Friday, April 23, 2010

Around The World In Weighty Days

Time came to a standstill for far too many people last week as the ash cloud from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano forced many European airports to shut down. News that Iceland's neighboring Katla volcano could erupt with even greater force has kept millions on edge as they try to return home, deliver air freight, or simply continue their day-to-day affairs.

Some writers have rhapsodized about the possibility of returning to sea and rail as a regular means of transportation. Poetic thoughts, to be sure, but not particularly realistic in a global economy that depends on the ability to move large amounts of people and freight at high speeds through the air.

Things move much more slowly on the ground. Even when a human sprints down the street, he is moving at a snail's pace compared to a Boeing 747's average cruising speed of 652 miles per hour. While documentaries usually record events in real time, narrative films have the option of randomly moving forward or backward in time. In the hands of a gifted storyteller, film can make the audience feel as if time has stood still. In the hands of a less gifted artist, the audience can feel trapped by a filmmaker's inability to get moving.

* * * * * * * *
Andrei Dascalescu's documentary, Constantin and Elena (which will be screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival) trains its camera on the daily lives of two elderly Romanians who have been married for more than 55 years. Although the couple have a television set and cell phone, their lifestyles are not particularly modern.

Elena, who grew up in a convent where she learned how to write poetry, still weaves rugs and tapestries containing floral images. Over the years, her rugs have become a fixture in most of the homes in their tiny village. She routinely curses the "stupid ducks" who devotedly follow her around their farm.

A World War II veteran, Constantin has had numerous careers. He was a financial inspector in Bucharest when the Communists were in power and later became a plumber. Although he still milks the cows on his farm, he doesn't sing to them the way he used to.

Constantin and Elena

Now in their eighties, Constantin and Elena pass the time by teasing each other and singing old Romanian songs. Following the death of their eldest son, however, they are acutely aware that time is running out for them as well. As endearing as the two may be, Dascalescu's film can often test the audience's patience. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * *
If you really want to test your patience, let me recommend Eugène Green's new film, The Portuguese Nun. A movie whose greatest assets are to be found in the scenes featuring two Fado singers (Camané and Aldina Duarte) and the guitarist José Manuel Neto, this movie might cause one to wonder why these three artists have absolutely nothing to do with the film's plot. The answer is quite simple: The Portuguese Nun is not about Fado music. Nor does it have much else with which to command an audience's attention.

A Parisian film actress, Julie de Hauranne (Leonor Baldaque), has arrived in Lisbon to shoot some scenes for a movie opposite another French actor, Martin Dautand (Adrien Michaux). Julie is very much a free spirit, who has never had a serious relationship in her life. Martin has a wife with whom he would like to have a child, but there is no passion in his marriage.

Leonor Baldaque, Francisco Mozos, and Adrien Michaux

Soon after arriving in Lisbon, Julie meets Vasco (Francisco Mozos), a street urchin with a ball, and D. Henrique Cunha (Diogo Dória), a suicidal older man who studied to become a cardiologist but who has never practiced medicine. While her director, Denis Verde (Eugène Green), encourages Julie to enjoy a night out on the town, she can't stop wondering why Vasco isn't in school. She's also intrigued by Irma Joana (Ana Moreira), the insomniac nun she spies at church.

By the end of the film, Julie has finished shooting her scenes and convinced the beleaguered mother of three children (Beatriz Batarda) who cares for Vasco that the orphaned boy might be better off moving to Paris with her.

Leonor Baldaque and Adrien Michaux

Watching The Portuguese Nun is a bit like waiting for paint to dry. Green's snooze fest features dialogue so wooden it could make an audio animatron scream out in protest. His tendency to film conversations at a strict right angle -- or have actors stare directly into the camera while reciting their lines as if in a metronomic trance -- is irritating, maddening, and horribly counterproductive.

Filmed in French and Portuguese (with English subtitles), The Portuguese Nun is only worth your time if you are never going to get to Lisbon and can't live without seeing some footage of Portugal's capital city. The following trailer contains one of the more animated scenes in this film. Don't waste your time on 127 minutes of cinematic Metamucil.

* * * * * * * * *
Those looking for a film about South American slackers might want to check out José Manuel Sandoval's entry in the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival entitled You Think You're The Prettiest But You Are The Sluttiest. A rising star in Chile's burgeoning film industry, the 25-year-old Sandoval's piece revolves around the ongoing misfortunes of Javier (Martin Castillo), a 19-year-old loser who suffers from ennui, premature ejaculation, and an ongoing inability to compete with the superior charms of his best friend, Nico (Francisco Braithwaite), a graffiti artist who has no problems scoring with women.

When Javier comes on to drama student Valentina (Camila Le-Bert) by suggesting that she sign a contract to be his girlfriend for two weeks, he discovers that Valentina is much more sexually mature than he is. His amorous adventure is ruined by his usual problem with premature ejaculation. As Javier wanders the streets of Santiago wallowing in self pity, he tries to fend off the advances of a gay man (Jose Miguel Gallardo) by offering the guy money just to leave him alone.

Martin Castillo as Javier

Javier's efforts at getting together with Valentina keep failing, much to the amusement of Nico's girlfriend Francisca (Andrea Riquelme). When Javier tries to engage a depressed man in a bar (Sebastian Brahm) -- whose girlfriend has just left him after receiving a scholarship to Spain and dropped his children off with their grandparents -- Javier's feeble attempt to prove that his life actually sucks more than the other man's ends up with him allowing the other man to pay him for the privilege of punching Javier in the face.

Sebastian Brahm

The next day, as Javier roams about the city, he decides to avenge himself on Nico by defacing one of Nico's street murals with white paint. Soon after, Javier encounters two teen-age thugs (Matias Lopez and Alvaro Ramirez) who bully him into giving up his Discman (which contains the CD filled with music that Valentina had given him).

With nowhere to go but up, Javier tries to befriend a tired old street whore (Grimanesa Jiménez) as he explains that his friends who indulge in sex just for the fun of it are actually much bigger sluts than working prostitutes like her (who have sex because they need the money to live). And, by the way, if she's interested, he has $10 burning a hole in his pocket.

Grimanesa Jiménez and Martin Castillo

As Sandoval explains:
"The film roots itself as an absurd realist street script. Through its use of dialogue, it is able to transform the absurd into a quotidienne that can easily be pictured on a neighboring street corner. It is one of those city movies that deals with a universal theme with the specificity of he who lives through it while never forgetting to establish a point of view in regards to the place that gives context to the story. Intense performances charged with verbal diarrhea-ic dialogues add to the film by creating a world with a strong social and postmodern point of view.

A seemingly naïve film that shies away from the use of spectacle and that is forever fleeing from formalities, the characters build up in such a way that those same elements take on a strong narrative effect. This is possible thanks to the close relationship between the director and the story, since the vision has sprung from that one mind that with a sensibility although, at times, haphazard never ceases to be particular."
Martin Castillo as Javier

Javier's vain boast that "I'm the most post-modern one" does little to generate any audience sympathy for him other than acknowledging the fact that he's a hopeless dork. While Martin Castillo's sleepy eyes and lanky frame give him the kind of nebbishy charm that could make the young Woody Allen seem supremely overconfident, Sandoval's film needs some tightening to make it stay afloat. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
If Constantin and Elena, The Portuguese Nun, and You Think You're The Prettiest, But You're the Sluttiest all seem to leave their audiences hungry for a solid narrative, the answer to their prayers can be found in The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentinian drama which won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Juan José Campanella, this powerful thriller has a winning overlay of political, sexual, and criminal intrigue as meticulously plotted as Pedro Almodovar's recent Broken Embraces.

Spanning a 25-year period of corruption and betrayal in Argentina, Campanella's film begins with the investigation into a brutal murder in 1974 during which Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) was raped and murdered in her home in Buenos Aires.

As a young state prosecution investigator assigned to the case, Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) can't find any clues with which to track down the killer. His assistant, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), is a chronic alcoholic drinking his way through a secure government paycheck who is always advising Esposito to follow the killer's passion. When Esposito's bureaucratic rival, Romano (Mariano Argento), tries to pin the murder on two goofballs, Esposito smells a rat and works to have them released.

One night, while at a sports bar, Sandoval connects some critical dots by identifying the names found in a suspect's letters (he identifies them as players on a major soccer team). When Esposito and his allies manage to corner the suspect -- a man who knew the victim back when they lived in the small town of Chivilcoy -- their attempts to bring Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino) to justice take a strange twist.

Esposito's new boss, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), is a sexy young female judge with an Ivy League education. She takes one look at Gómez and launches into a scathing attack on his masculinity, branding him as impotent and insisting that his dick is probably so tiny that the only way he could get a woman's attention was to kill her.

Enraged by her accusations, Gómez confesses to the murder of Liliana Coloto and pulls out his penis in the middle of the courtroom to prove to Irene that it's a lot bigger than she thinks. A year later, when Gómez is sprung from prison by Romano and becomes a hired thug for the secret police, both Irene and Esposito realize that their lives are at risk.

Javier Godino, Soledad Villamil, and Ricardo Darin

One evening, after Esposito has brought the drunken Sandoval to his home to sober up, he leaves the house to run an errand. Upon his return, he discovers that Sandoval has been gunned down (no doubt by someone who thought he was Esposito). With some help from Irene's family, Esposito goes into exile for a decade, returning to Buenos Aires in 1985 and quietly working until his retirement in 1999.

Now, 25 years after Liliana Coloto's murder, Esposito needs a project to alleviate the boredom of retirement. He visits Irene and informs her of his desire to write a novel based on the Coloto case.

Throughout the past 25 years Coloto's murder has kept haunting him. Early in his investigations, Esposito had met Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), Liliana's lover who kept waiting in train stations hoping to spot her murderer. Haunted by the events of the past 25 years, Esposito tracks Morales down to the small town where he has settled and tried to cope with his grief.

Morales, however, has been hiding a shocker of his own -- the kind of plot twist that makes for a great saga of revenge. Once Esposito learns Morales's secret, he is free to return to Buenos Aires, grab Irene, lock the door to her office, and try to rekindle the flames of a romance they had never had time to pursue once they feared for their lives.

Soledad Villamil, and Ricardo Darin

Campanella's film is gorgeous to watch and fascinating to experience. As he explains in his director's notes:
"Memory fascinates me. The way decisions we made 20 or 30 years ago can affect us today. This could also apply to a nation’s memories. As we now recover our memory of the 1970s as a country, we know that the horror began to take shape before the military dictatorship. The story takes place in that Argentina as the very air thickened, creeping up on and enveloping even the key players.

My aim was to tell this story as a combination: of small beings wandering through a sea of people, among huge structures, lost in the crowd -- and their eyes. The story of that man walking by a hundred meters away at the train station, with five hundred bodies between us and him. What could we learn about him if suddenly, with no cuts, we could see a close up of his eyes? What secrets would they have to tell?

Secrets about a story like this one perhaps: a story about a murder, true, but above all a story about love. A story about love in its purest form. A love that ended when it was only in the bud, with no time even to fade and die.

How could a love like that be lived? What effect would it have on the people involved? What acts of madness could a pair of eyes commit when love is taken away from them?

These are questions the film seeks to ask and which, only in the lives of the characters, perhaps attempts to find answers to. I don’t see this as a 'film noir.' The 'meat,' the main dish, the driving forces behind this movie is an undeclared love that has lasted for years, frustration, and the emptiness felt by the main characters."
The Secret In Their Eyes features some magnificent acting (especially from Soledad Villamil as Irene and Javier Godino as Gómez). This film offers a complex, intelligent, and multi-layered weave of love, intrigue, and revenge. Here's the trailer:

No comments: