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Los abrazos rotos (2009)
No Todo Sobre...but no Kika either
I get excited about new Almodovar films, which is not always the most advised way to approach any cinematic release. Those opening moments are too tension-filled as I wait in fear that this will be the film where the magic finally disappears. Is that dialogue a little forced? This scenario too familiar? Its a bit like watching a new Woody Allen film, only in reverse.
In its opening scenes, Broken Embraces both unsettles and reassures. We open with a male. His name is Mateo Blanco and he is a director. His name is also Harry Caine and he is blind. The fear subsides a little. We are clearly back in the world of Almodovar, with its convoluted plots and its noirish mysteries. The name Harry Caine alone cues us to expect a feast for the cine-literates, with its noir associations from Double Indemnity to The Third Man. Indeed we have been here before, as recently as Bad Education, in which Almodovar dazzled us with noirish flashbacks within flashbacks and duplicitous identity thefts. And it is to this strand in his work that Broken Embraces belongs, rather than the women centred melodramas with which he is more often associated.
But we remain uneasy. The film references begin to stack up - with nods to everything from Belle du Jour to Peeping Tom. Moving back and forward in time, the mystery of Blanco/Caine's blindness and his double monicker begin to unfold. We meet Penelope Cruz as devoted daughter, high-class hooker, and an Almodovar-esquire character in an Almodovar-esquire comedy in which her character acts. The film exploits the twin-sides of Cruz's character which Almodovar has mined in the past; the angelic nun of All About My Mother and the fiery Spanish mama of Volver, the Madonna and the whore. She is the femme in this noir fatale. And who could blame Mateo/Harry for falling, although we know of course how things will turn out.
The pleasure in noir is in watching it all go wrong for the central protagonist. As soon as Barabara Stanwyck or Lana Turner slinks into camera shot, we know our man is doomed. Whether he's a private investigator or an insurance salesman, the poor schmuck doesn't stand a chance. But all he can think about are her legs. And all we can think about are her legs too, so we understand why he might just throw away his life for a moment alone with them. And the girl knows it too, just what she can take from any man in return for a glimpse of thigh. But there is another pleasure in noir too, and its a vindictive mysognistic one. It comes from the pain in Stanwyck's face as her man slugs her with a 45, the screams of Jane Greer as she dies in a hail of bullets. Its our revenge on her for knowing how to get to us, for using her sexuality to take back a little of the power that rightfully belongs with our hero, the conquering male of the cinematic world.
But Almodovar could never bring himself to treat women in this way. In Bad Education it is the coquettish Gael Garci Bernal that uses his sexuality as a lure. And it is love, not lust, that draws Mateo towards Cruz's Lena. The threat comes, not from her sexuality, but the overpowering jealousy of her millionaire lover, from whom she is unable to escape. Almodovar clearly cares too much for Cruz to allow her motives to be impuned in any way. And although this brings a roundness and sensitivity to the central character, instead of reducing her to an image of dangerous sexuality, it also causes the tension in the film to ebb. The central characters are in love. And if that love is to be doomed, as we know it must be, then the cause of that doom will come from outside, from some plot contrivance, rather than from inside the characters themselves. Unlike the character of classic noir, they are too fundamentally good to cause their own downfall.
Given the intricacies of the plot of Broken Embraces; the shifts in time, the film within a film, the complex set of character relationships; its problem lies with the ability of the narrative to tie it all together, to make us care. For me, the mystery was not quite mysterious enough. The revelations not sufficiently shocking to make the whole elaborate puzzle seem worthwhile. There is undoubtedly a lot to enjoy in here. At times it feels like an extended riff on the art of filmmaking, with which Almodovar is clearly having great fun. And his enjoyment rubs off on the viewer too. The extended extract from Mateo's film, which is an almost shot for shot remake of Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is worth the admission price alone. But there is a ragged quality, a sense that the parts overwhelm the whole, which, along with the film's uncertain relationship to noir, prevent it from fully cohering. In short, its no All About My Mother, but then its no Kika either. I'm already looking forward to his next one.
the insight of a bad school essay
This film has to be a contender for least deserving Best Picture winner of all time. If only those cowboys in Brokeback Mountain hadn't been so, well, gay...
It tackles the issue of racism in American society with all the insight of a bad high-school essay. Some whites are prejudiced against blacks and think they're all criminals, but then some really are criminals. And some blacks are prejudiced against whites. But then some whites aren't very nice. etc. etc. When the film finished with an incidence of racism between a Latino and a black character, I realised that deep down, inside of us, we really are all the same. Beautiful.
As ever for a Hollywood movie, it can't conceive of political issues outside of the personal. Thus, the racism of Mat Dillon's cop is explained in terms of his own father's experience rather than as an expression of any kind of structural prejudice in American society.
One can only imagine the level of self-congratulation which must have been felt by all those involved. That's racism sorted. Now how about a nice movie showing how much we care about those gays? Just mind that there's no sex between men though. That really kills your Oscar chances.
Apologies to those involved, but...
Whilst credit must go to the filmmakers for actually getting Anton produced, sadly they have not done themselves any real favours by putting this story up on the big screen.
Whilst there are certainly moments in the film which work, overall it is simply a mess. Watching it, I wondered at times whether this was in fact an experimental avant-garde piece masquerading as a mainstream thriller. That seemed to be the only possible explanation for the missing plot points, lack of character motivation and general incoherence of the film. However, in truth, this is nothing more than a collection of scenes in search of a script review.
To give an example: at a mid-point in the film Anton escapes from prison. In the next scene he enters what seems to be an abandoned warehouse and takes a gun from a toilet cistern before being confronted and chased by two police officers. We have never seen this location before. It is not explained why there is a gun in the cistern or how Anton knew it was there. We do not know how the police tracked him to this location. We are simply asked to accept that this is so and move on. Apparently the film is based on the writer's own experience, so perhaps he knows the answers to these questions, but a simple review by an experienced script editor would have pointed out that its quite important for the audience to know these things too.
In short, there are suggestions that the filmmakers could do better work in the future, but as an overall piece of work this film is seriously flawed.
Broken Harvest (1994)
Like the previous commentator on this film, I too found myself in tears at times during this movie. Sometimes one wonders how a film of such awe-inspiring awfulness comes into existence. From the first moment when our protagonist wakes up in his New York apartment from a dream of subway trains intercut with galloping horses (what Irish emigrant hasn't had that one), its clear we are in trouble. And it doesn't get much better.
Whisked back to 1950s Ireland, we enter a world where everybody speaks without intonation, and exclusively on the topic of the Irish Civil War. Schoolchildren go to school to learn about the Civil War. The drinkers in the pub divide themselves according to their Civil War allegiances. Remembrances are carried out for those who died in the Civil War. The town is divided between those who believe we should remember and those who want to forget...the Civil War. Every glance and conversation is dripping with meaning that traces back to the Civil War.
The blurb on the videocover of Broken Harvest suggests that the film is a parable of the troubles in modern Ireland. The only parallel which strikes me is that in present day Dublin conversation is indeed dominated by one topic: house prices. If its intention is to offer some sort of insight into Ireland's obsession with its past, it fails miserably. It is striking how few Irish films have dealt with the Irish civil war and its legacies. However it will take a film of a great deal more subtlety and intelligence than this one to tell us anything about the lasting effects of such a traumatic event on the nation's psyche.
For those American viewers who have suggested the film evokes the atmosphere of 1950s Ireland: it doesn't. 1950s Ireland was a horrible, poverty stricken pit of sexual repression and misery from which young people fled in their droves. However there was more than one topic of conversation.
Trouble with Sex (2005)
the trouble with this...
It is difficult to express the anger I felt leaving the cinema after this film. Surely a simple script review would have revealed that the characters were non-existent, the dialogue banal and the film itself profoundly pointless. At one stage in the film one character accuses the other of replacing intimacy with sex. Is this (rather unoriginal) point the issue the film is trying to explore? If so it manages to contribute exactly nothing to our understanding of it. It seems to be straining towards the sort of European art house film which examines the nature of relationships in modern society. Yet it fails to create real characters or to engage meaningfully with its subject matter. Issues are briefly alluded to, such as one of the main character's previous failed relationship, and then dropped, without adding anything to our understanding of that character. Indeed the characters themselves seem nothing more than a collection of lines spoken, with nothing substantial or sustained at their core. At points in the film they do such things as unexplainedly walking out of a room during foreplay and not returning, seemingly because this is the kind of thing that characters do in the sort of film that this is desperately striving to be.
The list of things which annoyed me about this film are too long to fully elaborate on. However I feel special mention should be given to a scene where the female lead gives a rendition from start to finish of Crowded House's 'Fall at Your Feet'. Whilst the performance itself is perfectly pleasant, the scene contributes nothing to the films development and would have been cut by a director with a clearer idea of how to construct a film. It is emblematic of the films wider problem - it has neither the tightly constructed narrative necessary to qualify as a conventional romantic drama, nor the required level of intelligence or insight which would justify its ponderous depiction of the central relationship. Like this karaoke moment, it is indulgent, empty, and ultimately a waste of screen time.
The Quiet Man (1952)
wonderful and misinterpreted
The Quiet Man is a wonderfully layered and at times hilariously ironic portrayal of Ireland as seen by an American.
For those who doubt the film's sense of irony, just re-watch the scene where Sean (John Wayne) paints the door of his cottage. The Vicar's wife remarks on its beauty and in a deadpan manner suggests "only an American would have thought of Emerald Green". Only an American (or a foreigner), is the implication, would think that the picturebook Ireland they are seeing in this film is a realistic portrayal of a lived experience of the country. An Irish person would have painted the door red, she says. It weathers better that way.
The film takes ideas of Irishness and exaggerates them to brilliant and comic effect. The drinking Mickaleen, the patriarchal rule, the idyllic countryside. But beneath the Oirish exterior is a sharp intelligence and a subversion of what the film at first glance seems to suggest.
Beneath the idyllic countryside are elemental forces that are waiting to be disturbed, as we see in the two scenes where Sean and Mary-kate kiss. Storm clouds fill the sky and the wind whips about them. The countryside which previously seemed so welcoming is now tempestuous and threatening. Theirs are passions which do not fit in the comic book world which we have previously seen. Yet they exist.
The portrayal of women, and particularly Sean's treatment of Mary-Kate when he drags her through the field is not so oppressive as it might seem. Remember that it is her who insists on receiving her dowry, who equates her possessions to her worth. It is she who forces Sean to act the way he does and fight Will Danaher. She indoctrinates him into her society by threatening to leave him. She withholds the marital bed. Sean eventually becomes the man she wants him to be.
In short this is a portrayal of Irish, or more importantly, rural life that is very much from the point of view of the outsider. Of the city folk. Yet it always acknowledges that and has great fun playing with its stereotypes. Its funny, its romantic, it appeals to the part of us that yearns to live a simple life away from the complex world, much as we know that life does not exist. Enjoy it!
Disco Pigs (2001)
the future of irish film
Its amazing how some of the comments here have completely missed the point of this film. If you haven't seen it yet, I should warn that these comments may give away some plot points.
The facile answers that one user suggest this film offers to the question of "what is love?" don't really deserve aknowledgement. But lets do so anyway.
It would be hard to find a more poignant and complex depiction of the strive for 'pure' love in the face of an ever intruding reality. Pig's love for Runt is the one thing that is whole and real in his life. Yet life, and the fact of their growing up, is slowly taking her away from him. Without her, he himself has no real existence. Therefore his love takes on a growing desperation as he feels her slip away from him.
A commenter questions why runt never "takes to" Pig. Why she is attracted to the bartender.
The point of the film is that she can live in and relate to an outer world beyond her relationship with Pig, while Pig cannot. This world is represented by the barman she dances with, by the roomate she slowly begins to open up to. It is this ability that enables her to survive whilst Pig is spiralling into an ever more violent self-destruction. She loves Pig but realises that the insulated world thay have cocooned themselves within must fall apart. She ultimately saves him from a world that he cannot live in and that she knows he must.
The real triumph of this film is how it completely trancends its stage bound roots. The action is opened out and incorporates a range of characters which, if never fully rounded, likewise are never mere cliches. There is in fact only one speech lifted directly from the play, where Pig expresses his growing frustration as sexuality begins to enter their relationship. The ending soliloquay which one commenter feels betrayed the stage origins was in fact completely new to the film, and indeed the ending itself is completely rewritten.
The direction of this film is lively and interesting. Veering between the hyper-kinetic disco scenes and the peaceful fairy tale world of Pig and Runt's fantasies without jarring. It manages to take Pig on a road trip without ever losing pace and leaves us with a truly heartwrenching scene of sacrifice and beauty.
This is the future of Irish cinema; fresh, exciting directors and a depiction of Ireland that manages to be both free from stereotypical depictions of Irishness whilst maintaining a distinct storytelling style. Go see it.