THE CLAN**** Excellence from Argentina


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THIS TRUE STORY of a family that’s in the kidnapping business is really a personification of the culture of disappearances in the early 80’s Argentina. And more than this, The Clan is a bigger, fascinating story about the nature of power.

The paterfamilias of the family is Arquimedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella from The Secret in Their Eyes). He’s a simple shopkeeper, helps his daughter do her homework and cheers on his popular athletic sons. An ideal family. But with his cold, stern visage and icy eyes, this is the banality of evil. He was part of the secret service and at the heart of its clandestine kidnappings of political opponents. But even as the politics have moved on (“This democracy”, says one of his, now imprisoned, colleagues, “How long can it last? No more than two years”), his ways remain unchanged. Only now he kidnaps for money.

He, like the shadowy commodore who protects him (and by implication the demagogues that ran the country), is the undisputed and never to be questioned figure of absolute authority in the family. His sons have been, reluctantly, dragooned into the family business. His wife and the daughters – like the nation – passively accept the beaten, bloodied victims of the kidnappings, hidden in the basement of their well appointed home. It is their accepted norm. Say nothing, offer no protest, carry on as normal and all will be well. Political power always overwhelms the moral imperative.

It’s one son, Alejandro (Peter Lanzani) – a popular, and dashing sportsman (in order to signify the class of the family, he’s a rugby player, not a, common o garden, footballer) – in whom, with his newfound love, the stirrings of conscience begin to be felt. But conscience is easily enough bought out with the right amount of cash. And can conscience dare challenge the ties of loyalty and love that bind families together? Once you’re deep enough in the web of complicity, is there any possibility of escape?
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Through the flashes of -actual- political speeches denouncing the past and locker-room chit chat of the sportsmen eager to take on the rest of the rugby playing world, director Pablo Trapero and his brilliant co-writer, Julian Loyola show us a nation eager to enact its own form of escape. The tones of the movie juxtapose the bright, daytime energy of the rugby players and the dark, nocturnal brutality of the family. It’s this darkness, this violent past that the new politics is so keen to drag itself away from. But, as we all know, though governments may change, the malignancy of their power structures remain in place.

Aquimedes Puccio and his types may now be out of political power, but their continued links to the real power keep the lines of corruption unchanged. It’s as though no matter how much the young nation, like Alejandro, the son, seeks to move forward, the future is fundamentally blocked by the dead weight of the past.

Until the center of gravity of the power shifts. Then things rapidly fall apart.

Like The Secret in Their Eyes, The Clan is another example of Argentine noir cinema. But unlike the more stylized (and glamorous) noir of Hollywood (and no wonder the remake of The Secret…fell flat), these movies offer enough of the mundane to be utterly and compellingly credible. This is not just another cute fiction of evil masquerading itself under a façade of normalcy, this is a frighteningly believable story about a nation and how power operates. And in Francella, a man with the coldest, deadest eyes in cinema, Argentine noir has its perfect protagonist.

The weakness in the movie is its editing, which at times was annoyingly choppy. But it’s a small to price for such a large cinematic reward.

The Clan. Dir: Pablo Trapero. Writer: Julian Loyola and Pablo Trapero. With: Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani, Lili Popovich. Cinematographer: Julián Apezteguia

 

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COME HELL OR HIGH WATER**** Cowboys, Indians and Oscars in Sight


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COPS AND ROBBERS, Cowboys and Indians, the wild wild West. All the familiar elements are here, de-familiarized in David Mackenzie’s atmospheric, well-written tale of greed, poverty, racism and love.

The action is set in a dry, scorching Texas, where everyone’s armed and where the gap between the law and vigilantism is razor thin. We could be back in the wild, quasi-lawless 1900’s world of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; but we’re not. Welcome to Texas (the US?) circa 2016.

The cops of the story are Marcus (an inspired Jeff Bridges), an ornery, racist old timer, on the verge of retirement and forever slagging off Injuns: “And just wait ’till I get to your Mexican half” he says to his Mexican/Indian partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who gives as good as he gets. (When Marcus is proven right on a hunch, Alberto quips, “even a blind pig will sometimes find a truffle”).

The quality of the acting and the dialogue between these two makes the partnership engagingly believable. You always get the sense that there’s a genuine affection underneath the barbs and crotchety-ness.

The robbers are the banks, insidiously robbing dirt-poor farmers of their bone-dry lands through reverse mortgages and bankruptcy guaranteeing products. But Marcus and Alberto aren’t after the banks; they’re after a pair of old fashioned, small time bank robbers: brothers Tarner (Ben Foster), the dumb violent one and Toby (Chris Pine), the smarter, emotionally wounded one.

These two are the ‘real-world’ version of Butch and Sundance, stripped of the glamour and fame. They’re just two poor Cowboys desperate to rob back from a bank that’s on the verge of robbing them of their (deceased) mother’s farm. Thieves stealing from thieves. Like Marcus and Alberto, the bickering, affectionate, co-dependent relationship of the brothers is marvellously evoked.

They hit a few banks, always with the code of stealing only from the banks and of never harming the customers. But, as always happens, there’s a need for one last score, one final robbery before they’ve got enough money to stop the forfeiture of their farm.

Director Mackenzie leans heavily toward the brothers: desperate times, he seems to suggest, demand desperate actions.

More than this, the robberies are played out in an oppressive, fatalistic universe (the vastness and emptiness of the terrain suggests timelessness, a place where the inhabitants are miniscule and almost insignificant). Here an idea of history and (Cowboy) identity is dying. We come across a group of disgruntled Cowboys, for instance, desperately herding their cattle to safety against a raging out of control wildfire that seems to be burning away all the elements of pride and self worth. This is a brave new world, the new frontier, from which there is no escape; one where poverty is inevitable and where the veins of violence and hostility run deep (in one exchange, a Comanche tells Tanner, “You know what Comanche means? It means everyone is my enemy”. Tanner replies, “Then I am  Comanche too”) .

As the author of the robberies, all aimed at providing an out for his sons, Toby’s actions take on an existentialist, almost Operatic bravura. They are one man’s attempt to defy fate, to use the potential of his mother’s legacy (the farm) as a means of denying his kids his own legacy of drunkenness and violence.

Come hell or high water.

But the high water comes at a hellish price.

Hell or High Water is the first of the post summer, post blockbuster, Oscar intending movies.

And what a grand way to launch into Oscar season. Mackenzie’s sure-footed directing allows this very character-led story to unfold without undue sturm und drang. He paces the action beautifully, allowing enough deviations from the main plot to invite us into the lives of his protagonists; but always you know there’s a drumbeat toward the grand lethal climax. Mackenzie is working with an excellent script –terse, witty and observant of the Texan inflections of his characters -from Taylor Sheridan (Sicario); and Giles Nuttgens’ (Midnight’s Children) hot, bright cinematography evokes the aridity of the land (and the lives of the characters)

Way to go

 

Hell or High Water. Dir: David Mackenzie. With: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham. Writer: Taylor Sheridan. Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens. Production Designer: Tom Duffield (Lone Survivor)

 

CAFE SOCIETY*** Good Company


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WARNING: PLOT REVELATIONS TO FOLLOW

IT IS THE thirties…a time when Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford were just two of the legends that lit up the glittering escapist fantasy of Hollywood. At the centre of this world of glitz, glamour and gossip sits super agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a deal-making, name-dropping master schmoozer. And into his crowded life comes his nephew, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a gauche wide-eyed young man, escaping the claustrophobia of the family jewelry business back in New York and in search of all the possibilities Hollywood has to offer.

He finds more than possibilities. He finds Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to whom he’s introduced by her boss, Uncle Phil (“go show the kid around” Phil instructs her) and with whom he is immediately smitten. But she’s reluctant; she’s “seeing someone else”. Alas, she’s exactly Bobby’s kind of gal: smart, unimpressed by the vulgar showiness of Holllywood, fabulously beautiful and fun to be with. The problem is, her “someone else” is her said boss, Uncle Phil.

She loves Phil, but still manages to fall in love with Bobby.

Complications ensue (natch).

The complications drive Bobby back to New York, back away from the false and superficial world of schmoozing and Hollywood to the false and superficial world of schmoozing and his gangster brother’s night-club. Both worlds exist in their own alien universes. These are worlds of wealth, beauty, haute couture, idle chatter, smart repartee, gossip, insider trading, gangsters and an ever-flowing stream of golden champagne. Here the only currency is the caliber of your contact list. Nothing else matters in these intersecting orbits of like-minded, nocturnal souls. Bobby, all grown up has become just another version of Phil.

The war, bubbling up somewhere far away in Europe barely merits a mention.

This is the universe of the café society; an artificial place far, far away from the real world of the Bronx, of grubby tenement apartments, badly fitting clothes and Yiddish. It is a world where the only – fleeting and genuine – escape comes from the honesty of love. Both Bobby and Vonnie marry –others- ‘happily’ (Bobby’s wife is not coincidentally also called Vonnie, or Victoria). But as they discover when they’re thrown together briefly once again in New York, theirs was a connection – a moment of something genuine in their worlds of artifice – they once had and now have forever lost.

It’s a tale of love won and lost and the melancholia of its lingering memory.

Café Society is a charming, lovely and slight movie that plays like a sort of Woody Allen greatest hits (not a bad thing) – the period settings lovingly shot (medium close-up) by Vittorio Storaro with Suzie Benziger’s sparkling costume designs. All his top tropes are here: the clarinets in the background, the angst about Jewishness, the gauche, nebbish protagonist who is irresistible to the prettiest dames on the block, the occasional lapses into philosophical musings and a well plotted story line that always veers away from cliché even when it seems to highlight it.

But this is no Blue Jasmine, with its thoughtful characterizations and compelling insights. Fortunately, it’s also no To Rome With Love either.

Jesse Eisenberg seems to have quickly become a type; his character is an imitation of Woody’s characters…with all their nervous tics and hesitations (so much so that we never quite believe in his so called pushiness or, really, his ability to run a gangster-controlled night-club). Blake Lively has a brief cameo role as Bobby’s wife. It isn’t much of a part, but she looks spot on: she shines as an embodiment of golden, bedazzling old time Hollywood star power.

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Steve Carell (who replaced Bruce Willis…who couldn’t remember his lines) manages great restraint in what could easily have been a caricature of the pushy Hollywood big shot type. But it is Kristen Stewart (again) who gives us a real person. She allows us to always glimpse two people vying for supremacy: the striving name dropping small town girl who landed the big fish and the sad, needy person so ripe for the pickin’

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As with anything Woody, there’s always much to discuss; more than this, even in such ephemeral fare as this, he’s worthwhile company… delivers a mood and an aura that’s a fabulous way to spend a few passing hours.

 

Café Society. Written and directed: Woody Allen. With Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively. Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro. Production Designer: Santo Loquasto

JULIETA**** Buenissima


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PEDRO ALMODÓVAR, AFTER after a messy side trip into comedy (I’m so Excited) is back in fine form with Julieta, a top-notch, if flawed, tale of guilt, passion and solipsism. Julieta is brilliantly portrayed by two actors: Adriana Ugarte as the young Julieta, and Emma Suarez as her older self.

We first get to know Julieta as a young woman teaching The Odyssey – the archetypal journey – to groups of adoring students. The story, that unfolds through a series of mirroring tales, is Julieta’s own odyssey…her life’s journey from a young carefree woman who falls in love with a fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao) to an older version of herself burdened by the guilt and despair caused by the self exile of Antia, her daughter (Priscilla Delgado). (Though Almodovar wickedly inverts the story and it is Julieta who becomes the Odysseus with her two partners mere pining Penelope’s).

The story begins with a chance encounter between the older Julieta and a woman who was once a friend of her daughter. The woman has herself unexpectedly re-encountered her estranged friend, who, she tells Julieta, is now married with three kids. This memory of her daughter, which Julieta has been trying to exorcize and escape for the last twelve years, forces her to re-examine her past, which re-examination – in the form of a letter/memoir Julieta writes to her daughter – energizes the arc of the meticulously structured movie.

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Told through flashback, this is her attempt to understand and come to terms with the nature of her daughter’s flight. Antia was eighteen when, erroneously blaming her mother as the cause of a terrible family tragedy, she fled from everyone…from one life to another…simply disappeared.

A heart-broken Julieta is too self- absorbed to see the parallels in her own story, which is itself a series of flights, or escapes from her own feelings of guilt…her inability to deal with things.

Perhaps, Almodóvar seems to be saying, as Julieta journeys from place to place…from life to life, every journey is a kind of escape

And these escapes are as much sexual as they are geographical.  Both her father and her husband mirror escapes from the despair of ailing wives into the waiting pleasures of others. Indeed, sex is something you either escape to, or like her daughter (who, it is implied, had a lesbian fling) something you escape from. Julieta’s escape is a much deeper, more damaging one. She retreats into a kind of selfishness that locks her away from an ability to empathize with the people she loves: husband, father, daughter, friend.

This is a Southern Gothic/Carsons McCullers tragedy by way of Spain.

The movie’s weakness is that Almodóvar is too often willing to sacrifice his characters’ emotional truths for the thematic truths of the narrative; and at times, his people do things that that simply feel out of character… leaves you nonplussed

No matter. He manages to pull of a marvelous balancing act: in spite of the gloominess of the tale, and the hurtful self-centeredness of his characters, they all remain compellingly engaging. (OK, they’re also compellingly good looking. But that’s not the point.) Almodóvar has a light touch that veers toward life’s absurdities rather than its gloom. So much so, that when the movie ended on a note of ambiguous optimism, with Julieta once again on a journey, now away from escapism to discovery, from despair to hope, I myself had hoped for a few more hours in their delightful company.

Perhaps I’ll just go see it again

 

Julieta. Dir/writer: Pedro Almodóvar. With Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Emma Suárez, Inma Cuesta, Daniel Grao. Cinematographer: Jean-Claude Larrieu. Production Designer: Antxón Gómez