Sunday, December 11, 2016

Retro Trio: High Heels (1991); Starred Up (2013); The Painted Veil (2006)

High Heels (1991)

Original Spanish Title: Tacones Lejanos

Director: Pedro Almodovar

This was the latest in my little trip through the films of renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. I found High Heels yet another early example of his unique voice and masterful skill as a film-maker.

The story focuses on Rebeca Giner (Victoria Abril), a young Spanish TV news anchor with some very complex, and occasionally lethal, ideas and relationships with men in her life. As a very young girl, Rebeca knowingly drugged her boorish step-father so that he would fall asleep at the wheel and die in an accident. Rather than being out of some mere urge to kill, her purpose was to free up her mother, Becky (Marisa Paredes), to take an acting job which her husband was preventing her from accepting. Oblivious to her daughter's hand in the death, Becky leaves her daughter behind and goes to Argentina to begin the acting career which is her dream.

A strange but amusing dance number thrown into the
proceedings ensures that we never take things too seriously,
even when things take a few rather dark turns.
Flash forward twenty years. Rebeca is a TV news anchor, and her mother has long since become a world-famous actress. Rebeca's mother returns to Madrid upon hearing that her daughter has married a former lover of hers, another rather loutish older man not unlike the father-in-law whom Rebeca drugged two decades earlier. When he is found dead several weeks after Becky's return, the mother and daughter become the prime suspects in an investigation headed by bloodhound judge Juez Dominguez (Miguel Bose). The associates of the two women include a colorful bunch, including several transvestites.

While the murder-mystery elements may, on the surface, make this seem like a fairly typical whodunit, this is an Almodovar movie. And being one of his earlier films, there is a range of humor, from virtual slapstick right through to the most pitch black, running through the proceedings. As with the other four films that I've seen of his, this one deals heavily with themes of personal identity and the feeling of loss and absence. Much of the movie can be very amusing, as there are more than a few absurd situations and interactions. But at the heart of it are universal emotions revolving around relationships between parents and children, spouses, and lovers. The movie bears many of the familiar hallmarks of the other Almodovar films I've seen, but once again is completely its own story.

Now having seen five of his movies, it seems to go without saying that the movie looks incredible. I've already described my impressions of the visuals in Almodovar's movies, so suffice it to write that High Heels is no different. This, in conjunction with all of the other merits of the film, simply solidify my admiration for the man as a film-maker. It's truly amazing stuff.

Starred Up (2013)

Director: David Mackenzie

I am now officially a fan of David Mackenzie. I watched Starred Up after seeing and loving Mackenzie's neo-Western film Hell or High Water. Based on that movie and this 2013 offering, I am willing to go see whatever his next few projects are, out of hand.

Starred Up is a prison drama focused on Eric Love, an extremely violent 19-year old convict who has aged out of the juvenile system and has been moved into an adult maximum security penitentiary. It also happens to be the very same prison which houses his convict father, Neville, who has been serving a life sentence since Eric was a small child. In less than a few hours after processing, Eric gets into a brutal fight with another inmate and in placed in solitary. Soon after release, he has another serious scrap with the guards. Just as the guards are ready to pummel him, though, a prison counselor sees all that is going on and taps Eric to take part in a discussion/therapy group which he runs. The guards reluctantly agree, and Eric is all but forced to attend the group.

The movie is an astounding, if highly disturbing, look at violence, masculinity, and how a young man grapples with trying to harness them to not just survive but also grow as a human. There are many extremely intense scenes, of both a physical and psychological nature. The young and hyper-pugnacious Eric is our fractured looking glass into the strict hierarchy of the lethally stratified federal prison system (the movie takes place in England, but it is easy to apply the environment to nearly any maximum security prison in the world). Watching Eric rein in his fury at his father and nearly everyone else around him in order to first survive and then to find some modicum of growth is as fascinating as it is disturbing. The setting and themes are not for the faint of heart, grim as they are, but there is real humanity sitting just beneath the surface of the entire movie.

The group therapy sessions are arguably the best scenes in
this great movie. You can almost see the waves of violent
aggression emanating from these guys, as well as their
immense struggle to deal with it all.
The acting is outstanding. The only actor whom I recognized was the incredible Sam Mendelson, who does a brilliant job as Eric's hard-as-nails father, Neville. All of the others, although not familiar to me, were amazing. Jack O'Connell is ferocious as Eric, and Rupert Friend is equally brilliant as the counselor Oliver Baumer. Not to be outdone are all of the men who are part of the therapy group. It is during these group meetings that we get some of the most powerful scenes. Some of these do not even involve words, but rather a palpable tension arising from extremely violent men wrestling with themselves and each other on a level that goes far beyond physical struggles.

Being a movie that was clearly going for an authenticity which few prison movies approach, Starred Up does not offer a rosy conclusion. It does, however, offer the satisfaction of having seen something that reveals some profound aspects of human nature, and it offers us all a hard look at what incarceration means. It is the type of movie that, even if I don't feel the need to see it again, I would recommend nearly everyone watch at least once.

The Painted Veil (2006)

Director: John Curran

The wife and I decided to go "full nerd" recently and read the same classic English novel before watching the film adaptation of it. The novel was The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham, an author whose other novels I've loved. My wife had seen the movie already, but I was coming at it from the novel first.

The movie stays true to most of the spirit of the novel, set in the 1920s, in which Kitty (Naomi Watts), a young socialite Englishwoman, marries Walter Fane (Ed Norton). Walter is a rather dry but civil bacteriologist who takes her to Hong Kong where he does research. Soon after their arrival, Kitty grows bored with her new husband and begins an affair with an attractive up-and-comer in the British colonial government. Walter discovers the affair just as he accepts an assignment to go to a cholera-ravaged area deeper into the Chinese countryside. Under threat of a messy and public divorce, Walter forces Kitty to accompany him. While terrified that her husband wishes her death from the cholera epidemic, Kitty sees no other option but to accept and go with him. Amid the cholera-infected area, Walter and Kitty find themselves among great suffering of the native population, and they meet several other Westerners who are there for their own reasons.

Kitty and Walter - two people who probably weren't right for
each other from the start, but whose shared struggles among
the cholera epidemic lead them to grow themselves and their
respect for each other.
This film adaptation hits nearly all of the strongest, most poignant notes of Maugham's brilliant novel. The relationship between Walter and Kitty grows increasingly deeper and more complex once they are among the cholera epidemic. And while lesser writers would have milked this situation for no end of sentimentality and trite reconciliations, Maugham was far too experienced and skilled an author to travel such beaten paths. When reading the novel, I was constantly surprised at how the story unfolded and how the characters developed. And the unexpected turns are not merely inserted for the sake of surprise. They feel quite organic, and they touch upon the messy nature of human desires and our ability to alter and expand our perspectives. The movie retains many of the novel's subtler turns of character, which only increases its value. To be sure, a few things are simplified and given slightly tidier resolutions, but this is to be expected from most commercially-minded films. In the case of this movie, they don't greatly diminish the overall tale.

Beyond the clear strengths of story and character, the movie is visually stunning. The cinematography captures the beauty of the Chinese countryside, as well as the exquisite beauty of the period's buildings and clothing. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh has plenty of dazzling movies and TV shows to his credit, and this one may be his crown jewel. An added technical merit is, unsurprisingly, that the acting is excellent. Naomi Watts and Ed Norton are typically great, as are all of the supporting cast.

I'd recommend this movie to nearly anyone, just as I'd recommend that anyone read the novel first. While readers who deeply love the novel may be a bit disappointed in what the film changes or omits, I don't feel that there are any crippling alterations or omissions. Both are first-rate pieces of art, and they make for great comparisons to each other.