Tuesday, 12 September 2017

la cordillera (w&d santiago mitre, w. mariano llinás)

Reaction to Santiago Mitre’s bravura La Cordillera in the faux-Swiss restaurant on San José was mixed. C remained neutral. Javier was underwhelmed, saying he never really engaged. I was quietly blown away. It might be that our respective nationalities had something to do with these reactions.

Mitre’s film is a collage of references. Part of the fun is working your way through them. To begin with, there’s a great deal of Aaron Sorkin. The film sets out its stall as a talkie, political drama. The president of Argentina, played by the likeable Ricardo Darin, is due to attend a regional summit. The day he leaves, with his team in tow, news breaks of a threat from his son-in-law to blackmail him with accusations of corruption. So far, so predictable. Darin appears to be squeaky clean, but he’s also an unknown quantity. (A neat irony, as Darin is one of the best known stars on the continent.) 

The team cross the Andes (the Cordillera of the film’s title) in a private jet, experiencing a teeth clenching level of turbulence at one point. They arrive at a plush, mountainous hotel, near to Santiago, where the summit is taking place. The hotel is reminiscent of Force Majeure - an isolated place where morality is put to the test. Darin settles in and we are introduced to the presidents of Chile, Mexico and Brazil, as the Argentine president gets inveighed into the political shenanigans of his neighbours. It’s worth noting at this point that this is a film which has been financed by Warner Brothers. It’s a big budget enterprise, featuring various superstars of the Latino/ Hispanic world, both in front of and behind the cameras. This is Latin America flexing its cinematic muscle, albeit with (presumably) financial support from Uncle Sam, something the film’s narrative ironically alludes to with the arrival of Christian Slater as a dubious representative of the US government. 

There’s something gloriously unwieldy about all of this: the narrative; the international co-pro; the far-fetched premise. The pacing is languorous and dialogue-heavy, as though the director is resisting commercial expectations. Then, with the arrival of Darin’s disturbed daughter, Marina, the film takes a twist. Whilst the President is quoting Marx to a Spanish journalist, his daughter has a decidedly funny turn and ends up mute in bed. This Hitchcockian swerve towards psycho-drama is consummated with the arrival of a psychoanalyst, a shift in the visual language, and the gradual revelation that everything we have assumed to be self-evident is nothing of the kind. 

La Cordillera is bold to the point of foolhardiness. In Latin America, there’s a tendency to view the Argentines, or at least the Porteños, as somewhat arrogant, or ‘soberbio’. La Cordillera is a decidedly ‘soberbio’ film. It’s arrogant, ambitious, over-reaching. It doesn’t really stack up. The mish-mash of styles and references pushes the boundary of the credible, risks excluding the viewer rather than engaging them. And yet, there’s also something wonderful about this boldness, or arrogance. There’s a refusal to be pigeon-holed within the assumed parameters of Latino (or third world) filmmaking. There’s a refusal to be pigeon-holed, full stop. Perhaps it was easier for me, as a non-native Latino, to suspend disbelief and go with the film’s jagged flow. But go with it I did. In contrast to the slick Relatos Salvajes, this is dangerous filmmaking which teeters on the edge of auto-destruction, but shows enough verve and brilliance to ride the turbulence, soar over the threatening peaks, and leave you wanting more. 

Friday, 8 September 2017

in the beginning was the sea [tomás gonzález]

González’s novel is a slight, storm-tossed thing. Set on an island off the coast of Colombia, it tells the tragic tale of J, a man who has had to flee the city for reasons that are never made clear, with his haughty, difficult girlfriend, Elena. J is an intellectual who isn’t cut out for island life, no matter how much he tries. Already in debt, his efforts to generate money from the land they’re living on are catastrophic. Elena succeeds in offending the locals, he becomes an alcoholic, their relationship goes to pot and J comes to a sticky end. Whilst the novel is always readable, it’s sometimes hard to fathom what, exactly, the author’s intentions are in the telling of it, beyond a somewhat obvious cautionary tale. Middle class intellectual hipster types should steer away from seeking out an idyllic hippie life, because it’s an illusory dream. Life at the rough end of civilisation is always going to be harder than the pampered middle class bank on. J’s journey has something in common with Robinson Crusoe’s, or the Lord of the Flies, or even The Beach. In the Hobbesian world, there’s no place for the weak. However, it might have helped had the book revealed more of the context for J and Elena’s fateful flight to the island and the world these protagonists’ emerged from, which might be obvious to the native Colombiano, but is less so to the average gringo. 

Saturday, 2 September 2017

my blueberry nights (w&d wong kar wai, w. lawrence block)

Wong Kar Wai had already made one affecting and intuitive road movie in the Americas, Happy Together, before he got round to his North American debut. Happy Together retained a Hong Kong/ Chinese feel through the use of its lead characters, a gay couple spiralling out of control on a road trip through Argentina, something My Blueberry Nights foregoes, with its resolutely Anglo-Saxon cast. Perhaps as a result of this, it feels like a film without a centre. The episodic narrative follows a character played by Norah Jones, who seems rootless in all the wrong ways. Not only does it feel as though she’s not really going anywhere, it also feels as though she doesn’t come from anywhere, save Hollywood Central casting. The same could be said for Jude Law, whose erratic Northern accent is supposed to suggest that he’s an itinerant Mancunian who has ended up running his own bar in New York, for reasons the script never deigns to explain. Which is not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments of bravura, Wong Kar Wai, charm, most noticeable in the performance of Rachel Weisz as a vampish  femme fatale who drives her alcoholic husband to suicide. Weisz gives it all she’s got and for a while there’s a sense of real passion, rather than contrived pseudo-passion, the kind of heightened sexual tension that made In The Mood for Love such an electrifying watch. However, this is no more than an episode in Jones’ journey, an episode that soon fizzles out with David Strathairn’s convenient automobile accident. The lighting becomes the most interesting aspect of a film which, for a supposed road movie, feels excessively pedestrian; whilst the director joins the list of greats whose Hollywood nights ended up providing more of a snack than a main course.