Almodóvar’s Madrid

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The Telefonica building on Gran Via is seen in Papa’s view from her rooftop in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as well as from El Palacio de la Prensa in The Flower of my Secret and from Chicote in Broken Embraces

For a director as prolific as Pedro Almodóvar it can be daunting to familiarise yourself with his canon. Exploding onto the film scene as part of La Movida Madrileña, (a counter-cultural movement that took place in Madrid following Franco’s death) the city of Madrid is essential to his work – along with a host of larger than life flamboyant characters, women at the end of their tether, gender and sexuality issues and a celebration of LGBT lives.

Spending some time in Madrid one can start to notice the aesthetic and open sexuality that permeate Almodóvar’s films. He has almost become a ‘Spanish brand’ and the vibrancy of the city is reflected in his films, initially most noticeable in the bright colour palette. His early work in particular is notable for comedic elements, with Alex Davidson (Sight and Sound) referring to him as ‘the most successful director of foreign language comedies in the English speaking world’. Almodóvar puts minorities into the foreground. Law of Desire, for example, sees a young gay murderer, a lovelorn porn director and his caring trans sister in major roles. The director has a talent for creating vibrant left-field characters which adds a surreal quality to his work.

2009 could be seen as a year of departure for Almodóvar. His work can be trickier to pigeon-hole after this time, including the Hitchcockian tale Broken Embraces, outrageous sex thriller The Skin I Live In, daft farce I’m So Excited! (reviewed by me earlier in this blog) and Chamber drama Julieta (reviewed in podcast form by Screen 101).  His latest work Pain & Glory which premiered at Cannes earlier this year has been compared to Fellini’s 8 1/2, and won Antonio Banderas the best actor prize – playing Almodóvar’s on-screen alter-ego. After re-examining Almodóvar’s work I certainly can’t wait to take a look at what will surely be an autobiographical gem, also described by Variety as ‘a kind of miracle’.

In the meantime, here are some sketches of the more arresting Almodóvar locations in Madrid……walking in the directors shoes for a day in the Spanish capital…

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Plaza Mayor is the setting for Angel’s confession of love to Leo in The Flower of my Secret.

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Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and Madrid bar-hopper Ernest Hemingway have all graced the famous ‘Museo Chicote’. Almodóvar used the bar as a setting in Broken Embraces (2009) – his character Blanca Portillo gulps down a large gin before revealing dark secrets to blind film-maker Lluís Homar and their love child Tamar Novas.

 

 

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Netflix Anime

Attack on Titan

Netflix has always struck me as a place to discover hidden gems. Somehow I can’t help but feel sad that their content is set to go rapidly downhill when Disney pulls all their shows and films with the impending launch of their streaming platform in November. Netflix will find it difficult to keep up and will undoubtedly have to raise their subscription price.

‘Death-Note’ was a surprise success on the platform, and spawned a critically-panned US set original feature Death-Note which loosely followed the same plot. Personally I blame the time restrictive format for the bad reception, with not enough establishment given to the characters for the audience to fully appreciate the following cat-and-mouse game. The original Anime was all about unpicking the complex puzzles that adversaries L and Light Yagami set for each other, like a Sherlock Holmes set in a Japanese fantasy world.

From the creators of Death-Note comes another fantasy gem, Attack on Titan. Based on the manga of the same name, Attack on Titan repeats the same patterns as Death-Note. The audience unpicks the complex decisions of the main protagonists in a what-would-I-do situation. What gives this Anime an edge, for me, is that there seems to be so much more at stake. In season one humanity is literally on the brink of extinction. The gigantic humanoid ‘Titans’ have breached the outer wall of the last stronghold. These monsters are at the same time creepy and intriguing with vacant smiles on their faces as they wreak havoc and destruction. We later learn that humans hold no nutritional value for them, they are eating us for fun. The fight scenes are truly spectacular with humans developing mobile grappling technology to spin acrobatic circles around the Titans and cut them at the neck (similar to Spiderman swinging). The tension is masterful with most battles resulting in 100% human loss, the crippling fear of the Titans being palpable. Early on I genuinely had no idea whether it was even possible to win this war.

Most Animes I have seen on Netflix have amazing villains. Starting with Godzilla Japanese filmmakers have created enduring and horrific monsters. This has partly been attributed to the devastating impact of the nuclear bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The generations after truly understood what all-encompassing mayhem, death and destruction looked like with whole cities wiped off the map. There was also a wide sense of fear this could happen again. After speaking to a Japanese friend of mine, however, I discovered there is a more modern interpretation you can draw of the humanoid Titans in Attack on Titan – that they represent a more internal fear, of authoritarianism.

They certainly hold a morbid fascination for me and were the reason I wanted to watch more and more. As is the case with much Anime, the creators seem to invent almost random rules our heroes have to deal with. Some Titans are ‘abnormal’ for example, and can run faster or show more intelligence than normal. They can only be killed by slicing the nape of the neck, and so on. As I mentioned before, there is a pleasure in trying to outthink these ostensibly insurmountable obstacles. The Death-Note rules actually seem to make much more sense, as they were well-established from the beginning. The notebook (for those of you who don’t know, the supernatural notebook holds the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it) would be unusable without examples such as ‘you must picture the persons face when writing their name’, as people with the same name would all, in theory, die if this was not the case. In some ways this is why Death-Note works slightly better than Attack on Titan.

I also enjoyed One Punch Man  for exactly the same reasons as Attack on Titan. I didn’t watch it for One Punch Man himself, (it is obvious he was going to win every time), but I watched it for the crazier and crazier monsters that seem to appear out of nowhere and get stronger and stronger every time. One of my favourites was Super Custom, he loved building custom cars so much he decked himself out and became a custom car-loving monster.

Check it out, a nice alternative to Game of Thrones.

Loro

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Loro is Paolo Sorrentino’s second film that explores the political landscape of his home country Italy, after the Cannes winning Il Divo. Il Divo starred the charismatic Tony Sevillo as corrupt prime minister Giulio Andreotti and displayed the typical stylish hallmarks which would later garner Sorrentino an Oscar for The Great Beauty. Punchy music, arresting visuals and an ambitious scope characterize both these films. But, although Loro is closer in subject matter to Il Divo, similar thematic links can be drawn to The Great Beauty.

The first thing that strikes me about the film is that we are not introduced to the main protagonist, Silvio Berlusconi (Tony Sevillo), until 30 minutes in. This not only builds his mystique, but seen through the eyes of characters who refer to Berlusconi as Lui, Lui (him, him) we get an insight into his overbearing influence. Berlusconi seems to be solely remarkable for his material achievements, rather than his personality. Indeed he is later portrayed as a small man with a weakness for young women, juvenile practical jokes and breast implants. However, to self-described ‘talent scout’ Sergio Morra (pictured above) who is an ambitious finder of beautiful women used in negotiations to secure lucrative government contracts – Berlusconi is the elusive prize. Indeed Sergio goes to great expense to rent a villa in Sardinia close to Berlusconi’s and hand-picks women to attend a staged ‘party’ to catch his eye. We get an idea of just how important Berlusconi is when the whole congregation silently stare in the direction of his villa, waiting for hours just to be noticed.

These initial party scenes are reminiscent of The Great Beauty. Sorrentino excels at stylistically capturing 21st Century hedonism – with thumping beats, dancing, drugs and excess – ‘a spectacle of bad taste’ as described by Henry K Miller in Sight & Sound. There is a particularly arresting visual moment when, to signal the party starting, hundreds of brightly coloured MDMA pills are thrown into the air. Sorrentino lingers on this slow-motion shot whilst a narrator describes the neurological affects of the drug. Nudity, partying and indeed ‘bad taste’ continue throughout the film.

The same contrast exists here as it does in The Great Beauty. Hard-won human achievements taking time and real effort, vs the transience of excess and hedonism. This is never more poignant than in one of the final scenes at Berlusconi’s villa where Sergio is finally asked to stage a party. Of course, he invites the full congregation of beautiful women. A 20 year old aspiring actress, Stella, who seems uncomfortable catches Berlusconi’s eye. She is the only one who doesn’t laugh at his jokes. She seems to surprise him with the line ‘I can’t do this, it’s all so pathetic’. This dignified and unattainable woman is the one Berlusconi wants, and can never get. She does not fit into the category of superficial beauty. Suddenly the empty reality hits home.

Again, this contrast is evident when Berlusconi’s wife leaves him. Throughout the film she pleads to visit the stunning temples of Cambodia, criticizes his TV channels for bloated advertisements and no intelligent programming, and accuses him of having limited cultural horizons in comparison to the Fiat magnate owner of Juventus Gianni Agnelli, who commissioned a portrait from Francis Bacon. In some ways this failure to appreciate cultural beauty ended up being Berlusconi’s downfall. I felt compassion for Sergio by the end of the film. Never managing to kindle friendship with Berlusconi and enter his circle, he melancholically proclaims that ‘they [loro in Italian] are smarter than us’. Not sure if this is the case, Sergio.

Eighth Grade

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In Director Bo Burnham I feel like I’m witnessing another Jordan Peele rise. Again, this is a filmmaker with a background in sketch comedy who, with his debut feature Eighth Grade, seems to have already made a significant contribution to film culture. Indeed, Barak Obama has named Eighth Grade one of his favourites of 2018, and I can see why.

Eighth Grade avoids many of the usual coming-of-age tropes. The film is imbued with a remarkable authenticity. This isn’t comedy on the scale of Mean Girls with surreal cut scenes and popularity wars, instead the focus is on Kayla Day’s last week in middle school and the battle to discover herself. Burnham takes joy from small triumphs against a tidal wave of “cool” conformity. He has created an excellent character in Kayla Day who isn’t insecure enough to abandon her lamer interests. Whilst watching I certainly started to remember what life was like at that age and the process of building my personality. I was also somewhat surprised to find myself relating to a 13 year old girl.

Part of this authenticity comes from Elsie Fisher’s mesmerising turn as Kayla. There was a groundedness to her performance that was refreshing to see from an actress her age. She was adept at realistically conveying the awkward interactions which provided dry humour throughout. Many of these interactions revolved around her dad, Mark Day played by Josh Hamilton. This was a character I had sympathy for, a dad that dealt with his daughter with goofy good humour despite her efforts to push him away. He provided something of a moral anchor too, and was instrumental in Kayla’s closing revelations.

Burnham initially gained a following through comedy videos on Youtube. I’m not surprised then, that the film also provides insightful commentary into social media lives. After she was voted ‘quietest in school’ Kayla’s Youtube video tips on topics such as “being yourself” or “putting yourself out there”  are a reminder of the contrast between appearance and reality. Social media certainly highlights the anxiety of school but it also allows Kayla to discover who she is. It almost feels like the audience isn’t important in these videos, what’s more important is her freedom of self-expression. This is no more evident than in the final scene when she leaves a heartfelt video message to her eighteen year old self, ‘if you don’t have a boyfriend, that’s ok’, ‘if high school was bad for you, that’s ok too’.

Just like in Us, the score here is particularly good, with loud, brash techno music amplifying the horrendous nerves Kayla feels when she sets eyes on her crush in school. There are also some hugely engaging montages of Instagram surfing, working well with tracks like Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”. I can’t wait to see what Burnham does next. This could be one of the first of the Youtube generation to master cinema.

 

 

 

Us

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During the spring of 2017 I couldn’t help being aware of the impact Get Out had upon cinema audiences. Working at Rich Mix gave me an insight into its huge popular and critical appeal. Jordan Peele successfully magnified the covert racism of liberal America in a skilful and entertaining masterpiece which I only managed to catch recently on Netflix. Indeed, the breath of Peele’s work has hitherto been unknown to me. I was particularly pleased to discover his sketch acting on Youtube, which includes viral classics such as the hilarious ‘substitute teacher’. It’s been a great couple of years for Peele, who went on to play a part in producing Spike Lee’s well deserved first Oscar win Blackkklansman, as well as winning an Oscar himself for Get Out.

Something like Get Out and Us could only have been made by a cinephile. In a recent MTV interview Peele himself admits that he had a face-hugger from Alien dangled over his bed as a child. Certainly there are echoes of Ripley in Lupita Nyong’o’s character Adelaide, but the references in Us go beyond that. Peele has been compared to Kubrick in his fastidiousness and attention to detail, indeed Kubrick is drawn upon several times. The opening scene of a family driving towards their doom through the American landscape is reminiscent of the opening scene in The Shining. The Vulture Blog points out both Us and A Clockwork Orange feature a sequence in which a crisp, clean, upper-class dwelling is invaded by attackers to incongruent music (“Singin’ in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange, “Good Vibrations,” and “Fuck Tha Police” in Us).

Peele is also a fan of Lewis Carol it seems, declaring “There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental US” in the films opening statement, before cutting to a horrifying close up of a rabbit which pans out to reveal more rabbits in cages stacked on top of eachother. It’s the music at this point that’s terrifying, with gothic style chanting overlaying the ominous image. We are through the looking glass and down the tunnel. As well as the gothic chanting, more biblical references abound throughout the film, particularly Jeremiah 11:11 which crops up on clocks and in the hands of street-preachers, it also happens to be the number of rabbit cages stacked by width and length in the aforementioned opening scene. The biblical idea of a dual ‘soul’ and ‘body’ is also central to the narrative, and the symmetrical symbol 11:11 feeds into the theme of ‘mirror’ images, reflecting the “tethered” and their surface counterparts.  Jordan Peele has been quoted as saying, “one thing you can be sure of in this film, everything is deliberate”.

The home-invaders theme and cold atmosphere instantly felt like Micheal Haneke’s Funny Games. Indeed, Funny Games also opens with a family drive and The Vulture Blog also points out that Zora takes out several of the “tethered” versions of the Tyler family with the chief weapon of the Funny Games villains: a golf club. Just like Haneke, Peele seems to pay close attention to the score which is a remarkable achievement for Michael Abels’ second feature as a composer. I particularly enjoyed the slowed-down version of Luniz’s ‘I Got 5 On It’, working very well as a horrific and foreboding piece – in contrast to the original.

Both of Peele’s films thus far have taken place in fairly unconventional horror settings, Get Out in an idyllic, middle class, liberal home and Us on a beach resort. He talks about daylight often being scarier than the more predictable dusty, dark basements and attics. I agree, daylight forces us to acknowledge everything is on display. In Us the build-up of tension works very well when there are several foreboding moments early on, particularly when Adelaide’s son Jason goes missing. This keeps the audience guessing as to when the real scares are going to come.

Early on in the film the characters of the family are also well-established, building up our emotional investment in them. Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson does a superb job of running with the comedy baton we first saw with Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent in Get Out. Cast in her first leading role, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic as Adelaide and Red, showing a fierce commitment and intensity.

Finally I want to talk about the films’ themes. Mark Kermode points out that Us locates our anxieties about outsiders in a guilty fear of ourselves. This ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ psychology is interesting because it’s very ambiguous as to who ‘Them’ could be metaphorically. In Ancient Greek myths monsters such as the Typhon or Centaurs are said to represent uncontrollable nature. Perhaps ‘The Tethered” in Jordan Peele’s film are repressed aspects of our consciousness, our dark natural instincts coming into focus. However, there are also modern political interpretations we can draw. When asked ‘who are you people?’ early on the “tethered” version of Adelaide responds ‘we are Americans’. Perhaps this could be a manifestation of US guilt for the native American genocide, perhaps Peele envisions a world where they once again take control. One of the good things about Peele’s film is it does not provide any straightforward hints at who ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ might be in the real world, it is very much down to your interpretation and perspective. Certainly the horror tradition established by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, playing on our worst fears in the disruption of the ‘nuclear family’ is at work here.

 

The Song of Achilles

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I know, I know. I’m supposed to review films, but I really hope this book will eventually grace the big screen. The rights have apparently been acquired by Caryn Mandabach Productions (Peaky Blinders).

Madeline Miller’s book The Song of Achilles follows the story of Troy: the Iliad. For those of you that are unfamiliar it starts when Queen Helen leaves Sparta (Greece) with Prince Paris for Troy (in Asia Minor). This sparks a diplomatic nightmare, and the Greeks end up sailing over to reclaim her in a thousand ships, lead by Agamemnon of Mycenae and his brother the spurned Menelaus of Sparta. The Siege lasts for 10 years until it is finally broken when the Greeks construct a giant wooden horse as a pretend gift for Troy and the Gods. Hidden inside, they open the gates of Troy and the rest of their army pours in and ransacks the city.

Miller’s book focuses on the story of Achilles who, although he had no part in starting the war, is arguably its main protagonist. He is the greatest hero and fighter on the side of the Greeks, but is unruly and suspicious of authority. He has numerous disputes with Agamemnon. One such dispute results in him refusing to fight and without him the Greeks start to lose the war.

Achilles is featured much in ancient Greek pottery, literature and culture. There is no doubt he has played a part in representing masculinity for the West. Most of us will still remember the Hollywood film Troy (2004), with Brad Pitt in the role. Pitt plays him as a fearsome fighter, honourable and respected by all. He is also very much a ladies man too. In a similar way, the siege of Troy has been used by the West as a way to glorify war. The original book helped to form the concept of ‘nationhood’ for the Greeks, and since then fighting for your country has been held in great esteem – and also the sign of a ‘real’ man. I want to argue here that this is a problematic interpretation of the original ancient Greek text, written by Homer. Miller’s perspective shows a clearer understanding of the complexity of the original themes and ideas.

If you want a breakdown of the original ancient greek text, I would recommend Lindybeige on Youtube. He points out that what Homer’s text does is simultaneously glorify and condemn war.

These are heroes! Fighting is the way to attain immortality. AT THE SAME TIME we are acutely aware of the tragedy. So many deaths – for what?

Lindybeige draws our attention to the death of Iphidames in Homers text as a great example of characterisation. The tragedy here is brought into sharp focus when this insignificant minor character (with barely a paragraph of space devoted to him) is given a rich background story. He is incidentally the first Trojan to die by Agamemnon. We hear about his life growing up in Thrace, his wedding and father attempting to persuade him not to leave to fight. The description of his death that follows is extremely melancholic; ‘he slept a sleep of bronze most piteously, far from his wedded wife’. We never hear from this person again.

Anyway, back to Madeline Miller. Both the condemnation and glorification of war are actually present in her book. Her description of Achilles’ fighting is glorious, she seems to revel in the beauty of his movements. However, Miller’s true focus is not on the heroic fighting or the epic battles, it’s on the simple relationship that altered the course of the war – Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus that was underplayed in the Brad Pitt movie. Why did Achilles go so mad with grief when Patroclus died? How could this relationship have meant so much to him that to seek revenge he abandoned his pride and continued fighting, turning the tide of the war? This relationship seems to have been infinitely more significant than Hollywood portrayed, and had a heavy bearing on the entire life of Achilles, before and after Troy. Miller made the bold choice of telling the story through the eyes of Patroclus and thereby shedding new light on the ancient text. Homer leaves it ambiguous as to wether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers or not, however there are suggestions. In Millers book they are.

Certainly a character worth exploring then, and a relationship that can explain a lot of Achilles’ motivations and choices. Patroclus is described by Homer as always gentle. From his time growing in Pithia and the crucial friendship blooming, to his pivotal role at Troy.

He didn’t have any godlike abilities or an aptitude for fighting. He was largely ignored by the more important figures such as Agamemnon and Menelaus. At first he was only really noticed due to his relationship with Achilles. What did Achilles see in him then, to consider him a worthy companion?

Early on in the book Achilles is sent to train with the centaur Chiron on Mount Pelion. As the son of a goddess, he is expected to grow up to become a legendary hero. Thetis, his mother, is a sea nymph and detests Patroclus as an unworthy mortal. She does everything she can to separate the two. And yet Patroclus does not give up, and on discovering Achilles’ absence, runs nonstop to Pelion from Pitha to find him. This takes him a full day. The wise Chiron then allows him to stay, sensing I think, a unique kind of unwavering determination. Later on in the book, at Troy, Patroclus starts working in the medical tent in order to make a contribution to the war effort. In the course of his training with Chiron he is more interested in learning the healing arts than fighting. This is a very different version of masculinity.

In an interview I watched on Youtube Miller stated her great affection for Patroclus. An ordinary character who makes important choices, some of which alter the course of history. It is clear throughout the book he trying to make the world a better place, without seeking glory or immortality.

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