I’m So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros, Spain 2013)

The stewards mime to 'I'm Excited'

The stewards mime to ‘I’m So Excited’

When a subtitled film gets a wide release, I’m always torn between elation that it is going to be more widely seen and a terrible fear that there will just be two of us in the multiplex screen. The other possibility is that people will see it and loathe it. I wondered if this might be happening with Pedro Almodóvar‘s new film. It was a strange experience watching it in Hebden Bridge Picture House where it seemed to go down very well (Hebden is a very interesting and diverse community) and then to head home to discover that on IMDb it had a 5.7 rating and several damning reviews. Checking the box office figures, it has actually done OK business with £750,000 in the UK after three weeks – down on Almodóvar’s recent titles but a good result for a subtitled film. I can only assume that the poor IMDb response (mirrored on Rotten Tomatoes) is some kind of conservative backlash.

The film’s English language title refers to the Pointer Sisters’ song from 1982 which for me marked the high spot of the film. The Spanish title may be untranslatable but means something like ‘In-flight lovers’. At least this makes more sense than the using the song title. I felt that the film was a familiar camp, transgressive farce that contains some satirical elements but which was fundamentally humanist and actually quite sweet. Reading the coverage in Sight and Sound (May 2013), including a short piece by Almodóvar himself, I think that there is a general agreement about the comedy but some variance over whether the effect is satirical, melancholic or ‘light’.

The plot involves a passenger aircraft with malfunctioning landing gear that must circle losing fuel until a suitable runway can be prepared for a crash landing. In the meantime the crew attempt to divert the business class passengers with booze, drugs and a song. The economy class passengers have all been drugged/tranquilised so that they sleep through the proceedings.

Most commentators see the film as a throwback to the early Almodóvar of the 1980s and there is certainly something reminiscent of his 1987 hit Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which in the UK at least was a breakthrough film. However, I do wonder if some of those critics who attack the new fim so savagely have actually seen any of the director’s earlier 1980s work (let alone his 1970s 8mm output). Almodóvar’s current status derives mostly from the success of his mainstream melodramas/thrillers in a sequence that began with Live Flesh in 1997 and which includes the Oscar-winning All About My Mother (1999). It is the audiences that discovered the director through these films that is probably ‘shocked’ by the new film.

I think that the key to enjoying the film is to take it at face value as a farce, to try not to compare it with any recollections of the earlier work and certainly not to worry about any kind of ‘social realist’ commentary. Some audiences seem to have real problems with questions of sexism and other forms of moral judgement. That way madness lies in an Almodóvar film! After the screening – and perhaps after a second screening – it might be possible to analyse what the director is suggesting through satire. Spain is clearly in a mess with a banking crisis, an economy in meltdown and dangerously high levels of unemployment. The aircraft is circling above Central Spain without a landing strip ready to receive it safely when it crashes. The ordinary people are unaware of what is happening and their leaders/the rich don’t know what to do and are trying to run away to Mexico instead. Of course one of them is a banker and one of his failed schemes involves an airport that has been built but never used . . . The others have personal stories that can be exposed and possibly brought to some form of conclusion through healthy doses of sex, drugs and music. Almodóvar cites Hollywood screwball comedies as his inspiration, adds a touch of Busby Berkeley and pays hommage to Luis García Berlanga. Berlanga was one of the great Spanish directors of the 1950s and 1960s, creating satirical works that evaded Franco’s censors. I have fond memories of his satire on Francoist attempts to woo the Americans in Welcome Mr. Marshall! (¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!) made in partnership with Juan Antonio Bardem in 1952. In a tiny cameo at the beginning of the film, Almodóvar’s two biggest stars launch the film narrative in an unexpected way and then severalof the main players in the farce turn out to be familiar Almodóvar actors Cecilia Roth (All About My Mother), Lola Dueñas (Talk to Her etc.), Javier Cámara (Talk to HerBad Education) etc. – I’m sure there are plenty more in what is a ‘family affair’.

So, enjoy first and think about it afterwards!

¡Viva! 2013 #5: Els nens salvatges (The Wild Kids, Spain 2012)

The three central characters – after hours in a shopping mall, (l-r) Oki, Alex and Gabi

The three central characters – after hours in a shopping mall, (l-r) Oki, Alex and Gabi

vivalogoPatricia Ferreira was picked out by Rob Stone (Spanish Cinema, Longman, 2002: 11) as one of “a growing number of talented and committed female directors in Spain”. Since her début feature in 1999 she has completed five more and she came to ¡Viva! to introduce Els nens salvatges and then to answer questions after the film.

Els nens salvatges is in one sense a familiar genre – a form of youth picture focusing on three teenagers and their parents. It didn’t occur to me until later that structurally the narrative resembles Rebel Without a Cause – two boys and a girl who hang out together, get into scrapes and have to deal with various issues associated with their parents. Meanwhile, in school and on the streets they have run-ins with teachers and fellow students. However, in its origination and treatment the Spanish film is quite different. Ms Ferreira explained that the idea for the film came from an incident some 15 years ago that prompted a debate about youths and parents and the Spanish school system. She suggested that Spanish people would remember the story. Her re-working of the story, co-written by herself and Virginia Yagüe, offers us Alex (Àlex Monner) as a graffiti artist and Gabi (Albert Baró) as a kickboxer. Laura, aka ‘Oki’, (Marina Comas) is the girl from the better-off family who recognises something in the boys’ behaviour that she finds attractive.

Patricia Ferreira has a documentary background and she liked the idea of being an outsider in Barcelona and ‘observing’ the youth of the city. She also decided to try to offer a naturalistic view of relationships in which both Catalan (including Majorcan Catalan) and Castilian are spoken in certain situations. She took a long time in preparation and this was a problem in casting the three leads. Around 15 young people are growing and changing their appearance quite quickly and her early picks had outgrown their roles as shooting approached. She explained that she didn’t want to work with ‘non-professionals’ and she eventually found the young actors who do very well in their roles. The film is essentially realist but it is presented in CinemaScope and looks very good. As I’ve indicated, the characters and the situations are all familiar. Oki has a mother who dotes on her and a father who tries to ‘buy’ her off with expensive presents. Oki gives up on her flamenco classes as part of her ‘rebellion’. Alex has parents who seem to have little time for him, especially his father, and Gabi’s father is the typical macho man who wants his son to be a fighter. We are even offered a sympathetic young school counsellor (played by Aina Clotet who was the lead in Elisa K at ¡Viva! in 2011).

(from left) Cornerhouse Film Programme Manager Rachel Hayward, Patricia Ferreira and an interpreter (sorry, I didn't catch the name)

(from left) Cornerhouse Film Programme Manager Rachel Hayward, Patricia Ferreira and interpreter Elena Alonso from the Instituto Cervantes.

It’s the school scenes that seem to have created the most interest. We see the behaviour of students in the classes of a couple of teachers and we see a staffroom meeting discussing what to do about a particular incident. Frankly, I didn’t find any of these scenes to be particularly shocking. They seemed quite ‘real’ and experienced teachers will have seen all this before. The central issue in the film is what all the events lead up to in the final scenes. Before the screening Ferreira explained to us that the film was inspired by a real event. She told us this, I imagine, because she thought that we might find the final part of the narrative to be ‘unreal’ or ‘unlikely’. But the film is edited in such a way that the final act and its impact is discussed before we actually see what happened. I’m not sure this worked for me. This is a shame because everything else worked very well. This is certainly an interesting film and well worth watching. The crux of the issue seems to be that Patricia Ferreira’s approach means we ‘observe’ what the character in question does rather than, as in a mainstream film, being shown or told what he or she feels. I didn’t observe anything that helped explain why the act was committed. Perhaps that is the whole point. The moral seems to be that if teens are misunderstood or if parents and schools don’t treat them with respect, bad things might happen. I don’t mean that to sound trite. The film shows young characters who are occasionally thoughtless in their desire to have fun but not in any way threatening. When something does happen it’s a shock because it seems to come from nowhere. I can’t say much more without giving away the ending which I don’t want to do if the film is going to get a UK release. It has won awards at various festivals and it should work on distribution here.

Overall, a successful event, I feel. I enjoyed the film and the Q&A. This was the last ¡Viva! screening I was able to get to this year. My impression is that it has been another successful festival with two days still to go if you are in Manchester.

Here’s a trailer (no English subs):

¡Viva! 2013 #4: Las largas vacaciones del 36 (Long Holidays of 1936, Spain 1976)

Las_Largas_Vacaciones_Del_36-Caratula

vivalogoThe Cornerhouse programme of ‘Matinee Classics’ continues during the ¡Viva! Festival so that there is a rare chance to see a screening of an earlier Spanish classic film in the usual Sunday/Wednesday afternoon slot. Las largas vacaciones del 36, directed by Jaime Camino, is a familiar reflection on the experience of the Civil War, made more intriguing by its release in 1976 during the last days of the Francoist regime and soon after the release of Cría cuervos by Carlos Saura (a clever and popular satire of the impact of the regime).

I wasn’t able to find out much about the film before or after the screening, so I’ll have to respond directly to what I saw. I’d classify the it as a family melodrama, except that its style is relatively muted and high emotion is reserved for the closing stages of the film. The title refers to the holidays taken by a couple of bourgeois Barcelona families each year in a village in the hills surrounding the city. In July 1936 the families are in their summer residences when the Civil War begins and they remain there trapped by the war until the fall of Barcelona in early 1939.

The script focuses on two families with one firmly associated with the Republican cause and the other much more pragmatic. This second family reluctantly hides a rich fascist and his partner (and their car) but is then ready to receive the Francoists in 1939. There is a flurry of action in the first few days of the war as the local Republicans secure the village, but for most of the film narrative, the families have to pass the time, finding ways to survive as food runs out and establishing a temporary school for their children. The focus on children ties in with the censorship demands of Francoist cinema (which proscribed what kinds of films would be sanctioned for production), except that these are rather older teenagers. There is nothing very remarkable about the script or the characters, except perhaps the role of the maid Encarta (Angela Molina) who is quite outspoken and has a relatively explicit sexual encounter with one of the teenage boys that perhaps challenged the censor at the time. However, though the film appears quite conventional it does offer an interesting take on the impact of the war including the experience of both boredom and hunger and what it might have been like to have been a middle-class teenager cocooned from the action. The performances are very good and visually the narrative benefits from its unique location above the city. I was reminded of British ‘home front’ films from 1939-45 when characters watch the bombing raids on the city below, signified by the searchlight beams and fires. The film won a prize at Berlin in 1976 and it fits well into the home front genre of war films.

One of the interesting aspects of watching what I presumed was a 35mm print was the variable quality of the reels – damage at reel changes is to be expected, but it was noticeable that some reels had gone ‘pink’ while others had retained a good colour balance. Overall it was fine. In the days of digital projection it’s good to be reminded of both the good and bad points of archive film. I would certainly recommend the film as an archive treat. It shows again on Wednesday this week with the chance to discuss the film with Carmen Herrero, Head of Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University.

¡Viva! 2013 #3: La vida empieza hoy (Life Begins Today, Spain 2010)

Rosita (Mariana Cordero) browses a sex shop in the hope of finding something to stimulate her husband.

Rosita (Mariana Cordero) browses a sex shop in the hope of finding something to stimulate her husband’s interest.

vivalogoI can’t help but compare this film to the recent British attempts to directly address the over 60s cinema audience, but Life Begins Today predates them. It’s also, at least for me, funnier and more poignant than The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet or Song For Marion. The narrative is built around several pensioners who attend a ‘sex class’ in a local education centre. The class is run by an indefatigable teacher who wants her students (with ages ranging from 60s to 80s) to recognise that sex should still be important in their lives. We get to see the impact of the classroom experience on three students and their various family members and relationships. The individual characters are quite well-drawn and varied enough to maintain our interest.

Pepe is the youngest and taken aback that his mistress treats his retirement as a prompt to leave him. Does he want to re-kindle some passion in his relationship with his wife Rosita? He doesn’t try – but she realises that it is up to her. Herminia is trying to lead her own life after the return of her singleton daughter – who seems to treat her as a possible dementia sufferer. Fortunately she bumps into Julián who has returned after many years from Argentina. He doesn’t need much encouragement, which is just as well because his son doesn’t know how to receive him and as convention demands it is his teenage grandson who understands him best. So far, so familiar sex/age comedy. More intriguing perhaps is the representation of the angry and repressed widow Juanita who in the end gets the last laugh from the film.

I hesitate to comment too much on the success of the comedy in the film. It’s all too easy to be entertained by a film in a language that you don’t know – ignoring or not noticing the aspects that in an English language film would be off-putting. Still, I wonder if the fact that both script and direction are by women means that many of the traps in this kind of filmmaking are avoided or handled more successfully. My experience is that, very often, female filmmakers deal with sex and sexuality much more effectively than men.

There was a very good house in Cornerhouse’s biggest screen for this showing and they all seem to have a good time. I suppose it’s asking too much for a UK distributor to pick up the film for more screenings? One last thought, are masturbation jokes finally spreading beyond the usual teenage boys comedy? Have filmmakers finally realised that most people masturbate at some point?

Trailer (in Spanish, no subs):

¡Viva! 2013 #1: El mundo es nuestro (The World is Ours, Spain 2012)

El mundo es nuestro

vivalogoA wonderful start to my ¡Viva! festival viewing at Cornerhouse Manchester, this must be the most entertaining film I’ve seen for a while. Just under 90 mins is the perfect length for a comedy. Imagine if you can the 1970s classic, Dog Day Afternoon, re-worked as a kind of Cuban satire with elements of a 1980s Almodóvar comedy. A pair of dim-witted but fairly harmless hoodlums decide to rob a bank in Sevilla on Good Friday dressed as ‘penitents’ (characters in religious processions dressed like Klan members), one in black and one in white. But once the robbery is underway they are completely thrown by the sudden appearance in the bank of a would-be suicide bomber who wants his slot on TV news in order to make an announcement. Soon, the police have surrounded the bank. What happens over the next 70 minutes or so is predictable I suppose, but the script is fast-moving and quite witty so I was laughing too much to worry about things like that.

Every social problem in Spain – and there are a lot since this is a very topical film – is covered in the selection of characters. So we have a mealy-mouthed bank manager, a fascist entrepreneur who will eventually evoke Franco, a gay auditor, a put-upon female bank teller, a young graduate forced to work as a warehouseman, a timid unemployed man trying to sign on for his benefits, a journalist working on trivial stories etc., etc. The police officer in charge of the operation is not only a woman, but, seemingly worse, a Northerner from Burgos. This is the kind of film that should be being made in the UK since we have nearly all the same problems and there aren’t enough really funny films slagging off bankers and corrupt politicians.

The film is showing again on Monday 18th March at Cornerhouse when writer/director/producer and actor Alfonso Sánchez along with his co-star and fellow sevillano Alberto López will be present for a Q&A. It promises to be a great night, so check to see if any tickets are left and get along there if you are in Manchester.

!Viva¡ 2013

viva2013

March means !Viva¡, Manchester’s annual festival of Spanish and Latin American film which this year runs from Friday 8th March until Sunday 24th March at Cornerhouse cinema and visual arts centre. This year’s programme promises the familiar mix of features and documentaries, education events and visiting filmmakers plus a complementary gallery programme featuring the work of Yoshua Okón in ‘Octopus’. The artist will be appearing in a Q&A session on Saturday 9 March with clips of his video work.

We’ll be making two visits to the festival and reporting on parts of the film programme. There are ten UK premieres and we are particularly excited by the range of work from Latin America this year with films from Ecuador, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Chile and Colombia alongside Mexican and Argentina. There are several new Spanish titles including genre films. Lobos de Arga (Game of Werewolves) is a ‘werewolf comedy’ that will be introduced by Andy Willis in a ‘1 hour intro’ on 12th March. Other highlights include this year’s Oscar contender from Uruguay, La demora. This is a family drama by the Mexican director Rodrigo Plá whose earlier La zona was a hit at !Viva¡ in 2008.

!Viva¡ is a friendly festival with tickets at standard prices. The festival is spread out with two or three films on most days. Several of the films play twice. Why not visit Manchester for the day? You can download the festival programme from its homepage. Our first report will come later next week.

El alma de las macas (The Soul of Flies, Spain-UK 2011)

Nero (Andrea Calabrese) and Miguel (Javier Sáez), the brothers on the road to their father’s funeral.

This film demonstrates that it is possible to make a decent ‘festival film’ able to attract audiences in many countries with virtually no production budget at all (see the official website). Some press reports suggest that the film was completed for €1,000, but in an interview the writer-director (and cinematographer-editor) Jonathan Cenzual Burley suggests that with the cost of post-production, the budget would probably equal “the cost of a decent car” (£20,000?). I’d urge any young filmmaker to watch the film and see just what is possible.

The best advice to first time writer-directors with very little money is probably to create a story about something you know, set it in a location you can easily access and cast your friends and relations if they are suitable. Burley is perhaps fortunate in that his grandparents’ house is on the plains of Salamanca in Western Castile. Given plenty of sunshine and a landscape full of possibilities in representing the myths and legends of Spanish culture, he made the sensible decision to place his two central characters in this wonderful landscape and to keep his camera low and compose the most beautiful vistas. Added to this he found two more than competent musicians (one of whom, Andrea Calabrese is also one of the two lead actors) to provide an interesting soundtrack of mostly guitar and accordion music. But is there a story, you ask? Well, sort of . . .

Burley tells us that he is interested in Spanish stories, although he actually namechecks Gabriel García Márquez. But he does conjure up a tale of the picaresque that refers us back to Cervantes (and perhaps to Luis Buñuel’s films since a character turns up from Santiago de Compostela amongst other possible references). In a prologue we learn that an old man, who has had an ‘adventurous life’ traversing the world many times, is dying in his village and his final act is to invite to his funeral his two sons – who have never met him or indeed each other. Finding each a brother is his parting gift. The two half-brothers meet at an abandoned railway station and proceed to get lost together as they seek out the village where the funeral is to be held. Along the way they meet a diverse range of characters and of course find out something about each other.

The film is quite short. It is divided into chapters and Burley uses some simple devices to denote dreams and fantasies. If you are of a mind, it is possible to spot lots of potential references to European art films. However, the tone of the film is light and playful. It is described as a comedy. I’m not sure it is laugh-out-loud funny, but it is certainly amusing. The technical aspects of production are handled well and the cast, most of whom seem to be family members or actors with no or little previous experience, are generally pretty good. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film is listed as 83% fresh. Some of the more experienced (and possibly jaded?) critics didn’t like it, but younger critics did.

El alma de las macas appeared in cinemas in the UK in July and it  is now available to own on DVD from 22 October, courtesy of Matchbox Films. Order your copy here: amazon.co.uk/dp/B008US3VHI

Trailer: