Month: May 2016
Continuing from first blogpost on Juan Madrid, I have now read the two first volumes of the Toni Romano series, currently published on a 35th anniversary edition, by B de Bolsillo: Un beso de amigo/Kiss From a Friend, 1980; and Las aparencias no engañan/ Appearances don’t lie. Romano is a former policeman and boxer, scraping a living doing things that could put the skills he was trained for to use (taking blows, finding people, security, doorman: as the series progresses, his jobs go from bad to worse). The first novel is set in the Madrid of the transition, the moment between Franco’s death in 1975 and Colonel Tejero’s attempted coup in ’81; the second is set immediately after; and both novels vividly evoke the period of the Transition.
There are Goyaesque vignettes such as a dwarf offering Toni a blowjob whilst her blind mother is seemingly asleep in the same room; drunks making a home in the parking lots under the Plaza Mayor; characters such as Zaza Gabor, playing his accordion in local restaurants in exchange for meals, neighbourhoods where everyone knows each other, each trying to work out the angles to survive; all against the police; all at a time of change and incertitude, with the rich and right-wing trying to hold on the power they wielded under Franco, funding thugs to beat the more liberal factions with; yet, with some of the certainties and completely accepted ways of being under the Franco years crumbling (there’s no Church so far in the novels; the family is the ultimate source of betrayal in the first novel; I’ll come to the police in a moment). Sex is everywhere, and it’s for sale.
Like with Vázquez Montalbán, Juan Madrid paints a picture of a known Madrid of the period and you can trace Romano’s walks (as I did with google maps) through the central neighbourhoods of Madrid (Sol, Plaza Mayor, Chueca, Gran Vía: the action is all very central except for a few forays to the more prosperous new suburbs or in order to deposit the odd body in the forests outside Madrid; all streets he mentions can be found; the books are like an artist’s pulpy and vernacular sketch of the human geography of the city of Madrid in the era of the transition to Democracy
As to the forces of law and order, Madrid is Marxist:
‘La policía, a pesar de los discursos y de las pamplinas que se escribían sobre ella, no servía para defender a los cidudadanos, sino para vigilarlos. Éramos una especia de guardia pretoriana de unos pocos, pagados por los impuestos de todos….Sé de comisarios con cuatro sueldos, algunos de profesor, acudir a burdeles y después condenar a prostitutas apelando la Ley de la Peligrosidad Social. A cambio de tanta corrupción, se conseguía una policía fiel y dedicada a encarcelar a desgraciados. Y el que no aceptaba aquella cosas era tratado como sospechoso o imbécil.
Me han dicho que ahora con la democracia las cosas han cambiado. No lo sé/
In spite of the discourses and all the nonsense written about it, the police is not there to defend citizens but to keep them under surveillance. We were a kind of of praetorian guard for the few, paid for from the taxes of all…I know of commissioners with four salaries, some as professors, going to brothels and subsequently arresting prostitutes under the Social Danger Laws. In exchange for so much corruption, one aquires a faithful police force dedicated to incarcerating the unfortunate. And whomever didn’t accept that was liable to be treated as either stupid or suspect.
They tell me Democracy has now changed those things. I don’t know’.
I’m finding Madrid’s novels most interesting. All his women lack depth; they’re stereotypical projections of sex, danger and betrayal. And yet, the (city of) Madrid of those years, which I know first hand, seems vivid; if one doesn’t look for depth, the line drawings of the people and social relations that peopled those streets in that time are as real and evocative to me as nothing else I know of except Almodóvar’s early films (which dealt with a different but intersecting side of that same [city of] Madrid).
An interesting instance of popular Global Cinema that does not primarily address a Western audience, SPL2: A Time of Consequences is a very loose sequel to Yi Wai-shun’s drama about police corruption, SPL or Kill Zone (2005). The film jumps from Hong Kong to Thailand through the China Seas and unfolds in four languages. I was thrilled to see that it’s had a mainstream if limited release through Cineworld — it’s been a smash hit in Asia — and I rushed to see it.
Watching SPL2: A Time of Consequences reminded me of Carlos Monsiváis comment that melodrama is easy and addictive. It is easy if, like here, you have a young child who will die unless she has an organ donor and other children who are being senselessly kidnapped and brutally killed for their organs: I dare you not to feel. It is addictive, in spite of the crude way they are fictionalised and narrated, because these films seem to speak about and to a more recognisable world that more sophisticated films often eschew. This is a world where friendship, family, love and other bonds forged through shared struggle are the only protection against the nightmarish brutality and injustice, sometimes random, that pervade everywhere and persist past the film’s conclusion. It’s crude but most effective.
The plot reminded me of Arthur Laurents comment that plots were easy because all he had to do was come up with a set of characters, throw them into conflict and then realign the ways they reconnected through their struggle into a conclusion. Let me say just say here that there are two brothers: one who’s built his fortune on illegally harvesting organs (Louis Koo); the other, the only one who can match his brother’s blood-type; a prison guard in Thailand with a daughter needing a transplant (Tony Jaa); a Hong Kong cop with a heroin habit (Wu Jing) who ends up in a Thai prison and is the exact match for the daughter: the uncle of the Hong Kong cop (Simon Yam)and a martial arts wiz of a prison warden (Max Zhang). Throw it in the air, put it back together, and you’ve got a serviceable plot.
But plot is the least important part of these films. The reason why they continue to enchant is the action. Here both Tony Jaa and Wu Jing are superb at demonstrating their martial arts in some sublime action sequences where we get to see their art in full flower: Li Ching-chi, who directed the action set-pieces, has the wit to allow us to see their bodies extended in motion to complete an action before cutting on to something else, thus allowing us to appreciate their grace and skill. The stars are very charismatic with and without movement, which is a plus. There’s a slight suggestion of homophobia in the way the villains are coded as gay (a tender fingering of a tie between biggest baddie and second biggest baddie) but it’s brief. The film won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography, and one can understand why. I liked it.
A not quite successful adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel that I nonetheless found intriguing and enjoyable. In a year with two such Le Carré adaptations, this one for film and The Night Manager for TV, both directed by women (Susanne Bier directed all six episodes of Manager for TV), the works are bound to raise interesting questions about the connections between film and TV long-form fiction narratives, which is the best form to adapt this type of novel to, and the place of women directors at the intersection of these media.
Let’s be clear, The Night Manager is by far the most successful work. It was glamorous, tense, thrilling; it had superb and memorable performances (I was particularly impressed by Olivia Coleman and Hugh Laurie; whilst the beauty of Elizabeth Debicki and the callow elegance of Tom Hiddleston remain memorable). The failure of Our Kind of Traitor is mainly due to it not being exciting; there’s not enough tension in the scenes; there are not enough thrills; and the heart remains distanced and disengaged from what melodrama there is on offer.
I nonetheless enjoyed the film because there’s a very glamorous film star turn from Ewan McGregor, one he rarely chooses to give, opting instead for the plumping for greater depth often unwarranted by characters like the Perry Makepeace he plays here. There’s also a truly great performance from Stellan Skarsgård as a Russian Mafioso equally capable of love and murder; I also appreciated the inter-racial romance (McGregor’s wife in the film is played by the elegant Naomi Harris) and how it’s presented without fuss and as completely commonplace. Lastly, the director has found a fascinating way to film the moral ambiguities of a thriller; everything in the film appears only partial; we see through distorted images or through glass that dimly reflects what happens outside that which contains or carries our characters (reflected through cars, windows, etc); how we see is made equivalent to what we know. Bits and pieces; aspects; as the peaces of the puzzle are put together, so is our sight in relation to the events that are shown. One understands how the director is trying to condense and symbolise; to create images that not only convey plot but reverberate into other aspects of the story. I found it quite beautiful.
It’s not enough however: chase scenes and fights scenes are both lax;, unforgivable in an espionage thriller; and at the heart of the film is the embarrassment that is Damien Lewis’ performance. He’s trying for a stylised turn but is letting his glasses do most of the styling and in making this choice also loses the emotional effects a more understated and realistic performance might have conveyed of the lengths a father might go to avenge his son.
Not good but enjoyable and worth seeing.
This is now on Netflix. It stands up well to a second viewing, seeming even better than I at first thought. The visuals seem even more striking; the gender politics so much clearer (woman are depicted with a depth here they usually lack in other films of the genre) and even Damien Lewis seems better.
9th of March, 2017
I loved Florence Foster Jenkins and I didn’t expect to: Hugh Grant, Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg (from The Big Bang Theory) are terrific and it’s laugh-out loud funny, camp, touching. Stephen Frears is really superb in creating and maintaining a tone for the film that allows us to laugh at but also feel for all of the characters involved.
Meryl Streep plays Florence, the deluded society lady who lives for music, loves performing it, and hires out Carnegie Hall so she can share her gift with the world. Streep’s performance is a tricky one: she could have sung badly and simply grate our ears; or she could have made the singing comic but go a bit too broad and we would lose sight of the person, her delusions and vulnerabilities. Her performance is a tour de force: I laughed at each wrong note, incrementally, and more so because of the relish with which Street acts it out. She’s greatly aided by her costumes, enormous vulgar tiaras, piles of bracelets and necklaces and gigantic tassle earrings that teeter dangerously with each note and frame Streeps’ eager and gleeful eyes. It’s what she lives for.
Hugh Grant has always been under-rated. There’s been no better light comedian in the last two decades. As St. Claire Bayfield, Jenkin’s watchful husband, he’s not just funny but touching. He’s the man who makes all of Florence’s delusions possible; who cocoons her against a too harsh world; and that takes charm, and money, and steel and a considerable amount of self-sacrifice. He keeps reiterating the happiness of the world they’ve created for each other; and his performance makes you believe it. But Grant also conveys the sadness and strain of the failed actor; one who loves to recite and has played in Hamlet but too hastily adds that not the leading part of course; the toll of looking after her needs; and the price he’s paid. Grant gets each laugh and also, perhaps for the first time, not only evokes Hugh Grant but also simultaneously embodies a complex character, one we believe in, where dreams of art and acclaim, what he provides for her, have faded; and he’s been left only with her and what she provides for him: riches and glamour; it’s part of the greatness of his performance that he makes us understand both how little and how much that is.
If Grant hasn’t been given his due, neither has Frears. After, landmark films for forty years (from My Beautiful Laundrette onwards) and after the extraordinary work of restrained emotion that was last year’s Philomena, doesn’t the man deserve more credit? Who else can maintain and sustain a tone in which delicacy of feeling, farce, drawing room comedy and melodrama, can co-exist so easily in a period setting?
I recommend it.