Archive for February, 2011

A Note on ‘Even The Rain’

February 23rd, 2011 No comments

The Spanish actress-turned-director Icíar Bollaín has, I’m ashamed to admit, been off my radar.  I haven’t seen her other films, but I am going to now.  Her  latest film, Even The Rain, seems simple when you break down the plot into a succinct synopsis like “A film-maker wants to make a movie but the local political/social turmoil makes it difficult.” However, this film is anything but simple and possesses all the subtlety of a punch in the face. What we end up with from Paul Laverty’s (Sweet Sixteen, The Wind That Shakes The Barley) intelligent, emotional script and under Bollaín’s nearly flawless direction is a multifaceted film rich with complex characters and themes that broach social criticism.

Even The Rain essentially works with three plots that directly impact one and other.  The first two exist in the actual film we are watching starring Gael Garcia Bernal as the ambitious Sebastián, a director with a vision to make a movie about the real events surrounding Columbus colonizing the “New World.”  His efforts, and the efforts of his stalwart producer Costa (Luis Tosar) are continually tested by the second story-line within our main plot; the fictionalized account of Daniel and his involvement in the real Cochabamba Water Wars in which the people rose up against the government as it sought to privatize the water supply back in 2000.  The plot is of the film Sebastián is directing which gives us a visual of the atrocities committed by the Spanish as they forced the indigenous people into slavery and ravaged their land in search of gold.

Costa brought the production to Cochabamba for one reason – cheap labor. The impoverished Bolivians came out in droves to an open casting call overwhelming Costa and  Sebastián. They immediately start turning people away, which is where we first meet Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri) and get a taste of his explosive personality. He’s an instigator, demanding that everyone that came to audition be seen, and this display of indignation secures him the role of Chief Hatuey. And then he demands a role for his daughter.  Costa is uneasy with this casting choice, insisting that his volatile disposition will ruin the production and he’ll be too hard to handle, but Sebastián wants that passion for Hatuey.

As a struggling film-maker myself I was fascinated with main plot, but I like movies about making movies (and if you’re the same watch Truffaut’s Day for Night. Brilliance). Bernal and Tosar have a captivating dynamic.  I’ve watched directors like Sebastián, fearless yet insecure in need of a producer as a cheerleader, and I’ve seen producers like Costa who struggle to steer a seemingly frazzled director on the right path in order to finish the movie. But you don’t need to have knowledge of film production nor do you need to be all caught up on your early 16th century history of Hispaniola to enjoy this film.

The film Sebastián is making is based in large part on the writings of Bartolome de las Casas, a priest who witnessed first-hand the genocide committed by Spanish settlers and the execution of Hatuey, a Taíno chief that led rebellions against the Spanish. We cut seamlessly into the film within the film which causes an effective confusion in the audience.  When the Taíno revolt against the Spaniards it takes the audience a minute to understand it is part of Sebastián’s film.  Without a change in camera movement or visual style I at first thought the extras, which were being paid a slave-wage of $2 a day, had revolted against the film crew.  This directorial choice creates a connection with the past treatment of these people and the current treatment by the film crew. Similar choices were made when staging the violent protests against the Bolivian government.  Daniel puts the film in jeopardy as he helps lead the uprising in Cochabamba and we witness the events cut seamlessly with actual footage of the protests in 2000.  Again this creates a parallel between the exploitation by the Spanish colonials and exploitation of a people in an impoverished area by the millionaires in the government and multinational corporations.

As the protests escalate and the three story lines continue to develop they become entrenched in each other. You can see on Daniel’s face during the filming of the scenes with Columbus and the Spanish that he is connecting the long history of oppression to his own life.  He is the Hatuey of Cochabamba and there are moments when you know he was inspired by the script Sebastián is shooting.  As Sebastián and Costa become more concerned that the protests will shut down production they become desperate, almost heartless, as they try to force mothers to perform in scenes they morally object to, as Costa tries to bribe Daniel to abandon the protesters until shooting has wrapped and as they spring Daniel from jail to film the final climatic scene of the movie.

The performances by Luis Tosar and Juan Carlos Aduviri are incendiary. Tosar handles the character change in Costa with a veteran’s control. He’s the de las Casas of Even The Rain, who comes to Bolivia as part of the problem with dreams of cheap labor and a product that will bring personal wealth, then slowly discovers that there are more important things than money and the film. Aduviri is an animal, a man who attacks acting with a raw intensity that becomes the stand-out performance in the film. Even in his moments of silence there is strength in his Daniel, there is a viciousness to his Hatuey.

Bartolome de las Casas wrote that when Hatuey was finally captured he and other Taíno were burned on crosses. One priest asked Hatuey if he would repent so he could go to Heaven, to which Hatuey asks “Are there Christians in Heaven?” The priest responded “yes,” to which Hatuey retorted, “then I’d rather go to Hell. I don’t want to be around such cruel people.”  At this moment in the film the writing, directing and cinematography are at their best, almost Herzogian in scope as men are burnt over a sweeping landscape. (That’s right, Herzogian, I’m using his name as an adjective, so what, it’s the most accurate description, watch Fitzcarraldo).  Immediately after shooting the scene the local government arrives to arrest Daniel, effectively ending the shooting of the film and the crew needs to decide if the lives of the men they’ve been exploiting for cheap labor are more important than their film.

The film is not without its flaws, but they are so minute it would only diminish this cinematic achievement to discuss them.  When I’m not seeing comedies (I’m finding I’m more from the Sullivan’s Travels cloth) this is the sort of drama I go to movies for.  Nearly epic, beautifully shot, intelligent and relevant.  It addresses the exploitation of inhabitants in third-world countries by multinational corporations that would claim they’re nowhere near as ruthless the Spaniards; whether you kill a people slowly by hoarding their key resources or do it swiftly with genocide you’re still killing the people.  The key creatives were so tuned into the subject matter that they didn’t shy away from their own hypocrisy.  The Western ideals that were set forth by the Spanish (conquest and personal wealth) permeate all aspects of Western culture, not excluding film-making.  In this manner the film made me consider Herzog again and the horrific stories I heard of the mistreatment of locals on the set of both Aguiree: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Of course Herzog stories could be simple folklore, but it’s not limited to just him.  Rumors of exploiting local street kids and impoverished non-actors have surrounded production like Salaam Bombay, Slumdog Millionaire and City of God, and in Even The Rain Bollaín and Laverty allow their critical eye to be turned on themselves as film-makers.

Even The Rain is much more than a critique of an endless cycle of exploitation in the West that began with Columbus landing in Hispaniola.  This is a film of hope and optimism. I don’t want to discuss in too much detail what transpires, it will spoil the beauty of the film’s journey, but I can promise it won’t disappoint. (or if you think it does disappoint let me know and I’ll tell you what you missed).

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Rambling ’bout a Valentine’s Day On The Fringe…

February 15th, 2011 No comments

I didn’t have a lot to do this Valentine’s Day.  The wife and I slept in as long as our 8 month old would allow (which was actually a pretty good sleep in) and then I got to reading a script sent to me.  I was prepping for an informal interview to 1st AD a short film coming up this March/April.  So around 2pm I headed over to the USC campus and met with the director at their new film school building.  We discussed the script in detail, basic logistical concerns and what have you, and proceeded to intellectualize the story which could easily become a very good character driven short film.  The whole while I was annoyed that the USC film school has a Coffee Bean in their lobby and food trucks lining their street where the best we had a Chapman was the Dairy Treat down at the corner – which was really only an option left for the bold, daring risk-takers out there.  Sure you could walk down to the circle and get some Cuban fare at Felix’s or any other great places to eat (which I loved), but this freakin’ Coffee Bean is in their lobby! Perfect for the film students who want to have quick meetings at a coffee shop, and then if they’re like me, order a lemonade or tea. I can’t stand coffee.

Adjourning at 5 I had to hurry home so we can begin our Valentine’s tradition of getting fast food, bringing it home and presenting it like a fancy homemade meal. Makes us feel like we’ve put some effort into our romantic day. With LA traffic I got home around 6 – just an hour long 6.5 mile trip –  I probably should’ve just ran there.   With an astronomical number of food trucks hitting the streets of LA recently we decided to venture out and sample some of their cuisine. We packed Boston up in the car and headed out to find a Brazilian food truck.

And what to my wondering eyes should appear?  A whole community of food trucks turning out delectable meals! That’s right!  Monday nights on Washington Blvd across from the Sony lot is this…Okay so the picture isn’t great, what do you expect when using a Blackberry camera? But what you can sort of make out in the darkness and blown out lights is a circled caravan of food trucks with folding tables and over-turned buckets for the guests to sit on.  It was like a bohemian, transient dining room. But we didn’t linger, we got our food to go so we can go home, put the kid to bed and then enjoy our meal and movie.  The meal presentation looked something like this…

What you see in the picture would be two Blue Moon Spring Ales, two Mexican Cokes, a chicken pastel, beef pastel, banana pastel (I never heard of a pastel until tonight but they’re delicious) and a Brazilian hamburger. That comes with fried onions, lettuce, bacon, corn, a beef patty and a fried egg.  Un-freakin’-believable. As for the movie we chose the high-school comedy Easy A starring Emma Stone.  It’s not available to stream on Netflix, which was pretty irritating as is the fact the HBO doesn’t allow their shows streamed on Netflix but that’s a gripe for another time.  So we had to order the movie on-demand, which seems a bit of racket. $5? Seriously?

Easy A is the story of Olive, an un-noticed straight and narrow girl who told a simple lie in order to save face in front of her friend and that lie spread like a wildfire through her school quickly earning her the reputation as the school slut.  Instead of a fighting the rumor, Olive embraces the new reputation, using it to help the seemingly “uncool” boys of her class look like sexual conquerors.  Each guy she fake hooks-up with gives her a gift card or present for the right to claim a sexual exploit with her.  This adventure obviously is doomed from the beginning as it continues to get out of hand and puts real relationships and emotions at risk.

The script actually works pretty well and has a few true laugh out loud moments.  I know the director, Will Gluck, continued to rework the script even the night before a scene was to shot as he was tweaking dialogue to fit with the actors and it worked. Which means, although a well structured and well told story, the strength of this entire piece lies solely on the voice of the actors; mainly Emma Stone. Let’s first look at the supporting cast that rounds out this little comedy.  Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are, for lack of a better word to describe what I mean, delightful in their roles as the parents.  Sure, you could argue that these parents are a little “too cool,” as their laissez-faire attitude seems more like it was written by teenagers as what they wish their parents were really like, but that’s what works.  All teens want their parents to loosen the leash and allow them to make mistakes so they can learn and grow.  That’s what made some of the parents from those classic 80’s films so great.  Molly Ringwald’s dad in Sixteen Candles, I can’t remember that actor’s name and I won’t look it up that’s cheating, was an ideal father for a 16 year old girl.  Understanding, funny, compassionate.  It’s how the parents of the protagonist are suppose to be in teenage comedy (except for John Mahoney in Say Anything… who was stealing all the money from your grandparents, the prick).

I though Thomas Haden Church played a great teacher, again the cool teacher that we all wish we had in high school.  He’s able to make great moments awkward and funny. Like approaching Olive, who is now dressing like a whore to embrace her new reputation, he says, “What the hell are you doing?” Olive: “What?”  He proceeds to stare at her, they both know something is amiss, and after a long pregnant pause he replies, “Don’t forget, tomorrow’s Earth Day.”  Simple!  But had me and the wife rolling.

The real strength with this film is two fold.  First, major credit needs to be dealt to Emma Stone who made the “misunderstood teenage girl” seem fresh for the first time since Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls. There is an undeniable charm laced with a caustic wit that makes her enjoyable (although almost always the same) in every role.  Sure, this could have been Wichita in high school before the zombies took over, but plucking her into this genre worked. She has great comic timing, she’s cute (not some plastic looking “bombshell” that will get all coked up and steal from jewelry stores), and best she can actually deliver a sincere performance.

The other strength is that this film is tongue-in-cheek.  It always knows what it is and in a small way deconstructs the teenage sex comedy by calling attention to itself in relation to the teenage comedies from the 80’s.  There are even elements of the teenage comedies from recent years, like Mean Girls and Saved! As Olive calls attention to the similarities from her life in John Hughes and Cameron Crowe films it makes us more aware we’re watching a movie that is fully cognizant of it’s own conventions.  We end up enjoying those conventions out of nostalgia, I suppose, because we all (in my generation) enjoyed those films and it was fun to see them recalled here as Olive gets to ride into the sunset with her prince on a riding lawnmower.

On a very quick note it should be said that while this film recalls the old greats, it never reached that full scope of those films because Easy A never tapped into the pathos of John Hughes. Hughes spoke to us like a fellow teen that was suffering the same high school dilemmas we were.  Which makes me sort of wonder, as I watched Hughes leading into my teenage years; did I love John Hughes because I suffered teenage angst, or did I suffer teenage angst because I loved John Hughes?

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A note on Preston Sturges, part 1

February 10th, 2011 No comments


Again, the wife has started her night shifts, Bean goes to bed early, so at the age of 30 on Saturday nights in a whirling metropolis I shut myself up in my apartment and satisfy a promise I made to Our Man In Hollywood, Jim Brown.  During my trip to his house for Thanksgiving Mr. Brown was slightly disappointed in my knowledge of classic American cinema and could care less about my knowledge of German Expressionism, Eisenstien, the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, etc. etc. etc. and I realized (again) that my education has in another way failed me.  There isn’t much emphasis on the classics in American cinema even though they directly inspired the filmmakers of other movements that are studied ad nausea. So, even though Brown told me to start with the musicals by Vincent Minelli and Busby Berkeley, I started with the celebrated comic writer/director Preston Sturges.  Starting where it only makes sense, at the beginning, I watched The Great McGinty – it was the first film directed by Sturges, from his original screenplay, and launched a relationship with Paramount that saw Sturges rise as one of the most prolific writer/directors of the 1940s.

The story is told almost entirely in flashback by Daniel McGinty (played by 40s noir star Brian Donlevy) as he lives in exile as a bar tender in a banana republic.  His story begins on the night of a mayoral election.  As a hungry vagrant looking for a quick buck, McGinty hustles from voting booth to voting booth earning him $2 for each vote he casts for the incumbent mayor.  It exposes quickly a layer of corruption that reaches from the mayor, through The Boss and into the police force and breadlines.  After casting 37 votes  around town he’s entitled to $74, which The Politician (played by Sturges mainstay William Demarest) cannot pay.  This gets McGinty into The Boss’ office and starts a profitable but contentious relationship that lasts through the duration of the film.  As a pugnacious opportunist McGinty rises in the ranks of corrupt politics, eventually marrying his secretary for pretense and appearing to be an upstanding mayor.  But as my favorite segment in Paris, Je T’aime says, “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love.”  His loyalty to his wife and kids forces this corrupt politician into an honest moment that cost him everything and he must flee the country, which was wonderfully ironic that in the end it wasn’t all of his illegal dealings that got him in trouble but his honesty.  It’s the story that could’ve happened if George W. and Karl Rove stopped with the governorship.

Sturges handles the relationship between McGinty and The Boss with a wonderful mix of verbal irony and comedic banter with a streak of slapstick. It’s a dynamic that works wonderfully in a political satire; the two power hungry morally bankrupt men that rely on each other to further their own careers.  The actors Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff played on each other so well that Sturges brings them back to reprise the roles years later (or so I read, I haven’t gotten that far in his film anthology yet).

Even more interesting is the way Sturges presents corruption reaching even to the innocent secretary.  Played aptly by Muriel Angelus, the secretary even justifies the corruption she’s a part of with a funny slant on the idea of ‘steal from the poor and give back to the poor, so where’s the stealing?’  She almost leaps at the chance to marry McGinty to satisfy political aspiration, but more so to save herself from being a single mother of two.  Selfishness and deceit abound! That is, until McGinty and Catherine decide they love each other want the marriage to be legit – then by embracing family values suddenly they take a moral turn.  A message almost worthy of a Capra film.

Preston Sturges had been writing for years, under contract with Universal and then on short term or per project contracts at all the major studios, and becoming one of the highest paid screenwriters in town. It took a while for Sturges to take a chance on him as a director though, it’s that old Catch-22 that still exists. They don’t want to hire you to direct a feature until you’ve directed a feature. While Sturges’ writing far outshines his direction in The Great McGinty, we get that first taste of a director who is on the rise, he just needs to find some ways to improve the visual storytelling.  The best attribute to his directing the camera is his judicious use of the closeup.  I think I mentioned before when lambasting Susane Bier, but when the closeup is overused it loses its power.  So when watching a Sturges film you can feel something happen to the characters when we cut into that closeup. He’s does create great little moments in the film, using small camera pans and tilts for reveals; I love the moment when we do a slow tilt down Catherine’s legs when McGinty  considers marrying her.  Her response, “Well what does that got to do with anything?”

Sturges’ follow up film, Christmas In July, is charming in its brevity – complete and effective at only 67 minutes.  The plot is established immediately with a few quick shots of people from all walks of life huddled around radios.  They’re all anticipating the announcement of the winner of the Maxford Coffee slogan contest with a top prize of $25,000.  Among the masses is Jimmy and Betty.  Jimmy has strong ambition but seems to lack the brains to get there.  With his slogan idea, however, he is just certain life get better.  You see, he’s come up with a slogan he is certain can’t lose; “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee… it’s the bunk.” The trouble is nobody else is very confident in that slogan, least of all Betty who insists that coffee does keep you up at night.

Jimmy’s co-workers decide to have a little fun with him, sending him a phony telegram announcing him the winner of the contest and asking him to report immediately to Maxford’s offices to receive his check.  This creates such a buzz that Jimmy’s boss even thinks his talents could be put to better use helping with their own ad campaigns.  Jimmy is quick to accept the promotion and heads straight down to claim his prize.  While the committee to select the winner is still deadlocked, the head of the coffee company, Dr. Maxford, assumes the telegram is legit and pays him out.  Jimmy embarks on a spending spree, amassing gifts for almost everyone he knows and ring for Betty.  By the time Dr. Maxford discovers the selection committee is still deadlocked Jimmy has created chaos on his street in celebration and spent the money all over town.

It’s a funny situation that is created by these office pranksters.  Watching executives and business owners try to take the gifts back was a great scene.  But like all films, Christmas In July requires a healthy suspension of disbelief (as in Sturges’ subsequent films).  We have to believe that Dr. Maxford wouldn’t check with the selection committee before shelling out $25,000.  We have to believe Jimmy would go on a lavish spending spree, spreading his wealth and fueling a hype around himself that engulfs his boss and everyone around him.  As soon as we buy into Sturges’ situations we can let go and enjoy them for what they are, and here it is an examination of the hysteria that can result from one small moment of recognition.  Jimmy had gone unappreciated his entire life.  As soon as Maxford Coffee says that he’s an ad genius, everyone believes it.  This becomes a satirical look at power of suggestion.  Nobody believed in the slogan before he won, but if someone loves it, we must all love it.  It’s how I view a lot of modern art.

Sturges didn’t make any great strides as a director going from McGinty to Christmas.  It appears to me he took a step back, honestly.  Where Christmas In July is a more of a situational comedy, McGinty was full of irony, pratfalls and colorful characters in the middle of a situation at is more painful as an accurate depiction of American politics than it is funny.  Dick Powell is great as Jimmy, so convinced that his slogan was a gem that he can’t believe this could be a hoax.  Without any solid counterpart, however, it only made me miss the chemistry between Tamiroff and Donlevy.  I would recommend McGinty over Chistmas but that hardly matters when looking at the career that was launched by having two big successes and an Oscar in one year as a writer/director.  Paramount had found their preeminent comedic director in a decade when audiences were begging for comedy.

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