El Amparo

Loved the opening to this film – we spend a good 20 minutes gradually getting to know a group of men, and then set out on the river with them as they head off on a fishing trip. There are the drunken ones who sing annoyingly, the ones who worry too much, the lazy ones, the ones just trying to earn a crust.

And so when the thing happens, I felt a distinct sadness because it was like I knew them already.

Thereafter, we follow the plight of two of the men, imprisoned and under pressure from government officials and the Venezuelan army to plead guilty, when from our point of view we feel they are innocent.

Only at the end did I realise that this is telling a true story, and takes a huge swipe at long-standing corruption at the top level while garnering support for the two men, who are still alive today fighting their corner.

It’s a fascinating and sad story which festivals like Viva bring to audiences who would otherwise not be aware.

La propera pell – The Next Skin

We first meet troubled teenager Leo causing havoc at his care home, and follow him as he is reunited with his mother after a period of eight years, during which he has been reported as missing. He also has amnesia, and so cannot be sure that the woman he meets is actually his mother, nor help to fill in the gaps in those eight years. As the mother tiptoes around him as he settles, and other friends and family interact with him, doubts emerge as to his true identity.

What I liked about this was the way I found myself changing my mind as to the actual truth, without getting annoyed at the film for doing this in an arbitrary flip-flop way. I was desperately trying to hold on to all the important points I thought I had noticed, trying to explain away those which didn’t make sense, deciding on what I thought had actually happened – and so I was kept on my toes.

It helped that Emma Suárez and Sergi Lopez were present among the cast, as I enjoy watching them on screen.

Perhaps the very last images were unnecessary – I would rather it had finished about 30 seconds earlier – but enjoyable nevertheless.

Life

Before I sat down to watch this, I shared a message on social media.

Now, I realise ‘scary’ is all relative. As the aforementioned ‘wuss’, I’m put off watching lots of things because I don’t need to be frightened. Michael Jackson’s eyes at the end of that Thriller video gave me nightmares. (True, other things about MJ are more scary with hindsight, but we didn’t know that at the time …).

If it hadn’t been for my boy Jake, I probably would have waited for this to come out on DVD when I could watch it in daylight. But I couldn’t let him down.

I say all this because I probably had a different experience than someone more used to jumpy films. All I can do is let you know the above, then tell you what I thought having seen the film.

And so I was expecting jumpy bits, and they were mostly predictable, so I didn’t really jump. I did watch some of the bone-squishing bits through my fingers, however, and looked away when the creature decided to ‘enter’ certain characters (no more as no spoilers).

The characters were a text book selection of stock characters for the most part, there were a couple of plot holes that bugged me, and I didn’t quite get the geography of the vessel during the action scenes (which I’ve heard said elsewhere too, so not just me).

I wanted to know why Jake’s character was so convinced that a floating box above the earth was where he belonged. Why none of the other crew had been informed of and had signed up to the protocols that Rebecca Ferguson’s character had implemented prior to the mission. Why certain crew members disobeyed direct orders … well, I suppose I should have expected that from Deadpool, but then there wouldn’t have been a story.

However, I still found this to be an enjoyable slice of sci-fi horror which rattled along nicely in its neat run-time. It offers some very interesting thoughts on interactions with alien life-forms which are different from the benign encounters we recently saw in Arrival; about how it’s OK for us to visit other places and raid the land but a reciprocal visit? – nah, not so much (which put me in mind of so many conflict situations in both the past and present among the nations of our own planet); how everyone seemed surprised that a creature doesn’t like being jabbed by an electrified probe.

It’s a science fiction as a metaphor for ‘civilisation’ on Planet Earth as usual, and I was intrigued enough not to be scared – and stupid enough to be focussing on what I thought would be a different plot twist at the end. Consider me duped!

A version of this post first appeared at www.filmdispenser.com

Siete días de enero – Seven Days in January 

Siete días de enero begins in a documentary style, with news reels and on-screen text outlining the events which are about to be dramatized in the film. It may seem like a strange choice, telling the audience the important points beforehand, but in reality this would have been for contemporary Spanish audiences little more than a quiet reminder of what happened just two years previous to the film being originally released in 1979.

For someone like myself, who was unaware of events, the introduction alone was an eye opener, and the subsequent retelling of events in narrative form proved to be very powerful.

Screened in a grainy print, the feel of the late 1970s was present from the start. We are introduced to those who were on the right of Spanish political feeling at a family wedding – clearly wealthy, well-connected families, including the church and the military. The opposition voice is provided by union workers and leaders, together with the solicitors representing them. Their family is the collective here, we don’t see them at home in domestic situations, but with colleagues and comrades.

The sympathies of director Juan Antonio Bardem (himself a Communist) are unequivocal, and although we see why the younger right wing protagonists act in the way they do, our sympathies are with the socialists who are the victims of outrageous violence, a violence which proved to be the catalyst for significant change in Spanish politics.

I was aware of the post-Franco regime change but not of the details, and although some of the roles are played by non-professional or apparently first-time actors, I found this to be a very moving and powerful film.

Pasaje de vida – Safe Passage (+Q&A)

A Spanish/Argentine co-production which more or less successfully handles leaps of time from the Argentina of the 1970s to present day Spain by some very astute casting and camera shots.

Miguel (Miguel Ángel Solá) is visited by his son in hospital; his disorientation and loss of memory due to dementia leave him asking questions about people unknown to his son Mario. As the younger man looks for answers, we see Miguel in his younger years (now played by Chino Darín) and his involvement in union resistance to the government in Buenos Aires in the seventies.

If you are looking for the big picture of Argentina in this era however, you won’t find it. What we have is a family story, a personal story, a story of a couple, and how the period affected them in their younger days. The fact that it’s about the people actually made it a much more interesting film, and one which offers a different approach to the historical dramas generally set in this time period.

After the screening, director Diego Corsini spoke in some depth about how the previous Argentine government partially funded the film but how the current government (much less liberal) is quietly turning away from it. He spoke about how the film is not directly a biography of his parents, but that much of the material is taken from things which happened to his parents and their compatriots at the time – and I think this personal touch shows.

Corsini was delighted at the full house which turned out for his film, and it certainly deserves to be seen by a large audience.

 

Cien años de perdon – To steal from a thief 

The annual VIVA Spanish and Latin American Film Festival swung into life this evening at HOME with a feature and a short, both of which were reminiscent of classic films from decades past, yet which also stood up very firmly in their own right. They are also linked by a theme.

The short, Nini, is clearly influenced in tone by Jules Dassin’s Rififi, with a silent heist at its centre. The economic situation in Spain is the reason the group is compelled to steal to improve their lives – we see at the end that their ill-gotten gains are put to sensible, positive use, and don’t get the impression that they are career criminals. It was tense, funny and clever, and (with the exception of the last few minutes) entirely dialogue free.

The main feature, Cien años de perdon, also features a heist, this time in the form of a bank robbery. The hapless crooks find their plans thwarted by heavy rain, and although Dog Day Afternoon is set in the New York heat, it is reminiscent at times of the same shambolic atmosphere.

It’s made very clear from the start that the bank’s customers are victims of both Spain’s economic hardship and the ruthless operations of financial institutions, and in fact robbing the bank of its money is not the prime motivator for the criminals. We see them do good things for the customers who they hold hostage for a time, and learn about political corruption among government representatives high up in the country’s ruling elite.

It’s no surprise then that, part way through the movie, I found myself kind of wanting them to succeed at their crime – they’re not perfect people by any stretch, but it didn’t seem fair if they weren’t allowed to get away with it. It helped that four good performances gave credence (and humour) to some of the gang – Luis Tosar and Rodrigo De la Serna in particular.

You’ll need to see the film for yourself to find out who (if anyone) escapes judgement – and it’s funnier than this trailer suggests!

Elle

It took me almost 24 hours to work out my response to this film. I kept swaying between “very very good” and “very very annoying” and so walked away from writing about it as nothing I put down made any sense to me.

Having now figured out what the main issue for me was, it’s impossible to describe without spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know things about the film.

Isabelle Huppert is, of course, outstanding as a woman who has been assaulted in her own home and who deals with the incident in a manner which is not how I imagine I would deal with the situation.

Following the vicious and violent attack, Huppert tidies up, orders take away, and the next day goes back to work as usual. Outwardly, nothing has changed but inside, that seems not to be the case. The attack appears to have given her permission to explore or acknowledge sexual preferences and fantasies that (as far as we know) are new to her. And while I was fine with her trying out or instigating these liaisons, I could not watch her being repeatedly punched, hard, in the head, by her ‘assailant’. I could accept an awful lot of what she was doing, but not that. Not having her head beaten against the wall or the floor. Huppert is a physically tiny woman; her sparring partner is younger, taller, much stronger. Despite the fact that she may have felt in control mentally, the force with which she was being hit would have seen her off almost immediately.

And despite the fact that we see her enjoying her sexual encounters, the first time the stranger enters her home it is uninvited and therefore the sexual act in which she was forced to take part was not consensual. No matter what she did or decided afterwards, the first time was not in her control. And this went unacknowledged, even by the character herself, and is the very heart of why I was feeling conflicted for the rest of the film.

What we learn about her background perhaps sheds some light on her initial reaction not to report the incident, but I was not entirely convinced, and while I can appreciate Huppert’s performance, the niggling anger is still with me.

After seeing the film, I was rummaging around the internet and discovered that the book from which the screenplay was adapted was written by the same man who wrote Betty Blue. With which I also had problems. 

I wonder if this was more Verhoeven’s fantasy than Huppert’s.

 

Forushande – The Salesman

This film exemplifies one of the reasons why I love watching films in languages other than English. I know nothing about everyday life in Tehran apart from what Iranian filmmakers show me.

Here, Asghar Farhadi shows how the relationship between a teacher and amateur actor, and his wife (also an amateur actor) is put under pressure following her assault by a stranger in their home, and his inability to know how to deal with the resulting emotions.

What’s interesting that I can imagine the same responses from men all over the world, and that this is nothing peculiar to Iranian men.

Following the attack, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) seems more concerned with tracking down the perpetrator to exact revenge than with ensuring his wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) feels safe and well. It becomes all about him – perhaps because of guilt that he wasn’t there to prevent it, or that his lateness allowed the incident to happen – or perhaps that he just can’t allow himself to accept what occurred and so finds excuses not to be with his wife. He’s evidently an intelligent and caring man, but this is all outside of his coping mechanisms.

The strains of the marriage are mirrored in the cracks appearing in walls and windows of the apartments inhabited by the couple – and actually, mirroring is an important visual feature throughout the film. So often people are looking in mirrors, or we see them reflected windows as if Farhadi is nudging us to take a view of things at more than just face value.

Alongside the strand of domestic strain we are able to glean some fascinating insights into life in modern day Tehran – buildings appear to be bulldozed with little forewarning; amateur dramatic societies are under the eye of a government official who could choose to censor certain passages of the play they are putting on (in this case Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesmen, from where the film adapts its title); a number of books are banned from the college curriculum.

For me, The Salesman is on a par with Farhadi’s previous films About Elly and A Separation – I wasn’t as keen on The Past as others have been. This is a very moving and intelligent performance from Shahab Hosseini (also in About Elly and A Separation), and it’s no surprise that he claimed the best actor award at Cannes last year.

Certain Women

More of a collection of short stories loosely connected by little more than geography and ships passing in the night.

The first part, featuring Laura Dern as a weary lawyer, exposes a truth many women have felt – “If I were a man I could just do my job and people would take me seriously”.

There is an inconsequential character link to the second part – and this is the first time I have ever watched Michelle Williams and felt she was not firing on all cylinders. I’m a huge fan of hers, and was left thinking there should have been more to this section.

The third part was, for me, the strongest section, and this was due entirely to Lily Gladstone. Not to say Kristen Stewart isn’t good (she is, and I love her work in general too). But Gladstone was mesmerising. Those moments when the camera fixed on her face and her whole soul was there to read. A winning performance for sure.

I’m fine with these three strands not tying up to form one narrative, but with the parts being variable in their level of impact, this didn’t bowl me over. Reichardt saved the best for last, though.

Logan

A film about ageing, ailing and family; this is not your usual superhero movie. In many ways.

We’ve perhaps become accustomed to these cinematic universes being filled with lots of characters, either helping each other out or beating each other up. Here, we get a small unit, almost a family, who mostly end up in fights because they are protecting each other. Some of the scenes between an ailing Charles Xavier and an ageing Logan are incredibly touching in their simplicity and are rooted in real-life family experiences with which many of us are familiar.

These tender moments are in marked contrast to the violence. It’s brutal, and it’s not just a one-off. Each strike, each bullet, really hurts. Wounds are fatal.

And just as we come to terms with the reality of Wolverine’s acts, and realise that it’s been like this for him all along, a young girl joins in and the violence emanating from her is even more striking.

If I have one criticism it is the convenient ‘out’ that is available to the group just before the final journey is embarked upon – it’s a MacGuffin of the highest order and marred the storytelling for me a little.

But apart from that, even though the end is inevitable and it’s only a movie, I was genuinely saddened to leave the company of our hero. And the last shot is very nicely done.