Tuesday, January 08, 2008

American Gangster

I've been hearing that American Gangster is just your run-of-the-mill cop vs. robber flick, again showing Ridley Scott's prevailing mediocrity. Hey, I love the cast and I find Scott almost as intriguing as his brother, so I was all for it. Generic gangsters with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe should still be better than most. However, while finding it to be unoriginal, I didn't see it as a crime film. Instead it was one of my least favorite genres, the biopic. We are shown Frank Lucas go from driver of Harlem's bigshot to king of the drug world and Richie Roberts from beat cop/law student to drug investigator head/prosecuting lawyer. Rather than give us all conflict, we get sequence after sequence of how these two got where they get. Not only that, but I couldn't tell you at the end who was the good guy and who the bad. Both men are glorified and shown to have enemies that they vault over because of character, whether moral or not. They both beat the odds, and honestly, I liked Denzel's Lucas as a person more than Crowe's Roberts.

There is just too much going on here. How many times do we need to see Robert's boyscout mentality and Lucas' calm demeanor and non-flashy appearance? Both men do what they should to be successful in their field, only while Crowe continuously gets punished for it in life—but not career per se—Washington just gets richer. Who should we strive to be then? Like the young man with a 95 mph fastball, who gives up his gravy train, says, "I want to be like you Uncle Frank." You don't see Robert's son looking up to dad, instead he seems to not even know he exists, pretty much because he doesn't to him.

I don't want to slight the story though. This is a very intriguing premise, how a black man subverts the middleman, like local electronic stores, to buy his drugs from the source in Bangkok. This no name does what the Italians never could, sell superior product for half the price, and stay almost completely under the radar. Whether the expensive chinchilla coat from his wife truly was the cause of him appearing on enemy lists or not—it is a bit convenient—it was bound to happen sometime. Although, keeping a low profile and staying conservative is a novel idea that you'd think more criminals would want to adopt. The Frank Lucas story works, but I think it would truly succeed as its own tale. Just show us his life, or maybe just his heyday as a ruthless criminal, not as a kid from the streets that works hard and runs his city. Glorifying crime should not be what Hollywood wants to do.

While the Lucas tale was good, the Roberts one was great. Now, the Richie Roberts Story is something I would definitely watch. Here is a guy that is married to his job and estranged from his wife and kid. Someone who finds a million dollars of drug money and doesn't take a penny; will not cover for his partner or friends if they do something illegal; and who will stop at nothing to actually put bad men behind bars. Even more unbelievable is how he not only takes down the most dangerous criminal in New York, but he also prosecutes him in court, getting him to cooperate in taking down corrupt cops. Then, the craziest revelation of all, he becomes Lucas' defense attorney and gets his term shortened by fifty years. It is too bad that rather than give two hour-and-a-half films on each guy separately, we get a bloated three hour parallel tale of the two at once. I only stayed invested in anticipation to finally see these two powerhouses on screen together.

In that regard, Washington and Crowe deliver the goods like usual. Supporting them, however, is a big time cast of names. I can't believe all the people they got to be involved here with bit parts. Ejiofor, Hawkes, Brolin, Gugino, Common, Ortiz, Gooding Jr., Assante, and more vault the story to a higher level through their professionalism. Even RZA has a nice turn, but did we need the money shot of his tattooed name on his shoulder? Come on, cover that up, it was just stupid. I really hope John Ortiz will continue to get work because like in Miami Vice, he makes a small role his own.

So, in the end, as with most biopics, this one just shows too much. It lulled me into a sense of cruise control, just watching and watching, waiting for something special to happen. There are moments, like the final shootout that works nicely and a good exchange at the end between Lucas and his mother, but they are few and very far between. Only in America can a man without conscience, a murderer and drug-lord, blow-in a few corrupt cops and skate out of jail time to once again roam the streets. I understand the utilitarianism of it all and that he might be a marked man now, but honestly, he turned in police officers not gang leaders. There won't be any hits put on his head; he'll be able to retire with no problem. Not to mention, I'm sure, that probably no ramifications were experienced by the military and their involvement in the smuggling of contraband into the country. It's like this all happened and we learned nothing from it.

No Country for Old Men

Cormac McCarthy's characteristically dry, laconic, and sometimes hilarious dialogue brightens the scenes of this superb and chilling thriller the Coen brothers have ably transferred to the screen with excellent help from Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Tones, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, and others, including a salty second layer of minor characters who look like they sprang straight out of the sandy soil of West Texas.

McCarthy, unmistakably one of America's greatest living writers of fiction, lives vividly in this, the Coens' first literary adaptation. Some of his best novels, notably Blood Meridian (called by Yale critic Harold Bloom one of the 20th century's greatest novels), are so apocalyptic, so embedded in their glorious poetic prose, as to be virtually unfilmable. All the Pretty Horses, from his Border Trilogy, has been filmed with some success (Matt Damon works in his role; Penelope Cruz doesn't). No Country for Old Men is late McCarthy. Post-apocalyptic, maybe. Jones's disenchanted, aging sheriff says, "When you don't hear sir and ma'am any more pretty much everything else goes." Llewelyn Moss (Brolin), a fairly innocent but opportunistic man, is deer hunting (he's not a good shot; he can't catch one out of a whole herd of them) when he finds a sprawl of wrecked vehicles and corpses, including Mexicans and a dog. There's a truckload of heroin in plastic packages and a briefcase containing two million plus in $100 bills. Moss takes the money and hightails it in his truck.

Naturally there are people who want the money back. Not nice people.

The man they hire to go after it is called Anton Chigurh. Expertly played by Javier Bardem, he's a villain--but with a clear-cut morality all his own--who's invincible and probably unforgettable. Chigurh is like the Grim Reaper: he can decide your fate with the flip of a coin; he reflects the biblical side of Cormac McCarthy, but in a terrible modern corruption. The crooks also hire another hit man, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson)--a mistake, because Chigurh resents the duplication. He is the last word, the anti-Christ. No man may come after him.

Out in these open spaces of West Texas--El Paso, the Mexican border--where Cormac McCarthy's innocent, pure-hearted cowboys used to roam in earlier decades, things have changed beyond recognition. This is 1977. It's a decade and a half since Vietnam. Lots of drugs and lots of money floating around; you don't hear sir and ma'am any more.

The story turns into a chase, Chgurh after Llewelyn Moss, the sheriff coming after them. And then Carson Wells, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and doomed, pops in to follow.

People have been talking about Bardem's pageboy haircut. Yes, it's creepy. Bardem makes Chigurh both threatening and inscrutable. It seems he'd as soon kill you as look at you. He has a long rifle with a silencer and a high-pressure cattle-killer device with a tank that looks like something a person with emphysema would carry around. It kills instantly with a pop in the head. He also uses it to shoot out door locks.

The film is more tense and suspenseful in the first half or so than in the grimly determined finale (all true to the book, if with a few details cut). By that time a lot of people have been killed and some wounded. This has some elements of the Coen's 'Fargo' and 'Blood Simple' (the latter introduced in an earlier NYFF) and thus with their most powerful work. But 'No Country' is an economical and faithful literary adaptation. Some Coen movies have been thin and frivolous lately. This is emphatically not, sure and riveting from the first few shots. Richard Deakins' photography, making much appropriate use of wide-angle lenses, is superb. Their distinguished source seems to have kept the Coens honest and serious (except for the dry humor built into McCarthy's talk). Unquestionably this will wind up being one of the best American films of the year. It's tight and vivid and suspenseful. It's great stuff. The images sing and stun. There's no distracting music, only the beauty and terror of real sounds.

Present for the NYFF press screening Q&A (moderator Lisa Schwartzbaum): Brolin, Jones, Macdonald, Bardem, and the brothers Coen, Ethan and Joel.


13-year-old Briony Tallis is a girl with a huge imagination who loves to write. The film starts at her completion of a play, "The Trials of Arabella", a morality tale on love and the dangers of being too hasty with one's emotions. From her opening line in the prologue, various multisyllabic words that I didn't understand were employed, and the audience giggles at her pretension: evidently, this is a girl whose world is shaped with words, regardless of whether or not she understands them. Witnessing her sister Cecilia dive into a pool as their housekeeper's son Robbie watches after her, Briony pictures as scene she has no understanding of, and, by the end of the day, she will have changed lives for the worse, and she will spend the rest of her life regretting and trying to atone this mistake.

The first act of the film, set in the picturesque country house, effectively conveys the sweltering heat of the British Summer and the mental unrest that comes with it. The camera never stays still, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey even used Christian Dior stockings over the lenses to portray the heat and its effects on the residents. As Briony starts thinking about what she doesn't understand, trying to write a play of it, Dario Marianelli's haunting score, which features the rhythmic tapping of typewriter keys, reverberates in the background, to continually remind the audience that something bad is about to happen. The dramatic quality of the film is heightened with different events are replayed from different perspectives to show what something has the appearance of being, and what it really is. This device, though not new, works excellently for Atonement.

The second act of the film, set 4 years later, is much grittier and less pretty to watch. Robbie is now a soldier in France, and pines to get back to Cecelia. The horrors of war are not underplayed, and in one excellently-filmed tracking shot, the camera meanders through a chaotic mess of soldiers. Robbie, who had turned out so well before, has not lost practically all of his beauty, and retains only his accent. Similarly, back at home, soldiers with all sorts of disturbing injuries are shown. It is refreshing to see a film that, rather than portraying the war as some sort of patriotic honour, instead shows the horror and suffering that it causes.

In what could only be a nod to David Lean with his country houses, upper middle classes and epic romances, Joe Wright chose for his actors to give performances of the pre-Lee Strasburg era. And the cast rise up to the challenge admirably. As the young Briony, Saoirse Ronan is pitch-perfect, conveying her youthful innocence as well as whiny nosiness. Her sense of knowing about things she clearly doesn't is infuriating, but Ronan prevents us from denouncing her entirely, reminding us that she is, after all, just a child. Keira Knightley, who will be keen to forget her "performance" in her other 2007 venture, Pirates of the Caribbean III, doesn't do anything majorly wrong here, and at times even earns the audience's respect and sympathies as the loyal lover. Romola Garai plays the older, more wise Briony with conviction and a touch of sadness.

But the star of the show is the one, the only, James McAvoy. In the Q&A that followed the screening of the film, director Joe Wright described Robbie as the highest form of a human being, and he is. Even after he is put in the war to avoid staying in prison for longer, he does not whinge about it, but instead, gets through the day with the hope of seeing Cecelia guiding him through. James McAvoy plays this special individual with compassion and understanding. He has the accent and physicality of Robbie down to a T, but, more importantly, conveys his goodness, without ever having to resort to histrionics. McAvoy's performance is a masterclass in subtle acting. In some pivotal scenes, it is actually his beautiful blue eyes that do the acting more than anything, and they speak more words than Briony's ostentatious prose ever could.

There is more than a little similarity between Atonement and The Go-Between. Both tell of love between different classes, and an intruding message carrier between the two. Furthermore, Sarah Greenwood's sensuous set design (in the first act) and accurate war holes (in the second), along with the sound design, which features buzzing bees, works cleverly on a subconscious level to add to the tension. Indeed, Atonement is a technically and visually stunning film. The hues in the first act are almost overly saturated with richness, and this contrasts starkly to the second act, where cold hospital wards and mucky brown war dugouts fill the screen. The costumes are all realistic and accurate, though I personally favour the glamorous designs of the first half, which include a mesmerizing green dress that Cecelia wears. The cinematography, which encompasses long takes, tracking shots, lingering pans all attribute to the visual flair of the movie. But the key stylistic element that stood out for me, was the score. The piano theme is elegiac and melancholy, and the cello and violins also add to the sadness of the romance. Also, the use of a typewriter as an instrument, though started oddly, soon becomes infectious and it even forces its way into viewer's minds, making Robbie's note (and the consequences) unforgettable.

Joe Wright and Working Title have made a film to be proud of. Amidst some incredible scenes (such as an extremely erotic library non-reading session between Robbie and Cecelia). The quality and calibre of films that Working Title have turned out recently have been brilliant (Pride & Prejudice, Hot Fuzz, etc) and Atonement ranks up there along with my personal favourites Dead Man Walking and The Hudsucker Proxy. It is a wonderfully crafted, beautifully lush and immensely moving film that shows, above all, how storytelling can both destroy and heal.


"Interview" is Steve Buscemi's remake of a film by Theo van Gogh before he was assassinated for profaning someone else's Sacred Cow. (profanities, of every sort, were the younger van Gogh's stock-in-trade.) this film is about a middle-aged journalist whose career is on a downward trajectory, whose personal life is in shambles, and who has been assigned to interview a beautiful young actress whose own personal life seems akin to, say, Lindsay Lohan's.

The journalist is bitter that he has been assigned to do a fluff piece about a spoiled celebrity brat, instead of being sent to Washington to cover an unfolding scandal at the White House. the actress is an hour late to the trendy restaurant where they meet, because she couldn't seem to pull her lips from those of her (female) co-star in a "Sex In the City" inspired TV serial. she is annoyed from the outset by the journalist's not having bothered to read the little backgrounder her PR people always provide to interviewers.

He starts out by asking her how she got the name "Katya". while she is explaining that though it is a Russian name, her mother is actually from the Netherlands (like the van Goghs), he interjects with helpful remarks like, "oh yeah, prostitution is legal in Amsterdam".

She finds him so off-putting that she soon cuts off the interview, and leaves the restaurant, though a couple had already happily given up their table because it was *her* "favorite table". however, because of the kind of coincidence that only happens in movies, minutes later she invites him up to her fabulous downtown Manhattan loft.

There they set about to continue the interview, with each trying to maintain the upper hand -- him, as the war-weary international correspondent who hasn't the slightest interest in her sexually; her, with the "oh, are you gay? ..... then i want you to tongue-kiss me right now!" routine.

They are constantly interrupted by phone calls from her beau, to whom she fabricates new reasons with every call for her not being able to talk at that moment, and her female co-star, with whom she gabs at great length, while lying on her bed with her legs spread apart and pointed at the ceiling, or dancing about her bedroom after the manner of Isadora Duncan.

When not on the phone with her girlfriend, the actress jokingly says things like, "i'm a crack whore". the journalist's gallant response goes something like: no, no, no -- i've been with whores all over the world, and you're no *crack* whore.

After consuming a great deal of booze, and other mood-altering substances, they expose their scars (physical and emotional). for example, while the two of them are dancing romantically, she lets it be known that her famous acting teacher made a pass at her during a private lesson.

Eventually the journalist hears himself loudly denounced as "sleazy", "sick", "disgusting", "weird", a "son-of-a-bitch" (as in, "i want to *kill* you ... you son-of-a-bitch"), and, of course, "unprofessional".

He apologizes for his being "unprofessional".i won't give away the ending, but let's just say that times have changed since "My Fair Lady" first came out.


This film is beautiful, terrible, and real. Sadly, in a world where we're used to hearing stories in the simplest and most easy to swallow terms, I doubt that the average lover of romantic comedies and action flicks will like it. This is a story about the perpetual struggles found in human relationships and if you're used to seeing on-screen romance played out with operatic tragedy, (The English Patient) fable-like tenderness (Like Water for Chocolate), or perfect endings (Officer and a Gentleman), you might be out of luck with this movie. If, however, you think you'd like to see something a little more up-close, complex and real, this might be a movie that will change the way you think about love.

This is a film that focuses less on individuals, and more on the relationships between those individuals. If the four characters in Closer were represented by four points on a map, this movie would be a study of the lines that cross between those points, rather than the points themselves. In this way, we can easily see ourselves and each other in what happens on screen: you don't have to be a photographer to relate to Julia Roberts' self-loathing adulterer, because the film doesn't strive to tell the story of where she came from or why she takes pictures. For her character, it strives to tell the story of someone completely overcome both with lust and with the guilt that accompanies it. These two compulsions feed off of each other so feverishly that she cannot find happiness either in acting on her lust or in abstaining. Telling this side and only this side of her story helps it become more universal, as do the stories of her surrounding characters.

Patrick Marber made only a few changes in adapting his play to the screen, resulting in distinctly theatre-esquire dialog. This intense stylization helps the unconventional narrative seep into your unconscious: with the characters speaking a slightly altered language, it becomes easier to accept their slightly altered depiction of romantic entanglements. Make no mistake, Closer pulls no punches when it comes to the ugly side of romance, of commitment, of love and of the need to be loved.

Marber seems to be preoccupied with the way a slighted lover will beg or even demand to know every excruciating detail about their lover's infidelity. This inexplicable and seemingly masochistic phenomenon pervades Closer on both a literal and thematic level, because Marber has a very simple and universal idea to present. This need to hear these painful truths is the thesis of Closer. What we're soon able to see through the weaving of the characters' relationships is that this desire is a manifestation of any lover's need to possess his or her beloved. The victim of an infidelity grapples not just with the pain of betrayal but also with the inescapable knowledge of a most intimate element of their lover that will never, ever be theirs. In the same way that a man might find himself unable to live with the knowledge of his girlfriend's past sexual encounters (a la Chasing Amy), the cheated-on man or woman has to confront their pain, however irrational, for being unable to think of every element of their partner as their own.

Closer revolves around this theme. On the one hand, it does this through the literal story of a man wanting to know the details of how and where and with whom his wife cheated on him, vainly trying to take back those intimate moments and claim them as his own. On the other hand, however, Closer uses this theme in a much more general way. A man may grasp at the lustful experiences of his wife, trying to reverse his exclusion from them, but the way that grasping is employed in Closer shows us that even if it weren't for the infidelity, he would be grasping anyway. We all would. Our need to feel we have complete possession of our lover is what drives us to desperately dig deeper and deeper, trying to gain some secret knowledge of who and what they are at their most pure and uncompromised level. The scene where Larry (played by On-Screen Demi-god Clive Owen at his raving, ravishing, ravaging best) verbally taunts Anna about her lustful experience with Dan makes it my all time favorite scenes in all the movies that I have seen. I felt the sensation you get when you watch a bullet travel from inside the cylinder of a .44 carbine revolver through the insides of a brain, cranium et al and out through the back of a throat, inslow motion. That's almost as accurate as I can put it.

In the end, however, this level doesn't exist. The digging, the struggling and the grasping is futile as no person can be reduced to a singular truth. We are an entirely different thing, practically a different animal, from moment to moment. As Natalie Portman's character so perfectly illustrates by the end, even the most mundane details about who we are can turn out to be transitory or meaningless. That's not a pretty area of human life to shine a light on but Mike Nichols does it and with an unflinching ability. If it's a perspective you're prepared to spend some time considering, Closer might just be the movie to get the ball rolling.

Sweet Sixteen

"Sweet Sixteen" was a very pleasant surprise. For someone like me who have yet been exposed to his previous works before this, I shall now eagerly go out and seek out his other movies.
The gradual dramatic shift and character build-up in Sweet Sixteen is a testament to Ken Loach's artistry and masterful craft as a director. His empathy for his characters is very evident here. Coupled with his intuitive understanding of how this story should be told, the film packed an emotional wallop (especially approaching the end) much unexpected before watching it.
Particularly striking is the unexpected range of Martin Compston's portrayal of Liam, the male protagonist of this powerful film. Throughout the film, we glimpsed into the psyche of this young boy/ man - his intelligence (uncanny street smarts), his honour (towards friendship & kinship), his courage and conviction and most heartbreakingly, his idealistic naiveté. This boy is brimming with charismatic magnetism. A bright future awaits him (can already picture him as a future Clive Owen or Tim Roth).
The scene that sold me was the (mild spoilers ahead) unexpectedly moving confrontation between Liam and his friend Pinball(approaching the end of the film). In those short few minutes, the power and depths of their ties were presented with heartbreaking clarity. I was floored completely. Being the sensitive bloke that I am, I welled up on witnessing the heartfelt sincerity of that scene. Unbelievable.
Beneath Sweet Sixteen's colourful language(with swearing aplenty) and thick indecipherable accents, this understated film turned out to be a very moving, top rated piece of drama. That the Oscars as usual ignored this film completely, has further cemented my disdain for the Academy's suspect taste (or lack thereof).
IMHO, Sweet Sixteen is too good a film to be ignored. It deserves a far wider audience. Will thus hope this film do secure a future commercial release in Singapore so more people can be touched by its magic. But the hopes are dim, which is very sad indeed.

Äideistä parhain (Mother of Mine)

I sat down to watch this film not knowing a thing about this movie. It wasn't until one of the reviews told me, what it was about that I realized what kind of movie I was about to see and - most important - that this is a story that had not yet been told on the big screen and that this was a story that needed to be told. I couldn't agree more, it's just a shame that this was the particular story that they chose to tell.
Parts of this movie is absolutely brilliant - the scenery, the cinematography and the actors. Oh, the actors! Michael Nyqvist, Maria Lundqvist and the young Topi Majaniemi are superb, utterly superb, it's in the script this movie fails and mainly on one pivotal point. In order for this movie to work you have to feel the anguish of young Eero, you have to feel his heart breaking when his mother sends him away to Sweden. And you do. But you also have to feel his heart breaking when he is sent back to Finland. This you don't do and that's because you don't get to feel the connection between Eero and his foster-mother Signe. When Eero and Signe first meet she doesn't want anything to do with him. She alienates herself from him, pushes him away. Towards the end she shows genuine love towards him, the thing is...I'm not aware of when this shift occurs. There aren't enough scenes in which we see them bonding. Suddenly they just...do. And this is where the movie fails.
Now, please remember what I said earlier. There are many things about this movie that are superb. The main thing being how the part of Eero is written and portrayed. A lot of films have a tendency to make children more mature than they really are, this movie doesn't make that mistake. Eero is a child and acts like one too. Not knowing why he feels the way he does he simply acts out his frustration in ways that a child would - not by sitting his foster-mother down and offering up wisdom befitting a 70-year old (which is all too common in movies such as these).
So, worth watching, just don't expect to get a wholly encompassing movie about what all Finnish war-children went through.

Los Amantes del Circulo Polar (Lovers of the Arctic Circle)

Julio Medem's brilliant films thrive on enigma, obfuscation, tease and irresolution. Lovers of the Arctic Circle is his most playful yet, because it seems his most lucid. There is the usual pattern of proliferating doubles, connection of motifs, bending of time; yet, rather than confuse or complicate like before, each separate entity seems thrusting towards the linear, Unified Whole of the conclusion, which is satisfying in an old-fashioned romantic way, until it too is irreversibly, indeterminately split.
The plot is Medem's simplest yet: two young children, Otto and Ana, are brought together by the affair between their parents which eventually grows into marriage. Otto continues to live with his mother, but increasing love for Ana causes him to move in with his dad so they can enjoy furtive lovemaking. Otto's mother, presumably ins reaction to a double abandonment, commits suicide; depressed, Otto tries to do likewise, fails, and leaves Ana and his family to become an air-messenger pilot. After a failed relationship with an old teacher, Ana goes to Lapland to live in a cabin owned by the father of her mother's new lover. A series of extraordinary coincidences seem to bring Ana back to Otto.
Anyone who has seen a Medem film (Lucia y el Sexo) will know what to expect: surface realistic observation is rejected in favour of an excessive formalism, artifice and patterning that allows access to greater emotional truths. The doubling is astonishing - male/female, mother/father, son/daughter, sister/brother, earth/air, North/South, death/rebirth, lost/found, concealment/revelation etc. Two halves should make one whole, but it never does in a Medem film, leading only to further fragmentation. The two main leads are played by three different actors each, leading to a triple splitting of self which is further underscored both by the permanency of the actors playing their parents, and by the different actors playing them slipping into the wrong time frame, e.g. the young Otto appearing in the adolescent Otto's plot.
Further dislocation occurs in the formal patterning of repetition and coincidence. The same scenes are repeated in different historical moments with different characters. The same events feature different protagonists, depending on the subjectivity of the teller. The main formal device is to have each lead tell in turn the story, but instead of clarifying, this only further confuses, because each sees differently from the other. Medem then undermines this obvious truth by showing a kind of innate bond between Otto and Ana: the palandromic fact of their names, the way each uses the other as a representation of a beloved dead parent etc. And yet again, THIS is denied in the film's most excruciating scene, where, years apart from each other, the two finally occupy the same space at a few feet's distance, on a cafe piazza, and fail to realise.
There is no such thing as a key to Medem, as his labyrinths are Theseus-proof, but the opening credits bear close scrutiny, revealing images of fragmentation - the crashed plane - and rupture, and an intimation of subjectivity that drives the film. Lovers of the Arctic Circle's ending suggests that it is Ana's striving for wholeness, after the ultimate dislocation - death. This reading, though, is questioned throughout - how, for instance, do we account for Otto's voiceover. We are forced to question how much of what we see is, if not literally plausible, than related. Most importantly, it makes us question the past, a history, and how it's told.
Medem's films, especially VACAS, are concerned with the difference between literal history, as told by the winners, and the messy, interior, emotional history of people as they live. VACAS featured a character named Peru, the name of Medem's son to whom TIERRA was dedicated, and who stars here as the young Otto. Lovers of the Arctic Circle is dedicated to Medem's father. The film is obsessed, like VACAS and, to a lesser extent, TIERRA, with family relationships, with tradition and continuity, with a saga that seem linear (generation follows generation) but is actually circular, as the past is continually replayed and distorted in the present.
A crucial subplot here is the meeting of Otto's grandfather with a Nazi bomber during the Guernica atrocity, an act that reverberates throughout the film, and touches, for good or ill, every character. The duality of the film is linked to the duality that split Spain apart throughout and after the Civil War. Another historical layer is linked to Medem's own work, as I outlined above, issues of continuity, which include style, cast, doubling, scenes (especially that of a photographer capturing his family), animals with supernatural powers, unresolved, or a proliferation of, endings; as well as discontinuities (e.g. for the first time, no Emma Suarez).
This is my lesser favourite Medem film, when compared to Lucia y el Sexo. It spends a little too much time in the air - its matrix of meaning is not as grounded in the blood and earth of his previous work. This is probably linked to the acting. In the earlier films the almost naturalistic truth of the actors clashed fertilely with the formal artifice. Here, the callow acting of the leads fails to achieve this, leaving one a little unsatisfied. The older stars are magnificent, though, especially Medem regular Nancho Novo, the loveliest man on film; his OWN abandonment is heartwrenching. There is also a great deal less comedy than previously, again, I fear, due to the acting. These are serious quibbles, but ultimately irrelevant - this is easily the best film around at the moment.

Pride and Prejudice

With an lovable cast, Pride and Prejudice is intelligent in its handle of the material and its fluency in cinematic crafting. Goodbye to dusty, "precious" interpretations of Jane Austen. This cheeky, poetic, even dark new film makes the story youthful with down-to-earth vibrancy and worship of emotion. Here are young people making the mistakes and dreaming the dreams of the young (when it was written it wasn't antiquity, it was life). Lizzie is not a smirking omniscient but a quick witted independent; hotheaded and fiercely loyal to her sister. She is wary of an unfair world and uses her wits to survive. Darcy is not an impenetrable stoic but a shy sensitive soul with high unwieldy social pretensions fending off the outside world. And they are both lonely and have big yearning hearts, so the filmmakers made one great decision -- they let them fall in love the first moment they lock eyes. In a shot we see hearts behind fortified personalities and an instant chemistry that takes a movie's worth of battling with each other and themselves to right itself. It's an earthy move that sets the tone for a film about the people and world behind the antiquated manners, a world not so different from ours.
Now set in 1797, when Austen wrote the first draft of the book, the filmmakers committed to main plot points and themes, and astutely represent the Romantic Age and Austen's characters. The love between Jane and Lizzie is supreme and fuels a desire in Lizzie to tear at Darcy when he separates Jane from Mr. Bingley. She's hurt, she reciprocates the pain, and it is bitter. Pride and prejudices are drawn clearly: Lizzie searches hard to find fault with Darcy, and Darcy cannot bring himself to let down his guard. Both have their reasons justified, but they foil their own chances at love constantly until they see how wrong they are and are too heartsick to keep going. Class conflict is suddenly personally injurious and vicious. When Charlotte Lucas marries for security, it's a grave matter and she must bitingly sober up a disdainful Lizzie on the realities of their world. The Bennets are too eccentric and improper for their own good. Lady Catherine (Dame Judi Dench, who is downright fearsome) is not just a cold figure for Lizzie to spar with, but someone capable of deeply hurting others. The filmmakers are savvy in their understanding of history. Setting it back 20 years is a remarkable move, because we accept more diversions and variation with the 18th century than the 19th and it presents Austen as a Romantic, which automatically requires the story to be interpreted from a different, very legitimate, perspective. The ideals of the Romantic Age are ingeniously, subtly played here: human equality, gritty realism married with beauty for the sake of beauty, but a beauty which is never elitist or decadent, always grounded, simple, and universal: nature, the human being, emotion.
The ensemble and mis-en-scene are electric. The camera spryly edges in and out of rooms and conversations instead of sitting arthritically in a corner. The dance scenes are less about ballet, now rollicking and spirited as characters send signals, flirt, deflect and analyze one another. In true Romantic form (worthy of filling Wordsworth with pride) the aesthetic unabashedly revels in beauty, but always the simple joys of our world: sunrises, dewy landscapes in wide shots, colors everywhere. It has a lovely score, period inspired and without any pomp and circumstance. Simple blocking is caffeinated and given substance, something is always going on in the background. Lively, layered interactions between characters make rich scenes, neither wasting space nor time. Consider a scene with Mr. Collins, played by the magnificent Tom Hollander (a standout here, so delightfully weird. When he jaggedly squirms his way up to someone you want to shriek). He wants to speak to Lizzie, alone, and a bolt of fear strikes through her as she pleads in vain not to be abandoned. The sisters are merciless, Mrs. Bennet delighted, Mr. Bennet at a loss, and Collins prepares. It's all silent and it's hysterical.
Suggesting variation to revered characters is a frightful task, but here it's a revelation. The entire cast is brilliant, but the two leads are transcendent in their roles. Keira Knightley is charismatic, random, wonderfully young, intuitive to the bone -- she inhabits Lizzie. Matt MacFadyen is deep, remarkably subtle, but mostly he is soulful. I've long held him as a sympathetic actor, but he shines in this. The two instill an unexpected exuberance of feeling in their performances. Neither ever acknowledge the camera exists and make the most of every second they have on screen to project their characters. When you throw them together you get a love story full of emotional subtext, double meaning, and gloriously heavy moments.
Because so much dialogue was cut, simple lines have impact and much of the exposition is visual. Epic little moments linger and rain, revealing souls. The thoughts and intentions behind the actors' eyes and words are visible at all times. This movie understands the power of a shot or glance. Lizzie comes to understand Darcy in how he embraces his sister or smiles (a momentous occasion, indeed). When she talks about love it's stirring because it's finally spilled into the open after we've seen it near the edge many times with half said sentiments and stifled tears. Usually "I love you" comes with extra explanatory prose, but here sincerity kills cliché: parties are fun, a misty field is breathtaking, the dawning of love a revelation, the heartbreak is throbbing.
It's a brilliant film. There is something breathless and luminous about it, from its youth and the break from propriety, to the beauty and spontaneity of life and romance, pain and joy, which provide the color.