Friday, January 28, 2011

Where There's A Will

In its simplest form, a will is a basic legal document that offers a guide to how the decedent wished to have his estate be distributed. The wealthier the decedent, the more complicated the will. But for most people (especially those who are poor or who have few tangible assets to distribute among their survivors), a will sometimes seems like an unnecessary burden.

Why? Drafting a will means accepting the fact that, at one point or another, you will die.
  • Some people resist this basic concept because of religious beliefs. 
  • Others do so out of sheer narcissism (insisting that since they're not going to die so there's no need to worry about drawing up a will).
  • Some people can't afford the legal fees or the software required to create a will.
  • Others are content to rely on the oral instructions they have given to their closest friends and relatives.
  • Some people are simply procrastinators who, given a chance, will wait until they are on their deathbed to draw up a will.
  • Those who bear grudges may choose to leave nothing behind, or let the remaining family (like vultures picking apart a carcass) fight to see who emerges triumphant.
Two new foreign films deal with the creation and resolution of a dying man's will. Each comes from a filmmaker with a distinct and determined artistic vision. One film arrives wrapped in the artistic cachet of an Academy Award-winning actor and highly-acclaimed director. The other was filmed by a bunch of rowdy film insurgents with a snarky attitude. Do you even need to guess which film has greater appeal?

* * * * * * * * *
The opening and closing scenes of Alejandro González Iñárritu's new film, Biutiful, take place in a snowy forest. Two men exchange cryptic pieces of dialogue about one's need to get his affairs in order before he dies.

Those two scenes are beautifully filmed, share a haunting, surreal beauty, and keep the audience on edge. Unfortunately, in between those two scenes are two hours of depressing squalor and boredom, which easily makes Biutiful one of the most underwhelming films I've seen in quite some time. As the filmmaker explains:
"Having traveled the world with Babel, I thought I had sufficiently explored the multiple perspectives, fragmented structures and intersecting histories. Each of my movies was filmed in a different language in a different country, with different structures and different scales. I was so exhausted after Babel, I was amused to say that my next movie would focus on one character, would take place in one city, with a simple story, and in my own language. Biutiful is a distillation of everything I have ever made: a linear story carried by a single character.
I wanted to describe a complex life in its simplest form. In a way, Biutiful develops a new theme that has haunted me for years: fatherhood -- the fear of losing one's father to become a father, and that moment where you start to become your own father and where your children become you. It is also a film about loss -- because at the end, we are also what we lost."
Poster art for Biutiful

Most of Biutiful takes place in an area of Barcelona that, although certainly not a slum, has become home to multiple waves of immigrants. Some have fled their homelands in search of better lives, others are hoping to avoid deportation. As Iñárritu explains:
"During the 1960s, Franco brought hundreds of thousands of people from different regions of Spain in Catalonia, and prevented them from speaking Catalan to destroy this identity. At the heart of a terrible economic crisis, the Castilians -- mostly from Extremadura, Andalusia, and Murcia -- have become immigrants within their own country. They were assigned to a suburb of Barcelona, Santa Coloma, and were designated as the Charnegos (a pejorative reference to immigrants without money and their children). In the 1980s and 1990s, with the return of growth, the Charnegos began to leave Santa Coloma, which became a haven for immigrants from around the world. Although El Raval (the Chinatown) is known to be the most diverse area of Barcelona, it is with Santa Coloma de Badalona and the neighborhood that I fell in love. There, Senegalese, Chinese, Pakistanis, gypsies, Romanians, and Indonesians live together in peace, without problems, and everyone speaks their own language without the desire or the need to integrate Spain. Throughout this neighborhood on a Sunday you can see the gypsy groups singing in the streets while Muslims pray in a park or chant over the loudspeakers of a small mosque and a Catholic church is filled with Chinese. 
It's a neighborhood that has not been sanitized. It is human, it has a smell, texture, and its own contradictions. It is a true example of community that carries with it the DNA of an ideal form of the United Nations. Migration and diversity, which in the past, took almost three hundred years to make, have occurred here in only 25 years. Of course, this does not happen without pain or tragedy. Every year, hundreds of Africans drown trying to reach the Spanish coast. These images are difficult to watch. And every day we read articles about how Chinese immigrants are abused and exploited across Europe. In Britain alone, there are another million Chinese. Contrary to what happens in the United States, these people do not come to Europe to blend into the local culture. Most of them come here to survive and help those they left behind."

Javier Bardem as Uxbal in Biutiful

The film's protagonist, Uxbal, is portrayed by Javier Bardem (an actor of great skill who appears in nearly ever scene). Although there is a great deal happening in Uxbal's life, none of it is good. In between using his spiritual/psychic abilities to help the dying transition to the afterlife, he must face the harsh realities of blood in his urine, an irresponsible brother as his business partner, an unmanageable and bipolar wife who wants to go out and "enjoy life like a whore," and a seven-year-old son who is already smoking cigarettes.

Born Charnego, Uxbal is one of  the few people can speak Castilian who remained in Santa Coloma. He grew up with immigrants, works with them, and tries to help them find work (even while exploiting them as cheap labor). Although his life is complicated by the needs of so many others, and Uxbal deeply loves his two children, he is so busy that he barely has time to die, much less provide for their future. Alone and desperate, Uxbal is the kind of man whose pathetic circumstances mean that, even as he is dying of metastatic cancer, he can't afford to be depressed.

Some people may be drawn to Iñárritu's film for its gritty sense of reality, Bardem's fine acting, or simply because misery loves company. I thought it was a colossal bore. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
The only thing missing from The Drummond Will (which will be screened at the upcoming 13th San Francisco Independent Film Festival) would be some cameo appearances by the ghosts of Terry-Thomas and Margaret Rutherford. This raucously rude and deliciously irreverent farce gets more out of its stark black and white cinematography than most indie films could ever hope to enjoy.

In his director’s statement, Alan Butterworth writes:
"Making the film in black and white was never really a difficult decision. My favorite film (Dr. Strangelove) is in black and white. Kind Hearts and Coronets looks better than The Ladykillers. Manhattan looks better than Annie Hall, and Raging Bull looks better than just about anything.

I also mention Kind Hearts and Coronets as it was also a key influence on the story. I only saw it a few years ago and I was blown away by it. The concept of having a central character who was so clearly immoral in a comedy was something that really stuck with me. For our film  though, especially with Danny, a character who wasn’t exactly immoral but simply unconstrained by traditional moral values, seemed a more interesting way to go in a modern context.

This film is a deeply affectionate modern retelling of the classic comedies and murder mysteries from the Ealing era of British cinema, The Drummond Will imagines what it would be like to be stuck in a world where the strange rules of Ealing cinema apply. A world where life continues quite as normal in the face of escalating body counts, where sleepy English villages invariably harbor any number of dark secrets, and where you only really know who the murderer is when everybody else has been killed. The thoroughly modern Danny and Marcus are trapped in just such a world, and are quickly swept out of their depth. As they realize they’ll need to rely on each other if they are to survive, and modern ideas like forensics, cell phones and common sense won’t help them, it quickly becomes clear that, inevitably, nothing is what it seems."

Marcus (Mark Oosterveen) and Danny Drummond (Phillip James )

Marcus Drummond (Mark Oosterveen) is a conservative, middle-aged bureaucrat prone to suffering increasing levels of abuse. His brother, Danny (Phillip James,) is the happy-go-lucky fool who can't stop himself from making bad decisions and getting into more trouble. Soon after their return to the tiny village in which they grew up, their father's funeral sets off a chain of unlikely events bound to land the two brothers in a never-ending heap of trouble. Among the people who seem determined to make their lives miserable are:
  • The Constable (Jonathan Hansler) is a familiar stereotype of British whodunits.
  • The Vicar (Nigel Osner) thinks that, even in this day and age, his sexuality would be a secret.
  • Betty the Barmaid (Victoria Jeffrey) has a nasty way with a crossbow.
  • The Colonel (Eryl Lloyd-Parry) desperately wants something.
  • Malcolm the Bastard (Morrison Thomas) is hiding in the closet, clutching a bag of money.
  • Hobo Dave (David Manson) is as drunk as ever.
Marcus (Mark Oosterveen) tries to tidy up the kitchen

Only their loving Uncle Rufus (Keith Parry) seems happy to see the two Drummond boys. But, like everyone else in the village, Rufus has a few secrets up his sleeve.

To spill the beans wouldn't be fair to the filmmaker. Let's just say that The Drummond Will is one of the most refreshingly inventive and lovingly crafted send-ups of a beloved genre to be seen in many a moon. It's  the blackest of comedies and a joyful romp rolled into one very pleasing package. Here's the trailer:

No comments: