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Posts Tagged ‘Gael Garcia Bernal’

What are we to make of M Night Shyamalan? Does he, in fact, get an unfairly raw deal from critics and commentators, for reasons which may have nothing to do with the quality of his work? (I myself have done jokes about his name in the past, which I am rather uncomfortable about now.) Many of the man’s films have been very successful; there’s a sense in which he rarely repeats himself; and he’s shown a willingness to be creative in his storytelling which a lot of less-mocked directors don’t.

But on the other hand, his work is maddeningly inconsistent, his early reliance on plot twists of variable quality has become the stuff of folklore, and some of the films are just plain bad. (This is before we even get to his insistence on casting himself in his films, often in significant roles he shows no real sign of being able to carry off.) It’s got to the point that with each new Shyamalan release, you wonder which version of the guy will have been responsible – the one who made The Sixth Sense and Split or the perpetrator of After Earth?

Well, he’s back again with the first post-Covid film I’ve seen on the big screen (this may explain some of the film’s formal minimalism), Old. It’s based on a Swiss graphic novel, but – not for the first time with Shyamalan – may strike some viewers as resembling an episode of The Twilight Zone stretched out to feature length.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps play Guy and Prisca, an outwardly-successful professional couple (he is an actuary, she a museum curator) just beginning a holiday at a luxury resort hotel with their children. But, needless to say, there are soon signs of something strange and unsettling afoot. (Not least the fact that he is Mexican and she is from Luxembourg but their children both speak with neutral American accents.) The smarmy resort manager offers them a chance to go to an exclusive private beach on the other side of the island, and naturally they accept, despite the fact the guy driving the bus is a very bad actor (yes, it’s Shyamalan again).

They find themselves there with a doctor (Rufus Sewell) and his family, and another couple played by Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird (all those years of playing useless establishment types in dodgy BBC sci-fi have finally paid off). Also on the scene is a rapper (Aaron Pierre).

But is someone watching them from way up on the cliff top? Why are the children suddenly complaining of discomfort? And why does anyone trying to leave the beach seemingly faint? It soon becomes apparent that, due to a freak geological effect (it says here), anyone on the beach ages at the rate of a year every thirty minutes. This could be the holiday of a lifetime… it’s just that the lifetime may be over much sooner than anyone expected.

So, you know, an interesting premise for a movie, if nothing else. I must confess I wrote a little book about the horror genre not long ago (something to do during lockdown) and one of the things I discussed was the nature of those basic, primal fears that everyone shares. I think that deep down, everyone is a bit frightened of senescence, the slow and inevitable physical decline that’s part of the deal that comes with continuing to breathe. But because it’s so incremental and slow, we manage to thrust it from our minds, most of the time at least. Old, in theory at least, should be an interesting vehicle to force us to confront this particular issue.

The only problem is that – how can I put it? – nobody in Old actually gets that old; at least, nobody who wasn’t old to begin with. Primarily this is because Shyamalan clearly feels obliged to keep an eye on the narrative underpinnings of his high-concept story and try to ensure it all stays relatively plausible. Someone asks, quite sensibly, why their hair and nails aren’t growing at an accelerated rate, and the answer is that the acceleration effect only works on living cells. This is bafflegab, really, only there to facilitate the story (the director doesn’t want to mess about with everyone having hair down to their knees and two-foot-long fingernails), but one consequence of the very-quasi-scientific approach Shyamalan takes is that it rules out the use of proper prosthetics and other make-up to give the impression of extreme old age (the extent to which people actually look older is limited).

In short, the director can’t find a way to make the process of dying of old age very rapidly into something visually interesting and cinematic. Nevertheless, the structure of this particular kind of film requires a succession of – to put it delicately – striking deaths, along with other arresting goings-on. He just about manages it, but the result is a film supposedly about dying of old age where most of the characters are actually murdered, or drown, or fall to their deaths, or undergo spectacularly nasty demises due to chronic medical conditions running out of control. So it’s arguably a bit of a chiz on that front: the central conceit is fantastical, but the film feels inhibited about really running with that notion.

It does not help much that the script is a lot less clever and subtle than Shyamalan probably thinks it is: virtually the first piece of dialogue we hear is a mother telling her daughter not to be in too big a hurry to grow up, but there’s so much stuff in a similar vein very early on that it topples over from being a neat foreshadowing of the subtext to simply too on-the-nose. And in places it’s vague, too: the children grow from being pre-teens to being on the cusp of middle-age over the course of a day and a night; what’s not at all clear is whether they remain children in adult bodies, or if they mature intellectually and emotionally too. I think the film eventually inclines towards the latter, but why this should be isn’t really addressed.

We must remember Shyamalan was working under sub-optimal conditions with this film and there are still some good things about it: the various transitions between the different actors playing the children as they age are neatly handled (some of the switches in actor are almost imperceptible – The Crown this ain’t), horror fans will enjoy one or two memorably gruesome moments, and the whole thing does eventually hang together on its own terms reasonably well (there’s not so much a twist, more a sort of reveal of what’s been going on). The problem is that those terms, the ones that make it a coherent thriller, are the same ones which undercut the film’s effectiveness as a film about how people deal with the ageing process. For once, a more fantastical approach would probably have resulted in a better film. In the end, Old isn’t one of Shyamalan’s worst films, but it’s just mildly diverting tosh when it could have been something genuinely unsettling and thought-provoking.

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I have to admit the possibility that there may be people who have decided to Google for ‘Bad Education Movie’ in the hope of getting access to someone’s considered opinion of the forthcoming Hugh Jackman film (not actually on release yet, I think) – well, sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place. Nor is this the place to be should you (for whatever reason) be interested in the movie spin-off of the sitcom starring Jack Whitehall, which came out a few years ago (the temptation to say that if this is the case, you should maybe rethink some of your life choices, is almost irresistible). Seriously, they ought to do something about people re-using titles on films.

Anyway, the Bad Education we are here to discuss is the 2004 movie from Pedro Almodovar, originally known as La mala educacion. Not that this really does a great deal to eliminate potential confusion, as that’s just a direct translation into Spanish, of course. No Almodovar movie seems to be completely bereft of a certain kind of humour, but this is certainly one of his more serious films: perhaps that’s a big enough point of distinction. It’s not as if this is a film which it’s easy to mistake for anything else, though.

When I was writing about Talk to Her I ventured the suggestion that there was an undercurrent to it which was almost Hitchcockian in its tone and style – almost from the start, it seems that this influence has grown enormously, for the opening credits and music suggest nothing as much as an energetic pastiche of films from Hitchcock’s own late 50s-early 60s imperial phase. It takes a little while for this to show up in the actual story, though. Much of the film is set in 1980, and concerns (amongst others) Enrique (Fele Martinez), a film director looking for his next project. His ruminations are interrupted by the appearance of an old school friend named Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal). Ignacio is an actor and writer, looking for work, but he also leaves a short story entitled The Visit with Enrique – apparently it is a sort of roman-a-clef, partly based on their own experiences together.

The film then shifts its focus, apparently presenting the story of The Visit. This concerns fictionalised versions of Enrique (Alberto Ferreiro) and Ignacio (still Bernal), with the considerable difference that the Ignacio in the story is a transsexual nightclub singer, going by the name of Zahara. With the aid of her friend Paca (a brief but very big performance by Javier Camara), Zahara is out to get revenge on Manolo, the Catholic priest who abused her as a boy (the priest is played by Daniel Gimenez Cacho), intent on blackmailing him for the money that will pay for her sex-change surgery.

Obviously, this strikes a significant chord with the real-life Enrique, and brings back all kinds of memories of his childhood friendship – more than friendship – with Ignacio, a friendship which ended when Manolo had him expelled from the school they attended together. He decides to go ahead with the movie, even though Ignacio seems greatly changed to him, almost unrecognisable as the same person…

It all sounds relatively straightforward when you write it down like that, but Bad Education is really far from straightforward in terms of its narrative – I have skipped over some of the many ambiguities and sleights-of-hand in the plot; for instance, it’s not made at all obvious at first that Ignacio and Zahara are both played by Bernal. As the film progresses, it grows increasingly dense and subtle in its storytelling – there are, as you can see, lengthy flashback sequences, and also a film-within-the-film. Elements of these echo and repeat each other, and the line between the two is eventually elided, up to a point. This is a film you do have to give your full attention to, but Almodovar maintains an exemplary grip on what could have been an extravagantly confusing story.

Is it really valid for me to compare it to one of Hitchcock’s entertainments, though? Well, obviously Hitchcock never made a film as graphically explicit as this one, and it’s difficult to imagine him openly addressing material like transsexuality and child abuse, or even homosexuality, in one of his films. But, on the other hand, the tricky and repetitive structure of the film, the eventual appearance of long-buried blackmail and murder, and the fascination with identity – how well can you really know a person? How much can someone change, over time? – are all things one would easily associate with some of Hitchcock’s finest films. Pedro Almodovar has a reputation for making big, sensuous, emotional films dealing with issues of sex and gender, but it seems to me he has all the necessary tools in the kit to be considered a terrific director of thrillers, as well.

Nevertheless, this is one of his darker films. While there are some beautifully lyrically scenes early on, depicting the childhoods of the characters and everyday life in the school they attend, the tone grows steadily more serious as it progresses (Javier Camara’s big comic turn only appears in the early part of the film). There is still humanity in the film – the present-day version of Manolo, when he eventually appears, is a pitiable figure, and we are encouraged to pity him despite his terrible offences – but it is overall less optimistic and warm than in previous films, and the ending is inconclusive and ambiguous. Then again, perhaps there is no other choice here: the film is ultimately about the life-long emotional damage done by child abuse, and the ripple of collateral damage spreading out through the friends and acquaintances of those at the heart of it. Almodovar is too good a director to be excessively on-the-nose about this, but the shadows lie deeply on all the survivors at the end of this film, and the implication is clear. This is another well-acted, well-directed and exceptionally well-written film, dark and complex without feeling excessively grim or heavy: colourful and deft enough to be genuinely entertaining, but still a work shot through with a profound seriousness.

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Lee Unkrich’s Coco is an animated film from Pixar which concerns itself with the travails of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a young Mexican lad. He is a member of a proud family of famous cobblers, who are notable for their hatred of all forms of music, due to Miguel’s great-great-grandfather having abandoned his wife and child for the life of an itinerant mariachi. The no-music ban is a source of some angst for Miguel, as all he wants to do is sing and play his guitar. This inevitably leads to some fretting (thanks everyone, I’m here all week).

Things come to a head when the family discover Miguel’s ambitions and react with predictable negativity. He runs away, and, through a series of plot developments just a little too involved to go into here, finds himself in the Land of the Dead where the spirits of his ancestors reside. (This is partly due to most of the film being set on the Day of the Dead, a celebrated Mexican festival.) They are all delighted to see him, but obviously he needs to get back to the living world before he gets permanently stuck in the afterlife. His family will only send him back if he promises never to play music again, which is obviously unacceptable to our lad, and so he sets out in search of the shade of his great-great-grandfather, whom he believes was a famous musician (Benjamin Bratt), who will impose no such unreasonable conditions. Recruiting the help of Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a ne’er-do-well in the afterlife, and all the time trying to evade his unsympathetic ancestors, Miguel begins his quest…

I have to confess, the first time I saw the trailer for Coco my reaction was ‘You what?!?’, as the premise of this film – a heartwarming musical family adventure about, effectively, a near-death experience, stuffed with more walking skeletons than a dozen Ray Harryhausen retrospectives – was almost too bizarre and macabre to be credible. I could easily imagine Studio Ghibli making a film like this – and you could argue they already have, for it does share some plot similarities with Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – but not Disney and Pixar. Yet here we are.

Never mind all that, I expect you are saying, exactly why is this film called Coco? A good question and I commend you for asking it. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, my understanding is that Disney’s original plan was to call the movie either Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead (probably the former, to avoid confusion with the 1985 George Romero zombie movie of the same name), but they ran into trouble when they attempted to trademark the name for merchandising purposes, many Mexicans taking exception to what they saw as cultural appropriation.

Well, there’s a thin line between cultural appropriation, cultural celebration, and just plain old national stereotypes, and you have say that Coco does not navigate its way through this somewhat tricky territory entirely gracefully. From the opening blast of mariachi music to an initial gag about luchadore wrestling, it does seem like no stereotype goes unexploited in the course of the movie. One running gag, likely to go well over the heads of the tiny audience, concerns the artist Frida Kahlo and her idiosyncratic creative sensibility (Kahlo is, rather surprisingly, not played by Salma Hayek, but by Yo-Yo from Agents of SHIELD). It’s engagingly bonkers stuff, but not completely respectful to Kahlo or her legacy, I would suggest.

Still, on the whole this is a film which presents a very positive view of all things Mexican. The film may be about the difficulties certain characters have in getting from one world to another, but the film-makers have opted to avoid making any substantial statement concerning US-Mexican relations nowadays (although you would have to say that the film’s sheer positivity towards the US’s southern neighbour puts it rather at odds with certain elements of current American policy).

It also, so far as I can see, plays it pretty safe when it comes to matters spiritual and theological, declining to make any particularly bold statements when it comes to what happens after death. The Land of the Dead is a sort of second-order afterlife, very much like existence as we know it, by no means a final destination: the spirits of the departed only survive as long as the memory of them is sustained by their mortal descendants – once they are forgotten, they wink out of existence (inevitably this forms a plot point), moving on to… well, wherever it is that dead dead people go. The metaphysics here are slightly skewiff, if you ask me, and I doubt it’ll be enough to reassure parents who suspect that Coco has just a bit too much of an occult whiff about it to be suitable as family viewing, but it just about hangs together and serves the story well.

And it is, as you would expect from a Pixar movie, it is a story which hits all its plot beats with laser-guided accuracy. I suppose you could argue that the film’s adherence to a certain model of Classic Plot Structure makes it a little predictable, but there is also pleasure to be drawn from seeing such immaculate craftsmanship, and I doubt most of the audience will care much either way. Regardless of what you think of the script, Coco also has the seemingly limitless visual imagination and gorgeous aesthetics that are also something of a Pixar trademark – this is a breathtakingly beautiful film, only enhanced by the fact that the art department seem to have been at the peyote, going by the surrealism of some of it.

I should probably say that, if you’re a certain sort of person, Coco will grab your emotions and give them a good wringing. For all the wit and jokes, the film is really about family, and loss, and love. Obviously I didn’t Go, but my viewing companion (come on, the two genres of film I never go to see unaccompanied are family-friendly CGI animations and soft-core porno) definitely did. It is undeniably quite moving stuff.

I suppose there are people who instinctively take against Pixar films and avoid them on principle, although quite what that reason is I can’t quite imagine. For everyone else, Coco is another funny, moving, wildly inventive and extremely well-scripted film which I fully expect will delight the vast majority of viewers. Viva Pixar!

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