Thursday, 22 December 2011

My Top 5 Spanish Films Viewed in 2011

Given that I don't live in Spain, I tend to see films when they're released on DVD; usually a year after their initial cinema release. So, these films aren't all 'from' 2011 but I've limited myself to films that were released in Spanish cinemas in either 2011 or 2010. This top 5 is comprised of films that I viewed this year and wrote about on the blog -either as standalone posts, or as part of the Random Viewing thread.

1. Primos (Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, 2011)
A warm hug of a film -the affection that writer-director Daniel Sánchez Arévalo has for his characters is infectious. The collection of actors (Quim Gutierrez, Antonio de la Torre, Raúl Arévalo) who are becoming his de facto repertory company also form (along with Adrián Lastra, Inma Cuesta, and Clara Lago) one of the best ensemble casts of the year.

2. Pa negre (Agustí Villaronga, 2010)
A dark and otherworldly tale of innocence lost. A child's eye view of adult deceit and destruction. One of the most brutal opening sequences I can remember ever watching.

3. La mitad de Óscar (Manuel Martín Cuenca, 2011)
Probably one of the most atmospheric films I saw this year (in any language); it makes distinctive use of the landscape / geographic space and also assuredly cranks up the tension (we know that something is being pointedly ignored by the two siblings (bravura performances from Rodrigo Sáenz de Heredia and Verónica Echegui) but it hovers just out of sight for most of the film). It builds to a quietly devastating final scene between the two siblings that plays out in one long take with them in silhouette as the sun rises behind them: a strong contender for scene of the year, in my opinion (I saw the film back in September and it is still stuck in my mind).

4. Todas las canciones hablan de mí (Jonás Trueba, 2010)
A brilliant comedic romantic drama -guaranteed to put a spring in your step. I will hopefully write something longer about it in the New Year (it has only been briefly covered in a Random Viewing post so far).

5. Balada triste de trompeta (Álex de la Iglesia, 2010)
Not quite as batshit insane as the trailer makes out but nonetheless full of vivid imagery that scorches your retina and refuses to leave your mind (along with that song, which I have been humming ever since). Whatever your opinion of the overall whole (people seem to be divided between hating it or declaring it a masterpiece), I'd hope that most would have at least a glimmer of admiration for a writer-director going this 'all out'. Plaudits also go to the three leads -Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, and Carolina Bang- the film wouldn't work if they weren't all committed to their roles, or if one performance overwhelmed the other two. The film will hopefully have a standalone post early in the New Year.

Honourable mentions: La mosquitera (Agustí Vila, 2010), Chico y Rita (Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal, 2011), Agnosia (Eugenio Mira, 2010), Flamenco Flamenco (Carlos Saura, 2010), La piel que habito (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011), La mujer sin piano (Javier Rebollo, 2010) and Héroes (Pau Freixas, 2010).

Films from 2010* that I still need to track down: Bon appétit (David Pinillos, 2010), El Gran Vázquez (Óscar Aibar, 2010), La isla interior (Dunia Ayaso & Félix Sabroso, 2010), Pájaros de papel (Emilio Aragón, 2010), Que se mueran los feos (Nacho G. Velilla, 2010), También la lluvia (Icíar Bollaín, 2010), Todo lo que tú quieras (Achero Mañas, 2010). *films from 2011 that I still need to track down will appear in a forthcoming post.

Films that didn't fit the 2010 / 2011 criteria but that you should definitely see: Los cronocrímenes (Nacho Vigalondo, 2007), Salto al vacio (Daniel Calparsoro, 1995), La madre muerta (Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 1993 -I wrote two posts on this one –here and here), Nadie hablará de nosotras cuando hayamos muerto (Agustín Díaz Yanes, 1995 -a longer post on this one will appear in 2012), and Entre tinieblas (Pedro Almodóvar, 1983).

Hero of the Year: Filmin -without this Spanish streaming service I would have seen far fewer recent Spanish films (I first saw three of my top 5 via their service, and a further 4 of the honourable mentions) simply because of how expensive it is to import DVDs. I am also more likely to take a 'risk' on films that I know little about -as was the case with La mitad de Óscar- when using an all-included subscription service, which broadens the variety of films that this blog covers and hopefully makes it a bit more interesting.

I’ll be taking a break from the blog between Christmas and New Year –I’ll be back in January with posts on films from 2011 that I still want to catch up with, and on the Spanish films due for release in 2012 that I’m most interested in.

Merry Christmas –and I’ll ‘see’ you in 2012!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Not-So-Random-Viewing: Álex de la Iglesia Edition

Clockwise from top left: Balada triste de trompeta / The Last Circus (Álex de la Iglesia, 2010), 800 balas / 800 Bullets (Álex de la Iglesia, 2002), The Oxford Murders (Álex de la Iglesia, 2008), El día de la bestia / Day of the Beast (Álex de la Iglesia, 1995).

   Balada triste de trompeta featured in one of my first posts on this blog as one of the films from last year that I most wanted to catch up with in 2011. I'm going to write a standalone post about the film in (hopefully) January -I need to watch it again before attempting to write anything of any decent length and I won't have the time until after Christmas. [I know I quite often say that and things still haven't materialised, but Nadie hablará de nosotras cuando hayamos muerto and a joint post about Los lunes al sol and Biutiful are still percolating in my brain, honest].
   However, on first impressions it strikes me as a culmination of de la Iglesia's work to date and it will be interesting to see where he has gone with his next film, La chispa de la vida (due for release in Spain in January); Balada triste de trompeta almost feels like an end point in terms of certain themes that recur across the director's work. It is unmistakably 'an Álex de la Iglesia film' in terms of the vividness and inventiveness of the imagery and an extremity of violence that takes on an almost cartoon-like quality; this is filmmaking that is by turns both exhilarating and highly disturbing. The circus is the perfect setting for the lunacy, violence, dark humour, and cruelty that run through de la Iglesia's films; given the miscreants, misfits, and malcontents who populate his films, it is almost a surprise that he hasn't set a story in this world before (although several of his films take place within an entertainment setting -a television comedy double-act in Muertos de risa and a Western sideshow spectacle in 800 balas).
   It was the sense that Balada represents a culmination of his work that made me watch the only two of his films that I hadn't seen previously: 800 balas and The Oxford Murders. 800 balas is in many ways a paean to cinema, filmmaking, and the type of films 'they don't make anymore'. The film takes place on old film sets in Almeria (the location for many Westerns filmed in the 1950s/60s, including Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy) where a former stuntman (Sancho Gracia) reenacts his glory days with a gang of reprobates as they stage a 'Western sideshow' for the dwindling number of visiting tourists. It is a warm tribute to a world that no longer exists. I had two surprises watching The Oxford Murders -1) that it was nowhere near as bad as the UK reviews had led me to believe, and 2) how little of de la Iglesia's normal visual style it contained; it was as if the tepid English sunlight had diluted his usual visual dazzling.
   Then I decided to rewatch El día de la bestia because it is my favourite of his films (and one of my favourite films, full stop) - and as it takes place on Christmas Eve it seemed appropriately festive (insofar as a film about a priest (Alex Angulo), a TV psychic / paranormal expert (Armando de Razza), and a death-metal fan (Santiago Segura) attempting to stop the birth of the Antichrist can be 'festive'). I've never understood why it isn't available in the UK (likewise his Carmen Maura-starring La comunidad (2000)) given that several of his other films are, and it currently also seems to be OOP in Spain. If you get the chance to see it, do so -it is very funny and a deeply affectionate take on the horror film.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Another Book Added

Mira, A. (2010) -The A-Z of Spanish Cinema, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN: 9780810876224.

The merits of A-Z type compendiums have always appeared somewhat dubious to me as they usually tend towards the simplistic and obvious (although Routledge's Key Concepts series, which operates along similar lines, has always been excellent). Happily that is not the case here. I haven't come across The Scarecrow Press's A-Z series previously, but it covers a broad range of subjects -this book is no.244 in the series (nestled in between The A-Z of U.S. diplomacy from World War I through World War II and The A-Z of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation).
The book starts with a chronology of Spanish cinema between 1896 and 2008, then has a fairly substantial introductory chapter before moving onto the dictionary proper. The dictionary includes entries on key films, themes (including specifically Spanish terms such as costumbrismo), directors, writers, producers, and actors. I think it benefits from being the work of just one person because it feels like a unified whole with a consistent viewpoint and entries cross-referencing other entries. One can always quibble with what gets left out but actually the balance is pretty evenly struck between old and modern classics, and the range of individuals covered also feels varied (there is a mix of generations, but all are established names). But I think that the crowning glory is the 94-page bibliography. It is the most extensive and exhaustive bibliography on Spanish cinema that I've ever come across; I've been seeking these things out for years and this bibliography is seriously impressive (If you're the type of person who is impressed by bibliographies. Which I am). The bibliography is divided into several sections (some items appear in more than section): General and Reference; Origins and Silent Years (1896-1931); Republican Period and the Civil War (1931-1939); Early Francoism (1939-1960); The Desarrollismo Period and Late Francoism (1961-1975); Transition Period and Socialist Change (1975-1990); Recent Spanish Cinema (from 1990); Specific Filmmakers; Legislation and Economy; Autonomous Regions; Journals; Internet Sites. I've been merrily filling in Inter-Library Loan request forms ever since this book arrived through the post. If you're researching / interested in specific periods of Spanish cinema, or specific Spanish filmmakers, this book would be an excellent starting point.

This will be added to Books on Spanish Cinema, Part Two 

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Random Viewing

Left to right: El mal ajeno / For the Good of Others (Oskar Santos, 2009), Lope / The Outlaw (Andrucha Waddington, 2010).

El mal ajeno is a directorial debut with pedigree -produced by Alejandro Amenábar and written by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo (both of whom are writer-directors who have consistently made interesting films), and starring a top-tier cast in the form of Eduardo Noriega, Belén Rueda, Angie Cepeda, and Clara Lago. It's a thriller of sorts, with elements of the fantastic (a combination that could be considered very Amenábarian, and certainly the central premise feels like something he could have made around the time of Abre los ojos). A doctor (Noriega -here playing older than he is in reality) who specialises in pain control in terminal cases has numbed himself to everything around him (he comments that in blocking out the bad / suffering that surrounds his job, he has also ended up blocking the good as well). However after a traumatic event connected to one of his patients, a pregnant young woman in a coma (Cepeda), he comes to realise that he is not as unscathed as he first appears, and that every good deed has its price. I'm not going to give any more of the plot away because it will be more enjoyable to watch without prior knowledge. Although I felt it petered out a bit towards the end, the film starts really strongly and the central premise is an intriguing one -the film marks Oskar Santos out as someone to keep an eye on. 
Lope was released on DVD in the UK back in October, although for some reason it has been retitled as The Outlaw, which isn't just a nondescript title but also somewhat misleading as to the content. The film is actually a drama based around the early career of Lope de Vega (Alberto Ammann -seen recently by UK audiences in Celda 211), a Spanish playwright who dominated Spain's early Golden Age and revolutionised the theatre. They have condensed around eight years of his life into the space of several months and played up a love triangle angle, as he finds himself caught between his theatre-owning benefactor's daughter (Pilar López de Ayala) and a childhood friend (Leonor Watling). As he starts to push the boundaries of what was expected (and accepted) on stage, he becomes increasingly frustrated by the conditions set on his work by his benefactor (Juan Diego) and begins to push social boundaries as well, which will have far-reaching repercussions for himself and those around him... Saying that it's a bit like a Spanish Shakespeare in Love isn't entirely accurate because it doesn't have the humorous tone that parts of that film has (and there's no 'bit with a dog'), but it's not entirely dissimilar either given the subject matter (theatre, love, and the making of a literary 'name'). 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Spain Made Flesh: Penélope Cruz and La niña de tus ojos (Fernando Trueba, 1998)

      The stardom of Penélope Cruz can be dated precisely as beginning in 1992 with the release of Jamón jamón (Bigas Luna, 1992) and Belle epoque (Fernando Trueba, 1992). The two films side by side encapsulate two facets of her star image; on the one hand, Cruz’s position as what Eugenia de la Torriente describes as the ‘mito erótico nacional’ [‘national erotic myth’] (2004: 38) as Silvia in Jamón jamón, and on the other, the virginal ideal in the character of Luz in Belle epoque. But they also caused her to debut on the national stage in two films that either consciously questioned and parodied Spanish identities or conflated contemporary Spain with Spain’s past; Cruz’s emergence at a time when Spanish identity was openly being discussed and Spain was actively (and publicly) trying to redefine itself has shaped the form and content of her stardom, the ways in which she interacts with the national, and the image of Spanishness that she represents as an end result. From the outset of her career, Penélope Cruz has also been constructed as a star who specifically ‘belongs’ to Spain: a number of Spanish female stars have emerged in the last twenty years but none are so possessively claimed as she. Cruz is commonly referred to in the Spanish press as ‘nuestra Penélope’ [‘our Penélope’] and her star image is presented as signifying innate aspects of Spanish womanhood, and she is seen as embodying Spain, or ‘España hecha carne’ [‘Spain made flesh’] in the words of director Bigas Luna (Trashorras 1999: 132).
      Peter Evans notes how many daughters she has played onscreen and describes her as ‘la “niña”, es decir, la de todos los espectadores, la de toda España, a la que se refieren a menudo como “nuestra Penélope”’ [‘the little girl, that is to say, that of all the spectators, that of all of Spain, she who they refer to at least as “our Penélope”’] (2004: 54-55). This is further emphasised by the roles that are located within a specifically Spanish context: the arrival of the Second Republic in Belle epoque; incarcerated as a ‘political subversive’ during the last years of the dictatorship in Entre rojas (Azucena Rodríguez, 1995); a ‘gran estrella’ recalling Imperio Argentina in La niña de tus ojos / The Girl of Your Dreams (Fernando Trueba, 1998); Goya’s model for ‘La maja vestida’ and ‘La maja desnuda’ in Volavérunt (Bigas Luna, 1999); as well as her short role in the prologue (set during the ‘state of exception’ in 1970) of Carne trémula / Live Flesh (Pedro Almodóvar, 1997). These films position Cruz and her star image within narratives that have cultural and historical significance to Spain and therefore embed her within the cultural imaginary: ‘a nation is nothing without the stories it tells itself about itself’ (Triana-Toribio 2003: 6). This post examines the representation of Penélope Cruz as embodying Spain, specifically in the film La niña de tus ojos, the film for which she won her first Goya for Best Actress in 1999.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

More Random Viewing

Left to right: Spanish Movie (Javier Ruiz Caldera, 2009), 18 comidas / 18 Meals (Jorge Coira, 2010).

Spanish Movie is in the same vein as the likes of Scary Movie (complete with Leslie Nielsen cameo), but with Spanish cinema as the focus of its parodies and in-jokes. Among the films parodied are: The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001), Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006), Mar adentro / The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenábar, 2004), El Orfanato / The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona, 2007), Alatriste (Agustín Díaz Yanes, 2006), El laberinto del fauno / Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006), Abre los ojos / Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenábar, 1997), Los lunes al sol / Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa, 2002), *[Rec] (Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plazas, 2007), and I'm sure I spotted a nod to Los cronocrímenes / Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo, 2007) as well. The humour is a bit hit and miss (it has a certificate of age 7 and over) but some of the film parodies have a real attention to detail -from set decoration and costume to actual shooting style. The three central actors -Alexandra Jiménez (playing a version of Penélope Cruz's Raimunda from Volver), Silvia Abril (playing a cross between Nicole Kidman in The Others and Belén Rueda in The Orphanage), and Carlos Areces (seemingly playing every Javier Bardem role from the last decade)- are all very good and throw themselves into the endeavour with gusto. You can also have fun playing 'spot the Spanish director', as a host of them turn up in cameos.
18 comidas, although comedic in parts, is a rather different proposition. It essentially divides one day into three meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner), jumping between different vignettes around the city of Santiago de Compostela, as different sets of people (friends, couples, families) sit down to eat (we see each of the sets of people at each of the mealtimes). Some of the characters cross between different stories, others are self-enclosed. Some of the stories are slight, although I would say that they are intended more as glimpses into other people's lives than actual narratives; even some of the strands that have more of a 'plot' are not actually 'resolved' by the end of the film. There are some excellent performances (it is a large cast: Luis Tosar, Esperanza Pedreño, Pedro Alonso, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, and many more) and many moving moments as people try to connect (sometimes succeeding, sometimes not). It will also make you hungry. 

I watched Spanish Movie on DVD (it was part of my test) and 18 comidas is now available to watch at Filmin (they have the trailer as well). 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Another Book Added to List

Resina, J.R. (ed) (2008) -Burning Darkness: A Half Century of Spanish Cinema, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN: 978-0791475041

A collection that covers an interesting range of films with the aim of contributing to the as-yet still scarce range of English-language analytical resources that address Spanish cinema. The selection of films and directors has been done so as to span 'the period from the origins of the New Spanish Cinema in the 1950s to the end of the twentieth century' (p.1).

  • Introduction -Joan Ramon Resina
  • 1. Rehearsing for Modernity in ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall! (Luis García Berlanga, 1952) -Eva Woods Peiró
  • 2. Existential Crossroads in Muerte de un ciclista (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955) -Andrés Lima-Hincapié
  • 3. Viridiana Coca-Cola (Luis Buñuel, 1961) -Tom Conley
  • 4. El espíritu de la colmena: Memory, Nostalgia, Trauma (Víctor Erice, 1973) -Chris Perriam
  • 5. A Poetics of Splitting: Memory and Identity in La prima Angélica (Carlos Saura, 1974) -Ángel Quintana
  • 6. Ambiguous Disenchantment in El corazón del bosque (Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, 1979)  -Irení Depetris-Chauvin
  • 7. Los paraísos perdidos: Cinema of Return and Repetition (Basilio Martín Patino, 1985) -Tatjana Pavlović
  • 8. (M)Othering Strategies in El pájaro de la felicidad (Pilar Miró, 1993) -Jaume Martí-Olivella
  • 9. Abjection, Trauma, and the Material Image: La madre muerta (Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 1993) -Jo Labanyi
  • 10. The Catalan Body Politic as Aired in La teta i la lluna (Bigas Luna, 1994) -Dominic Keown
  • 11. Genre and Screen Violence: Revisiting Tesis (Alejandro Amenábar, 1995) -Barry Jordan
  • 12. Conceptualizing "the Impact" in Los amantes del Círculo Polar (Julio Medem, 1998) -Robert A. Davidson
  • 13. Immortal/Undead: The Body and the Transmission of Tradition in Amic/Amat (Ventura Pons, 1998) -Josep-Anton Fernández
  • 14. Imitation of Life: Transsexuality and Transtextuality in Todo sobre mi madre (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999) -Esteve Riambau
  • 15. The Construction of the Cinematic Image: En construcción (José Luis Guerín, 2000) -Joan Ramon Resina

The book has been added to the Books on Spanish Cinema, Part Two post.

Sunday, 6 November 2011 update

I finally ordered something from
I would say that their problem at the moment is stock levels -the two films that I was intending to buy were out of stock with an estimated re-stock date of 1-3 weeks. They only seem to have a few copies of most titles in stock (and that seems to be true of a lot of books as well as DVDs).
In the end I ordered two films that were in stock (I wanted to know what normal delivery times would be) and they were delivered three days later. Postage came to 7 euros (including tax), which is considerably cheaper than anywhere else I've used to import Spanish DVDs.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Random Viewing

Left to right: Salto al vacio / Jump into the Void (Daniel Calparsoro, 1995), Flores del otro mundo / Flowers From Another World (Icíar Bollaín, 1999).

    So: to the films. Salto al vacio was Daniel Calparosoro's directorial debut and a distinctive calling card -the camerawork is bristling with energy while also managing to convey how stifling Alex (Najwa Nimri -probably best known to UK audiences for Abre los ojos / Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenábar, 1997), Los amantes del círculo polar / Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Julio Medem, 1998) and Lucía y el sexo / Sex and Lucía (Julio Medem, 2001)- but here making her cinematic debut and the first of a series of films with Calparsoro) finds her current (violent) life by framing her within cramped spaces and utilising claustrophobia-inducing close-ups (particularly within domestic spaces / scenes with her family). The last sequence of the film initially seems to suggest that her horizons are opening up (she is outside of the city and in an open space) but instead of taking the opportunity offered to her, she instead takes a step back towards the violence that has been following her throughout the film, and we leave her in a determined state of mind (she has finally made her mind up about what she is going to do) but surrounded by fog. It's relatively unusual for a film about disaffected youth / urban alienation to centre on a female protagonist -the film is very much from her perspective and not only does Calparsoro emphasise Nimri's striking 'look' via the close-ups of her face, but we also see several sequences over her shoulder (effectively her POV). I'm going to track down the other films they made together because although I've seen a couple of his later films, and quite a lot of Nimri's, this was the first of the films that they made together that I've seen. It is very different to anything else made in Spain in that era (at least, from what I've seen).
    Icíar Bollaín also made her directorial debut in 1995 (Hola, ¿estás sola?), but it was her second film that I recently caught up with. Flores del otro mundo looks at one of the problems of rural life (and the 'ghost villages' left empty after the exodus to the cities) -the shortage of women in the countryside- through the stories of three different women who join the village / start relationships with men who live there (two of them attend a 'dating party' organised by the village each year where groups of Spanish and South American women visit en masse to meet the local single men (an idea based on real events), and the third is 'acquired' (and she is viewed as his property) via sex tourism). This isn't a romantic drama, as Bollaín looks at the issues of immigration, race, gender, and rural life through an unfiltered lens, showing the rough (domestic violence, racism, sexism, and simply the differing expectations that couples have for their relationships) and the smooth (one couple seems to find genuine happiness). For me, the stand-out story strand was the relationship between Damián (Luis Tosar) and Patricia (Lissette Mejía) -there are two scenes where Damián does the 'right thing' where you feel like actually cheering (well, I did, anyway).

Further reading:
Davies, A. (2009) -Daniel Calparsoro, Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press.
Santaolalla, I. (2005) -Los "Otros": Etnicidad y "raza" en el cine español contemporáneo, Zaragoza & Madrid: Prensas Universitarias de Zaragoza & Ocho y Medio, Libros de Cine.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Excuses, excuses

So, only two proper posts in October isn't exactly me managing to keep to my normal schedule, is it. I underestimated the impact of increasing my working hours and also failed to take into account that as well as working almost full-time Monday - Friday, I'm also on a rota for weekend work. I don't want the blog to turn into 'work' whereby I start to feel pressure to post something (anything!), but I will aim to get at least 3 posts done in November. I'd like to aim to post something once a week -I think that will be manageable once I get into a better routine, so please bear with me for the time being.
I'm going to start being more flexible about the format of the Random Viewing posts; I've been holding off posting the next one because I watched two films a couple of weeks ago but haven't had the chance to watch any more, and I usually write about four films at a time. Given that my viewing habits are somewhat curtailed at the moment (I'm unlikely to watch four films in one week), I'm going to try and post more frequently by grouping films into pairs rather than quartets (unless there is a reason for a set of films to be discussed together -although if there's a thread, then it's not really 'random' viewing anyway). The first of these posts will appear next week.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

New Book Added to List

Torres Hortelano, L.J. (ed.) (2011) - Directory of World Cinema: Spain, Bristol: Intellect. ISBN: 9781841504636

This book forms part of a relatively new series from Intellect looking at various world cinemas. The aim is that future volumes will be added to each country's directory every couple of years (this volume makes tentative references to possible subjects to be included in future editions). On the back cover it says: 'Each volume of the directory will take the form of a collection of reviews, longer essay, and research resources, accompanied by film stills highlighting significant films and players.'
The book is divided into different sections encompassing focusses on specific directors, locations, film festivals, cultural background, and genres. The genres (some of which are specific to Spain) form the backbone of the directory with the ten different genre sections including an essay and then reviews of ten films that fall within that genre (although this is sometimes 'loosely' / bizarrely interpreted -for example, how did Cesc Gay's En la ciudad come to be classified as 'Experimental Documentary'?). Although 100 films are included, the editor is very clear in saying that this is not a '100 Best Spanish Films' enterprise, but rather the intention is to give a flavour of the variety within Spanish cinema. Future volumes would look at different genres. One could argue about the omissions (I know that it is often said that Almodóvar overshadows everyone else, but to only include one Almodóvar film feels an overcorrection too far in the other direction -especially when other directors have multiple films included. Plus, the Torrente phenomenon deserves some coverage) but, as this is seen as a project that will develop over time, perhaps those absences will be addressed in the future ('films about the Civil War' is a category that is mentioned for inclusion in the possible second volume).
This is more a book to dip in and out of rather than to read cover to cover (I haven't read all of it yet), but it's probably a good starting point for someone who is interested in watching Spanish films but doesn't know where to begin. As is often the case with books with multiple contributors (70, in this case), the style and quality of the writing is variable (some of the reviews lean towards the descriptive rather than the analytical, others seem to have suffered in translation), but an interesting aspect to the collection of contributors is how many of them are Spanish; it is relatively rare to see Spanish views on Spanish cinema published in English. Overall, a good introduction to the variety that Spanish cinema has to offer, but more of a starting point for further investigation than a one-stop-shop.
The table of contents is below, and because the impetus behind my starting the book lists was my frustration with being unable to find out what films are covered in a particular book, I'm going to include the (original) film titles of those reviewed in the various sections (but not the contributor names because of the vast number).

Introduction by the Editor
Film of the Year: Biutiful
Interview with Jaime Rosales
Industry Spotlight: Spanish Film Production
Cultural Crossover
-Influence of European Avant-garde
-Representations of Violence
-Don Quixote Visual Ridings
Festival Focus
-Semana de Cine Experimental de Madrid / Experimental Film Week of Madrid
Film Location: Madrid
-Edgar Neville
-Fernando Fernán-Gómez
-Carlos Saura
-Victor Erice
-Pedro Almodóvar
Auteur Melodrama / Melodrama de autor
-Reviews (Jamón, jamón (Bigas Luna, 1992), Todo sobre mi madre (Almodóvar, 1999), Cielo negro (Mur Oti, 1951), Caótica Ana (Medem, 2007), La vida mancha (Urbizu, 2003), My Life Without Me (Coixet, 2003), La ardilla roja (Medem, 1993), The Secret Life of Words (Coixet, 2005), Things I Never Told You (Coixet, 1996), Las voces de la noche (García Ruiz, 2003)).
Grotesque Comedy / Esperpento
-Reviews (Amanece, que no es poco (Cuerda, 1988), Atraco a las tres (Forqué, 1962), Belle epoque (Trueba, 1992), El verdugo (García Berlanga, 1963), El milagro de P Tinto (Fesser, 1998), La escopeta nacional (García Berlanga, 1978), Plácido (García Berlanga, 1961), La linea del cielo (Colomo, 1983), El extraño viaje (Fernán-Gómez, 1964), Los tramposos (Lazaga, 1959)).
Iberian Drama
-Reviews (Solas (Zambrano, 1999), Alas de mariposa (Bajo Ulloa, 1991), En la ciudad sin límites (Hernández, 2002), Flores del otro mundo (Bollaín, 1999), La casa de Bernarda Alba (Camus, 1987), La caza (Saura, 1965), Los lunes al sol (León de Aranoa, 2002), Poniente (Gutiérrez, 2002), La soledad (Rosales, 2007), Viridiana (Buñuel, 1961)).
Musical (But Not Only Flamenco...)
-Reviews (¡Ay, Carmela! (Saura, 1990), Morena clara (Rey, 1936), Flamenco (Saura, 1995), La niña de tus ojos (Trueba, 1998), Pena, penita, pena (Morayta, 1953), El otro lado de la cama (Martínez Lázaro, 2002), Shirley Temple Story (Padrós, 1976), Canciones para después de una guerra (Patino, 1976), Embrujo (Serrano de Osma, 1946)).
Period Films / De época
-Reviews (Alatriste (Díaz Yanes, 2006), Bocage (Leitão de Barros, 1936), Vacas (Medem, 1992), El perro del hortelano (Miró, 1996), Honor de cavalleria (Serra, 2006), Los últimos de Filipinas (Román, 1945), Locura de amor (Orduña, 1948), Nuestra Señora de Fátima (Gil, 1951), Sin novedad en el Alcázar (Genina, 1940), You Are the One (Una historia de entonces) (Garci, 2000)).
Dictatorship Forgotten Cinema
-Reviews (Un hombre va por el camino (Mur Oti, 1949), Carmen fra i rossi (Neville, 1939), Surcos (Nieves Conde, 1951), La vida en un hilo (Neville, 1945), Calle Mayor (Bardem, 1956), Marcelino pan y vino (Vajda, 1955), El clavo (Gil, 1944), Historias de la radio (Sáenz de Heredia, 1955), El espíritu de la colmena (Erice, 1973), Vida en sombras (Llobet Gracia, 1948)).
The Transition to Democracy Cinema / Cine de la Transición
-Reviews (El desencanto (Chávarri, 1976), El bosque animado (Cuerda, 1987), Los santos inocentes (Camus, 1984), La vieja memoria (Camino, 1979), Furtivos (Borau, 1975), Arrebato (Zulueta, 1979), Los restos del naufragio (Franco, 1978), 7 días de enero (Bardem, 1979), Habla, mudita (Gutiérrez Aragón, 1973), El viaje a ninguna parte (Fernán-Gómez, 1986)).
Crime and Thriller
-Reviews (Angustia (Bigas Luna, 1987), Bilbao (Bigas Luna, 1978), Domingo de carnaval (Neville, 1945), Muerte de un ciclista (Bardem, 1955), El cebo (Vajda, 1958), Nadie hablará de nosotras cuando hayamos muerto (Díaz Yanes, 1995), Los peces rojos (Nieves Conde, 1955), Soldados de Salamina (Trueba, 2003), Tesis (Amenábar, 1996), Los cronocrímenes (Vigalondo, 2007)).
Fantasy and Horror
-Reviews (El día de la bestia (de la Iglesia, 1995), El espinazo del diablo (del Toro, 2001), La Residencia (Ibáñez Serrador, 1969), Acción mutante (de la Iglesia, 1993), El orfanato (Bayona, 2007), The Others (Amenábar, 2001), El laberinto del fauno (del Toro, 2006), La cabina (Mercero, 1972), [Rec] (Balagueró and Plaza, 2007), La torre de los siete jorobados (Neville, 1944)).
Experimental Documentary
-Reviews (El cant dels ocells (Serra, 2008), Contactos (Viota, 1970), El sol del membrillo (Erice, 1992), En la ciudad (Gay, 2003), Las Hurdes. Tierra sin pan (Buñuel, 1933), Die stille vor Bach (Portabella, 2007), Tren de sombras: El espectro de Le Thuit (Guerín, 1997), Umbracle (Portabella, 1972), Un chien andalou (Buñuel, 1929), Aguaespejo granadino (Val de Omar, 1953-1955)).
Recommended Reading
Spanish Cinema Online
Notes on Contributors

The book has been added to the Books on Spanish Cinema, Part Two post.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Random Viewing

Clockwise from top left: Los lunes al sol / Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa, 2002), Una palabra tuya / One Word From You (Ángeles González-Sinde, 2009), Todos estamos invitados / We're All Invited (Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, 2008), Poniente (Chus Gutierrez, 2002).

I've watched Los lunes al sol several times previously but decided to rewatch it because while watching Biutiful a few weeks ago León de Aranoa's film kept popping into my head. They are quite different films but I think the 'connection' that I was feeling stems from Javier Bardem's performances in the two films -I can't quite articulate what I mean just yet (it's along the lines of his performance in Biutiful feeling to me like that of Los lunes al sol, but turned inside out in relation to how the strength and fragilities of the respective characters are shown), but I'm working on a post about the two films together (which will hopefully appear before the end of the month, work schedule permitting). I didn't know much about Una palabra tuya, apart from the fact that I like the actors in it (Antonio de la Torre, Malena Alterio, and Esperanza Pedreño). I found it a bit uneven tonally -it's tragicomic but turns a bit hysterical towards the end- but it is nonetheless an affecting portrayal of loneliness and (female) friendship; it is overall quite sad, but it ends on a hopeful note. Todos estamos invitados has an intriguing plot set in the Basque Country -after being shot in the head, a young terrorist (Josu -Óscar Jaenada) is left with amnesia and a battle for control over him commences between his old associates and the doctor (Vanessa Incontrada) who is caring for him. At the same time the doctor's partner (José Coronado), a university lecturer who has openly criticised ETA, receives a serious death threat as a result of his refusal to stay quiet. On the one hand, there's a nature versus nurture aspect to the story as Josu's former associates attempt to manipulate him and reform him into the person they knew before, while he also has the opportunity of a clean slate (he remembers nothing of his life) and responds to the kindnesses of the doctor. At the same time, the film is also about fear and silences, and how fear and intimidation cause silence. I haven't seen anything else that views the situation in quite the same way -so well worth checking out. I continued with another film starring José Coronado (and why not), Poniente -a rural drama about immigration (migrant workers and the worth of their work) and the insularity of small communities, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure, seen through the eyes of Lucía (Cuca Escribano), a teacher who returns to her home town when her father dies and decides to take over his business.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011 has arrived

Just a quick FYI: the Spanish Amazon site opened a couple of weeks ago.
I haven't actually ordered anything through it yet, but the postage to the UK is a reasonable 6€. I'm adding the link to the DVD shop list in the column on the right and updating the resources post so that it's included -if you already have an Amazon UK account, you just enter your usual login. I've ordered things from Amazon France before without a problem and I doubt that this will be any different -but I'll post some sort of update when I have ordered something (how long it takes to arrive, etc.).

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Yet more random viewing

Clockwise from top left: Los cronocrímenes / Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo, 2007), La mujer sin piano / Woman Without Piano (Javier Rebollo, 2010), Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010), Muertos de risa / Dying of Laughter (Álex de la Iglesia, 1999)

This the latest batch of films I've watched -I tried to watch a fair few before I went back to work / started the second job so that I could store up some of these posts. In this case my viewing tactics resulted in a bit of mixed bag. I'm late to the party with Timecrimes, although I've had numerous people recommend it to me, and I liked it very much. I liked that on the one hand it manages to be very clear (the different time frames / Hectors are clearly delineated -a lot of thought has gone into how events unfold and everything has a pay-off) but on the other it is still something of a mindfuck. In summary: clever and entertaining. In contrast, La mujer sin piano is a difficult film to summarise. Essentially it is 24 hours in the life of a Spanish housewife (played by Carmen Machi), mainly focussing on her nocturnal adventure when she seems to walk out on her humdrum life and sets out to get a bus to an unknown destination, but ends up walking the streets of the city as nothing goes as planned. It's one of those films that you either get into, or it leaves you cold -I struggled for the first half hour but persisted because I was intrigued as to what was going to happen to her. There's a nice line in quietly deadpan humour and an unusual use of sound. Biutiful was one of the films I mentioned a while back saying that I would write about it –I’ve been putting off watching it because my general impression was that it was a misery-fest, although in the event it wasn’t as bad as I’d been led to believe. I will write about it soon, probably focussing on Javier Bardem's performance, which I think is the main strength of the film. I really like some of Álex de la Iglesia's films (El día de la bestia (1995) and La comunidad (2000) are particular favourites of mine) but likewise others just do nothing for me: unfortunately Muertos de risa (which I hadn't seen before) falls into the latter category.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Random Viewing

Clockwise from top left: El baile de la Victoria (Fernando Trueba, 2010), La mitad de Óscar (Manuel Martín Cuenca, 2011), Pagafantas (Borja Cobeaga, 2009), Primos (Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, 2011).

Of Trueba’s two most recent films, I prefer Chico & Rita, but the presence of Ricardo Darín (as always) makes El baile de la Victoria worth seeing. La mitad de Óscar is an existential family drama. There is little dialogue but the absence of words (and long silences) create a tense and fraught atmosphere between siblings Rodrigo Sáenz de Heredia and Verónica Echegui (a face to watch –her star is definitely on the rise and she is one of my favourite young actresses) –something has happened in the past that they are carefully tip-toeing around. We have to read between the lines until the final meeting between the two (which is played out in silhouette in front of a window overlooking the sea as the sun rises –we can’t see their facial expressions but everything that they don’t say is clearly telegraphed via their body language). Pagafantas is a kind of anthropological take on the dating game and its attendant rejections –and very funny with it (I was still chuckling over bits the next day). Primos is Daniel Sánchez Arévalo’s third film, reuniting him with the group of actors who are becoming his repertory company (Quim Gutiérrez, Raul Arévalo, and Antonio de la Torre), and is a comedy with a lot of heart. There are several standout sequences (notably Quim Gutiérrez’s opening monologue, which I imagine will now become a set text for auditioning actors, and let’s just say that the next time I hear the Backstreet Boys I’m liable to get an attack of the giggles) but I think that he’s an outstanding writer as a whole –he is one of the few writer-directors (Almodóvar springs to mind as another) who can switch between comedy and tragedy with ease and without unbalancing the film (the opening monologue is again a good example because it is funny and sad at the same time), and he also seems to have a genuine affection for the characters he creates.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Update: partial hibernation

Just a brief update to let you know that activity on the blog is likely to be a bit slower for the next month or so. I've been working part-time during the period that Nobody Knows Anybody has been running, but I have finally acquired a second part-time job that will take my working hours almost up to full-time. I start the second job next week -it is temporary, but will see me through to next year. The blog will continue to run, but I think it's likely that posting activity will slow down during the first month; once I get into a routine, I expect that my posting patterns will be back to 'normal' (given that the frequency of posts is variable from month to month anyway). But for the time being, the 'Random Viewing' posts are probably going to be the norm.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

More Random Viewing

Clockwise from top left: Nadie hablará de nosotras cuando hayamos muerto / Nobody Will Speak of Us When We Are Dead (Agustín Díaz Yanes, 1995), Flamenco Flamenco (Carlos Saura, 2010), La piel que habito / The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011), Chico & Rita (Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, 2011).

A while back I mentioned my intention to write about Díaz Yanes’ 1995 film but it got put to one side during my preparations for Almodóvar Month. I have now rewatched it, so I will write a post about it (and possibly its sequel, Sólo quiero caminar (2008), one of my favourite films from recent years) in the near future. The Skin I Live In and Chico & Rita have both been released in UK cinemas this year (the former is currently in cinemas and the latter is now available on DVD) and are well worth checking out, and I really enjoyed Saura’s documentary / performance showcase (even if it did make me feel woefully Anglo-Saxon) –it doesn’t seem to have any planned release date for the UK, but will be available on DVD in Spain soon (I watched it over at Filmin).

Friday, 2 September 2011

London Spanish Film Festival, 23rd September – 6th October

Back in April, the Festival held a Spring Weekend Edition, but this is the festival proper, now in its 7th year.
The 2011 programme includes three of this year’s four nominees for the Best Film Goya –Balada triste de trompeta / Sad Trumpet Ballad (a.k.a. The Last Circus) (Álex de la Iglesia, 2010), Pa negre / Black Bread (Agustí Villaronga, 2010), También la lluvia / Even the Rain (Icíar Bollaín, 2010) (the fourth film, Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010), has already had a cinema run in the UK), plus two of the directorial debuts that saw their directors nominated for Best New Director – Bon appétit (David Pinillos, 2010), and Todas las canciones hablan de mí / All The Songs Are About Me (Jonás Trueba, 2010). The full list of films can be found here.
Several of the screenings include Q&As with cast or crew –many are still TBC, so check the website for further details. The programme includes sidebars on Catalan and Basque cinema, as well as a special strand dedicated to actress Geraldine Chaplin (the screening of Ana y los lobos / Ana and the Wolves (Carlos Saura, 1973) is due to be followed by an on-stage interview about her acting career), and an homage to celebrated director Luis García Berlanga who died last year (films to be screened include ¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (1953), Plácido (1961), Tamaño natural (1974), and ¡Vivan los novios! (1970)).

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

….and Almodóvar Month ends

So, the 31 days of Pedro celebration are now over, and all eighteen films have featured in some way on the blog. It’s a shame that I wasn’t overly enamoured with film no.18, but that’s the way it goes sometimes and I’ll be the first in line again when no.19 arrives. 
My original plan for Almodóvar Month had been to write about my ten favourite Almodóvar films but I had to change that when the release date moved from November to August. I may write longer posts on some those films in the future (three of them had longer posts this month), but I’ve realised that I’ve not actually said what my ten favourites are –so, as the final post of Nobody Knows Anybody’s Almodóvar Month, here is my personal top ten (the links either take you to my short summary or the longer post)

Monday, 29 August 2011

La piel que habito / The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar and Agustín Almodóvar, based on the novel Mygale (a.k.a. Tarantula) by Thierry Jonquet.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Blanca Suárez, Roberto Álamo, Eduard Fernández, Susi Sánchez, Bárbara Lennie, Fernando Cayo, José Luis Gómez.

Short version: A rich and macabre body-horror with touches of melodrama, well executed, with excellent performances, but not my cup of tea.


Friday, 26 August 2011

My 5 Favourite Almodóvar Film Posters

I should be seeing La piel que habito / The Skin I Live In over the weekend, with a post to follow at the start of the next week. In the meantime, here are my five favourite posters for Almodóvar films.

Designer: Juan Gatti 
I’ve got the UK Quad poster version of this (i.e. landscape rather than portrait –with the picture on one side and the wording on the other) on my wall. Also look for the Japanese mini poster (chirashi) version, which has Cruz emerging from a bouquet of flowers. It’s a really bold poster and I like how it uses the colour that Almodóvar is most associated with (red) and integrates the pattern from one of Raimunda’s outfits (I think it was either Peter Bradshaw or Jonathan Romney who said that on the basis of this film, Cruz has to be one of the few women in the world who could wear anything that Primark could possibly throw at her). In my longer post about the film I suggest that Volver is kind of an old-fashioned ‘star vehicle’ for Penélope Cruz –it is to an extent built around her existing star image- and her centrality on the poster (and to my knowledge her image was the only one that appeared in promotional materials, although I could be wrong) supports that.

Designer: Juan Gatti
Another Gatti design, another poster that I have on my wall (although not full size). There are several different posters for Women on the Verge but this is my favourite –it captures several things about the film: its overall stylised nature (which starts in the opening credits (also designed by Gatti –the images on the poster are in the credit sequence)), the prominence of primary colours in the set design, and that although there is a central character (Pepa –Carmen Maura), there is more than one woman in the film who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Designer: Iván Zulueta
The poster contains several elements from the film. Most obviously the tiger that the nuns keep in the garden of the convent, but here the tiger is standing for the Mother Superior (played by Julieta Serrano). Note that Yolanda (Cristina Pascual), wearing the dress that she’s wearing when she arrives at the convent, is becoming ensnared in the tiger’s claws, an indication that she risks being devoured by the Mother Superior if she is not careful. But also note that the tiger’s claws are scratching the habit –the Mother Superior is damaging herself, and her behaviour is self-destructive. Apart from the nun’s habit, the poster also contains the symbol of this particular Order (the Convent of the Humiliated Redeemers) –but instead of a heart surrounded by flames, instead it is pierced by syringes, which partly refers to what the nuns believe their mission is (the rescue ‘fallen’ girls, drug addicts seemingly prominent among them), but is also a reference the Mother Superior’s own addictions.

Designer: Juan Gatti
I just like the Saul Bass-ness of this one. It doesn’t work as well in the UK version because they try to fit ‘Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’ into the same space as ‘Átame!’.

Designer: Juan Gatti
I like the simplicity of this design, which again makes use of the colour red (the dominant colour within the film itself). The circle can be read in many ways –it puts the boy at the centre of a target (the priest pursues him), but it could also be a spotlight (pointing to the elements of ‘performance’ that surround Ignacio). The crossed arms also signal determination –something that can certainly be ascribed to Ignacio in his many different incarnations.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Los abrazos rotos / Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodóvar, 2009)

Penélope Cruz and Lluís Homar
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo, Tamar Novas, Rubén Ochandiano, José Luis Gómez, Ángela Molina.
Synopsis: Told in flashback, as a man reminisces about meeting the love of his life, Broken Embraces tells the story of the production of a film fourteen years earlier, the love affair between the director and the lead actress, and the punishments inflicted on the actress by her financier husband. The film was hacked to pieces under the financier's influence, but a greater tragedy than bad reviews awaited the couple...

I was initially disappointed when I saw this film, at least in part because I’d hyped it up in my own mind (I seriously need to calm down about La piel que habito, or it’ll happen again). My reaction after my first viewing was that it unravels, or deflates, about three-quarters of the way through when Judit (Portillo), has to fill in the blanks to what we have seen in flashback as Mateo / Harry (Homar) recounted the story of his last film as a director to Diego (Novas). I felt that too much exposition was done in that one scene and it also seemed jarring that we were being told rather shown what happened. But watching it again now, that scene does not seem as jarring, although I do still think that the film just kind of tails off at the end. However, even with those ‘doubts’ in mind, the film is still a powerful and heartfelt meditation on cinema and filmmaking; the film stands as a love letter to cinema, and to his (then) current muse, Penélope Cruz. The scenes where Mateo meets Lena (Cruz) for the first time and then sets about turning her into his lead actress clearly demonstrate why Cruz is a star -the camera loves her as much as Pedro does. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the ‘deflation’ (from my perspective) happens after Lena (Cruz) has left the narrative –Cruz’s absence is palpable, and although that fits with the desolation that Mateo is initially left with, to me it made the film feel a bit unbalanced (even though we see her performance in Chicas y maletas (the film within the film) at the end of the film).

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)

Yohana Cobo and Penélope Cruz
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo, Chus Lampreave, Antonio de la Torre.
Synopsis: Raimunda (Cruz) has raised her daughter (Cobo) in the city, far away from the village where she grew up and the painful memories of a fractious relationship with her now-dead mother (Maura). But the past has a way of catching up with you - Raimunda's sister, Sole (Dueñas), returns from their aunt's (Lampreave) funeral apparently experiencing visions of their dead mother. But is she dead? And what does their aunt's neighbour (Portillo) know? But Raimunda has enough problems of her own -like what to do with the dead man (de la Torre) in her kitchen...

This is probably my favourite of Almodóvar’s films, although it does have some pretty strong competition. Few directors can veer so masterfully between comedy and tragedy as Almodóvar does in this film, sometimes within a single scene –it is genuinely funny but also carries a powerful emotional punch. My longer post on the film, seen through the prism of Cruz’s star image, is here.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

La mala educación / Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004)

Gael García Bernal
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, Lluís Homar, Daniel Jiménez Cacho, Javier Camára, Francisco Boira.
Synopsis: Where to begin with this one? ‘In 1980s Madrid two young men, filmmaker Enrique (Martínez) and aspiring actor Ignacio (García Bernal) open up dark secrets as they revisit their early years together at a Catholic school. As they try to uncover the truth about themselves, each other and the diverse characters in their story, they realize that things and people are not as they first seem’ (from the UK edition of the DVD because it’s a more concise summary than I could come up with).

This is one of those films that is best seen with as little knowledge about the plot as possible. Probably Almodóvar’s most narratively-complex film, we are given several narrative layers, a film within a film, and flashbacks that are not entirely trustworthy. With hindsight (or on second viewing), the complexity of the plot is signaled in the design of the opening credits (designed by Juan Gatti, Almodóvar’s habitual collaborator on credit sequences, posters, and press-packs since Women on the Verge…); layers are torn back to reveal names and other images underneath, and pictures are turned into mosaics (a motif in the film) as if torn up in a fit of pique. As the film unfolds we come to see that that we should not trust what is being presented to us; the past is being reconfigured, or rewritten, to suit the desires of one particular person (although he appears in many different guises).
I loved the film when I saw it for the first time and went back to see it again a couple of days later (it is definitely a film that can withstand multiple viewings), taking a friend with me who had never seen an Almodóvar film before. She was left speechless (and not in a good way), so be warned that it is not to everyone’s taste –but I think that people who like his films will find much to enjoy here (there are quite a lot of visual references to his other films hidden in the mix as well).

Monday, 22 August 2011

Hable con ella / Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)

Dario Grandinetti, Javier Camára and Leonor Watling
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Javier Camára, Dario Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Geraldine Chaplin.
Synopsis: Two men, a nurse (Camára) and a travel writer (Grandinetti), care for two comatose women (Watling and Flores). Through a series of flashbacks we discover how the women (a ballerina and a matador respectively) came to be in their comatose states, but also realise that their relationships with the men are not what they first appear to be.

A film that is both dark and unsettling but also nonetheless profoundly moving, especially in the later stages. On first viewing I don’t think that I ‘liked’ it, but it has grown on me over the years thanks in part to the two central performances from Camára and Grandinetti, but also because of Almodóvar’s refusal to judge his characters –it is now among my favourites of his films. A longer post on the film can be found here.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Pedro and Penélope

    Penélope Cruz has appeared in four Almodóvar films to date (Live Flesh (1997), All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006), and Broken Embraces (2009)). I was going to simply write about Volver for the blog, it is among my favourite films, but in my mind the film is inextricably linked to Cruz and her star image (in part, no doubt, because that was the prism through which I initially viewed it –see note at the end of this post). Almodóvar has over the years worked with a succession of female muses: Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, and most recently Penélope Cruz. He adeptly both plays to their strengths and also pushes them beyond what they have delivered for other directors –labelling him a ‘women’s director’ is often meant to be derogatory, but Almodóvar directs women like few others. While his muses have played iconic roles for other directors, I would argue that the roles given to them by Almodóvar are among their most memorable, and (in terms of UK audiences) often their best known as well. It is a well-circulated story in her interviews that after sneaking into a screening of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), a young Penélope Cruz told her mother that she was going to be an actress and would someday work with Almodóvar. This post looks at how her career has intersected with his, and why Volver can be seen as a ‘star vehicle’ custom-made for her.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Todo sobre mi madre / All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)

Antonia San Juan, Cecilia Roth and Penélope Cruz
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Antonia San Juan, Penélope Cruz, Marisa Paredes, Candela Pena, Rosa María Sardà, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Eloy Azorín, Toni Cantó.
Synopsis: After watching a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire as a treat for her son's birthday, Manuela (Roth) watches in horror as her only child (Azorín) is killed in a hit and run while chasing after his favourite actress (Paredes) for an autograph. In a state of shock, Manuela leaves Madrid to return to Barcelona (after a long absence) in search of her former husband (Cantó) to tell him about their son. Along the way she meets old friends and makes new ones...

Along with Women on the Verge… this is the film I usually suggest when someone asks me where they should start with Almodóvar –I think it is among the most accessible of his films, but without losing any of the elements that make his films so distinctive.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Carne trémula / Live Flesh (Pedro Almodóvar, 1997)

Francesca Neri and Javier Bardem
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar, Ray Loriga, and Jorge Guerricaechevarria (based on a novel by Ruth Rendell)
Cast: Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri, Liberto Rabal, Ángela Molina, José Sancho, Penélope Cruz, Pilar Bardem, Alex Angulo.
Synopsis: During a confrontation between two policemen (Bardem and Sancho) and a youth, Victor (Rabal), in Elena's (Neri) apartment, a gun goes off and one of the policemen, David (Bardem), is shot, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. By the time Victor is released from prison, David and Elena have married and the former policeman is representing Spain in basketball at the Paralympics. But Victor feels he has been wronged and swears revenge...
The Inspector Wexford TV series was never like this! Almodóvar uses the Ruth Rendell novel as a starting point but then takes the initial situation (the shooting of a policeman) in his own inimitable direction. This seems to be another of his lesser-known films in the UK, probably in part because it is somewhat difficult to track down (it appears to currently be OOP, but secondhand copies can be found on ebay and Amazon). My longer post on the film is here.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

La flor de mi secreto / The Flower of My Secret (Pedro Almodóvar, 1995)

Marisa Paredes and Imanol Arias
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Marisa Paredes, Juan Echanove, Imanol Arias, Chus Lampreave, Rossy De Palma.
Synopsis: Leo (Paredes) secretly writes bestselling romance novels under the pseudonym Amanda Gris, but as her marriage to Paco (Arias) falls apart (he is in Brussels working for NATO) she finds herself unable to write and her fiction takes a darker turn, much to the annoyance of her publisher (who threatens to sue). Hoping to be taken seriously as a writer, and wanting to leave her romance novels behind, Leo approaches Angel (Echanove) -the arts editor at El País- about writing criticism for the paper. Her first job? Reviewing the new Amanda Gris anthology. She decides to commit commercial suicide and attacks the book with gusto. Everything comes to a head when Paco comes home on leave…

The film marks the beginning of a more ‘serious’ phase in Almodóvar’s career. Aside from Marisa Paredes’s powerfully pain-stricken performance, it is probably most interesting for containing elements that would go on the shape the plots of All About My Mother and Volver. The organ donation scenes (specifically the training course for doctors, which features a nurse called Manuela ‘playing’ the mother in the role play) recur in All About My Mother, and the plot of the much darker novel (‘The Freezer’) that is rejected by the Amanda Gris publishers includes plot points that appear in Volver (the freezer of the title is where the main character hides her husband’s body in the restaurant next door).

Monday, 15 August 2011

Kika (Pedro Almodóvar, 1993)

Victoria Abril
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Verónica Forqué, Victoria Abril, Peter Coyote, Alex Casanovas, Rossy De Palma.
Synopsis: Make-up artist Kika (Forqué) lives with her photographer boyfriend Ramón (Casanovas) who remains obsessed with his mother’s suicide some years earlier. Ramón’s ex-stepfather (and Kika’s ex-lover), Nicholas (an American writer (Coyote)), returns to Madrid after two years of travelling and moves into the studio above their apartment. Andrea (Abril) is a former psychologist (and Ramón’s ex) who now presents a garish reality TV show, El peor del día (The Worst of the Day), which broadcasts real footage of horrific crimes. Meanwhile, an escaped rapist seeks assistance from his sister (De Palma), who happens to be Kika’s housekeeper…

A.k.a. the first Almodóvar film I ever saw. Despite it being disliked by many people, and despite my own ‘issues’ with the film (namely the rape scene), I do hold it in some affection simply because it was my introduction to the director. It gives a scathing critique of ‘reality’ television and is a difficult film to like, perhaps not surprisingly given that Almodóvar has said that it is about ‘the sickness of big cities’ (Strauss 2006: 123). But Verónica Forqué gives a wonderful performance as the ever-optimistic Kika (and was memorably described in Sight & Sound as ‘a curious combination of Judy Holliday and Barbara Windsor’ by Paul Julian Smith (1994: 8)), and Victoria Abril also looks like she’s having fun as the deeply malevolent Andrea Caracortada (‘Scarface’). 

Friday, 12 August 2011

Machos in Madrid: Carne trémula / Live Flesh (Pedro Almodóvar, 1997)

Javier Bardem and José Sancho

       Paul Julian Smith states that, along with Almodóvar’s previous film (The Flower of My Secret (1995)), Live Flesh signals the start of a more mature phase of the director’s career (2003: 150), although it maintains several of his predominant interests, including the subversion of gender stereotypes (Smith 1998: 8). Live Flesh is effectively a treatise on machismo and the damage that it inflicts on both men and women, articulated through the generic guise of a thriller. It was the first of Almodóvar’s films to focus exclusively on masculinity and its incarnations (although women are the cause of much that goes on in the film), and Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas argues that this focus on male characters ‘exposes some of the contradictions inherent in traditional notions of masculinity’ (2002: 190). 
     Steve Marsh posits that the film is also the first of Almodóvar’s films to use men as something more than ciphers and that not only are they imbued with history, but they are also constructed by it (2004: 54): ‘While this is indisputably Almodóvar’s male movie, its exploration of heterosexual masculinity is intimately linked to the political configurations of the time and space of the city of Madrid’ (58). Almodóvar is part of Madrid’s cultural heritage, having been a major figure in la movida in the 1980s, and all of his films (including Live Flesh) had been set in Madrid. However, Almodóvar had always been a chronicler of the here and now, refusing to focus on the past, and his films were famous for avoiding direct references to Franco or the dictatorship; what marks out Live Flesh is that it is the last of his films (to date) to be set exclusively in Madrid (his next film, All About My Mother (1999), was his first to be set outside of Madrid (it mainly takes place in Barcelona) and his subsequent films have been made in a variety of locations), and the first in which Spain’s past reverberates through the narrative. History, masculinity, the city of Madrid, and Spain itself, become encapsulated in the lives of the three male characters (Sancho (José Sancho), David (Javier Bardem), and Víctor (Liberto Rabal)).