Friday, July 31, 2015

GUI LAI
Coming Home

Zhang Yimou's full-on approach to classic three-handkerchief-melodrama is entirely appropriate for the family drama at the heart of Coming Home. But if you were expecting the Chinese filmmaker to embrace anew the cooler, more poised approach of his earlier, critically acclaimed films, instead of the glorious bombast of his later, more lavishly appointed big-budget productions, think again. As befits Mr. Zhang's status as the unofficial "official filmmaker" of modern China, creating "tasteful" prestige movies that will resonate both domestically and internationally, Coming Home is an impeccably presented throwback to an earlier era of film - and of Hollywood film to boot.

     It's a gloriously old-fashioned weepie in the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk mold, a 1950s woman's picture transplanted to 1970s China, in the dying throbs of the Cultural Revolution, but it's so enamoured of its own tricks and formulas that it loses itself in a gorgeous, soulless formalism. Gong Li, Mr. Zhang's one-time muse, plays Yu, a hard-working schoolteacher that tries as much as she can to keep the household afloat after her teacher husband Lu (Chen Daoming) is sent away for rehabilitation. As the film starts, Lu has escaped and the police are keeping a tight leash on Yu and her teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), a talented ballerina who has little to no memory of her father and falls straight behind the party line.

     Lu, obviously, travels home, and Mr. Zhang parlays the father's first attempt to contact the mother into a textbook masterclass of how to say everything you need to say in purely visual terms. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, the director brings the family together in the same building and, delicately, elegantly, with perfect spatial references, without any dialogue whatsoever, he cuts between each in such a fluid way that everything the viewer needs to know about the relationship between father, wife and daughter is made clear. It's a remarkable, picture-perfect sequence that explains why Mr. Zhang was one of the most exquisite, extraordinary filmmakers revealed in the 1980s.

     Alas, from this post-credits sequence onwards, it's downhill all the way as the film jumps five years forward and deals with the now rehabilitated Lu's return home, only to find Yu no longer recognises him, her memory clouded under some sort of unspecified ailment. With the complicity of Qigang Chen's overwrought, Morriconian score and Zhao Xiaoding's moody, golden photography, Mr. Zhang lets both his melodramatic tale and his virtuoso handling take over and run away with the picture, all those sweeping pans and pullback set-ups showing off the scope of the sets and straining against the film's necessarily small-scale story.

     Overripe and overloaded, Coming Home wants to believe the simple, grandiose feelings underlying its slender, romantic tale of love surviving against all odds, but Mr. Zhang gets so swept away by his passionately elaborate handling that the film all but creaks and gives way under their weight. It ends up as a Sirkian melodrama that takes itself far too seriously and loses track that the key thing is for the handling to serve the story, not the other way around.

GUI LAI
China, 2014
109 minutes
Cast Chen Daoming, Gong Li, Zhang Huiwen
Director Zhang Yimou; screenwriters Zou Jingzhi with Zhou Xiaofeng, based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Yan Geling; cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (colour), composer Qigang Chen; designers Lin Chaoxiang and Liu Qiang; costumes Wang Qiuping; editors Meng Peicong and Mo Zhang; producers Jia Yueting, Jerry Ye, Bill Kong, Li Li, Yifang Zhao and Zhang Zhao; production companies Le Vision Pictures in association with Wanda Media, Edko Beijing Films, Helichenguang International Culture Media (Beijing) and Zhejiang Huace Films/TV
screened July 21, 2015, Lisbon


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

MR. HOLMES

Often, you may find yourself remembering a film for entirely different reasons than the one that attracted you in the first place. With Mr. Holmes, you come for the high concept of Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in his old age; you stay for the smart, alluring dialogue between truth and fiction in screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of a 2005 novel by Mitch Cullin.

     Mr. Holmes is directed by the very uneven but always attentive Bill Condon, reuniting with Mr. McKellen after the film that put him on the map as a director, 1995's Gods and Monsters (and rebounding from the underwhelming The Fifth Estate and two hack-for-hire Twilight Saga films). It's a piece of non-canonical Holmesiana, disguising a layered, thoughtful meditation on memory and perception as a stock British period drama.

     The key premise is that the "real" Sherlock Holmes, had it existed, not only outlived his chronicler but would have had only a passing resemblance to John Watson's literary creation: the man himself calls his old friend's writings "penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style". And yet, in his forgetful retirement near the White Cliffs of Dover in the post-WWII that is the story's present day, an ill, aged Holmes, out of his depth and out of place in the modern world, ends up holding on to those stories as the reason to go on living as he loses his memory to an unnamed, Alzheimer's-like disease.

     The film's most singular concept, and its central mystery, is the "adventure" the wizened Holmes sets upon himself to unravel: the motives of his own retirement to a sleepy village, 30 years earlier, after one final case, slowly pieced together from the shards of his elusive memory as a story he is writing to "set the record straight" and show the "real" detective that didn't come through in Watson's stories. Yet, that story is being read as Holmes writes it by the curious Roger (Milo Parker), the young schoolboy who is the son of the housekeeper widowed in the War (an unexpected Laura Linney) - and in so doing, the "record" that is being "put straight" is also being altered, both in Roger's head and in Holmes' unraveling mind.

     For a man who prided himself on having no use for imagination and sticking to the facts, the inability to remember or to place correctly a face, a body, a detail becomes the most terrifying of all possibilities. And Mr. McKellen plays that dread of losing one's identity regally, in a delicately articulated, always smarter-than-it-seems performance. In a particulary smart touch, Mr. McKellen also differentiates effectively, and wonderfully, between three different incarnations of the character in three different eras. Beyond the "present-day" 1947 Holmes, there's also a more sprightly and alert 1917 Holmes working on what he didn't at the time know would be his last case, recollected in flashbacks.

     A somewhat superfluous side plot features the third Holmes, traveling through Japan shortly after the end of the war in search of prickly ash, a "magic herb" that might awaken his failing memory. While this side of the film is probably surplus to the central narrative's requirements, it is important to its conceit of a Holmes literally left behind by modern warfare and modern times, of a man out of time and out of step with what the world has become.

     At no point does Mr. McKellen ever break the illusion: his Holmes is always a man aware that the world expects something of him, who ended up retiring from the public eye, even if he didn't realise it himself, to maintain that image and those expectations intact. The film tells his story in a manner that is at once respectful of and faithful to the approved canon of Holmes stories and its more literary variations.

     For all intents and purposes, Mr. Holmes is a vehicle for a great actor at the peak of its powers; though slickly, soberly told, it confirms Mr. Condon is essentially an actor's director with little to none visual personality (despite a few very nice touches by DP Tobias Schliessler). But when the story is this intelligent and the actor this good, it's more than enough to just appreciate a performance supported and respected by the film that it's in.

MR. HOLMES
United Kingdom, USA, 2015
104 minutes
Cast Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Tanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Phil Davis
Director Bill Condon; screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin; cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (widescreen); composer Carter Burwell; designer Martin Childs; costumes Keith Madden; editor Virginia Katz; producers Anne Carey, Iain Canning and Emile Sherman; production companies AI Film Production, BBC Films, Archer Gray and See-Saw Films in association with Filmnation Entertainment
Screened July 17th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening 


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

MINIONS

The Minions are a cynical marketing ploy to fleece millions of moviegoers and blanket the world with banana (BANANA!) yellow merchandising, you say? Well, yeah, and so what? Give me the oddly-shaped, gobbledygook-spouting tribesmen and their gleefully mindless (and ultimately harmless) anarchy any day over the rote, wise-cracking heroics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (yes, them's fighting words, I know). For starters, they're, as a rule, much funnier. And you don't need to have any arcane knowledge of elaborate mythologies or back stories to enjoy their no-frills zaniness.

     I'll admit to seeing some of the Looney Tunes' knack for belly-laugh nonsense slapstick in the Minions' lemming-like abject devotion to the most evil master they can find, in their exquisite incompetence in executing correctly even the simplest of tasks. The Minions were originally a sidekick afterthought that eventually took over the two Despicable Me films that spawned them, masterminded by veteran producer Chris Meledandri, who took Fox's animation unit to success with the Ice Age films and the acquisition of Chris Wedge's Blue Sky company. Mr. Meledandri defected to create his own outfit Illumination, outsourcing the animation to French studio MacGuff, and was rewarded a thousand times over with animation director Pierre Coffin's inspiredly zany creatures (all of them voiced by Mr. Coffin himself) making themselves (mis)understood in a sort of pidgin English that recycles words from half a dozen major languages.

     Essentially innocents let loose in a big bad world, and so eager to please and be adopted they're glaringly blind to everything else around them, resulting in a reinvention of the classic burlesque pratfalls and slapstick, the Minions are a truly inspired comic creation who, nevertheless, needed a bit more work to carry a full-length feature all on their own, despite the clearly obvious world domination currently being unleashed by Universal's no-holds-barred marketing assault.

     Minions, the yellow oddities' own-name debut, is full of inspired, and madly amusing, sight gags. But, A), many of them have already been unveiled in the trailers that have been making the rounds round the interwebs over the past months; and B), they seem to be funnier taken individually, on their own, rather than inside a generally uninspired, been-here-before narrative. That's another Looney Tunes comparison right there - the banana (BANANA!) heads are more at ease in the brief running time of a cartoon short, like the viral tidbits that have spread the word, than in a lumbering 90-minute film that requires a proper script.

     The animation is lovely, and the odyssey of the boss-less Minions to find a villain worthy of their obsequiousness in the Swinging Sixties is crammed full of fun, lively details. But the need to articulate it as an "origin story" before the Minions find nominal Despicable Me "hero" Gru, with their experience with villainess Scarlett Overkill (voiced gamely by Sandra Bullock) and her desire to become Queen of England, constrains the madness more than it inspires it, turning the film into a super-hero (or rather super-villain) spoof that is never as funny, as zany or as clever as it thinks it is. Still, the Minions' own sweet brand of mild, onomatopaeic chaos and the visible fun everyone involved had creating it are so contagious that it's unlikely anyone will feel short-changed by this irrepressibly cheery, if somewhat under-performing, feature. BANANA!

MINIONS
USA, Japan, 2015
91 minutes
Voice cast Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Pierre Coffin, Geoffrey Rush
Directors Mr. Coffin and Kyle Balda; screenwriter Brian Lynch; composer Heitor Pereira; designer Éric Guillon; editor Claire Dodgson; producers Chris Meledandri and Janet Healy; production companies Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment in association with Dentsu and Fuji Television Network
Screened July 16th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Monday, July 27, 2015

GÜEROS

I've been hemming and hawing for the past couple of months to write about Güeros, since I was blindsided by it in the IndieLisboa Festival's 2015 official selection, and every time I put pen to paper I find I don't really know how to, or where to, begin. This is probably because the debut feature of Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios seems to mash-up a series of classic and modern tales of young men and women being young, restless and carefree: a Slacker-ish sort of Mexican Graffiti shot by a devoted and contrary follower of Godard.

     Really, though, it's a film about a teenage generation that may not be looking for anything in particular and isn't particularly bothered either about how to get anywhere, and that, in truth, may only be so scared of finding out what real life and adulthood hold in store for them that they try to delay that moment as much as they can. In point of fact, and if this isn't enough to get your head spinning, it's also a road movie where a couple of slackers and a surly kid brother basically drive around in circles around a Mexico City in the throes of a seemingly never-ending college student strike, in search of a surrogate father figure that has been bequeathed by their father.

     And did I mention it's shot in the square-boxed, 1:33 Academy format, in gritty, often handheld black & white, and punctuated by pouty Nouvelle-Vague slogans such as "to be young and to not be a revolutionary is contradictory"? Yes, on paper it's a recipe for disaster, or at least derivativeness, especially since the film bears all the hallmarks of something borne out of a film school project. But Mr. Ruizpalacios is so aware of the swamp he's swimming in that all possible traps are pretty much avoided through sheer insolence, smarts and bloody-mindedness.

     Güeros starts with a perverse, misdirecting pre-credit sequence of a prank gone bad, played on a character that will not reappear at all in the film. But the prank itself will, or at least will be echoed later on in the film, serving as a "deus ex machina" that first leads the surly Tomas (Sebastián Aguirre) to Mexico City to shack up with his college brother Fede aka "Shadow" (Tenoch Huerta), and later leads them to the precise surrogate father they chase throughout the film. This is Epigmenio Cruz, "the Mexican Dylan", a legendary troubadour that is also the only trace the siblings have from their dad, who left and left behind a tape of his greatest songs.

     The tape is also an important element in the film's constantly moving, relay structure: it's passed ear to ear throughout but, in keeping with the film's sly mischief, we never actually hear it on the soundtrack, as everyone who listens to it does so in Tomas' Walkman headphones. That it all goes around in circles, though, is part and parcel of Güeros's hand-crafted, urgent charm: it may look eccentric, random, but as the pieces slowly fall into place you realise Mr. Ruizpalacios has always known very well where he was heading, the film's laidback teenage rebelliousness becoming a perfect portrait of how we behave at that "difficult age".

     In an ideal world, Güeros would be hailed as a brash entry in the coming-of-age category, a film whose playfulness envelops you slowly until you have no choice but to surrender, enough to carry it over into Ferris Bueller territory. Instead, it'll probably be recognised only by audiences attentive to the arthouse circuits and Latin oddities - and yet this resonates so much more than as a mere one-off, as it's a film both aware of all that's behind it and willing to pick it up and carry it further, logic and rules be damned. It's the most fun I've had watching a debut film in a very long time.

GÜEROS
Mexico, 2014
107 minutes
Cast Tenoch Huerta, Sebastián Aguirre, Ilse Salas, Leonardo Ortizgris
Director Alonso Ruizpalacios; screenwriters Mr. Ruizpalacios and Gibrán Portela; cinematographer Damián García (b&w); composer Tomás Barreiro; designer Sandra Cabriada; costumes Ingrid Sac; editors Yibrán Asuad and Ana García; producer Ramiro Ruiz; production companies Catatonia Cine, Postal Producciones, Mexican Film Institute and CONACULTA in co-production with the Mexican National Autonomous University and the University Centre of Film Studies
Screened April 14th 2015, IndieLisboa competition screener


Friday, July 24, 2015

SHORT SKIN

It would have been oh so very easy to play the central event of Short Skin for juvenile, American Pie-style laughs. Instead, Italian director Duccio Chiarini does almost the opposite in his first, smartly-judged feature: though at heart Short Skin is indeed a coming-of-age sex comedy, Mr. Chiarini and his co-writers apply a soft, understanding touch to turn it into a lovely, sensitive portrayal of a key summer in a young man's life.

     Pisa teenager Eduardo's (Matteo Creatini) central problem is a very real, if rare, physical malformation known as phimosis - he was born with an overly short and thick foreskin that makes pleasure go hand in hand with pain. Though it can be surgically repaired, Edo has never really told anyone about it, so his sexual experience is almost non-existent, and since it's summer at the beach, he is constantly reminded of the importance of the coming of age ritual of losing one's virginity, especially by his best friend and school mate Arturo (Nicola Nocchi), a loudmouth horndog who is constantly ribbing him affectionately.

     But, unlike in an American equivalent movie, Edoardo is no mal-adjusted, freak-of-the-playground kid. He has friends and a perfectly regular school and family life, with its push and pull sibling dynamics with a younger sister, and a lifelong crush on older neighbour Bianca (Francesca Agostini), the one girl he trusts to be able to understand his condition. But he is also reminded of the exacting price of a good time as his own parents go through a rocky patch after the mother finds out the father is having an affair on the side.

     What is so striking about Short Skin is how pleasingly, refreshingly unpretentious it is, and how it avoids at every possible turn the obvious traps of the lowbrow the plot lays out. There is no boorishness involved, just an attentive observation of one boy's carnal education hand in hand with an emotional awakening, and a gentle lesson about dealing with those unruly things known as emotions when you're ill equipped to understand them. Short Skin is about a boy who overcomes the issues that bother him and grows from a surly teenager into a smiling man - it is, in short, about growing up, shot with a confidence belying its surprising status as a debut feature. It's a small, welcome surprise.

SHORT SKIN
Italy, 2014
85 minutes
Cast Matteo Creatini, Francesca Agostini, Nicola Nocchi, Mariana Raschillà, Bianca Ceravolo, Michele Crestacci, Bianca Nappi
Director Duccio Chiarini; screenwriters Mr. Chiarini, Ottavia Madeddu, Marco Pettenello and Miroslav Mandic, from a story by Mr. Chiarini, Ms. Madeddu and Mr. Mandic; cinematographer Baris Ozbicer; composer Mark Andrew Hamilton; designer Ilaria Fallacara; costumes Ginevra de Carolis; editor Roberto di Tanna; producers Babak Jalali and Mr. Chiarini; production company La Règle du Jeu
screened July 1st 2015, Cinema City Alvalade 4, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

SLOW WEST

British director John Maclean's debut feature decides to measure itself up against what is probably the most mythical of all classic Hollywood genres, the western. Curiously, the western is also probably the one American genre that has been most appropriated internationally, while in the process becoming almost a relic encased in amber at least in its original incarnation. Slow West is a bizarre, alluring proposition: a film that is very much a western as we know and loved it while being something else entirely, set at the same time within the "mythical" Far-West of popular imagination and the "actual", dirty, rugged pioneer country where nothing can match the rose-tinted glasses with which so many see it.

     Very early on, bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender) suggests to the effete innocent Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that he leave behind the guidebook to the American West he brought along. It's a sly reminder to the viewer as well, since Mr. Maclean's modus operandi lies in reclaiming that self-same reality through a surreal coming-of-age journey in a West "of the mind", part death-dream hallucination, part admission that the fantasy painted by the popular images of the West has little to nothing to do with the real thing. Later, Jay meets a German journeyman scientist (Andrew Robertt), suggestively named Werner (for Herzog?), who travels the country recording a Native American culture about to go extinct - and Werner speaks of "violence and suffering" in the Eastern Seaboard and "dreams and toil" in the West everyone dreams of.

     That singular encounter, along with its striking dénouement, reflect Slow West's status as a sort of fever dream, since its basic tale is precisely that of a young man of means that follows his heart's wild desires, come what may, in search of a fresh start in a new world: Jay has left his native Scotland in search of his love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who left with her father to start anew away from the Old World. But Jay is also the reason why she left and a sort of "dark shadow" hovering over her, just as Silas's past is always one step behind.

     It's impossible to see Slow West without remembering all the western take-offs and variations that have twisted it over the years - at its heart the tale devised by Mr. Maclean could have been lifted straight from one of Sergio Leone's spaghetti reinventions, and the disorienting, apparently anachronistic elements thrown at regular intervals either remind of Mr. Herzog's work or of the John Hillcoat-Nick Cave collaboration The Proposition (with which, curiously enough, the film shares some crew). That only underlines the film's definition as a post-modernist, post-spaghetti-western receding into a constant mise-en-abîme, with little nostalgia for the past.

     There's a sense of wide-eyed anything-goes adventure that quickly dissipates once Silas takes on the role of Jay's guide and teacher in a brave new world that is a lot less welcoming than it may seem; what is left is a combination of open-ended surrealism and grungy realism shot by the great Robbie Ryan in strong, almost candy-like colours that are very Benoît Debie in their texture. Slow West invokes the ingenuity of the genre's post-Golden Era highlights and their use of a ready-made mythology for their own ends, and in so doing translates them into a more knowing but no less fascinating contemporary language. An experiment, to be sure, and one that carries the many marks of a debut film with all its flaws; but Slow West is an enormously affecting, true original, a film that stands apart from the rest.

SLOW WEST
United Kingdom, New Zealand, 2015
84 minutes
Cast Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt, Edwin Wright, Kalani Queypo
Director and screenwriter John Maclean; cinematographer Robbie Ryan; composer Jed Kurzel; designer Kim Sinclair; costumes Kirsty Cameron; editors Roland Gallois and Jon Gregory; producers Rachel Gardner, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Conor McCaughan; production companies Filmfour, British Film Institute, New Zealand Film Commission, DMC Film, See-Saw Films and Rachel Gardner Films in association with Cross City Films, Hanway Films and Fulcrum Media Finance
screened July 2nd 2015, Lisbon


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

TAXI

A brief recap before heading straight into the heart of the matter: Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is forbidden from traveling outside Iran and has been banned from directing for 20 years. Yet Taxi is his third feature film done under this ban, and it may well be his finest work ever, let alone one of the best films of this or any year: a stunningly composed masterpiece where the popular and the arthouse, the accessible and the abstract party together like they were made for each other.

     From the very beginning of this deceptively short film, the Iranian director harnesses his obvious limitations in his favour - shooting with one consumer camera in the cramped space of a sedan car, making it part of the film as openly as he himself is. Mr. Panahi is clearly building on Abbas Kiarostami's similarly presented 10 but takes it further into the areas of contemporary cinéma du réel, that shadow area where you can't quite make out what is real and what is invented; not that you would want to, as part of the big fun in Taxi is to keep you guessing. And, after all, what is a filmmaker who can't make films to do?

     That was the dilemma at the heart of the director's previous two "underground" movies, This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain. But those works seemed to draw their strength from the entropy of anguish and (self-)doubt - especially the claustrophobic, despairing Closed Curtain, a dark night of the soul if ever there was one. Here, Mr. Panahi comes literally out into the light and into the streets of modern-day Tehran, as he poses as a taxi driver - if a particularly clueless one - who picks up passengers during the course of a day.

     Taxi is structured as a sort of relay sketch comedy where each of the rides leads directly into the next, highlighting an in-depth, "realist" look at contemporary Iranian society and the way people interact in "real life", hosted by a director once again open to the world and to the bustle surrounding him. But are these really "passengers" picked up at random, or is it all a huge game of make-believe set in and around the Iranian capital?

     This is where Mr. Panahi weaves in a lot of the theoretical constructs he has been exploring throughout his career and especially in the previous "underground" films. This is a film made outside the official rules of Islamic-approved filmmaking, and yet breathes the open air and the visible reality of life, allowing space and room for chance to intrude upon them, unlike the rigidity of the the framework the regime wants to impose. It's particularly well explored in the hilarious episode with the director's scene-stealing tween niece, a diva in the making whose desire to make an "acceptable" film to enter in her school competition is constantly bumping into the intractability of real life: when a young boy her age, in evident dire straits, picks up a billfold dropped by a bridegroom in the middle of the street and pockets it, she wants desperately for him to return the money to its rightful owner for the sake of her mini-epic, wanting "reality" to bow itself to the rules she wants to impose on it.

     It's a centrepiece moment that veers from laugh-out-loud funny to poignancy in a heartbeat, both a demonstration of Mr. Panahi's remarkable control over filmmaking and of the dilemma at the heart of every director that wishes to engage with the world around him. In it, the director articulates not only his filmmaking credo but also that of so many of the artists that have put Iranian cinema on the map over the years, while proving that he remains the most engaged yet mischievous of them all. You wouldn't have necessarily expected it from his earlier, more earnest films, but he has turned over the years into one of the most vital filmmakers at work in the world today. And if the abstract darkness of Closed Curtain suggested a director lost in the pits of his own despair, Mr. Panahi has rebounded from there into this celebratory, profoundly humanist work, a film that is as thoughtful and moving as it is raucously, riotously entertaining.

TAXI
Iran, 2015
82 minutes
A film by Jafar Panahi. No cast or crew are credited due to the film's underground production.
Screened June 25th 2015, Ideal, Lisbon, distributor advance screening. 



Monday, July 20, 2015

L'ASTRAGALE

It's entirely unfair to tag French actress Brigitte Sy's second feature as either a Philippe Garrel knock-off or as another tasteful throwback to the golden years of existentialist, post-WWII French cinema. However, it's as unfair as it is unavoidable, since Ms. Sy did not make it easy on herself. She shoots her adaptation of Albertine Sarrazin's 1965 autobiographical novel as a story of urgent, romantic push-and-pull in a silky, beautiful widescreen black and white (courtesy of DP Frédéric Serve) that reminds heavily of Mr. Garrel's own work. And it's an adaptation of a classic text of French post-war literature - the autobiography of an Algerian orphan adopted by a French couple, whose distrust for authority despite her obvious intelligence and literacy eventually leads her to prison after being accomplice to a botched robbery that leaves a woman injured.

     All of this backstory, set in mid-1950s France, is beautifully elided and made clear in L'Astragale's very impressive nocturnal opening. What follows is less impressive, as it conforms a little bit more to the "star-crossed lovers" and "romance of the criminal class" formulas than this promising start suggests, despite the clear intelligence with which Ms. Sy directs it. The grittiness of the background and her refusal to sugarcoat things also set the film apart from any undue comparisons with Mr. Garrel. During an escape that leaves her with a broken ankle, Albertine (Leïla Bekhti) is saved by the glamorous thief Julien (Reda Kateb), and it's almost love at first sight. Stumbling into prostitution of her own accord to pay the bills, she starts writing up her emotions and experiences in a journal brimming with the passion she must withhold from her day job and devotes only to Julien, despite the return of her former partner in crime and devoted lover Marie (Esther Garrel).

     Ms. Sarrazin's book was acclaimed at the time of its publication for its no-holds-barred portrayal of an unapologetic, free-spirited woman who spoke freely of her past and experiences; Ms. Sy's film adaptation (the second after an unremembered late-sixties version) is equally non-judgmental and singularly attuned to the female side of living and loving on the wrong side of the law. As an actress herself, Ms. Sy allows her actors as much time and space to create their characters as needed, and is properly rewarded, especially by her leads, who embody the couple as people in love with life making the most out of the bad cards they have been dealt, and finding refuge in each other's love.

     Yet, for all her sympathy and ability to give L'Astragale a life and a heart, there's still something missing from the film to make it go the extra mile. A little less wisdom? A little more madness? A little more personality? Whatever it is, and I'm not sure I can pinpoint it, it's a shame; it keeps the film within that wide mid-range of modest, smart little movies that could but, for some reason, don't, despite having so much going for it.

L'ASTRAGALE
France, 2014
96 minutes
Cast Leïla Bekhti, Reda Kateb, Esther Garrel, Jocelyn Desverchère, India Hair, Jean-Charles Dumay
Director Brigitte Sy; screenwriters Ms. Sy and Serge le Péron; based on the novel by Albertine Sarrazin, Astragal; cinematographer Frédéric Serve (b&w, widescreen); composer Béatrice Thiriet; production and costume designer Françoise Arnaud; editor Julie Dupré; producer Paulo Branco; production companies Alfama Films Production and France 3 Cinéma
screened June 24th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Friday, July 03, 2015

KAJAKI - THE TRUE STORY

The camaraderie of the trenches, the "grunts" that live and die for each other more than for their country or for their cause, are recurring motifs of war film heroics. At first sight, debuting director Paul Katis' film seems to be yet another in a long line of war films seen through the eyes of the common soldier, its set-up showing the arrival of a new soldier to the squad guarding the Kajaki dam in the Afghan province of Helmand.

     It's 2006 and the "war on terror" is in full swing, except it's not for the British troops stationed around it - the first act establishes, at the same time, the easy-going rapport between the men and the sense of loneliness, of being left to their own devices in a God-forsaken and forgotten corner of the world. The initial grousing for missing supplies is compounded by the air strike called on in the middle of the night that misses its target, with no second pass to make up for it.

     So far so good, but nothing to shout home about - and that's what makes it so startling that, after this initial half hour or so, Kajaki - The True Story shifts suddenly into a first-rate nail-biter, all the more harrowing for being (as the title states clearly) a true story. A normal patrol becomes a nightmare as Stu Hale (Benjamin O'Mahony) steps on a land mine and sets in motion an inexorable chain of events: the area where he was wounded and is lying down is a dry, sandy "valley" between two rocky hills, heavily mined during the Russo-Afghan War of the 1980s. Getting into the minefield to treat him is only the beginning of the problems for the squad, who all come down, as one, to help as much as they can.

     For a tale of the "war on terror", there's precious little about the greater picture - Mr. Katis and screenwriter Tom Williams narrow everything down to a microcosm that also stands in for the bigger war. The set-up is adroitly explanatory about the biggest issues involved: everybody got into Afghanistan and Iraq with no actual idea of what they were getting into, just like the soldiers of 3 Para dropped down into the valley without really knowing what was down there. The minefield can be seen as a metaphor for a land that has resisted all sorts of conquerors (even the British) and has pretty much spit them out, and the real triumph of this lot - as indeed of pretty much any soldier in any war - is just to make it out alive from the hellhole they've been thrown into.

     Though there are always enemies in the distance, the true enemies for the the squad led by corporal Mark Wright (David Elliot) and medic Tug Hartley (Mark Stanley) are time and place - and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, launching a snowballing sense of bad luck requiring all the rueful stoicism of the professional British squaddie at his best. Kajaki is pointedly "politically agnostic" and certainly no recruiting poster (the rather graphic wound scenes would pretty much preclude it anyway) - it separates politics from soldiering, and looks at the men as mere pawns buffeted around by the winds around them. It doesn't really bring anything new to the table in what regards war films - the mine angle is probably what reminds most of Kathryn Bigelow's superb The Hurt Locker, though they're very different films - but what it does is done with the exact same stoicism and professionalism of the men it presents, in a no-nonsense, intelligent way that works in the tradition of both British realism and American thrillers.

     The excellent ensemble cast is given enough breathing room to create characters, while Mr. Katis, DP Chris Goodger and editor Brin create an acute, stifling open-air claustrophobia through sunburn lensing, tense, thought-out cutting and a visual sense that suggests at times Lawrence of Arabia where the grandeur of the desert is always just off camera - as befits squaddies left out to dry holding the short end of the stick. You leave the film feeling sweaty, dirty, shellshocked and certainly un-heroic - in an antidote to something like Clint Eastwood's more hagiographic (but not uninteresting) American Sniper.

KAJAKI - THE TRUE STORY
United Kingdom, 2014
108 minutes
cast Liam Ainsworth, Grant Kilburn, Benjamin O'Mahony, Thomas Davison, Paul Luebke, Jon-Paul Bell, Robert Mitchell, Bryan Parry, Scott Kyle, John Doughty, Andy Gibbins, Ali Cook, Mark Stanley, David Elliot
director Paul Katis; screenwriter Tom Williams; cinematographer Chris Goodger (colour, widescreen); designer Erik Rehl; costumes Phaedra Dahdaleh; editor Brin; make-up Jacquetta Levon; prosthetics Cliff Wallace; producers Mr. Katis and Andrew de Lotbinière; production companies Pukka Films in association with Lipsync Productions, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology and Bedlam Film Productions
screened June 28th 2015, Lisbon, DVD screener


Thursday, July 02, 2015

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

An ever-shifting director, always hard to pin down, Olivier Assayas has been steadily building a fascinatingly elusive body of work that seems to constantly, continuously engage itself in dialogue. Hence, Clouds of Sils Maria seems born out of a desire to work again with the great Juliette Binoche after 2008's uneven Summer Hours, but it also exists in relation to Mr. Assayas' two previous films, the based-on-true-events Carlos and the loosely autobiographical Something in the Air, works that dealt with the idealistic ideologies of social, political and personal revolution.

     While Clouds of Sils Maria isn't a period piece, taking place in our days, its roots are squarely set in the 1970s; it's a film that harks back to the past and to the sense that a future that once had stretched out endlessly before you has by now started constricting, disappearing. As Sandy Denny once sang, "who knows where the time goes?", and that is the question asked by the character played by Ms. Binoche, actress Maria Enders, as the world hits her full blast in the opening minutes.

     In the midst of a messy divorce, as she is travelling to Switzerland to attend a tribute to Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright and director who launched her into stardom, Maria is informed that he has been found dead near his house in the mountain village of Sils Maria. Melchior had made Maria's career by casting her at 19 in Maloja Snake, a fictional play-within-the-film that clearly references Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and The Blue Angel: a heady brew of desire and ambition between two differently-aged women, where Maria played young go-getter Sigrid, an intern whose intoxicating presence so turns company director Helena's head that the older woman develops a life-destroying crush on her.

     30 years later, Wilhelm dies just as a hotshot young director (Lars Eidinger) invites Maria to revisit the play, now in the role of Helena - effectively going full circle from one role to the other, from young, wide-eyed arriviste to desperate, deadened, woman left behind. At its heart, then, Clouds of Sils Maria is all about Maria, and her realisation she can longer hold, or go back to, who she was. The same life experience that has made her grow as into an acclaimed film and stage star are also holding her back from accepting that things and times change.

     A cleverly hidden woman's picture if ever there was one, slyly invoking Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve in its attention to the unstoppable flow of time, Clouds of Sils Maria sets up constant series of opposites or dichotomies that only underline how the world around Maria has changed since her stage debut: youth/old age, stage/screen, America/Europe, truth/lie, the open air of the mountains/the closed box of the stage, performance/real life.

     Maria deals with all this as she is left alone by the death of the man she thought of as a mentor and guide, made aware that she is also a brand that needs to be managed, scared by the realisation of her own mortality, energized by the wish to prove herself still relevant. It's a delicate balancing act of a role triumphantly carried by Ms. Binoche in a superb performance, suggesting an actual, strong personal investment in the character.

     But it's not just the actress's performance that holds Clouds of Sils Maria together; it's also the way Mr. Assayas surrounds her with two cannily chosen, young American actresses that almost seem to playing two different sides of her conscience: the integrity and the sellout, the seriousness and the slumming. Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, plays Maria's assistant and confidant Val, while Chloë Grace Moretz is Jo-Ann Ellis, the Lindsay Lohan-ish trainwreck cast opposite her as Sigrid in the new production of Maloja Snake. As Maria retreats to Wilhelm's mountain cabin to prepare for taking on Helena with Val, the play-within-the-film becomes a hall of mirrors where the actress' own internal misgivings and memories of playing Sigrid are highlighted by the lines being run between actress and assistant, effectively transforming themselves into both characters. In this section of the film, Ms. Stewart becomes a "voice of reason" simultaneously grounding Maria and making her terribly aware of all that's at stake.

     Mr. Assayas handles it fluidly, keeping the camera closely trained on his actresses, his camera suggesting Maria's restlessness, with the glorious Swiss Alps becoming more than just backdrops for a character who must shed her old (snake) skin and learn to live with a new one. It's almost offensive how such an apparently simple film about an aging actress can contain such multitudes inside itself - it's a glorious modern classic from a director who seems to be getting better with age.

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
France, Germany, Switzerland, USA, 2014
124 minutes
cast Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Brady Corbet, Hanns Zischler, Angela Winkler, Nora von Waldstätten
director and screenwriter Olivier Assayas; cinematographer Yorick le Saux (colour, widescreen); designer François-Renaud Labarthe; costumes Jürgen Doering; editor Marion Monnier; producer Charles Gillibert; production companies CG Cinéma in co-production with Pallas Film, CAB Productions and Vortex Sutra, in association with Ezekiel Film Production, ARTE France Cinéma, ZDF/ARTE, Orange Studio, RTS and SRG SSR
screened August 14th 2014, Teatro del Casinò Kursaal, Locarno Film Festival press screening, and June 23rd 2015, Lisbon, DVD