Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pranzo Di Ferragosto

A middle-aged man on his uppers, lives with and looks after his elderly mother, as unpaid bills pile up around him. As the traditional Italian holiday weekend of the 15 August approaches, the hapless hero is potentially offered, at least a partial, solution to his pecuniary problems. His landlord, one of his friends and even his doctor each persuade him to let them dump their elderly relatives on him, so that he can accommodate them and wait on them over the holiday period. Notwithstanding his reluctance to take on such nannying duties, the lure of relief from his financial straits is too much and so an assortment of ill-matched, elderly ladies descends on the tiny flat.

Written and directed by one of Italy's most celebrated screenwriters, Gianni di Gregorio (most recently contributing to the acclaimed Gomorrah), here making his feature debut, Mid-August Lunch is a miniature gem, by turns comic, embarrassing, engaging and emotionally affecting. This is a small but beautifully rendered drama of manners that captures the nuances of people's behaviour and shows a mis-fit group of individuals, coping (or not) with each others' idiosyncrasies. A completely unique film, Mid-August Lunch is a charming and convincing first feature from di Gregorio.

Small but utterly charming, Gianni di Gregorio's low-budget feature about an ageing Roman who suddenly finds himself looking after four ancient ladies over the mid-August dog days has enough heart to make up for its paper-thin story, and conceals a serious social message behind its delicate comic treatment of the burdens of old age, and the elderly as a burden. This won its 59-year-old director the Luigi De Laurentiis prize for Best First Film at Venice, where it caused a small commercial flurry.

Producedby Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone, this opened in Italy September 5 on limited release where it struck a chord with general audiences, notching up the weekend's highest screen average after Kung Fu Panda. There's something local about theemotionsit touches in a country that is increasingly unable to look after its old people within the family, but is haunted by the prospect of placing grandma in a home.

This is not, however, an exclusively Italian issue, boding well for its ability to cross over as a small arthouse hit thanks mainly to the memorable, semi-improvised performances by four non-professional actresses who make up the supporting cast. Sales have been good.

Gianni (played by the director himself) is an immediately recognisable Roman character; outside the house, he's a relaxed habitue of old-style Trastevere wine bars; inside, he's very much under the thumb of his tyrannical elderly mother (Valeria De Franciscis), a high-born lady fallen on hard times.

Aware that he is deep in debt and in arrears with his payments to the building co-op, its administrator offers to cook the books in Gianni's favour if he minds his own elderly mother over the mid-August 'Ferragosto' holiday (when even the few able-bodied Italians still left in the city head en masse for the beach). But the wily administrator turns up with an ancient aunt into the bargain; and when Gianni's angina starts playing up, the doctor friend who examines him makes things worse by throwing his own mother into the mix, so he can work a late shift at the hospital.

So a gaggle of old ladies (the average age of the four actresses is 88) is left in a small apartment with a reluctant but long-suffering and well-bred host. The women bicker, throw sulks and make friends, while Gianni attempts to monitor their pill intake and pacify them with food.

The film is dominated by the rich, worn hues of Rome in full summer. And the soundtrack - a faintly Balkan folk-jazz soundtrack of shrill trumpets and accordions - hits the right bittersweet notes.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Michael Winterbottom’s latest feature, Genova, is the newest addition to an oeuvre which, at this stage of his career, seems to encompass a film from almost every genre. Although more off-kilter than that other famous genre-hopping auteur Stanley Kubrick, Winterbottom is equally adept at crossing the various cinematic divides. If Code 46 was his sci-fi, 9 Songs his, er. . . romance, and A Cock and Bull Story his comedy, then – equally tenuously – Genova could well be his supernatural chiller.

Genova opens with Marianne (the ubiquitous Hope Davis) a young married mother driving a car with her two daughters passengers in the front and back. She is playing happily with her youngest but is paying scant regard to the road. Unsurprisingly, this soon results in an accident which leaves the two daughters traumatised but unhurt and Marianne thoroughly dead. Father Joe, played with typical British stoicism by Colin Firth, subsequently accepts a position at a university in Genova from his friend Barbara (Catherine Keener) and whisks daughters Mary and Kelly away from the overbearing sympathy of family and friends for a new start in an exotic location.

Genova is right from the get-go a Michael Winterbottom film. His trademark tonalities and natural, kinetic camerawork are in abundance throughout; every shot looks like it could have been made on a home video camera or could be taken from the eyes of a person walking down the street right behind the main characters. Through this approach, he creates strong emotional ties and an intimate sense of family – building genuine empathy with his audience that only serves to heighten the impact of the more heartfelt grief scenes and the supernatural elements.

The film packs a real emotional punch as a snapshot of a family dealing with a trauma and trying to move on with their lives. The focus is not on shouty scenes, set-tos and long emotional walks along rainy windswept coastlines with a bottle of whiskey in hand. The film instead acknowledges the scale of personal loss, recognising that something like the death of a family member is simply too big for the cinema screen. It chooses to focus on the impact of loss on the minutiae of the family itself. Genova depicts a young family that has become lost. Each member is lost in their own way, Joe within himself and his work, Kelly within hedonism and discovering her sexuality and Mary, rather chillingly, lost in trauma, guilt and the city.

Examining aspects such as trauma and guilt, Genova is a film that, on many levels, functions as a ghost story. The youngest daughter, Mary, is the prime focus of this aspect of the film. She is the most damaged (at least outwardly) and because she is the youngest. Like countless ghost, horror and supernatural films before it, Genova uses the age-old device of a child to create tension and discomfort. The child is the figure of innocence that can be turned on its head for evil purposes (Children of the Corn, The Omen etc) but also a figure that we naturally want to protect. Genova uses this typical horror trope, creating a connection with Mary and then using our desire for her wellbeing against us. Seeing her screaming for her mother in her sleep and crying uncontrollably is unsettling and upsetting, and while the appearance of Marianne’s ghost is seemingly a comfort to Mary, we know that it can only be a bad thing – either as a signifier of her mental trauma or as some intimidating otherworldly presence. Mary seems as deeply traumatised by the death of a family member as Julie Christie was way back in Don’t Look Now, both of them travelling to foreign places to escape the trauma of bereavement but neither of them being capable of escaping their own feelings of culpability.

Indeed Genova shares other similarities with Don’t Look Now in its recreation of the city as a self. Genova is a simulacra in a sense; it exists as another reality - a place that functions as a means of escape and also the means of totally losing oneself. It acts as a metaphor for grief in Winterbottom’s film, a deeply unsettling place with narrow streets that all look alike, full of falling plates of glass, strange men and incomprehensible dialects. Genova is monstrous in its benign indifference, like death itself, and the family must learn to live in and with it.

A palpable feeling of unease seems to come in and out of the film, which unfortunately lends it an uneven and unbalanced identity. On the one hand, we have a tremendously uncomfortable scene where Joe is searching for Mary in an ever increasing state of panic after a trip to the beach gone wrong; on the other, we see him teaching his students or watching Kelly perform a heart-warming piano recital. While juxtaposing these different elements paints an expressionistic portrait of a family, it doesn’t really help with the overall feel of the film, which seems at times to be at odds with itself. It doesn’t seem to be able to decide if it's a study in grief, a portrayal of redemption and self-discovery, or a deeply unsettling mood piece.

The film undoubtedly functions effectively within all three modes, but the supernatural elements are its strongest suit. It comes up trumps with Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography, which is almost Blair Witch-like as it follows the disparate family members in their bewildering stumbles throughout Genova, the city of their grief. Kelly’s P.O.V. as she flies across the city on the back of the scooter without a helmet is beautifully captured, evoking the transience of life and of the city itself, making us wonder if she will fall off and if she even cares at all.

Genova is by no means an easy watch but it's certainly an intriguing one, in which supernatural undertones underpin thoughtful emotional content that really hits home at times. The performances are uniformly excellent: especially from Willa Holland, who is so jaw-droppingly attractive that she easily steals the show from a criminally underused Catherine Keener. Winterbottom purists won’t be disappointed by this showing but others might want to look towards something that isn’t suffering from such an identity crisis.

El Niño Pez

¿Cuál es el proceso que lleva a la creación de una leyenda? Alrededor de este pregunta la directora argentina Lucía Puenzo escribió con tan sólo 23 años su primera novela. El viernes, nueve años más tarde, El niño pez, la adaptación al cine de su propio libro, inauguró la sección Panorama Special (fuera de concurso) de la Berlinale. Tras el éxito de XXY, que ganó el Gran Premio del Jurado en Cannes en 2007, el segundo largometraje de la directora argentina ha causado reacciones enfrentadas en su proyección.

La del niño pez es una leyenda que la joven Ailín, empleada paraguaya de una familia aristocrática de Buenos Aires, se inventa para superar un trauma de su adolescencia. Pero también es un hilo que une en una atormentada historia de amor a la empleada y a Lala, la hija de la familia argentina de su misma edad.

A partir de estas premisas, la película se va transformando a lo largo de una hora y media desde el relato de un amor homosexual a un road movie entre Buenos Aires y Asunción para terminar en un thriller con tiroteos y fuga desde la cárcel. Toca temas tan distintos como una relación lesbiana que se consume a escondidas, el incesto, la corrupción policial, los conflictos generacionales y hasta el entrenamiento de perros.

Energía en el escenario
El público de la sección Panorama suele estar compuesto por cinéfilos que no se cortan en salir de la sala a los diez minutos de película si algún detalle no les convence o en atacar con preguntas cínicas a directores y actores en el debate posterior.

En el caso de El niño pez, la reacción fue doble. Varias personas dejaron la sala, aunque al final hubo un aplauso prolongado. La crueldad de las preguntas fue anulada por el carisma de Puenzo, energía pura en el escenario: contesta en modo preciso, completo y divertido.

"Para adaptar la película tuve que liberarme de todo lo literario", explica Puenzo después del debate. "Y para lograrlo fue necesario sacrificar el punto de vista", que originariamente era el del perro Serafín. "En este proceso el género se impuso y la película se hizo más densa y más oscura".

Según Puenzo, el montaje fue la fase decisiva de su obra, ya que fue en este momento cuando encontró el "estallido" que andaba buscando. En la película revertió el orden cronológico de la versión literaria: "El filme arranca con la huida, momento en el que la protagonista Lala toma conciencia de sus acciones", y así empuja "a que el espectador reconstruya con ella los acontecimientos que la han llevado al viaje".

Un Conte De Noel

Arnaud Desplechin makes movies that play like epic novels built out into live-sized pop-up books. Virtually Cubist in their multi-faceted narrative complexity, they cast such a spell that they’re almost interactive. When you watch a Desplechin film, you can smell perfume and feel bass shaking a room, and you feel the burden of each character’s long-simmering loves and resentments as if they were your own. Beyond surround sound, it’s surround space, surround time, surround life.

A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel), Desplechin’s latest, is a darkly comic dysfunctional family fairy tale, more Meet Me In Saint Louis than The Royal Tenenbaums, with a healthy dose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream thrown in. With its whimsies and excesses playing out under the oddly liberating spectre of expected death, the whole thing is infused with a fin de siecle sensibility. While ailing matriarch is Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) infuriatingly matter-of-fact regarding what may be her own last holiday (she explains the seriousness of her condition to her husband in their warmly-lit budoir, backed by the strains of cafe jazz), her grown-up kids reflexively take the reminder of the ticking clock as an opportunity for boozy, reckless revelry, as an excuse to fight and to stop fighting repressed desires. Weird, warm, gleefully funny and unavoidably heartrending, this grand tale of a family reunited by mortality is, in it’s most impressive trick, not a bit morose. To borrow a line from Desplechin himself, speaking after a screening at the New York Film Festival, the Vuillards “don’t have time for melancholy”; to borrow a line from his script, “suffering is a painted backdrop” for the business of getting through the day.

Via a prologue heavy with flashback shadow puppets giving way to direct camera address, we learn that Junon and husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) lost a child to cancer forty years earlier when a bone marrow donor couldn’t be found; at the beginning of the story’s present day, Junon learns she’ll die without the same procedure. And so her adult children and their own lovers and kids are asked to get their marrow tested and then come home to Roubaix. There’s humorless oldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a genius playwright; pretty boy Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who arrives with wife Sylvia and two young sons in tow; and Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the irresistibly charismatic bad seed middle child who Elizabeth “banished” five years earlier under mysterious circumstances. Also on hand for this holiday steeped in wine and old fights: Cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), whose life-long crush on Sylvia will require dealing with; Paul (Emile Berling), Elizabeth’s troubled teenage son who may or may not have some sort of psychic sensitivity; and Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), Henri’s new, “bombshell” Jewish girlfriend, who swallows the rowdy familial scene with a sly smile and bespectacled outsider eyes.

There are layers of in-joke here for the initiated, both snarky and rather sweet. Junon admits that her least favorite houseguest is Sylvia, the motherly but secretly restless wife of Junon’s youngest son Ivan; Sylvia is played by Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life daughter. In Desplechin’s last film, Kings and Queen, Devos played the ex-wife of Amalric’s Ismael Vuillard. Although Desplechin insists that Ismael is no relation to these Vuillards, A Christmas Tale reunites Devos and Amalric as an oil and water romantic unit, as if giving their doomed lovers from Kings the last chance that narrative logic wouldn’t previously let them have. Devos is a sideline character in Christmas, but an important one: her unfathomably calm tolerance of Henri’s uncontrollable impulse for destruction is an emblem of Desplechin’s unique humanism. One doesn’t come to care for a creature of chaos like Henri in spite of their warts and flaws, but because of them.

(It’s worth noting that Amalric is so compelling here that it’s hard to find words that can do the experience of watching him justice, but to even say that is to state something painfully obvious –– I’m not sure there’s any more fun to found in international cinema right at this moment than an Amalric performance in a Desplechin film.)

Desplechin’s pleasure-desperate heroes (often embodied by Amalric) make bad, impulsive decisions, and watching them can touch off a kind of gleeful voyeurism, as if to exclaim, “How can they get away with that?!?” We react this way, probably, because we’re so used to people in movies letting their id take over only to run up against near-instantaneous punishment; we think it’s normal to see adults treated like children when they behave like adults. But in real life, we torture ourselves more often (and more intensely, and more effectively) than we suffer recrimination at the hands of the people we anger or disappoint, and the cycle of self-pity/self-realization/self-flagellation is a long one.

In other words, we get away with it until we don’t, and here Desplechin is cheifly concerned with the giddy high of being In It, with consequences left for sorting out on a longer timeline than the film has in mind. And why not? The Vuillards are a family united by an impending mortality, united in irrationality, passion, casually crippling depression, self-medication. They’re a family where the most sedate member, the fixer, visits his adolescent nephew in a mental ward with booze and smokes in tow. They’re sequestered together in the enchanted space of a slightly crumbly, possibly haunted manse, where no one will ask them to pay for their mistakes until after the holiday. With death on the horizon, Desplechin’s imagined family are liberated to push their lives to the limit, most thrillingly in Amalric’s winking, balls-out bravado. Desplechin pledges solidarity with his chracters by rendering their story via ample, borderline whimsical formal gambles and dizzying montage. A Christmas Tale feels thoroughly like a magic hour scramble. How does he get away with it? Form follows content.

State of Play

State of Play is a 2009 American political thriller. It is a film adaptation of the critically acclaimed 6-part British television serial State of Play, which first aired on BBC One in 2003. It is directed by Kevin Macdonald and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Peter Morgan, and Billy Ray.

The film tells of a journalist's probe into the suspicious death of a Congressman's mistress. Russell Crowe plays the journalist and Ben Affleck plays the Congressman. Support comes from Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, Robin Wright Penn, Rachel McAdams, and Jeff Daniels. The plot of the six-hour serial has been condensed to fit two hours, and the location changed to Washington, D.C. Macdonald said State of Play is informed by the films of the 1970s, and explores the topical subjects of journalistic independence and the relationship between politicians and the press. It was released in North America on April 17, 2009.

Now that Hollywood has discovered that the key to putting fannies in seats is to make movies based on comic books -- and lots of 'em -- releasing an intelligent adult thriller about the death of newspapers sure seems like a stupid move. Instead of a guy in a latex leotard clinging to the side of a building, we have a chubby, middle-aged newspaper journalist (in this case, Russell Crowe) clinging to his job, not for the money or even for the glory but for the sake of the principles involved. All he wants to do is to get the truth out there, accurately; he's even happy to share a byline with a cub reporter (in this case, Rachel McAdams), as long as the story gets told the right way. Who on earth is going to pay to see that? Especially with no 3-D glasses involved.

Even just three or four years ago, the existence of a reasonably smart adult film like "State of Play" -- which is based on a BBC television series and which was directed by Kevin Macdonald ("Touching the Void," "The Last King of Scotland") -- wouldn't seem so unusual. Today it stands out starkly in a landscape of aggressively ironic comedies, ambitious but lackluster animated pictures and the aforementioned comic-book movies, particularly when beautifully made, unapologetically grown-up thrillers like Tom Tykwer's "The International" fail to find an audience. And as disappointed as I was with Tony Gilroy's too-tricky romantic caper "Duplicity," it did make me nostalgic for pictures aimed at an adult audience that at least make some attempt at style and wit. Maybe "State of Play" (on which Gilroy worked as a writer) is, as those movies turned out to be, just tilting at windmills, another desperately hopeful picture made for a moviegoing audience that no longer exists.

Even if that's the case -- especially if that's the case -- we need more mainstream movies like it. In "State of Play," Russell Crowe's Cal McAffrey is an investigative reporter for the Washington Globe (clearly a stand-in for the Washington Post) who's drawn into a case that affects one of his closest friends, upstanding congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who's leading the charge against a multibillion-dollar contractor accused of committing atrocities against Iraqi civilians. When a woman who, it becomes clear, is Collins' mistress dies in a subway accident, Cal begins to follow certain threads that don't lead where they should. One of Cal's young colleagues, Della Frye (McAdams), is also chasing down bits of the story, but she's not, in his eyes (or in the movie's), a "real" reporter: Della works for the paper's "online side," as it's rather cavalierly called, and although she's smart and scrappy, she has no qualms about slapping a semi-informed blog post on the paper's site. Cal, seasoned, beaten-down and, like most of his ilk, knowing that his days as a professional journalist are probably numbered, has little respect for her. But his boss (played by Helen Mirren) lays the situation out clearly: "She's hungry, she's cheap, and she churns out copy every hour."

Once Cal starts working more closely with Della, he sees she's smarter and more dedicated than he's given her credit for: It turns out he expects more of her than the paper does, and she rises to the challenge. Because the central idea embedded in "State of Play" isn't "online bad, print good": It's that the craft of journalism has to find a way to survive into the next generation, which wouldn't be such a dire problem if the architecture that supports journalism as we know it weren't crumbling around us by the minute. While "State of Play" is, in some ways, an elegy for the printed newspaper, it's really more of a rallying cry for newspapers to rethink and retool everything, fast. The new house has to be built and ready before the old one crashes to the ground.

It's something of a marvel that Macdonald manages to get those ideas across cinematically in "State of Play" without making them seem forced and heavy-handed. "State of Play" does get a little creaky in its last third -- at that point it needs to be more streamlined, more concise. (Although when Jason Bateman shows up as a player in this sordid little Capitol Hill drama, he injects a fat dose of humor and life into the proceedings, which keeps them from flagging too much.) But Macdonald, the screenwriters (the script was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Gilroy and Billy Ray, adapted from Paul Abbott's script for the television series) and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto manage to weave their ideas through a sturdy-enough plot, so we never feel we're being preached to. Macdonald knows how to give filmmaking precision the illusion of being casual. In an early sequence Crowe shows up at a crime scene, and as he's quizzing one of the cops (he's brought an extra cup of coffee to smooth his way into the guy's good graces), Macdonald lowers the sound of the dialogue and brings up the ancillary noise, that of traffic and helicopters: The suggestion is that no matter how important you may think your job is (or how important it actually is), life goes on around you -- it's not about to stop.

Crowe is an extremely gifted actor who not only has hit the age at which leading-man glamour is harder to hang onto; he's also working at a time when leading-man glamour isn't as big a draw as it used to be. In "State of Play," he's a little thicker around the middle, and a bit more lumbering, than usual. His Cal is shaggy and sleep-deprived -- he has the look of a guy who keeps forgetting to shower. Crowe's lack of vanity is perhaps its own kind of vanity; you might call it bad grooming used as an actor's tool. But the effect works. Cal wears his seriousness and fortitude like a shield, even though he knows his profession is facing defeat. He shows some ragged tenderness, too, particularly in his scenes with Stephen's wife -- he's been friends with the couple for years -- played by Robin Wright Penn.

But Cal's contentious interplay with Della is the movie's backbone, and McAdams meets the challenge admirably. She makes Della both likable and frustrating. She's got all the raw materials a good journalist needs; the problem is that no one has taken the time to clue her in to the delicate ins and outs of the profession. Or to the fact that, sometimes, getting the story right just takes time and legwork. McAdams is capable of showing both chipper cluelessness and burgeoning insightfulness. When she and Cal start working together seriously on their story, he assigns her to what she perceives as a lesser task and grumbles, thinking he's patronizing her. Actually, he is -- but the greater idea, which she's sharp enough to pick up on, is that the seemingly tiny parts of a story often expand to be crucial ones.

When Cal and Della finally have their story ready -- and they don't run with it until they're certain it is ready, which is yet another suggestion that "State of Play" takes place in a movie dream world instead of the real, contemporary one -- he suggests that they put it up right away, that night, online. Della responds with a line that struck me as almost laughably corny when I heard it, although the reality is that it stuck me like a pin: "When people read this story, they should have newsprint on their hands."

Yes, they should, although they probably won't: Even though Cal and Della run their story in the print edition, the truth is that most of the people who read it, even in this movie dream world, will probably do so online. The movie's closing credits show a newspaper being lovingly produced, and the sequence is visual poetry: We see the plates being made, and the paper running off the presses sheet by sheet. That's already a quaint image of days gone by, and the movie knows it. "State of Play" is a work motivated by fear, not nostalgia. It's less concerned with the idea of saving newspapers as we know them than it is with the notion that serious investigative journalism has to survive, in pixels if not in print. The trick is to save it before the presses stop running for good.