Monday, November 30, 2015

BRIDGE OF SPIES

That the former whiz kid who helped usher in the age of the modern effects-heavy blockbuster adventure is now settling in peacefully into the role of elderly statesman seems to underlie just how much yesterday's rebels become tomorrow's conservatives. And, indeed, Steven Spielberg has actually gone on to say (in a recent New York Times interview) that he would have enjoyed working within the constraints of the old-fashioned studio system.

     None of this is surprising especially if you take into account how much Mr. Spielberg was always the "odd man out" in the New Hollywood generation he was a part of - rising through the ranks of television and B-movies within Universal, enjoying the role of a director capable of churning out mass-media entertainment and prestige pictures in the manner of the old Warners war-horses like Michael Curtiz. For all that, Mr. Spielberg's work has always seemed to me to struggle between the heart and the brain, the energy and the though, and one that usually is better when the director leads off with his emotions and his innate, almost Hitchcockian sense of what will get an audience to tick, rather than in the stodgier serious dramas that tend to weigh him down needlessly.

     Bridge of Spies seems, on first sight, to follow in the footsteps of the constrained theatrics of Lincoln - a worthy history lesson bogged down by its own sense of bloated self-importance - rather than in the ravishing storytelling gestures of the flawed but heartfelt War Horse. But it turns out that, despite the odd longueur, the new film proves to be a smart addition to his canon, so to speak "bridging" his desire for fast-paced entertainment and his interest in serious issues.

     Set at the 1960 height of the Cold War, as the Berlin wall is being built, Bridge of Spies dramatizes the real-life exchange of NYC-based Russian spy Rudolf Abel for captured spy-pilot plane Gary Powers, as negotiated by a civil-law attorney roped in somewhat against his will. This man, Jim Donovan, is the real hero in Mr. Spielberg's film, and is portrayed as the ideal of the stand-up American guy, the member of the "Greatest Generation" whose patriotism is unimpeachable.

     Initially called on to provide the trial defense of Abel, Donovan's sense of morality prevents him from giving his own government a carte blanche in the name of security, refusing to provide a semblance of due process and acquiesce to higher political interests that are ultimately not in the interest of the society he fought for. His steadfast integrity makes him a beacon, a moral, immobile compass at the heart of a system that is beginning to swerve far too much with the storms outside; no wonder Donovan is played by Tom Hanks, the closest contemporary American film has to the "common American" of the 1940s and 1950s like James Stewart and Henry Fonda portrayed, the one actor that could successfully pull off such a "guy next door" today.

     And, of course, through this real-life story set in an America awash in the fear-mongering of the Red Scare and atomic war, it's the modern-day America and its contradictory impulses of protectionism and exceptionalism that Mr. Spielberg is slyly mirroring and indicting, mustering through Mr. Hanks the folksy, common-sense smarts of the average Joe that served Frank Capra's activist melodramas of the post-Great Depression so well. He does so at the heart of a cracklingly realised spy yarn that plays like a light-hearted take on something like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold - "the lawyer who flew into the cold", if you will.

     It is a parlour game of sorts; the real decisions in the spy game are made at length in distant head offices, the script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers portraying espionage as a calculated chess game of influences where the actual men on the field are disposable pawns at the mercy of the political needs, not unlike the backroom horse-trading going on in Lincoln. But, because there is a suspense element of secrecy and unpredictability involved in the plot development, Mr. Spielberg masters the film's tempo very slyly. His deft use of handheld camera in important moments of surprise and action, interwoven with the more classical, unobtrusive storytelling he is known for, is proof enough of his ability to move on with the times - despite Janusz Kaminski's very eighties stage-light-silhouetting and the script's over-egging of folksiness in the final act.

     Yet, while this is not Mr. Spielberg's finest hour - it does feel like an old-fashioned studio movie he could have made in his sleep - neither is it as stodgy as Lincoln or as shameless as War Horse. It's, just, Steven Spielberg doing well what he knows best how to do.

BRIDGE OF SPIES
US, India, UK, Germany, 2015, 141 minutes
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda
Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; cinematography Janusz Kaminski (widescreen); music by Thomas Newman; production designer Adam Stockhausen; costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone; film editor Michael Kahn; produced by Mr. Spielberg, Marc Platt and Kristie Macosko Krieger, for Fox 2000 Pictures, Dreamworks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Afterworks Limited, Studio Babelsberg, Amblin Entertainment and Marc Platt Productions in association with Participant Media and TSG Entertainment
Screened November 18th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon


Friday, November 27, 2015

O LEÃO DA ESTRELA

Remaking - or "reimagining", in contemporary parlance - a much-loved classic isn't problematic per se, if the end result actually brings something new to the table. It's not the case in producer/director Leonel Vieira's ill-advised remake of O Leão da Estrela, second in a series of three modern-day updates of fondly-remembered Portuguese comedies from the 1940s; the first, O Pátio das Cantigas, released five months ago, was as critically panned as it was wildly successful, its 600 000 admissions making it the biggest Portuguese-produced box-office hit ever.

     Much like that first film, O Leão da Estrela is a crass, embarrassingly unfunny farce purely aimed at the money-making end of the market, borrowing elements from Arthur Duarte's 1947 original to fashion them into a dispiritingly dumb, desperately cynical project with no semblance of logic in its plotting, narrative or characterisations. As in the original, the story revolves around soccer fanatic Anastácio (Miguel Guilherme standing in for António Silva), whose die-hard support for his team requires him to attend an away game and take the family along for the weekend, forcing the middle-class suburbans to pose as people of means to stay under false pretenses with a well-off family.

     Here, though, Anastácio is no longer a fan of Sporting, one of the "big three" Portuguese teams, but instead of a small-town, bottom-feeding team, the Lions of Alcochete, rendering his supporter fanaticism somewhat inexplicable. And it's the youngest daughter Joana (Sara Matos) who becomes the plot's engine, well-versed as she is in passing herself off as someone else through the Photoshopped pictures in her Facebook profile. While this idea could have given the film something to stand on as a satire of modern social-media mores, it becomes a mere excuse to see some not very smart characters acting dumb and dumber for no other reason that the plot requires it, suggesting not only that is it OK to lie, cheat and deceive but that everyone does it so nobody minds.

     It's an incredibly cynical posture, typical of the current audience-baiting reality-show thinking, amplified by the fact nobody in the preposterous plot seems to be using their head to actually think things through. This mires O Leão da Estrela in slapdash TV-level escapism, where it doesn't matter if things make sense as long as they provide some relief from daily life, making it the filmic equivalent of a throwaway junk food meal, full of salt and sugar, only without even the saving grace of flavour. The original's humour was at least based on the characters' imperfections and choices; the new one merely strings along tired jokes trying to pass them off as new ones.

     What makes all it worse is the sense this was a rushed job done by a slumming crew whose heart was not in it - from scene cutting that seems timed by shot length instead of dialogue to flat TV-level lighting, through characters that are introduced just because and plot lines that are never followed up on, the only thing that seems to be lacking here is a laugh track to point out the gag beats. It's all the more bewildering coming from a crew who regularly do much better work, though not so much from a director who has traded in the promising genre work of his debut for a lowest-common-denominator audience-chasing formula.

O LEÃO DA ESTRELA
Portugal, 2015, 110 minutes
Starring Miguel Guiherme, Sara Matos, Ana Varela, Dânia Neto, Manuela Couto, André Nunes, Aldo Lima, José Raposo, Alexandra Lencastre, Vítor Norte, Manuel Marques
Directed by Leonel Vieira; written by Tiago R. Santos, based on the original screenplay by João Bastos, Félix Bermudes and Ernesto Rodrigues for the film O Leão da Estrela by Arthur Duarte; cinematography José António Loureiro (widescreen); music by Nuno Maló; art director Rui Alves; costume designer Teresa Sousa; film editor Pedro Ribeiro; produced by Mr. Vieira, for Stopline Films and Skydreams Entertainment in co-production with RTP
Screened November 12th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon

Thursday, November 26, 2015

MIA MADRE
My Mother

Where does everything go? All the memories, the experiences, the studies, the knowledge, the heartbreak, the happiness, everything that fits inside a lifetime - where does it all go when life ends? That's what's troubling Margherita, the film director at the heart of Nanni Moretti's superb My Mother, as her own life seems to unravel while her mother is in hospital with death on the horizon.

     Margherita, wonderfully played by the great Margherita Buy, is starting to shoot a new film whose production is proving more complicated than she anticipated; also, there's a romantic break-up with her current partner who is one of the actors in the film to deal with, plus a temperamental American star (John Turturro) whose demands threaten to derail things even further. In some ways, Margherita is the exact opposite of the lead character in Antonello Grimaldi's Quiet Chaos: in that film (which he also co-wrote), Mr. Moretti played an executive still reeling from his wife's death who retreats into a sort of limbo, a refusal to commit to anything for fear it may disappear. Here, Margherita (who, as a film director, can't help but recall the director himself) throws herself headlong into work and life, juggling everything to see if she can avoid dealing with the obvious until she can't take it anymore.

     The film's connection to death creates a peculiar triptych with Quiet Chaos and the majestic The Son's Room (still Mr. Moretti's best film for my money), all of them dealing with the loss of a close family member. But while both those films dealt mostly with the consequences "after the fact", My Mother takes place almost entirely "before the fact", with Margherita and her brother Giovanni (Mr. Moretti) having to come to terms with a death that is announced and predicted. But, while Giovanni is somehow pro-active, the sister is essentially reactive; she is running to stand still, pretending to be in control but knowing full well she can't control what really matters. Hence, what seems at first to be a requiem for Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a former teacher who still has a twinkle in her eye, also becomes a requiem for a time in Margherita's life that has to be left behind; a quiet admission that you need to start again and leave a heavy load behind. Ada may be the centre of the film, but more because of the way she affects all other characters rather than by her physical presence at its heart.

     My Mother hinges on a delicate balance between laughter and tears, comedy and melodrama, that Mr. Moretti has not always been able to pull off at this level. It's a tenderly realised, marvelously detailed carousel of emotions that has no problem about appropriating classic genre tropes when needed only to discard them when they are no longer necessary instead of sticking to them; it's also a return to the director's best form after the less inspired The Caiman and Habemus Papam. 

MIA MADRE
Italy, France, 2015, 107 minutes
Starring Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini, Nanni Moretti, Beatrice Mancini
Directed by Mr. Moretti; screenplay by Mr. Moretti, Francesco Piccolo and Valia Santelli, based on a story by Gaia Manzini, Mr. Moretti, Ms. Santelli and Chiara Valerio; cinematography Arnaldo Catinari; production designer Paola Bizzarri; costume designer Valentina Taviani; film editor Clelio Benvenuto; produced by Mr. Moretti and Domenico Procacci, for Sacher Film, Fandango and Rai Cinema in co-production with Le Pacte and ARTE France Cinéma
Screened October 30th, 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

DAS NETZ
The Net

One of the most disappointing objects I got to see in this year's DocLisboa line-up (even though it was a ten-year old film picked up for the representations of terrorism in cinema I Don't Throw Bombs, I Make Films sidebar), German director Lutz Dammbeck's The Net is the sort of lurid but ultimately confused would-be exposé that doesn't really know how to deal with all the material it assembled.

     By connecting the writings of the infamous Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, with the history of the internet and the post-WWII desire to create a better world, the director is looking at unveiling an "alternate history" of the past half century, suggesting our technological society results from a combination of utopian and dystopian elements put into place by folk in high places. Mr. Dammbeck's approach creates a fascinatingly interlinked (hyperlinked, maybe?) view of world history as an interconnected living organism - a sort of non-stop butterfly effect that a few visionary, secretive elements may have attempted to guide.

     In cheerier hands, this would be the "alternate dimension" explored in Brad Bird's utopian Tomorrowland, but in Mr. Dammbeck's hand suggests a disquietingly totalitarian result, an investigative attempt to "keep the populace under control". The problem is that the director never truly solidifies those connections, leaving them -  either by default or by design - as mere thought-provoking allusions that, at their most outlandish, come across as outlaw conspiracy theories.

     That The Net slips slowly into Twilight Zone or X-Files territory isn't necessarily a problem; what is, though, is that the director maintains throughout an approach of dogged documentarian searching for the truth while what he is actually doing is speculative investigation. The sense is that the film changed direction somewhere in between the filming and the editing, in an almost Herzogian way but without his determination. And the interviews shot with figures like Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Unabomber victim David Gelernter or the late cybernetics pioneer Heinz von Foerster have an exploitation element involved, as if Mr. Dammbeck was hoping for a "gotcha" moment that never really arrives.

     Eventually, the theory Mr. Dammbeck is trying to uphold seems to be created on the fly, and that we are watching its creation - especially since Kaczynski himself remains elusively out of frame, quoted from the correspondence he exchanged with the director but without any possible measurement of the veracity of his statements. As a result, the film amasses a wealth of intriguing information that is never explored beyond its face value, leaving the viewer in no position to judge its reliability, and with a film that is as genuinely thought-provoking as bewilderingly misguided and under-cooked.

DAS NETZ
Germany, 2003, 119 minutes
Directed and written by Lutz Dammbeck; camera, Thomas Plenert, István Imreh and James Carman; music and sound design by Jörg U. Lensing; film editor, Margot Neubert-Marić; produced by Lutz Dammbeck Filmproduktion in co-production with Südwestrundfunk and ARTE
Screened October 26th 2015, São Jorge 3, Lisbon - DocLisboa sidebar screening 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

SECRET IN THEIR EYES

That remakes are generally pointless seems to be the corollary of this latest attempt at redoing a foreign-language film for domestic American consumption. That said remake is still a perfectly decent, solid piece of work, while remaining pointless, is in itself worth pointing out - even if it's highly unlikely that Secret in Their Eyes will ever be as fondly remembered as the original film, 2010's foreign-language film Oscar winner from Argentina. Yet, writer/director Billy Ray is smart enough to maintain the complicated emotional threads of Juan Jose Campanella's original mostly intact while making it relevant to our days of security paranoia.

     The heart of the film remains a former official's obsession with an unsolved case dating back years, leading him to reconnect with the prosecutor who dealt with the affair at the time to reopen it after new information comes up. Here, the retired official is a former police detective (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn, and the prosecutor a junior DA transplant from tony Philadelphia (Nicole Kidman); the cold case involves not the murder of a woman, as in the original, but that of a young woman who happened to be the daughter of an FBI agent (Julia Roberts). The remake takes place in present day Los Angeles instead of 1990s Buenos Aires, changing the timing of the cold case from the unstable Argentina of the 1970s to the first few weeks immediately after 9/11 - a smart update that maintains the moral undertones of the plot, asking whether the greater picture justifies the personal sacrifice.

     That the romantic obsession present in the plot survives almost intact is the first credit to Mr. Ray's thoughtful update; the second is the reliance on a cast that has form in this kind of serious roles. But there is also a loss in the process. What was so rewarding in Mr. Campanella's film was its shape-shifting qualities - the sense you were watching a chaste, complex love story developing under the guise of a detective thriller with a political angle. Secret in Their Eyes, on the other hand, resolves itself into a political thriller with a strong whiff of seventies throwback and a love story on the side. In that, it can't help but lose something of what made the original special, a loss compounded by the lack of chemistry between a glacial Ms. Kidman and an earnest Mr. Ejiofor. It's not enough to throw Secret in Their Eyes in the waste basket as a write-off, since regardless of its affiliation this remains a well-made, well-crafted adult thriller that would have been a solid mid-range studio film in earlier times. But, for all the intelligence that Mr. Ray has brought to the task, this will never escape comparisons to its original, and on that level it simply can't rise to the standard.

SECRET IN THEIR EYES
US, Spain, South Korea, UK, 2015, 111 minutes
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, Joe Cole, Zoe Graham, Alfred Molina
Directed and written by Billy Ray; based on the screenplay by Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri for Mr. Campanella's film The Secret in Their Eyes; cinematographer Danny Moder (widescreen); music by Emilio Kauderer; production designer Nelson Coates; costume designer Shay Cunliffe; film editor Jim Page; produced by Mark Johnson and Matt Jackson, for Gran Via Productions, SITE Productions, Willie's Movies and Moot Point Productions in association with Route One Entertainment, Union Investment Partners, Ingenious Media and Elipsis Capital 
Screened November 13th 2015 at NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon


Monday, November 23, 2015

MORE

More was originally shot and released in full view of the "come down" from the 1967 Summer of Love, not long after the convention-shattering Bonnie & Clyde and on the cusp of the counter-cultural celebration of Easy Rider; leading many to think of it (often without actually having watched it) how it was very much a film "of its time". Yet, it's staggering to see how Barbet Schroeder's debut feature was actually so critical of the scene it depicted - critical not in the judgmental sense of the word, since the director's later work has proved him to be no black-and-white moralist.

     Instead, More refuses to follow blindly the period's idealism, and prefers to recognise the traps and pitfalls of the psychotropic-fuelled hedonism de rigueur for those who were looking to voyage into their selves as new-fangled manifestations of an old-fashioned idea. Klaus Grünberg's newly-graduated German student Stefan is looking for the contemporary equivalent of the "grand tour" young men would take around the world before beginning their real life of contributing to society. Only this one leads him into the warmer pastures of the Mediterranean South - all the way to Ibiza via Paris, in the wake of Estelle (Mimsy Farmer), an American waif who turns out to be a femme fatale in disguise.

     The couple's apparent search for a way to coexist with traditional society without having to deal with seems to end at a remote seaside villa in Ibiza (ironically owned in real life by the director's mother), but it's a mirage lying in plain sight at the heart of the script written with regular Claude Chabrol collaborator Paul Gégauff. No wonder the intimations of a film noir in the blinding sun (made all the more blinding by DP Néstor Almendros' use of natural lighting) come fast and furious: Estelle is in cahoots with a mysterious German expat-cum-drug dealer (Heinz Engelmann), Stefan is only the latest in a line of patsies who fall head over heels for her.

     What's mostly "of its time" in More is the almost documentary portrait it makes of the a new generation looking for its own approach to the world, as well-meaning as it may be misguided; in so doing, it merely underlines just how much the idealism of young age is a cyclical response to a growingly cynical system, inseparable yins and yangs that keep each other in perpetual but unchanging balance. That it all comes down to petty drug deals, even if in the Ibiza sun instead of ill-lit urban back alleys, is just simple proof that even as a debutante Barbet Schroeder was not interested in doing a quick hipster cash-in.

MORE
France, Spain, 1969, 112 minutes
Starring Mimsy Farmer, Klaus Grünberg, Heinz Engelmann, Michel Chanderli, Henry Wolf, Louise Wink
Directed by Barbet Schroeder; screenplay by Paul Gégauff and Mr. Schroeder, with Mimsy Farmer, Eugene Archer and Paul Gardner; based on a story by Mr. Schroeder; cinematography Néstor Almendros; music by Pink Floyd; art directors Fran Lewis and Mr. Almendros; film editors Denise de Casabianca, Monique Giraudy and Madeleine Grimberg; produced by Mr. Schroeder, for Jet Films and Doric Films
Screened November 6th 2015, Lisbon

Friday, November 20, 2015

AMNESIA

Amnesia appears to bring Barbet Schroeder's career full circle. The latest film from the eclectic French-based polymath who has done everything, from Bukowski (Barfly) to a Mad Men episode, from Hollywood psycho-thriller (Single White Female) to cult Euro-psychedelia (More), from staged documentary (General Idi Amin Dada) to Oscar-winning drama (Reversal of Fortune), was shot in the exact same Spanish seaside villa where parts of More were filmed in 1968.

     The house near San Antoní, in the island of Ibiza, was actually owned by Mr. Schroeder's German-born mother Ursula, who is also the loose inspiration for Martha Segall (Marthe Keller), the central character of Amnesia. The film's title refers both to one of the key clubs in Ibiza's dance music scene boom of the 1990s, when the film takes place, and to Martha's deliberate refusal to address the past. She has rejected her native country and her native language, and has put as much distance as possible between herself and the Germany she left as Hitler came to power, but it's the country that keeps getting close to her: first in the shape of a family estate that needs to be settled, then through Jo (Max Riemelt), the young German who moves in next door with a view to become the next big international DJing star, dreaming of making the roster at Amnesia.

     Despite the DJ angle (essentially a script convenience that is treated with some clumsy, throwaway naïveté), Amnesia is essentially the story of a woman coming to terms late in life with her choices and their consequences. It's a suggestively, subtly told piece, to which the too rare Ms. Keller brings a graceful yet intensely layered performance, attentively directed by Mr. Schroeder; it's almost a love letter from a director to an actress who has seldom been better.

     Unfortunately, that story and that performance are wrapped up in an awkward tug-of-war, where the attentive, intelligent woman's picture struggles with a sincere but redundant re-stating of Germany's own need to come to terms with its nazi past. The lunch scene where Jo introduces his mother and grandfather to Martha, leading to a serious conversation about Germany's responsibility, avoids the trap of redundant didacticism by a whisker, but even if the issue is essential to the truth of Martha's character the way, Mr. Schroeder risks making it surplus to requirements; there's nothing in here that hasn't been told before, much unhelped by some occasionally awkward cutting from veteran Nelly Quettier.

     That those are not the central, or even the most interesting, aspects of Amnesia end up being the film's saving grace: the sheer breathtaking beauty of the Ibiza landscapes as shot in bursts of blunt colour by DP Luciano Tovoli, perfectly capturing the starkness of its seaside light as a reflection of Martha's own blunt attitude towards life, help define and present the heart of the film as the story of her reawakening, so movingly captured by Ms. Keller. She alone is reason enough to watch Amnesia.

AMNESIA
Switzerland, France, 2015, 96 minutes
Starring Marthe Keller, Max Riemelt, Corinna Kirchhoff, Joel Basman, Marie Leuenberger, Fermí Reixach, Bruno Ganz
Directed by Barbet Schroeder; written by Emilie Bickerton, Peter Steinbach, Susan Hoffman and Mr. Schroeder; cinematographer Luciano Tovoli; music by Lucien Nicolet; production and costume designer Franckie Diago; film editor Nelly Quettier; produced by Ruth Waldburger and Margaret Ménégoz, for Vega Film and Films du Losange in co-production with SRF/SRG/SSR, Téléclub and ARTE France Cinéma
Screened October 28th 2015, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon


Thursday, November 19, 2015

MONTANHA

For a brief moment, it seemed that João Salaviza was going to be the "man of the hour", the next big breakout director of Portuguese arthouse film, based on the one-two punch of a Cannes Palme d'or followed by a Berlin Golden Bear for his short films Arena and Rafa, respectively. And then... nothing.

     Montanha, his debut feature, was pretty much done by the beginning of 2015, but Berlin, Cannes, Locarno came and went with no sight of the film in its slates. While the air was being sucked out of the room by the sheer daring of Miguel Gomes' ambitious Arabian Nights, Mr. Salaviza's feature found a minor berth at Venice's Critics Week, destined apparently to suffer the same fate as so many other films in the crowded circuit of parallel sidebars or second-tier festivals.

     The difference is that the director's modest but mature debut actually does deserve a better shot. To be sure, it is a fragile and not exactly original tale of suburban adolescence at a crossroads: that of sullen teenager David (David Mourato), who has been living with his grandfather while Mónica, his mother (Maria João Pinho), works abroad, and gets the rug pulled out from under him when grandpa is admitted to hospital. In its diffuse plotting and careful look at disaffected adolescent malaise, Montanha can remind you a lot of Teresa Villaverde's films; but Mr. Salaviza's strength isn't so much in scripting as it is in carefully composing a mood that will allow the actors to make visible what's neither visible nor said. (In that sense, the way that the director films the urban landscapes of Lisbon and its suburbs reminded me often of the late Paulo Rocha - not entirely unreasonable since Mr. Salaviza is the son of Edgar Feldman, a regular collaborator of Mr. Rocha's).

     The claustrophobic sense of opaque heat transported by DP Vasco Viana's blinding end-of-summer light are as important as plot or dialogue to explain what's going on in David's head as he finds himself lost in what seems like a dead-end street, left to his own devices. The director's maturity lies in not rushing any of that, and instead trusting that the film will find its way through character and the the viewer will allow himself to be interested enough to follow along.

     Montanha is quite clearly a step forward from Mr. Salaviza's shorts, which had been mere swatches of something that never had the time to develop properly and remained a sketch; freed of the time constraints, the director manages to create the necessary setting for his tale of a kid coming of age to make full sense. It is to be hoped that this fragile yet resilient little film will eventually find its place within the global arthouse circuit; it would be a shame for it to unjustly disappear without a trace.

MONTANHA
Portugal, France, Germany, 2015, 92 minutes
Starring David Mourato, Maria João Pinho, Ema Tavares, Rodrigo Perdigão, Cheyenne Domingues, Carloto Cotta, Ana Cris
Directed and written by João Salaviza; cinematographer Vasco Viana; art director Nádia Henriques; costume designer Margarida Ruas; film editors Edgar Feldman and Mr. Salaviza; produced by Maria João Mayer and François d'Artemare, for Filmes do Tejo II and Films de l'Après-midi in co-production with ZDF, ARTE and Hérodiade Films
Screened October 20th 2015, Ideal, Lisbon



MONTANHA de João Salaviza TRAILER from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A few thoughts on Wang Bing (inspired by the simultaneous release of Three Sisters and The Ditch)

Nobody will dispute the clear importance of the work being done by Chinese documentarian Wang Bing, with his unflinching, patient records of the dispossessed and disaffected of modern China. But, now that the director's austere, vérité-style witnessing has been deployed over a series of challenging works and become in the process a reference for a whole generation of filmmakers, how should we approach it?

     When dealing with any of Mr. Wang's immersive documentaries, there must be a separation between the different functions of the moving image. The concept of "art" as a visual aesthetics, rather than as a whole, is applicable to the director's work in the sense of arte povera that like-minded travelers such as Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Pedro Costa or Lav Diaz utilize in their productions: a record of events and situations that is created as minimally and austerely as possible, a sort of neo-realism taken to its ultimate limit.

     Of course, in the films of Straub/Huillet or Messrs. Costa and Diaz, that paucity of means and determination of posture can become a style in itself, with its own artistic validity. Mr. Wang, though, aims to draw attention away from himself, and focus the viewer on the human stories at the heart of his work - such as the brutal gulag of the Jiabiangou camp in The Ditch, or the hardships of the three little girls from Yunan province growing up without their parents at the heart of Three Sisters, two films that have just finished a brief, token theatrical run in Lisbon. (It's always a surprise to me when films as irreducible and blunt as these, requiring a genuine investment from its viewer, find their way to a cinema. Very few countries in the world have ever seen a Wang Bing film outside festival contexts.)

     In both of them, as in previous and later works by the director, the approach is simple: long takes, either hand-held or static, shot in secret away from the prying eyes of the Chinese authorities, and without any voiceover or contextualisation; a pure record of moments. This is of a piece with Mr. Wang's "Akermanian" approach to film as a sort of an austere history of human effort, where the viewer feels every minute of the daily struggle of his subjects merely to exist and keep going; even if The Ditch is a fact-based fictional narrative (about the actual Jiabiangou labour camp) and Three Sisters an open documentary.

     At his best, the director unlocks the simple humanity hiding within the daily hardships or life inside a gulag, an asylum, a brick and mud hut in the rural depths of modern China. He gives voice and face to those whom the modern world seems to have left behind (though there are cellphones and televisions all over). And Mr. Wang is certainly not filming them to make up for what the world isn't giving them.

     But, at its worst, this may seem a trope deployed once too often - something like the earlier, almost entirely silent The Man with No Name or his later follow-up and companion piece to Three SistersFather and Sons, stretch his conception of vérité observational cinema to a pure abstraction of movement and effort, requiring from the viewer an involvement closer to that of contemplating an artwork hanging on a museum wall. At what point does his uncompromising vision of the have-nots become a counter-productive litany of misery, a sort of catalogue of unhappiness?

     Mr. Wang has become the leading unofficial chronicler of the Chinese dispossessed ever since he landed with the staggering statement of West of the Tracks, but after the epic Til Madness Do Us Part (the four-hour mammoth premiered just after Three Sisters), I sensed a limit had been reached in his work, as if he had gone as far as possible within this path and a change of vantage point might be necessary to recapture what has made his work so vital and urgent in the beginning. Even at shorter lengths, his work has never been an easy viewing experience, but something like Father and Sons suggests that he may be unwittingly recycling his self-created formula without truly bringing anything new to the table, running the risk of becoming precisely what his cinema has always strived against: the hollow good conscience of the world faced with the human consequences of events.

   To be sure, there is no innocence nor cynicism in his cinema utterly devoid from stylistic pretense, concerned with the way the human spirit survives (or not) among brutal, merciless environments, whether man-made or natural. But already in Three Sisters you sense that Mr. Wang may be testing the limits of endurance for both himself, as a filmmaker, and for the viewer.

JIABIANGOU [The Ditch]
Hong Kong, France, Belgium, 2010, 113 minutes
Starring Lu Ye, Xu Cenzi, Lian Renjun, Yang Haoyu, Cheng Zhengwu, Jing Niansong, Li Xianguan
Directed and written by Wang Bing; based on the novel Goodbye Jiabiangou by Yang Xianhui; cinematographer Lu Sheng; art directors Bao Lige and Xiang Honghui; costume designer Wang Fuzheng; film editor Marie-Hélène Dozo; produced by K. Lihong, Mao Hui, Philippe Avril, Francisco Villa-Lobos, Sébastien Delloye and Diana Elbaum, for Wil Productions and Films de l'Étranger in co-production with Entre Chien et Loup.

SAN ZIMEI [Three Sisters]
France, Hong Kong, 2012, 153 minutes
Directed by Wang Bing; camera, Huang Wenhai, Li Peifeng and Mr. Wang; film editors, Adam Kerby and Mr. Wang; produced by Mao Hui and Sylvie Faguer, for Album Productions and Chinese Shadows, in association with ARTE France La Lucarne. 


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

MANGLEHORN

Of all the fiercely regionalist directors that came out of the US indie explosion in the 00's (the "ruralists", as I like to call them), David Gordon Green has been the most bewildering to me. Much was expected of him after the quiet recognition of the little-seen George Washington. Instead the director seemed to just drift along to be found at the forefront of the post-Apatow bromance comedy with Pineapple Express or Your Highness, while keeping one foot in the small-scale portraiture with Joe or Prince Avalanche, but without ever coming out with what would seem to be a genuine classic.

     The strengths and weaknesses of his style are again on show in the peculiar, minor-key Manglehorn, an amiably rambling look at the loneliness of a small-town locksmith without any love in his life - or, more to the point, without any life in his life. Angelo Manglehorn comes across as one of Alexander Payne's singularly lonely, aging curmudgeons looking for love in all the wrong places. Not surprising, that director's highly stylized but affecting Nebraska comes to mind, though Mr. Green's film is a more lyrical take, propelled by DP Tim Orr's over-exposed, colour-saturated phosphorescence and the anthemic score by Explosions In The Sky and David Wingo.

     The aim seems to be a sort of small-town Malickiana, underlined by the casting choice of Al Pacino to play Manglehorn, in one of his least mannered, more controlled performances in recent years, where the star embraces his age rather than fight against it. Over the week or so of the film's plot, during which Manglehorn reels from the hospitalization of his trusty cat and engages awkwardly with his estranged son (Chris Messina), a friendly bank teller (Holly Hunter) and a local he once coached in Little League (Harmony Korine), Mr. Pacino composes a lovely, inward-looking performance that has little of his usual show-offiness - more than made up by the day-glo neon sadness of Mr. Green's impressionist superimpositions.

     Stylistically, Manglehorn aims at transcendence, despite the slice-of-life sparseness of Paul Logan's slim script and its rather too neat grumbling-grandpa-gets-back-in-shape conclusion. But it's the loose, apparently impromptu connections made between characters and settings - Manglehorn's park outing with his granddaughter, his haunting nocturnal carousing, the way Mr. Pacino perfectly meshes with the actual veterans in the breakfast scene - that make Mr. Green's film worth a look, even if it never really takes off. Transcendence does not come easy.

MANGLEHORN
US, UK, 2014, 97 minutes
Starring Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Harmony Korine, Chris Messina
Directed by David Gordon Green; written by Paul Logan; cinematographer Tim Orr (widescreen); music by Explosions In The Sky and David Wingo; production designer Richard A. Wright; costume designer Jill Newell; film editor Colin Patton; produced by Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners, Lisa Musjat, Mr. Green and Derrick Tseng, for Worldview Entertainment and Muskat Filmed Properties in association with Dreambridge Films, Westend Films and Rough House Pictures
Screened November 7th 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener

Monday, November 16, 2015

SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY

Cinema is the appropriate place for cinephilia, I'd say, and so would Peter Bogdanovich, the über-cinephile director who was the most nostalgic (in a good sense) of the "new Hollywood" stylists. His only two theatrical features over the past 20 years over amidst television work, the Last of Sheila-ish The Cat's Meow and now She's Funny That Way, are cinephile to the core. The new film actually began its life as Squirrels to the Nuts - a title lifted from the dialogue in Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown that serves both as motto and leit-motiv - before being watered down for what we could safely assume to be marketing purposes into the more neutral and somewhat mystifying She's Funny That Way.

     Mr. Bogdanovich has harnessed a dream cast of modern comedians for an unrepentantly old-fashioned screwball comedy of errors, full of slamming doors and romantic misunderstandings - the kind of film that was the bread and butter of American comedy, both on-stage and on-screen, for a very long time. And it's so wonderfully precision-tooled in its comings and goings that you almost ask, are you sure this isn't a long lost play? Well, it's not: it's an original script by the director himself, forced to take refuge on the hard-slog indie-financing scene, explaining why the classicism of She's Funny That Way has been pretty much ignored by everyone since the film premiered at Venice 2014. Not even the blessing of executive producers and devout fans Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach have helped the film gain traction.

     This tale of aspiring actress and call-girl Imogen Poots's rise to Hollywood stardom through a chance meeting with Owen Wilson, as a stage director with a fondness for helping escorts escape sex work, is steeped in classic comedy tradition; its constant push-and-pull between stage and life, is also doubled by the constant meta-references to Golden Era Hollywood and even to Mr. Bogdanovich's own career (They All Laughed being a self-evident marker). The director keeps up the required pace and zip, and shapes the cast into such a finely tuned ensemble that the fact the staging can occasionally fall flat or look creaky is cheerfully ignored (despite the best efforts of designer Jane Musky, it's clear this is a low-budget production with a B-crew); also, there's a sense that some characters (such as Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis' parents or Joanna Lumley's alcoholic shrink) have all but been edited out from the final print. But She's Funny That Way is a solid return to form for a director who has been unfairly forgotten over the years. It's maddening to see Woody Allen continue to be acclaimed for doing stuff that isn't half as inspired, or as genuinely funny, as this.

SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY
US, Germany, 2014, 93 minutes
Starring Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Will Forte, Rhys Ifans, Lucy Punch, Joanna Lumley, Cybill Shepherd, Illeana Douglas, Richard Lewis, Austin Pendleton, George Morfogen, Ahna O'Reilly, Jake Hoffman, Tovah Feldshuh, Jennifer Aniston
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich; written by Louise Stratten and Mr. Bogdanovich; cinematographer Yaron Orbach; music by Edward Shearmur; production designer Jane Musky; costume designer Peggy Schnitzer; film editors Nick Moore and Pax Wasserman; produced by Logan Levy, Holly Wiersma, Ms. Stratten and George Drakoulias for Lagniappe Films in association with Venture Forth, Three Point Capital, Lailaps Pictures and Holly Wiersma Productions
Screened November 7th 2015, Lisbon


Thursday, November 12, 2015

STEVE JOBS

The late, great Dean Martin coined that immortal phrase - "it's his world, we're just living in it" - when speaking of Frank Sinatra. But it applies as well to quite a lot of other figures - like the late Steve Jobs and the way he ruthlessly led Apple to rule the world with the company's trademark combination of ease of use, style and technology.

     In the case of Danny Boyle's film, though, it's clear very early on that this is actually playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's world, and everyone else - Jobs included - is living in it. There may be a tony cast and crew of award-winners, even the faintest whiff of Oscar bait, yet no matter: this is Sorkinland, that breathless territory of rapid-fire staccato dialogue set on a perpetual-motion machine, keeping plot, character and theme churning along forward at a dizzying pace. It may sound like a holdover from a long-standing tradition of New York play-writing that I'm sure Mr. Sorkin sees himself upholding valiantly in the philistine days of CGI and writers' tables. But the net effect of his virtuoso word games is to create its own reality distortion field meant to bring us closer to the emotional essence of the characters in the story he is telling.

     There is an irony at work here: Mr. Sorkin is creating a "reality distortion field" for a character who was, by all accounts, expert at it - the difference being that Steve Jobs isn't so much a conventional biography film, rather a drama inspired by factual events lifted from the acclaimed authorised book biography by Walter Isaacson. Jobs' iconic stature in the business and technology worlds means therefore the level of scrutiny the film is being held to is entirely different from what would normally be expected, especially after the middling reception afforded to Joshua Michael Stern's more conventionally structured 2013 biopic.

     Steve Jobs could be filmed theatre - it is a three-act story, told entirely indoors, with a very small cast of characters recurring over three different moments in the life of Jobs. But Mr. Sorkin's sharp, always on-the-move writing avoids the classic expository issues, much helped by Mr. Boyle's handling, equally dynamic (but much more restrained than usual). This is central and important: it means neither man wanted this to be just a "screen play", but a film where the camera follows the dialogue and the character and lets it dictate its shape. (In many ways, I found myself thinking this was what Alejandro González Iñárritu aimed for with Birdman and failed to do.)

     That said, Mr. Boyle isn't a clinical, precise director, so Steve Jobs pretty much steamrolls forward, with panache, verve and the occasional wit, keeping close tabs on Jobs and his closest confidantes through three different backstage areas: the original 1984 Macintosh launch event, the 1988 unveiling of the ill-fated NeXT machine and the 1998 presentation of the bright-blue iMac. The film never stops to think - it thinks on its feet, the yin-yang dynamics of Michael Fassbender's alpha-male, obsessive Jobs and Kate Winslet as marketing right-hand and general voice of reason Joanna Hoffman powering the story through.

     For all that, there is genuine heart in the central concept of Jobs the man as a "work in progress", an insecure bully looking to leave his mark in the world against all comers, stymied until a sort of breakthrough leads him to finally ease off with the Bondi-Blue translucence that started Apple's second coming. Mr. Fassbender's performance and Mr. Sorkin's writing suggest a man coming into his own as he gradually learns to stop condescending to those around him, or to see all who approach as enemies in a zero-sum game that Seth Rogen's Steve Wozniak disarms in the film's key line: "You can be decent and gifted at the same time".

     Much has been made of Steve Jobs' use of the protracted fights with girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) over the recognition of his daughter Lisa as a plot device - it's an episode pretty much everyone regards as not one of the man's finest hours. But, by making the viewer aware of the flaws, Messrs. Boyle and Sorkin bring into sharper relief the humanity of a man too many seem reluctant to grant him, make Jobs less of a cypher or of a visionary, more of a human being. By bringing him into his world, the writer allows us to understand better why is it that Steve Jobs' world is still all around us.

STEVE JOBS
US, UK, Japan, 2015, 122 minutes
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, John Ortiz
Directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by Aaron Sorkin; based on the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson; cinematographer Alwin Küchler (widescreen); music by Daniel Pemberton; production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas; costume designer Suttirat Larlarb; film editor Elliot Graham; produced by Mark Gordon, Guymon Casady, Scott Rudin, Mr. Boyle and Christian Colson, for Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360, The Mark Gordon Company, Decibel Films and Cloud Eight Films in association with Dentsu/Fuji Television Network
Screened November 4th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Monday, November 09, 2015

SPECTRE

At the heart of all contemporary film adventures of Ian Fleming's secret agent James Bond is the same question all modern-day Hollywood blockbusters ask: can there actually be a proper narrative film inside the enforced checklist of product placement and audience-pleasing spectacle?

     Spectre, Bond's 24th big-screen adventure, does not pull it off with quite the same panache as its predecessor Skyfall (to which it is a direct sequel of sorts). But that it does pull it off is proof enough that yes, there can be a proper film within the flashy red-carpet wrapping, while at the same time showing the 007 series has found its groove in the 21st century (as long as you gloss over the dreadful Quantum of Solace).

     Spectre picks up pretty much where Skyfall left off, in its underground battle between old-fashioned, human-centred espionage tradecraft and sophisticated technological 24/7 surveillance. The script, by the returning committee of John Logan, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis (enriched by script doctor du jour Jez Butterworth), connects tidily the cyber-crime ramifications of Skyfall with the slow reveal of secret criminal organization SPECTRE, a holdover from the old Bond derring-do here redesigned as a cancerous parallel economy feeding on the world's fears.

     The technological abilities of SPECTRE as an always-on Big Brother, led by the coldly delusional Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), are mirrored in the flashy, steel-and-glass new Centre for National Surveillance built by the new MI6 chief Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott). Denbigh is also intent on dismantling the "pre-historic" 00 programme by introducing an all-seeing, all-powerful global surveillance system. These give the film its topical heart, while also pointing out, in a troublingly matter-of-fact way, that "boots on the ground" will always be required where surveillance can do nothing. Such boots are here embodied in the sleek, ruthless thug that is Daniel Craig's world-weary Bond, always counted on to save the day whenever technology shows off its limits.

     Though Spectre fulfills the required quota of Bond-isms in pretty much every department - from the sly wisecracking between Bond and Ben Whishaw's Q to the obligatory pre-credits set-piece, set in Mexico City, starting out as a sweepingly realised single continuous roving shot - it's when it updates and toys with the series' past that it works best, making clear this is a 21st century Bond and not just an updated sixties romp.

     See just how the new M (a gentlemanly yet steely Ralph Fiennes introduced in Skyfall as former career military) has no desire to stay out of the fray when things go wrong, or how Bond himself has become less of an unbreakable hero and more of a thoughtful soul. (The heart of the film may, in fact, lie in the apparently throwaway scene where M and Denbigh discuss what the "license to kill" awarded to the 00 agents means.) While Dave Bautista's all-but-mute assassin may bring back memories of Richard Kiel's Jaws in the Roger Moore years, there's no wink at the audience; instead, a sense of cold, remorseless indestructibility. Even Monica Bellucci's guest turn as the film's equivalent of a "mob widow" carries a sense of fatalistic desperation, well underlined by returning director Sam Mendes' approach to jet-setting action as a necessary connection to what makes these characters who they are.

     It's, again and as in the previous instalments, in the villain that Spectre is a major letdown - as if the series' contemporary tone, less outlandish and more layered, would make the idea of an over-the-top, suavely cartoonish villain is surplus to requirements. This is not made better by the utter laziness with which Blofeld has been written and performed, asking nothing of Mr. Waltz other than re-running his Hans Landa in modern dress for a few uninspired brief scenes, with an uncalled-for, overblown origin story apparently hurriedly tacked on to give a semblance of depth to the character.

     Maybe that's also why franchise runners Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson have allowed Spectre to run bloated for nearly two and a half hours - as if "bigger" could distract from the fact that the film starts off as a thrilling, thoughtful follow-up to Skyfall, its pieces cleverly fitting into a bigger picture, only to lose focus towards the third act as the villain is revealed to have a world-sized chip on his shoulder.

     Mr. Mendes does manage to pull Spectre back up in its taut, tight, dark final reel, and seen as a whole it's still a smarter film than most everything put out by a major studio this year. But, if you factor in the below-par theme song by Sam Smith and the uninspired credit sequence from Daniel Kleinman, there's a sense this had everything going for itself only to throw in the towel as the finish line approaches (and yes, I know I'm mixing metaphors). Thankfully, there is still in here a film that survives beyond its assembly-line, series-episode status.

SPECTRE
USA, UK, 2015, 148 minutes
Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes
Directed by Sam Mendes; screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth, based on a story by Messrs. Logan, Purvis and Wade; cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (widescreen); music by Thomas Newman; production designer Dennis Gassner; costume designer Jany Temime; visual effects supervisor Steve Begg; special effects supervisor Chris Corbould; film editor Lee Smith; produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia Pictures, Eon Productions and B24
Screened November 3rd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening


Friday, November 06, 2015

KNOCK KNOCK

What are we to do with Eli Roth, button-pusher extraordinaire and friend-of-Tarantino, who was crowned as the new king of the exploitation movie only to... not become so? Knock Knock is probably the smartest, smoothest, most polished of his features so far (though I haven't seen his infamous cannibal fest The Green Inferno). Is this a good thing?

     The comfort of the production (shot in Chile with a local crew and Santiago passing itself as L. A.) and Roth's growing ease as a filmmaker is probably the one way you can measure his progress since the days of his under-achieving yet much-acclaimed debut Cabin Fever, all other things remaining equal. "All other things" being his taste for pushing the limits of what is acceptable in an exploitation movie while implicitly critiquing its voyeuristic appeal to the viewer. It's a trap you walk into eyes wide open: Roth gives you what you ostensibly came to see, then turns the tables on you by giving you way more than you expected and forcing you to question how much is too much, even as he keeps pushing more in your face.

     Some see it as black comedy or satire pushed right out to the edge of discomfort, others as easy button-pushing moralizing; but the (im)plausibility of Knock Knock's set-up effectively hides the "knockout" (ahem) punch of its table-turning plot, bringing into play the issues of self-styled moral vigilantism in a contemporary world brought up on real-time reality television and self-deceiving fundamentalist piety while denouncing the ultimate hypocrisy that underlies the entire building.

     In this beat-by-beat update of Peter Traynor's 1977 quickie cult Death Game, a well-off architect (Keanu Reeves) spending a long weekend working from home takes in two girls who knock on his door in a stormy night under pretense of being lost. They're no such thing; instead, Genesis and Bell (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) are self-appointed defenders of fundamentalist feminism out to punish and emasculate this particular male of the species as an example to all others who would... who would exactly what? Betray their well-off marriage by having a quick ride round the square with a younger, lustful girl? Use women as pure sexual objects with little regard for their intrinsic human qualities? See women as there just for the taking?

     Genesis and Bell's motives are never properly justified, they're mere incarnations of evil out to entrap Evan into a honeypot that turns out to be a well-stocked torture chamber. Casting Reeves (looser and more at ease than we've seen him in years) is a great idea; having him ask himself whether he's doing the right thing before finally succumbing to the girls' insistence, then unleashing all hell upon an actor famous for playing a saviour in the Matrix films and an action hero in the Speed films makes it genius.

     Ruthlessly twisting its knots as far as they'll go and beyond breaking point, Roth's film had me squirming on my seat throughout as these two nihilist female warriors with no redeeming qualities whatsoever torment and terrorize a man for making a mistake they practically forced him to make - in the process, he's pointing out the essentially manipulative nature of exploitation movies and restating his own need to critique it in the very same movement, making the viewer constantly aware of that manipulation and of the ways he is being manipulated.

     But that doesn't at any point impinge on Roth's meticulously crafted ability to keep you on the edge of your seat, always wrapped in a glossy smugness that suggests some sort of underlying judgment and makes it difficult to truly "like" the film. It's almost as if Roth is both having its cake and eating it too at the expense of the viewer, whom it totally refuses to let go - you will notice none of his films has a comfortable, soothing ending, everything is just interrupted to restart at some later point, maybe with other victims. You've been exposed to a seedy side of things which you will now no longer be able to let go of - or that you will not be released by.

     I think Knock Knock is a smart, well-made, questioning exploitation movie as well as I find it questionable and utterly detestable. And yet, here I am.

KNOCK KNOCK
US, Chile, 2014, 100 minutes
Starring Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Aaron Burns, Ignacia Allamand, Colleen Camp
Directed by Eli Roth; screenplay by Mr. Roth, Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo, from a story by Anthony Overman and Michael Ronald Ross; cinematographer Antonio Quercia (widescreen); music by Manuel Riveiro; production designer Marichi Palacios; costume designer Elisa Hormazábal; film editor Diego Macho Gómez; produced by Ms. Camp, Tim Degraye, Cassian Elwes, Mr. Roth, Mr. López and Miguel Asensio Llamas, for Dragonfly Entertainment, Sobras International Pictures and Camp Grey Productions in association with Elevated Films and Black Bear Pictures
Screened November 1st 2015, Lisbon


Thursday, November 05, 2015

PORTUGAL, UM DIA DE CADA VEZ

Portuguese director João Canijo continues to explore a high-wire act, neither hardcore auteurism nor cookie-cutter audience-pleasing, that is difficult to sustain anywhere in the world and that Portugal does not seem to embrace at all. For a number of years now he has worked in a juxtaposition of classic dramatic genres with Portuguese working class settings, whether the world of Portuguese immigrants in France (Ganhar a Vida) or a rural brothel (Noite Escura). His latest narrative fiction, the masterpiece Sangue do Meu Sangue, set in the suburban projects of Lisbon was borderline soap opera material redeemed by its earnest desire to find the person inside the character. He does this by asking his actors to go on lengthy research and immersion in the actual settings of his films.

     Portugal, um Dia de Cada Vez is a documentary born of that desire to connect the director's filmmaking to the real world, as well as of a number of research trips made to rural Portugal by his regular actress Anabela Moreira in preparation for the director's next fiction feature (about the pilgrimages to the Fátima sanctuary). But it is also born out of both director and actress' recent experience documenting the life of the women in the Northern fishing community of Caxinas, documented in the remarkable hour-long Obrigação and its less successful feature expansion É o Amor

     At the heart of Portugal is, then, both the desire to anchor a forthcoming feature in reality and to create a "scrapbook" of what real daily life is like outside the big cities. This is, then, an introductory companion piece to an equally forthcoming documentary series for television, one that Mr. Canijo himself defines not so much as a film of his but as a collaborative work with Ms. Moreira (who shot most of the footage on her own) and longtime editor João Braz. 

     There's a wealth of great material in here, a genuine respect for the people on-screen, a desire for the camera to merely witness things as they are - and some of the elderly women that Ms. Moreira accompanies are clearly happy to have someone interested in them, as a way to break up their solitude and their routines. It paints a portrait of small town communities whose days are built around the work that needs to be done, or around the television soap operas that allow for an escape from the grey reality. It's a mostly matriarchal country, where women keep the engines running and seem to bear the brunt of all personal tragedies and successes. 

     But, as a standalone feature-length film, it simply doesn't work. There's a lot of possibility in the material shot, but very little structure to it; it seems far too often as a simple assemblage of moments, a "highlights reel" or work-in-progress that simply lays these moments out end to end without truly creating a whole out of the pieces. The approach - no contextualisating voiceover and purely geographic information to identify each segment - is consistent with much of contemporary documentary filmmaking, but while there's often a unity of tone or a linear structure that gives a through-line to the piece, no such thing exists here. 

     Portugal ends up resolving itself in a loose series of illustrative, demonstrative vignettes with no apparent overarching theme, the film's interest ebbing and flowing with the intrinsic strength of each of them. This might eventually work at a 90-minute length but, at over two and a half hours, it becomes bewilderingly overlong, even kind of pointless - especially coming from filmmakers that have done much better work in the past. Last time Mr. Canijo presented a work-in-progress, it was the remarkable hour-long short Obrigação - and that was much better than the final feature version. There's enough good material here to make the case the announced television series is worth waiting for; as a feature, though, it's sprawling, shapeless, a huge disappointment. 

PORTUGAL - UM DIA DE CADA VEZ
Portugal, 2015, 156 minutes
Directed by João Canijo and Anabela Moreira; camera Ms. Moreira; film editor João Braz; produced by Pedro Borges, for Midas Filmes
Screened October 21st 2015, Ideal, Lisbon, DocLisboa advance press screening



PORTUGAL - UM DIA DE CADA VEZ trailer from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.

Monday, November 02, 2015

DIE BLEIERNE ZEIT
Marianne and Juliane

Margarethe von Trotta's 1981 film comes at the tail end of the so-called "lead years" in 20th century (not exclusively) German history where the chaos of radical terrorism hung heavy over society. What's so remarkable, seen 30 years later, is how it eschews any sense of panic, moral or otherwise, to take place entirely within a carefully composed cocoon, suggesting both a need to withdraw from outside pressures and a stubborn, single-minded necessity to push forward.

     This is not accidental: at its heart is the push and pull relationship between pastor's daughters Marianne and Juliane (Barbara Sukowa and Jutta Lampe), and the way that their growing up, under the long shadow of the immense post-WWII guilt, steels them into the adults they are. In the flashbacks to their childhood and adolescence that come up at regular intervals, Marianne is the sage, well-behaved daddy's girl, Juliane the rebel who questions rules and takes life by the horns. The film's "present-day" centre, though, has them effectively trading places: Juliane now is the pragmatist, willing to work within the system to change it, while Marianne has become the idealistic, radical revolutionary who will resort to violence if needs be to change the world.

     Ms. von Trotta is presenting here a fairly obvious take on the true story of Gudrun Ensslin, one of the ideologues of the infamous Baader-Meinhof group, but the writer-director all but removes politics from the frame. Even though their weight can be constantly felt, what interests her is seeing how real life has changed the two sisters and how they deal with it, how their relationship to each other and to the world shifts according to what they see in each other - and to how they see themselves in the other. Not for nothing does the elusive, blink-and-you'll-miss-her Marianne exit the film after a remarkable shot in a scene where Juliane visits her in prison, on opposite sides of a glass-paneled wall - both sisters' faces are superimposed on a glass pane, as if they were indivisible, one and the same, before something happens and they became two separate images, as if the glass had shifted or cracked. It's a beautiful, pregnant metaphor that effectively sums up what's going wrong in Marianne and Juliane - people coming to terms with the choices of their own blood.

DIE BLEIERNE ZEIT
West Germany, 1981, 102 minutes
Starring Jutta Lampe, Barbara Sukowa, Rüdiger Vogler
Directed and written by Margarethe von Trotta; cinematographer Franz Rath; music by Nicolas Economidou; art directors Georg von Kieseritzky and Barbara Kloth; costume designers Monika Hasse and Jorge Jara; film editor Dagmar Hirtz; produced by Eberhard Junkersdorf, for Bioskop-Film
Screened October 23rd 2015, Culturgest, Lisbon, DocLisboa 2015