REVIEW – Flower of my Secret (1995)

I conclude my canter through the generally excellent Almodovar Collection box set with a look at his 1995 film Flower of my Secret, the FilmJuice review of which can be found over here.

Before I move onto my usual commenting around the review, I’d like to take a couple of minutes to dwell on the Almodovar Collection itself. When proper critics review collections, they usually take the time to address not just the works the collection contains but also the collection as a cultural artefact in and of itself. I feel that the history of home media releasing means that we appear to have by-passed this stage completely and now appear to be teetering on the brink of an age where directors’ entire back catalogues are simply available as part of a subscription model.

The Almodovar Collection is an interesting box set as it has appeared recently enough that we can avoid leaping to the conclusion that the contents of the collection is the product of rights issues. Too many directorial box sets are presented as being critically neutral, making it rather difficult to get a read off the company’s choice of films and so work backwards towards a particular critical viewpoint with which it might be possible to engage critically. Indeed, one of the things I really enjoyed about working my way through the Almodovar Collection was the sense of a critical intelligence at work in the wings. The collection begins with Almodovar’s ensemble melodramas, drifts towards his unsuccessful attempts to break with those narrative structures and concludes with one of his strongest films, a work that manages to be as emotionally complex and morally serious as the director’s earlier works whilst also demonstrating all the ways in which his direction had improved and shifted with the passage of time. The Almodovar Collection could have showcased Almodovar as a queer film maker with a love of camp and provocation but instead it chose to show him as a great maker of women’s films in the great art house tradition that began with Douglas Sirk, passed to Rainer Werner Fassbender and currently exerts a pressure on the works of Francois Ozon:

“While it is often observed that Almodóvar writes very well for women, the desire to market him as a queer filmmaker who produces joyfully camp and transgressive comedies serves to obscure the roots of his talent. If we consider the history of art house film, we can trace a straight line from François Ozon to Douglas Sirk via the work of both Pedro Almodóvar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. That line is evident not only from the later directors’ fondness for musical numbers and transgressive silliness but also for their willingness to psychologically complex and morally serious films around the figure of the strong-but-vulnerable woman. This filmmaking tradition is as old as the Hollywood hills but it pivots around Sirk as Sirk was a director who, despite making films for women and about women, would often use his female protagonists and commercially-successful story forms to critique American society with particular attention to the injustices surrounding both gender and sexuality. Flower of my Secret finds Almodóvar at his most powerful and insightful; it is a brilliant film in the grand tradition of Sirkian melodrama as well as the much-lamented and under-appreciated genre known as Women’s Films.”

Watching The Almodovar Collection made me yearn for a box set of Women’s Films. The weird thing about Woman’s Film is that while the genre is now seldom spoken of, most of its great works are still in circulation and relatively easy to get hold of. It’s just that rather than having a proper Woman’s Film box set with specialist commentaries and video essays explaining the importance of the genre and how it fit into the Hollywood system from the silent era all the way to the 1960s. You can buy a Douglas Sirk box set, you can buy the films of D.W. Griffith, George Cukor, Josef von Sternberg and Max Ophuls.You can find women’s films in film noir box sets. You can even buy Joan Crawford and Bettie Davis box sets. But there are no commercially-available box sets exploring the Woman’s Film genre and I think that’s a terrible shame.

Anyway, The Flower of My Secret is one of the better films in the Almodovar collection as it plays entirely to Almodovar’s strengths and contains some scenes of dazzling emotional complexity and genuine psychological anguish. The scene in which Leo diminishes and retreats from Madrid in order to become a little old lady who spends her days weaving and gossiping is endlessly wonderful and even a little close to home. Ahem.


REVIEW – Kika (1993)

I’m pretty sure that Kika was the first Pedro Almodovar film I ever got round to seeing. I can remember trailers for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but I also remember renting Kika based on the insane amount of buzz created by the film and the links it forged between art house cinema and the fashion industry.

If you look back at the comments on my What Have I Done to Deserve This? piece, you’ll find me discussing the importance of Tartan’s Asia Extreme imprint in developing a new generational audience for art house and world cinema. Much like my other area of cultural interest — literary science fiction — art house film reached the 1990s in a state of acute cultural decline. The flea pit cinemas that once dotted London’s West End had been closed by waves of 1980s gentrification and Channel 4 had stopped filling their schedules with cheap foreign films. To this day, whenever someone talks about what it was like to be a cinephile in the 1960s and 70s, it’s a bit like reading a fantasy novel when one of the characters talks about the fall of some great and benign magical kingdom. What-once-was, is now lost and What-shall-be, is yet to come.

Nowadays, when people talk about the popularisation of transgressive images in 1990s popular culture, they use terms like ‘edgelord’ and portray the whole thing as a rather silly and immature experiment in cultural machismo. As someone who was there at the time, I won’t deny that a lot of what drew me to transgressive works was an adolescent and post-adolescent desire for extreme imagery. That aesthetic and those values were fucking everywhere at the time. However, while that aesthetic did create grimdark and usher in a load of problematic tropes that are only now being exiled from common usage, it also served as a really good way of introducing people to culture that they would otherwise never have sought out by themselves. Tartan’s Asia Extreme label may have been constructed to make the most of the J-Horror boom that followed the breakthrough success of Ringu but it did get me used to seeking out and watching obscure and sometimes difficult films.

I remember seeking out Kika because the trailer and marketing materials stressed its transgressive credentials. I also remember thinking that it was all rather light-weight as Almodovar invariably presents his darker ideas and themes in quite a light-hearted manner. Returning to Kika nearly twenty five years later, I can see why I struggled and why I arguably should have struggled more. My FilmJuice review can be found over here.

“The problem with postmodernism is that when the moral purpose of the deconstructive process is overlooked or downplayed (as in films like Natural Born Killers), the techniques of postmodernism result in little more than the commercial process of updating old ideas in an effort to sell them to contemporary audiences. Almodóvar’s films have always been postmodern in so far as they subvert and distort elements of mainstream Spanish culture but while earlier films like Dark Habits and What Have I Done to Deserve This? use their transgressive images to articulate profound emotional truths; Kika seems content to transgress for the sake of transgression meaning that the film’s imagery winds up feeling not just insubstantial but actively exploitative. Turns out that even the most fabulous dresses struggle to conceal the emptiness inside.”



REVIEW – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

My fourth review from the recently released Almodovar Collection!  Having adored What Have I Done to Deserve This? and been thoroughly unimpressed by Law of Desire, I find myself charmed by Almodovar’s greatest success; the gorgeous melodramatic farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, my review of which can be found at FilmJuice over here.

British people retain a fading racial memory of the art house films that Channel 4 used to broadcast before it went into the business of bashing marginalised groups. French people, on the other hand, retain similar memories of the days when French TV would broadcast live performances of new plays. I’m too young to remember what any of these plays were about but I do remember a lot of romantic misunderstandings and a lot of slamming doors. The reason for these memories is that French theatre and comedy retain a long-standing commitment to the aesthetics of the farce.

The discourse surrounding British comedy places most works on a graph mapping movements from light to dark and realistic to stylised. For example, The Office is realistic and moderately dark while The IT Crowd is stylised and light-hearted and Dad’s Army is realistic but light. As is often the case in Anglo-Saxon cultures, the darker and more realistic your stylings, the more seriously you are taken…

Continental comedy seldom travels to Britain as it can come across as overly broad. The reason for this is that, unlike British comedy, continental comedy traditions have steadfastly refused to get sucked into the same grimdark aesthetic hierarchy as the Anglo-Saxons. On the continent, people realise that a good French farce can be just as high-minded and socially aware as a bitter sweet BBC comedy-drama dealing with depression (and possibly starring Martin Clunes). I mention this as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a superb example of an intelligent European comedy in that it says really interesting things about the emotional lives of women but reflects these ideas through a maze of silly sight gags and knob jokes.

“As was already obvious in Law of Desire, Almodóvar’s women are complex and paradoxical creatures while his men are nothing but objects of desire that illicit feelings more complex than they could ever hope to experience for themselves.”



REVIEW – Law of Desire (1987)

Day three of my odyssey through the recently-released Almodovar Collection. Today we look at Pedro Almodovar’s fifth film Law of Desire, my review of which can be found over here at FilmJuice.

It is easy to see why Law of Desire would have been considered a breakthrough upon its initial release. Aside from being celebrated by the Spanish film establishment and being far more technically proficient than Almodovar’s earlier works, Law of Desire is one of the first Almodovar films to draw on autobiographical detail and break with the Sirkian tradition of using straight women as proxies for gay men.

The academic Jose Arroyo’s introduction implies that because the personal is braver than the fictitious and making films about gay men is braver than making films about women, Law of Desire must — by definition — be a braver and more substantial film than any that Almodovar had previously attempted. While I lack the theoretical tools to delve too far into this issue, it does strike me as quite interesting that film about the life of a wealthy, successful gay man like Law of Desire might be considered inherently braver than a film about a working class woman like What Have I Done to Deserve This?

Privilege theory argues that all individuals are embedded in matrices of oppression made of the different elements of their socially-constructed identities. The matrices range from those applied to wealthy, straight, white men (who are least oppressed/most privileged) all the way down to disabled, queer, mentally ill Black and Minority Ethnic people (who are oppressed and disadvantaged by almost every aspect of their identities). One unfortunate thing about the structure of Privilege theory is that it is very difficult to avoid falling into the trap of playing oppression Top Trumps and placing people in hierarchies according to how oppressed/privileged they happen to be. Once you fall into this trap, you’re effectively indulging in the liberal equivalent of ranking people according to their cranial capacity as you’re assuming that it is possible to make meaningful and objective generalisations about whose words should carry the most weight and thereby wind up reifying and reinforcing a set of arbitrary social hierarchies. For the record, I don’t think Arroyo does fall into this trap but I think viewing Law of Desire as a more important film than What Have I Done This? based on its subject matter does shine an interesting light on how the cinephile community construct ‘quality’.

I think this issue is particularly relevant to Law of Desire as while the subject matter may be more directly personal than in Almodovar’s earlier work, the film itself winds up being one of his more generic offerings to date:

“Another thing that distinguishes Law of Desire from some of Almodóvar’s earlier films is that while his fifth film does include a strong female character, that character is forced into the background by a gay man. This turns out to be rather unfortunate as while Carmen Maura is superb as the passionate and conflicted Tina, Poncela’s Pablo comes across as little more than a generic creep whose refusal to take responsibility for his own sexual desire results in the death and suffering of those around him. Part of the problem is that while Pablo is said to have been modelled on Almodóvar himself, Almodóvar struggles to imbue him with much substance beyond the kind of helpless passivity required to oil the narrative mechanism of a Hitchcockian thriller”


REVIEW – What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

As I said when I linked to my review of Dark Habits, I have spent many years failing to appreciate the films of Pedro Almodovar because I couldn’t see beyond his tendency to play his own subject matter for laughs. If you have shared my failure to get your head round Almodovar then I think What Have I Done to Deserve This? is an excellent place to begin addressing your mistake. My review for FilmJuice can be found over here.

Much like Dark Habits, the film is an ensemble piece whose tangle of sub-plots and melodramatic themes are not without a certain resemblance to television soap operas. However, unlike soap operas where the melodrama is something of an end in itself, What Have I Done to Deserve This? uses that combination of misery and silliness to provide a critique of contemporary Spanish society. If I had to boil this film down to an elevator pitch, I’d describe it as what might have happened had Douglas Sirk been an Italian Neorealist.

Much like the earlier Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This? is a profoundly humane and moral film. Sure… its plot is littered with murder, prostitution, drug dealing and a mother who sells her pre-pubescent son to a paedophile dentist but Almodóvar never once allows social transgression to become exploitation. The film’s final shot only serves to underline the director’s moral seriousness as zooming out from Gloria on her balcony to a shot of three vast apartment complexes serves to universalise the lessons of the film. This is not about one woman’s fight to retain her dignity; this is about a battle fought every day on every street and in every building.

There are — arguably — a couple of better films included in the Almodovar Collection box set but none of them do a better job of showcasing the director’s ability to combine absolute moral seriousness with transgressive imagery and extreme light-heartedness.

REVIEW – Dark Habits (1983)

A few weeks ago, I was offered a chance to take a look at a newly-released box set of remastered films by Pedro Almodovar and despite having nothing much else to write about at the moment, I hesitated.

I think that my hesitation was born of a historic inability to parse Almodovar’s sense of humour. Indeed, despite enjoying many films whose themes and images are reminiscent of Almodovar’s work, I have always struggled with his tendency to make light of his own subject matter. In hindsight, I wonder whether this blockage might not have been due to the fact that when straight guys make light of melodramatic women and camp gay men, the mockery comes from a very different place to when the laughs are created by members of those groups. As a result, I would see the transgressive jokes about sex and death, be reminded of the 1990s and feel that the entire scene was rather tired and unpleasant. The thrills of transgressive imagery can only last so long. For an example of this jaded world-weariness that is actually a form of emotional constriction, look no further than this review I wrote all the way back in 2007. I’d like to say that I outgrew this lack of sensitivity but this review from 2013 suggests a similar (albeit less blinkered) frustration with Almodovar’s sense of humour.

Despite my hesitation, I agreed to review The Almodovar Collection and I am so glad I did as I now realise that Almodovar is so much more than transgressive images and a succession of dick jokes. My Road to Damascus moment came about half-way through watching Almodovar’s third film Dark Habits. I reviewed it for FilmJuice over here.


One of interesting things about Almodóvar’s career is that while most of his films deal with sexuality in quite a comic fashion, his work rarely comes across as either exploitative or patronising. This not only makes him singularly brilliant at handling female characters, it also allows him to steer his films in some quite unexpected directions. For example, despite revolving around a group of nuns who struggle with unusual desires and unfortunate histories, Dark Habits systematically locates the characters’ humanity and treats them all with the utmost respect. This desire to handle matters of the flesh with the same kind of high-minded seriousness that is usually afforded ‘respectable’ spiritual crises serves to both date and electrify the film as Dark Habits now feels a lot like an attempt to understand the kind of abuses and moral compromises that led to the clerical abuse scandal. How else are we to view a film in which religious figures use their positions to seduce and silence the vulnerable? How else are we to view a film that presents giving in to your hidden desires as a moment of spiritual triumph? Never anything less that morally and spiritually serious, Almodóvar extends understanding but not forgiveness.


I reviewed all six films included in the superb Almodovar Collection box set and I’ll link to a different review every day this week.

REVIEW – Blancanieves (2012)

BlancanievesVideoVista has my review of Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, a silent black and white re-invention of Snow White.

Set in 1920s Spain, the film opens on a young couple who are about to have their first child. He is a successful bullfighter, She is a famed flamenco dancer. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when He is injured in the ring and She goes into premature labour and dies in the process of giving birth to her daughter. For reasons that are not even remotely addressed, the bullfighter’s daughter grows up in the care of her grandmother and is never allowed to meet her father who immediately marries his demonic and controlling nurse. When the young girl’s grandmother dies, for reasons that are not even remotely addressed, the bullfighter agrees to assume his responsibilities as a father but he refuses to meet with his daughter and so the young girl is forced to work as a scullery maid. Eventually the father and daughter meet and so the evil step-mother throws the young woman out onto the street forcing her to befriend a band of dwarven bullfighters who help her achieve fame as a successful bullfighter in her own right.

The fascinating thing about this film is that while Berger sets out to make a proper silent film, it is clear that Berger struggles to tell a story using only images and musical cues. Thus, rather than images that tell a story and musical cues that provide an emotional context for these images, Berger presents us with a series of incredibly well-composed but dramatically empty images backed up with an entirely inappropriate musical score. Indeed, Blancanieves is less a work of cinematic art than it is a fashion shoot inspired by a combination of 1920s Spain and film noir. As I say in the review:

Having failed to marshal both his visual and his musical resources in an effective manner, Berger is forced onto the decidedly contemporary footing of relying upon scripting and actors to tell the story, and this is where silent film’s lack of bandwidth really bites as the actors seem to take their cues from the inter-titles and the inter-titles are all featureless snippets of dialogue meaning that none of the actors ever transcends the childish and stereotypical origins of their characters: evil stepmother is evil, warm-hearted child is warm-hearted, broken patriarch is broken, and dwarves provide a deeply questionable combination of comedy and pathos.

Ideally, the history of film should tell a story of growing complexity and accomplishment; Each new technical innovation unlocking entire arenas of artistic potential that is broken, harnessed and added to the ever-growing toolbox of a mature art form. However, as Berger’s failure to tell a convincing story suggests, many of the techniques pioneered by silent filmmakers have dropped out of mainstream use meaning that many contemporary directors trained to make ‘talkies’ are effectively incapable of making a silent film as they lack the technical skills required to convey narrative without the use of expositionary dialogue. However, as I explain in my review, many of the skills pioneered by silent filmmakers live on in the work of art house directors:

In 1963, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman produced a film with no dialogue at all. The Silence is a genuinely extraordinary exercise in technical self-control as while Bergman does make use of sound effects and incomprehensible mumbling, he effectively manages to tell a complex psychological story without a single line of dialogue or even an inter-title. This desire to demand more from your audience and keep them making imaginative leaps is now firmly embedded in the DNA of the art house tradition but it is particularly noticeable in such recent dialogue-free triumphs as Jose Luis Guerin’s In The City Of Sylvia, Mao Mao’s Here, Then, and Amer by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Watching these films reminds us of how crude, lazy and wasteful Hollywood filmmaking has become. It also shows us quite how much the likes of Pablo Berger need to learn before they can tell a compelling story without the use of dialogue.

For those interested, I include links to reviews of the films I mention:

Re-reading my review of Bergman’s The Silence, I am struck by how little I actually engaged with the film as a piece of silent cinema: I talk about character, I talk about mythology and I talk about the purpose of criticism precisely because at the time of writing that review (2008) I lacked the critical tools required to make sense of what it was that I was seeing on screen. In order for audiences to be able to make sense of a work of art, they must first possess the tools that will allow them to decode them. Much of what we mean when we talk about ‘education’, ‘learning’ and ‘being cultured’ is acquiring skills that allow us to make sense of particular works of art and it is in this process of acquisition that we see the true biases of our own society: Because I grew up in an era when films had dialogue, I never needed to acquire the skills required to make sense of a dialogue-free film. Because I am a straight, white man and I grew up in a culture that uses that perspective as a universal cultural default, I find films that embody different perspectives to be both a challenge and a release but I think many people view films made from non-white, non-straight and non-male perspectives in a manner comparable to the way I used to see silent film: Sure… a lot of effort went into this, but I can’t make any fucking sense of it!

REVIEW – I’m So Excited! (2013)

Im-So-Excited-2013FilmJuice have my review of Pedro Almodovar’s thoroughly underwhelming comedy I’m So Excited!

When I’m So Excited! was released earlier this year, I was sceptical. I was sceptical despite my enduring love for Almodovar’s Bad Education and despite the fact that Sight & Sound magazine made a massive fuss over it. I was sceptical because I thought (and continue to think) that this film is fundamentally flawed at a conceptual level. In fact, I don’t think that anyone could make a decent film out of this particular set of ideas.

Set predominantly on a flight from Spain to Mexico, the film follows the crew and first class passengers as they desperately try to keep their minds off the fact that their plane’s landing gear is stuck and they will soon be making an emergency landing. The cabin crew are an engaging bunch of booze and pill-chugging reprobates while the passengers are a bunch of wealthy people with secrets including a professional dominatrix, a virgin psychic who reads the future by groping men’s groins and an actor with an emotionally unstable girlfriend. Camp as general synod, the crew flirt outrageously, talk about their overly-complicated lovelives and drug the passengers in an effort to help them open up emotionally and sexually. There are many double entendres and a dance number. It’s not very funny. In fact… it’s more than a little bit embarrassing despite the predictably wonderful art direction and design.

I’m So Excited is beautifully designed and effortlessly directed but without any real ideas to explore or an appropriately funny script, the film drags terribly from one largely unfunny and unsubstantial set piece to the next. Even worse, Almodovar struggles to control the tone of his own film meaning that campy slapstick and raunchy dialogue unpredictably collapse into (admittedly well-realised) inserts about an actor getting back together with his ex-girlfriend when his current girlfriend is committed for attempting suicide. These wild changes of tone and focus not only rob the film of any sense of comedic momentum, they also draw attention to the weakness of the writing and the lack of care and attention that went into deciding what to keep and what to cut prior to release. Why bother including an insert about an actor’s love life when the results are neither funny nor related to anything else in the film? The most logical answer is that it amused the director to include it and that is the living definition of creative self-indulgence.

My initial scepticism about I’m So Excited! is derived from three different areas:

Firstly, if you make a comedy about a plane flight then you are inviting comparisons with Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and Zucker’s Airplane! one of the most enduring and influential comedy films of the thirty five years. If your film is not at least as funny as Airplane! or Airplane 2 then chances are that your film will disappoint. Making a comedy set on a plane is as short-sighted and arrogant as writing a sitcom set in a Torquay hotel. Why invite that comparison?

Secondly, the publicity for this film emphasised both the campiness of the comedy and the fact that it featured a (not particularly funny or well executed) dance routine. This immediately put me in mind of Britain’s entry into the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest. If the idea of camp and raunchy air cabin crew can’t sustain a 3-minute pop song, why would it support a 90-minute film?

Thirdly, I think the sexual politics of this type of comedy are completely out of step with the times. Back in the early 1970s, Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft began production of a situation comedy with a very similar comedic aesthetic. Set in a department store and called Are You Being Served?, the sitcom was heavy on the double-entendres and featured a career-defining performance by John Inman as the magnificently camp Mr Humphyrs. The series’ most famous running joke involved Molly Sugden’s aging shop assistant Mrs Slocombe making frequent allusions to the state of her ‘pussy’. One of the reasons why Are You Being Served? seems out of date is that the series uses double-entendres as a way of ‘innocently’ alluding to taboo topics such as the sex-lives of gay men and the genitals of elderly shop assistants. However, as time has moved on and social mores have shifted, the idea of older women having sex lives is no longer taboo and so Molly Sugden complaining about having to thaw out her pussy now seems more like TMI than LOL. I would argue that something very similar has happened regarding the depiction of GLBT people in popular culture. Back in the 1970s, gay people were expected to be invisible and so a flamboyantly camp man making allusions to his sex life was so transgressive that people reacted to Mr Humphyrs as though they were in on some sort of elaborate joke at the BBC’s expense. However, forty years later and openly gay men are now fairly common in TV and film and so there’s no reason to react to anything they say as some sort of transgressive utterance that has been secreted past the men upstairs. As I ask in my review, what is so funny about a male pilot having sex with one of the male cabin crew? what is so funny about an ostensibly straight man exploring his own sexuality by sucking a cock? There is nothing inherently funny about the idea of two men having sex so why are we expected to laugh? Camp was a part of many gay lives for a very long time but that time has now passed… I could understand a nostalgic exploration of a time when gay men were obliged to hide in plain sight by camping it up but playing that campness for laughs now? in the 21st Century? Doesn’t work. The times they have-a-changed.

REVIEW – Atrocious (2010)

THE ZONE have my review of Fernando Barreda Luna’s found footage horror film Atrocious.

One of the more bizarre quirks in the current cinematic landscape is the popularity of Spanish genre films. Seemingly inspired by the trailblazing success of such Guillermo del Tor-produced horror films as Guillem Morales’ Julia’s Eyes (2010) and J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007), British distributors seem to be falling over themselves to release every half-baked Spanish horror flick they can get their hands on. Given the marketplace’s current fondness for Spanish genre and the commercial re-invigoration of the found footage genre by Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007), Atrocious must have seemed like money in the bank and while that may very well prove to be the case, the film itself is nothing short of disastrous:

Despite an opening act that promises an intense familial psychodrama, Atrocious soon devolves into endless footage of people running through mazes and basements. As Blair Witch demonstrated, the use of night-vision, shaky camerawork, sinister noises, shadowy figures and plenty of screaming, swearing, and terrified heavy breathing can be supremely effective in generating tension without the need for elaborate scoring or special effects. However, while Atrocious uses all the toys in the Blair Witch toy-box, it fails to realise that Blair Witch‘s effectiveness relied upon both a good deal of restraint and the effective use of exposition to prime the pumps. Blair Witch used its signature shaky cameras sparingly and always prefaced them with huge amounts of exposition so even if you couldn’t really tell what was going on, you knew what you were supposed to see and your mind simply filled in the blanks.

Lacking the post-cinematic reflexive intelligence of both Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, Atrocious is a case study in the death of a genre cycle. As I explain in my review, cycles emerge when a breakthrough hit creates a market for imitation. In the 70s, people simply could not watch enough slasher movies and in the 00s people simply couldn’t see enough zombie movies. Atrocious is one of the films that ends cycles because while it is clearly attempting to jump on the found footage bandwagon, it completely fails to recognise what it was about the found footage films that made them so interesting.

Clearly, Fernando Barreda Luna looked at The Blair Witch Project and concluded that what attracted audiences to that film was hand-held camera footage of people running around a wood. I have a lot of time for The Blair Witch Project both as a postmodern text and as a piece of techinically proficient filmmaking but to look at Myrick and Sanchez’s film and conclude that it was all about the woods really is to miss the point.

Some Thoughts On… Cell 211 (2009)

Based on a novel by Francisco Pérez Gandul, Daniel Monzon’s prison drama Celda 211 hits the ground running.  Without wasting a single shot or line of dialogue, Monzon introduces us to the film’s setting and many of its principle characters: Juan (Alberto Ammann) is the new guard at a prison where violent offenders are kept separated from the general population. Malamadre (Luis Tosar) is one of these violent offenders, a violent offender who orchestrates a riot in order to bring attention to the failures of the current prison regime.  As alarms sound and roofs collapse, Juan finds himself abandoned in an empty cell by his new colleagues.  Aware that the rioting inmates will kill him if they find out that he is a guard, Juan decides to pass himself off as a newly arrived prisoner.

Boasting some of the most elegantly simple and unadorned storytelling I have ever seen, Cell 211 starts by building up an incredible amount of tension in very little time. Not only does Juan have to convince Malamadre’s gang that he is a prisoner, he also has to guide Malamadre’s actions so as to both minimise bloodshed and maximise his own chances of getting out alive. While tensions build inside the prison, they also begin to build outside as prison administrators find themselves trapped between the desire to cover up Juan’s capture and the desire to get him out safely. In what slowly emerges as one of the film’s recurring visual motifs, black-clad SWAT teams swarm over roof-tops and stand poised to storm the building before a compromise is reached and mass slaughter is averted.

Half an hour into this film, I was convinced that I was seeing a work of real vision. Aside from building tension like a master, Monzon also reveals himself to be a dab hand at actor wrangling as Juan emerges as an intriguing character with an intense relationship with both his wife and the charismatic sociopath Malamadre. However, having introduced us to all of these fascinating balls and thrown them gracefully up into the air, Monzon promptly forgets how to juggle and they all come crashing down on the ground.  Indeed, the first act complete, Cell 211 loses focus horribly as plot lines unravel in all directions, spilling tension as they go. Needless to say, my heart sank.

Then Monzon begins the process all over again as something dreadful happens on the outside and Juan decides to throw his lot in with the prisoners.  Suddenly aware both that Juan may not be in his right mind and that he might be a guard, Malamadre finds himself trapped between his loyalty to Juan, his convict’s hatred of guards and his suspicion that Juan is right when he says that all this is going to end badly.  Again, Monzon does a brilliant job of stoking up the tension and again, he allows it all to slip away as the film resolves in an ugly and unsatisfying mess.

The problem is that, while Monzon knows how to build tension, his commitment to the film’s characters is such that he is unwilling to simplify their arcs for the sake of the over-arching narrative.  As a result, tension builds and builds until denouement at which point the film switches to a melodramatic register in which characters respond in great depth to everything that has just happened and, like a river flowing into a vast set of swamps, all urgency is lost forever in the murky heat of soap-operatic swampland.  Of course, this is not to say that the melodrama is boring to watch… far from it.  Luis Tosar’s Malamadre is a wonderful combination of outer toughness and inner softness mediated by a keen mind.  Similarly, Alberto Ammann does a great job of presenting a character so skilled at thinking on his feet that he cannot stop plotting even when his world starts to come apart. With so many conflicting agendas and competing factions at work, Cell 211 also works as a commentary upon the Spanish prison system and public attitudes to prisoners.  However, while there is no denying that this film is smart and possesses some brilliant moments of tension and character-based drama, I cannot help but feel that co-writers Daniel Monzon and Jorge Guerricaechevarria failed to make the sorts of tough decisions you need to make in order to adapt a novel for the screen. I suspect that Cell 211’s changes of pace and register work quite nicely in a novelistic context as the increased time of consumption means that characters have more space to bloom and changes in register are less sudden and jarring.  However, reduced to a 113 minute running time, Cell 211 needed to be either a character-based melodrama or a thriller set in a prison as, while Monzon handles both elements with equal panache, his attempts to force the two together are distracting to say the least.