Saturday, January 31, 2015

MORTDECAI

Misguided from start to finish, Mortdecai sees Johnny Depp over-value quirkiness in a sorry excuse for a 1960s inspired caper comedy that suggests the actor's taste for chameleonic, off-centre performances may be overstaying its welcome.

     By now, in the wake of his surreal Tonto in The Lone Ranger and Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows - two under-achieving films in themselves - , there's a sense Mr. Depp's never safe career choices are becoming more and more safe and unexpected. Still, there was enough interesting material at the heart of the premise of Mortdecai to make it work: the character created in the 1970s by writer Kyril Bonfiglioli in a short series of comic capers, a foppish, bankrupt British aristocrat with a seedy reputation as an art dealer not averse to breaking the law, and here searching for a legendary lost painting that may hold the key to a fortune, is tailor-made for the actor's gallery of lovable rogues.

     But the choice of veteran Hollywood A-list screenwriter and B-movie director David Koepp to handle is a bewildering case of miscasting. Better off working within more serious genre constraints - see the massively entertaining Premium Rush -, Mr. Koepp seems to be here as a mere director-for-hire (and friend to the star/producer), almost entirely lacking in the wit required for a film that wants to be somewhere between Mike Myers' Austin Powers spoofs and British capers of the sixties and seventies like The Italian Job (cue the "with-it" soundtrack with contributions from producer-of-the-moment Mark Ronson)

     In the right hands, its attempt at dry, crisp deadpan might work well enough, but Mr. Koepp plays it far too heavy-handedly; what should have been fleet-footed and light turns out stilted and stodgy, what ought to be elegantly throwaway like an afterthought just stays there hanging in mid-air. The cast is literally adrift, looking like everyone's in a different film: only a pitch-perfect Gwyneth Paltrow (as Mortdecai's wife) and Paul Bettany (as his factotum) seem to have fully understood where the right film lies, everybody else being on a sliding scale of overly broad pantomime that never fully coalesces into a serious comedy. Despite the odd nonsensical gag, Mortdecai is quite embarrassing.

MORTDECAI
USA 2015
106 minutes
Cast Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Jeff Goldblum, Paul Bettany
Director David Koepp; screenwriter Eric Aronson; based on the novel by Kyril Bonfiglioli Don't Point That Thing at Me; cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (colour, widescreen); composers Geoff Zanelli and Mark Ronson; designer James Merifield; costumes Ruth Myers; editors Jill Savitt and Derek Ambrose; producers Andrew Lazar, Mr. Depp, Christi Dembrowski and Patrick McCormick; production companies Lionsgate Films, Oddlot Entertainment, Infinitum Nihil and Mad Chance Productions
Screened January 21st 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Friday, January 30, 2015

WHIPLASH

"whiplash, noun: 1. the lash of a whip; 2. something resembling a blow from a whip; 3. injury resulting from a sudden sharp whipping movement of the neck and head (as of a person in a vehicle that is struck from the rear by another vehicle)." This is how Merriam-Webster defines the word that gives American director Damien Chazelle's second feature its title. And it's not by accident that the film, whose plot gravitates around Hank Levy's jazz standard of the same name in a diabolical time signature that seems to be hell to play for a drummer, embraces all the possible definitions of the word.

     Whiplash is what Andrew Neiman (an intense Miles Teller), a student at New York's (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory, gets from trying to deal at the same time with a condescending, uncomprehending family that doesn't get what he's aiming for, and the terrifyingly demanding drill-instructor teacher Terence Fletcher (a staggering J. K. Simmons), whose overt psychological manipulation and sadism pushes Andrew to breaking point. And it's amplified by the make-or-break mindset into which Andrew cages itself, in what is essentially a coming-of-age tale pushed into the realm of obsession, with all the heightened emotions of wanting to define, push and prove yourself.

     Swerving between an ineffectual father (Paul Reiser) who seems to not understand his ambition and a terrorizing "drill drill drill" paternal figure who seems to have recognized it and won't stop at nothing to pull it out, Andrew gets whiplash so hard he loses track of what it is he is and wants to do. And the heart of Mr. Chazelle's film - expanded from his short of the same title - is precisely in that yearning, that painful realization when you're a teenager that the world is not your oyster and is not welcoming you with open arms. It's the tale of a young man that has to navigate between the devil and the deep blue sea, and who realises that either way there will be much lost even when he wins.

     That Mr. Chazelle tells his story through a borderline psychotic obsession with music, superbly edited by Tom Cross to the rhythm of the jazz pieces that Andrew learns and plays, is the first of the key twists that lift this film above the standard contemporary coming-of-age American indie (and there are quite a lot of those, to be sure). The other is in giving Mr. Simmons a career-defining role that the veteran character actor grabs onto and runs with all the way for an unstoppable touchdown, forcing everyone else to work at his level - and also pulling a career-best performance from the as yet under-utilized Mr. Teller.

     It's a bravura performance that embraces the complexity of a character that could very easily be reduced to pure pointless villainy, but becomes instead a soul as damaged and obsessed as Andrew seems to be on track to become. And that complexity is also reflected in the film's construction in a crescendo of blood, sweat and tears, seen from within the "one-track-mind" bubble of a young man looking to understand and accept who he is.

     The viewer, like Andrew, is carried by the constant up-and-downs of the emotional rollercoaster that Mr. Chazelle slyly sets up, allowing you to overlook the more predictable or expected plot developments - after all, Whiplash does trace a conventional narrative arc, even if it does so in a less obvious, more roundabout way. But Andrew is not the only one getting whiplash from this propulsive film - the viewer does too. And, even if only for Mr. Simmons' extraordinary performance, it's going to stick with you a while.

WHIPLASH
USA 2013
107 minutes
Cast Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell
Director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle; cinematographer Sharone Meir (colour, widescreen); composer Justin Hurwitz; designer Melanie Paizis-Jones; costumes Lisa Norcia; editor Tom Cross; producers Jason Blum, Helene Estabrook, Michael Litvak and David Lancaster; production companies Bold Films, Blumhouse Productions and Right of Way Films
Screened October 31st 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)



Wednesday, January 28, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER

Part of me can't help thinking that Clint Eastwood has a gleeful twinkle in his eye about the apoplexies American Sniper is giving a lot of critics and observers. Following a series of under-achieving films whose pleasant irrelevance seemed to suggest a filmmaker on the decline that started taking seriously his newfound status as the last of the American classics, American Sniper is on track to be one of Mr. Eastwood's biggest box-office hits, as well as a lightning rod for political commentary in an America highly polarized.

     Essentially a biopic of the late Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who became the most lethal combat marksman in the history of US Armed Forces, the film seems custom-designed for the "red state", "Fox News" constituency that often cries foul at "liberal Hollywood". But that was also the "bread and butter" audience for some of Mr. Eastwood's most popular 1970s vehicles - making it clear that this is not a film "out of character" for a director who, in more recent and thoughtful efforts such as J. Edgar, Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima, seemed to embrace a whole other moral complexity, and departed from the traditional black-and-white, good-vs-evil simplicity.

     Much has been made of American Sniper's ejection of big-picture politics in favour of an openly hagiographic tone for the tale of a patriot who enlisted after 9/11 and, after leaving the Navy, went on to help disabled veterans (eventually dying at the hands of one of them). And, when compared to the nuance and complexity of most of Mr. Eastwood's later classics, American Sniper is clearly a lesser work that harks back to an earlier, more idealized era in American filmmaking, where "recruiting poster" was not a dirty word.

     On the other hand, though, neither do I find it the jingoistic claptrap so many paint it as. Even though it's ultimately a hagiography of Kyle adapted from the autobiography he published before his death, there is a calculated ambiguity to Bradley Cooper's portrayal of the man and to Mr. Eastwood's approach: the constant if discreet pushback from fellow soldiers (or Kyle's own enlisted brother) who have doubts about the Iraq war, the inability to readjust to real life once back in the States, suggest that Kyle's is one of many possible views. Also, there is a deliberate indecision between choosing the man and the soldier, Chris the Texan hunter and rodeo cowboy and Kyle the lethal operative, the killing machine and the family man.

     In so doing, the director paints a curiously flawed picture of the American hero behind its apparent invulnerability, its cracks showing even when he denies them, with Mr. Cooper's intensity managing to add to the ambiguity rather than subtract from it (and, let's face it, Mr. Eastwood has always been good at drawing great performances from unlikely actors). But, yes, all of this does take a backseat to the war and to the esprit de corps inherent to soldiering, despite the evidence that war is hell.

     What I suspect bothers many is that, after a series of half-hearted prestige projects, American Sniper seems to bring back the more inspired, straight-forward, no-nonsense side of the director as Invictus or Hereafter couldn't - in the service of an equivocal story of a war many would prefer to forget, while apparently blithely ignoring the true cost in blood and treasure of a decade of wars to hail the all-conquering hero. An all-conquering hero that, in the end, was felled by his own brother - but even that is overlooked in the triumphant, and ill-judged, coda with real-life footage from Kyle's funeral procession.

     All of that is true, but it doesn't make American Sniper the "betrayal of the liberal values" that Mr. Eastwood as a director seemed to hold in high esteem in some previous films. After all, this is the man who made Firefox and Heartbreak Ridge alongside Unforgiven and A Perfect World; Any Which Way But Lose and The Gauntlet alongside Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart. And, no matter how you stand politically in regards to  the theme of American Sniper, the fact remains that this may possibly be, in purely cinematic terms, the director's best, most classic film in a long while: a return to what he does best and knows how to do best.

AMERICAN SNIPER
USA 2014
133 minutes
Cast Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Kevin Lacz, Navid Negahban, Keir O'Donnell
Director Clint Eastwood; screenwriter Jason Hall; based on the book by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim de Felice American Sniper; cinematographer Tom Stern (colour, widescreen); designers James J. Murakami and Charisse Cardenas; costumes Deborah Hopper; editors Joel D. Cox and Gary Roach; effects supervisor Michael Owens; producers Mr. Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Mr. Cooper and Peter Morgan; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures, Mad Chance Productions, 22nd & Indiana Pictures and The Malpaso Company in association with Village Roadshow Pictures North America and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
Screened January 15th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Monday, January 26, 2015

BLACKHAT

Michael Mann is a true stylist and probably the last of the truly great mainstream auteurs in American filmmaking - which isn't to say Blackhat, a glossy cyber-thriller abstracted to within an inch of its life, is an openly mainstream work. At heart, this is yet another trip to the "Mannverse" of laconic, professional loners who feign cynicism better to protect their bleeding hearts, caught up in issues above their pay grade and propelled by an unspoken code of honour.

     If that makes it seem as if Blackhat is "more of the same" that Mr. Mann has been exploring over the years, well, yes, it actually is "more of the same". It's just a "different" "more of the same", one that sees the director move into a more abstract, dematerialized dimension, staking out the digitally interconnected world as its primary territory.

     Just like technology often "reverse engineers" a successful product to find out how it was made, so the plot of Blackhat works as a "reverse heist movie", with incarcerated hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) co-opted into a cyber-crime investigation ran in partnership between Chinese and American authorities. A mysterious "blackhat" hacker has provoked an explosion in a Chinese nuclear power station, and a meltdown in a Chicago stock market, and the code used to trigger them was hidden within another elegant piece of code Hathaway had written in his college years.

     But even if the film's engine is purely digital, and reflected in the dematerialization of the central "macguffin" (from hard, actual currency to the power to twist technology to your own ends), Mr. Mann has no problems with visualizing it as a physical race against time that leads the investigative team from the US to the "new frontiers" of Asia, doing for the neons of Hong Kong and Singapore what the digital textures of Miami Vice made for Florida.

     As always with Mr. Mann, this is about "old worlds" and "brave new worlds" colliding head-on with heavy fireworks, with his classic heroes shot against the always-on nocturnal skyscrapers of Hong Kong, making Blackhat a fascinating juxtaposition. On the "old side", there's a neat dovetailing between the director's traditional Melvillean (as in Jean-Pierre) worldview and the kinetic action cinema the John Woo/Tsui Hark generation produced in the 1980s. On the "new side", Blackhat pushes forward the experiments with digital photography Mr. Mann began developing around Collateral; DP Stuart Dryburgh's almost painterly approach adds a lyrical dimension to these games of life and death while pushing the image to extremes of legibility that remind often of what Jean-Luc Godard is making since the advent of digital video.

     Constantly grounded in the real world but always looking towards the future, Blackhat is another sleek and thoughtful thrill machine, propelled by Mr. Mann's love of genre and storytelling; but this is no pre-cooked in-flight meal, rather sophisticated auteur cuisine where genre is just another ingredient, as is the script, the cast, the entire landscape.

BLACKHAT
USA 2015
133 minutes
Cast Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehom
Director Michael Mann; screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl; cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (colour, widescreen); composers Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross and Leo Ross; designer Guy Hendrix Dyas; costumes Colleen Atwood; editors Joe Walker, Stephen Rivkin, Jeremiah O'Driscoll and Mako Kamitsuna; effects supervisors John Nelson and Phil Brennan; producers Thomas Tull, Mr. Mann and Jon Jashni; production companies Legendary Pictures Productions, Forward Pass and Blue Light Productions
Screened January 14th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Friday, January 23, 2015

NIGHT WILL FALL

Here's the thing that puzzles me about Night Will Fall: that the fascinating true story behind one of the most important motion pictures in the history of cinema is formatted as a "companion piece" to something you can't see. British producer André Singer's smooth retelling of the political and artistic backstory involved in assembling Allied footage of the Nazi concentration camps in WWII refers constantly to a piece that can only be seen in restricted and highly controlled circumstances: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.

     Originally code-named "the atrocity movie", the project was headed by producer Sidney Bernstein, then running the Allied film services, and aimed at being a hard-hitting revelation to the world audiences about the true nature of the Nazi regime, harnessing the specific powers of film to make its point as a document both for immediate effect and later memory. Bernstein and journalist Richard Crossman organised footage shot by the military cameramen that accompanied the Allied troops that liberated the camps, and Alfred Hitchcock dropped by with some suggestions and improvements towards the end of the process. (His contributions to the film have been greatly discussed over the years.)

     But the "atrocity movie" was quietly shelved when it became clear that there were disagreements between the British and the Americans regarding the nature of the film, and was never truly completed. Billy Wilder edited part of the footage into a shorter film called Death Mills at the behest of the US Army, and what was ready of the film surfaced in 1984 as Memory of the Camps. The film as intended by Bernstein and incorporating Hitchcock's suggestions was only truly finished to the original specifications in 2014 under the aegis of the Imperial War Museum - and cannot be commercially exploited nor screened without the presence of a member of the restoration team.

     As such, Night Will Fall, which tells the story of the film in roughly chronological order, from its inception as part of the Allied use of film as propaganda to the rediscovery and restoration of the original material, is a conundrum. It's a film that refers constantly to another film that remains unseen and truly "invisible", and does so in a traditional "talking-heads"-slash-"making of" format, professionally done and glossily presented.

     In a way, the original's invisibility is quite appropriate: Mr. Singer points out recurrently that exposure to the rough footage from the camps as it was arriving was a shocking, disturbing experience for the film processing and logging crews, something that could not be "un-seen" nor forgotten. The original 1944-45 material thus becomes a sort of real-life horror film, whose use could be devastating; no wonder the entire project eventually got bogged down in the politics and diplomacy of an overly cautious post-war world. What had started as a public service film for the historical record got buried for political reasons - like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the records of the Bletchley Park team.

     But precisely because the importance of the original footage remains undeniable and undimmed, and because the tale behind its slow reemergence is so compelling, it's a shame that Night Will Fall becomes so dependent on the film it can't show. The bribes of footage that are indeed shown are harrowing in and of themselves - and strong reasons to make sure the material is only used parcimoniously. But since there is a referential void at its heart - this is the tale of a film that cannot be seen - what we get is a lot less than what could be. And what we get is a sort of "historical whodunit" that seems formatted for the small screen's history programmes (you can almost notice the "commercial breaks" inbuilt in the narration), an enterprise that never quite reaches

     But, ultimately, maybe the fact that Night Will Fall - a perfectly decent, well-made if anonymous documentary in itself - falls short of what could have been is the best tribute there could be to the original "atrocity movie". Though it never really existed as it was meant to until now, its footage has survived beyond the original assemblage to become a historical record for future memory. And that is reason enough for this documentary to exist.

NIGHT WILL FALL
United Kingdom, USA, Germany, Israel, Denmark 2014
76 minutes
Director André Singer; screenwriter Lynette Singer; cinematographer Richard Blanshard (colour); composer Nicholas Singer; editors Arik Lahow and Stephen Miller; producers Sally Angel and Brett Ratner; production companies British Film Institute, Ratpac Documentary Films, Danish Film Institute, Spring Films and Angel TV in co-production with Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, ARTE, Cinephil, Final Cut for Real and GA&A
Screened October 10th 2014, Lisbon (Doclisboa 2014 screener)


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

REVOLUÇÃO INDUSTRIAL
Industrial Revolution

There is clearly much formal intelligence at work in Revolução Industrial, a documentary from Portuguese filmmakers Frederico Lobo and Tiago Hespanha, looking at the memories and realities of textile manufacturing in the Northern Portuguese river Ave. The directors clearly have an idea and a point of view on the issues they're dealing with, speaking of the long-term effects of the "industrialisation" of the area in an approach simultaneously detached and impressionistic - and if it seems like it's somewhat contradictory, you would be correct.

     That, in fact, is the major flaw at work in this occasionally infuriating, occasionally charming piece: the sense that Messrs. Lobo and Hespanha want to have their cake and eat it too, attempting to meld the dispassionate observation of things as they are of Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter with the subjective, poetic approach of someone like João Vladimiro (whose impenetrable Lacrau is a close relative of Revolução Industrial). Its approach to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization (with testimony from former factory workers) and the way that Nature has reclaimed some of the failed factories and installations in the area wants to be both a celebration of the spirit of human and natural resilience and an indictment of failed employment policies, clearly taking the side of the exploited working class.

     The problem is that this political subtext seems to sit oddly with the beauty of some of the footage and with the placid, almost stately quality with which the camera lingers upon the dilapidated factories it shoots. Its sense of lost possibilities echoes Manuel Mozos' lovely, sensorial moodpiece Ruínas, mourning for a place where the promised future never truly arrived, but then the film's temptation to editorialize dims some of that fascination and superimposes a somewhat restricting meaning on the images.

     Revolução Industrial works best as an abstract moodpiece that shows rather then tells the effects industrialisation had on this ravishing are - and every time it starts telling rather than showing it runs the risk of becoming yet just another documentary telling a story that has already been told innumerable times. Despite its many wonderful moments, the film never truly coalesces into a convincing whole.

REVOLUÇÃO INDUSTRIAL
Portugal 2014
72 minutes
Directors and cinematographers (colour) Frederico Lobo and Tiago Hespanha; composers Ghuna X and Phase; editors Federico Delpero Bejar, Mr. Lobo and Mr. Hespanha; producers Leonor Noivo, João Matos and Joana Gusmão; production company Terratreme Filmes
Screened April 17th 2014, Lisbon, IndieLisboa 2014 official competition screener


Monday, January 19, 2015

LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO
Black Sunday

Black Sunday was the first official director's credit for Italian cinematographer Mario Bava, and the film that launched his career as one of the master stylists of European genre film. Though he was by no means a neophyte and had quite a career as DP behind him, and had even stepped in to finish a couple of productions abandoned by their directors, Black Sunday is the foundation stone of his reputation, and what a foundation stone!

     Shot in gloriously expressionist black-and-white, and retaining merely a couple of starting points from a short story by Russian master Nikolai Gogol, Black Sunday puts a pair of travelling physicians in 19th century Eastern Europe crossing paths with the tomb of a 17th century witch burned at the stake, whose curse on her lineage has lingered on - and whose undead spirit is accidentally freed by the men of science. As the horror of two centuries ago is unleashed again on the remote countryside, Mr. Bava elicits a mesmerizing performance from British then-newcomer Barbara Steele, playing both Asa, the evil, unhinged witch, and her great-grandniece Katia, a gentle, melancholy girl caught unwillingly in the family curse.

     On paper, it all seems to be another piece of classic Gothic silliness - but plotting was never the forte of genre and exploitation, and any Gothic lives or dies mostly on the mood and handling. Mr. Bava's admirably visual, strikingly elegant compositions, as his camera roams the studio sets that remind nothing so much as Hollywood's concept of the "exotic", create just the eerie, ominous mood that the tale needs to work on-screen. The black-and-white cinematography (by the director himself) is a gorgeously rendered, almost tactile game of shadows and light; no wonder many observers put Black Sunday as a heir to the seminal Universal monster movies of the 1930s, though its sensual, garish tone is closer to Roger Corman's cycle of Poe adaptations.

     Mr. Bava's camerawork and staging is first-rate, with an attentive collaborator in veteran editor Mario Serandrei (who is also one of the credited writers), resulting in a film that so visually luxurious and rich that even non-genre fans will find themselves fascinated by its texture and perfectly judged rhythm. Exploitation cinema has never been so stylish and inspired as when Mr. Bava took care of it.

LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO
Italy 1960
86 minutes
Cast Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici
Director and cinematographer Mario Bava (b&w); screenwriters Ennio de Concini and Mario Serandrei; based on the story by Nikolai Gogol, "Viy"; composer Roberto Nicolosi; designer Giorgio Giovannini; costumes Tina Loriedo Grani; editor Mr. Serandrei; producer Massimo de Rita; production companies Galatea and Jolly Film
Screened April 9th 2014, Lisbon, DVD 


Sunday, January 18, 2015

LAGGIES

All the outward signs of Laggies suggest director Lynn Shelton is climbing the ladder of mainstream acceptance (or at least what passes for it in modern day America): recognisable film stars in the leading roles of a more structured script written by someone else, filmed with a more polished sheen than is usual in her shaggy-dog, semi-improvised modern comedies. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to dismiss Laggies as a "sell-out": this tale of a twenty-something's belated coming-of-age remains very Lynn-Shelton-like, in its leisurely plotting and its understanding look at the emotional issues of modern life.

     Megan (Keira Knightley) is still unemployed and unsure of herself at 29, but knows very well what she doesn't want (even if it takes her a wayward path to finally understand it). Terrified of conforming, of becoming just one more cog in the social machine, she's incredibly reluctant about having to fit in the pre-defined mold people are drawing for her. No wonder that, when faced with the wedding of hyper-straight BFF Allison (Ellie Kemper) and a marriage proposal from longstanding boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber), she goes into denial and runs away to hide at the place of new-found teenage friend Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), enjoying a sort of glorified sleepover while attempting to sort her life out under pretense of attending a self-help seminar.

     What follows isn't always properly resolved narratively, possibly because Andrea Seigel's script seems determined to hit any number of predefined romantic-comedy beats, while Ms. Shelton's method has always been to let things happen in a more organic, spontaneous way. Also, this is more a film about one specific person, where Humpday or Your Sister's Sister were more of ensemble pieces that dealt with a wider cast of characters - even if you can recognise the director's ease with actors in the way the supporting roles aren't just gratuitous and have distinct personalities, drawn in a few well-drawn strokes.

     But Ms. Knightley is utterly pitch-perfect as the girl that's looking to learn more about herself, and Ms. Shelton's strengths continue to shine through a more formatted, and admittedly more disappointing, outing than you'd wish for. Laggies is more of a holding pattern than a step forward (or backward) in the director's career.

LAGGIES
USA 2014
Cast Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Kaitlyn Dever, Jeff Garlin, Ellie Kemper, Mark Webber, Daniel Zovatto
Director Lynn Shelton; screenwriter Andrea Seigel; cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke (colour); composer Benjamin Gibbard; designer John Lavin; costumes Ronald Leamon; editor Nat Sanders; producers Steve Golin, Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Rosalie Swedlin, Myles Nestel, Kevin Frakes and Raj Brinder Singh; production companies Anonymous Content and The Solution Entertainment Group in association with Merced Media Partners, Palmstar Media Capital and Penlife Media
Screened January 11th 2015, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Friday, January 16, 2015

THE IMITATION GAME

The "Turing Test" posits that the answers to a small amount of questions would suffice to identify whether they were answered by a human being or by an artificial intelligence passing itself off as human. The irony seems to be that Alan Turing himself, one of 20th century Britain's most dazzling scientific minds, actually had to pass himself off as a "normal person" to fit within the strictly regimented British society of its time.

     And yet, without his jagged, almost autistic obsessions, it's highly likely that WWII would have gone wrong for the Allies; after having alienated pretty much everyone in the Bletchley Park cryptography unit of the British Army, it was Turing's out-of-the-box thinking that allowed the ultimate breakthrough in decoding German military cyphers. And without that incredible true story that the British government kept under wraps for half a century, Norwegian hand-for-hire Morten Tyldum would not have made The Imitation Game pass itself off as the war thriller it so clearly is not.

     Instead, what's told in this quasi-biopic of Alan Turing (a stellar Benedict Cumberbatch) is the tale of a "stranger in a strange land", to quote from Robert Heinlein; an "odd man out" whose wartime experiences taught him, for better or for worse, how to get by in a society totally uninterested in the concept of difference. And even though Turing was gay, and the chemical castration he was sentenced to for "indecent exposure" in a society that outlawed homosexuality played a part in his 1954 suicide, being gay is not the key at the heart of his singularity.

     Graham Moore's script, Mr. Cumberbatch's performance and Mr. Tyldum's handling combine to underline that the mathematician was a fish out of water, whose combination of guileless eccentricity and ruthless intelligence made him an odd duck in a post-imperial Britain so worried with "property" and "decency". No wonder that The Imitation Game suggests the person closest to him to be Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a co-worker and a first-rate mind that patriarchal Britain wants to condemn to being a prim young woman meant for marriage and homemaking, but who chafes at it and is inspired by Turing's bloody-mindedness to push back against that.

     Mr. Cumberbatch is exquisite as Turing, in a perfectly modulated and highly subtle composition where you can always see both the mental gears working behind the eyes and the uncertainty that comes from holding secrets. But this would mean nothing without Mr. Moore's scripting, which takes liberties with actual events to better underline the concept of "imitation" running through it, and Mr. Tyldum's no-nonsense decision to shoot the tale in classic, understated British period drama mode (though this is technically an American production).

     This allows the trappings of the war thriller to be suffused with the casual oddity of an angular alien struggling to survive in a strange, hostile planet, while not making it a masterpiece; just a better-than-average mainstream movie that throws a small wooden stick into a massive set of gears and ever so slightly changes its mechanism.

THE IMITATION GAME
USA 2014
114 minutes
Cast Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong
Director Morten Tyldum; screenwriter Graham Moore; based on the book Alan Turing - The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; cinematographer Óscar Faura (colour, widescreen); composer Alexandre Desplat; designer Maria Djurkovic; costumes Sammy Sheldon Differ; editor William Goldenberg; producers Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman; production companies Black Bear Pictures and Bristol Automotive Productions in association with Filmnation Entertainment
Screened January 7th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

UNBROKEN

If you showed Unbroken to a cinephile or critic without letting them know who directed it, odds are they would have a hard time identifying the name, but would clearly recognise it as a film strongly influenced by classic Hollywood war pictures. Especially in the early going, set on board an American bomber in a mission over the Pacific during WWII, the astute balance between no-nonsense action and the existential plight of young men in war together, gloriously lensed by the great Roger Deakins, is a throwback to the golden days of American studio cinema - and even reminded me of Michael Caton-Jones' sorely underrated Memphis Belle.

     That initial half-hour is enough to confirm that, as a director, Angelina Jolie - for it is she who directs Unbroken - is a different beast from other actors who step behind the camera. Her little-seen but genuinely promising debut, 2011's In the Land of Blood and Honey, set during the 1990s Balkan conflict, already suggested she was genuinely interested in telling stories about the resilience of human emotion and spirit in tough circumstances, and was willing to use her clout to get this kind of projects made. For the follow-up, she adapts Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling chronicle of the life of American Olympic athlete Louie Zamperini, played by rising young Brit Jack O'Connell, focusing on his WWII service and his gruesome, grueling survival story.

     After a rescue mission that ends with a crash in the ocean, Zamperini and two surviving crewmates spend over a month lost at sea with no food or water, only to be rescued by the Japanese and sent to a prisoner camp where the runner becomes the target for the ceaseless, sadistic bullying of commander Watanabe (Japanese singer Miyavi). The fact that he was a no-good son of Italian immigrants whose gift for running rescued him from a possible life of crime, and that his athletic achievements are skimmed over in the film's first act, though, seem to be of little or no interest to Ms. Jolie and her stellar but uninspired quartet of screenwriters (among which, yes, those Coen brothers).

     Instead, his track career is a mere set-up for Watanabe's great yet petty pleasure in humiliating him at every given opportunity, leading to heavy-handed and all but unavoidable religious symbolism of Zamperini as a martyr who embodies the suffering and pain at the heart of any violent conflict. The pile-up of tragedies turn Unbroken into ultimately uninvolving, seen-it-before drama, entirely missing the forest for the trees - it wants to be such an inspirational tale that it thinks nothing of over-playing that hand, which it does to effectively numbing effect.

     More's the pity because, at times, Unbroken reminds of other, better films that followed the paths this one chooses not to - the portrait of camp life under Japanese control as well-judged as Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, the strongly homoerotic currents thrown up by Watanabe's obsession with Zamperini intriguingly parallel to Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It's hard to imagine Ms. Jolie did not think of both films, since so much here suggests a clear storytelling intelligence and a genuine cinephile culture at work. That also makes it all the more disappointing that Unbroken fails to fulfill the promises of its first act and settles for being merely another WWII story, anonymously if handsomely made by what could pass for a director-for-hire but is in fact a smart director still finding her sea legs.

UNBROKEN
USA, Japan 2014
137 minutes
Cast Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock
Director Angelina Jolie; screenwriters Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard la Gravenese and William Nicholson; based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken; cinematographer Roger Deakins (colour, widescreen); composer Alexandre Desplat; designer Jon Hutman; costumes Louise Frogley; editors Tim Squyres and William Goldenberg; effects supervisor Bill George; producers Ms. Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Matthew Baer and Erwin Stoff; production companies Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures Productions, Jolie Pas Productions and 3 Arts Entertainment in association with Dentsu/Fuji Television Network
Screened January 6th 2015, São Jorge 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

ADIEU AU LANGAGE
Goodbye to Language

Goodbye to Language is the official translation of the title of Jean-Luc Godard's newest film. In the original French, though, Adieu au langage becomes Ah Dieu, oh langage - ah God, oh language - in the polyssemic intertitles that the director consistently throws out throughout his work. The question could be: is Mr. Godard teasing the viewer, playing around with his head?

     Maybe the question should be: when isn't he teasing, when hasn't he teased? He is no longer making "traditional" narrative cinema, but, really, when did he ever do it? Even when his films could still be framed within the traditional confines of storytelling, they were still, always, colouring outside the lines; now that he is essentially creating abstract, philosophical film-essays, he manages to extract more cinema from each shot than most people manage in entire careers.

     Goodbye to Language gains an added formal weight - a dimension, even, if that's not sounding too pithy - from its usage of stereoscopic 3D. If his films have become dazzling, mind-blowing collages of pictures, ideas, quotes and concepts made all the more sophisticated by digital technology, the 3D merely heightens the idea of "palimpsest" underlying his current works: superimpositions, masks, layerings that create entirely new assemblages out of pre-existing elements gain an added depth from the technology. But Mr. Godard also uses it to disconnect and disassociate the traditional viewing experience. (And it should be pointed out that watching Goodbye to Language in 3D and in 2D is like seeing two different versions of a same film.) Image and sound, form and meaning, idea and action - all is irregularly and briefly disconnected before returning to a semblance of normality that has gained a whole other meaning.

     Disconnected, fragmented, dissolved, such is Goodbye to Language, taking the director's usual conceptual and linguistic playfulness to a new level; while criticising the multiplication of screens and visual languages that are impoverishing written languages and thought processes, he is also showing how these apparently "stupid" technologies can open new paths and new possibilities for thinking and seeing the world. The rise of technology and efficiency as enemies of art and love is an old refrain for Mr. Godard (Alphaville anyone?), but he has no qualms about subverting it and distort it into things of beauty and creativity - the new "opium of the people" can enslave as much as free.

     In many ways, it's a film of and about extremes - all and nothing, infinity and zero, sex and death, positing the physical body as the moment where we all are equal and suggesting the trivial domestic disputes and chit-chat of modern marriage are as important as conceptual thought. For all that, Mr. Godard never ever forgets that emotion is at the heart of everything, and has Roxy the dog be the actual star of the film - the simple act of being and existing as the greatest answer and counterpoint to all the complexity of life, underlining the film's incredible generosity of spirit.

     To be sure, we're not sure what language the 84-year old director is saying goodbye to, or if he is just replacing an old one with a new one, or opening up new pathways. Whatever it is he is doing, he is doing it right and saying something, at an age where so many others have nothing more to say.

ADIEU AU LANGAGE
France 2014
69 minutes
Cast Héloïse Godet, Kamel Abdelli, Richard Chevallier, Zoë Bruneau
Made by Jean-Luc Godard, Fabrice Aragno, Jean-Paul Battaggia
Producers Brahim Chioua, Vincent Maraval and Alain Sarde; production company Wild Bunch
Screened December 31st 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Monday, January 12, 2015

KIŞ UYKUSU
Winter Sleep

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has by now been more than accepted into the "mainstream" of modern global auteur cinema. The Palme d'Or awarded at Cannes 2014 to Winter Sleep is proof of his "canonization" as a "great filmmaker", something that the stateliness of his (probably far too much) self-conscious cinema seems to underline. This lengthy exploration of an Anatolian rural landowner's life, radiating outwards to take in those around him, is loosely based on short stories by Anton Chekhov (as, indeed, his previous quasi-masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) and unfolds at a slow, magisterial pace over more than three hours.

     And yet, that sense that Mr. Ceylan has become "untouchable" and that we're in for another earnest arthouse slog completely falls by the wayside as you notice the vibrancy, exquisite control and expansiveness of Winter Sleep. In fact, you could very easily see the film as an oblique comment on the director's own recent unanimity: its "hero", Aydin (a remarkable Haluk Bilginer) is a former actor who retired to take over running the family's properties, but is also someone who simultaneously chafes at and revels in his state - as indeed most everyone in this enveloping, quietly dramatic look at love and regret, individuality and society, morals and politics.

     The setting is the Hotel Othello, a quaint hotel carved into the Anatolian rock, a cave where Aydin (and, to an extent, everyone around him) hides from the world, coming out every now and then to make sure it conforms to the idea he makes of it. Aydin is an insufferable, insecure character, who uses rhetoric and performance to mask his pettiness and self-doubt and also to reflect it back on his suffering young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), their wedding a facade fraying at the edges and threatening to implode in the snowy, wintry landscapes breathtakingly shot by Mr. Ceylan's regular DP Gökhan Tiryaki.

     Unfolding slowly but grippingly through a series of "socratic dialogues" that reflect social protocols while seeming to be carved out of jagged rock, Winter Sleep follows Aydin and the pack of wounded animals in his direct dependence as they lash out at each other in despair. Nihal takes refuge in charity work to make up for her sense of being a trophy wife; Aydin's bitter sister Necla (Demet Akbağ) resents being second fiddle; Ismail (Nejat İşler), the impulsive, proud out-of-work tenant whose back-owed rents start the plot rolling, and his brother, strict muslim imam Hamdi (Serhan Kılıç), are studies in different forms of dignity; Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), the right-hand man, pretty much runs the place while Aydin whiles away his days thinking and writing self-important. Nearly all of them yearn for a way out of their self-imposed, self-inflicted troubles, their passive-aggressive tensions seething as the tale inches forward - occasionally a bit self-aware, not unreasonably ponderous, but transcended by a pitch- and note-perfect combination of writing, handling, performance and technique.

     What is even more extraordinary in Winter Sleep is how the film's apparent simplicity "contains multitudes" - simultaneously epic and intimate, it touches upon modern Turkey's secular/religious divide but also the current rich/poor class divide felt all over the world, and asks where exactly is the virtue, what is pride good for if it leads you in a wrong direction, what is the meaning of love. All the world is a stage for Mr. Ceylan, and no wonder that the film's hotel is Shakespeareanly called Othello. If Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was a quasi-masterpiece, then Winter Sleep is even closer to the concept.

KIŞ UYKUSU
Turkey, France, Germany 2014
196 minutes
Cast Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbağ, Ayberk Pekcan, Serhat Kılıç, Nejat İşler
Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan; screenwriters Ebru Ceylan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan; cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki (colour, widescreen); designer Gamze Kuş; editors Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Bora Gökşingöl; producer Zeynep Özbatur Atakan; production companies Zeyno Film, Memento Films Productions and Bredok Film Production in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, Mars Entertainment Group and Imaj
Screened December 23rd 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



WINTER SLEEP - trailer from Memento Films International on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

ROSEWATER

Put aside any thoughts you may have had that Rosewater shares the same satirical DNA as Jon Stewart's massively influential Daily Show, because the humorist's directing debut plays it a lot more safe than his reputation would suggest. Certainly not for lack of subject - the irony at the heart of the true story Mr. Stewart has adapted from the memoir by Iranian exile Maziar Bahari would certainly allow for it, and the film retains a surrealist, almost Kafkian patina that nearly demands a raised eyebrow. But, only too aware of how misunderstood humour can be, Mr. Stewart plays it straight out of an over-abundance of caution, framing the tale of Mr. Bahari's return to Teheran to report on the 2009 elections for Newsweek like a throwback to the classic American political cinema of the seventies.

     His Bahari, played by Gael García Bernal, is a perfect archetype of the American film - the innately decent, honest man whose desire to "do the right thing" gets him in trouble with the establishment, in this case the Iranian authorities displeased that he has shot and uploaded pictures from the repression of the regime's goons on the "Green" supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi. Maziar finds himself locked in the infamous prison of Evian and subject to torture at the hands of interrogator Javadi (Kim Bodnia), tasked to make him confess he is in fact an undercover American spy.

     That the main reason for this absurd accusation is an interview Bahari gave to... The Daily Show's "espionage correspondent" is the obvious explanation as to why Mr. Stewart decided to shoot his story straight, even if he can't resist underlining the obvious surrealism of the tale. In order to reiterate their total control over the Iranian system, the regime continues to hold on to a picture of the "abroad" that is at least 30 years behind the times and still believes that people, in a wired world like ours is, will gladly stick blindly to what they're given. Once he realises the nature of the game, Bahari starts twisting it in his favour by playing to Javadi's - and by extension the regime's - naïve fantasies of what the outside world is like.

     The earnestness Mr. Stewart uses in telling his story makes it easy to overlook that this is not an American tale, but an Iranian tale, told "from the inside", without any condescension or alienation effects. That is actually what makes this a universal tale of resistance, especially because there is no grandstanding heroism involved, just a man caught playing a game that transcends him, used as a pawn. But it also gives Rosewater a subdued, been-here-before, borderline didactic tone that the two good ideas in the film's handling can't quite shake off.

     One plays precisely into that earnestness - the decision to look at things through Maziar's eyes and let us feel how his hope ebbs away slowly before returning. The other - having him reason through his choices with the "ghosts" of his family members who were previously tortured in the same prison - is somewhat abandoned halfway through, even though the way Mr. Stewart plays it is one of the best and most intriguing things about the film. None of this detracts from the fact that Rosewater is an above-average directing debut that tells well an important story; but it lacks the spark that would have given it the urgency it demands.

ROSEWATER
USA 2014
103 minutes
Cast Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani
Director and screenwriter Jon Stewart; based on the memoir by Maziar Bahari Then They Came for Me; cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (colour); composer Howard Shore; designer Gerald Sullivan; costumes Phaedra Dahdaleh; editor Jay Rabinowitz; producers Scott Rudin, Mr. Stewart and Gigi Pritzker; production company Oddlot Entertainment
Screened December 16th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, January 08, 2015

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

What if Riggan Thomson, the character at the heart of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Broadway tale Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), was a stand-in for the Mexican director and his current status in world cinema?

     In the plot Mr. Iñárritu devised with his screenwriters, a note-perfect Michael Keaton plays the has-been film star attempting to kick-start his career on the New York stage. Indelibly linked to an action-movie super-hero franchise but fallen on hard times since he turned his back on it, Riggan desperately yearns to be accepted and taken seriously as a legit actor, hence his all-or-nothing decision to stage on Broadway an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story which he has written and directed and stars in. Cue the obligatory cynicism from sneering critics, purist actors and pretty much everyone around him, including his "Birdman" alter ego whispering in his ears all the time; all of them see in Riggan nothing other than a talentless arriviste that doesn't have "what it takes" to make it on the "real stage".

     And, in a way, Riggan's position, between the devil and the deep blue sea, is a very good metaphor for Mr. Iñárritu's own precarious stand: a director unrecognised as a serious auteur by a hard core of critics and press for whom he's a flashy director with little substance, while acclaimed by the more mainstream adult audiences and less demanding critics who eagerly lap up awards-fodder prestige pictures. A clearly talented director whose sincere earnestness about social issues has led him to frame them too often in overwrought melodrama tropes, Mr. Iñárritu is aiming for something else with Birdman: a study of what defines a man's success in a society where perception has become more important than substance, where form is taking precedence over content.

     That is exactly why it's such a disappointment that the Mexican director has approached that study through form instead substance. Since Birdman is structured as a trip inside Riggan's mind as the opening night approaches and everything seems to unravel around him, the film unfolds in a continuous, non-stop, one-take tracking shot à la Russian Ark - a tour-de-force from the great DP Emmanuel Lubezki that is, obviously, forged, but remarkably so. The constant steadycam, underlined by Antonio Sánchez's percussive score, creates a sort of fugue state set in a perpetual present, where you can never be entirely sure of what is actually happening and of what (if anything) Riggan is hallucinating.

     But just as Riggan struggles to not be overpowered by the "Birdman" that keeps sabotaging him over his shoulder, so the daily backstage dramas become overpowered by the showmanship involved in such a technical achievement. Every time the camera slows down, Birdman becomes a better film, by ejecting the overarching need to keep up the concept, by just focusing on actors portraying characters. The first time the film comes to a standstill - an extraordinary rooftop dialogue between Riggan's world-weary daughter (a wonderful Emma Stone) and his mercurial, Method-acting co-star (Edward Norton) - unveils just how exciting the whole project could be.

     Unfortunately, soon the camera gains speed again; these quieter moments are few and far between, and Mr. Iñárritu's film turns into a frustrating testimonial of a piece caught in the exact same trap it wants to denounce: mistaking perception for content, form for substance. More's the pity - the Mexican helmer is excellent with his actors (a dazzling but underused ensemble of talent), but the overarching concept of a continuous tracking shot forces them to take the back seat and turns Birdman into a disappointing, wasted opportunity.

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
USA 2014
119 minutes
Cast Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu; screenwriters Mr. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo; cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (colour); composer Antonio Sánchez; designer Kevin Thompson; costumes Albert Wolsky; editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione; producers Mr. Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan and James D. Skotchdopole; production companies Fox Searchlight Pictures, Regency Enterprises, New Regency Pictures, M Productions and Le Grisbi Productions in association with TSG Entertainment and Worldview Entertainment
Screened November 30th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA
Black Sabbath

For all you hear (absolutely correctly, BTW) about Roger Corman's influential 1960s cycle of Poe adaptations, Mario Bava's 1963 omnibus Black Sabbath is a stellar example that European horror at its best was every bit its equal - if not its superior. Quentin Tarantino has been credited as saying that the original concept for Pulp Fiction was his attempt at doing a crime-film, multi-story version of Black Sabbath, even though none of the three segments in Mr. Bava's anthology is linked other than thematically.

     Using Boris Karloff as both its host and the star of one of the episodes, Mr. Bava plays masterfully with the Aristotelian unities of time, space and action throughout - every one of the stories develops its suspense from the temporal or location constraints, also linking very nicely with the low-budget nature of these commercial pan-European productions of the 1960s. Also, there's more than a touch of the circus showman in the way the bookends both set up and play down the "scare factor" of the tales, allegedly inspired by short stories from well-known 19th century writers (in point of fact, only one of the segments is).

     The three episodes work in different ways: opener The Telephone is a claustrophobic "tale of the unexpected" set in a closed basement apartment over the course of a single night, with call girl Michèle Mercier terrorized by anonymous phone calls she believes come from the man she helped put in prison; it's the closest to the giallo that his later Blood and Black Lace would help define. Centrepiece The Wurdulak, adapted from a short story from Russian writer Alexis Tolstoy (Leo's relative), is Poe-esque Gothic, a vampire tale in all but name with a passing stranger (Mark Damon) being drawn into helping a local family face the fact that its patriarch (Mr. Karloff) has been bitten by the titular creature. Finally, The Drop of Water is pure supernatural disquiet, following greedy nurse Jacqueline Pierreux's punishment for having taken a ring from the hand of a newly-deceased local eccentric whose death she was required to certify.

     In common, however, all three segments are models of economy and eloquence, needing no more than a couple of actors and a remarkable domain of visual and narrative space to work as perfectly formed "mini-films" - some of which would have worked perfectly as Twilight Zone or Outer Limits half-hours (yes, they're that good). A master of the long take, of the sinewy camera movement and of the symbolic use of colour, Mr. Bava has no problem in creating a stunningly enveloping sense of dread and foreboding throughout these 90 minutes, only to gleefully make it come tumbling down in the amazing backstage pan that ends Black Sabbath on a tongue-in-cheek note - one that perfectly encapsulates the haunted-house nature of this earlier, and yet truly remarkable, age of horror movies.

I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA
Italy, France 1963
96 minutes
Cast: "Il Telefono": Michèle Mercier, Lydia Alfonsi; "I Wurdulak": Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Susy Andersen; "La Goccia d'Acqua": Jacqueline Pierreux, Milly Monti
Director Mario Bava; screenwriters Marcello Fondato, Alberto Bevilacqua and Mr. Bava; "I Wurdulak" based on the novella by Alexis Tolstoy "La Famille du Vourdalak"; cinematographer Ubaldo Terzano (Technicolor); composer Roberto Nicolosi; designer Giorgio Giovannini; costumes Tina Grani; editor Mario Serandrei; production companies Emmepi Cinematografica, Lyre Cinématographique and Galatea
Screened April 11th 2014, DVD, Lisbon


Tuesday, January 06, 2015

SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO
Blood and Black Lace

If you need to know just what has kept Italian director Mario Bava in such esteem with genre film aficionados such as Joe Dante and serious auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, look no further than Blood and Black Lace - a baroque, colourful whodunit about a series of gruesome murders at the Rome fashion house of countess Cristiana (Eva Bartok), revolving around a mysterious diary that may contain scandalous revelations.

     Nothing in it seems to make much sense from a plot standpoint, unlike Mr. Bava's more elaborate and better-remembered horror entries such as Black Sunday - but it doesn't really matter. The director himself, a veteran cinematographer who had trained as a painter, often admitted the scripts were mere jumping-off points for his glossy, artful visual experimentations, borne out of the necessity to stand out from the well-oiled assembly line of commercial production Italian cinema was awash in during the 1950s and 1960s. And it's the gloriously overwrought handling that raises Blood and Black Lace to its heights, announced by the primary hues that seem to pop off the screen straight from its stylized, pop credit sequence.

     Though a commercial failure in Italy at the time of its 1964 release and only a modest success abroad, this is in fact one of the key films in the development of the peculiarly Italian genre of giallo, the garish and hyper-stylized murder mysteries where sensuality and sadism went hand in hand, whose highlights were signed in the 1970s by Mr. Bava's friend and surrogate heir Dario Argento (who, actually, took the genre much further). But it was Mr. Bava's flamboyance in matching breathtaking style and throwaway content, with a sense of almost virtuoso playfulness, that showed the way, as Blood and Black Lace proves without a shadow of a doubt.

     Look at the almost tactile colours and elaborate camera movements, underlined by Carlo Rustichelli's swinging, "with-it" score, for an instant rush of period-genre delight, while at the same time pointing out there was more risk and reward in a single sequence of Mr. Bava's filmmaking than in most contemporary assembly-line blockbusters.

SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO
Italy, France, Germany 1964
86 minutes
Cast Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Arianna Gorini, Dante di Paolo, Mary Arden, Franco Ressel, Claude Dantes, Luciano Pigozzi, Lea Krugher, Massimo Righi, Francesca Ungaro, Giuliano Rafaelli, Hariet White Medin
Director Mario Bava; screenwriters Marcello Fondato, Giuseppe Barilla and Mr. Bava; cinematographer Ubaldo Terzano (colour); composer Carlo Rustichelli; designer Arrigo Breschi; costumes Tina Grani and Eleonora Garnett; editor Mario Serandrei; producers Massimo Patrizi and Alfredo Mirabile; production companies Emmepi Cinematografica, Les Production Georges de Beauregard and Monachia Film 
Screened April 2nd 2014, DVD, Lisbon


Sunday, January 04, 2015

INTO THE WOODS

The Hollywood musical as we remember it from its mid-20th century heyday is never going to have a revival. And it's pointless to pretend that the occasional throwback that makes it to the big screen presages a larger movement - no matter how successful Grease, Flashdance, Chicago or even Tim Burton's take on Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd may have been, they'll never amount to more than blips on a screen.

     Even if more risqué attempts to reinvent the genre for a specifically filmic setting (such as Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge or Julie Taymor's Across the Universe) can be artistically successful, the risk/reward ratio is simply too daunting for bottom-line-obsessed studios to take the leap of faith. Therefore, this long-gestating film version of Mr. Sondheim's mid-eighties Broadway classic Into the Woods will never be anything other than a decent record of a lavish all-star production mounted specifically for the big screen: a filming that plays it generally close to the vest, tweaking as little as possible in both story and score to maintain intact its pedigree while making sure it doesn't get lost in translation.

     In some ways, Into the Woods as a play was already a hybrid that fed on the Hollywood and Broadway clichés of genre the best to deconstruct and reinvent them. Its meditation on fairy tales as narrative devices, stories that help us make sense of life or explain away what doesn't make sense, draws heavily, conceptually and visually, on the fairy tale tropes crystallized by Walt Disney's animated takes on them. (No wonder that it's the Disney studio backing the film.)

     In and around the titular woods, a series of classic characters collide over a couple of nights: Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack of the bean stalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). Their paths cross as the result of a childlessness curse set many years ago by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep), which has now fallen on the Baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), desperate to do anything to bear a child. It's no accident that it's childlessness that brings all these reinterpretations of children's stories into re-writing, with Mr. Sondheim and his librettist and regular collaborator James Lapine (also scripting here) weaving an incredibly multi-layered plot that folds the genre into metaphors for modern society's issues of self-esteem, success and ambition.

     Cinderella is indecisive and her Prince Charming (Chris Pine) a superficial buffoon; the Red Riding Hood is in search of forbidden pleasures and the Wolf (Johnny Depp) an older, kinkier seducer; the Baker's Wife teeters between the dream of an enchanted fling with the Prince and the reality of marriage with her devoted husband. In essence, Into the Woods is about getting comfortable within your own skin, no matter where it takes you, with the fantastical mid-19th century setting at the same time comforting and strange, Dennis Gassner's production design making the piece resonate as the "dark ride" it was clearly thought as, anchoring its theatricality but also allowing it to break free into the film world.

     On its face, though, the choice of former Broadway choreographer Rob Marshall to helm (despite Mr. Sondheim's blessing) seemed unpromising. Despite his background in Broadway, neither his Chicago (a lively but half-baked and stunningly choppy mess) nor his Nine were successful transfers to the big screen. It becomes clear really fast, though, that his anonymous, illustrative handling pays off handsomely, as it never detracts from what is the piece's centre: Mr. Sondheim's meticulously crafted songs. It's the songs that fulfill Into the Woods' narrative thrust and move the action forward, their tongue-twisting lyrics revealing character and filling in plot, and Mr. Marshall shoots them as he would non-singing action, finding the exact point between extravagance and naturalism, between tongue-in-cheek slyness and vulnerability.

     The tendency in American musicals since the genre's heyday passed is to cast dramatic actors in singing roles rather than casting for singers who can act, but here what appears to be far too much stunt casting turns out to be surprisingly note-perfect. Ms. Blunt and Mr. Corden pretty much steal the film from under everybody's feet, with Ms. Kendrick a close third as a resourceful Cinderella; it's a shame that some of the performers are underused (Mr. Depp, Christine Baranski as Cinderella's Stepmother, Tracey Ullman as Jack's Mother and Simon Russell Beale as the Baker's Father are essentially cameos).

     But what is key in this Into the Woods is that this is a screen musical that retains the ambiguity, thoughtfulness and smarts of the stage play and makes them work within the context of a film. Even if it's not a greatly inventive film - just a professional rendition of a classic musical - it's not filmed theatre either, and for that we should be grateful.

INTO THE WOODS
USA 2014
125 minutes
     Cast Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale
     Director Rob Marshall; screenwriter James Lapine; from the musical play Into the Woods with book by Mr. Lapine and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; cinematographer Dion Beebe (colour, widescreen); composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim; musical director Paul Gemignani; designer Dennis Gassner; costumes Colleen Atwood; editor Wyatt Smith; musical numbers staged by John de Luca and Mr. Marshall; effects supervisor Matt Johnson; producers Mr. De Luca, Mr. Marshall, Marc Platt and Callum McDougall; production companies Walt Disney Pictures, Lucamar Productions and Marc Platt Productions
     Screened December 19th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Saturday, January 03, 2015

FOXCATCHER

That Foxcatcher is a smarter, more subtle film than its "based on a true story" origin would suggest is quickly understood. For the first 20 minutes, director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) follows Mark Schultz's (Channing Tatum) daily drudge, as he eats cheap convenience food, does a half-hearted show-and-tell for school kids for a miserly pay cheque, and finally sets in for a wrestling training session with his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo).

     Both wrestling athletes with Olympic medals for a sport most people don't even think once about, the Schultz brothers get by through their quintessentially American blue-collar work ethics. But while Dave has a job coaching college sportsmen and a family, Mark is an intense, obsessed, somewhat isolated loner. All we need to know about Mark and Dave and their push-and-pull relationship is shown and not told - especially during the long takes of that wrestling training, the feints and coups and reactions speaking volumes about Mark's self-demeaning resentment and Dave's well-meaning obliviousness and the deep affection underlining it.

     Into this relationship, then, comes millionaire heir John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), a wrestling aficionado who dreams of giving the sport its nobility in the US and is willing to throw good money at it, choosing Mark as his "tip of the spear" that will get him inside the door in order to gain control of the Olympic team. The fuel has been ignited.

     Mark wants to make a name for himself away from Dave, who won't follow him into Du Pont's embrace. In turn, the millionaire wants to leave a mark of his own and prove to his mother (a brief cameo from Vanessa Redgrave) that he is not just a spoilt child who pays his way into everything.

     Unfolding over two years' time with the 1988 Seoul Olympics as its flashpoint, Foxcatcher's tragic dénouement is in the cards from that very beginning that shows-and-tells the family roots underlying everything. The Schultz/Du Pont connection is presented from one hand as an attempt at replicating a familial core absent from each of the men's lives, but also a sort of twisted bromance where Mark and John seem to create a father/son connection that's missing in their lives but in fact merely set themselves up for a fall.

     Foxcatcher also becomes a disquieting meditation on the role of privilege and money in the shaping of the American Dream, of the tightrope between chasing your dreams and actually fulfilling them. The Schultz brothers devoted themselves to their dream only to find it's not the ideal that moves people, and that innate decency won't get you anywhere - a lesson made clear through Du Pont's throwing money at everything to make sure it succeeds.

     Mr. Miller shoots it all with the extreme discretion of a trained observer, allowing his actors time and space to become the characters rather than just impersonating them, always framing them within their environs to better show how these define and constrain them. If everyone's eyes have been on Mr. Carell's unrecognisably chilling performance - you can notice at every moment the glint of madness in his eye and his yearning for recognition - it would be a meaningless feat without his co-stars. Mr. Tatum could well become the next Mark Wahlberg - the underrated beefcake who morphs under the radar into a resourceful, delicate actor, bringing out the remarkable, almost masochistic stoicism in Mark; the ever-reliable and woefully under-valued Mr. Ruffalo delivers yet again another rock-solid performance, mirroring Dave's own central, if supporting, role in the story.

     What's even more fascinating is how Mr. Miller proves again, by his directing smarts and adroit choice of material, he is one of the few contemporary filmmakers to truly work in the mold of 1970s classic American cinema. His attention to both artistic and narrative qualities, both within Foxcatcher and in his continuing filmography, suggests a modern-day Sydney Pollack, delivering smart, thoughtful films for a discerning, adult audience without condescending nor dumbing down. And this is his best one yet.

FOXCATCHER
USA 2014
134 minutes
Cast Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd
Director Bennett Miller; screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; cinematographer Greig Fraser (colour); composer Rob Simonsen, with additional material by West Dylan Thordson and Mychael Danna; designer Jess Gonchor; costumes Kasia Walicka-Maimone; editors Stuart Levy, Conor O'Neill and Jay Cassidy; producers Megan Ellison, Mr. Miller, Jon Kilik and Anthony Bregman; production companies Annapurna Pictures in association with Likely Story
Screened December 18th 2014, NOS Colombo 8, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Friday, January 02, 2015

PASOLINI

I can't help but feel that being hailed in Europe as a major auteur unrecognised in his own country has been bad for Abel Ferrara. The maverick New Yorker seemed to start taking himself far too seriously as a director after the heartfelt mystical meditation of 2005's Mary. Pasolini is the dead end to which that acclaim has brought him: a mythification of the misunderstood, controversial artist as prophet and visionary, encapsulated in the retelling of infamous Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini's last day living in 1975. (It could be called 1975: Last Day on Earth.)

     Even though the film isn't necessarily clear about it, the fact that Pasolini was a long-gestating project dear to Mr. Ferrara certainly suggests that the director sees himself in the Pasolini mould, both being uneasy, misunderstood filmmakers in constant struggle against the world. That Mr. Ferrara is unable to build Pasolini's last day into more than a mythified and mystifyingly superficial portrait, a sort of "print the legend"/"paint by numbers" illustration of the Roman director's attitude to life, is proof enough of his half-hearted, misguided approach to the tale.

     In underlining the prescience of Pasolini's thinking about the modern world and his urgent appeal to resistance against the dumbing-down of society, in attempting to reconcile that vision with the outlandish allegory of Porno-Teo-Kolossal (the project Pasolini was working on that never came to fruition and that is here visualized in part, as a film-within-the-film), Mr. Ferrara only widens the chasm that separates both directors. His own work has always been more earthen and impulsive, its transgression coming more from an intuitive place than Pasolini's more intellectual, thoughtful approach; that is probably why Pasolini resolves itself in a series of half-hearted vignettes or tableaux that dutifully check a number of boxes but get us nowhere closer to understanding him.

     Not through any fault of Mr. Dafoe's extraordinary incarnation of Pasolini, it must be said; just through the earnestness of the film's attempt to peruse the facts and distill them into the essence of his legacy, but without ever really touching his humanity of the man. The Pasolini seen here is not a living person; merely a legend, and one whose unexpected tragic death has left him an inaccessible mystery even though so much has been written and said about him. Mr. Ferrara rehashes what we already knew and does so in a quaintly half-hearted way, without the energy of his best moments.

PASOLINI
Italy, France, Belgium 2014
87 minutes
Cast Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli, Riccardo Scamarcio, Valerio Mastandrea, Roberto Zibetti, Andrea Bosca, Giada Colagrande, Damiano Tamilia, Francesco Siciliano, Luca Lionello, Salvatore Ruocco, Adriana Asti, Maria de Medeiros
Director Abel Ferrara; screenwriter Maurizio Braucci; based on an idea by Mr. Ferrara and Nicola Tranquillino; cinematographer Stefano Falivene (colour); designer Igor Gabriel; costumes Rossano Marchi; editor Fabio Nunziata; producers Conchita Airoldi, Thierry Lounas and Joseph Rouschop; production companies Capricci Films in co-production with Urania Pictures, Tarantula, Dublin Films, ARTE France Cinéma and Belgacom
Screened November 2nd 2014, Lisbon (Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival advance streaming screener)