Sunday, 8 March 2015

Los Amantes Pasajeros (2013)

I originally watched Almodóvar's "Los Amantes Pasajeros" when it came out in 2013. At the time, I ended not writing about it, thinking it silly and generally agreeing with the poor reviews. Watching it again, I couldn't help thinking how hollow it really is. There really isn't much holding it together. Almodóvar was clearly trying to emulate his earlier comedies but failed completely to capture the effortlessness and the energy of, say, "Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios".

A technical problem in a flight causes the plane to have to circle for hours on the air, in the hope that an empty runaway is found to have it land. Despite the (preposterous) catastrophe film premise, this is just an excute to put crew and first class passengers together, exposing their problems. The economic class (and the female crew) are drugged - a political satire element that the director hammered in press interviews at the time of the release.

Many of director's usual actors were on call: Javier Cámara, Lola Dueñas, Cecilia Roth, Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, etc.. However, while he may have relished the opportunity to work again with many favourites, the character list is too long and in need of an edit. This is a major problem - the first class passenger list is too big for a 90 minute film and we spend too much time changing from one to the other. Random subplots go nowhere, most noticeable the actor who decides to take sleeping pills and the newly weds, who contribute little more than eye candy to the film. As a result, and with the exception of Lola Dueñas's character, I couldn't care less if all of them had disappeared or died when the plane finally lands. The crew fared better, partly because their soap-opera style antics are far more relatable than pseudo-political/financial/sexual scandals, some of them perhaps too specific to the Spanish context.

Javier Cámara makes the most of having the best character in the film and gives the best performance. Whether he is panicking or drunk, he commands your attention. Alas, this says far more of his acting ability than anything to do with the film. Banderas and Cruz provide cameos (while causing the aforementioned technical problem), Dueñas and the actors playing the rest of the crew do well and Roth is completely wasted.

At the time of "La Piel que Habito" I mention "the absence of his trademark random strange characters (again, no transsexuals, no drag queens, although there is a surrogate mother) and the colour palette which has toned down the reds and oranges that intoxicated "La Mala Educación" and "Volver"". These are back - sort of. The colour palette is toned up again, even if only a little bit, and while there aren't transsexuals or drag queens, there are plenty of random strange characters (a dominatrix and most of the crew come to mind). But disappointingly, most parts often drift to stereotypes that would cause an outcry if not coming from an openly gay director. Having said that, the relationship between the captain and Cámara's character is by far the most rewarding element of the film, with Hugo Silva's closeted co-pilot storyline the funniest (if not particularly original or deep) mostly thanks to the actor's charm.

The bizarre "I'm so Excited" sequence, where Cámara and the other two gay stewarts perform and lipsync to the song is both surreal and technically the most interesting sequence in the film. But it serves no other purpose than providing an odd English title of the film, missing the double meaning of the word "pasajeros" in Spanish (i.e. passengers and transient). 

His next film, coming out in 2016, is supposed to be a melodrama. My hopes are still high. Melodrama has suited him better in recent years. And even if it ends an honourable failure like "La Piel que Habito", surely it won't be as hollow as this. But perhaps the lesson here is that one shouldn't try to redo the past. In trying to do so, Almodóvar missed its soul. 

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Luise Rainer (1910-2014)

I think I only have seen "The Great Ziegfeld" but her interviews were marvelous and her contribution for "When the Lion roars" a key one.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Something else that shouldn't happen in a cinema

There's a Maggie Smith season and the BFI is showing a rare late 1950s TV play, Somerset Maugham's "For Services Rendered". Yet, the version is in colour and Maggie Smith-less. On the plus side, the version they actually showed is so rare, it's not on IMDb.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Zaza (1938)

In George Cukor's career, "Zaza" comes after "Holiday" and before "The Women" and "The Philadelphia Story". In Claudette Colbert's, it comes between "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" and "Midnight", two wonderful Wilder/Brackett scripted films. And yet, the film is little more than a footnote in both their careers.

While the film's story is perfectly banal (doomed love affair with a married man), for once I don't think the problems start with the script. It's solid, competent, gives characters a chance to develop and keeps the story moving at a good pace. To me the main problem is the two leads: Colbert and Herbert Marshall. Marshall has even less presence than in other films, and devoids his character of any charm - although to be fair he doesn't have as much screen time as his character should have. But I don't like him, and it pains me to see him on screen. Colbert on the other hand is completely miscast, despite a few glorious moments. When she plays Marshall (the meeting at the station, the backstage meeting) she excels - but then she overdoes the innocent girl moments. And this is the key - she is far too knowing for me to believe she could ever be deceived by a man, any man.

Cukor himself, should have been more at ease with the material - we are in his favoured milieu of the theatre ("A Double Life", "Les Girls"). The Portuguese Cinematheque note on film also draws comparisons with "Camille". But I never felt his heart was on this. The good moments - the opening and closing, the scenes I mentioned above, and Colbert's scene with the doll - are few and far between. The opening scene in particular, with the camera travelling through the occupants of third class train carriage ending in Colbert in a shot that anticipates her similar introduction in "Midnight" On the other hand, certain scenes drag (Colbert's visit to Marshall's Paris apartment) or fail to achieve the right tone (most of the backstage scenes, where there is a lot of repetition).

The best thing in the film are the three supporting actors, playing Colbert's stepmother, her maid and her agent/partner (respectively Helen Westley, Constance Collier and Bert Lahr). Their presence helps bridge the duller moments of the film.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

She was discovered by Hawks, met Bogart and became a legend. And that was only her first film.

But a 70 year career is often reduced to four years and four films made at its very beginning  is over simplistic (actually, usually only two or three - no one ever remembers "Dark Passage", sometimes probably not even "Key Largo"). As is to focus on her status as a fashion icon, on "The Look" or her looks (and by the way, she still looked amazing in her last public appearances). Bacall was much more interesting both off and on screen. I will focus on the second. This was a woman that worked both in Hollywood's Golden Age and in 21st Century arthouse. She was directed by Hawks, Minnelli and Sirk. But she was also directed by Lars von Trier and Jonathan Glazer.

And while an icon of Hollywood, she did surprisingly little film work during the Golden Age, just over a dozen films between 1944 and 1960. But she certainly knew how to pick them. In the early 1950s she played a lesbian in Curtiz's "Young Man with a Horn"(*), stealing the film from under Kirk Douglas and Doris Day's feet, and a romantic gold digger in the Cinemascope delight that is "How to Marry a Millionaire". As the decade moved on, she starrred in "Written in the Wind" for Sirk and "The Cobweb" and "Designing Woman" for Minnelli. The latter is one of her most memorable performances, in a opposites attract romantic comedy with Gregory Peck. She also played Elvira in a rarely seen TV adaptation of Noël Coward's "Blithe Spirit".

For the next couple of decades she worked on television and theatre and her film work was in waves, but included a supporting role in a guilty pleasure of mine ("Sex and the Single Girl"), the leading lady in John Wayne's last film and a scene stealing performance in "Murder in the Orient Express".

In 1996, she ran away with "The Mirror Has Two Faces", her only Oscar nomination (which she lost unexpectedly to Juliette Binoche). In 2009, she finally got an special achievement award - but  then she got the limelight slightly stolen, as it was the first year where special Oscars were presented separately.

Yes, she taught Bogart how to whistle, but she did so much more than that.

(*) Until her death, "Young Man with a Horn" was likely to have been the oldest film with all leads still alive.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

This was a shock. Can't remember what was the last film with him I saw ("Insomnia"?) but from the late 1980s to the late 1990s he had a touch of Midas in him. In "Aladdin" he stole the show with a perfect performance.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

James Garner (1928-2014)

I don't think I have seen more than four or five of his films, but twice with Julie Andrews - in "The Americanization of Emily" and "Victor, Victoria" - he created something I loved.