Thursday, December 31, 2015

45 YEARS

What made Andrew Haigh's previous film - the wonderfully low-key Weekend - so engaging was the way it used the texture of traditional British realist filmmaking to weave an entirely impressionistic, delicate web of emotions. For his next trick, Mr. Haigh again deploys his exquisite touch in portraying feelings on screen, in adapting a short story from writer David Constantine about a long-married couple celebrating their 45th anniversary together.

     When an unexpected letter drops in the Mercers' mailbox, neither the frail Geoff (Tom Courtenay) nor the steadfast Kate (Charlotte Rampling) have an inkling of the time bomb inside: the news that the body of a former girlfriend of Geoff's, lost in a hiking accident before he and Kate even met, has been found in the Alpine glacier where she disappeared. A memory that predates their very meeting suddenly becomes invested with the power to colour the 45 years that have elapsed since Kate and Geoff met. Mr. Haigh elegantly and sparsely trains his camera on his two wonderful actors, in close-held but never intrusive long takes, and he lets them inhabit the kaleidoscope of emotions that suddenly invade a marriage that has entered its twilight years of companionship and habit. As in Weekend, you can't really say that much happens in 45 Years. The world outside goes on unchanged; it's what inside that shifts, only apparently imperceptibly, but with devastating consequences.

     While Mr. Courtenay is as reliable as ever as Geoff, the more discreet nature of his role allows Ms. Rampling to effectively run off with the film, with a performance of stupendously quiet power, enhanced by Mr. Haigh's attentively fluid camera. 45 Years is a small-scale chamber piece, but as so many of those, it seems to contain whole universes inside, and is the perfect next step for this incredibly self-assured young director.

45 YEARS
UK, 2014, 91 minutes
Starring Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley
Directed and written by Andrew Haigh; based on the short story "In Another Country" by David Constantine; cinematographer Lol Crawley; production designer Sarah Finlay; costume designer Suzie Harman; film editor Jonathan Alberts; produced by Tristan Goligher; a production from The Bureau Film Company presented by Filmfour and The British Film Institute in association with Creative England
Screened December 9th, 2015, Lisbon


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

BEIXI MOSHUO
BEHEMOTH

It's difficult initially to reconcile the Zhao Liang who directs Behemoth with the author of the dramatically disturbing Petition - that 2009 film was a collage of heartbreakingly immediate scenes documenting the almost Kafkian struggles of the impoverished rural Chinese with an opaque bureaucracy, while Behemoth is a meticulously formalist quasi-essayist thinkpiece made of elaborately constructed, crisply set-up visual flourishes.

     The urgency of Petition is here replaced by a deliberately paced, more abstract meditation that, however, extends the concern with China as a headstrong juggernaut that may very well be eating itself from the inside. Looking at the effects of rapid industrialization and resource extraction in inner Mongolia, Behemoth uses Dante's Divine Comedy as its inspiration and framework, taking a slow-motion look at this formerly peaceful world as it goes to hell in a handbasket. Its careful visual compositions portray a possible apocalypse, or at least the makings of a present-day dystopia, in rarefied allegorical terms; the pictorial qualities of the film, breathtakingly photographed by Mr. Zhao himself in high-definition state-of-the-art cameras, achieve a delicate yet deliberate distancing effect achieved through the recurrent use of mirrors, windows and frames.

     All of this may occasionally seem overbearing or overused, but the ingenuity of Mr. Zhao means that what seems to be an apparently shapeless sequence of images and narration is slowly kneaded into a dread-full portrait of a post-communist ghost country, an abandoned Babylon whose inhabitants embraced the future without pausing to think about it. Behemoth wants to be the call to pause, thus becoming a unique, thought-provoking film experience.

BEHEMOTH
France, 2015, 88 minutes
Directed and photographed by Zhao Liang (colour); written by Mr. Zhao and Sylvie Blum, inspired by the poem The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri; music by Alain Mahé and Huzi; film editor Fabrice Rouaud; visual effects supervisor Eve Ramboz; produced by Ms. Blum; an Institut National de l'Audiovisuel/ARTE France co-production 
Screened November 27th 2015, Lisbon, Porto/Post/Doc screener



BEHEMOTH (2015) by Zhao Liang [excerpt] from Richard Lormand on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

JIA ZHANG-KE, UM HOMEM DE FENYANG
Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang

It's an unusual match, to be sure: Brazilian director Walter Salles behind the camera of a feature documentary about acclaimed Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke. But while Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang may be somewhat conventional in shape and structure, it also makes for an appropriate pairing of subject and director. There is a self-evident connection between Messrs. Salles and Jia, both directors from "peripheral" cinematographic countries whose work has been acclaimed worldwide while being strongly rooted in a sense of place (even if that place changes from film to film for Mr. Salles, whose last previous film was the earnest but insufficient On the Road in 2012, while remaining mostly static in the Chinese provinces for Mr. Jia).

     Following Mr. Jia across China after the completion of 2013's A Touch of Sin (but before its Chinese premiere, which was eventually blocked by Chinese censors), A Guy from Fenyang works as well for those who have followed the director's work as it does for those who've merely heard of without seeing anything; the film is punctuated by well-chosen excerpts from his features, also used as practical examples of his inspirations and creative choices, from his 1997 debut Xiao Wu up to A Touch of Sin. Intercutting interviews with the director and his regular collaborators (actors Zhao Tao and Wang Hongwei, sound designer Zhang Yang or DP Yu Lik Wai), Mr. Salles creates an engaging yet discreet running commentary of Mr. Jia's cinema, highlighting its central recurring themes while connecting it handily within the personal experiences and inspirations that he has carried into art from real life. 

     Which is not to say Mr. Jia's cinema is autobiographical, but underlines just how contemporary Chinese filmmakers find almost impossible to dissociate the art they make from the country they live in and their surrounding social and political situations. "At a certain level, cinema is very personal", it's said at one point, while admitting that this is a body of work that works on a social level as a record for the future, an attempt of preserving moments and situations of China in the time of the film's creation or storytelling. In many ways, there's a curious parallel between what Mr. Salles is attempting to do with A Guy from Fenyang: create a record for the future about the work of one of the contemporary masters of the film world.

JIA ZHANG-KE, UM HOMEM DE FENYANG
Brazil, 2014, 101 minutes
Directed by Walter Salles; interviews by Mr. Salles and Jean-Michel Frodon; cinematography Inti Briones (colour); film editor Joana Collier; a Videofilmes production
Screened December 1st 2015, Lisbon, Festival de Cinema Luso-Brasileiro de Santa Maria da Feira advance screener


Monday, December 28, 2015

THE PEANUTS MOVIE

There's an undeniable - and inescapable - irony in invoking a sense of respect to the spirit and letter of an art work, when that work has been merchandised and exploited in consumer culture over the past half century. Yet, for its one-time omnipresence in the derived consumer products aisle, Charles Schulz never lost track of the complex simplicity at the heart of the Peanuts comic strips. By reducing serious grown-up issues to the piece-meal level of kids' experiences, the Peanuts gang tracked back the universality of life experiences through many different generations.

     It's worth asking whether a new Peanuts feature makes sense in a day and age suffused with characters exploited in all sorts of multimedia ancillary, and especially a Peanuts movie closely held by the Schulz estate (the script is credited to son Craig and grandson Bryan) and refusing to embellish the series' original timeless small town universe with any sort of contemporary update (no computers, cellphones or modern-day implements here). Artistically, at least, the Blue Sky Studios production honors both Schulz's deceptively simple artwork and the Lee Mendelson/Bill Melendez TV specials and feature films of the sixties and seventies (openly referenced and paid tribute to).

     The original flat, kids'-eye-view framings remain intact through The Peanuts Movie's concession to contemporary CG animation, but the shading, volume and colouring remain delicately faithful to the strips' styles. And while there's little in the script that will come as a surprise to the series' long-term fans, it works wonders as an entry-level overview of the strip's central plotlines - Charlie Brown's continual desire to be a better person while tripping all over his well-meaning propositions, his terminal shyness and admiration from afar for the Little Red-Headed Girl and his constant bullying by classmate Lucy, and of course his pet beagle Snoopy's wide-eyed fantasies of being a WWI flying ace.

     What's best about it is the sense that The Peanuts Movie has been designed as a "gateway" work to introduce the strip to younger audiences while building bridges to the older specials; especially noteworthy is the continuous exploration of the smallest, simplest things in life as wonderful adventures in learning how to be yourself. It's a lovely, thoughtful reminder that a modern-day kids' movie can be as simple and as meaningful as just going for a walk in the park - and a film that wears its respect for its source material as a mark of pride.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE
USA, 2015, 88 minutes
Voiced by Noah Schnapp, Hadley Belle Miller, Mariel Sheets, Alex Garfin, Francesca Angelucci Capaldi, Troy Andrews, Kristin Chenoweth, Bill Melendez
Directed by Steve Martino; screenplay by Craig Schulz, Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano based on the Peanuts comic strips by Charles M. Schulz; cinematography by Renato Falcão (colour); music by Christophe Beck; art director Nash Dunnigan; film editor Randy Trager; co-edited by Christopher Campbell; produced by Craig Schulz, Bryan Schulz, Mr. Uliano, Paul Feig and Michael J. Travers; a Blue Sky Studios production presented by Twentieth Century Fox Animation
Screened December 15th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon

Friday, December 25, 2015

HEART OF A DOG

The old saying goes that yesterday's avant-garde is tomorrow's mainstream. It hardly seems applicable to Laurie Anderson, whose progression from arty, left-field performance artist to elder stateswoman of art-pop and pop-art (via unexpected 1980s pop-chart stardom) has not quenched her idiosyncrasies one iota.

     In fact, Heart of a Dog, Ms. Anderson's second feature after the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, could not be less of a sellout if it tried. This incisively touching essay-film deals openly with death, referring to a series of losses in the artist's recent life; her beloved dog Lolabelle is the conceptual center of the piece, but through her Ms. Anderson invokes as well the deaths of her mother, of her close friend and artist Gordon Matta-Clark and of her husband (legendary rocker Lou Reed, mostly absent from the footage but to whom the film is dedicated). Heart of a Dog trades in her customarily digressive, disarming mode of story-telling, looping and twisting in her uniquely enchanting, perfectly poised voice until circling back to make a potent, unexpected point with laugh-out-loud bluntness.

     Yet, for all that, the unavoidable sense is that this slender film might get more mileage if it had been merely one of her spoken-word performances, rather than a picture. Too often, Heart of a Dog seems to take a leaf out of Jean-Luc Godard's post-1990 abstracts as well as from master film essayist Chris Marker's body of work (both are thanked in the end credits), and apply it to a stage presentation. The visuals - a mash-up of pre-existing and specially-shot footage and abstracted animations - are often purely illustrative of what is going on sound-wise, put center stage without necessarily justifying it.

     Which is not to say that Heart of a Dog should be dismissed as minor Laurie Anderson. By no means: it retains the artist's unique sense of wonder and playfulness, and her common-sense wayward observations of a reality that often seems more absurd than the dreamworlds she creates, tinged with a weary wistfulness that helps humanize and make the work more affecting for the viewer. But it does not extend those characteristics into cinema with the same precision and clarity of her music or stage work; as if it was an earnest but under-achieving attempt. It's good, and good enough, but from Ms. Anderson we expected more than just good and good enough.

HEART OF A DOG
USA, France, 2015, 76 minutes
Directed, written, animated and scored by Laurie Anderson; camera, Ms. Anderson, Toshiaki Ozawa and Joshua Zucker-Pluda (colour); film editors, Melody London and Katherine Nolfi; produced by Dan Janvey and Ms. Anderson; a Canal Street Communications production in association with ARTE France-La Lucarne and Field Office
Screened December 9th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4


Monday, December 21, 2015

ON THE BOWERY

So much of what's being acclaimed these days in the documentary-fiction hybrids known as cinéma du réel was already present in Lionel Rogosin's 1956 film that it's a wonder that On the Bowery isn't more regularly referenced as a forerunner of the genre. A loosely fictional narrative inspired by reality, shot on location with non-professional actors, this central text of American independent cinema (its influence clearly visible, for instance, in John Cassavetes' work) has been lovingly restored to pristine conditions by the Bologna Cinematheque.

     Borne out of its WWII veteran director's fervent conception of a "public service", social-realist cinema, On the Bowery is nevertheless a uniquely American tale, dealing with the underside of the American Dream of hard work as the path to success. Reminding of Steinbeck in its compassionate tone while harking back to the great Flemish painters such as Brueghel in the picturesque, intensely human rapport to bodies and faces, the film follows unemployed railroad worker Ray's (Ray Salyer) "lost weekend" (which lasts a few weeks) as he is forced into the daily struggle of the unemployed, homeless and penniless in NYC's seedy Bowery district, trying to make ends meet, hustling and jostling alongside alcoholics, small-time conmen and ex-cons who are looking to rebuild their broken lives beyond the next drink.

     Rogosin's gritty sense of reality, inspired by neo-realism's sense of place (but replacing its more lyrical narrative flights with a clear-eyed, disillusioned pragmatism) is never milked for cheap sentiment or conscience-soothing grandstanding (unlike the preacher's speech at the halfway house). A debut feature of superb proficiency, its combination of precise narrative detail and impressionistic portrait of a rundown world gives it a particularly strong sense of a film anchored in a time and place that is rare even in our day and age.

ON THE BOWERY
US, 1956, 65 minutes
Starring Ray Salyer, Gorman Hendricks, Frank Matthews
Directed by Lionel Rogosin; made in collaboration with Richard Bagley and Mark Sufrin; cinematographer, Mr. Bagley (b&w, uncredited); music by Charles Mills; film editor Carl Lerner; produced by Mr. Rogosin, for Lionel Rogosin Productions
Screened December 5th 2015, Rivoli Theatre, Oporto (Porto/Post/Doc)

Friday, December 18, 2015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

You are forgiven for hoping J. J. Abrams would do for Star Wars what he did for Star Trek: essentially reboot the beloved sci-fi universe with expert knowledge, sheer guts and lots of energy, updating the series for contemporary audiences without betraying the original coordinates. Handed the "keys of the Mustang" by the franchise's new proprietors Disney (with the hidden blessing of the new Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, former right hand to Super 8 producer Steven Spielberg), that's exactly what Mr. Abrams does with The Force Awakens.

     But for all the pedigree, genre smarts and evident love of the galaxy created by George Lucas that it shows, "Episode VII" seems milder, meeker, less fresh and more formulaic than the director's original 2009 Star Trek felt, as if Mr. Abrams is playing it safer. That does make sense, since, after the crash-and-burn reception of Mr. Lucas' prequel trilogy, all eyes were on him in a way they weren't when he picked up the reins of Gene Roddenberry's franchise (here, there was the Disney machine to appease as well). And, to be fair, by any standards The Force Awakens is a splendid restart to the space-opera saga, set 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi and clearly designed to "pass the torch" to a new generation of heroes - a torch that is handed over by the original cast of Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill.

     Getting back to the basics and updating the original 1977 Star Wars plot of David versus Goliath against all odds, the new film has the Empire replaced by the First Order and the Rebel Alliance by the New Republic, and again a resourceful droid brings together an unlikely set of heroes in the Tatooine-like planet Jakku to fight a powerful, evil villain. The heroes are ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Stormtrooper deserter Finn (John Boyega) and hard-nut scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), the villain is the unpredictable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and there are more dark family secrets and plot-twist lineages to tie everything together.

     The Force Awakens boasts the exact ratio of fanboy arcana to classic popular entertainment of the original trilogy, guided by the wise hand of Lawrence Kasdan, writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but the contributions of Mr. Abrams and Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 screenwriter Michael Arndt introduce enough variation to make it more than just a new coat of point or a freshening up of the formula. Still, the fact that there was just so much at stake with the Star Wars universe means Mr. Abrams might have not been able to toy with it at his liking as he did in that first Star Trek - and it's in the moments where he runs with it that The Force Awakens truly soars (the Rathtar and Maz Kanata setpieces come to mind).

     That it puts to shame the Lucas prequels is a given; whether the series can successfully build from here or sag like Star Trek did with the less inspired Into Darkness is for the future - and Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow, already signed up for Episodes VIII and IX - to tell. For now, The Force Awakens is a splendid entertainment that falls this short of greatness.


STAR TREK: THE FORCE AWAKENS
US, 2015, 135 minutes
Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow
Directed by J. J. Abrams; screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Mr. Abrams and Michael Arndt; cinematographer Dan Mindel (widescreen); music by John Williams; production designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford; costume designer Michael Kaplan; film editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; visual effects supervised by Roger Guyett and Neal Scanlan; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Mr. Abrams and Bryan Burk, for Lucasfilm and Bad Robot
Screened December 16th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX


Thursday, December 17, 2015

LOLO

It's really hard not to root for someone with the can-do spirit of French actress Julie Delpy, straddling the worlds of indie auteurism and transatlantic mainstream. But by the same token, it's also infuriating to see her more than evident talents unharnessed, just popping off in every direction. Lolo is her latest effort as actress-writer-director, continuing her run of family comedy with an edge after the 2 Days in Paris/2 Days in New York films and Le Skylab, pitting an insecure middle-aged event organizer (Ms. Delpy herself) against her scheming 20-year old son (Vincent Lacoste). The self-centered Lolo is intent on sabotaging his mother's latest romantic attachment, this time to Jean-René (Dany Boon), a provincial programmer transplanted to Paris.

     Part warm-hearted, freshly observed romantic comedy about dating in your forties (good), part acid farce about the modern "kangaroo" kids who keep moving back in with their parents (bad), Lolo is never really quite sure on which side of the line it wants to fall. It ends up choosing the mean-spirited, petty tone of Lolo's egotistical, self-absorbed schemes as a pretext for cheap laughs at the hapless Jean-René's expense; as played with a quasi-psychotic glint by the sneering Mr. Lacoste, the character becomes an utterly irredeemable opportunist, a cartoon villain with no depth and no positive qualities whatsoever, moving Lolo into an entirely dislikeable comedy of discomfort. It's a misguided choice from Ms. Delpy, because every time Lolo focuses on the easy-going rapport between her and Mr. Boon, the genuine warmth and wit of their romance (nicely scripted and played by the leads) shines through, suggesting a much funnier film left by the wayside. Ms. Delpy's films have usually been all over the place, but Lolo picks entirely the wrong place to settle in at length.

LOLO
France, 2015, 99 minutes
Starring Dany Boon, Julie Delpy, Vincent Lacoste, Karin Viard
Directed by Ms. Delpy; screenplay by Ms. Delpy and Eugénie Grandval; cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (widescreen); music by Mathieu Lamboley; production designer Emmanuelle Duplay; costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud; film editor Virginie Bruant; produced by Michael Gentile, for The Film in co-production with France 2 Cinéma, Mars Films, Wild Bunch and Tempête Sous Un Crâne Production
Screened December 10th 2015, NOS Amoreiras VIP 1, Lisbon


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

IRIS

To choose Iris Apfel as the subject of a serious documentary seems to be either outrageous, dilettante or bewildering. After all, the 94-year old New Yorker style maven, a successful interior designer and stylist, has never really been on the mainstream radar and is little known outside the US - and she has never done anything other than give people license to be who they really are and want to be, regardless of what others care.

     That, in point of fact, is the exact reason why there's nothing outrageous, dilettante or bewildering about veteran documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles' decision to follow Ms. Apfel: she's inclusive, open-minded, funny, witty, disarming, alive - the quintessential New Yorker. 93 at the time of shooting, Ms. Apfel comes across as a product of her time who knew how to seize the day and make the best of what she'd been given (and that did not include beauty, as she admits she was never pretty and never wanted to be). She might not have been able to follow the same path if she had been born half a century later, since the unique place she carved for herself in the art and fashion world was so specific to America's post-war affluence.

     In many ways, Mr. Maysles' final completed feature (premiering in late 2014, before his death in March 2015) is an unexpectedly engaging affirmation of life, a sketched portrait in pictures of someone who made her life and her world according to her own measurements. Slight it may be, but it's also a generous film, wonderfully alive to the possibilities of the moment, to the little doorways that we fail to notice but that once open lead us into wide, brim-filled courtyards. It's in there that Mr. Maysles' camera follows Iris Apfel and becomes energized by her sheer joie de vivre.

IRIS
US, 2014, 80 minutes
Directed by Albert Maysles; camera by Mr. Maysles, Nelson Walker III, Sean Price Williams, Nick Canfield and Hugues Hariche; film editor Paul Lovelace; produced by Laura Coxson, Rebekah Maysles and Jennifer Ash Rudick, for Maysles Films
Screened December 6th 2015, Rivoli Theatre, Oporto (Porto/Post/Doc)


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

YOUTH

Paolo Sorrentino has become one of the most divisive of contemporary European filmmakers - beyond his undeniable talent for strikingly conceived and realized images, there's a love-it-or-leave-it audacity to his films that turns him into a lightning rod for critical revilement and audience devotion. Youth, his follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty and second major international film after the bewilderingly received This Must Be the Place, won't change a bit of that.

     It's a confused and confusing movie, at heart a meditation on age and love as seen through the exchanges between two aging artists (Michael Caine as a retired maestro and composer and Harvey Keitel as a veteran film director) vacationing together in an exclusive Swiss retreat. As befits Mr. Sorrentino's work, it's a showy, look-at-me visual statement full of eye-catching visuals, his trademark lateral pans and slow zooms framing in exquisite colour and perfectly balanced detail bodies and buildings, often to stunning but dramatically pointless effect. It's also a rather uncertain film: you're never quite sure what the director is trying to say, not that it matters much since it all looks so ravishing.

     Yet, for all the wearied archness of the stop-start narrative, Youth continues to suggest that Mr. Sorrentino is more interesting in constructing his films out of mood and setting than out of story; there's a clear sense he is passionate and sincere about the work, and that he is putting himself out there full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes. Like it or not, it's his vision, he's not letting go of it and there really isn't anyone else doing stuff like this on screen - some scenes, like Rachel Weisz's massage monologue or the climactic stand-off between Mr. Keitel and a surprisingly gutsy Jane Fonda, are extraordinary moments of cinema. But the fact those are outliers suggests that Youth seems to be grandstanding visually a bit more, and to have a little less to say, than usual in the filmmaker. For all its problems, though, there's something in Youth that you can't simply dismiss as hackwork.

YOUTH
Italy, France, UK, Switzerland, 2015, 124 minutes
Starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Directed and written by Paolo Sorrentino; cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (widescreen); music by David Lang; production designer Ludovica Ferraglio; costume designer Carlo Poggioli; film editor Cristiano Travaglioli; produced by Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima and Carlotta Calori, for Indigo Film in co-production with Barbary Films, Pathé Production, France 2 Cinéma, Number 9 Films, C-Films, RSI SRG SSR and Téléclub, in collaboration with Medusa Film and Mediaset Premium, in association with Filmfour
Screened December 2nd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon


Monday, December 14, 2015

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA

There's a good sea-faring epic hidden inside Ron Howard's adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction book about the true-life shipwreck that inspired Herman Melville's Moby Dick. (And yes, I have just used three possessives in one sentence.) It's a shame that Mr. Howard can't find it, though to be honest the device in Charles Leavitt's script would require a more adventurous director to pull off: the sorry adventure of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex is told, a quarter of a century later, as a flashback by the sole living survivor of the shipwreck to the writer. It's a distancing effect that pulls the viewer away regularly, deadening and dampening the attempt at big-screen spectacle, replacing it with a literary conceit that puts the tale at one remove.

     Distressingly enough, these are the best bits of the film - Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aged Thomas Nickerson give heft, depth and life to the concept, while the rousing sea epic lacks charismatic performances to carry it through (neither Chris Hemsworth as the slighted veteran first mate nor Benjamin Walker as the inexperienced blue-blood captain are passionate enough to pull off their characters). Returning from his previous collaboration with the director in Rush, ace cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle can't make up for the somnolent back-and-forth rhythm with his liquid, turquoise and golden-hued set-ups; there is simply no rousing sense of adventure, just a series of episodic paint-by-numbers sequences suggesting that Mr. Howard, a decent if unimaginative director at his best, is way out of his depth in a film that doesn't play to his strengths.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
USA, Australia, Spain, 2015, 122 minutes
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Jordi Mollá, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson
Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Charles Leavitt; based on a story by Mr. Leavitt, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and on the book In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick; cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; music by Roque Baños; production designer Mark Tildesley; costume designer Julian Day; film editors Mike Hill and Dan Hanley; visual effects supervisor Jody Johnson; produced by Paula Weinstein, Joe Roth, Will Ward, Brian Grazer and Mr. Howard, for Warner Bros. Pictures, Cott Productions, Enelmar Productions, Roth Films, Spring Creek Productions and Imagine Entertainment, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment and Kia Jam Media
Screened December 1st 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon


Wednesday, December 09, 2015

COSMOS

Granted: at 75, Andrzej Żuławski has energy to spare and a mischievous glint in his eye. In his first film in 15 years, he pretty much barrels through all obstacles in a manner more becoming a filmmaker many years his junior. And in adapting Witold Gombrowicz's epoch-defining novel Cosmos, he seems to renew with the edgy, Bohemian grotesques of the 1960s East European film satirists and boundary-pushers (Polish countrymen like Roman Polanski or Jerzy Skolimowski, next-door Czechs Milos Forman or Vera Chytilova). Only now he's doing it in colour and in Portugal (production constraints oblige), while updating the satire of opera-buffa bourgeoisie to include the modern selfie culture of five seconds of fame.

     All very well, but that still doesn't answer the question: does Cosmos tell us anything about Mr. Żuławski-the-filmmaker that we didn't know already? No prizes for guessing "not really". In its non-stop, almost nausea-inducing roaming camera, non-sequitur dialogue and almost non-existent semblance of plot (replaced by mood, strangeness, nonsense), Cosmos becomes a test of endurance, a tiresome see-saw between an aspiration to truth and beauty ripped out from a wallowing self-indulgence, full of punning whimsy meant as knowing winks to those who have followed the director's career.

     Closer to the baroque excesses of the director's mid-eighties films than to the deep dives of career highs L'important c'est d'aimer and Possession, the new film seems to revel in its own absurdities and contradictions, perfectly defined by a line thrown away at one point - "the savage power of the weak thought". Żuławski calls out "Spielbleurgh, Bleurghman or Bleurghson" (as in respectively Steven, Ingmar and Henri) but that iconoclastic attitude is provocative for its own sake, as the film seems to offer itself as a hollow, nihilistic tour de force - a flashy explosion of cinematic fireworks that ends up amounting to nothing other than proof of life.

COSMOS
France, Portugal, 2015, 102 minutes
Starring Sabine Azéma, Jean-François Balmer, Jonathan Genêt, Johan Libéreau, Victória Guerra, Clémentine Pons, Andy Gillet, Ricardo Pereira, António Simão
Directed and written by Andrzej Żuławski; based on the novel Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz; cinematography André Szankowski (colour); music by Andrzej Korzyński; art director Paula Szabo; costume designer Patricia Saalburg; film editor Julia Gregory; produced by Paulo Branco, for Alfama Films Productions and Leopardo Filmes
Screened August 7th 2015, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno 



COSMOS un film de Andrzej Zulawski (bande-annonce) from Leopardo Filmes on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

QUE HORAS ELA VOLTA?
The Second Mother

It's been a while - a very long while - since I felt so thoroughly uncomfortable in a movie theatre. It was The Second Mother's spot-on depiction of casual workplace condescension and small daily humiliations did it for me: the way that the well-off São Paulo bourgeois family treats its live-in housekeeper as both heirloom and invisible, a merely utilitarian object of service. It's perfectly captured by the unjudgmental yet entomological camera of writer/director Anna Muylaert, its almost clinical group set-ups showing how the space of the house is perfectly divided between "front" and "back", "upstairs" and "downstairs".

     This is a film that means to render the invisible visible and recognisable, by focussing on the subterranean power relations within the four walls of the house; money is not really the issue, being in charge is. And Ms. Muylaert makes very clear who the real heart and soul of this household is: Val (Regina Casé), the housekeeper who's been running everything for nigh on 20 years, who has actually pretty much raised the family son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) since the mother was away working most of the time. In so doing, Val has neglected her own daughter she left behind in the provinces, to the point they don't talk much or keep up.

     But it's that daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), who is the element that will disturb the precarious balance of the household: she has come to São Paulo to take her college entrance exam and reluctantly stays with her mother for a few days. Her presence quietly upends the established power rankings: Jessica is ashamed Val allows herself to be demeaned like she is, seeing very quickly through her status as overworked slave disregarded by all around as a mere convenience, and is unapologetic about being her own woman.

     Ms. Casé's nuanced performance is contrapuntal to the broader strokes of the ensemble cast, since the film is about her character arc, about making Val realize her situation and the power she herself can have if she so wishes, pushing her out of the comfort zone. And the house is depicted as a seething battleground owned exclusively by the women: the men are ineffective and ineffectual, ceding the power either to the housekeeper who keeps everything running like clockwork but has effectively no life of her own, or to the cluelessly condescending mistress Bárbara (Karine Teles) who seems to live in a fantasy world entirely unrelated to reality.

     Ms. Muylaert's writing and direction pull no punches in making the power relationships clearly felt: there's occasionally a sense that Val is merely a faithful dog eagerly lapping at its owners' distracted petting. But the film is not just about the relationship between Val and the family she works for, it is also about Val and Jessica, and about how their own connection as mother and daughter mirrors and echoes that of Bárbara and Fabinho. Both mothers effectively relinquished the education of their children, delegated it to someone else, with different results - when Fabinho hears his low exam marks, it's with Val that he commiserates and not with his own mother, bringing to the surface the resentment that has been boiling all over the film but without ever denouncing nor excusing any of the characters' behaviours.

     There's a sense that The Second Mother is a sort of "X-ray" of a complicated social situation that offers no true solution to the problem, even if within its narrative logic the film ends on a reasonably "happy" note, which is also where the beautifully modulated, clinical approach of the film loses some traction and becomes a bit too conventional for its own good. Yet, you can find genuine intelligence and compassion in Ms. Muylaert's fourth feature, and that alone is well worth the admission.

QUE HORAS ELA VOLTA?
Brazil, 2014, 112 minutes
Starring Regina Casé, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles, Lourenço Mutarelli, Michel Joelsas, Helena Albergaria
Directed and written by Anna Muylaert; cinematographer Barbara Álvarez (widescreen); music by Fábio Trummer and Vítor Araújo; art directors Marcos Pedroso and Thales Junqueira; costume designers André Simonetti and Cláudia Kopke; film editor Karen Harley; produced by Caio Gullane, Fabiano Gullane, Débora Ivanov and Ms. Muylaert, for Gullane Produções in association with África Filmes, in co-production with Globo Filmes
Screened November 25th 2015, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon


Wednesday, December 02, 2015

THE GOOD DINOSAUR

It's become a sort of oft-repeated lament that Pixar had lost its Midas touch ever since Disney co-opted the studio into its ranks. But even if it is true, it's not as Pixar has given up on rekindling its flame; its two 2015 releases were hardly safe bets or easy-sell material. Although so far the critical vote seems to fall towards the brilliantly-realised abstraction of Inside Out, it's certainly unfair to dismiss The Good Dinosaur (whose script is credited to Meg Lefauve, who was also one of the writers on Inside Out) as a minor entry when in many ways it's the riskiest of the pair.

     The latest in the studios' series of troubled productions (following the directorial replacements and turmoil on the sets of Ratatouille, Brave and Cars 2), The Good Dinosaur was delayed by almost two years when Peter Sohn took over original director Bob Peterson. However, the finished film carries little trace of its troubles as it ingeniously builds up an alternate-universe Earth where the meteor responsible for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years zipped by without falling, and the pre-historic reptiles have essentially become the dominant life form.

     In this upside-down world, dinosaurs rule the roost while humans are primitive nuisances, "critters" making their lives scavenging around the dinosaurs and other beasts. No more far-fetched that the car country of Cars or the anthropomorphised ocean of Finding Nemo, the concept does open itself a bit too much to merchandising opportunities in the best Disney tradition, but it also suggests a leap of imagination that Pixar takes full advantage of to create in the same movement a breathtakingly visual case for our stewardship of the natural world.

     The heart of the film's plot is a scaredy, lonely teenager's voyage back home from the wilds of nature, as he "adopts" as pet a savage beast who will become his best friend. The teenager is Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), the youngest of a herbivore dinosaur family that tends the land for vegetables, and the pet is the human orphan Spot, reversing the traditional boy-and-his-dog plan with almost throwaway nonchalance. The key to the success of The Good Dinosaur lies in the fact that the reversion is so swiftly absorbed into a standard Disney-meets-Tom-Sawyer adventure about growing up and making your mark - one that occasionally slides into a (very Disneyish) idea of what a family western would have been, in the picturesquely designed mountains, fields of grain and pastures. (Only the herds of aurochs are here rounded up by a tough-as-nails family of cowboy T. Rexes whose patriarch is, naturally, voiced by Sam Elliott.)

     The fact these thinking beasts have an eye for making sure nature keeps supplying them food and comfort while giving them something new to admire everyday is a refreshingly discreet way to make the wonders of the natural world relatable to younger audiences. There really isn't much new at stake in the storyline, which seems to confluence the classic Disney narratives of the boy who grows up to be a man in the absence of a father figure such as Bambi, Dumbo or The Lion King; but that it does so by placing the humans at the bottom of the ladder is smart enough in itself to make us look at it differently.

     Where The Good Dinosaur does break new ground is in its stunningly photo-realistic approach to scenery and setting, as the natural settings of (what would have been) wild America in this parallel Earth are breathtakingly realized in animation as clear, crisp and consummate as anything Pixar has ever come up with in the past. The slightly rounder, more recognizably animated traits of the characters fit the landscape like a glove, giving them the much-needed humanity to offset the just-this-side-of-perfect digital settings, but they also suggest just how almost effortless the studio's vision has become in matching story to character and setting.

     If you look at it within the curve of a slow return of John Lasseter's studio to its heights, The Good Dinosaur is the next logical step after Inside Out - one that reaffirms the company's attachment to an integrated approach of narrative and visuals that tell a story that could not be told any other way.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR
US, 2015, 93 minutes
With the voices of Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Ryan Teeple, Jack McGraw, Marcus Scribner, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Peter Sohn, Steve Zahn, Mandy Freund, Steven Clay Hunter, A. J. Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, David Boat, Carrie Paff, Calum Grant and John Ratzenberger
Directed by Mr. Sohn; original creative concept by Bob Peterson; screenplay by Meg Lefauve, from a story by Mr. Sohn, Erik Benson, Ms. Lefauve, Kelsey Mann and Mr. Peterson; directors of photography Sharon Calahan and Mahyar Aboubaeedi (widescreen); music by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna; production designer Harley Jessup; film editor Stephen Schaffer; produced by Denise Ream, for Walt Disney Studios and Pixar Animation Studios
Screened November 23rd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon