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Miguel Gomes (#110 of 8)

FIDMarseille: Festival International de Cinéma 2013

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FIDMarseille: Festival International de Cinéma 2013
FIDMarseille: Festival International de Cinéma 2013

Film festivals are limited by the juicy premieres secured by their directors and the quality of their programmers. They’re also frequently the only places to view films that would rarely be seen otherwise. Highlights of this year’s FIDMarseille included works that traveled beyond the European continent in search of lost (and unknown) connections, as well as those made beyond the shadow of Euro-American art cinema, notably in the Philippines. But first, to Africa.

Last year’s FIDMarseille opened with Miguel Gomes’s critically acclaimed Tabu. Gomes is one of several contemporary Portuguese filmmakers to use his country’s colonial past as a mirror held up to its present. João Viana’s The Battle of Tabatô superficially resembles Tabu (it’s shot in black and white in a former Portuguese colony in Africa), but the similarities end there. Where Gomes’s introspection into the contemporary legacies of Portuguese colonization in Lisbon and an unnamed African country largely follows Portuguese characters, Viana’s cast is entirely of African origin and his story is set in contemporary Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa. Thirty-odd years after Guinea-Bissau’s 1974 war of independence, an older man, a veteran of a native militia used by the Portuguese to fight against their countrymen, is unable to come to terms with his residual trauma from that experience. Having recently returned to his homeland from Portugal for his daughter’s wedding, he becomes emotionally overwhelmed and accidentally kills her during a psychotic episode. At this point, the film deteriorates, falling back on a narrative device no less tedious than Gomes’s colonial-era Portuguese hipsters screwing and playing rock n’ roll in the jungle—here, though, we’re in the company of an abstracted “African culture,” which, in the case of the villagers with whom the film concludes, involves playing traditional music as an alternative to killing one another. This is a compelling concept, but one that’s disconnected from the film’s otherwise stark aesthetic and critical perspective. It’s an easy and somewhat cheap ending for what begins as an original take on the legacy of Portuguese colonialism in a country that has produced few prominent filmmakers of its own.

Understanding Screenwriting #107: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #107: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #107: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, but first…

Fan mail: The main bone of contention among the folks who wrote in about #US106 was that I had missed the point in Zero Dark Thirty—that, as Bill Weber wrote, it’s “supremely clear in ZDT that information INDIRECTLY leads” to Osama bin Laden. “Carabruva” agrees with Bill. I didn’t miss that point when I watched the film, since I was looking very carefully for any connection. What I didn’t do, unfortunately, was make mention in the item that it was very, very indirect and nowhere close to the “big break” that critics of the film were claiming. I fear both Mark Boal and I were nodding a bit on this point.

Some of the most interesting comments on the Zero Dark Thirty item came off the record from some of my “acquaintances.” I’d emailed them with a link to the column, and one of them replied, “I do not know if torture worked or not, but I am appalled by the fact that any senior officer or congresswomen would agree to it. However, one DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] felt it was important, and another does not. Most intelligence officers I respect felt that the producer wanted it both ways: torture sells and (gasp!) torture is bad. They were more amused by the portrait of the analyst. She is a composite of women in the bin Laden cell, all of whom were strong, bright, and opinionated. But C.I.A. is a paramilitary organization. You simply don’t talk to superiors the way our hero did.” As for my feeling that the “I’m the motherfucker” line was the best line in the film, it was even if it was not “accurate,” but hey, we’re making movies here. By the way, I later heard from another “acquaintance” that the real person Maya is based on is even better-looking than Jessica Chastain. I doubt that’s possible, so that may just be more C.I.A. disinformation.

I spent some time in the item whacking Boal and the film’s team for not responding better, especially to the complaining senators. An article in the Los Angeles Times that appeared the day after my column was posted nicely covered what happened at Sony and why they took the road they did. I understand their point of view, but I think they were wrong. The article was a Link of the Day, and if you missed it, you can read it here. The article included a great comment from Boal, and since I’ve been beating him about the head and shoulders, I feel obligated to quote it, since it nails down what happened. He said, “We made a serious, tough adult movie and we got a serious, tough adult response.”

Quartet (2012. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on his play. 98 minutes.)

The Best Exotic Marigold Musicians Retirement Home. The first thing I loved about this movie is that it’s short. One of the downsides of having to slog through all those two-and-a-half-hour-plus end-of-the-year films is that they cost you money to park. In Los Angeles, the tradition is that at indoor malls that have multiplexes, the first three hours of parking are free, and then you have to pay through the nose for anything beyond that. By the time you get from your car to the theater, get your tickets, sit through 20 minutes of trailers and the film, and get back to your car, you’re probably over three hours. Some, all right, a few, films are worth the extra cost. So I went into Quartet happy knowing it was not going to cost me any more than the ticket price.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: The Last Time I Saw Macao

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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>The Last Time I Saw Macao</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>The Last Time I Saw Macao</em>

Between Miguel Gomes’s dialectically structured Tabu and, even more radically, João Pedro Rodrigues’s thoroughly elliptical docudrama, The Last Time I Saw Macao, it would seem that hardlined formal rigor is alive and well in Portugal. Rodrigues, like his universally well-regarded national compatriot Pedro Costa before him, is rapidly establishing himself as one of the country’s most progressive, challenging filmmakers and cultural critics, and his latest effort should further his repute in a manner befitting its obliqueness; it follows its own clearly defined rules so closely that its theoretical appeal is precisely what will turn most audiences off. What one might described as an “observational drama” vaguely reminiscent of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, The Last Time I Saw Macoa distinguishes itself stylistically in two key regards. The first, inspired at least distantly by late-period Bresson, is to isolate both benign and propulsive action—from a conversation on the phone to a murder by the docks—and place it just outside the screen, so that what we see at any given moment is permanently removed from what’s actually happening, if only by a few degrees. And the second is that the protagonist of the story, and our direct surrogate in the environment, is never actually shown; because the camera alternates between explicit point-of-view shots and what are essentially travelogue-style snapshots of Macao, we see what he sees and what surrounds him, but never the man himself (his voiceover narration provides the film’s through line and very often serves an important explanatory as well as expository function).

Berlinale 2012 Home for the Weekend, Just the Wind, White Deer Plain, Tabu, & More

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Berlinale 2012: Home for the Weekend, Just the Wind, White Deer Plain, Postcards from the Zoo, Tabu, & More
Berlinale 2012: Home for the Weekend, Just the Wind, White Deer Plain, Postcards from the Zoo, Tabu, & More

After a few initial disappointments in Berlinale’s main competition, things gradually began to pick up; even the weather improved, or rather, it was less freezing. Apart from the sensuous Meteora, with its unique blend of fiction, documentary, and animation penetrating the heart of the Greek Orthodox church, many of the entries were beholden to seen-it-all-before narratives. No matter how well done on its own terms, Billy Bob Thornton’s Jayne Mansfield’s Car was content to follow the well-worn pattern of the dysfunctional-family drama, though it was experimental compared to Hans-Christian Schmid’s Home for The Weekend, an extremely familiar exploration of middle-class angst. The key sequences take place during a gathering at Christmas—don’t all these family melodramas take place at Christmas?—when the mother tells her publisher husband, and her two sons, one a dentist, the other a divorced writer, that she’s decided to stop taking her anti-depression pills. A short while later she disappears, and a search for her is carried out, faintly reminiscent of the futile searches in L’Avventura or About Elly. But there the comparison ends. I found it insupportable.