Saturday, July 18, 2015

Marshland: Old-fashioned crime

Director and co-writer Alberto Rodríguez has come up with a classy crime mystery in Marshland (La isla mínima, 'Minimal Island'). The Spanish language film swept the Goya awards for 2014. It is set in the south west of Spain in 1980 as two detectives track down the brutal murderer of two sisters.

In the process they uncover the dark side of this rural community. They are an odd couple. Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) is trying to get back to work and family in Madrid and Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) has a cloud over him from his days as one of Franco's 'Gestapo'. They are just the tip of a very professional cast.

It is just five years since the Generalissimo's death. Their relationship is strained by Juan's use of vigorous interrogation methods honed during the dictatorship.

The film has a very convincing late 70s atmosphere. Rodríguez seems to have borrowed both from Chinatown and Blowup for his inspiration. Photography is a key element linking both the crimes and the investigation. In addition the cinematography captures the bleakness of the environment and the despair of the local people whose lives are dominated by poverty and unemployment. This is especially true of the young women who are desperate to escape the traditional family and social bonds.

This a an old-fashioned movie with a very modern edge. It's film noir without the wit or the femme fatale.
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wild Tales: Mad as Hell

Writer/director Damián Szifron's so-called black comedy Wild Tales" (Relatos Salvajes) is a real hoot. This collection of six short stories has lashings of the classic elements of melodrama mixed into its contemporary contexts.

"Pasternak" mixes vengeance with everyone's airliner nightmare.
"Las Ratas" ("The Rats") also plays on revenge, as a nasty loan-shark meets his match in a diner.
"El más fuerte" ("The Strongest") takes road rage to new heights and depths.
"Bombita" ("Little Bomb") lives out all drivers's fantasy when trapped by the parking police. Our hero is as mad as hell and isn't going to take this anymore.
"La Propuesta" ("The Proposal") is another auto-related drama based on a hit-and-run.
"Hasta que la muerte nos separe" ("Until Death Do Us Part") has the archetypal wedding party where betrayal is a double-edged sword for the bride and groom.

These modern day morality plays have an excellent Argentine cast, too numerous to single out.

There is plenty of biting social satire complete with the obligatory stereotyping. The rich, big government, police corruption, family relationships, lawyers: all cop a pasting.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ida: Poland's Haunting History

Ida is a small but powerful gem from Poland. It has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2015 Academy Awards. Set in 1962 and directed by co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski, it is a mere 82 minutes in length.

Ida is memorable just for the two main performances. Agata Trzebuchowska gives a haunting portrayal as Anna/Ida, while Agata Kulesza excels as the haunted Wanka.

Anna is a novice nun who learns about her Jewish origins from her aunt Wanka, a former Stalinist prosecutor. The holocaust legacy, communist rule and the dominance of the Catholic church are all part of the complex backdrop to this quest. Ida's personal search for identity is further complicated by coming face to face with an alien, but enticing secular culture.

The black and white production reflects the bleaker elements of the story and the times. Similarly, the jazz soundtrack underlines the growing alternative spirit amongst youth at the time.

Anyway, in the old cliché, this film is about questions not answers. It's about the personal choices we all must make and their consequences.

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Birdman: New York with Mexican twists

Director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu, of Babel fame, has created a very classy film in Birdman.

Forget Hollywood - this is New York cinema with Mexican twists.

There are multiple layers. We have actors playing actors. Michael Keaton, star of Batman, plays Riggan Thomson, a once and possible future super-hero. Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough join him in Riggan's play within a screenplay, an adaptation of Raymond Carver's 'What We Talk about When We Talk about Love'. The bleak realism of Tennessee Williams vies with Latin American magical realism and extraordinary flights of fantasy. This is Streetcar meets Who's Afraid, both on stage and in the dressing rooms.

Emma Stone, as his daughter Sam gives a memorable performance, duelling with both her father and Norton's bad boy character Mike.

It's a visual delight without the bonus of its Birdman special effects. The venue/set is the interior and exterior of Broadway's St. James Theatre. The claustrophobia generated by shooting in the actual building is amplified by the seeming one take direction.

Lindsay Duncan makes a strong if clichéd job of theatre critic Tabitha. Her exchange with Thomson cuts deep. Some of the storyline is a bit predictable but it's easy to forgive. Its classification as a comedy/drama is definitely misleading. It is witty without being sidesplitting. The social media jokes lack bite after a while. Iñárritu is at his best when he wanders the dark side of identity and relationships.

The movie has received multiple Academy Award nominations. Alejandro seems a cert for best director oscar.

[Spoiler: Those who went to see Midnight Cowboy expecting a western were misguided to say the least. Don't expect a comic book blockbuster.]

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed: Innocence Regained

It should be hard not to like writer/director David Trueba's Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed (Vivir es fácil con los ojos cerrados). Antonio (Javier Cámara) sets off on a quest to meet John Lennon who is making a film in Almería, Spain. It's 1966 but this middle-aged teacher of English and Latin would be an unlikely Beatles fan except that he's a dreamer, but that's another song.

He picks up two hitchhikers, both lost souls like himself: young hairdresser Belén (Natalia de Molina) and sixteen-year-old Juanjo (Francesc Colomer). Speaking of souls, the film is set against the backdrop of Franco's fascist regime, with its all pervasive police and religious controls. We are reminded that Lennon had said that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus".

The journeys of the three central characters typify the rebellious sixties that John symbolised for those looking for a better way, in particular in contesting the authority of church, state and family. Trueba is not preaching but his messages are clear, if gently delivered.

Cámara lives up to the quality you would expect from the lead in Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her. His young offsiders give equally controlled, understated performances. They are matched by Ramon Fontserè as Ramón, a bar owner and Rogelio Fernández as his son Bruno who has cerebral palsy.

Of course, the title comes from Lennon's lyrics for Strawberry Fields Forever. The adventures of this unusual triangle are about innocence lost and innocence won. It would be a great story even if it weren't based on Juan Carrion's actual experiences.

Definitely a film for baby boomers seeking to regain some of their lost innocence from the sixties. Various Gen X-Zs, who are given a yardstick to measure how far we've come, may also reflect on the courage needed to bring about change. Here endeth the review.

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