Monday, September 28, 2015

LIFE

Anton Corbijn's unmistakable stylings have made him one of the few rock photographers who has become as well known as the stars he photographs. But, after a long list of striking music videos and a superb theatrical debut with the Ian Curtis biopic Control, Mr. Corbijn has lined up a series of intriguing, leftfield filmmaking choices, of which Life is only the latest.

     On paper, it seemed to be right up the director's alley: it's the tale behind the 1955 photo shoot photographer Dennis Stock made with James Dean, eventually printed on Life magazine, at a time when East of Eden had not opened yet and the young actor was about to hit the big time. But both the script (by writer Luke Davies) and Mr. Corbijn's take on the story are not so much about pictures and photography as they are about fame and the media circus, something the director knows first-hand from his work with major music stars and which also played a part in Control. 

     The conceit of Life is that that iconic photo shoot - showing a moody Dean walking through a rainy Times Square and goofing around the family ranch in Indiana - was a direct result of a yearning for both actor and photographer to leave behind their salad days and move to the next level. For Stock, tired of the shooting-stills and red-carpet circuit and wanting to be taken seriously as a photo-reporter, capturing correctly the actor's charisma could be the golden ticket; for Dean, an Actors Studio alum uneasy about being groomed as just another teen idol, the photo shoot could kickstart things outside the studio orbit and allow him to be seen as a serious actor and not just another cog in Warner's PR machine.

     Stock and Dean are too different to effectively be friends; no bromance for Messrs. Corbijn and Davies, but a push-pull dynamic where the two young men recognise each other's talents but are too anxious about themselves to actually open up to the other. It's in that subterranean dynamic that Life makes sense and works best. Mr. Corbijn, who has proved before to be very attentive to his actors, effectively and adroitly directs Robert Pattinson and Dane de Haan. Mr. Pattinson is particularly strong in the less flashy role of Dennis Stock, smartly balancing ambition and insecurity; Mr. De Haan gets the short end of the stick as Dean, but still manages to capture well the mythical actor's shuffling attitude and presence. (Australian all-rounder Joel Edgerton also registers strongly as Stock's Magnum agent.)

     For all that, Life is strangely "lifeless", even listless - for a work directed by a photographer, it does tend to fall back all too often into the prestige-period-feel trap, especially since the 1950s are such an iconic era. But maybe that was Mr. Corbijn's bait-and-switch all along: if you come to Life expecting a photographer's film or another take on the Dean Myth, you'll be surprised that it's not quite that. It's a tale about breaking free of the system - while still playing its game.

LIFE
Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, US, 2015, 111 minutes
Starring Robert Pattinson, Dane de Haan, Joel Edgerton, Alessandra Mastronardi, Stella Schnabel, Ben Kingsley
Directed by Anton Corbijn; written by Luke Davies; cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (widescreen); music by Owen Pallett; designer Anastasia Masaro; costumes by Gersha Phillips; editor Nick Fenton; produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Christina Piovesan, Benito Mueller and Wolfgang Mueller, for Téléfilm Canada, Filmfour, Screen Australia, Filmförderung Schleswig-Holstein, See-Saw Films, First Generation Films and Barry Films in association with Filmnation Entertainment, Cornerpiece Capital, Entertainment One, The Harold Greenberg Fund, Cross City Sales and The Movie Network
Screened September 18th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Friday, September 25, 2015

EVEREST

If you had a hankering to climb to the top of Mount Everest as a symbol of the "human adventure" at its greatest, you probably won't anymore after you've seen Baltasar Kormákur's film - its retelling of the tragic 1996 expedition that left five dead is possibly the best ad for not going there ever made. But, peculiarly enough, that's probably the reason why the latest big-studio endeavour by this Icelandic director is a more satisfying film than the initial reviews made it seem.

     Everest makes good use of state-of-the-art technology not as an end in itself but as a means to an end - that is, as a way to tell its story of human drama at the very edge of physical endurance, and to make the spectacular visuals a mere backdrop to its characters' issues and experiences. It helps that Mr. Kormákur has eschewed the proverbial film-star stunt casting and instead goes for solid ensemble players: the narrative is anchored around the ever-reliable craftsmen that are Jason Clarke, John Hawkes and Josh Brolin, with the great Emily Watson as equally great backup. Also, not for nothing is Everest originally a British project, shepherded by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner's stalwart prestige boutique Working Title: its adherence to no-nonsense realism over widescreen heroics is an apparently throwaway element that becomes crucial to the film's harrowingly stoic descent into tragedy, as the teams of Rob Hall (Mr. Clarke) and Scott Fischer (an underused Jake Gyllenhaal) overshoot their summit and are caught by a monstrous storm on their way down.

     In that sense, Everest follows on the footsteps of other directors who overlay the basics of melodrama onto hyper-realistic state-of-the-art backgrounds (see Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity and hopefully Robert Zemeckis' upcoming The Walk). But Everest does not offer the saving grace of a happy ending; there's no triumph of the human spirit to celebrate here. Instead, we have a "true-story" drama that follows the rules pretty faithfully but gains gravitas and strength as it moves forward, as Salvatore Totino's crisply breathtaking cinematography and the discretion with which 3D is used take a backseat to the carefully modulated set-up of a warm-hearted, eventually heart-breaking ensemble piece. A model of efficient, intelligent "B-team" journeyman filmmaking like Hollywood seldom cares about doing these days, Everest may not be the event masterpiece some expected, and that's actually a very good thing.

EVEREST
US, UK, Iceland, 2015, 121 minutes
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Martin Henderson, Elizabeth Debicki, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Jake Gyllenhaal
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur; written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, from the book by S. Beck Weathers and Peter G. Michaud Left for Dead and the Men's Journal article by Peter Wilkinson The Dead Zone; cinematographer Salvatore Totino; music by Dario Marianelli; designer Gary Freeman; costumes by Guy Speranza; editor Mick Audsley; effects supervisor Dadi Einarsson; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson, for Universal Pictures, Walden Media and Working Title Films in association with Cross Creek Pictures, RVK Studios and Free State Pictures
Screened September 15th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TURBO KID

If you didn't know that Turbo Kid started life as a short, you would probably still suspect something as the film unfolds: this is the first feature from a Quebecois trio of filmmakers (the husband-and-wife team of François Simard and Anouk Whissell, and her brother Yoann-Karl Whissell, collectively known as Roadkill Superstar) who already have a number of shorts under their belt, and at times you feel as if the plot is running on fumes. But that's also part and parcel of the charm of this avowed future-retro throwback to low-budget and direct-to-video eighties post-apocalyptic sci-fi: it's a cinephile's blink-and-you'll-miss-it spot-the-reference delight.

     Set in a futuristic wasteland where transport is done by bicycle due to lack of petrol, the film follows the orphaned teenage Kid's (Munro Chambers) coming-of-age, as he finds out that the old super-hero whose comic-books he collects ravenously, Turbo Rider, actually existed, and that the region's villainous overlord Zeus (Michael Ironside) is the man responsible for the death of his parents. If you dig deeper than just the obvious Mad Max and early Peter Jackson homages (the practical gore effects are Braindead to the hilt), as well as the jokey shoutouts to Soylent Green, The Terminator and early computer technology (ah, the analogue-synth-pulse soundtrack!), you'll find Turbo Kid invokes a lot more than that. There's 1980s American offbeat sci-fi like Nick Castle's The Last Starfighter or W. D. Richter's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, exploitation fare such as BMX Bandits, European western-spaghetti, post-apocalyptic manga such as Akira and some of Takashi Miike's post-modern free-for-alls. (And it does so with a lot more panache and ingeniousness than David Sandberg's much-ballyhooed but ultimately dispiriting Kung Fury.)

     The key about Turbo Kid is not so much its inscription in a long tradition of low-budget genre filmmaking, but the affection and genre smarts with which it does so, the pure genre-fan wide-eyed "I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this!" adrenaline of the project. It's turbo-charged (ahem) cliché all the way, but redeemed by its own awareness and celebration of derivativeness, its wish to recapture an earlier, "purer" way of filmmaking, unencumbered by focus groups or studio diktats. (Ironically, Turbo Kid started out as a short submitted on spec but not retained for the horror anthology The ABCs of Death. But we won't hold that against Roadkill Superstar.)

TURBO KID
Canada, New Zealand, 2014, 93 minutes
Starring Munro Chambers, Laurence Leboeuf, Aaron Jeffery, Edwin Wright, Romano Orzari, Michael Ironside
Directed and written by Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell; cinematographer Jean-Philippe Bernier; composers Le Matos (Mr. Bernier and Jean-Nicolas Leupi); art director Sylvain Lemaitre; costumes Éric Poirier; make-up Olivier Xavier; effects supervisors Jean-François Ferland and Luke Haigh; editor, Mr. Haigh; producers Anne-Marie Gélinas, Ant Timpson, Benoît Beaulieu and Tim Riley, for EMA Films and T&A Films with the participation of Téléfilm Canada, New Zealand Film Commission and Super Channel 
Screened September 6th 2015, Lisbon, MOTELx screener 

Monday, September 21, 2015

LOST RIVER

On paper, there's something intriguing about Ryan Gosling's directorial debut: as if it were an extension of his hyper-romantic, retro-Halloween music project Dead Man's Bones shifting into Lynchian "Black Lodge/Red Room" territory via the formalist stylization of Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn. It's a heady brew for anyone to take on, let alone a recognizably talented actor without much prior film-making experience; no wonder Lost River is a mess, though it is so more out of awkwardness and over-reach than of lack of talent.

     Shot in the derelict Detroit that has become the poster city for the collapse of the American working-class, but set in a fictional, decaying town called Lost River, the film has become a much-maligned folly since its unveiling at Cannes in 2014. Long on atmospherics and style, even if borrowed heavily from David Lynch's surrealistic cabarets, Mr. Gosling's aiming at a somewhat fairy-tale-ish fable about grace and redemption, through the story of Bones (Iain de Caestecker), who yearns to make a new life for him and his family. Most everyone around him seems to hang on to a past that will never return, the best example being the grandmother next door (played by horror movie diva Barbara Steele) who lives literally locked inside the memories that threaten to collapse around her; Bones seems to be the only one looking forward to a future outside Lost River.

     But that fable never really coalesces narratively, with the shorthand of the heavy-handed visual symbolism insufficient to support its plot stretched thin, and Mr. Gosling is less interested in explaining the whys and the hows of the story than in enveloping the viewer in the decadent carny atmospheres he conjures elegantly but soullessly. The result is a film full of striking but hollow tableaux in search of a thread to hang on to, where you sense its creator barreled forward into it without actually giving a second thought to how it would all work together. There's a lot of talent here, and stuff worth checking out; it's like a direct, unfiltered transmission from Mr. Gosling's mind that illuminates his interests but seems to make little sense to those on the outside.

LOST RIVER
US, 2013, 95 minutes 
Starring Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker, Matt Smith, Reda Kateb, Barbara Steele, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed and written by Ryan Gosling; cinematographer Benoit Debie; composer Johnny Jewel; designer Beth Mickle; costumes Erin Benach; editors Valdis Óskarsdóttir and Nico Leunen; effects supervisor Janelle L. Croshaw; producers Marc Platt, Mr. Gosling, Adam Siegel, Michel Litvak and David Lancaster, for Marc Platt Productions, Phantasma Films and Bold Films
Screened September 8th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening

Thursday, September 17, 2015

IRRATIONAL MAN

For a moment - well, a good half hour to be honest - there's a breath of air in Woody Allen's by-now staid, musty world of cruel ironies and bored academics. Joaquin Phoenix is the latest actor to enter Allenland through the front gates, but not for him the traditional role as a "stand-in" or a substitute for Mr. Allen's neurotic central characters, even though he is playing a philosophy professor at an Eastern Seaboard college.

     No, Mr. Phoenix carries his very own baggage and acting style, and Mr. Allen lets him - that means that Irrational Man may very well be a worthy follow-up to Blue Jasmine, also carried by a superb and slightly un-Allenian Oscar-winning central performance from Cate Blanchett, and certainly a film making good use of its star's persona. Mr. Phoenix's Abe Lucas, a couldn't-care-less rock-star lecturer with unusual takes on moral philosophy, comes on like a hurricane or a bull in a china shop as he settles into the brownish, fusty, hopelessly comfortable Braylin campus. You kind of applaud the writer/director for letting into his cinema someone who would seem to be so far away from it, and maybe that would be the whole point of casting the actor.

     But it doesn't take too long, alas, to understand that Mr. Allen hasn't really given Mr. Phoenix anything of substance to work with. Irrational Man is a pale carbon copy of earlier and far superior Allen works like Crimes and Misdemeanors and, to a point, Match Point: as the professor becomes involved romantically with both a sex-starved colleague (Parker Posey) and a fascinated student (Emma Stone), a casual conversation heard at a diner will lead him towards the idea of committing the perfect crime as his way out of a personal and professional rut. Despite Mr. Phoenix soulfully over-the-top immersion in Abe Lucas' philosophically-inspired mania, the Hitchcockian narrative progression of the plot - starting off as a spin on Strangers on a Train and ending with a conclusion straight out Mr. Hitchcock's television half-hours - eventually denounces Irrational Man as a lesser, copy-paste job  from an accomodated old master that can't be bothered any more.

     And as you begin to sense that the actor is becoming too big for the film he's in, you also realise that Mr. Allen has lost whatever interest he had in either plot or character, eventually "disposing" of him in the most cynically dismissive way possible. Whatever promises that first half hour held - and one of the best recent lead performances in an Allen film - are totally wasted by the remainder of the running time. It feels a massive, cynical cop-out from a director who, while still being able to pull the odd rabbit out of a hat, seems here to be running on fumes.

IRRATIONAL MAN
US, 2015, 94 minutes
Cast Jamie Blackley, Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, Emma Stone
Director and screenwriter Woody Allen; cinematographer Darius Khondji; designer Santo Loquasto; costumes Suzy Benzinger; editor Alisa Lepselter; producers Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson, Gravier Productions and Perdido Productions
Screened September 4th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

THE VISIT

It's way too easy to forget just how genuinely disarming was M. Night Shyamalan's meteoric rise as the saviour of intelligent entertainment in the 2000s. Out of the blue, an unknown director working within genre constraints managed to become a sensation by making morality plays about contemporary America's relationship to itself and the world under the guise of smart, well-crafted genre films.

     But what made Mr. Shyamalan's rise even more remarkable was that there was a sense there that it was all too good to be true. A precise polymath if there ever was one, writing, directing, producing and even occasionally acting, the director referenced classic American filmmaking more than anything, from Steven Spielberg's wide-eyed fantasies to Alfred Hitchcock's methodical constructions and Brian de Palma's twists, and he was taken under the wing of Mr. Spielberg's regular right-hand collaborators Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.

     It was all too simple, too magical, too good to be true for a director who hadn't "properly" "paid his dues" - and the rather unusual run of four really good films in a row (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village) made it seem as if he could do no wrong. Of course, Mr. Shyamalan bought into that hook, line and sinker, to the point of hubris - moving away from Disney, the studio that had nurtured him, when they posited some doubts about his pet project Lady in the Water. Eventually made at Warners, that film's disastrous reception effectively sent the director's career into a tailspin of which The Visit is the most determined attempt to pull out of.

     And, make no mistake about it, it's a very calculated career move, designed to regain face: a cheaply produced genre movie made without stars in the now standard found-footage mode. The Blair Witch Project started the entire found-footage mania back in 1999 - the same year Mr. Shyamalan broke wide with The Sixth Sense - but it was director Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity series, ten years later, that turned it into a genre staple thanks to the efforts of producer Jason Blum.

     Not surprisingly, Mr. Blum is also a producer of The Visit, a film that is so clearly constructed to prove Mr. Shyamalan still has "what it takes" to the point of appropriating a style of filming he had never shown much interest in. Once the lights come back up, you start to ask if there was any spontaneity involved at all and, in a way, it's understandable. The film maintains intact the director's knack for playing sly meta-narrative games: the title's "visit" refers to the trip teenage siblings Becca and Tyler (Olivia de Jonge and Ed Oxenbould) make to the Pennsylvania farm to meet their grandparents (Deanna Dunigan and Peter McRobbie) for the first time, but Becca is also filming the visit with her video camera.

     Part of her motivation for the visit is to learn more about the family's past and achieve some sort of reconciliation between her mother (Kathryn Hahn) and the grandparents, who haven't spoken in a long time, but slowly it becomes obvious to Becca and Tyler that not all is hunky dory with Nanna and Pop Pop. As the frights pile up and not even their jaded knowledge of thriller clichés can put the kids at ease, Mr. Shyamalan's careful paying out of plot points and constant, if self-deprecating, teasing threaten to bring down the entire house of cards as we wait, half-interested, half-bored, by the twist that is certain to come.

     When it does come, it's not that unexpected if you've been paying attention, but neither is it gratuitous or overegged; it just flattens the film somewhat, suggesting that Mr. Shyamalan is playing to his usual gallery without ever putting his whole self into the project, the whole game being so obviously rigged that it can't ever come off as truly inspired. To be sure, there's nothing inherently bad about The Visit; but its careful, maniacal precision suggests a film less propelled by a genuine storytelling desire than by a need to maintain a status.

THE VISIT
US, Japan, 2015, 94 minutes
Cast Olivia de Jonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
Director and screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan; cinematographer Maryse Alberti; composer Paul Cantelon; designer Naaman Marshall; costumes Amy Westcott; editor Luke Ciarocchi; producers Marc Bienstock, Mr. Shyamalan and Jason Blum, Universal Pictures, Blinding Edge Pictures and Blumhouse Productions in association with Dentsu and Fuji Television Network
Screened September 3rd, 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

DIOR AND I

Documentaries about fashion seem to have become a micro-niche of its own in recent years, thanks to pieces as successful and acclaimed as R. J. Cutler's The September Issue; but if Dior and I seems at first to be yet another look at a Paris haute couture brand, this is no flashy, glossy advertorial. Frédéric Tcheng, previously involved in films about Valentino and photographer Diana Vreeland, puts his all-access pass to the inner sanctum of Dior in the service of a clear-eyed and surprisingly in-depth take on what makes a brand a brand, using as his starting point the hiring of Belgian designer Raf Simons as creative director in 2012 after the John Galliano debacle.

    Mr. Simons had eight weeks to create from scratch a brand new couture collection that would work within the company's tradition while delineating his vision for it. Mr. Tcheng does not stay only within the luxury cocoon of the designer's mind but also gets his hands dirty with the mistresses of the atelier, the seamstresses and artisans who actually turn the designs into actual dresses that will be worn on the runway. As such, Dior and I isn't so much about the creativity the stylist exercises on his drawing board as it is about the toil and craft it takes to translate that vision into reality, how an entire team responds to the challenge of building a collection in record time.

     The "I" in the film's title is not really, not only, Mr. Simons; it's the many "Is" that work with and for the company, and what each of them feels about their work. Mr. Tcheng presents the entire fashion house as a curious kind of living organism, a symbiotic family where everyone has a specific role to play and where everyone has a special, personal relationship with the brand and its history. This actually leads to the director's single faux pas - making visible the connection between past and present through the use of quotes from Christian Dior himself (read in voiceover by actor Omar Berrada over period footage). Conceptually it's a nice touch, but it's so overshadowed by the strength and elegance of the film's follow-up into the actual making of the collection, raising the stakes and the tension through a rather elegant work of editing (by the director and Julio C. Perez IV), that it becomes surplus to requirements.

DIOR AND I
France, 2014, 90 minutes
Director and screenwriter Frédéric Tcheng; cinematographers Gilles Piquard, Mr. Tcheng and Léo Hinstin; composer Ha-Yang Kim; editors Julio C. Perez IV and Mr. Tcheng; producer Mr. Tcheng, CIM Productions
Screened September 2nd 2015, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon, distributor screening


Wednesday, September 09, 2015

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT

While most people seem to fixate on the "Persian vampire" aspect of the American-based Anglo-Iranian filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour's debut feature, what's striking about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is just how utterly pop-cultural-American it is. That doesn't make it any less Iranian in spirit, but its mix of Arabian Nights storytelling, American pulp fiction and indie-film existentialism is fascinating

     Shot in widescreen black and white in the US with a cast of Persian-Americans or Iranian expats, somewhere between Jim Jarmusch's early anomie and the Sin City/Streets of Fire school of stylized mythology, Ms. Amirpour's film drops a ton of post-eighties teenage existentialism and gothic cool within its openly cinephile framework of Tehran, California. It could even be a Cure cover of a Bruce Springsteen song about kids wanting to escape the towns where they're going nowhere fast - in this case the son of a junkie ne'er-do-well who's a handyman for a rich family (Arash Marandi), and a mysterious girl who turns out to be a vampire surviving on petty thefts (Sheila Vand).

     A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a stronger film stylistically than narratively, with Ms. Amirpour's eye for visuals and strong sense of atmospherics making the most of a thin, underdeveloped plot whose blanks can occasionally seem clumsy rather than deliberate. Neither straight-forward homage nor smirking pastiche, its intimations of tragedy fall a bit flat and its Persian background lend it a touch of the overly exotic, but there's visibly a very interesting director here in the making.

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
US, 2014, 100 minutes
cast Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnò, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains, Milad Eghbali, Rome Shadanloo, Reza Sixo Safai
director/scriptwriter, Ana Lily Amirpour; cinematographer, Lyle Vincent (b&w widescreen); designer, Sergio de la Vega; costumer, Natalie O'Brien; editor, Alex O'Flinn; producers, Justin Begnaud and Sina Sayyah, Spectrevision and Say Ahh Productions in association with Logan Pictures and Black Light District
screened August 28th 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener

Monday, September 07, 2015

THE MAN FROM U. N. C. L. E.

Here's the thing about The Man from U. N. C. L. E.: it's a pointless film. About as pointless as The Avengers' ill-fated big-screen version was 15 years ago, even if Guy Ritchie's film is much more accomplished and smooth and much less clunky.

     The fact remains that no one was clamoring for a big-screen version of the mid-sixties, ersatz-Bond TV series starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum; and Matthew Vaughn (formerly Mr. Ritchie's producer and currently a much more interesting director than him) pre-empted any comedic, retro take on the spy genre for the foreseeable future with Kingsman: The Secret Service, a much more radical and gleefully anarchic homage/spoof than The Man from U. N. C. L. E. can ever aim to be.

     So, is this just another of the big studios' erroneous beliefs that any vintage TV property can be successfully retooled for the modern age? The box-office results seem to say so, even if it's also true that this was a labour of love for Mr. Ritchie and, after the Sherlock Holmes films, Warners could not feasibly say no to him. And, really, there's nothing inherently wrong or offensive with the film, done in the British director's typical insouciant style of frantic, fast-cutting action offset by deadpan, English-style comedy. There's also an innate understanding of the property: it would not work to update to modern days a series whose raison d'être disappeared with the end of the Cold War.

     As such, this "origin story" for the international undercover organisation U. N. C. L. E. (truly introduced only at the very end and seeming to set up a possible sequel) takes place in 1963, as CIA smooth operator Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB brawny hard nut Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are required to work together to locate German scientist Udo Teller (Christian Berkel) and his nuclear weapon plans. Mr. Ritchie has great fun with the period trappings, expertly recreated by production designer Oliver Scholl, and with the back-and-forth between Solo, Kuryakin and Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the scientist's daughter whom they help extract from East Berlin.

     The sly, cheeky romantic triangle with the agents is also a parlor-room romantic comedy in disguise. Interestingly enough, this becomes a sort of (involuntary?) throwback to Stanley Donen's sixties spy comedies like Charade and Arabesque, though Mr. Ritchie does not have Mr. Donen's elegance nor actors that can successfully work with it. Mr. Cavill looks the part but comes off as smarmy rather than smooth, and Mr. Hammer, a solid actor often straitjacketed in roles that seem designed to turn him into the next Brendan Fraser, overplays the stodginess, with Ms. Vikander in a somewhat thankless to-and-fro that cannot raise her co-stars' game. Look no further than Hugh Grant's effortless self-deprecating touch and Elizabeth Debicki's deliciously OTT villainess to see just what The Man from U. N. C. L. E. could be if everyone was on the same wavelength.

     For all that, again, there's nothing inherently wrong or offensive with Mr. Ritchie's film: it's entertaining, occasionally charming, and generally enjoyable - but instantly forgettable and, truly, pointless.

THE MAN FROM U. N. C. L. E.
US, 2015
116 minutes
Cast Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Luca Calvani, Misha Kuznetsov, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Director Guy Ritchie; screenwriters Mr. Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, from a story by Jeff Kleeman, David Campbell Wilson, Mr. Wigram and Mr. Ritchie and the TV series created by Sam Rolfe and Norman Felton; cinematographer John Mathieson (widescreen); composer Daniel Pemberton; designer Oliver Scholl; costumes Joanna Johnston; editor James Herbert; producers John Davis, Steve Clark-Hall, Mr. Wigram and Mr. Richie, for Warner Bros. Pictures, Ritchie-Wigram Productions and Davis Entertainment Company in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
Screened August 26th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, distributor press screening


Friday, September 04, 2015

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE

It's probably far too easy to forget just how wondrously captivated we originally were by Nick Park's stellar Wallace & Gromit shorts of the mid-1990s, responsible for suggesting his Bristol-based studio, Aardman, could become the Pixar of stop-motion animation - much less sexy than CGI, true, but able to channel narrative magic through the exquisitely time-consuming technique.

     Unfortunately, after the riotous Chicken Run, Aardman's disagreements with its first American backers Dreamworks, complicated by underwhelming box-office for the first Wallace & Gromit feature and for its massively entertaining CGI foray Flushed Away, effectively sidelined the studio's big-screen footprint for most of the subsequent years. But Aardman valiantly soldiered on in the small screen, with the mischievous sheep first revealed in Wallace & Gromit's final short A Close Shave and lovingly named Shaun becoming the star of its own, massively successful television series now on a fourth season.

     It's in the Mossy Bottom farm that is the series' setting that this big-screen outing for Shaun starts, with a buoyant credit sequence setting up the "origin story" of his flock and its guard dog Bitzer, before getting into the brunt of the action. Tired from the endless drudgery of the farm routine, Shaun plans on fooling the Farmer so everyone can take a daylong break, but the plan backfires and the Farmer ends up rolling into the Big City inside an out-of-control caravan, with the resulting crash rendering him amnesiac and forcing the sheep to organize a rescue expedition menaced at every point by the sinister animal control agent Trumper.

     Shaun's television adventures were always aimed at a younger audience than most of Aardman's most celebrated output, even though the studio never specifically boxed its work as "adult" or "children's"; Shaun the Sheep Movie remains a rounder-edged, cuddlier proposition, but it's clear that the studio has lavished just as much care in this family-friendly outing as it did in Chicken Run, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit or The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. In fact, it seems as if the studio put in even more care, since - as in the series - there's not one single line of spoken dialogue. Everything is conveyed purely through movement and animation - much more demanding for an 80-minute feature than for five-minute episodes.

     This means that Shaun the Sheep Movie has a higher bar to clear, and that it does so brilliantly is proof of just how consistent its talents are: this is animation at its best, purely audiovisual storytelling done with all the imagination and commitment you would expect from the studio, cleverly intertwining the handmade quality of its animation with an incredibly sophisticated sound work, retaining its thoroughly deadpan British sense of humour within an almost Chaplinesque sense of old-fashioned burlesque (visible, for instance, in the initial runaway caravan scene and later in the big restaurant sequence).

     That none of the studio's founders - Mr. Park, David Lord and Peter Sproxton - are directly involved in Shaun the Sheep Movie is also testament to a certain "spirit" that remains present in the company's output; it's all about quality control, if you'd like, and it's clear that Aardman's remains at a very high level.

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE
UK, France, 2014
85 minutes
Voice cast Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Stanley Unwin
Directors and screenwriters Mark Burton and Richard Starzak; animation supervisor Loyd Price; puppet design Kate Anderson; cinematographers Charles Copping and Dave Alex Riddett; composer Ilan Eshkeri; designer Matt Perry; editor Sim Evan-Jones; producers Julie Lockhart and Paul Kewley, Studiocanal and Aardman Animations in association with Anton Capital Entertainment
Screened August 22nd 2015, Lisbon, DVD


Thursday, September 03, 2015

RICKI AND THE FLASH

No matter what you think of Jonathan Demme as a filmmaker - and I tend to generally enjoy his music documentary work much better than his narrative films - one constant throughout his career has been the generosity he shows towards his characters, the space he allows them to find and explore around them to exist as people outside any boxes you'd want to fit them in.

     That's probably the best thing you can say about the reasonably lukewarm but not uninteresting Ricki and the Flash, a film entirely predicated on individuality and respect for the other, on being your own person and chasing your own truth, stifled under a half-baked collection of family-drama clichés. While these are themes that have always underlined as well the work of screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), they're given a somewhat perfunctory gloss in a strongly unbalanced script, an effective "game of two halves" that don't necessarily coalesce as they should.

     The theme of a woman realising she's not getting her lost time back and deciding to deal with it is stronger on the second part, which turns out to be a bit too much of a less edgy take on Mr. Demme's previous Rachel Getting Married. The first half, on the other hand, suggests a middle-aged comedy of almost-remarriage, as never-was rock singer Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) returns home to Indianapolis to help her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Ms. Streep's actual daughter) overcome a traumatic separation, and reacquaints herself with her since remarried ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline in bumbling auto-pilot). It's all the more disappointing that both halves don't really gel as much, doubly so because with this cast it wouldn't take much to get the movie going - as shown by the remarkably performed and shot stand-off between Ricki and Pete's current wife Maureen (Audra McDonald), spine-tingling in the adroit management of its tension and territory.

     At its heart, Ricki and the Flash is really about broken families that never got over their original rift. Ricki left behind a husband and three young children for the dream of rock stardom, and when that didn't pan out she stayed in California, eking out a living at odd jobs while performing with a workaday band at an Orange County roadhouse; the only family she now has is her band, but she will not commit to the open advances of her guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) for fear of spoiling things again. Back home, though, Pete may have regrouped and got the family going as normal as possible, but everyone still resents Ricki for having gone off with no thoughts for them, and for all we know Julie may be just repeating the pattern, especially since her brother is himself engaged to be married very soon.

     Interestingly enough, the film also works in a neat little inversion of the stereotypes it trafficks in: Ricki, the California dissolute full of tattoos and piercings, turns out to be a Bush-voting blue-collar rocker still believing in the healing power of rock and roll, while it's the Indianapolis liberals she married into that end up having more of a haughty prejudice against those unlike them. But even though there could be something interesting in this shuffling of ideas of respectability and rebellion, this acceptance that America's current social and political polarization doesn't take account reality, Ricki and the Flash settles into a mild and entirely predictable life-lessons comedy-drama, much enlivened by Mr. Demme's deft hand with actors and the energy both he and the cast bring to the stage scenes.

     Ms. Streep as a blue collar rockin' mama (doing her own singing and playing her own guitar) may be a piece of stunt casting. But the actress gives such a rounded, heartfelt performance, expertly shifting between bravado and vulnerability, that it never comes off as "Meryl does rock". And Ms. Gummer more than holds her own, though, as with much of the supporting roles, there isn't as much there for her as there is for the film's star to do.

     Ricki and the Flash could have been a lot more trenchant and have a lot more to say about contemporary America than it turns out to; it may be entirely representative of the way counter-culture has been gradually assimilated by the mainstream and turned into a staid archetype of Americana - old rebels always become the epitome of conservatism - but ultimately the film accepts this status quo without much questioning. Mr. Demme fine-tunes his compassionate approach to his characters, and hands the stage to Ms. Streep without further ado, but there's really not much more to say about this perfectly civilized but under-achieving entertainment.

RICKI AND THE FLASH
USA, 2015
101 minutes
Cast Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Rick Springfield
Director Jonathan Demme; screenwriter Diablo Cody; cinematographer Declan Quinn (widescreen); designer Stuart Wurtzel; costues Ann Roth; editor Wyatt Smith; producers Marc Platt, Gary Goetzman, Ms. Cody and Mason Novick, Tristar Pictures, Marc Platt Productions and Badwill Entertainment in association with Lstar Capital
Screened August 5th 2015, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno, festival press screening