: the final top-10 comes from the combination of the three resident critics' lists. Some films on my list for Público I had actually seen in 2013, but couldn't include them then because they hadn't been released in Portugal; some of the list below will be released commercially in Portugal during 2015.

I don't really like ranking films preferentially so my own personal list is more fluid, and takes every single thing I saw throughout the year, Jan 1-Dec 31. The list below links to my reviews on The Flickering Wall - not everything has yet shown up on the blog, but what hasn't will soon enough.

This year, there's a clear frontrunner:

1. Boyhood by Richard Linklater  (Berlin 2014)

And a very close runner-up:

2. Love Is Strange by Ira Sachs  (Berlin 2014)

The remaining are organized alphabetically.

3. 20,000 Days on Earth by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard  (commercial release)
4. Adieu au langage / Goodbye to Language by Jean-Luc Godard  (press screening in advance of Jan 2015 commercial release)
5. Branco Sai Preto Fica / White Out Black In by Adirley Queirós  (Doclisboa 2014)
6. Cavalo Dinheiro / Horse Money by Pedro Costa  (Locarno 2014)
7. Clouds of Sils Maria by Olivier Assayas  (Locarno 2014)
8. The Congress by Ari Folman  (commercial release)
9. Gone Girl by David Fincher  (commercial release)
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson  (Berlin 2014)
11. Higanbana / Equinox Flower by Yasujiro Ozu  (repertory release)
12. L'Image manquante / The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh (commercial release)
13. The Immigrant by James Gray  (commercial release)
14. Interstellar by Christopher Nolan  (commercial release)
15. Kis Uykusu / Winter Sleep by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (press screening in advance of Jan 2015 commercial release)
16. Letters to Max by Éric Baudelaire  (Doclisboa 2014)
17. Mahanagar / The Big City by Satyajit Ray  (repertory release)
18. Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch  (commercial release)
19. Snakeskin by Daniel Hui  (Doclisboa 2014)
20. Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer  (commercial release)

Best wishes for '15.


How little, or how much, has Portuguese cinema changed in the 40 years that have passed since the 1974 revolution that brought down the fascist regime of António de Oliveira Salazar? Or even in the half century since the Cinema Novo movement that, in the early- to mid-1960s, pushed a new generation of filmmakers, strongly influenced by the French Nouvelle Vague, to the forefront?

     In truth, watching today something like Brandos Costumes, Alberto Seixas Santos' 1975 debut feature, suggests much of what has become identified with contemporary Portuguese auteur cinema was entirely present already in the work of that generation. The abstract tone of this highly stylized take on the grey mores of pre-revolution Portugal pre-dates and anticipates the work of modern-day filmmakers such as Miguel Gomes or Pedro Costa; but, put into its proper socio-political-cultural context, Brandos Costumes was quite the departure, its openly auteurist tone effectively melding Mr. Seixas Santos' earlier career as a critic, a film student and the maker of industrial documentaries.

     While there is in fact a smidgen of narrative in the film, this is in fact much more of a mood-piece, a series of tableaux arranged in a satirical pageant that depicts a stifled, festering society in apparently contradictory ways, see-sawing between a more naturalistic portrayal and a minimalist, highly codified formal experiment. Almost entirely set in interiors and alternating both scripted fiction and archival footage, Mr. Seixas Santos' script, written with poets and writers Luiza Neto Jorge and Nuno Júdice, follows the members of an unnamed Lisbon family as they live under the shadow of the regime.

     Speaking in stilted dialogues or monologues that are mostly quoted from other sources (from official propaganda broadcasts to political tracts and resistance essays), echoing Jean-Luc Godard's most overtly political era, the characters are archetypal representations of the Portuguese society that the dictator Salazar once compared to a family. The parents (Luís Santos and Dalila Rocha) are conventional, conservative, conformist; the oldest daughter (Isabel de Castro) lives numbly, pining for her lover who has been sent to fight in the bloody fields of the African colonial wars; the youngest daughter (Sofia de Carvalho) has had enough and is looking for a way out of the maze she feels trapped in.

     Bookended by apparently unrelated but truly programmatic scenes, Brandos Costumes remains today a somewhat radical proposition in its abstract, low-budget stylization and the demands it places on the viewer that is not aware of the particular circumstances it was created in. Shot over two years, it was mostly finished before the 1974 revolution took place, giving its ending with an apparent revolution taking over the streets of Lisbon an eerily prescient feel; after the revolution, Mr. Seixas Santos further shaped the film with the addition of more topical material.

     Seen 40 years later, Brandos Costumes remains more than just a curio: it is a reflection of its time in a way few other Portuguese films ever were, and also of its director's impressive theoretical influences (Mr. Seixas Santos went on to a halting, uneven career that brought only three more features). But its mathematical, almost academic tone was also a foreword of the demanding auteurist cinema that Portugal has become known for internationally.

Portugal 1975
72 minutes
Cast Luís Santos, Dalila Rocha, Isabel de Castro, Sofia de Carvalho, Constança Navarro, Cremilda Gil
Director Alberto Seixas Santos; screenwriters Mr. Seixas Santos, Luiza Neto Jorge and Nuno Júdice; cinematographer Acácio de Almeida (colour); composer Jorge Peixinho; art director João Vieira; editor Solveig Nordlund; production companies Centro Português de Cinema and Tóbis Portuguesa
Screened April 1st 2014, Lisbon (DVD)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

No Man's Land

Somewhere in between Mad Max, Deliverance and the Coen brothers' patented brand of cynicism: that's where you'll find Chinese helmer Ning Hao's utterly deranged look at the most irredeemable aspects of society. A scathing satire wrapped inside an all-out, balls-to-the-wall exploitation thriller, No Man's Land revels in minutely detailing the sort of Cold Comfort Farm territory where an outsider's slightest unwitting misstep in an unwelcoming place unleashes a torrent of disaster, only with a snarky, almost nihilistic bite.

     The premise has big-city lawyer Pan Xiao (Xu Zheng) summoned to the God-forsaken vastness of the Gobi desert, to get a falcon poacher (Huang Bo) off the hook - only to find himself trapped in a progressively more surreal, quasi-Twilight Zone-ish series of scams, chases and twists that make his supposedly ruthless lawyerly tricks look like child's play next to the truly ruthless people that scrounge a living in these remote, forgotten places. As Pan realises everyone around him is an even bettler hustler than he is - down to the wily but also trapped prostitute played with great charm by Yu Nan - the city shark becomes a hunted minnow for a series of much more dangerous savage beasts (and the film's voiceover opens with "this is a story about animals", so there).

     Mr. Ning directs No Man's Land with an insouciant, derivative energy that suggests he's internalized the rules of contemporary Western genre film and is ready to pile everything on to deliberately excessive effect - as if style could be the only possible redemption for the film's avowed derivativeness. No Man's Land becomes a Pandora's box of ironic, surreal plot reversals that switch from survival thriller to post-modern western, appropriating genre codes and attitudes with a wink and a nod - cue Du Jie's stylishly desaturated lensing in sandy tones - but also a savage sense of none-more-black humour.

     That the release of No Man's Land was held up in China for four years, allegedly due to its nihilistic worldview of irredeemable corruption, comes as a surprise, especially given the rapturous success that received it at the Chinese box-office. And that such a Western-codified film is not receiving more Western acclaim, even among the "vulgar auteurism" defenders, remains much puzzling.

China 2013
117 minutes
Cast Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Huang Bo, Duo Bujie, Wang Shuangbao
Director Ning Hao; screenwriters Shu Ping, Xing Aina, Cu Xishu, Wang Hongwei, Shang Ke and Mr. Ning; cinematographer Du Jie (colour, widescreen); composers Nathan Wong, Dongdong and Jiang Wi; designer Xiao Yi; editor Du Yuan; producers Han Shanping and Zhao Haicheng; production companies China Film Company, Orange Sky Golden Harvest TV & Film Production Company, Guoli Changsheng Movies & TV Production, DMG Entertainment, Galloping Horse Productions, Bad Monkey and Emperor Film & Entertainment
Screened February 14th 2014, Friedrichstadtpalast, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition screening)

Monday, December 29, 2014


Yes, of course everyone's talking about The Interview. And, yes, of course everybody is talking about The Interview for all the wrong reasons, as expected. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's latest comedy has become a flashpoint in the media battle for freedom of expression, so much so that merely by watching this goofy, juvenile farce you, dear viewer, are taking a stand against technological surveillance, political blackmail and the like.

     You kind of wish that all the idealistic, noble stances had been generated by the film itself rather than by the circumstances surrounding it - to wit, the much-reported hacking of Sony Pictures' computer systems and the resulting diplomatic incident with North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong-Un is the target of a CIA assassination attempt in the plot.

     Which is not to say The Interview is a disaster. It's simply a not very good comedy that crumbles under the weight placed on its shoulders. Doubly ironic since the real subject of the film isn't so much North Korea's reclusive, totalitarian regime as it is the contemporary media coverage saturation of useless, frothy information, and the way it's undermining actual, real-issues, serious journalism.

     The heart of the film is Aaron Rapaport (Mr. Rogen, likable but hardly stretching), a journalism graduate who surrendered his dreams of serious reporting to become producer of a trashy talk show headlined by the conceited and clueless Dave Skylark (James Franco, giving free rein to his smarminess). Aaron's yearning for the noble thrill of breaking important stories is what starts the film's engine, when Kim Jong-Un (a dazzling Randall Park) is revealed to be a fan of American trash culture and offers the programme an exclusive interview - assuming, of course, that no serious questions will be asked. The CIA - in the shape of a seductive agent played by Lizzy Caplan - decides to co-opt Aaron and Dave to dispose of Kim, turning the film into a perfect mirror image of its central plot point.

     Just as Aaron's idealism and Dave's cluelessness throw them obliviously into a dangerous situation, so do Mr. Rogen, Mr. Goldberg and screenwriter Dan Sterling find themselves in over their heads, playing with fire without any real understanding of the possible consequences. The Interview does not have the comedic and narrative chops to reach Chaplinesque or Lubitschesque heights of political satire (elegance is not these guys' forte, even if the film has a nice, glossy sheen to it) - not that it stops the filmmakers from bumbling into that territory out of enthusiasm and sincerity.

     They come closer to stuff like Mel Brooks' 1960s TV spy spoof Get Smart!, especially in the film's middle act, where it really grinds into gear as an espionage comedy anchored on the unlikely "bromance" between Dave and the pop-culture-obsessed Kim to the strains of Katy Perry's "Firework". But once the real stakes are put through in very real blood and guts, The Interview is unable to hold on to its cheeky, larky tone, miscalculating so seriously the introduction of violence that it stops the viewer in its tracks.

     There may be a possible double standard at work here: we're ready to accept Quentin Tarantino rewriting history with Inglorious Bastards or Django Unchained, because he's a "serious" filmmaker (though one not above using gallows humour or pop-culture references to leaven his violence), but a comedy that dares to make fun of North Korea, even resorting to penile jokes and pop-star references, is out of bounds? As if comedy was an inherently second-class genre, especially coming from practitioners known for their goofiness but who have a genuine modern genre classic (Superbad) and a rather clever meditation on the genre's own meta-fictional lawyers (This Is the End) under their belts?

     That doesn't change that Messrs. Rogen and Goldberg are no Tarantino. For all the nice line in self-referential humour, The Interview is at most a half-baked effort. It scores on daring to break free of the thematic stereotypes of American comedy while reinforcing them, but it's a lot tamer than it should be for all the outrage it has generated.

USA 2014
112 minutes
Cast James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park
Directors Mr. Rogen and Evan Goldberg; screenwriter Dan Sterling; from a story by Messrs. Sterling, Rogen and Goldberg; cinematographer Brandon Trost  (colour, widescreen); composer Henry Jackman; designer Jon Billington; costumes Carla Hetland; editors Zene Baker and Evan Henke; effects supervisor Paul Linden; producers Mr. Rogen, Mr. Goldberg and James Weaver; production companies Columbia Pictures and Point Grey Pictures in association with LStar Capital
Screened December 26th 2014, Lisbon

Saturday, December 27, 2014


Mike Leigh very rarely ventures into period film territory, but when he has done so he has pulled it off brilliantly - witness the dazzling Topsy-Turvy, a superb realist take on the "putting-on-a-show" musical, a film that had all the trappings of classic British period drama but none of its stale, genteel contents. The same goes for this long-gestating project on celebrated Romantic artist J. M. W. Turner, though it must be said Mr. Turner is occasionally a bit too flaccid and heavy-going than you'd expect from Mr. Leigh.

     Nothing to be alarmed about, though. Mr. Turner radiates the director's patient touch and minute attention to detail and performance. His creation of an entire lived-in universe through small, incremental touches mirrors the painter's own impressionistic application of dabs and swatches of paint to create on the canvas something transcending life.

     As always, Mr. Leigh simultaneously zooms into the the smaller picture while zooming out to show the larger context. At heart is the idea of a life that appears incomplete if you only look at one side of it - hence the presentation of Turner (a remarkable Timothy Spall) as not just the artist, but also as the inhabitant of imperial London, born and bred into a very rigid and specific social context he simultaneously respected and defied with his work.

     The director's method is to insert apparently off-colour or off-centre touches that seem to be surplus to a linear, plot-driven narrative but are essential to build up character and contribute towards the richness of the portrait. Mr. Leigh is clearly fascinated by the contrast between the grandiose lyricism of Turner's art and the no-nonsense coarseness of his daily routines: a gruff man with little appetite for social niceties, entirely incapable of communicating his feelings outside an acceptable, rigid social framework, but whose paintings and private moments revealed a sensitive mind.

     Turner compartmentalized without necessarily being consciously aware of the inherent contradiction that the director points out and that Mr. Spall so brilliantly embodies. His Turner is a man who lives an otherwise unremarkable life, placed in his social and historical context with Mr. Leigh's usual care for detail, DP Dick Pope's breathtaking cinematography working within the constraints of the artist's own colour palette. And though, as always, there is nary a bum note in the ensemble work from the cast (many of which are returning regulars), Mr. Turner really belongs from start to finish to Mr. Spall, in a delicately nuanced yet remarkably vital composition.

United Kingdom, France, Germany, USA 2014
150 minutes
Cast Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Sam Kelly
Director and screenwriter Mike Leigh; cinematographer Dick Pope (colour, widescreen); composer Gary Yershon; designer Suzie Davies; costumes Jacqueline Durran; editor Jon Gregory; producer Georgina Lowe; production companies Filmfour, Focus Features International, the British Film Institute, Xofa Productions, Thin Man Films, Untitled 13, Untitled 13 Turner Produktion and Diaphana Productions, in association with France 3 Cinéma, Amusement Park Film and Lipsync Productions
Screened December 5th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Monday, December 22, 2014


As callous as it may sound, I think it's rather undeniable by now that the tons of money Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy is making pretty much make up for any possible feeling of undiluted "sellout" from the decision to expand J. R. R. Tolkien's slender novel into three films.

     For better or worse, there was a sense in Mr. Jackson's three Lord of the Rings films that here was a singular vision wishing to do justice to the book's power. That passionate commitment seems to have evaporated from The Hobbit: despite the occasional flourish, the director seems to be cruising mostly on auto-pilot and apparently nowhere more than in The Battle of the Five Armies.

     The title is a perfect descriptor of the final instalment's pivotal event, the battle for control of Erebor, the dwarves' ancestral mountain home, and its incalculable treasure, between an ad-hoc coalition of humans, elves, dwarves and animals, and the evil orcs working for Sauron. Though this is intertwined with the fall of dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) under the seductive spell of gold and power, leading him to betray everything his company stood for, and the rise of Lake-town fisherman Bard (Luke Evans) as a leader, it still makes for a poor payoff for the nearly nine-hour slog through the three films.

     Even though The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest of the trilogy by far, it resolves far too much into a certainly impressive but rather yawn-worthy display of digital trickery, cloned masses of computer-generated warriors and battle landscapes closer to video-game tasks to accomplish rather than to a narrative progression. There's little sense of grandeur or scope, swamped in the fake digital armies and textured castle walls, like a carnival display of attractions that seems to remain content in being a facade.

     It's all the more bewildering because, for all the digital trickery that also permeated the Lord of the Rings films, they projected a sense of lived-in, tactile reality, inhabited by actual beings with feelings and presence; in The Battle of the Five Armies, by contrast, Martin Freeman as the titular hobbit becomes pretty much a supporting (if instrumental) character in his own film (as, indeed, most of the returning characters, rendered mostly in the shape of blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos).

     It will be interesting to see how much the interval between the release of the films moulds my viewing response to them: seen at one-year intervals, any sense of character arc or narrative progression seems absent from the three episodes. Will that change once I see them one after the other, as a nine-hour-long "supercut"? Will the payoffs become more satisfying?

     None of these undermines what should be self-evident: The Hobbit is by no means offensive or disastrous. It's just professional, indifferent, run-of-the-mill, without the enthusiasm or commitment that made The Lord of the Rings something else in modern-day blockbuster filmmaking. The Hobbit, by contrast, is just another media-saturation blockbuster - something I never quite expected from its director.

USA, New Zealand 2014
144 minutes
Cast Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Dean O'Gorman, Billy Connolly, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom
Director Peter Jackson; screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Mr. Jackson and Guillermo del Toro; based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien The Hobbit; cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (colour, widescreen); composer Howard Shore; designer Dan Hennah; costumes Richard Taylor, Bob Buck and Ann Maskray; effects supervisors Mr. Taylor and Joe Letteri; editor Jabez Olssen; producers Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Ms. Walsh and Mr. Jackson; production companies Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New Line Cinema and Wingnut Films
Screened December 15th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 6, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Friday, December 19, 2014


Canadian director Xavier Dolan is on his fifth feature, so the "newcomer" tag is no longer applicable to a talent that is as undeniable as it is infuriating. While it's fair enough that his career so far has been entirely built on the sheer youthful, voluntary arrogance of his work, five films in you would expect a little more maturity and a little less show-off than the sprawling yet consistently intriguing Mommy projects.

     To be sure, that rebellious, pop-filmmaker irreverence is part and parcel of what has made following Mr. Dolan's work so interesting. For all the virtuoso or demonstrative stylistic flourishes, there is no denying the sincerity of the films, the fact that he is going all out on screen with little or no restraint, as if they were all borne out of a unquenchable desire to do something and do something now, his way.

     Mommy comes full circle with his promising 2009 debut I Killed My Mother, being another dysfunctional tale of mother and son, again with the remarkable Anne Dorval in the mother role. But this love/hate relationship is here set in a more fully realised and less entropic universe: in a small French Canadian town, Diane (Ms. Dorval in a powerful characterisation) gets by as best she can in a low-paying job until suddenly becoming saddled with her psychologically unbalanced teenage son.

     Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) has just been expelled from the state facility he was committed to for yet another violent incident, and it won't take long for the viewer to realise just how seriously unhinged the initially charming, fast-talking boy is, and how much of a fight it is for Diane just to be able to deal with him.

     In throws Mr. Dolan the neighbour across the street, the fragile Kyla (Dolan regular Suzanne Clément), who is also reeling from her own personal tragedy (suggested but never truly explained); what follows is the construction (and subsequent destruction) of a possible nuclear family, Diane and Kyla pooling their strengths to try and build a normal life for Steve despite the fact that every single thing around them seems to be conspiring to prevent them from it.

     In so doing, Mommy becomes an highly-strung, unrestrained modern-day version of classic melodramas, like a Douglas Sirk film with all the containing restrictions of the studio system removed and the volume blown up to 11.

     For all that, though, you can't help but think that the always-on exuberance, the constant pop culture references, the "look-at-me" flashiness of the film play against it. There's a sense that Mr. Dolan lets himself be carried away by the stylistic choices and technical flourishes just for the hell of it; a good example is the film's highly constrained aspect ratio, a 1:1 square almost like a cellphone lens, that widens to standard 1:85 framing and back depending on whether the narrative developments open up or close down possible pathways.

     It's a perfectly defensible option, but one that becomes somewhat tiresome and overexploited during the film's sprawling length (reiterating to excess points better made before).

     Coming after the somewhat calculated (and not entirely successful) attempt at a more restrained work that was 2013's Tom at the Farm, Mommy suggests a "two-steps-forward one-step-back" return to Mr. Dolan's comfort zone, but with less artistic ambition than in what remains, to me, his most accomplished film, 2012's Laurence Anyways.

     For the actors alone, though, and for what the director manages to pull from them with enormous generosity, making sure that for all the histrionics there's a relatable, identifiable person dealing truthfully with the unpredictable mood-swings of the delusional Steve, Mommy is definitely worth seeing.

Canada 2014
138 minutes
Cast Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Patrick Huard, Alexandre Goyette
Director, screenwriter, costume designer and editor Xavier Dolan; cinematographer André Turpin (colour); composer Noia; art director Colombe Raby; producers Nancy Grant and Mr. Dolan; production companies Metafilms and Sons of Manual
Screened December 10th 2014, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is a kind of paradox. Is it an experiment? An installation? A documentary? An essay? An assemblage? An art work? A document? The answer would be: all of the above. Or none of the above.

     It's by no means a conventional, traditional film work; its mere existence is extraordinary, and that it is gaining release in several territories, outside the festival circuit, is even more extraordinary. But its subject cannot be contained in a conventional structure: Silvered Water is a film that asks what does it mean to film, to make cinema, today, in a world where the concepts of civilization and society are being constantly attacked from all sides. What can a film mean to the world in which it exists?

     Almost impossible to describe or summarize, very difficult to sit through due to the graphic nature of many of its images, Silvered Water is, however, vital and urgent, both as a topical document of the horrors of the civil war in Syria and as an essay on how can the moving image best bear witness to them. The conflict is seen both from a distance and from within: the first "act" reflects the powerlessness of Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed, who travelled to France in 2011 to attend the Cannes festival but did not return after learning his presence in a "black list" of undesirables back home. Watching Syria crumble from afar, unable to do anything other than despairing, he collects and assembles images shot in the heat of the moment by "1001 Syrians" (as the credits put it) using cellphones and consumer cams, updated to the internet in real time.

     At that point, an e-mail dialogue opens - with Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a Kurdish teacher in the besieged city of Homs, who contacts Mr. Mohammed to ask what to film, what to record from the city around her. The director pretty much cedes the film from then on to her footage, to her voice; from putting the viewer in the same position of powerlessness and despair as Mr. Mohammed, Silvered Water allows him now a glimpse into a need to bear witness and offer hope to what comes next (not surprisingly since Ms. Bedirxan is a teacher, children feature prominently).

     But what raises the project above a simple assemblage of pre-existing footage is the very nature of the enterprise, its constant questioning of form and function. Mr. Mohammed, who assembled the film in Paris, is not interested in proposing a mere record of cruelty and war; he is also interested in what can these images mean and how they are going to be interpreted and articulated, in how they fit within the narratives of history, culture, the world around him.

     The Arabian Nights are a constant reference, in the concept that, as Scheherezade kept spinning yarns to stay alive, so do these images. But their story is also articulated in terms of the essay film as predicated by Jean-Luc Godard's progressive entwining of history and film or as begun by the explosion of the Nouvelle Vague and its emphasis on the experimental: caméra-stylo, cinéma-vérité, Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais' "you have seen nothing at Hiroshima", Akira Kurosawa's Dodes-ka'den, Mr. Godard's regular confluence of the political and the personal in his current post-narrative essays, all of this and more collides throughout the short but intense length of Silvered Water.

     It's a demanding, adventurous object, certainly one that does not work within the framework of traditional film. But that cannot be used as an excuse to ignore one of the most undeniably powerful cinematic essays of recent years.

France, Syria 2014
92 minutes
Directors Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan; screenwriter Mr. Mohammed; cinematographer Ms. Bedirxan (colour); composer Noma Omran; editor Maisoum Asaad; producers Serge Lalou, Camille Laemlé, Orwa Nyrabia and Diana el Jeiroudi; production companies Les Films d'Ici and Proaction Film in association with ARTE France La Lucarne
Screened November 5th 2014, Lisbon (Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival competition screener DVD)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


I would hope it's not just wishful thinking that leads me to wish Exodus: Gods and Kings would pretty much close shut the mini-revival of the biblical saga that Hollywood flirted with this year. At least, Darren Aronofsky's intriguing but flawed Noah truly engaged with the issues raised by the tale of Noah's Ark. But this version of The Ten Commandments is a misfire from start to finish - a film that engages nothing other than director Ridley Scott's most lavish, decorative instincts.

     To be sure, Mr. Scott's mastery in (re)creating lived-in universes, whether past or future, has been a constant in his films ever since his debut The Duellists. But while that painstaking creation of an environment fits here with the current desire for "realistic grittiness" in the reinterpretation of classic tales (see not only Noah but also, for instance, Mr. Scott's own take on Robin Hood), it also becomes painfully evident that there is not much here for the director, or any other storyteller for that matter, to bite into.

     As recast in what seems to be a script written by committee, the tale of Moses (a dour Christian Bale) and his transformation from an Egyptian captain into the prophet who led the Jews to the Promised Land becomes a stop-start mash-up of genres that aim at meshing political allegory, existentialist soul-searching, war adventure and biblical spectacle. The Jews are an oppressed people engaging in asymmetrical guerilla warfare against their cruel, sadistic enslavers; Moses is a born leader of men who has doubts about his place in the world, thrown off by his love/hate relationship with foster brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton), whose accession to power changes him for the worst.

     The mash-up, however, never really comes together; merely as a series of self-contained "acts" or "episodes" meant to move plot from A to B that seem to have been glued together from different films and don't really hang as a whole. And there's a woeful sense of miscasting hanging over the entire enterprise. Mr. Bale's doubting Moses is nothing the actor hasn't done before and often with more energy and commitment than here; the estimable Mr. Edgerton's earnest performance is undone by his shaven-headed effete look; and a number of esteemed film stars are trotted out for the mandatory blink-and-you'll-miss-it "truly this man is the Son of God" moment. And, to make it worse, there's not even that much grandiosity in Mr. Scott's admittedly dazzling digital landscapes or luxurious indoor decorations (the pharaoh's palace is a little too much Blade Runner-ish for comfort).

     It turns out that, for all the eye-catching attempts at creating a believable biblical past, the one thing all involved never really do is creating believable, relatable characters or narrative arcs. There is not even awe-inspiring spectacle here; just a bloated display of digital trickery in search of a soul.

USA, Spain 2014
151 minutes
Cast Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley
Director Ridley Scott; screenwriters Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian; cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (colour, widescreen); composer Alberto Iglesias; designer Arthur Max; costumes Janty Yates; editor Billy Rich; effects supervisor Peter Chiang; producers Peter Chernin, Mr. Scott, Jenno Topping, Michael Schaefer and Mark Huffam; production companies Twentieth Century-Fox, Scott Free Productions and Chernin Entertainment in association with TSG Entertainment, in co-production with Producciones Ramses
Screened December 4th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor advance screening) 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


"If you're willing to be puzzled, you learn", says linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky at one point in Michel Gondry's admiring, unconventional documentary. It's an appropriate phrase to summarize Is the Man who is Tall Happy?, as this latest proof of the French director's endless curiosity and willingness to stretch is a very puzzling entry in a filmography that has been unconventional itself.

     For what he terms, with perfectly apposite tongue-in-cheekness, "an animated conversation with Noam Chomsky", Mr. Gondry illustrates excerpts from a number of interview sessions he made with the linguist - but he does so not with traditional "talking-head" or archival footage, other than the occasional "insert" shot using an old-fashioned, hand-cranked super-8 camera. Instead, the director uses painstakingly hand-drawn animations, of the type he has often used in his stubbornly analogue trick work both in music videos and feature films.

     It's that handcrafted ingenuity of his special effects that made his reputation as a visual magician over the past 20 years, but to make it work over a feature length it requires a strong plot or through-line - something Mr. Gondry has not always had. Especially ever since the masterful Charlie Kaufman-written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there has been a sense that the more he relies on that trickery the less successful the films are - case in point being the "diptych" formed by his latest two fiction features: the almost effects-free New York ensemble piece The We and the I, probably his best film since Eternal Sunshine, and the oneiric, undercooked French whimsy of L'Écume des jours, its plot and outlandish visuals seeming at odds with one another

     Is the Man who is Tall Happy? , a project that was into production for a good three years, belongs to the parallel track of Mr. Gondry's more personal projects that also includes the acclaimed documentaries Dave Chappelle's Block Party and The Thorn in the Heart, with its start-to-end animation approach attempting a visual translation of Mr. Chomsky's thought process. But the surreal, free-association visuals, and its haphazard, deliberately amateurish quality, turn out to throw the project out of balance and set it off in counter-intuitive parallel paths. Instead of supporting and illustrating the thinker's ideas, they become a distraction, clutching at straws that disappear in the process of being made visible; it's as if Mr. Gondry is chasing a rainbow to try and crystallize it in pictures, but loses its elusive magic in the process.

     Though technically impressive for its patient, hobbyist tone, and fascinating as a glimpse into the minds of both its subject and its maker, Is the Man who is Tall Happy? is an oddly lifeless film, an idea whose realization does not match its premise.

France 2013
89 minutes
Director and screenwriter Michel Gondry; animations Mr. Gondry, Valérie Pirson and Timothée Lemoine; composer Howard Skempton; editors Adam M. Weber and Sophie Reine; producers Georges Bermann, Mr. Gondry, Raffi Adlan and Julie Fong; production company Partizan Films
Screened December 2nd 2014, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Black Coal, Thin Ice

"Forget it, Zhang... it's coal country". Forgive me for the pithy reference to Chinatown, but to be fairly honest Black Coal, Thin Ice, the third feature from Chinese helmer Diao Yi'nan, pretty much begs for it, being all about classic film noir tropes moved to the last place you'd expect to find them: China in the shift from the 20th to the 21st century.

     It's not as far-fetched as it may seem, as modern China and its boomtown economic build-up mean the rules of the genre don't look much out of place, with Mr. Diao, also scripting, adapting them to fit the specifics of the setting. But, if you remove the exotic background, would Black Coal, Thin Ice still be convincing?

     In point of fact, this story of an alcoholic ex-cop (the great Liao Fan) pulled back into the unsolved case that made him leave the force five years earlier is a solid, if unimposing and slightly anonymous, drama. Mr. Diao's rather neutral stagings and Dong Jingsong's glare-filled, sickly photography, catching these characters like flies under the harsh fluorescent lighting, point out how everyone seems to be all submissive to the bright lights of economicism. (The more appropriate original Chinese title is Daylight Fireworks.) And the director does pull off a few truly inspired visual moments - like the much celebrated credit sequence tracking shot that bridges the five-year interval between the prologue and the main thrust of the plot, or the clumsiest, most amateurish gunfight in the history of film thrillers ever.

     But Black Coal, Thin Ice is essentially a Chinese take on a Western genre film, and without that clever usage of genre tropes it probably wouldn't have received the attention it has had from Western press and critics. (It was the least interesting of the three Chinese entries in the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, and yet it was the event's winner, taking home the Golden Bear for Best Picture.) As in classic noirs, and unlike what the trailer below suggests, it's not really about solving a crime, in this case the identity of the body parts being found all around the province - it's about what the process of investigating it reveals, what it says about the people involved and the society they live in.

     Mr. Liao is outstanding as the jaded, weary man who's seen too much, and Gwei Lun Mei is equally strong as the femme fatale that seems to lie at the heart of the mystery. They're broken people looking for a glimmer of warmth but probably too far down the social scale to deserve it, and it's for the best that Mr. Diao's script avoids any semblance of easy redemption.

     Black Coal, Thin Ice is more than just an exotic curiosity, but it's also a little bit too derivative to be entirely convincing; its interest lies precisely in trying to bridge genre and a more traditionally observational drama. It doesn't quite succeed, but it's no less interesting for trying.

China 2014
106 minutes
Cast Liao Fan, Guei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei
Director and screenwriter Diao Yi'nan; cinematographer Dong Jingsong (colour); composer Wen Li; art director Liu Qiang; editor Yang Hongyu; producers Vivian Yu and Wan Juan; production companies Omnijoi Media Corporation, Boneyard Entertainment China and China Film Company
Screened February 11th 2014, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 competition press screening) and December 14th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)

Friday, December 12, 2014


"Things happen for a reason", someone says at one point in David Cronenberg's latest film. It's very likely that reason is actually "mapped out in the stars" - or by the stars that people Maps to the Stars, film stars and assorted hangers-on whose insecurity, neediness, bad judgement and general sense of debt condemn them to pay for their sins.

     Mr. Cronenberg has come up with another morality play, in short, and it should be useful to keep in mind that Maps to the Stars follows the underwhelming Don de Lillo adaptation Cosmopolis. Despite the different results - Maps to the Stars is as disturbing and thought-provoking as Cosmopolis was a misfire - they're complementary works, sly satires of modern capitalism and celebrity culture painted as a limbo its inhabitants are desperately hoping to hang on to, with a fallen angel making a sudden reappearance to save this rotten system from itself.

     The "chosen one", here, is Agatha (a mysterious, alluring Mia Wasikowska), newly arrived in Hollywood from Florida, her apparent easy-going, tag-along actions hiding a carefully designed agenda. Is her sidling to washed-up film actress Havana Segrand (a superb Julianne Moore), whose assistant she ends up being, and child star Benji Weiss (Evan Bird) mere coincidence? Or is it part of a greater plan that Bruce Wagner's script slowly unfolds as we dive deeper under the surface and start finding the skeletons hiding in the closet?

     Mr. Cronenberg's gift, ever since his work shifted from what came to be described as "body horror" to a more psychological, disquieting take on the world (a shift discreetly announced by The Dead Zone and Dead Ringers), has been to give normalcy an eerie sheen, a strangeness that tilts it in such a way that the regular landmarks of "real life" suddenly seem out of focus. Hollywood's facade economy is a textbook case of warped reality that Mr. Wagner's script gleefully skewers (though some of his creations in Maps to the Stars seem to recycle some of what he wrote 20 years ago for the cult television serial Wild Palms, such as the mystical cult surrounding therapist to the stars Stafford Weiss, played connivingly by John Cusack).

     But within this universe of delusional people who think money, power and status excuses all behaviours, Mr. Cronenberg insists on creating characters that are seriously grounded in reality, and are merely looking for ways to cope with the world around them. Delusional they may be, but they're also undeniably human and carrying a burden of sins of the body that have twisted and soiled their mind and must be atoned for.

     In the process, it's worth pointing out just how much Mr. Cronenberg is unrecognised as an actor's director, able to focus, laser-sharp, on what each character requires and how best to get his performers there. Maps to the Stars has that in buckets, with a glorious Ms. Moore proving yet again how she is her generation's finest screen actress, her Havana so consumed by her obsession with her dead mother that she veers between haughty spite and moving vulnerability with nary a blink.

     As with most of the director's latest work, Maps to the Stars does not reveal itself easily; it's a poison arrow of slow-release effect, unfolding gradually as the layers of ghosts at its heart make themselves visible and evoke the general sense of a corrupt system wafting through the world right now. But it proves, without the shadow of a doubt, that if you choose to dismiss Mr. Cronenberg's current work as minor or irrelevant, you do so at your own peril.

Canada, France, Germany 2014
112 minutes
Cast Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson
Director David Cronenberg; screenwriter Bruce Wagner; cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (colour); composer Howard Shore; designer Carol Spier; costumes Denise Cronenberg; editor Ronald Sanders; producers Martin Katz, Saïd ben Saïd and Michel Merkt; production companies Starmaps Productions, SBS Productions and Integral Film, in co-production with VIP Cinema/Axone Invest, in association with Prospero Pictures, with the participation of Téléfilm Canada, Canal Plus, Orange Cinéma Studio, The Howard Greenberg Fund, The Movie Network and Movie Central
Screened November 25th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Thursday, December 11, 2014


There isn't anything much wrong per se with the premise of Austrian director Michael Sturminger's riff on the life and times of 18th century libertine Giacomo Casanova, melding his much-celebrated memoirs with excerpts and arias from operas by Mozart. What is wrong with the end result, however, could possibly have been settled by passing it on to somebody else to direct and tighten.

     Instead, Mr. Sturminger allows this "variation" on his own stage creation The Giacomo Variations to lose itself in a maze of metafictional layers that, more often than not, seem to be a mere vanity project for its star John Malkovich. Which is somewhat unfair both to the director and Mr. Malkovich, as, at its core, Casanova Variations is about performance, and life as performance.

     To be sure, it's the sort of multi-layered, multi-media project that the late Werner Schroeter would have loved to direct, and that restless actors like Mr. Malkovich tend to gravitate towards for all the thoughtfulness about their own trade they key into. But Mr. Sturminger's hyper-stylized approach is nowhere in the same league, bringing everything down to the level of a flashily packaged amuse-bouche or after-dinner mint for upscale audiences, spinning the on-stage/off-stage connections with much fireworks but little originality.

     In the tale's central layer, courtisane Elisa van der Recke (Veronica Ferres) visits the ailing Casanova with mysterious intents as he is putting the finishing touches to his memoirs, wherein he presents himself as little more than a trained monkey performing for his supper and for his reputation. Mr. Sturminger then zooms out to an opera stage where Casanova and Elisa witness themselves, as played by opera singers Florian Boesch and Miah Persson, watching the playing out of selected episodes of the libertine's life; and then zooms further out as Mr. Malkovich plays himself playing (and occasionally singing) Casanova on stage and interacts with his agent, the stage manager and even an audience member.

     The constant mise en abîme is held together by the director's decision to film everything with a restless, handheld camera; but what could have been a clever way to tie together the various layers of commentary on performance turns out to be the last drop that throws the entire concept over the top and sands the edges out of the sculpture. The playfulness of the "all the world's a stage" back-and-forth, and the clever transitions between levels (a door, a window, a curtain), required a nimbler, more assured hand than Mr. Sturminger's, who basically exploits both the premise and the handheld approach to the point of overkill.

     It's peculiar how Casanova Variations seems to play out in a constant "right now" that flattens and loses sense of time, and how that leads into the progressive deflating of the film's balloon. Halfway through its two-hour length, the game is up, the viewer is aware of the different layers of reality and of how they connect to each other, and all that remains is to watch its pieces fall predictably and at length into its proper place, robbing the film of any further interest or sense of surprise. And even despite Mozart's glorious music and some fine performances from the assembled cast of singers and actors, Casanova Variations seems destined for that half-hidden corner in the cabinet where you put away curious oddities that are not devoid of conceptual interest but whose realisation is not as successful as its premise.

Portugal, Austria, Germany 2014
119 minutes
Cast John Malkovich, Veronica Ferres, Florian Boesch, Miah Persson, Lola Naymark, Kerstin Averno, Tracy Ann Obermann, Maria João Bastos, Kate Lindsey, Anna Prohaska, Barbara Hannigan, Topi Lehtipuu, Christopher Purves, Ana Maria Pinto, Maria João Luís, Victória Guerra, Daniel Schmutzhard, Fanny Ardant, Jonas Kaufmann
Director Michael Sturminger; screenwriters Mr. Sturminger and Markus Schleinzer; based on Mr. Sturminger's stage production The Giacomo Variations, using material from the memoir Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova and operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte; cinematographer André Szankowski (colour); musical director Martin Haselböck; production and costume designers Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser; editor Evi Romen; producers Paulo Branco, Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu and Bady Minck; production companies Alfama Films Production and Amour Fou Filmproduktion in co-production with X-Filme Creative Pool and Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion, with the collaboration of ZDF/ARTE, ORF and RTP and co-financing from Leopardo Filmes
Screened November 29th 2014, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


If you start off an animated comedy with Werner Herzog voicing a documentary filmmaker following the "march of the penguins", it's safe to say you're not exactly in kiddie territory. Such has been the modus operandi of Jeffrey Katzenberg's Dreamworks animation studio ever since the beginning, searching to strike the elusive pop-culture balance between kid-friendly fare and a more adult humour that won't chase parents away.

     Still, other than the original Shrek (and the short-lived Aardman connection), the now stand-alone company has been hard-pressed to follow those up; nothing else in the studio's output stands up to the almost flawless Pixar 10-year streak of hits that ended with Toy Story 3, despite the box-office success of many of its titles. And Penguins of Madagascar is no classic either.

     This lively, boisterous yet underachieving spin-off brings front and center the zanily infuriating gang of penguins that have become the best thing about the hugely popular but generally below-par Madagascar series. But, for my money, it's the most consistent of the films, marrying the pop-culture in-jokes to a surreal, quasi-anarchic Mission: Impossible send-up, its back-and-forth rapid-fire routines giving it a loose Looney Tunes feel.

     The tale also gives the four Penguins an "origin story" - with dimwits Kowalski and Rico and the infant Private being dragged out of Antarctica by the pompous, adventure-seeking Skipper - and sets them up for an almost unavoidable sequel. Here, they go head to head with a megalomaniacal über-villain by the name of Dave, an octopus with a chip on his tentacle seeking revenge for all the slights he has endured, and bump heads with the technologically advanced but somewhat clueless 007-meets-RSPCA organization North Wind and its by-the-book lead agent Classified.

     A nice touch is that the four Penguins are not voiced (and never have been) by star actors, but instead by an in-house crew of Dreamworks animators: directors Tom McGrath (who helmed all three Madagascar films with Eric Darnell), Chris Miller and Conrad Vernon and editor Christopher Knights. That would probably explain the under-current of classic Chuck Jones/Three Stooges absurdist, non-stop screwball coursing through the film, hitting its peak on the face-offs between Skipper and Classified, a wolf voiced with the right amount of cluelessly un-self-aware pompousness by current It Brit Benedict Cumberbatch. But it's a delightfully playful John Malkovich that almost steals the show as the octopus with delusions of grandeur, his dastardly plan to destroy penguins' inate cuteness coming straight out of campy, pulpy TV classics such as Get Smart or the Adam West-era Batman.

     To be sure: Penguins of Madagascar is not a patch on Shrek or even Blue Sky's Rio franchise. Its freewheeling speed and riot of gags has little or no plot to hang on to other than its retro-futurist spy feel, but it's funny enough and aware enough of its own shortcomings to make for a nice second-row addition to the current animation landscape.

USA 2014
92 minutes
Voice cast Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, John Malkovich
Directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith; screenwriters Michael Colton, John Aboud and Brandon Sawyer; based on a story by Alan Schoolcraft, Brent Simons, Mr. Colton and Mr. Aboud; composer Lorne Balfe; designer Sharon Jeffries; editor Nick Kenway; visual effects Philippe Gluckmann; producers Lara Breay and Mark Swift; production company Dreamworks Animation
Screened November 28th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 11, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Friday, December 05, 2014

Horse Money

Pedro Costa is an acquired taste and I don't mind saying it took me a while to acquire it. It was only after looking (and I do mean looking) at the films he made before the acclaimed arte povera trilogy of Ossos, In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, and after catching up with his dreamy, masterful 1989 debut O Sangue - such a confident achievement for a debuting director that you can't help but look differently at his work after seeing it. That may be the reason why I like Horse Money better than any of his films since that debut.

     As he retreated slowly from a linear narrative and "conventional" production mode into a more independent, self-reliant style (based on a minimal skeleton crew and non-professional cast), Mr. Costa limned and sharpened his style to focus on textures and contrasts at the expense of recognisable landmarks, preferring instead to take his viewers on disorienting trips through unknown filmic territory. Horse Money, following both the trilogy that made the director's name worldwide and his forays on the side into documentary, is something else: it retains the loose, semi-improvised narrative austerity of the later work, but visually harks back to the more pictorial formal qualities of the early films. It suggests a beautiful, seductive facade of glorious chiaroscuro expressionism that leads into a phantasmagorical parade of ghosts from the past (a past?), appearing to an ailing old man as he lays in hospital.

     Mr. Costa's cinema has always been both allusive and elusive, but the new movie is almost inscrutable in its layering of possibilities and evocative imagery, in what can be read either as hallucinations or fantasies from the ailing Ventura, the African construction worker who has been at the heart of the director's main strand of filmmaking since Colossal Youth and is square in the centre of Horse Money once more. Whatever narrative you can find in the new film seems to feed on Ventura's memories and experiences as a Cape-Verdean immigrant in 1970s Portugal, with the 1974 coup that deposed dictator António de Oliveira Salazar as a particularly important landmark, but where memory ends and fiction begins you'll never know for sure - and the director isn't telling.

     Safe to say, this is yet another typical Pedro Costa experience: you either go with the flow of his contemplative pace and pictorialism, or you fail to find an entry point and end up bored and infuriated - and yes, it is entirely possible to be enraptured and then infuriated within the space of one single film, such are the demands that Mr. Costa places as the price of access to his work. But whether Horse Money strikes you as the latest communiqué from a visionary director or just an exclusionary, elitist art film, the sheer imagistic power of the work is such that, like it or not, you will find yourself haunted by these pictures, and wanting to revisit them.

     Whether you'll get any closer to the heart of the rabbit hole they lead into is another matter entirely. But what a maze to get lost in!

Portugal 2014
105 minutes
Cast Ventura, Vitalina Varela, Tito Furtado
Director and screenwriter Pedro Costa; cinematographers Leonardo Simões and Mr. Costa (colour); editor João Dias; producer Abel Ribeiro Chaves; production company OPTEC - Sociedade Óptica e Técnica
Screened August 12th 2014, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno (Locarno Film Festival official competition advance press screening)

CAVALO DINHEIRO Trailer from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.