Thursday, October 13, 2005

Alex de la Iglesia: Crimen Ferpecto, Accion Mutante, La Communidad, 800 Balas

The Brattle did an Alex de la Iglesia series last weekend, and it's the kind of series that makes me a fan. I only saw four of the six films screened - I saw Day of the Beast at the Coolidge's horror marathon a couple Halloweens ago, and didn't feel like seeing it again as part of a double feature with Perdita Durango, or seeing Durango on its own. Besides, it was my birthday (the big $20 in nerd terms), so I was of course pre-occupied with trying to get a single cupcake at the supermarket, which proved to be impossible, and watching the Red Sox crush the Yankees without staying up until 2am. Still, three of the four movies I saw, I liked quite a bit, and the fourth is worth seeing.

Anyway, this provides a nice segue for Brattle stuff.

First: They need money; there's talk of ending repatory programming there if they don't get some donations, and that would be a terrible thing. Here's a link to their page of ways to extract money from people. If you've ever been there, you know it's a cool place; get yourself a T-shirt, poster, or discount card. If you've got friends or family in Boston, give them a gift membership (I mean, if you live in the Boston area yourself and love movies, you're already a member, right?). Or just make a donation; it's tax-deductable.

Second: The Boston Fantastic Film Festival starts tonight, and runs through the weekend. Perdita Durango ran as part of the festival last year, though there's no de la Iglesia stuff this year. I saw about a third to half of what's playing in Montreal this summer, and can strongly recommend Ju-On: The Grudge 2 and Mindgame, liked R-Point, and will subject myself to Izo again if someone makes a $500 donation to the Brattle in my name. I shouldn't have to recommend The Muppet Movie, it is a bona-fide five-star classic and the chance to see it on the big screen should be treasured. Everything I haven't seen, I'm looking forward to - Marebito, Three...Extremes, Creep, Trapped by the Mormons. I'm hoping like heck that Ned managed to get Mindgame on film, since it's eyeball-bustingly gorgeous and I only got to see it on projected video at Fantasia.

Anyway, onto the reviews.

Crimen Ferpecto (aka Ferpect Crime or La Crimen Perfecto)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Mutant Action!)

Some American theaters are running this under the name "La Crimen Perfecto", which strikes me as a perfect example of underestimating both the film and the audience. The wordplay in the film's title translates easily enough, and gives the audience a clear idea of both the film's content and its offbeat tone. If someone standing at the ticket booth can't grasp the title, maybe they're just not the audience for this gem.

The crime will eventually be committed by Rafael Gonzalez (Guillermo Toledo), the handsome fellow who runs the women's wear department in Madrid's Yeyo megastore. He's a consummate salesman, and greatly enjoys the company of the beautiful young women who work in his section, but across the hall is his archnemesis, "Don" Antonio (Luis Varela), a dour, joyless man who runs menswear. They're locked in a competition to be manager of the entire floor, which, as Rafael tells us, is the path to company junkets, stock options, a seat on the board, wealth, and power. A scuffle after the position is awarded, however, leaves Don Antonio dead, and Rafael the obvious prime suspect if he doesn't find a way to dispose of the body. Enter Lourdes (Monica Cervera), the one woman in his department he hasn't bedded (she's rather homely). She's a witness, but will help dispose of the body and keep quiet if he gives her some of the attention he gives the other girls. And makes her the new women's wear manager. And fires the girl he was just flirting with. And... well, soon Rafi is in a sort of prison without walls, subject to her every whim. Something will have to be done, and he's already got blood on his hands.

Read the rest at HBS.

Acción Mutante (aka Mutant Action)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2005 at the Brattle (Mutant Action!)

Alex de la Iglesia's recent movies, things like Ferpect Crime and 800 Bullets are peculiar, off-center entertainments. The closest American analog I can think of is Sam Raimi. And like Raimi, his early works are as delightfully strange as they are obviously low-budget.

"Acción Mutante", in the film, is the name of a group of unattractive and disabled terrorists who strike back against the attractive people who control society. With their leader Ramon Yarritu (Antonio Resines) in jail, though, they tend to screw up on a regular basis. Once Ramon is released, they set about on a new mission - to kidnap beautiful heiress Patricia Orujo (Frederique Feder) and hold her for ransom. The kidnapping becomes a bloodbath, the kidnappers turn on each other, and the hostage develops Stockholm Syndrome.

Don't let Pedro and Agustin Almodovar's names in the credits as producers fool you; this is no classy art film. You've got your basic cheap special effects, black comedy galore (a dare you not to laugh at news footage of MA taking out an aerobics class), and gore, gore, gore. Blood and body parts all over the place, really, and that's after considering that the kidnappers are already on the grotesque side. This is the kind of film that is all about grabbing attention. It doesn't really need to make a whole lot of sense, so long as it keeps the audience cringing or laughing at the latest outrageous thing thrown at it, and if people with the money to mount larger productions say, hey, this de la Iglesia fellow has style, so much the better.

In fact, once you get past the concept, the spiffy opening credits, and the catchy theme music, the whole thing is actually rather silly. None of the characters are really motivated to do anything that they do; they just act on authorial fiat to get the audience to the next scene of outrageous violence. Along the way, there's great amusement to be had at the empty-headed pretty people at Patricia's party - Enrique San Francisco as "Luis Maria de Ostalaza, the outraged groom" made me laugh very hard just by looking stupid - to Ramon's eye-rolling annoyance at Patricia's declarations of adoration, as if this sort of thing has happened to him before. And the bloodletting is staged in an entertaining way, much of it transpiring on a spaceship set that is sort of beautiful in its cheapness - Caro/Jeunet grimy but also sort of retro-cool.

In the end, Mutant Action amused me much more than it probably had any right to. It's right on the border between "deliberately campy" and "overcoming its budget", and the messiness of its script annoyed me. It's got the exuberance of a young and talented filmmaker breaking into the scene, which is not only exciting, but also interesting once you've seen the man's later, more polished, films.

La Comunidad

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Mutant Action!)

The first thing one notices about La Comunidad is the eye-catching title sequence. I, personally, think that the Oscars should have an category to recognize a great set of opening credits (call it the Saul Bass Award), and further feel that if they did, Alex de la Iglesia's films would regularly be contenders. The stark, red-tinted stills of Carmen Maura and the accompanying shrieks set an ominous mood, but the way they move back and forth across the screen implies that de la Iglesia's trademark wit will be in supply.

Ms. Maura plays Julia, a middle-aged realtor showing an apartment in Madrid. The building appears kind of run-down and there's no parking, but inside it's fantastic. She invites her husband over to make use of it while she has the keys, the ceiling cracks open, and an investigation of the apartment above uncovers a rotting corpse in a disgusting environment. Further investigation uncovers a fortune in cash. But while finding the money may not have taken much effort, getting it out of a building filled with suspicious neighbors is something altogether more difficult.

Julia is no heroine; she's as selfish and conniving as anyone else in the movie, but we can root for her because she (at least initially) is a mere opportunist, with nothing particularly premeditated about her misdemeanors. She's probably too old to be described as "plucky" but not so old as to have stopped dreaming, even if her husband's sense of adventure is as frustratingly dormant as his libido. She's no kind of master criminal, but Ms. Maura gives us a sense of both the character's panic and her resolve, and it helps us get into her corner.

There's a nifty Ira Levin feel to the apartment's other inhabitants - some are peculiar individually, especially a guy who hangs around his apartment in a full Darth Vader costume, but most seem normal enough, if not terribly gregarious. When aggregated, though, the community as a whole is downright unnerving. It's a classic set-up, with an outsider shoved into a society she doesn't understand, with no help immediately available because of the insular nature of the place and her own less-than-legitimate standing. de la Iglesia and regular co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarria use it to crank the tension up while putting in plenty of humor.

Another set of filmmakers might have been tempted to make a political allegory out of this; it'd be, perhaps, the European thing to do. You can find such themes if you want to look. A theme of oppression, perhaps, or people from outside the community plundering the poor natives. You can play with the idea that democracy becomes tyranny when "majority rules" is the only moral principle. These filmmakers, though, appear to understand that films can collapse under too much metaphor, and when it comes down to brass tacks, La Comunidad isn't about making a statement, but about delivering thrills and just enough laughs to surprise. The rooftop chase that makes up much of the final act, for instance, has no ideology, but is tautly constructed, with some fantastic helicopter shots and a genuine sense that these people, who are not used to chasing or being chased, could in fact fall a great distnace to their deaths at any moment.

The end result is maybe not as incisive or insightful as it could be, but it is pretty darn exciting, which for my money is far more important. That's not to imply it's a stupid movie, just that it's more interested in straight-on thrills and twisted comedy than satire.

800 Balas (800 Bullets)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Mutant Action!)

The Western remained popular in Europe longer than it did in America, and stayed more potent as well. I'm not sure they lasted long enough that they were still being cranked out in the early 1990s, which this film's timeline would seem to imply, but maybe. And if not, that's not really a point worth any demerits, even if this is a film about the collision between fantasy and reality.

Carlos Torralba (Luis Castro) is a handful, the sort of pre-teen that makes his mother Laura (Carmen Maura) wish for a guiding hand in his life. She's less than pleased, though, when he seeks one out in the form of his never-before-mentioned grandfather Julian (Sancho Gracia), a former western stuntman who now plays the sherriff in "Hollywood, Texas", a tourist attraction built out of an old Western movie set, where paying customers can see an old west shootout enacted for them live. Carlos skips out on a school trip to find him. Julian tries to send him home, then grows fond of him. Laura tracks him down, then sees the beautiful land on which the financially failing attraction resides as the perfect place for her firm to build a resort. An outraged Julian rallies his confederates to fight back - with live ammunition!

It's kind of ridiculous, and at a few minutes over two hours, a little too sprawling. The relationships between Julian, his wife, Carlos, Laura, and her late husband, are merely strained, not terribly complicated. The other players at Hollywood, Texas are colorful, but thin. And in some ways, the stunt show almost looks too good - for something that's supposed to be a failing concern, it looks awfully slick and well-staged. In some ways, this helps to make the fantasy of living in a Wild West town in Almeria more seductive, for both Carlos and Julian, but seems incongruous when the reality of the situation must be confronted. It also seems to speak ill of the area's police force that a few crazy guys with six-shooters and no actual hostages are able to hold a SWAT team at bay for so long.

For all the thinness and implausibility of the story, though, the cast grows on you. Sancho Garcia's Julian may be a self-deluding old fool, but he's one with passion and flair. He's a man living a dream, so wrapped up in a fantasy that he can't quite handle it when reality intrudes, but there are moments where he is able to clearly remind us that his happy life is also an exile. Camen Maura, so excellent in the director's La Comunidad, plays the fun-ruining mother. She's the type who comes off as a villain when your age has just reached double digits, but is in fact mostly overwhelmed by the challenges of both a small child and a successful career. Luis Castro is quite charming as a somewhat obnoxious city kid who is swept away and awe-struck by the imaginary world of Hollywood, Texas. Angel de Andres Lopez, whose role as either a local prostitute or a woman playing a prostitute in the show (or quite possibly both) isn't particularly important to the story, still grabs the audience's attention ; she's got some charisma (and by "charisma", I don't just mean "a great body highlighted by exceptional breasts and no apparent resistance to doing nudity", although, yeah, that's a big part of it).

For all the film's well-staged set pieces and pleasant characters, though, it never achieves the same levels of delight as director Alex de la Iglesia's other features. This may be deliberate; he and co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarria are in a very character-based mode, asking the audience to identify with the people on screen rather than just enjoying the anarchy, as is their usual m.o. It's not quite conventional, but it's more sentimental than their usual work.

Nothing inherently wrong with "sentimental", but de la Iglesia isn't nearly as good at it as he is at "crazy". 800 Balas is at its best when it's crazy, but that doesn't happen often enough.

Next up: BFFF stuff and animation.

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