Saturday, February 28, 2015

YVONE KANE

For her second fictional feature in ten years after the well-remembered A Costa dos Murmúrios (2004), Portuguese director Margarida Cardoso is yet again rummaging through the memories of mid-20th century Portugal and its colonial involvements in Africa.

     Whereas the previous film had the advantage of adapting an acclaimed novel by Lídia Jorge about a young woman's introduction to the colonial world during the 1960s African wars, here Ms. Cardoso moves ahead in time to present-day Mozambique (though the country itself is actually never named in the film). Yvone Kane is an original script, more meandering and less narratively streamlined, but shot in a fascinatingly moody and atmospheric way that makes clear what the director is actually trying to get at.

     At heart, it's a film haunted by what was, what could have been and what never will be, using the past as a jumping-off point to deal with the present. Reeling from the accidental death of her young daughter, the grieving writer Rita (Beatriz Batarda) returns to the African country where she spent her childhood with two things on her mind.

     One is to reconnect with her mother Sara (Irene Ravache), a European who was involved with the revolutionary movements of the colonial period and who stayed on as a doctor after independence. The other is to find out the truth about what really happened to Yvone Kane (Mina Andala), a revolutionary leader whose mysterious death in London was never truly solved but has since become a founding truth of the independence movement; Yvone just happened to be a friend and colleague of her mother in those days.

     What's truly interesting about Yvone Kane, as already in A Costa dos Murmúrios, is how much the director shifts the balance and burden of the colonial tales to women - whereas in the previous film men were noted by the absence to go out and fight, here they're pretty much lateral figures unable or unwilling to deal with the issues women have to face. Ms. Cardoso's approach has the traditional warmth and sunshine we associate with Africa be subsumed into a stifling, grey, overcast fog that is more than just the fog of war and history (it's certainly not casual that it's only towards the ending that sunlight returns to the film's landscape).

     Rita's investigation, patiently piecing together loose strands from the past, is not just about Yvone but also about the world she lived in, the world Sara lived in and the world she herself lives in; and it's about the way these women navigated and still navigate a world where they're supposedly the "weak ones". Keepers of secrets caught in historical events that pretty much stopped them from leading the lives they had dreamed of, they're a sort of living - or even dead - conscience of the demands of the world around them. Haunted by the ghosts who aren't present but still seem to be visible at every turn of the way, Yvone Kane is a film refracted, seen as if through glass panes, windows, mirrored surfaces, a mystery that unfolds as slowly as it unravels and one that is never truly solved to anyone's content.

     As so often, Ms. Cardoso is more interested in the journey rather than the destination, even though it also seems as if she wants to follow all of the possible ramifications underlying the plot. This means Yvone Kane becomes somewhat unfocussed, a bit unwieldy, too diffuse and undecided. And yet there's so much about its attention to actors and quiet confidence that is so enticing and involving that it's hard to ignore it or dismiss it. It takes hold of you in a way that makes you want to see more and understand more.

YVONE KANE
Portugal, Brasil 2014
118 minutes
 Cast Beatriz Batarda, Irene Ravache, Gonçalo Waddington, Samuel Malumbe
 Director and screenwriter Margarida Cardoso; cinematographer João Ribeiro (colour, widescreen); art director Ana Vaz; wardrobe Nádia Henriques; editor João Braz; producers Maria João Mayer, François d'Artemare, Luciana Boal Marinho and Alberto Graça; production companies Filmes do Tejo II in co-production with MPC & Associados and Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian - Programa Próximo Futuro
Screened February 10th 2015, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



YVONE KANE de Margarida Cardoso TRAILER from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.

Friday, February 27, 2015

BIG EYES

"Subtle doesn't sell" - that's the motto of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), shameless self-promoter and marketer extraordinaire in 1950s San Francisco. You'd think Tim Burton, by now, wouldn't need to follow that particular piece of advice; he's made a pretty good career out of getting people to accept his skewed, slightly off-key sensibility.

     And Big Eyes, telling the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the real artist behind the big-eyed waifs that became an art sensation in 1950s/60s America, would be just the perfect to film to assert it again. After a series of uninspired, Burton-by-numbers big-budget spectacles coasting on his reputation, a smaller-scale, low-key drama like this could be just what the doctor ordered.

     Alas, no such luck. There's nary a hint of subtlety or a trace of personality in this parable of media frenzy and unrecognised stifled talent. The mousy Margaret, a commercial artist with a lousy taste in men and a daughter to feed, allows the charming but ruthlessly scheming Walter to pass off her paintings as his own then ride the wave as his gift for (self-)promotion builds up a veritable cottage industry.

     There are all sorts of ideas swirling around in the script by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, but at heart this isn't a story about the drive to succeed, rather about the strength to survive. Here, Margaret was fending for herself in a patriarchal society where being a single woman raising a child on her own was not yet socially acceptable; her sensibility seemed to highlight the menace and pain underneath suburban conformity, but was misunderstood and misappropriated to the point of becoming a whole new conformism in itself. The success of her paintings, discredited by serious artists and critics but selling by the thousands to the average, art-illiterate consumer, also points out how art is a distinctly treacherous ground for absolutes.

     But, for all that, Mr. Burton never seems to truly choose one of these possible paths and instead merely passes them by, preferring to take the least interesting road: that of the abused woman who allowed herself to be taken advantage of and suffered in silence until she could no longer take it. It's a choice that requires a kind of more grounded, direct, realist filmmaking than Mr. Burton usually does and where his strengths tend to lie; whereas the beauty in his masterful Big Fish was in the liberties that embellished the actual truth of the facts, there's nothing of the sort here, just a rather dull trudge through melodrama leading to a rather run-of-the-mill courtroom drama finale.

     There's no lack of talent in front of and behind the camera in Big Eyes, but there seems to be no hunger nor brio (even the typically professional Ms. Adams and Mr. Waltz seem more subdued than usual, and the star supporting cast is basically wasted in glorified cameos). And while it's true that what Mr. Burton has been doing lately hasn't really been challenging (him or us) at all, this seems like the wrong sort of challenge for him to take on.

BIG EYES
USA 2014
106 minutes
 Cast Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
 Director Tim Burton; screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (colour); composer Danny Elfman; designer Rick Heinrichs; costumes Colleen Atwood; editor J. C. Bond; producers Lynette Howell, Mr. Alexander, Mr. Karaszewski and Mr. Burton; production companies The Weinstein Company, Tim Burton Productions and Electric City Entertainment
Screened February 2nd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

AMOR, PLÁSTICO E BARULHO
Love, Plastic and Noise

Amor, Plástico e Barulho could be construed as a tropical take on A Star Is Born about a star on the way up and another on the way down - only nobody in its tale could actually be called a proper star outside the reasonably small scene where everything happens. It could also be a less cruel version of King of Comedy, except these resolutely small-time rural singers never really make it to the big time.

     Sort of a rags-to-rags story whose stars never really reach the riches they're aiming for, the feature debut from Brazilian director Renata Pinheiro is actually something else - That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks' tale of the meteoric rise and fall of an American pop band in the early sixties, reconfigured for the world of Northern Brazilian rural bands peddling cheap, bawdy, backing-tape titillation at local dances and daytime television. Success, here, isn't measured nationally or globally, but just at regional levels, with everyone working hard and struggling just to stand still.

     Ms. Pinheiro's project never condescends, pities or makes fun of its two lead characters, competing singers in one such band who cross paths at different stages of their careers. Jaqueline (Maeve Jinkings) has reached "the top" and has a recognisable hit on her hands, but soon finds out there's really nowhere else to go, unable to parlay that small popularity into bigger, more solid gigs. Shelly (Nash Laila), on the other hand, is the new backing dancer whose big break comes at the expense of Jaqueline and seems all set to groom her to follow her up.

     The director shows just how much work goes into making it even to a rickety, improvised stage at a derelict warehouse, and uses it to highlight both the allure and the disappointment of such ambitions. "Fame", here, is merely an endless treadmill of wannabes that replace each other in a never-ending assembly line, feeding on dreams that are seemingly bound to be dashed. Jaqueline and Shelly are working girls vying for the preferences of the small time DJ or band leader, aspiring to make it out of the circuit but in truth never realising that, if they do, they'll just get to a new level of the very same circuit.

     Ms. Pinheiro's camera never loses sight of the big picture surrounding the two women, while playing it straight as a character study about people making do with the raw hand they've been dealt. And she does so with a bitter-sweet yet vibrant, colourful energy that is respectful of both characters and background. Amor, Plástico e Barulho finds the exact sweet spot between giving up and moving forward, critiquing and understanding, shedding light on a small microcosm that turns out to be very significative of the world that surrounds it. It's yet another stellar example of the vibrant new cinema coming out of Brazil.

AMOR, PLÁSTICO E BARULHO
Brazil 2013
83 minutes
 Cast Nash Laila, Maeve Jinkings, Samuel Vieira, Leo Pyrata
 Director Renata Pinheiro; screenwriters Ms. Pinheiro and Sérgio Oliveira, with collaboration from Ezequiel Peri and René Guerra; cinematographer Fernando Lockett (colour); composers DJ Dolores and Yuri Queiroga; art director Dani Vilela; costumes Joana Gatis; editor Eva Randolph; production company Aroma Filmes in co-production with Boulevard Filmes
Screened April 20th 2014, Lisbon (IndieLisboa 2014 official competition screener)


Sunday, February 22, 2015

CARICATURISTES, FANTASSINS DE LA DÉMOCRATIE
Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy

After the January shooting on the Charlie Hebdo offices that killed 11 people, French director Stéphanie Valloatto's documentary on the struggle of political cartoonists, focusing on a dozen artists from all over the world, gains a whole new relevance.

     Finished and premiered (at the Cannes festival in 2014) nearly a year before the Paris tragedy, it is at heart a piece of activist cinema, as its title makes clear. Made under the aegis of the Cartooning for Peace association, it's meant to highlight the struggles and stakes that political satire faces in our contemporary world and how much political cartoons are an important part of democracy and free speech, while proposing a bird's eye view of the "state of the world" today.

     Though Ms. Valloatto is the nominal director, Cartoonists seems clearly masterminded by its producer and co-writer, Franco-Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu; his filmmaking throughout the years (to be fair often more well-meaning than artistically interesting) has tended towards "problem pictures" yearning for good will and peace among all peoples, and there's a strong through-line that leads into this documentary. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does suggest why Cartoonists is intrinsically awkward if competent: it's a politically correct film about a politically incorrect vocation.

     If a cartoonist's work is to express anger, and the enemy is political correctness, as one of the interviewees adroitly says, there is much about Cartoonists that is politically correct. It starts with the fact that perhaps the single most polarizing and important cartooning issue in recent years, the Danish Muhammad cartoons that ignited a firestorm around the world, is mentioned merely in passing and late in the film. And as laudable as it is to train the camera on other names and other countries and not focus on that alone, it's certainly bizarre that Ms. Valloatto edits in so much that comes off as staged for the camera and somewhat surplus to requirements (like many of the moments at Russian cartoonist Mikhail Zlatkovsky's dacha, for instance).

     I came out of it with the sense that Cartoonists merely skims the surface of its subject, and that there's a truly great documentary hiding within its footage. This is just not it. And while its subject alone gives it a relevance it undoubtedly deserves in a post-Charlie Hebdo context, that context also glaringly points out its shortcomings.

CARICATURISTES, FANTASSINS DE LA DÉMOCRATIE
France, Belgium, Italy 2014
103 minutes
 Director Stéphanie Valloatto; screenwriters Radu Mihaileanu and Ms. Valloatto; composer Armand Amar; cinematographer Cyrille Blanc (colour); editor Marie-Jo Audiard; producers Mr. Mihaileanu and Ms. Blanc; production companies Oï Oï Oï Productions, Cinextra Productions, Orange Studio and France 3 Cinéma in co-production with Panache Productions, La Compagnie Cinématographique and B-Movies in collaboration with Istituto Luce-Cinecittà
Screened February 15th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

TUSEN GANGER GOD NATT
A Thousand Times Good Night

You have to admire a film that explains very clearly what it wants to say in a short amount of time, with a clear eye and practically no doubt. Such are the first 20 minutes of Norwegian director Erik Poppe's A Thousand Times Good Night: a war photographer is led somewhere in a desert and witnesses the final preparations of a suicide bomber about to head out on her lethal mission. That both the are women is a significant matter.

     That's where the film that we think A Thousand Time Good Night is going to be ends, and that's where it loses our admiration. After the bomb goes off early and Rebecca is unexpectedly injured, Mr. Poppe follows her back to her picture-postcard perfect life in rural Ireland, and the film falls prey to a tasteful, well-meaning rehash of first-world moral problems.

     The convalescing photographer is faced with a choice, between a job that she clings on to like a profession of faith and a moral compass in a world gone haywire and a family she hardly ever sees and somehow resents her for not being around enough. There's undoubtedly a good film to be made from this theme, and the Norwegian director, himself a former war zone photographer, hedges his bets by casting Juliette Binoche as Rebecca. The French actress' frightening intelligence and commitment is visible in every single frame, as the divided Rebecca questions motives and allegiances and, faced with the ever-changing landscape of the modern press, asks if it's worth continuing to sacrifice herself and her family.

     But this is yet another case of Ms. Binoche's attraction to meaty roles in films that end up beneath her talents; Mr. Poppe is unable to put into her mouth anything other than well-meaning platitudes that articulate these issues in warmed-over soundbites, and relies far too much on melodramatic tropes and conventions that reek of predictability from the get-go. Very much like his heroine who is most herself when at work, the director seems much more at ease in the heat of the action, in the three separate occasions when Rebecca is "on location", and doesn't quite know where to go when she's home - which, unfortunately, is most of the picture. A Thousand Times Good Night is tasteful issue cinema - too tasteful by half, lacking the vibrancy and guts it needed to work.

TUSEN GANGER GOD NATT
Norway, Sweden, Ireland 2013
113 minutes
Cast Juliette Binoche, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Larry Mullen Jr., Mads Ousdal, Lauryn Canny, Adrianna Cramer Curtis
Director Erik Poppe; screenwriter Harald Rosenløw Eeg; from a story by Mr. Poppe and Mr. Rosenløw Eeg; cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund (colour, widescreen); composer Armand Amar; designer Eleanor Wood; costumes Judith Williams; editor Sofia Lindgren; producers Stein B. Kvae and Finn Gjerdrum; production companies Paradox in co-production with Zentropa International Sweden, Newgrange Pictures and Film i Vast
Screened February 13th 2015, Lisbon


Friday, February 20, 2015

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE

Navigating a curious, old-fashioned path through the American cookie-cutter studio system, Matthew Vaughn began as producer to lad-film-director extraordinaire Guy Ritchie but has by now overtaken his former protegé as a director in the "having your cake and eating it too" stakes. While Mr. Ritchie has stuck to thrillers and caper comedies, Mr. Vaughn has moved straight into the comic-book fantasy that is Hollywood's current stock-in-trade, but bringing into it a more sarcastic British sensibility, as seen first in his take on Neil Gaiman's twisted fairy-tale Stardust. 

     The director progressed from the super-hero spoof-cum-subversion Kick-Ass to the "real thing" with the frothy, James-Bond-y X-Men: First Class; Kingsman: The Secret Service, a new adaptation from a comic book by Kick-Ass authors Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, brings together the former's tongue-in-cheek, uneasy ultra-violence with the latter's sixties-influenced spy caper.

     It's as if Mr. Vaughn, working as always with his regular screenwriting partner Jane Goldman, brought together Ian Fleming's casually Anglo-centric gentleman-brute spy adventures with the giggly, fun fair roller-coaster rush of a blockbuster and then laced it with some cynical, dispassionate satire of modern society to create a disquietingly riotous mash-up infused with the self-mocking spirit of British kitchen-sink realism. And if the combination seems to make little or no sense, once you see it on screen it's so self-evident it's shocking - even if Kingsman, which has all the trappings of a potential franchise starter, has no qualms about sabotaging that possibility under its own feet.

     At the heart of the film is the age-old issue of the British class system, seen through the eyes of working-class wideboy Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the twenty-something son of a widow who's since shacked up with a local thug and who is seemingly pre-ordained to a life of petty crime and odd jobs. Unbeknownst to him, his late father belonged to a private, secret intelligence agency and one of his colleagues, dapper gentleman Harry Hart (a pitch-perfect Colin Firth) gives Eggsy a shot at making it as a field operative in the Kingsmen, an institution started after WWI by scions of the British aristocracy, even though pretty much everyone involved is doubtful a man from such lowly stock can make it.

     The concept of class is extended through the piece's evident villain, eccentric Silicon Valley philanthropist Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson, enjoying every minute of it), who is bent on saving the planet for a chosen elite carefully selected through venality and allegiance rather than through natural selection. The apocalyptic scenario that is part and parcel of every self-respecting spy caper hardly ever came true, but Mr. Vaughn is unapologetic about showing the violence meted out in the process of cleansing Earth from its "surplus" through Valentine's technology-delivered megalomaniac plan.

     Just like the graphic violence that disturbed a lot of people in Kick-Ass, he has no qualms about a daringly drawn-out sequence in a fundamentalist church that quickly twists the tables on the general breeziness of Kingsman while leading to the plot's biggest surprise and turning the film on its head. As the film progresses, Mr. Vaughn extends the violence into a daringly conceptual, almost-cartoonish satirical climax whose audacity in upending everything reminds of Stanley Kubrick's sharp, bitter tone in Dr. Strangelove. This is not comparing the director to Mr. Kubrick, far from it; but it is notable that Kingsman is such an incredibly self-aware proposition, with a couple of recurring dialogue lines openly invoking the love of its characters for the "classic Bond movies", where a well-judged quip and an outlandish plan would always be sorted within the running time.

     Mr. Vaughn knows too well that sort of film is no longer possible in this day and age, and proceeds to prove why that is, but refuses to deny himself the pleasures of contradiction by pining for that breeziness and working it steadfastly throughout. The Kingsman agents are outfitted head to toe by a prestigious London bespoke tailor that doubles as their headquarters, but their gentlemanliness runs of the risk of becoming far too quaint and old-fashioned for a world that has changed. Hence Kingsman's much more provocative and daring nature, twisting the rulebook on its head to find itself closer to something like the ill-tempered, graphic satire of British sci-fi magazine 2000AD than to standard spy stuff, modern while glancing at the past.

     All of that, plus a plot that's occasionally too twisty for its own good and a sense that Mr. Vaughn isn't always entirely sure where to draw the line, may suggest that Kingsman is biting off more than it can chew. And, for sure, it is a surreally grotesque trip that you either love or hate (or maybe even both at the same time...). But it makes its points without beatng around the bush, and doesn't apologize or tiptoe around its issues - it pretty much steam rollers through them. Over the top? Yes, of course. That's the whole point.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
USA, United Kingdom 2015
129 minutes
Cast Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill, Michael Caine
Director Matthew Vaughn; screenwriters Jane Goldman and Mr. Vaughn, based on the comic books The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons; cinematographer George Richmond (colour, widescreen); composers Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson; designer Paul Kirby; costumes Arianne Phillips; editors Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris; effects supervisors Steve Begg, Paul Docherty and John Bruno; producers Mr. Vaughn, David Reid and Adam Bohling; production companies Twentieth Century-Fox and Cloudy Productions in association with MARV Films and TSG Entertainment Finance
Screened February 13th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Thursday, February 19, 2015

INHERENT VICE

Fact: Paul Thomas Anderson has been trying to pull off the "Great American Movie" ever since I remember. Or, even better, creating a sort of "daisy-chain" of "Great American Movies" that work together as a mosaic of America, the not-so-beautiful, as seen from the inside of its underside.

     After the 19th-century ruthlessness of There Will Be Blood and the post-war aimlessness of the seriously underrated The Master, Mr. Anderson fasts forward to 1970 with this take on the celebrated writer Thomas Pynchon's 2009 deconstructed detective novel (allegedly blessed by Mr. Pynchon himself). Inherent Vice is set in that liminal zone between historical eras, at the heart of the disruption of "what used to be" but before "what will be" comes into focus, and portrays an America asking what went wrong after "having it so good" for so long, and beginning to understand that the post-Summer of Love free-for-all does not necessarily have the answer.

     Grasping at the straws of power and money while trying to find out where they will be next coming from, it's a study in the uneasy cohabitation of the "old guard" and the "new guard" in that seedy underbelly of a Los Angeles whose free'n'easy sunshine betrays much darkness cracking underneath.

     Nowhere as in Inherent Vice has the director been more redolent of Robert Altman's deceptively shambling mosaics (and, indeed, it's difficult to not look at the film without thinking of Mr. Altman's much-derided take on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye). Though there's a nominal hero in Joaquin Phoenix's easy-living private eye Doc Sportello, he's as much viewer's surrogate as witness to a pageant of Californian life parading by him, a continual relay race of characters that come in and out of focus and populate a sense of time and place that coalesces around both Mr. Phoenix and the would-be femme fatale that gets the ball rolling, Doc's former flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (guilelessly played by Katherine Waterston).

     The plot is as convoluted as any of Mr. Chandler's (or James Ellroy's) novels and derives from the exact same concept: the apparently open-and-shut missing woman case becomes the doorway to a concentric plot that uncovers weird scenes under the carpet, greed as the basic motivation for everything and money and drugs as its instruments.

     Inherent Vice could be a pothead Chinatown or a Chandler-on-acid satire, and its playfulness is no doubt inherited from Mr. Pynchon's novel, but it's all heightened by the straight-forwardness classicism with which Mr. Anderson films everything. Had he dialed back on the trappings required by the period setting and played it straight as a classic noir, there's no doubt that it could have worked as a traditional tale - but that's not counting on the pervasive hazy, air-headed smoke that is central to the director's take on noir.

     Since the genre has always been as much mood and tone as narrative, Inherent Vice sets up gladly all of the genre hallmarks only to present them as an endless series of smokescreens, sleights of hand that show just how much they're mere tools to reach an end. There is a plot - sort of - but no tidy wrap-ups nor a conventional happy ending (though there is a kind of ending). Instead, we have a meta-fictional construct that follows the rules while bending them to its own effort.

     And since noir is often about love and hope, that's exactly what Inherent Vice is about, only in a twisted, playful way that meshes the sensibilities of Mr. Pynchon's writing and Mr. Anderson's filmmaking. In so doing, it confirms how much the director is one of the most idiosyncratic directors currently working in American cinema, and one of the very few that can assume the legacy of the formally adventurous yet classically-inspired "New Hollywood" directors of the 1970s.

     Inherent Vice is not a spoof nor an ersatz - it's its own, defiantly assured, mash-up, one where logic seems to go up in smoke and stays there if you're willing to look for it in the clouds. And the latest in Mr. Anderson's great series of Great American Movies.

INHERENT VICE
USA 2014
148 minutes
 Cast Joaquín Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Martin Short, Jefferson Mays
 Director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson; based on the novel Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon; cinematographer Robert Elswit (colour); composer Jonny Greenwood; designer David Crank; costumes Mark Bridges; editor Leslie Jones; producers Joanne Sellar, Daniel Lupi and Mr. Anderson; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures and the Ghoulardi Film Company in association with IAC Films and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
 Screened January 23rd 2015, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)



Sunday, February 15, 2015

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Let's put aside for a minute the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey started life as a publishing phenomenon that took the world by storm, and take a cold, clear look at Fifty Shades of Grey the film.

     There are, to be sure, talented people involved in it, from esteemed actresses like Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden to production designer David Wasco, a regular Tarantino collaborator, or composer Danny Elfman. But you would be very hard-pressed to come out of British artist Sam Taylor-Johnson's sophomore feature understanding what, exactly, other than a paycheck, attracted them to this utterly forgettable, glossy yet artless attempt at a very mildly naughty fairy tale romance.

     At its heart, Fifty Shades of Grey is about the seduction of a virginal young woman by an experienced roué and how their improbable, unlikely connection transcends both social origins and status and experience to awaken both lust and romance in both of them. Could be Gigi, could be Pretty Woman, could even be Cinderella: after all, the roué in question is the sexy, handsome and incredibly successful communications millionaire and perfect gentleman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the man who can make all the dreams of part-time-working college student and child of separated parents Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) come true.

     What made E. L. James' original novel so successful was its "transgressive" background in the consensual sexual practices of BDSM, adding an unusual twist to its traditional romance structure that seemed to hit a nerve around the world. Much has been made of Ms. James' writing talents (or lack thereof), but there was never any doubt that the massive success of the book meant a film version would be forthcoming.

     But there seems to be no "film" here, at least not in what I'd like such a thing to be. Instead, Ms. Taylor-Johnson seems to have agreed to merely illustrate the book's thin plot, soft-core eroticism and highly romanticised implausibilities in a distant, glossy, magazine-spread kind of way. There is no friction nor heart (let alone the so-desired heat) in Fifty Shades of Grey; like in the early 1980s music-video romances of An Officer and a Gentleman or Flashdance, music is used as a "thickening agent" to make up for whatever's not there.

     What is there is practically non-existant: the characters are archetypes whose motivations and reasons are mere cyphers, puppets going through the motions designed by a would-be voyeuristic demiurge who doesn't even know enough of the BDSM world she's portraying to make it plausible. There's nothing there for the actors to hold on to; just empty, hollow poses with or without clothes on, and neither Ms. Johnson nor Mr. Dornan, both undoubtedly good-looking, are able to make anything with the very little they're given.

     What's more perplexing is the involvement of Ms. Taylor-Johnson in the project - true, her 2009 debut feature Nowhere Boy was an under-achiever, but at least there was something to hold on to in it (a story, relatable characters, performances). For someone who comes from the visual art side to make a film so entirely anonymous, so completely unable to rise above the run-of-the-mill paint-by-numbers shorthand of what passes today for major-studio filmmaking, is inexplicable.

     Fifty Shades of Grey isn't a film as much as it is a pure "consumer product", a play-it-safe film version of a best-selling novel. It (thankfully) does not want to be seen as high-art, but it's so indistinct it doesn't even work as anything other than a cash-in made in auto-pilot by talented people - not bad enough to be campy, not good enough to transcend its material.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
USA, Japan 2015
125 minutes
Cast Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson; screenwriter Kelly Marcel; based on the novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (colour, widescreen); composer Danny Elfman; designer David Wasco; costumes Mark Bridges; editors Debra Neil-Fisher, Anne V. Coates and Lisa Gunning; producers Michael de Luca, Ms. James and Dana Brunetti; production companies Universal Pictures, Focus Features and Michael de Luca Productions in association with Dentsu/Fuji Television Network
Screened February 11th 2015, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)



Saturday, February 14, 2015

ATTILA MARCEL

Where do you stand when it comes to Belleville Rendez-vous and The Illusionist director Sylvain Chomet's feature-length live-action debut? Do you find it a sweet, ingenious variation on the themes brought up on the director's previous animation features, an insufferable piece of elaborate whimsy in the vein of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Michel Gondry? Or both at the same time?

     Whatever it is, there's little doubting that Mr. Chomet's transition from animation to live action is technically very well achieved, and that his peculiar retro sensibility remains pretty much intact. Attila Marcel may indeed be slight and whimsical, its plot clearly under-cooked for a nearly two-hour film, but it more than makes up for it through the director's control of tone and texture and the heart he puts into his outlandish tale of a thirty-something man-child's belated coming-of-age.

     That man is Paul (Guillaume Gouix), orphaned at two and raised by his two snobbish spinster aunts (Bernadette Lafont and Hélène Vincent) to be a concert pianist. Paul has little memory of his parents and has never uttered a word since their death; in Mr. Gouix's impeccably controlled, dialogue-free performance, he's an odd but winning mix of Pee-Wee Herman, Jacques Tati and The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper, a man-child blissfully unaware of anything outside his routine and a lover of cream puffs.

     One day, he bumps inside the downstairs neighbour's seemingly unfinished and illegal flat; this is Madame Proust (a gleeful, forceful Anne le Ny), an aging old hippie who introduces Paul to her line in herbal-tea therapy (complete with madeleine), effectively unlocking repressed memories. Assuming an almost-motherly figure, Madame Proust is the trigger for Paul's progressive understanding of himself, his family and the world about him, helping him make sense of his origins.

     This is where the film's title comes in - Attila Marcel being the stage name of the wrestler father he lost at two, filched from an old popular song. Needless to say, this being Mr. Chomet's universe, the song is a period ersatz that actually made a cameo appearance ten years ago in Belleville Rendez-Vous and reappears here; and everything in Attila Marcel reeks of the director's passion for the unique world-building of France's most inventive, whimsical filmmakers of the 20th century, Jacques Tati and Jacques Demy.

     From Tati come the love for silent character comedy and elaborate Heath Robinson chains of cause and effect: after all, his leading character never utters a word and must exist purely through physical performance, just like Mr. Hulot. From Demy the transcendence of reality through music and fantasy, and the sweet melancholy contradictions underlying it, with Attila Marcel becoming a sort of wannabe jukebox musical of Paul's childhood pleasures (shot in openly artificial studio sets).

     It's that anchor in sweetness and naïveté, in the hope for something better and in the sheer pleasure of transmitting it, that drives Mr. Chomet's filmmaking - after all, pretty much all his films deal with artists and performers who bring joy and pleasure to others from the most unlikely places. While Attila Marcel does not place him in the same breath as Messrs. Tati and Demy (there are still some scriptwriting foibles to settle) it does clearly put him in their lineage, not only thematically but also in the visual and formal rigour he brings to his lovingly skewed, off-centred storytelling. Attila Marcel is a loving, ingenious flight of fancy.

ATTILA MARCEL
France 2013
106 minutes
Cast Guillaume Gouix, Anne le Ny, Bernadette Lafont, Hélène Vincent, Luis Rego, Jean-Claude Dreyfus
Director and screenwriter Sylvain Chomet; cinematographer Antoine Rich (colour); composers Mr. Chomet and Franck Monbaylet; designer Carlos Conti; costumes Olivier Bériot; editor Simon Jacquet; effects supervisor Jean-Pierre Bouchet; producers Claudie Ossard and Chris Bolzli; production companies Eurowide Film Production, Pathé Production, France 3 Cinéma and Appaloosa Développement
Screened February 6th 2015, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Friday, February 13, 2015

P'TIT QUINQUIN
Li'l Quinquin

To be sure, there's a playfulness and lightness to dour French moralist Bruno Dumont's twisted take on detective thrillers. But that alone isn't enough to explain or justify the dazzling encomiums that have been poured over P'tit Quinquin since its unveiling at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight in 2014.

     And while it's true that it is of a piece with the director's recent run of oblique meditations on life, it's also true that the humour and playfulness do come off occasionally as uneasy and even bitter. After all, this portrait of a small rural community as a microcosm of France, with its Little Britain-like oddities seen through a garrulous, rebellious teenager (Alane Delhaye, the titular Quinquin) with too much time on his hands, extends Mr. Dumont's general theme that most everyone in the world is an idiot coursing through life unaware of its true meaning.

     That includes the investigators assigned to the mysterious, sinister murders taking place in the community. But, of course, nothing is what quite what it seems, despite the director's leisurely pace and calm surveying of the "remoteness" and "backwardness" of the place suggesting a double-edged sword between fondness and derision.

     By now, it is well known that P'tit Quinquin started life as a four-part series for French cable channel ARTE, one that has found commercial release outside the Hexagon as a theatrical feature without any change to its structure and storytelling - the four episodes are simply laid end-to-end as a single, 200-minute feature. It's yet another sign of the progressive blurring of lines between the formats, and a realisation that Mr. Dumont has not approached the smaller screen any differently.

     His long takes, reliance on non-professional actors and long-winded, oblique approach to storytelling remain intact, the difference being he has here more time to delve into the idiossyncrasies of the Calais region and also to create more of a feel for the place and the mood everything takes place in. And if you're looking for P'tit Quinquin to actually wrap up neatly the murder plot at its heart - in short: locals are being found dead, broken up into pieces, inside equally dead cows or in symbolic positions - don't really expect it.

    As you should know from Mr. Dumont's usual work - Outside Satan particularly comes to mind - he doesn't "do" standard, linear narrative (though, mild spoiler alert, there is a resolution of sorts). Instead, the film matches his usual dour gravitas with an unusually surreal brand of nonsense, a kind of slow-motion slapstick mostly seen through the apparently bungling investigation of local cops Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and Carpentier (Philippe Jore).

     Their strange tics and non-sequiturs, quickly dismissed as eccentricities of incompetent hicks who have never faced anything as serious as this, eventually reveal a much more astute understanding of all the secret goings on in Boulonnais. Chaplin or Keaton come to mind, but Mr. Dumont transplants them into his usual natural settings (pretty much all of the film takes place on location) and applies them to a meditation on the human nature that has all the derisive glee of Claude Chabrol's finest bourgeois denunciations filtered through the grave, hyper-serious austerity of the director's usual plots.

     For all there's to admire in P'tit Quinquin, there's also the sense that, seen as a feature, the four episodes could use some tightening and as a whole extend the director's usual territory without truly adding it much that is new or fascinating to his work. Which also means something else: that a "normal" Bruno Dumont film can be much more of a groundbreaking proposition on the small screen than in the theatre.

P'TIT QUINQUIN
France 2014
198 minutes
Cast Alane Delhaye, Lucy Caron, Bernard Pruvost, Philippe Jore
Director and screenwriter Bruno Dumont; cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines (colour, widescreen); costumes Alexandra Charles; editors Mr. Dumont and Basile Belkhiri; producers Jean Bréhat, Rachid Bouchareb and Muriel Merlin; production companies 3B Productions and ARTE France in co-production with Pictanovo and Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains
Screened February 3rd 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener)


Thursday, February 12, 2015

COMET

Do not take the title of Sam Esmail's debut feature literally. Though its plot starts nominally with the observation of a meteor shower, "comet" is the favourite word of one of its characters. It serves as well as one of the many inscrutable "open sesames" sprinkled throughout this fragmented hipster romance that shifts, non-linearly, between the various stages of the relationship between Dell (Justin Long) and Kimberly (Emmy Rossum).

     Comet starts at the end before rewinding all the way back to the beginning and then jumping all over the place between: Dell is knocking on Kimberly's doors five years after they met, and as she opens the door he remembers their meet cute at a queue to get inside a Hollywood cemetery to watch that meteor shower. And then, as Mr. Esmail jumbles the chronology and juxtaposes different moments of the relationship (a transcontinental phone call with Dell in NYC and Kimberly in L. A.; a Paris trip for a friend's wedding; a train journey where they meet by accident), Comet dissolves into a swirling choreography of gestures, plans, and dialogues that underline the chasm that separates both personalities and the desire they have to make it work as a couple.

     "Choreography" is the correct word because the ebb and flow of the film suggest a clearly thought-out process of juxtaposition and contrast, each different time frame called forth through a word, a sentence, an image, a memory that echoes and resonates through the relationship. The key explanation behind the concept lies in one of the conversations that make up the bulk of the tale: the role of time in art. Some arts (music, theatre) are time-based, that is, they start, take place and end during a specific time frame; others, like painting or sculpture, are just there, outside any duration.

     With Comet, Mr. Esmail is trying to create a narrative where any moment could be representative of the whole and exist outside the traditional sequence of a motion picture. Anything could be the beginning, the middle and the end, and the constant shifting of planes means you can never be aware of what is memory and what is fact, or even if anything in it is merely an imaginary projection. This is suggested not only by the opening card that invokes "parallel universes" (watch for the twin suns in a few of the plans) but also by a few of the transitions between time periods, like a sudden, unwilling change in channel frequency or the ejecting or connecting a separate hard drive. And then you ask: is this one love story, or five love stories in different universes?

     Factor in Daniel Hart's anthemic score and Eric Koretz's often skewed, off-centre camera set-ups and saturated colour schemes, and Comet starts reminding of what could be a modern romantic comedy as disassembled by recluse DIY filmmaker Shane Carruth from a script by a ghost crew of dialogue-heavy mumblecorers like Andrew Bujalski or Lynn Shelton. It's that off the beaten path, and that intriguing - one of the most idiossyncratic and formally unusual offerings from the American independent scene in a long time.

COMET
USA 2014
91 minutes
Cast Justin Long, Emmy Rossum
Director and screenwriter Sam Esmail; cinematographer Eric Koretz (colour); composer Daniel Hart; designer Annie Spitz; costumes Mona May; editor Franklin Peterson; producers Chad Hamilton and Lee Clay; production company Fubar Films in association with Anonymous Content
Screened January 31st 2015, Lisbon (DVD screener)


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

THE SPIRIT OF '45

"Old socialists never die"; seems to say Ken Loach with each new film he makes, and there's nothing wrong with that statement even if at times the veteran British director seems to be clinging on to a mode of engagé filmmaking whose edge has by now gone somewhat off. Maybe that's why I still have great fondness for Land and Freedom, the tale of a British idealist in the Spanish Civil War where Mr. Loach adroitly shows both the idealism and how time erodes it.

     His belief in the betterment of society, as admirable as it can be at times apparently naïf, underlines every single frame of The Spirit of '45, a handcrafted documentary about the British General Election of 1945 and how the Labour Party victory in it brought a wind of change to a post-imperial Britain still reeling from the hardships and destruction of WWII. Clement Attlee's triumph seemed to carry a whiff of true socialism, attempting to extend the spirit of unity and resilience that lasted throughout the conflict, aiming at a better world borne out of the lessons learned from 1939 to 1945 and of the desire to reach a common goal of a fairer society.

     Propelled by a combination of meticulously researched archival footage and new interviews with contemporaries of the election and modern-day historians, The Spirit of '45 doesn't hide its admiration for that sense that, for the very first time, Britain was no longer a strict classist society, but neither does it pretend that development was picture-perfect. And its portrayal of that peaceful transition by purely democratic means is also meant as a sort of "beacon" in the complicated social landscape the world finds itself in today, a proof of concept that yes, democracy can lead to improvements in the system.

     For all that, the fact that Mr. Loach devotes an entire third of his film to the methodical dismantling of the victories of 1945 by the Tory government elected in 1979 with Margaret Thatcher seems somewhat disproportionate - not that it's not important to say it, just that there's a lot more the viewer wants to know about the past that is given too short a shrift. That, however, should not diminish the strength of the portrait Mr. Loach paints of a world that for once truly lived up to higher ideals, or the fact that "idealism" needn't always a misguided, naïve hope. That the director is dealing with real events and real people who lived through them gives The Spirit of '45 an emotion, an honesty and a resonance that has not been able as forthcoming in some of his latest fictions.

THE SPIRIT OF '45
United Kingdom 2012
95 minutes
Director and screenwriter Ken Loach; cinematographer Stephen Standen (colour); composer George Fenton; archivist Jim Anderson; editor Jonathan Morris; producers Rebecca O'Brien, Kate Ogborn and Lisa Marie Russo; production companies British Film Institute, Filmfour, Sixteen Films and Fly Film
Screened January 30th 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener)



The Spirit of '45 Trailer from Dogwoof Documentary on Vimeo.

Monday, February 09, 2015

JUPITER ASCENDING

Would that much of all that has been thrown at the Wachowski siblings since Speed Racer crashed and burned was thrown instead at so many earnest but underachieving prestige Oscar contenders, or at endlessly cookie-cutter super-hero blockbusters. It seems as big dumb fun is acceptable if it's Guardians of the Galaxy, but not if it's Jupiter Ascending, coming from the same folk who did the perfect mix of kick-ass action and pop philosophy that was The Matrix but then over-reached wildly with its two sequels and the comatose sugar-rush of Speed Racer while one of them became transgendered.

     True: Jupiter Ascending is an earnestly tongue-in-cheek and gleefully derivative space opera, mashing up (yes, it's true) The Matrix, Guardians of the Galaxy and pretty much a big part of the Marvel universe, Star Wars (yes, you read that right), good old pulp fiction, American pop-cultural heroics and the siblings' own how-did-they-do-that? visual bravado. Which is to say: perfect mindless Summer popcorn fare, whose delay into frigid February suggests a lack of confidence in the Wachowskis' outlier pulp sensibility to go head-to-head against the Marvel onslaught - and yet another example of how focus-group, four-quadrant something-for-everyone marketing is killing FUN AT THE MOVIES (the capitals are deliberate).

     Because, for all the issues Jupiter Ascending may have (and trust me, it has them), the Wachowskis are still trying to buck the trend and reclaim the gleeful rush of an old-fashioned adventure caper. Its serial-like narrative arc, full of cliffhangers that leap between universes and planets, feeds on tried and true tropes of Hollywood screenwriting, recycling them with a bigger-is-better insouciance whose all-or-nothing gamble seduces.

     Mila Kunis's Jupiter, born in transit as her widowed mother moved from Russia to America, turns out to be an interstellar Cinderella who, in between cleaning houses for a living, finds herself entangled in the sort of galactic intrigue that is the stuff of Saturday-morning cartoons. Wanted by the competing interests of the three powerful Abrasax siblings, who see in her the reincarnation of their late mother, she lands in the middle of a power struggle with genetically-engineered rogue ex-mil Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) as her only true ally (and, eventually, love interest).

     The Wachowskis don't fret as much about originality since they know it's the surroundings that sell their story, and the performances are appropriately geared toward that narrative simplicity that is the hallmark of the really successful blockbuster: a blank slate where you can read everything - even a sly anti-consumerist message that chimes in with both The Matrix and V for Vendetta (masterminded by the brothers but credited to their assistant James McTeigue). Ms. Kunis and Mr. Tatum know that looking good while everything happens around them is part and parcel of what they're supposed to do in a film like this, and the Wachowskis pile on the impeccably tuned visuals and crackerjack effects without ever losing sight that, if you can't root for your heroes, everything else is just decoration.

     Jupiter Ascending does not reinvent the wheel so much as it pimps it out with as much whiz-bang as it can, and in so doing becomes the most unashamedly fun - and, yes, pop - blockbuster-wannabe since Guardians of the Galaxy. 

JUPITER ASCENDING
USA 2015
128 minutes
Cast Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth
Directors and screenwriters Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski; cinematographer John Toll (colour, widescreen); composer Michael Giacchino; designer Hugh Bateup; costumes Kym Barrett; editor Alexander Berner; effects supervisor Dan Glass; producers Grant Hill, Ms. Wachowski and Mr. Wachowski; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment and Anarchos Production
Screened January 29th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Saturday, February 07, 2015

STILL ALICE

In these our days, "melodrama", in its old definition as practiced by 20th century Hollywood, seems to be a dirty word, one that has been confined to a world of "movie-of-the-week" or Hallmark Channel clichés or to Nicholas Sparks adaptations. It's therefore appropriate to laud directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland for having attracted the divine Julianne Moore for what is an unabashed melodrama, one that in the past could have easily become a "woman's picture" like the ones Ross Hunter turned out at Universal. Of course, these days you have to go independent to even set up such a project - Still Alice was backed both by Christine Vachon's persevering New York shingle Killer Films and French company BSM Studio.

     That's also one of the reasons why this big-screen adaptation of Lisa Genova's novel about a New York academic's diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's somehow falls short of what it could be: it's a film that treats its melodrama seriously and earnestly, but for all its intelligence it lacks that added spark that would make it a remarkable. In fact, were it not for its acting and for its star, Still Alice would be a decent but rather forgettable mid-list programmer condemned to a long half-life on television and VOD.

     But there's Julianne Moore, and suddenly everything changes.

     At the moment, Ms. Moore is one of the reigning actresses in American cinema, working at a consistently remarkable level even when the films somewhat stay beneath her considerable talents. Her Alice Howland reminds the viewer at every possible juncture why that is so; it's her second doozy in 2014 after her (Cannes award-winning) insecure film star in David Cronenberg's eerie Maps to the Stars. But it's a much more demanding role, and an even more remarkable performance: in playing a woman who is slowly descending into the fog of forgetfulness that is Alzheimer's, Ms. Moore modulates her acting to such a finely-tuned point that she single-handedly raises Still Alice above that midlister status.

     It helps that her directors allow her the space and follow her with welcome restraint; this is certainly not an exploitative film by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, it looks at its issue with a sober intelligence, as seen in the first truly serious sign that something is the matter with Alice, when she goes for a run in the park and suddenly fails to recognize where she is and how she got there. The actress' sensitive realization that something isn't quite right is perfectly complemented by Messrs. Glatzer & Westmoreland's decision to leave her in focus while everything all around is blurred, in an elegant solution that makes the effects of the disease terribly visible.

     In other aspects, though, Still Alice seems to shy away from a more daring approach to its subject: Alice is a linguistics professor, someone who's spent her whole life uncovering the secrets of language acquisition, and the irony that she is now fated to forget all of her research is an intriguing possibility the film raises occasionally but never truly follows up on. And the familial issues Alice's diagnosis brings up are under-scripted and over-clichéd, despite Kristen Stewart's best efforts as Lydia, the only of the three Howland children to actually have an inkling of what this diagnosis means.

     Yet, for all that, it would be hard to begrudge Still Alice for its humble modesty and quiet competence, and Ms. Moore's outstanding performance is exactly what it needs to give it a boost.

STILL ALICE
France, USA 2014
101 minutes
Cast Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
Directors and screenwriters Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland; based on the novel Still Alice by Lisa Genova; cinematographer Denis Lenoir (colour); composer Ilan Eshkeri; designer Tommaso Ortino; costumes Stacey Battat; editor Nicolas Chaudeurge; producers Lex Lutzus, James Brown and Pamela Koffler; production companies BSM Studio and Lutzus/Brown in association with Killer Films, Big Indie Pictures and Shriver Films
Screened January 28th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Friday, February 06, 2015

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

It's somewhat disappointing that, after a strong debut with the smart Margin Call and the stake-raising experiment that was All Is Lost, writer-director J. C. Chandor stumbles on this equally ambitious but less accomplished third feature. A hushed quasi-thriller set in the violent New York City of 1981, A Most Violent Year aims at being a chamber take on a Mob thriller without the Mob, DP Bradford Young's smoothly gliding slow pans and colour schemes reminding occasionally of Gordon Willis' work in The Godfather.

     There is, to be sure, some sort of mythic resonance in the film's tale of Latin immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), who took over his mobster father-in-law's heating oil company and insists on climbing the ladder through honest, hard-toiling labour in a cut-throat business where dishonesty and foul play are constant. Abel is trying to honour the American Dream, trying to prove that if you put in enough truth and work it will come true, while being constantly reminded how much of a "pipe dream" that is.

     And yet, after a stellar credits sequence, A Most Violent Year pretty much disintegrates into a muted, listless abstraction of a thriller, whose period trappings suggest much ado about nothing. Mr. Chandor is essentially rewriting the tale of the early days of an empire but seems to have left it too loose and diffuse, never making the actual stakes at play visible or understandable for the viewer, its meditation on the American Dream hung perilously on a threadbare scaffolding.

     The result is an oddly bloodless if impeccably presented tale, one that reminds of classics from directors such as Sidney Lumet or the early, New York Martin Scorsese - the location feel is outstanding, and Mr. Isaac's strong performance is redolent of both a young Al Pacino and a young Robert de Niro. But for all that, there's a sense that, unlike in the much more accomplished All Is Lost, Mr. Chandor is more in control of his atmospherics than of his storytelling, all the more disappointing when Margin Call was such solid scriptwriting.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
USA, United Arab Emirates 2014
125 minutes
Cast Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Albert Brooks
Director and screenwriter J. C. Chandor; cinematographer Bradford Young (colour, widescreen); composer Alex Ebert; designer John P. Goldsmith; costumes Kasia Walicka Maimone; editor Ron Patame; effects supervisor Mark Russell; producers Neal Dodson, Anne Gerb and Mr. Chandor; production companies Participant Media, Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Filmnation Entertainment, Before The Door Pictures, Washington Square Films and Old Bull Pictures
Screened January 26th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor advance screener)


Thursday, February 05, 2015

SELMA

For better or worse, much ink has been spilt over the treatment Selma metes out to president Lyndon Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson): that of a hinderer more than a helper of the struggle for civil rights in 1960s America. As always, that focus mistakes the forest for the trees: what is really interesting about (black American director) Ava du Vernay's film is not so much what it says about the relationship between races at a time when the Southern states were still segregated in spirit if not in the word, but how it depicts what was going on within the African-American community itself.

     Selma makes visible, in a way very few about the struggle have, just how politically strategized the civil rights was, how it was as end-driven as any political or election campaign was - how the movement triggered by the 1964 bombing of a church that killed four innocent children was hijacked for a greater, wider end. It does not pretend that the leaders - any leaders - were perfect, saintly paragons of virtue; it prefers to present them as flawed humans, canny political operators in the service of a cause that just happened to be righteous.

     In so doing, Selma brings a welcome complexity into a subject far too often reduced to inspirational bromides or simple good-vs-bad manicheism. The passage of laws effectively ending unwritten segregation in the South is presented as scrimmage between an establishment defense juggling many different needs, and an activist offense fed up with not being prioritized enough. At the heart of it lies David Oyelowo's fiery yet ambiguous Martin Luther King - portrayed as a man who asks himself if what he's doing will ever yield results, but who also will dispassionately strategize to make sure his work is maximized; a man aware of the power of the media to galvanize a movement, as much as he is aware of the trade-off between public sacrifice and personal quiet.

     What makes Selma rise above the fray as well is the way Ms. Du Vernay shifts elegantly between the "big picture" and the "little picture", between close-ups of the key personalities involved and pull-outs to explain the context surrounding the events. The film is not all King all the time, and not even interested in making him into a hero he most certainly didn't feel like; rather, it's an ensemble piece where the legendary leader is much more of a lightning rod around whom everything revolves, giving breathing space to all involved to create characters in just the briefest of scenes.

     It's harder said than done, and to be honest Selma - extensively rewritten by the director from Briton Paul Webb's original script - doesn't always escape the trap of the well-meaning historical pageant (there are simply too many characters entering and exiting for anyone to keep track of). But it keeps to a much more interesting point of view than most works dealing with the social politics of sixties America - an intellectual, thoughtful point of view that doesn't preclude emotion but rather factors it into a political calculus, that embraces doubt and uncertainty as integral to the risk-taking involved in any public movement.

SELMA
United Kingdom, USA 2014
128 minutes
Cast David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, André Holland, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Stephan James, Wendell Pierce, Common, Alessandro Nivola, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey
Director Ava du Vernay; screenwriter Paul Webb; cinematographer Bradford Young (colour, widescreen); composer Jason Moran; designer Mark Friedberg; costumes Ruth E. Carter; editor Spencer Averick; producers Christian Colson, Ms. Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner; production companies Pathé Productions, Harpo Films, Plan B Entertainment and Cloud Eight Films in association with Ingenious Media and Celador Films
Screened January 9th 2015, Cinema City Campo Pequeno 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, February 04, 2015

MOUTON

What remains instinctively interesting about the debut feature from French duo Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo is not what it says but what it doesn't say. A sort-of but not-quite documentary about ordinary lives in the French seaside town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Mouton is (in the best tradition of Wong Kar-wai, Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Miguel Gomes) a game of two loosely connected, counterpointing halves.

     First, we watch the non-descript daily life of local teenager Aurélien aka Mouton (David Mérabet), who has just legally emancipated himself from his ill mother and works in the kitchen of a local restaurant; then, the very same non-descript daily life after he leaves town. But all of this really only makes sense after seeing Mouton, since it's not until halfway through that you understand where Ms. Pistone and Mr. Deroo are going.

     Until then, the film moves in what appears to be a quasi-documentary mode, recording the quiet goings-on of a young man's life. Not just any young man, mind you; the film's initial presentation of an underage Mouton emancipating himself from a mother unfit for motherhood seems at odds with Mouton's look and behaviour as a sweet-natured "special kid". Weekend outings with friends where he's good-naturedly hazed without any second thoughts suggest not everything is quite right with him - though he is clearly a productive and integrated member of society, who eventually finds himself in a fling with fellow waitress Audrey (Audrey Clément).

     What happens at the 55-minute mark is, in the words of the directors, a caesura that reveals the second half as the "un-doing" of the first. Now that Mouton is no longer in town, Ms. Pistone and Mr. Deroo go hunting for the traces he left behind and for his continuing presence - if any - in the lives of the people he worked and had fun with. What seemed a documentary outlook on a young man's life is revealed as a fiction and leads into an investigation of the ripples presence and absence leave behind: life goes on, the film seems to say, as people move in and out of it, leaving many, a few, little or no traces.

     The poignancy of feeling that the directors are aiming at jars somewhat with the observationally detached tone of the camera, and also contributes to the singular tone the slightly overlong but conceptually intelligent Mouton reaches throughout. It's a welcome addition to the ongoing reevaluation of fictional narrative filmmaking within the confines of the cinémas du réel movement that introduces documentary criteria and techniques, even if it turns out to be more thought-provoking conceptually than as an actual film.

MOUTON
France 2013
100 minutes
Cast Michaël Mormentyn, David Mérabet, Audrey Clément, Cindy Dumont, Benjamin Cordier, Sébastien Legrand, Emmanuel Legrand
Directors, screenwriters and editors Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo; cinematographers Éric Alirol and Jean-Baptiste Delahaye (colour); designer Lionel Roy; production companies Boule de Suif Production and Pictanovo with Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains
Screened April 18th 2014, Lisbon (IndieLisboa 2014 official competition screener)


Monday, February 02, 2015

LOS ÁNGELES

There's a very thin line between the well-meaning and the hackneyed, the inspired and the derivative, and the American filmmaker Damian Harper crosses it more often than he'd like - or than he should - with his debut feature Los Ángeles. A German-backed drama set and shot in rural Mexico with non-professional actors that makes good use of Mr. Harper's background in anthropology, its premise and slice-of-life, casually documentary approach to his subject gets lost in predictable narrative stereotyping - and it's a shame, because a little less formatting would take it a much longer way.

     At heart, Los Ángeles deals with the gradual loss of community spirit in the remote Oaxaca village of Santa Ana del Valle, as the younger generations migrate North to the US and return drenched in the more alien American culture, and especially in the gangland ethos that is the new signifier of power and patriarchy. While the elders have a hard time just surviving, even with the money sent from the States by immigrant relatives, the youngsters align themselves in brutal gang games that are the new coming-of-age rituals.

     Mr. Harper follows a couple of stories that intertwine the locals who have never left and the immigrants who returned, using as its anchor the teenage Mateo (Mateo Bautista Matias), who is to be the next breadwinner for the family once he is sent to the US to work; his opposite number is Daniel (Daniel Bautista), a particularly irresponsible young thug flirting with Mateo's half-sister. The American misdemeanors of some of the gang-affiliated locals ripple back to the village, with predictably dangerous results, and in that process Los Ángeles loses the certain flair it had in its early going.

     The opening minutes suggest a film that vividly records the actors' unadorned performances and the reality of the location, but as Mr. Harper introduces more and more culture-clash tropes the film suddenly becomes too much of another "teens-in-trouble" gangland film, only against a slightly more exotic backdrop; its gentle and thoughtful meditation on cultural contamination becomes a fully-fledged, and rather tiresome, morality tale.

LOS ÁNGELES
Germany 2014
96 minutes
Cast Mateo Bautista Matias, Lidia García, Marcos Rodríguez Ruiz, Daniel Bautista, Valentina Ojeda, Donaciano Bautista Matias
Director and screenwriter Damian John Harper; cinematography Friede Clausz (colour, widescreen); composer Gregor Bonse; designer Adán Hernández; costumes Abril Álamo and Felicitas Adler; editor Lorna Hoefler Steffen; producers Jonas Weydemann and Jakob D. Weydemann; production company Weydemann Bros. in association with Cine Plus Filmproduktion and ZDF das kleine Fernsehspiel
Screened April 17th 2014, Lisbon (IndieLisboa 2014 official selection advance screener)



Trailer "Los Angeles" - by Damian John Harper from Weydemann Bros. on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

On paper, this adaptation of Jane Hawking's memoir of married life with her husband seems the perfect fit for a certain tradition of English quality drama, the sort that is carried by the performances and would be equally at home on television or on the big screen. And the fact that Ms. Hawking's husband is world-renowned physicist, and certified genius, Stephen Hawking, who has lived and worked most of his life with the neurodegenerative disease ALS, also pushes it into inspirational true story territory tailor-made for the awards season.

     Thankfully, then, this latest production from the Working Title stable was somehow handed out to award-winning documentary filmmaker James Marsh, hot off the excellent (and seriously underrated) Troubles drama Shadow Dancer. That film reversed its apparent thriller angle with a more character-driven tone; in The Theory of Everything, Mr. Marsh upends the traditional "inspirational biopic" approach by avoiding any sense of overt emotional manipulation and - to quote from a song - "accentuate the positive" in the improbable life and love story of Stephen and Jane, from their meet-cute at Cambridge in the early 1960s to the physicist's recognition by Queen Elizabeth II in 1989, soon after they had divorced.

     Since this is an adaptation of her book, the film makes no excuses about telling that story through their eyes and not those of the world outside, shifting between their complementary point of views, using "fake" period footage to introduce each "chapter" in their life together, then using a heightened, crisp palette of colours to underline the vitality and practicality of their relationship. Instead of the usual tearjerking approach to inspirational melodrama, Mr. Marsh goes for a celebration of the moment, relying on two remarkable performances utterly, minutely attuned to one another, working in perfect tandem - the concept of "ensemble performance" has never been so true as in the push-and-pull between Felicity Jones as Jane and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen.

     While Ms. Jones has by nature a more reactive role, she is by no means passive as she picks up the physical slack, and responds attentively to Mr. Redmayne's sheer presence; his performance captures delicately, with no showboating and often a twinkle in the eye, the progression of the disease, effectively becoming entirely reliant on body and face language. Mr. Marsh makes no apologies for using Jóhann Jóhannsson's sweeping score and DP Benoît Delhomme's often candy-coloured widescreen images to underline the transcending and celebratory nature of this marriage that succeeded against all odds - but it's a game that he is fully aware and that he plays with loyalty and wit, respecting Mr. Hawking's well-known sense of humour and refusing to pull any tearjerking punches. It's a much smarter, and much better, film than all appearances suggested.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
USA, United Kingdom, Japan 2014
123 minutes
Cast Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis
Director James Marsh; screenwriter Anthony McCarten; based on the memoir by Jane Hawking Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen; cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (colour, widescreen); composer Jóhann Jóhannsson; designer John Paul Kelly; costumes Steven Noble; editor Jinx Godfrey; producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce and Mr. McCarten; production companies Universal Pictures and Working Title Films in association with Dentsu and Fuji Television Network
Screened January 23rd 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)