NERUDA (Chile, 2016)

January 19, 2017

neruda Greetings again from the darkness. There is little offered by the history of the country of Chile that would lead you to believe that some laughs, giggles and chuckles are in store if you watch director Pablo Larrain’s film about Pablo Neruda. But that’s exactly what happens as we watch a police inspector hunt down the Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet and Senator. While you would probably not describe it as an outright comedy, it’s a serio-comedy that will educate (a little) and entertain (a lot).

The opening scene takes place in the men’s room as a most serious Senate debate has flowed into an inappropriate locale. Apparently there is no relief during this time of relieving. It’s here that Neruda’s spoken words are as important as those he writes, and those spoken words lead directly to his need to go on the run. The poet/senator and his artist wife Delia del Carril become fugitives in their own country, and most of the film has them negotiating the Chilean underground.

Set in 1948, three years after the end of WWII, a fascinating game of cat and mouse between hunter and hunted evolves. Director Larrain and writer Guillermo Calderon employ a generously creative license, and play quite fast and loose with facts resulting in a delightfully complex quasi-detective story.

Luis Gnecco plays Pablo Neruda, and actually looks very much like the Chilean icon who was influential, but also a bit prickly and burdened with his own sense of entitlement. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Inspector Peluchonneau, who is charged by the President to hunt down and capture the now enemy of the state. It’s a wild chase that involves up to 300 policemen in support of the Inspector who romanticizes the chase. The filmmakers have more fun with traditional story structure as the Inspector’s internal dialogue questions whether he is the lead character … an idea that would never be considered by the man he is chasing.

The film has a retro look and feel, and borders on farcical at times – the shots inside a moving car appear right out of the old 1940’s detective movies. But the harsh realities of the times are never far removed. It could be a Picasso speech or a concentration camp director named Pinochet (soon to play a more important role in Chile). Neither the Inspector nor the fugitive make for a trustworthy narrator, but their different perspectives constantly provide us with more bits to consider.

Luis Gnecco, Gael Garcia Bernal and Mercedes Moran (as Delia del Carril) are all excellent in their roles, and the use of music is spot on … especially the score from Federico Justid (whose work I noted in Magallanes and The Secret in Their Eyes). Director Larrain also released the high profile Jackie (with Natalie Portman) over the holidays, and deserves to be discussed as one of the more creative filmmakers working today. It’s pretty tough to name another contemporary film that blends an oddball inspector, a tough woman losing touch, and a narcissistic fugitive – all with bases in reality, while never settling for something as mundane as the truth.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


ROSEWATER (2014)

November 14, 2014

Rosewater Greetings again from the darkness. A surefire method to get attention for a movie is “the feature film directorial debut of Jon Stewart”. The popular comedian/commentator/talk show host makes an exceptional living getting people to laugh and think, so a politically charged story based on real life events should be right in his proverbial wheelhouse. Mix in the fact that Stewart and his show are linked to those events, and now you have some real intrigue.

Maziar Bahari was a Newsweek political correspondent sent to cover the 2009 Presidential election in Iran. His experience led him to write the book “Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival”, on which the film is based. Bahari was a young husband who left his pregnant wife at home for what he thought would be an assignment lasting but a few days. Instead, by the time he returned home, he had been held captive in Evin Prison for 118 days – suspected of being a foreign spy, and incessantly interrogated and subjected to psychological and physical torture.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Bahari with a naïve and amiable spirit that contrasts sharply with what we might envision as the traits necessary for success in his line of work. It does work well to allow the viewer a quick connection with the character as we later pull for him during the toughest moments. The film brings light to the importance of a free press, and the dangers inherent otherwise. As the Iranian government accuses Bahari of being a spy, it’s easy for us to understand the blurred line between spy and journalist. Those with the most to hide are often the most paranoid.

When Bahari first arrives in Iran, happenstance leads him to cross paths with a taxi driver who enthusiastically introduces him to the “educated” … the “not Ahmadinejad” faction. These are the revolutionaries working to bring enlightenment to the government through their candidate. As you are probably aware, the election instead brought what Bahari’s mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog) calls “the same old sh**”. In other words, despite seemingly overwhelming support, their candidate lost in what they can only assume was another fixed election.

Bahari’s personal story is the focus of the film much more than an investigative look into Iranian elections. He films the protests of the election aftermath, and the next morning he is awakened to a search of his personal belongings. The accusations begin with such laughers as having his “Sopranos” DVD classified as a pornography collection. Laughs are short-lived though, as Bahari is arrested and swept away to the prison. The torture he faces is nothing like what we witnessed in Zero Dark Thirty, but the psychological warfare waged by his interrogator (Kim Bodnia) is designed to break down Bahari emotionally so that he admits to being a spy (an enemy of the government).

We certainly gain insight into Bahari’s personal struggle to maintain his hope and position. Visions of his father and sister appear to him in his cell and provide advice. These apparitions seem more level-headed and passionate than Bahari was even before his arrest. And therein lies the biggest issue with the movie. We know how the story ends, so the suspense is non-existent. Instead, we are somehow to relate to the daily misery endured by Bahari, but that just isn’t captured in a two hour movie. The closest we get is a remarkable sequence where Mr Bernal (as Bahari) moves to the music (in his head) of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”. This is a man clinging to hope for his future with memories from the past. It’s a very touching moment.

The need for a free press is obvious from this story, but it’s unclear whether another point made in the movie was intentional. Bahari has his camera holstered during the violent election aftermath until he is disparaged by one of the rebels … something along the lines of “you have a weapon and choose not to use it”. This moment raises the question of whether these political correspondents are so concerned about personal danger that they let that affect the stories they tell and the pictures we see. This may be the most powerful question raised by the film, and one not easy to answer.

Lastly, it does seem at times that the movie plays as Jon Stewart’s tribute to Maziar Bahari, which makes us wonder whether Stewart’s burden of guilt from his (unintended) role in Bahari’s capture was the driving force behind the making of the film. It comes across a bit light on issues and heavy on hero-worship (apology). Still, mixing in actual news footage and the role of social media, keeps us from forgetting that this is a real man plunged into a dangerous situation simply because he was trying to show and tell the truth.

watch the trailer:

 


LETTERS TO JULIET (2010)

May 22, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Admittedly, for me there is a fine line between an acceptable chick flick and one that is pure fluff. Oddly enough, this one brings a few fine moments to the screen despite its simplistic predictability and overall lack of creativity.  It easily could have been titled “Where for art thou, Lorenzo?”.

Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia) stars as Sophie, a wannabe writer who stumbles on a 50 year old letter at the wall of Juliet in Verona. She then tracks down the Secretaries of Juliet who let her answer the letter. Poof! Just like that, the author of the original letter (a radiant Vanessa Redgrave as Claire) shows up in Verona to meet Sophie and track down Lorenzo, the lost love of her life (the reason for the letter).

There are absolutely no twists or surprises in the movie. We recognize immediately that Sophie and her fiancé (a miscast Gael Garcia Bernal) are all wrong for each other. How this will end is very clear when Claire’s grandson (Heath Ledger clone Christopher Egan as Charlie) first confronts Sophie in cliched rude Brit manner.

The road trip to find lost love Lorenzo is of course a road of discovery for not just Claire, but also Sophie and Charlie. I am struggling to avoid typing yada, yada, yada. The coolest part of the film is when Claire finds her Lorenzo … a dashing Franco Nero on a galloping steed, who also happens to own the vineyard for Claire’s favorite wine (insert eye roll here).

Anyway, the Tuscan scenery is staggeringly beautiful. And watching real-life couple Redgrave and Nero walk hand in hand is very heart-warming. These two first fell in love during the mid-60’s while filming Camelot. This cost Ms. Redgrave her first marriage (famed director Tony Richardson), but the lovers did not marry until 2006. It’s never a good sign when real life is more interesting than the movie.

If you are cool with an obvious and uncomplicated story line (similar to Amy Adams’ Leap Year) set in the gorgeous Tuscan wine country, then the film will be fine for you. On the other hand, director Gary Winick was also responsible for Bride Wars, so the least he can do is turn in his director’s card and move into a second career dealing with pure maple syrup.