Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Daniel Monzon: Cell 211 and The Kovak Box

I would have liked to see both of these movies at festivals, but it didn't quite work out. Cell 211 was showing fairly late at IFFBoston this year - they basically crammed all of their "IFFBoston After Dark" showings into just a couple time slots - and I wound up choosing The Good, the Bad, the Weird over Cell 211 and Drones because I needed some 'splosions after sitting through five subjective hours of I Am Love. The Kovak Box was a selection at Fantasia back in 2006, when I wasn't staying for the whole festival and had to rely on screeners to see the stuff on the back end.

The thing is, I didn't realize the connection until Saturday evening, after watching Cell 211. I noted during the credits that it it was co-written by Jorge Guerricaechevarria, making me think, hey, isn't that the guy with the crazy-long name who co-writes Alex de la Iglesia's stuff? Sure enough, it was, and following links on IMDB eventually got me to The Kovak Box, at which point I recalled having an unwatched screener for that somewhere. I'll discuss a bit about why I wound up watching it off Amazon's streaming service instead in TWIT, although it can more or less be summed up in three letters: V, H, and S.

Interestingly, the two films are in different languages despite having the same writers and director, Spain-based financing and production companies, and likely many crew members in common. I do believe that working in their native language helped the filmmakers a bit in Cell 211 versus The Kovak Box - there are a few moments in Box where it feels like Monzon is trying to get Timothy Hutton to approximate the way the dialog sounds in Spanish comedies, and it doesn't quite fit in English. It does serve to highlight that there seems to be a real push to make English-language genre films in Spain. They're not exactly alone in this - Luc Besson's company cranks out a fair amount of English-language action on the other side of the Pyrenees - but it does seem a bit odd. Does The Kovak Box do much better financially by having an American actor in the lead? We're talking about a movie that more or less went straight to video in the U.S., although I suppose that wasn't guaranteed; it could have turned out like Buried (which may not have set the box office on fire, but the producers likely got paid when Lionsgate acquired it). On the other hand, it could have been The Birthday, which might have been considered art-house in Spanish, rather than just weird.

Interestingly, the director of The Birthday, Eugenio Mira, has a new one making the festival circuit right now, and it (Agnosia) is in Spanish. Alex de la Iglesia's most recent collaboration with Guerricaechevarria, The Oxford Murders, was in English and wound up sitting on the shelf for a while, having a very brief theatrical run before hitting video in America. I've got it on Blu-ray, and will getting around to watching it one of these days. Iglesia also has a new movie coming out, Balada Triste de Trompeta, which (at least on IMDB) appears to be his first written without Guerricaechevarria. It's also in Spanish.

Celda 211 (Cell 211)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

Director Daniel Monzon seems to know that the hook to Cell 211, with a rookie guard having to impersonate an inmate when a riot breaks out, is as improbable as it is intriguing. He and co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarria (adapting a novel by Francisco Perez Gandul) run through the set-up quickly, getting us right into its story and then following it where it leads. What takes it from a cool concept to a great movie is how "where it leads" is always both logical and surprising.

Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) will be starting as a guard at Zamora prison as a guard tomorrow, but he want to make a good impression, so he goes in a day early to get the lay of the land. Wardens Ernesto Almansa (Manuel Moron) and Armando Nieto (Fernando Soto) are giving him a tour when a rock thrown in the yard crashes through a decayed bit of grill-work and hits him. Ernesto and Almansa move the dazed Juan to an empty cell, but at the same time, one of the prison's most infamous inmates, "Malamadre" (Luis Tosar), overpowers another guard (Ricardo de Barreiro) and incites a riot. The guards retreat, leaving Juan behind. When he comes to, he quickly disposes of anything that would identify him as an outsider and tries to ingratiate himself with Malamadre and his lieutenants Apache (Carlos Bardem) and Releches (Luis Zahera), while his pregnant wife Elena (Marta Etura) tries to find out what's going on.

Those of us not from Spain may not quite grasp why SWAT doesn't just burst in to take care of the situation right away - it involves some of the prisoners being Basque terrorists, and them being caught in the crossfire would apparently be a political disaster. We get the gist, though, and the film uses this to not only keep the story from ending too quickly, but to raise the stakes without expanding the scope of the story too much - there will be consequences outside of the prison, but Juan, Malamadre, and company aren't going to have control taken from their hands. It also enables Monzon and company to make points about the use of force without preaching to the choir. It's a smart, clear-headed movie that trusts its audience to see and think about what's going on without diverting itself from the main story.

Full review at EFC.

The Kovak Box

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 October 2010 in Jay's Living Room (Amazon VOD)

The makers of The Kovak Box likely thought it to be a little more clever than it actually turned out, at least at some point. There are, after all, bits about characters controlling the writer in there, although director Daniel Monzon and co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarria don't go fully literal with it. Instead, they put together a decent little thriller with some nice parts, though it doesn't really start to get rolling until the end.

We start with American science fiction writer David Norton (Timothy Hutton) on a plane to Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, where he's to lecture at a conference. With him is his longtime girlfriend Jane (Georgia MacKenzie); back in economy class, we meet Silvia (Lucia Jimenez), a Spanish girl with a nosy middle-aged American seatmate, Kathy (Annette Badland). It's a wonderful getaway, at least until people start killing themselves. Silvia survives throwing herself out a hotel window, only to be attacked and drugged by a mysterious man (Gary Piquer). Then David's host, Frank Kovak (David Kelly) puts his cards on the table, giving him a box that connects the deaths to David's first novel.

There is, no question, a little mileage on The Kovak Box's main plot device. The movie acknowledges this, to a certain extent - the suicide circuit is presented as something that David had in his novel thirty years earlier, and that feels like about the right provenance. It's still a good horror plot that's not yet ready to be retired. Monzon and Guerricaechevarria modernize it a little, using a pop-cultural tie-in to the "Gloomy Sunday" legend and going a bit meta by having the story, in some ways, be as much about fandom and how writers often cannot escape their first or most famous works. Unfortunately, it's got a tendency to fall between its two hot spots - the satire's not as sharp as it could be, and the idea that someone could flip a switch and send a person out of their mind should come across as much creepier.

Full review at EFC.

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