Category: Comedies

¡Viva! 22 #7: Truman (Spain-Argentina 2015)

TRUMANposter

Truman didn’t turn out to be quite the film I was expecting. I usually choose ¡Viva! screenings because of which day and what time they are playing. I might briefly skim the blurb in the brochure but then quickly forget it and I usually like the surprise I get when I’m in the screening. This was certainly the case with Truman – an entertaining and enjoyable film with high-quality contributions all round. However, there isn’t as much use of Truman, the dog played by ‘Troilo’, as I expected – and this might disappoint those who go to the film expecting a canine-centred story.

I’ll outline the simple plot since there isn’t much chance of ‘spoiling’ the narrative. Tomás (Javier Cámara) flies into Madrid from Canada to visit his old friend Julián (Ricardo Darin), a theatre actor. Julián is terminally ill and focused on finding a home for his dog Truman. This involves auditioning possible ‘adoptive parents’ for Truman and visiting the vet etc. to find out about Truman’s health and psychological well-being. But Tomás has come a long way to spend four days with Julian and there are many other things to do in order to get Julián’s affairs into some kind of order. We quickly realise that Tomás is there as the calm, reasonable character who will allow himself to be hoodwinked, up to a point, and relieved of quite a lot of money to satisfy all of Julián’s demands. The other major character is Paula (Dolores Fonzi), Julián’s cousin, who is much more visibly angry about Julián’s approach to his impending demise. What follows is a form of comedy drama that delicately and adeptly treads a fine line between acerbic wit and sentimentality. As the director says in the Press Notes:

Truman is an attempt at overcoming the panic we all feel in life when faced with illness and impending death: our own or that of a loved one. It is an exploration of how we react to the unexpected, to the unknown, to grief.

I found myself with a wry smile one moment and then immediately afterwards realising the import of what was going on the next. Julián is an actor and a rogue and the centre of the narrative features three encounters with colleagues in the business, each involving Julián in a kind of guessing game – what do they know about his position, what should he tell them? What is the right thing to do? All of this is watched by the calm Tomás who has to decide how to respond to his friend – to console him or get him to face reality. I don’t think there is anything new or surprising about the narrative but I agree with some reviewers who think that Tomás is involved in a sequence towards the end which is unnecessary and detracts a little from the narrative’s resolution (though I suspect I could change my mind).

Paula (Dolores Fonzi) and Tomas enjoy Julian's performance at a Madrid theatre.

Paula (Dolores Fonzi) and Tomás enjoy Julián’s performance at a Madrid theatre.

The success of the film depends firstly on the two male leads and their performances. The rest of the cast is good as well (with the dog effortlessly stealing his scenes) and the script is excellent. The director and co-writer is Cesc Gay whose previous work I don’t know, but who seems to have been successful since writing and directing his first feature in 1998. IMDB reports a budget of €3.8 million which I would argue has been spent sensibly. Apart from a trip to Amsterdam, the story stays in Madrid (though some scenes were shot in Barcelona – presumably for funding purposes) and the locations are all effective. The trip to the funeral services company was a standout for me, lending an air of surrealism.

Truman is interesting in bringing two Argentinian stars to Spain. Ricardo Darin is arguably Argentina’s leading male star and Dolores Fonzi is a very well-known figure in Argentina, a model before becoming an actor and for several years part of a celebrity couple with Gael García Bernal. She was the lead in Paulina, the festival prizewinner of 2015. I presume that Spanish audiences will detect Argentinian accents so both Julián and Paula are written as Argentinians in Madrid. I’m not sure if it was spelt out in the film but I assume that Julián would have come to Madrid as a student and met Tomás at that point. Javier Cámara is seen as a Madrid actor (and he has featured in Almodóvar’s films, most notably I’m So Excited (Spain 2013)). Truman opened in Spain and parts of South America in Autumn 2015 (generating around €6.5 million at the box office) and is rolling out across Europe at the moment. StudioCanal have the film for the UK and it should open later this year. I think it could do well, especially since Wild Tales, the Argentinian film in which Ricardo Darin features, was the biggest non-Hindi subtitled film in the UK in 2015 (though it was the worst year for subtitled films for some time). It should appeal to older audiences for whom the dilemmas will be more meaningful. It might work in a different way for younger audiences. In Manchester, the film attracted a healthy audience and proved a fitting climax before the Saturday night party began.

¡Viva! 22 #1: Carmina y amén (Spain 2014)

Maria Leon and her mother Carmina Barrios as 'Maria' and 'Carmina'.

Maria León and her mother Carmina Barrios as ‘Maria’ and ‘Carmina’.

Carmina and amen‘ is a title that plays on/with several aspects of this very funny black comedy rooted in the working-class culture of Sevilla. On one level it refers to the way in which the matriarch Carmina is decisive about what she has to do. And when she’s done it, that’s the end of it. At one point she says to her daughter “I never lie, when I say something, it becomes true”. The central example of this is how Carmina handles the sudden death of her husband Antonio. He dies on a Saturday morning, but his wages bonus is due on Monday morning – so the death won’t be reported until after the bonus has been collected. Since Carmina lives in a tenement building with lots of neighbours popping in, keeping Antonio’s large corpse from the public gaze is the basis for the perfect farce plot.

HOME’s brochure promises us that the film will be enjoyed by anybody familiar with UK TV series such as The Royle Family or Shameless. I think that’s right and Mrs Brown’s Boys might be a more recent model of the same kind of thing. It’s also the case that Carmina y amén resembles a TV sitcom in its use of Carmina’s flat as its central location with only three short trips out to other locations. According to this useful Hollywood Reporter review, the film is a follow-up to Carmina or Blow Up (Spain 2012). Both films were written and directed by Paco León and feature his mother Carmina Barrios and his sister Maria León and like those British sitcoms there is a real sense of a tightly-knit family within a similarly tight working-class community. The HR reviewer Jonathan Holland raises the important question as to whether or not this is one of those ‘Spanish comedies’ that don’t travel, especially to the UK. He also notes that there are resemblances to the early comedies of Pedro Almodóvar such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) – the film that in many ways ‘broke’ Almodóvar in the UK. I agree, and on that basis Carmina y amén might work with careful handling – certainly a large ¡Viva! audience laughed heartily. But Holland also points out that there are jokes that only Spanish audiences will get.

It seems to me that what is recognisable to any audience is the excellent observation of tight communities and the real star quality of Carmina Barrios and her portrayal of the matriarch who knows best. There is a hint of ‘gypsy magic’ – the detailed mise en scène of the kitchen includes a witch doll and a publication about ‘African spirituality’, and at one point Carmina utilises a ‘spell’. But otherwise a group of women sit around with coffee and biscuits discussing sex while the now declared dead husband lies in repose. Sounds familiar? There is a twist to the story – though I think most audiences will have seen it coming. Holland thinks it ‘over sentimental’ but I think it works to make for a satisfying black comedy. I hope more people get to see the film and it plays again at ¡Viva! on Saturday 16th at 17.50.

The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman (Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu, Japan 1963)

Eburi (Kobayashi Keiju) and his long-suffering wife played by Aratama Michiyo

Eburi (Kobayashi Keiju) and his long-suffering wife played by Aratama Michiyo

The Japanese film industry has been criticised in recent years for not supporting Japanese films overseas and for poor presentation of films to festivals and sales agents. There seems to be some substance to this but as far as archive prints are concerned there are usually prints available from various cultural agencies and it was good to see The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman as part of the Japanese Foundation Tour. The screening was at HOME in Manchester and was introduced by Jonathon Bunt from the University of Manchester. He promised us a good time with the film and some good laughs. He also pointed out that the director Okamoto Kihachi was part of the generation of filmmakers who experienced war service as young men and that this was perhaps an important influence on the film, as well as Okamoto’s approach to satirising the growing materialism of Japan in the early 1960s. The film did indeed provide what was promised. I admit that at this stage I knew nothing about Okamoto and it wasn’t until I’d done some research that I realised I actually owned DVDs of a couple of the director’s films.

Okamoto Kihachi is profiled on the Midnight Eye website. Born in 1924 he was conscripted and sent to fight in 1943 aged 19 and experienced the deaths of many of his fellow conscripts (he told an interviewer that young men born in 1924 suffered the highest rate of deaths from the fighting). His battlefield experiences surely informed his approach to action films, including several well-known chanbara or ‘samurai’ films with Mifune Toshiro (e.g. Samurai Assassin in 1964 and Sword of Doom in 1965) which were thought to have changed aspects of the genre, moving away from themes of ‘honour and heroism’ to focus on ‘death and misery’ (as Tom Mes puts it on Midnight Eye). The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman belongs to the part of Okamoto’s output that focused on experimental genre pieces – but it clearly has autobiographical touches too.

The film is an adaptation of a novel by Yamaguchi Hitomi (which may also be autobiographical). It tells the story of Eburi – an office-worker or ‘salaryman’ in an advertising company. ‘Eburi’ is an Anglo-Japanese pun which rhymes the Japanese name with the English concept of the ‘everyman’, making the character a good fit for a satirical narrative. (I’m indebted to the notes written by Tony Rayns for several insights like this.) Eburi’s main vice is to get (very) drunk one night a week in various bars. On one occasion he somehow allows himself to be persuaded by a young couple who are editors to write a piece for a magazine. He feels compelled to write the piece despite not having a subject. Finally, in desperation, he writes autobiographically about his experiences of marriage and being a father while coping with his own irresponsible father – an unscrupulous businessman who borrows money, spends it and then bankrupts himself on a regular basis, expecting Eburi to bail him out each time. Eburi is amazed when the magazine piece is successful and he is persuaded to write a second. This narrative structure allows Okamoto to present the events of Eburi’s life and then, when Eburi wins a literary prize, to regale his younger colleagues with more stories about his literary life. Here Okamoto deploys the full range of cinematic devices with stop motion animation and a form of drawn animation popular in Japanese advertising at the time (but more Western than the early styles of anime) as well as montage sequences, freeze frames, jump cuts and extended flashbacks to Eburi’s earlier experiences. (See the trailer below.)

There were several younger students of Japanese in the audience and I don’t know how many of the jokes and references they got. Okamoto was contracted to Toho and one of the directors for whom he worked in his early career was one of the most celebrated directors of the period, Naruse Mikio. So at one point he refers to a Naruse classic Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and then later to Steve McQueen and Yukio Mishima as celebrities. McQueen was only then in the early part of his career – but perhaps famous in Japan because of The Magnificent Seven? At one point Eburi’s 12 year-old son is watching a TV Western and Okamoto was a big Westerns fan himself. Mishima (1925-70) was a celebrated and controversial Japanese writer and provocateur. The script by Ide Toshiro is very well thought out. Eburi is supposed to have been born in 1926, the first year of the Showa era. This means that he is just old enough to have been conscripted in the final months of the war and he is shown as an incompetent infantryman in training in one of the flashbacks. In other scenes we see him trying to come to terms with the Americanisation of much of Japanese life during the Occupation and its aftermath and, with the advent of economic growth, the beginnings of the consumer society. At 36 it is already clear that he belongs to a different generation than his younger office colleagues. Several reviews describe Eburi as ‘middle-aged’ at 36 – which is probably accurate for an early 1960s attitude!

What makes this film particularly interesting for me is that it comes from the period when the Japanese New Wave was beginning to have an impact on the Japanese studios. Okamoto seems to have a singular take on what a film might be. The film also lines up alongside similarly satirical/absurdist films in other New Waves. One UK review I read suggested that Eburi is a figure like Tony Hancock. I can partly see that but my first thought was the satire shows on UK TV in the early 1960s and the writers that came from them such as Marty Feldman or other writers such as Charles Wood (The Knack 1966, How I Won the War 1967). Eburi’s story might be culturally Japanese but it definitely has universal features widely applicable in other film cultures of the 1960s. I’m very pleased to have seen it. I wish now I could find the Noh musical Oh, Bomb which Okamoto made in 1964 – or a subtitled version of his Western East Meets West (1995).

Japanese trailer (no subs):

Hail, Caesar! (US-UK 2016)

Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy Hobie Doyle cast in a 'sophisticated' comedy directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). This is one of the standout scenes of Hail, Caesar!

Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy Hobie Doyle cast in a ‘sophisticated’ comedy directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). This is one of the standout scenes of Hail, Caesar!

Following Keith’s advice,  I watched Hail, Caesar! in Bradford’s Pictureville Cinema in 4K. It certainly looked good – but whether I would have noticed any difference if it was a 2K print is something I feel unable to judge. Anyway, the film proved an enjoyable distraction for a couple of hours. But, I’m not sure if it was a film that added up to more than its parts.

As the promotional material suggested, the Coen Brothers expertly create the Hollywood studio environment of the early 1950s in loving detail. Strangely, there are some basic mistakes if the setting is supposed to be 1951 as some publicity suggested. (The worst error concerns screen shapes and aspect ratios – a Western is shown in a cinema with a credit for VistaVision which Paramount didn’t use until 1954 and White Christmas.) On the whole, however, taken as an amalgam of Hollywood practices, ‘Capital Pictures’, the studio in the film, represents the period from roughly 1949 to 1953 very well. As several reviewers suggest, the Coens are not really interested in a plot as such, but more in the vignettes of production of different kinds of films and the way in which studio practices are changing – or not.

The two plotlines of note involve the studio ‘fixer’ based on the real Eddie Mannix who worked at MGM. We see him trying to repress gossip stories about the studio’s stars, grapple with his own family and work situation – and find a missing star played by George Clooney in ‘doofus’ mode. None of this adds up to much but does allow the Coens to play with ideas about the US Communist Party, religious sensitivity towards films and the ethics of the military-industrial complex. There are terrific set pieces including a Channing Tatum dance sequence riffing on Gene Kelly and Alden Ehrenreich as a Roy Rogers/Gene Autry ‘singing cowboy’ who for many viewers no doubt steals the picture. There are also two scenes featuring delicious Jewish jokes/characterisations. And yet . . . the film has not attracted huge audiences. It might be that fans will return for repeat viewings but somehow the Coens don’t quite get the excellent parts (performances, sets, cinematography, music etc.) to make something whole. For me, the last really funny Coen Brothers film was O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). I’d rate the ‘serious’ films as better value, with both Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and A Serious Man (2009) as effective recent titles.