Archive for January, 2008

El Laberinto del fauno (2006)

“El laberinto del fauno” (2006)

IMDb

Good and Evil

This was an ambitious project. The director was really aiming at producing something remarkable. And it does have beautiful moments, filled with intensity and visual poetry, something which warms a viewer but it is not immediately synonym to good cinema. Direct to it, i didn’t really like this film, despite the overwhelming good reviews and sympathy of the audience. The narrative structure is clear and simple: we have a story that goes on in a “real” historical time, and we have another line which is “magical” and runs (maybe) in the head and vision of a little girl. The first thread should represent the cruelness and violence of the real world, right in the middle of a brutal war context; the second thread is the escape for those who are able to “see” magic, here impersonated by our little girl. She reads books, lots of them, story books, and those stories leak into the world she creates, representing this in fact the leaking del Toro intentionally wanted to make, crossing his own references and creating a magical world which is in fact a mist of several “children” stories. Well, the problem is here, to my view. Fernando Pessoa stated the paradox that a children’s story should never be written for children. He meant that it should give juice to the minds of adult thinking as well. So, good children stories always include paradoxes, ambiguities and difficult decisions, remember Alice, remember Andersen, remember the Grimm, remember Sophia Mello Breyner… A good children’s story, magical or not, is most of the times a synthesis of complex principles that exist in a grey world, beyond black and white. Well, here everything is black or white. You know, from beginning to the end what is good and what is bad, even the “flaw” of our little girl comes from disobeying, not through temptation. And this is a poor vision, to me, one that doesn’t live up to the way all this was executed. Because there are very very strong moments here. The fantasy characters are really engaging, the Fauno is really engaging, the way its evolution is made as the film moves along, the character with eyes in his hands is a fantastic character, all that scene is brilliantly executed. And some references are really tender. The performances are good as well. But something just doesn’t go well here, and that is what i mentioned. It’s as if the winner of the war in the film was the captain, and who made this film thinks one sided, good-bad, by extremes, the way he would have taught his children… spooky.

My opinion: 2/5 this will be a good visual experience, if you can forget the weaknesses i pointed out. i couldn’t

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Call Girl (2007)

“Call Girl” (2007)

IMDb

about cinema:

several things i thought while and after i saw this. And there is a discussion i feel i need to bring to the table before i comment specifically on this film:

This is a film by a director who doesn’t want to be an author. He has the understanding that authorship killed the European cinema, he even states a date for that, 1963, when Fellini called his 8 1/2 “Fellini’s 8 1/2”. I get the feeling that Vasconcelos faces as snobs the authors who want to become authors. So, he falls for American cinema and rejects the way European cinema, generally speaking, is being developed now and for the last 40 years. I understand many of his concerns and criticisms, i share those same concerns, we need (in Portugal and most of Europe) a cinema industry, films that can pay for themselves and allow other films to be made, and profits to be shared. But i profoundly disagree with the implicit (or not so implicit) notion that ‘commercial’, ‘industrial’ cinema is not opposite to ‘authored’ cinema, to ‘trademarked’ cinema, and i believe that the best commercial films have deeply moving and interesting visual ideas and strong concepts behind, the same kind of ideas behind author movies. So, i disregard the separation between author and industrial creations, and i criticize Vasconcelos as having an attitude as snob regarding authored conceptions of cinema as many snob authors have regarding industrial cinema. Many of the best authors, to my view, were born into cinema producing on immense commercial contexts (Wilder, Ray, Hawks, Welles!), also many started creating in underground contexts and came to produce their important stuff to mainstream audiences (Hitchcock, Lang, Almodóvar, Kubrick, Park), and some of the most interesting filmmakers ever fought the idea of becoming ‘industrial’ and even though some became wide known, came to produce their work relatively free of excessive public exposition (Godard, Antonioni, Medem, Kar Wai). All of these ‘authors’ are people i came to admire, and frankly i think there is much more in common between Kubrick, Welles and Medem than between
Welles or Hawks or Ray.

My conviction until now is simply that we have good and bad cinema, and transversal to these idea (good and bad films) we have those which have a good marketing machinery behind, and get to be widely distributed (films by the American majors, some french Gaumont films, English productions and the uprising Spanish cinema, with its big Sogecine and the growing popularity of Spanish “authors”). So we have great films and crap material being efficiently sold and getting practically
anonymous). The understanding of whether the author tried hard to leave his trademark or instead didn’t intend to do so is, to me, secondary. I mean, isn’t Hitchcock one the most recognizable authors?, can’t we identify one of his films simply by a couple of shots? Is there anyone who sold his films so easily in his time? What is the cinema of Scorcese, Coppola or Spielberg if not big budget author cinema? is Blade Runner more easy to watch than Le mépris? Magnolia than La
ardilla Roja? I saw them, and shared with equal emotion what i understood was the core of each one of them. And by the way, and think the four i mentioned are “author” films. In my commentaries, i always try to submit all the films to the same kind of criteria, i reject the attitude of those who reject films because many people like them as i reject those who dismiss a film because it’s to “intelectual” (i think this may be most used expression these kind of opinion makers use).

I’ve been thinking about this theme for a while now, i made a fair amount of research on Vasconcelos and the way he thinks cinema before i got to watch Call Girl (i have seen most of his previous work), and i respect his vision, but had to state my point, because i think many of what i said above influences the options (good and bad) of the film i’m
about to comment.

the film:

Cinematic orthography

There were very interesting things done here, some things not that common in Portuguese films, but other things i thought to be messy.

Its main flaw might be to try to be many things at the same time. It’s not that it isn’t possible, but it’s not well solved here. So, we have someone honest, but immoral (his weak point), lots of corruption, and some redeeming issues (love?). It might be a film of social impact (Portugal SA made it 4 years ago, with a relative success), in America we might think of films such as ‘Wall Street’, ‘All the president’s men’ or ‘Wag the dog’. Can we link that to a noir driven construction? maybe. ‘Wag the dog’ did it. Here we have the detective, we have a ‘femme’, maybe fatal. Let’s talk about her:

The director (and i suppose the collective will of Portuguese film goers) is trying to define an image to our girl. She has talent, i think, she may have the looks if she’s well used, but she’s got to have a cinematic personality. By now, cinema gave us a full variety of female postures, it’s a matter of choosing what suits her best. I personally don’t think she may be Marylin Monroe, as it was hinted here, even though mixed with the idea of controlling woman as, say, Sharon Stone probably performed it in the beginning of the nineties. But i frankly think she might have been a Hitch’s blond, but as a
brunette (i personally think a Portuguese femme fatal wouldn’t be brunette… this is intuition or preconception, i don’t know). So, by now, i’d model Soraia Chaves after Novak, Hedren and Kelly. She would not suit the Hepburn-Hepburn-Roberts tradition, nor the parallel close shot tradition Falconetti-Karinna. All these women live much on the face, on the smile, on expression. Soraia sticks better, to my view, to the small moves, to the implicit actions, she is more Dietrich than Monroe. But she also has “sex stamped on her face” as Hitchcock might have said. Or maybe she has been misportraited so far in her short career. Vasconcelos compared her to Ava Gardner; it would be interesting to see Ava Gardner stick to her. Let us wait and see.

Back to the plot: we had the noir hints and the social flaws theme. But the game is opened, the mystery is gone, and besides the morality and real intentions of our girl, there’s little more to find out. So the noir, which could work, is gone. As noir, i understand the ability to place the spectator behind the specific vision of a character (here that one might have been Ivo Canelas) and let the spectator know as much as that character but with the feeling that some outer force, god, superior character is moving the strings and pupeteering the whole action, out of our site. The fact that Canelas had in fact a past relation with Soraia Chaves could work perfectly in this logic of superior forces, fate… American cinema is exquisite in the way it handles with these things. In fact, just before i went to the theatre to watch this i had seen Ace in the Hole, by Wilder (a “non”? author) and this is all there: the ambiguity on whether Douglas is writing the story or not, and than who is writing it. A film has to come embedded on these deeper notions in order to fully work. Otherwise it’s limp, incomplete. That’s a lesson one can take from American cinema, and can’t understand how Vasconcelos skipped it (since he wrote the story).
So, from the moment the decision is to let the spectator get to know everything at stake, every move, on and of “stage”, the interest in following this sticks to acting and directing. Here are the strong aspects of the film, which make the whole experience worthwhile. The last expression in Nicolau Breyner’s face is heartbreaking, that ability Breyner had to tell us so much out of a face is something i’ll keep with me wherever i go. The upper angle in that shot helps. And the
whole direction is focused, much more than the storyline or the scriptwriting. The editing is not perfect, but it is competent,
Vasconcelos has a very interesting way to “disapear” in order to bring out his stories and specific scenes (here he truly is what he intends to) so his moves are always subtle, and enough.

So, i believe we needed stronger writing here, to bring all this to another level, the kind of writing of ‘Os imortais’, which was much more clear, focused, and interesting. This one has problems with cinematic orthography, and it kills a good part of the experience

My opinion: 3/5 the acting and directing make up partially for the flaws

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Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995)

“Die Hard: With a Vengeance” (1995)

IMDb

lethal willis, with a help

in the beginning there was Willis. He has qualities as an actor that don’t match any “action actor” before him. He talked to you, the viewer. Remember the first two die hard? he was complaining, cursing, all that alone. That wasn’t a monologue, that was a dialogue, with the audience, with you. It was a dialogue because there was a response, the audience got in touch, the audience cared. So in that respect, i think no one has ever came any close to matching Willis’ abilities, and we have some really messy attempts, Nicolas Cage would come first here. Anyway, there were films which attempted already the more direct approach of actor touching the audience, such as High Fidelity (Cusack) or Alfie (Law). Die Hard 1 was a trademark in acting for cinema for this matter alone. Together with that first film, we had the first Lethal Weapon. Another approach, another mark. This was more easy, because it didn’t depend that much on the quality of the actor performing, but on the fun two actors could have acknowledging their differences and fighting them. Because it was easier, and because no one could make the things Willis did as well as he did them, this second formula came to be the most used one. And here we see this Die Hard trust on the idea that 2 is better than one. So we have Glover impersonated by Jackson, most of the “fun” coming from him messing with McClane. Die Hard becomes Lethal Weapon, maybe because Willis wanted to try, but most probably because the producers thought it was “saffer” this way.

However, the plot saves some things. The bad guy is more clever than athletic, he controls, and the story is all about the good guy trying to catch up for the clever plan the bad guy has. The twists between revenge-robbery and the understanding of who’s in control are well worked out, all and all, this comes to be a positive experience. It helps setting some standards for what today we expect from an action movie (that notion is right now being questioned by the super heroes flicks) but it’s not influential or good as the first two die hard.

My opinion: 3/5

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To catch a thief (1955)

“To catch a thief” (1955)

IMDb

i needed more “Rope” and less Bond

commenting on films like this one creates me the moments in which i seriously think about not giving rating opinions on any film at all. That’s because it is as comfortable to calmly admit a film is really good as it is uncomfortable to say one is not good, above all when it comes to a Hitchcock film, with the charge of melancholy and the number of followers within film world this has. But i didn’t think this to be a good film, by the standards Hitch’s established for his films. This is an important statement to me, i rate this above all (not only) in relation to the work of AH.

Here he was just ‘getting out’ of his research on camera movement, camera eye, which had had its peak the previous year with the masterpiece Rear Window. Hitch always pursued new ideas after he felt satisfied with the conclusions he took, so it is not strange in his work that a new film has cinematically very little to do with the previous ones. This is the case. With this one he started working with something that, in his films would culminate with North by northwest, but in the larger picture (that is, evolution of films) still has repercussions today. It has to do with involving the film within a coat of glamour, appealing escapist elements, something that in the end we can call style. So the french Riviera is chosen. That is pure glamour, and the class Hitchcock always shows is seen in the very first scene. We get several shots of jewels being stolen, and women screaming as they find out. In the last robbery we see, the victim moves to the balcony, and screams to a blissful view of the bay in Nice. This sets the ton, en forms the mood. First scenes are essential, here is no exception. To help on the mood he trusts Grant. Here was being created the character of James Bond, which later became the loyal emulator of this “style” Hitch was creating. Grace Kelly makes probably the least interesting role for Hitchcock, despite this was apparently perfect for her. oh and it’s creepy enough to think about how film became life when Kelly lost her life in the known conditions, in the road where she takes chances high speeding here, but this is a side note.

What doesn’t work here is that the whole thing is to static, to based on scenery. Hitchcock usually worked and preferred sets to real location. I think here he trusted to much on landscape, and left aside the knowledge and mastery he had from his projects from Rope to Rear Window. He understood this, i suppose, and corrected it later, with North by Northwest, which is the peak of his investigation on making a film live on style. There he incorporated some dynamism through the use of some camera moves and above all choosing well the point of view, the perspective. Here he trusted so much on things exterior to his control, that the whole thing doesn’t work out well, not to me. Curiously, the film is not dated, it’s enjoyable in many aspects, but the pace fails, the action drags, and the plot twists which usually hitch underlines with cinematic elements, preferably camera work, here just succeed.

My opinion: 2/5 despite this is a classic, despite i really appreciate Hitchcock’s work, and despite you can get some enjoyment out of this one, i didn’t really connect to this one, maybe i’ll change in future re viewings.

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Cristóvão Colombo – O Enigma (2007)

“Cristóvão Colombo – O Enigma” (2007)

IMDb

Linking Memories

In my book of references, Manoel de Oliveira has an unique approach to cinema. And that is because of two aspects, which show vivid here as few times before in his career.

Most viewers (specially the Portuguese) will stand on a like/dislike position based on the immediately visible “flaws”:- the dialog, which is old fashioned, inadequate in practically any moment, out of context, definitely not cinematic in the vision we have today (and have had for many years) of what a film dialog should be (sound?) like. This dialog constantly explains (too) many things, in devices to provide the spectator with information on dark areas of the plot which many times are so denounced that become childish. -than the acting, which is many times just awful, and other times more melancholic and over-dramatic than the speeches of say “gone with the wind”. If you, dear reader, think you are smart because you detected all this, you’re not. it’s all true, and i don’t care about any of that.

And i don’t care, because of two things:

The first one has to do with “placement”. Oliveira is a true master in the way he “places” things in his films. He places vision, his camera is most of the time still (not that much in this film, actually). That has to do with his conception of cinema as filmed theatre, but i really see in this the ability to summarize, and tell a mood/dialog/sentiment just by looking at it. Antonioni tried similar stuff later in his life, but Oliveira is a master in this. A curious note is that here, his sense of visual placement is strangely (to Oliveira’s patterns) close to what Antonioni might have done. The camera moves a lot here, and i call attention to the scenes in Alentejo, the road shots. One of them, in which the eye of the camera is not on the road, we watch for some moments the camera following the car. This way of shooting a landscape placing an action in it, which becomes fundamental though shot at distance, is something Antonioni did so well. Check also the placement of characters. They always start a scene walking, coming from somewhere and stop in determined positions to serve the placement chosen for the camera. So it’s not about how the camera found the characters, but how the characters serve the camera. In the very beginning we have an interesting shots alternating up down angles with low up angles, in Lisbon’s Terreiro do Paço.

The second aspect i truly enjoy has to do with Oliveira’s very personal way of working with layers of reality, fiction, and fictionalized reality. The peak of this exploration of layers was in “Viagem ao princípio do Mundo”, which i place on a special list of films i truly believe can change something about you after (and while) you watch it. There we had a layer of fictionalized reality (that of the actor), an historical account (portuguese past political context) and the layer of Oliveira’s memory. Here he replaces the fiction for the real story of a real couple, and layers his own personal layer on that couple. He gets more economic here, but “viagem…” was far deeper, visually and in terms of narrative. Let’s check it here: we have Manuel Luciano (who by happy coincidence has the same first name as our director) and we have his wife. They will serve as a motive for a kind of road/travel film. They search the clues leading to a supposed retelling of the origins of Cristopher Columbus. Though creating around Columbus a strong theory, that may also be fiction over reality. Than we have the third layer. Oliveira plays Luciano as an old man (and his grandson plays him as a young man) and has his wife playing Luciano’s wife. I personally feel that Oliveira at a certain point was shooting mainly this third layer. So we have a number of scenes, with Oliveira and his wife in close shots. They talk. I don’t think they’re acting. I think they’re being themselves. Like in Sunset Boulevard, we are constantly inside and outside reality/ies. One of these shots is worth mention: they both seat on an interior. They talk about their past lives , i think about their own lives, not the lives they’re performing, she proclaims her love for him, he answers he loves her, and he kisses her on the face. They get shy like two adolescents. He is 99. She is 10 years younger. This has to be one of the most poignant love scenes in the story of cinema, and the climax of this good film. The scene alone makes the experience worthwhile.

So, superficially (to my view) the film is about the retelling of an historical worldwide known biography, following with that purpose the lives of a couple who studied the subject. In a deeper meaning, this is about “connections”. It’s about linking subjects, themes, places, and specially memories. That’s why the story talks about linking loose points, unexplained historical issues. The separated shots here are also interlinked. That’s why we have a shot looking at the sea in Dighton corresponding to a shot looking at the Atlantic in Porto Santo; or shots looking through windows in several places throughout the journey. In one particular shot, a bridge is being crossed in Alentejo, an iron bridge, we have a shot at all close to what Oliveira did with bridge D.Luiz in “douro faina fluvial”, this is his own cinematic memory. Vision… Memory, Love, Luciano loves his wife and his research, Oliveira loves his wife, and cinema…

My opinion: 4/5 should this be put together in a more united way, and the acting/dialogs not be so badly thrown in some moments, and this could be something to change your imagination. Oh and the music is great.

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Jeu (2006)

“Jeu” (2006)

Cinanima 2007

IMDb

musical video clip

This is basically about transforming music (here a Prokofiev concert) in a soundtrack. And the chosen path is to do it in an abstract free of a story line way, freely playing with shapes which are always changing and adapting, colors (red, yellow, cyan) placed with different positions and effects and movement. So, experimentation is the key concept, and there are some interesting results from time to time.

I specially enjoyed that allusion to the dot painting of Seurat or Pissarro. It was very interesting the way the dots (red and yellow) moving over a cyan ton last plan created a great sensation of water fall, or moving water. Impressionists would have loved this.

The idea of circular motion in terms of composition (and in many individual elements inside that composition, like the initial numbers turning into other numbers by circular movement) is also interesting.

But all this lacked some unit and despite its less than 4 minutes long, it has (too many) partitions and unlinked portions. That’s its flaw

My opinion: 3/5 interesting as an experiment

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Lapsus (2007)

“Lapsus” (2007)

Cinanima 2007

IMDb

Geometric animation (animated geometry?)

It’s amazing how simple ideas have a greater capacity to engage audiences. That is if they are really simple with, at the same time, interesting (and many times rather complex) ideas behind them. This is one of those cases. As i write this, i don’t know yet the prizes in Cinanima 2007 (where i got to see this short) but it wouldn’t surprise me if this little piece got the public award. It’s basically an exploration of the possibility to create different images out of similar shapes. The story moves on from the interaction of those images, based on the same pure shapes but which get antagonist meanings, as they pass from the left side of the screen (white) to the right side (black). The humor is born when the director plays with religion in an uncompromising harmless way.

Check this, it’s a really good experience.

My evaluation: 4/5

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