Tuesday, December 20, 2011

George Ghon comments on MYSTERIES OF LISBON

How do I translate a dream into a film, without losing its delicate intricacies and keeping a storyline so elaborate that it almost becomes confusing – this question seems to have been on Raul Ruíz’s mind a lot. In the Mysteries of Lisbon, he has been spinning the imaginations (or was it all real, in the end?) of a young boy named Joao, just Joao (Joao Arrais). Maybe he is an orphan, maybe even the priest’s illegitimate son. His lack of a last name cuts off any possible family ties, which makes him a strange fellow for his peers in a catholic boarding school in 19th century Lisbon. After an attack in the hallway, led by the classroom bully, the handsome and fragile Joao becomes unconscious, and the storyline starts to unfold over time and space.

A reclusive countess, caged up by her choleric husband in a slowly decaying castle of regional importance, appears and reveals herself as Joao’s mother. The back-story comes to light, the countess, Angela (Maria Joao Bastos) slowly reveals the secrets of her illegitimate relationship of which Joao is the result. Or rather she lets it reveal by the Padre Dinis (Adriano Luz), the central character of the film who seems to know it all. Midway through the film another loop is made into pre-Revolutionary France, where the padre himself gets to know his past, told by the thought-to-be lost father whom he eventually meets. The film is full of those seemingly strange coincidences where people randomly cross and then discover their mutual history, how their lives have been linked through events in the past.

The Mysteries of Lisbon is a grand project, a four and half-hours of footage that show a lot, historic drama at its most complex. The intriguing observation of Ruìz’s ambitions, however, are the current implications, or in other words, the social parallels to a society, which we thought to be so different from our own, 21st century one. Aristocracy does not permit social upstarts too easily. Not true, says Ruíz. There always was a meritocracy. If you manage to make enough money, as Alberto de Magalhaes (Ricardo Pereira) did in occasionally shady ways, acquiring a title and social respect is not too much out of this world. Equally, the other way round, a title does not protect from falling down the social ladder, as the Marques de Montezelos (Rui Morrison) demonstrates, who loses all his possessions and ends up as a beggar on the graveyard, where, though, he still manages to extract more money from visitors than his fellow outcasts.

The church doesn’t suffer too badly in this movie. The priest is the hero; all the good deeds he performs deflect from questioning his moral authority. Contrary to modern fashion, a women’s convent is not portrayed as emotionally restricting prison, where unwanted women are shuffled in for political reasons by their husbands or fathers, but appears to be a spiritual sanctuary that genuinely offers a valid alternative to the worldly way of life. It provides an identity and social security, both assets that sometimes get lost in the free roaming lifestyles of early 19th century aristocracy. 

It is - that’s how I see the film in the end, the elaborate fantasy of a boy who tries to construct an identity, a history for himself in his dreams. 

MYSTERIES OF LISBON played Toronto, London and New York 2010. It was released in 2010 in France and Portugal. It was released earlier in 2011 in China, Taiwan, Spain, the Netherlands, the USA and Chile. It is currently on release in the UK.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


The sequel to Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock Holmes reboot has just as much style, period atmosphere, wit and bite, but suffers from a rather baggy script from husband and wife team, Michele and Kieran Mulroney.  The result is a film that is certainly entertaining enough to justify a cinema ticket, but which propels the franchise no further, and does a great disservice to Noomi Rapace and Stephen Fry, stranded in under-written roles.

The movie is set in the Europe of 1891 - a febrile, uncertain place with anarchists rising against major powers, and the major powers signing peace treaties but all the while gearing up for what will become the First World War. Holmes' arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Mad Men's Jared Harris) seeks not just to corner the supply of weaponry but also to create the demand for them, by staging terrorist plots and assassination attempts that will bring Europe to war. Holmes (Robert Downey Junior) has to stop him, aided as always by his side-kick John Watson (Jude Law), interrupting his honeymoon with Mary (Kelly Reilly). The movie thus takes the result of a fast-paced, action-set-piece-packed ride across Europe, from London to Paris, by way of Cambridge, and on to the fateful Reichenbach Falls.  Along for the ride are Holmes' indolent but secretly powerful elder brother Mycroft (official National Treasure, Stephen Fry) and a rather random gypsy called Simza (Noomi Rapace - the original Lisbeth Salander). 

First the positive.  All the things that made the first SHERLOCK HOLMES a roaring success are present in the second. I love the dark, richly dressed sets, and CGI that bring to life the grim dirty Victorian cities of London and Paris, filled with dodgy clubs, filthy streets, but punctuated with glorious civic architecture and handsomely dressed upper class men and women.  For the keen-eyed, there's even a glimpse of the Sacre Coeur under scaffolding in Paris harking back to the use of an unfinished Tower Bridge in the first film.  I also love the way in which Ritchie gives us a more pugnacious Holmes than those dessicated twentieth century TV adaptations.  This feels truer to the books, where Holmes definitely has a grimy past and is in fine physical form.  I also love the device Ritchie uses to show his process of deduction - the careful editing, the bullet time replay of fights, the voice-over of every move selected. It all makes for the movies vitality and takes the novels back to their pop-cultural origins.  But most of all, any Holmes adaptation lives or dies on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and what really sets these films alight is the genuine spark between Downey Junior and Law - the beautifully essayed mutual frustration, respect and affection.  I will always hand over money to see Holmes and Watson sparring.  Finally, to all these factors, we can add one more happy decision.  Jared Harris makes a superb Moriarty, and some of the best scenes in the film are (as they should be) the confrontations between the two - the matching of wits. 

All these good things just about make for the perfect winter blockbuster.  But, as I said before, the movie is severely let down by its script by Michele and Kieran Mulroney.  To be sure, they get some things right. I like the way small details early in the movie become important gags or plot points later on, particularly the urban camouflage!  This is a film in which one has to pay attention despite the superficial appearance of a brawny action flick.  But in too many major ways their script gets it horribly wrong.  The pacing in the first half is woefully slow.  There are some fun action set pieces but we don't really feel we know what the stakes are - what precisely Holmes is trying to do, what mystery he is trying to solve.  It's more than an hour into the over-long two hour run-time before we realise what the plot really is. Poor Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is pretty much thrown to the dogs, with barely an impact on Holmes.  But worst of all, the whole gypsy plot line is also a complete waste of time. You could easily have cut it from the film and had a tighter, more evenly paced 90 minute flick.  Presumably Guy Ritchie was happy to have another opportunity to indulge his fascination with gypsies, but is all that nonsense really worth it for 60 seconds of comedy dancing from Jude Law, and a short horse joke?  

As it is, we get poor Noomi Rapace cast as Simza - a talented actress who basically looks pained for 120 minutes.  Moreover, poor Stephen Fry is utterly short-changed in his role as Mycroft - I mean - what comic joy could have been woven from an encounter between Fry and Downey Junior on screen!  But the screenwriters simply had a naked arse gag. Poor.  The storyline also leaves poor Kelly Reilly rather short-changed as Mary, although she, unlike Noomi Rapace, does manage to steal every scene she's in and leave a favourable impression far outweighing her actual screen-time. Let's hope now that Simza has been rendered irrelevant, Mary and Mycroft will get more screen-time in the next film. And yes, I suspect that given the early box office there will be another film.  And yes, this instalment was still enough fun, despite its flaws, that I look forward to it. I only hope that the producers replace the screenwriters.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS is on release in the US, UK, Canada, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Sweden and Turkey. It opens on December 22nd in Malta, Germany, Israel, Singapore, Slovenia, Thailand, Finland, Indonesia, Romania and Taiwan, Denmark and Norway. It opens on December 29th in Belgium, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Russia, Estonia, India, Lithuania and South Africa. It opens on January 5th in Armenia, Australia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Spain and Poland. It opens in Brazil on January 13th; in France on January 25th; and in Japan on March 10th.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

George Ghon comments on MARGARET

Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited follow up to YOU CAN COUNT ON ME has – after a four-year-long editing squabble, and a final edit by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker – finally been released. It seems to attract considerable attention among a British audience - a diverse crowd filled the outdated screening room at the Odeon Panton Street just off Leicester Square on a recent Sunday afternoon to watch the GANGS OF NEW YORK writer’s contemporary take on Upper West Side city life. MARGARET is a daring coming-of-age tale that lets the 17-year old Lisa (Anna Paquin) become witness of a traumatic accident that proves to be formative on her young life. During the 2.5 hours of the final edit we watch the different emotional states the troubled teenager goes through during her rite de passage of becoming an adult. The woman who got rolled over by a bus after a quick meeting of the eyes by its driver with Lisa, is a sacrificial victim to the development of the main character, who, in turn, is searching for different ways to overcome her guilt.

Differing from an American school of teenage drama (Larry Clark & Harmony Korine) that almost solely relies on casual sex and the abuse of illegal substances within a culturally impoverished environment, Mr Lonergan’s MARGARET aims high and interweaves the quotidian, classroom life and family trivia with high brow references. The title is referring to Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem spring and fall, dedicated to a young child. The outlook therein is bleak:

‘...Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.…’

Growing up is not an easy business; plenty of tears will need to flow before a certain level of emotional maturity can be reached.

My take on this film is, furthermore, that it aims to assert the role of so called high culture and allows a largely disenfranchised society to rebuild its values according to those guidelines drawn out by classic drama and poetry, to some extent. The Met plays an important part in the movie. Bellini’s Norma opens her heart to Ramon (Jean Reno), which has a profound effect on his relationship with Lisa’s mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron). La nuit d’amour in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann triggers the cathartic reunion of mother and daughter. The classroom is a frequent topic, where contemporary politics in the aftermath of 9/11 are juxtaposed with the musings of King Lear. Avoiding the pitfalls of intellectualization, Mr Lonergan does not use those references to show off, or distract from the story he is telling, but just melds them into his trope of big city life.

An ode to New York and its culture it is, but not an unambiguous one. 

MARGARET went on limited release in the US in September and in Canada in October.  It is on such limited release in the UK that it's only playing on one screen in Central London! Catch it while you can, or wait for the French release in August 2012.

Friday, December 02, 2011


HUGO is a movie about the wonder and beauty of cinema - an elegy to the age of celluloid and hand-made special effects - a plea to preserve the fragile, crumbling history of this fantastic art form.  In this aim, HUGO is a wondrous, magical success.

But, far from being, conservative and nostalgic, legendary film-maker Martin Scorsese has shown us not just the past but the future of cinema.  The nostalgia is matched by an equal wonder at the new technology of 3D - not piss-poor retro-fitted 3D - but delicately aligned, beautifully designed 3D designed to give us that same immersive, spectacular thrill as when those first cinema-goers gasped at the Lumiere Brothers' train arriving at the station.  In this aim - in showing us both the past and future power of cinema, HUGO is a technical achievement that surpasses AVATAR and redefines what we thought was possible with 3D. HUGO is, if ever there was one, a movie that demands to be seen in 3D and on the biggest screen you can find.

HUGO is also meant to be a children's adventure - a physical comedy - a plea not to give up on love, or yourself. In that aim, HUGO is a tedious bore.  

So let's tackle these elements in reverse order. Hugo is the story about a young orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a train station in a 1931 Paris heightened by fantasy and stunning production design.  Hugo is a tinkerer - he loves to fix things - in particular the beautiful automaton his father left him.  His love of mechanics lies in his loneliness and his need to find his own place in the world.  Together with a plucky little bookworm called Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), Hugo scampers through the station, stealing little mechanical parts to finish his work, and desperately trying to avoid the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his hound-dog.  These chase scenes through the hidden passages and platforms of the station make up much of the tedious first hour of the film.  The dialogue is minimal, as are the genuine belly laughs. Poor Sacha Baron Cohen does his best, but I get the feeling that Martin Scorsese just cannot direct physical comedy.  Moreover, too many of his chase scenes through the train station are there to showcase the 3D and the spectacular production design but nothing else. They become repetitive.  They don't advance the plot.  The first hour of this two hour film could easily lose forty minutes. 

Then again, let's talk about that 3D and the production design.  Dante Ferretti (SHUTTER ISLAND, SWEENEY TODD) has created a beautifully detailed, rich set that evokes a kind of super-Paris - a Paris as we would all imagine it to be in our wildest romantic moments. Always snowing - couples dancing - accordion music - little plucky girls in berets - steaming croissants -  book shops that groan under the weight of beautifully engraved volumes - the Eiffel Tower always in the background.  All this forms the environment for a kind of 3D cinematography that combines achingly superb attention to detail with Scorsese's trademark breath-taking tracking shots.  The opening scene of this film, where we swoop through Paris, itself a giant automaton, then into the station, along the track, weaving through the crowd until we reach Hugo hiding behind the face of a clock - is a tour de force to match the Copacabana tracking shot in GOODFELLAS.  Martin Scorsese and longtime DP Robert Richardson - both new to 3D - deserve credit for such an achievement - not just in creating a particular look for their own film - but in echoing and recreating some of the seminal scenes of early cinema.

And so to the history of cinema. The second hour of the film, where the children are led through the history of cinema, first from Professor Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) and then through Melies himself (Ben Kingsley) is just an absolute pure joy for any lover of the artform.  I already mentioned the recreation of the Lumiere Brothers' train scene, but the pivotal recreation is of Melies film, "A Trip To The Moon" - see the Youtube clip below. The movie shows us the joy and wit of those early special effects and spectaculars, and the final montage is a thing of awe and beauty. I defy any film-lover not to start crying at the skilful direction of a scene that is at once a culmination of the technical achievement of the film, and its emotional high-point.

The resulting movie is one that is, as I have said, not without its flaws. The first hour drags, and I do wonder whether children will engage with it.  But for cinema-lovers, the second hour is pure joy and an experience I would happily repeat at the cinema, because this is a movie that assures us that despite the fashion for watching movies on mobile devices - sometimes magic demands a communal experience and a big screen.

HUGO was released last weekend in the USA and Canada. It was released this weekend in the UK and Turkey. It opens on December 14th in France; on December 21st in Belgium; on December 23rd in India; on December 30th in Mexico; on January 5th in Russia; on January 12th in Australia and New Zealand; on January 26th in Israel and Spain; on February 3rd in the Czech Republic, Italy, and Poland; on February 9th in Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and Portugal' on February 16th in Hong Kong and Brazil; on February 27th in Finland; on March 15th in Denmark, Singapore, Norway and Sweden; and on April 27th in Lithuania.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

THE HELP - the Driving Miss Daisy de nos jours

Tate Taylor, director of the anonymous 2008 comedy PRETTY UGLY PEOPLE, somehow managed to get the studios to allow to write and direct THE HELP, a soupy drama based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Not having read Stockett's novel chronicling the travails in 1960s racist Mississippi, I don't know whether the emotional manipulation and superficial politics come from her of from the director.  Either way, the resulting movie looks handsome, and made me shed a tear in the final reel, but has all the genuine engagement with the issues of DRIVING MISS DAISY.  It's a bland feelgood movie about a topic that should make us angry and agitated.  It's a movie in which the main African American character's son is lynched and yet we come out feeling warm and fluffy.  Double plus not good.

The film makes the mistake of telling the stories of these African-American maids through the lens of a perky white wannabe journalist - Skeeter (Emma Stone) - a move that immediately tells us we're in a world where a harsh tale has to be made palatable for a mainstream audience.  Ironic, also, in a movie that makes such a big deal about going right to the source.  Skeeter serves as the vessel through which the maids will dish the dirt and get their story published.  The movie is scrupulous in telling us that Skeeter is sharing the royalties with her informants - but while she gets a cool job in New York out of it - they are at risk of being sacked, imprisoned or lynched. The risks and rewards are clearly completely asymmetric, but the film doesn't embrace and mine that fact - it would mess up the fluffy finale.

Worse still, there is no subtlety in the characterisation - no shades of grey. You're either a good-hearted liberal white (Skeeter, her shamed and reformed mother, Jessica Chastain's character Celia), or a nasty racist white (Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly and her acolytes).  And as for the African-American women they are largely painted in tones of full-on heroism, with even the thief seen as a martyr to a mean mistress.   As for the subject matter, awful, horrible petty racism is seen on screen, but racial violence is referred to rather than shown.  Ditto the subject matter of domestic abuse.  And I couldn't help feeling insulted that the subject of vengeance against racism was reduced to a scatological joke. 

All this isn't to say that the production isn't handsome - with lush on location lensing from DP Stephen Goldblatt (JULIE & JULIA) and wonderful period costumes.  And the female cast is good quality and does the best with the narrowly written characters they are given.  In particular, it was a joy to finally see Jessica Chastain able to round out a character - rather than just being a virtuous icon, as in THE TREE OF LIFE and CORIOLANUS.  

But this movie, so hyped, so likely to win awards, is not a good movie. It's politics are dicey - it's reluctance to truly grasp the profundity of what it's tackling frustrating - it's emotional manipulation dishonest.  I have no time for it.  

THE HELP was released in the autumn in the US, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Sweden. It was released in October in Portugal, Finland, Norway, Lithuania, Singapore, France, Ireland, the UK and Spain. It was released in November in Spain, Hungary, Poland, Malta, Estonia, Denmark, Greece, Kuwait and India.  It opens on December 8th in Germany; on December 28th in Belgium; on Dcember 29th in the Netherlands; on January 20th in Italy; on February 3rd in Bulgaria and on February 6th in Brazil.  THE HELP is likely to be feted during awards season judging by the studio campaign and early indications from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Hollywood Film Festival.