Happy Happy (2010)

Ok, so the Norwegian film Happy Happy (Sykt Lykkelig) from director Anne Sewistsky may not change your world, but it is an entertaining way to spend 85 minutes–especially if you’re interested to see how climate impacts personal lives.

Happy Happy begins with the arrival of a small family to a freshly rented house–Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), her husband Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), and their adopted black son, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy). They’re new to the remote rural area and are renting the house right next to their landlords, another young family composed of Kaja (Agnes Kittleson), husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelson) and son Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso). Kaja, a happy go-lucky German teacher at the local junior high, can’t wait for the new family to move in. She’s hoping that they’ll become friends, and after an initial introduction, it’s clear that Kaja’s optimism and desperate need for friendship mask a lifeless marriage fraught with problems. Kaja’s neediness and obvious admiration for the other couple (she sees them as being sophisticated and glamorous) spell trouble, and Elisabeth sniffs that Kaja, although pleasant enough, is a shade too desperate. And when there are no other neighbours for miles around, who wants the woman next door to be so needy for any sign of human companionship?

As it turns out, proximity and social isolation can be a dangerous thing, and since there seems to be little to do on those long, Norwegian winter nights, after a  few awkward dinners, the 2 couples get together in the evenings to play games. Kaja and Sigve welcome the social interaction, but Elisabeth finds the evenings tedious, and taciturn Eirik would obviously rather be off on one of his mysterious moose hunting expeditions. After games of Charades falls flat, Sigve, much to Elisabeth’s annoyance,  invests in the board game Couples. An evening’s entertainment  which includes some pointed personal questions, reveals fractured relationships along with the rather embarrassing information that Eirik claims to no longer has sex with Kaja due to her perennial yeast infection–a condition she adamantly denies.

The film’s subplot concerns the relationship between the children, and while the adults play Charades and board games, Theodur decides to make Noa play ‘slave.’ So we see several games afoot–all of which have serious consequences. Sigve, Elisabeth, Kaja and Eirik all try to play at being happily married, duplicitous facades which slip as the film wears on, but even as the couples try to fool each other, honesty between the respective partners isn’t exactly on the table either, and a crisis must occur before some painful truths finally make it to the surface.

Nothing too earth shattering happens here, and the film takes a light, comedic approach to some serious issues. While I didn’t quite buy the ending, for this viewer, the culture and lifestyle adjustments made for climate made this well-acted film entertaining and worth catching.

Happy Happy is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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Bolivar Is Me (2002)

“He’s woven a dangerous thread between fiction and reality.”

Jorge Alí Triana’s Columbian film Bolívar Is Me (Bolívar Soy Yo!) is ostensibly a comedy that looks at exactly what happens when an actor loses his grip on reality. But under the surface of the film’s humour, there’s a serious political satire with a message about the inevitable demise of idealism within the political structure.

When the film begins, popular telenovela actor Santiago Miranda (Robinson Díaz) who is playing the role of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador in the television series The Loves of the Liberator, prepares for the concluding scene by reading Don Quixote. In real life, Bolívar died in bed from TB (although theories have recently floated that he was poisoned). The producer doesn’t think this sort of ending helps the ratings, and so the series has been rewritten to show Bolívar executed by firing squad. Everyone on the set is aware the Miranda has become a little too involved with his role, and even his real-life lover, Alejandra (Amparo Grisales) who plays Bolívar’s lover, Manuelita in the series can’t tell if Santiago loves her or the role she plays. Consequently Alejandro has dumped Santiago during the filming of the series and he’s suffered a breakdown. Today, Santiago, who in his role of Bolívar, is about to face the firing squad and the end of the show, goes berserk and storms off the set. He argues that since the show has re-written history to suit the ratings, there’s no reason why he can’t rewrite history too, and so in full dress uniform, he escapes to the airport and heads for Bogata. The director (Santiago Bejarano) and a psychiatrist (Gustavo Angarita), in hot pursuit of Santiago, intend to put the troubled actor into a strait jacket, lock him up and control his behaviour with medication: “something like a lobotomy but with drugs.” Alejandra believes that Santiago is so out of touch with reality that only she–as Manuelita–Bolívar’s trusted lover who once saved him from an assassination attempt–can bring him back safely. She’s told to avoid using the words “no,” and “death,” and so in a strangely twisted reality-mirrors-fiction way, she heads out to save Santiago.

Santiago’s misadventures are really very funny. Since he’s an actor, people accept that he’s stepping into a role, and it seems perfectly normal for him to show up at the President’s office in costume or riding on his horse, Paloma. He’s the star at a National Independence day parade, but the problems begin when Santiago opens his mouth at an important political summit meeting and begins talking about Bolívar’s  Gran Columbia–the countries Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, and Bolivia, united.

Since the historical figure of Bolívar is symbolic, various factions want to co-opt his popular image. First the government wants to harness Santiago’s mass appeal–both as a telenovella actor and also as the symbol of Bolívar, but once Santiago breaks out into the countryside, guerillas, the Simon Bolívar Bolcehevique Front/Simon Bolívar Popular Revolutionary Army also see the value of this modern-day Bolívar.

Bolivar is Me is really a clever film. On one level, it’s about an actor who loses touch with reality and becomes his role. That’s the funny part, but it’s also the story of a man who has an ethical problem with playing a character whose historic mission has been co-opted, re-written and diluted into meaningless. We never quite know whether or not Santiago is completely off his rocker or whether he’s fully or partially aware that he isn’t Bolívar. In several speeches, Santiago lays out his discontent with the political system and his annoyance at the way Bolívar’s name has been used to decorate various shabby buildings. Santiago says that Quixote is “man as he should be,” and yet at the same time he states that “the three greatest dummies in history have been Jesus Christ, Don Quixote, and me.” Of course, at this point, Santiago appears to be speaking of himself as Bolívar.

One of the cleverest aspects of the film is the way it shows how casually history is rewritten until the truth is obscured by time, myth, and political expediency. Santiago is appalled to see what Bolívar has become:

Now I understand what a symbol is–to be a statue of bronze so that pigeons can shit on you.

The film also shows real footage of the M-19 Palace of Justice siege on 6th of November, 1985–an incident in which M-19 Guerillas (19th of April Movement) took over the building and held hundreds hostage. There are various versions about what happened, so who knows what the truth is anymore.  The 19th of April Movement removed Bolívar’s sword from a museum, and in Bolívar Is Me, we see the guerillas returning the sword to Santiago. By the film’s conclusion, we see the Society of the Spectacle–authentic life replaced with its representation. According to Guy Debord:  

“The Spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

And by the film’s conclusion, it’s easy to see that history is about to be rewritten again….

Bolivar is Me is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

Some of the scenes take place at the Quinta de Bolívar Museum.

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The City and The Dogs (1985)

The first thing you learn in the army is how to be a man, and men smoke and drink, and fuck … but the ones that don’t get caught are the smart ones.”

Based on the Mario Vargas Llosa novel,  Time of the Hero Francisco J. Lombardi’s film The City and the Dogs (La Ciudad y los Perros) is an ultimately disturbing film which examines how morality and individuality are subsumed within a militaristic institution. The institution under scrutiny in the film  is a military college in Lima, Peru, and the film begins with scenes depicting the savage “baptism” of cadets. In N. America, the term ‘hazing’ would be used to describe the degrading activities that take place in the dormitories and showers with new cadets humiliated and being treated like dogs by the older cadets. There’s almost too much to absorb in the mayhem of these hellish scenes–a fiery hoop, one cadet hanging upside down, cadets on all fours with leashes around their necks, and two cadets engaged in a ‘dog fight.’ It’s clear that one cadet, a strange figure known as The Jaguar (Juan Manuel Ochoa) refuses to submit to the humiliations heaped on the others. But even more than that, The Jaguar, who’s a former gang member, fights back and establishes his dominance.

All of the cadets are supposed to abide by the college’s strict rules which include no alcohol and no smoking. The Jaguar, however, along with three other cadets: Cava, Boa (Aristoteles Picho) and Rulos (Tono Vega) form “the Circle” a shady organisation responsible for providing the other cadets with contraband: pornography, alcohol, cigarettes, uniforms and even, more significantly stolen tests. It’s almost graduation time, and The Circle arranges for the theft of the chemistry test, but when the theft is discovered, all the cadets who were on duty that night are confined to barracks until the thief is uncovered.

Part of the film follows the relationship between two of the cadets outside the Circle–The Slave (Esclavo) played by Eduardo Adrianzén and the Poet (Pablo Serra), who writes letters and dirty stories for the other cadets in the dormitory. When Esclavo is confined to the barracks following the theft of the chemistry test, he asks the Poet to go and visit Teresa (Liliana Navarro) a girl he adores. When barracks confinement continues, Esclavo, a quiet, friendless cadet who bears the brunt of nonstop bullying, breaks under the pressure….

Although the film’s plot seems fairly simple, there’s a lot going on in this complex film. On one level, there’ s the group behaviour of the cadets–all of whom are afraid to cross The Jaguar. After all since The Jaguar provides the other cadets with cigarettes and booze, to some extent, he’s made their confinement at the college far more tolerable. None of the cadets dare cross The Jaguar–no matter how cruel he is, and this is due in part to fear but also to the material comforts he provides.

When a death occurs at the college, an investigation is conducted and a report generated.  Lt. Gamboa (Gustavo Bueno), a decent man who wants to do the right thing, questions its accuracy with catastrophic results. Through the actions of Gamboa and the Poet, we see just how individual morality is squashed or perverted by institutional & military dictates.  Truth is trumped by such nebulous concepts as ‘duty,’ ‘honour,’ and ‘tradition,’ so we see that those who thrive within a militaristic institution or society are those who are willing to allow their individual morality to be controlled or subsumed. Therefore someone like The Jaguar thrives and even uses institutional dictates to run amok while gentler cadets are crushed by the system. Of course, on another level, life within the college could be symbolic of life within a militaristic society with bullies, sadists and conformists rising to the top.

The film also examines how individual motivation is affected by the perceptions of  ‘the group’. What motivates the Poet, for example? Is he motivated by guilt or something finer? And then what of the Jaguar? Can we believe his final statement? Or is he simply trying to be a ‘hero’ or a tough guy to the last? The film doesn’t give any easy answers to these questions, but the message ultimately is that if the individual decides to stand up against the ruling system, then one should be prepared for the system to strike back against the individual. Just how far anyone is prepared to go to fight the system, depends on just how much one is willing to pay.  

For those wishing to dip into Peruvian film, Lombardi’s film, Mariposa Negra is superb, and Ojos Que No Ven should not be missed. There’s also Tinta Roja, Don’t Tell Anyone, and Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras

The City and the Dogs is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s Foreign film festival

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The Blue Angel (1930)

“The films that von Sternberg made with me speak for themselves. There is nothing, and there will be nothing in the future, that could surpass them. Filmmakers are forever condemned to imitate them.” (Marlene Dietrich)

Based on the novel by Heinrich Mann, the film The Blue Angel (Die Blaue Engel) follows the obsession of a reclusive bachelor schoolteacher with a sexually liberated nightclub singer. The night club singer is, of course, Marlene Dietrich, and her unforgettable performance as Lola Lola catapulted her to international fame.

The Blue Angel is the story of Professor Rath, played by the portly Emil Jannings, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small town. While he is meticulous and stuffy in his personal and professional lives, he is also the object of ridicule. Scenes show him in the classroom where as a petty tyrant, the good students fear him and the poor students torment him at every opportunity. The class swot is appropriately named Angst (Rolf Muller). When Rath notices that some of the boys possess racy postcards of scantily dressed women, it’s Angst who tells Rath that the women on the postcards are from The Blue Angel–a popular hangout for the boys after hours. Rath decides to go to The Blue Angel and catch the boys himself, and of course, this is a very intriguing decision since Rath imagines that his jurisdiction spans the boys’ lives outside of the classroom. But there again, given Rath’s own evident surreptitious sexual interest in the postcard which depicts Lola Lola, perhaps moral intervention is just the excuse he tells himself in order to visit the nightclub after dark.

Once in the nightclub, the professor, who’s there ostensibly to catch the pupils drinking and ogling the dancers, falls under the spell of the fabulous Lola Lola. The Blue Angel is definitely a low-rent club, and the women who sing and entertain the crowds are a motley crew–one young woman just stands there and rotates her eyes in her version of ocular bellydancing. Lola Lola is clearly the star of the show, and for each of her songs she dons a different outfit–all of them managing to display her underwear. One costume is a huge farthingale. Not only is the skirt see-through (so we can see her bloomers), but it’s also backless–as the Professor discovers to his astonishment once he’s inside her dressing room.

The initial scenes with the Professor at The Blue Angel are comic, and much of the humour comes from the Professor’s reactions to Lola Lola. He very quickly falls under her spell, and once he’s lost his social position, he is gradually ground down by humiliation and eventually destroyed by the very sexuality that drew him into Lola Lola’s life.

Thanks to the advent of talkies, the career of thick-German accented Emil Jannings was on the wane when he cabled von Sternberg to join him in Berlin in order to make a film–the first sound film at UFA studios. Director Josef von Sternberg was engaged by Paramount and UFA for this joint German-American co production, and Jannings, who’d fought with von Sternberg on the film set before, argued for the employment of this director for what would be his first German speaking film. Jannings stated that “he had the choice of every director, even Lubitsch,” but that “his heart” was “set on” von Sternberg. In reply, the director said that Jannings was “a horrible affliction and a hazard to any aesthetic purpose.” Then he accepted, so Jannings set out to find a project that von Sternberg would accept and direct. In Berlin, Jannings came to von Sternberg with Heinrich Mann’s novel, Professor Unrat, and this is what the director says in his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry:

I liked the idea of the first part of the novel, met Heinrich Mann and asked him if he had any objection to my changing the structure of his story, eliminating and adding whatever suited my purpose. I told him of my plan to call the film The Blue Angel, to change the name of the girl to Lola, and to alter the ending completely …. Mann had no objections; on the contrary, he told me that he wished he had thought of the suggested changes himself, and gave me full liberty to alter or add whatever I thought advisable.

Josef von Sternberg filmed two versions simultaneously–the English version and the German as the technique of film dubbing was not yet possible. Emil Jannings, who was paid  200,000,  stars as Professor Immanuel Rath, the strait-laced, sexually repressed bachelor professor. Marlene Dietrich was paid a mere 5,000 for her role.

With the leading man already in place, von Sternberg’s biggest task was to find the woman to take the role of Lola Lola, a cheap nightclub singer who is the object of the professor’s obsessive desire and the woman who ultimately leads the professor to his doom. Jannings wanted Lucie Mannheim or Trude Hesterberg for the role, but after seeing Dietrich perform in a play (he’d already passed over her photograph,) von Sternberg knew that he’d found his dark angel– “here was the face I had sought.” 

Moreover, there was something else I had not sought, something told me that my search was over. She leaned against the wings with a cold disdain for the buffoonery, in sharp contrast to the effervescence of the others, who had been informed that I was to be treated to a sample of the greatness of the German stage. She had heard that I was in the audience, but as she did not consider herself involved, she was indifferent to my presence.

Von Sternberg also noted Dietrich’s “impressive poise,” and also that she conducted herself with a remarkable “bovine listlessness” with eyes “completely veiled.” For von Sternberg, she was perfect.  Jannings and producer Pommer were not impressed, but von Sternberg pushed for a screen test, and she got the part. During the filming, von Sternberg and Dietrich began an affair.   

Take a look of Dietrich’s first rendition of Falling in Love Again, the song that bookends her relationship with the Professor and then compare it to the second which appears almost at the end of the film. In the first rendition, even though the song is sung with a certain amount of indifference, Lola Lola effectively woos the Professor, and in the second rendition, she rejects him with defiance, triumph and an acknowledgment of her nature. Lola Lola appears to have undergone a transformation between the two songs or is it Dietrich we see transformed?

While the film appears to have a simple structure, it’s full of repetition and doubling. The Professor’s world of order is in complete contrast to Lola’s world of make-believe and chaos. The Professor frequently engages with the clown (the clown was entirely von Sternberg’s invention), but the relationship with the Professor and the clown consists of them both staring at each other–as if they are trying to fit this alien being into some sort of frame of reference. Yet the way they stare at each other is also reminiscent of a person staring at a reflection in the mirror–and this is, of course, a foreshadowing of the Professor’s tragic fate.

It’s clear that The Blue Angel, light on dialogue is just one short step from the silent era, and perhaps this is why the English version is a curiosity. The English spoken is heavily accented, sometimes unintelligible, and clearly this is a German film–the word “achtung,” for example, appears from the pupils when they hear Professor Rath approaching. Kino released a splendid dual DVD release which includes both the English and the German versions and Dietrich’s screen test. Although the German version is superior, it’s still well worth watching both versions. During the Professor’s first visit to The Blue Angel, he spends time in Lola Lola’s dressing room, and as she leaves to go onstage to sing, she stands in the doorway of her dressing room, and somewhat coarsely readjusts her stockings, garter and underwear. This small, and yet deliciously telling detail is absent from the English-speaking version.  

The Blue Angel is an iconic, remarkable film. As the first talking picture made at UFA studios, it has its historic value of course, but it also is a product of the marvels and talent of Weimar Germany–soon to be washed away.  Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert, the magician, was forced by the Nazis to direct a propaganda film extolling the kindness of the Nazis to the Jews. After making the film, he and his wife were gassed in a concentration camp. Karl Huszar-Puffy who plays the innkeeper was trying to travel to Hollywood and, according to von Sternberg’s autobiography, he was removed from a ship and interned in a concentration camp in Kazakhstan by the Russians where he starved to death. Emil Jannings who played the Professor went on to star in a number of Nazi propaganda films, and he was named as Artist of the State by Joseph Goebbels in 1941. In contrast, Marlene Dietrich took a different path entirely. She opted for American citizenship and rejected Goebbels’ attempts to woo her back to Berlin with an offer of 50,000 pounds tax-free to return to Germany to make one film.

The Blue Angel is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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La Zona (2007)

“When my son grows up , how will I explain why we live behind a wall?”

Transport a Shirley Jackson story to modern-day Mexico and you have La Zona, a 2007 film from director Rodrigo Plá. The film opens in the beautiful clean streets of an affluent community as neatly dressed, uniformed school children march off to a private school. The camera pans through the immaculate streets and across the enormous homes and well-manicured lawns. A veritable paradise? And then the camera pans to huge walls topped with barbed wire and security cameras. Beyond the walls we see a vast sea of poverty and squalor–dilapidated, ramshackle homes and mountains of trash. These opening scenes of this  affluent, secured housing are powerfully constructed and yet at the same time, nothing is overdone.

Those living inside La Zona appear to share common concerns and similar values, and they have the money to buy the sort of lifestyle they want in order to raise their children and live securely. La Zona is protected–not just by walls, barbed wire and security cameras–but also by a team of security officers led by Gerardo (Carlos Bardem). La Zona, set in Mexico City, screams segregation with the lucky few on one side of the wall with the much less fortunate on the other, and with such a striking contrast in material comfort within just a few feet, of course, the inevitable happens, and one night during a freak storm, a billboard collapses and three young men climb into La Zona to steal….

The next day, Comandate Rigoberto (Mario Zaragoza) arrives at the gates of La Zona after complaints of gunshots. His questions are met with disdain and an offer of “50 pesos” to away. Enraged and humiliated, Rigoberto is determined to continue the investigation–even though he gets signals to let it drop. As events play out, the residents of La Zona are defiant and in blatant violation of legal and moral law. Meanwhile Rigoberto ploughs ahead with his investigation even though he butts heads with his ‘superiors.’ 

The rest of the film concerns what happened the night of the break-in, but also, and much more significantly how the residents react. Following the break-in, rumours explode and paranoia reigns, and the servants of La Zona families are subject to extra scrutiny. One scene shows an ad-hoc posse of teenage boys within the gated community hunting for a crook. Armed with golf clubs and even a harpoon gun, the boys swarm over the beautiful golf course and into a wooded gully. There’s so much space, and again off in the distance, outside of the walls, we see a hillside crowded with shacks–no space, nothing green–just squalor and poverty. Holding special emergency committee meetings in which the majority rule, the more aggressive members of La Zona dominate over those who are ambivalent or unwilling to take a moral stand. Ultimately, we see a series of moral mis-steps with either people too weak to stand up and voice their opinion, or people barreled over in a system so corrupt that everything can be bought for a price.

One of the main characters is teenager Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), the film’s moral centre, and in one scene, Alejandro’s father, Daniel (Daniel Giménez Cacho) explains to his son why he chose to live in La Zona and how he lost his faith in the Mexican justice system. Exactly why Alejandro choses to defy his father (and his values) and stand apart from his peers is unclear. In spite of this slight flaw, the film works very well indeed, and the final result is a film that asks some important questions about the right to security, the ability of the rich and powerful to command special dispensations, and once those dispensations are granted, just how far should they extend?

Director Matt Ehling made a short documentary film a few years ago about gated communities called Forbidden City, and one of the points the film makes is that gated communities are a sign of “increasing polarisation” between the rich and the poor. Mexico has the largest number of gated communities in the world, and some, like La Zona, are completely autonomous with their own electricity and water systems. Crime will always be one major argument for gated communities. With kidnappings on the rise in Mexico, at least one company offers sub-dermal transmitter implantation. Wealthy families are, of course, targets, and so it’s probably logical that the wealthy band together and pool resources in order to establish a safe environment. (I’ll add here that it’s not just the wealthy who are kidnapped–I read one case of a child of a shepherd who was killed by injected bleach when his parents failed to come up with the ransom).  The plethora of gated communities springing up worldwide is a symptom of a malfunctioning society, the ever-expanding gaps between the very rich and the very poor,  and the failure of state mechanisms which are, in theory, supposed to provide protection. In La Zona, we see a group of wealthy people attempting to establish a utopian community–a community which is occupied by people with similar social positions, values and wealth. Having established the community they desire, they operate it with a manual of by-laws, and when a showdown occurs, they feel justified in exacting punishment. It’s at this point that some residents reject La Zona (in their evaluation, it’s no longer a utopian community), and others return happily to the established status quo.

La Zona is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s Foreign Film Festival.

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Miss Bala (2011)

Once in a while I come across a film that’s a complete surprise, and that brings me to Miss Bala, a 2011 Mexican film from director Gerardo Naranjo–a film I rented on a whim and which proved to be one of the best crime films I’ve seen recently. This is the story of a 23 year-old girl, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) from Tijuana who wants to escape the poverty of her home town through a beauty contest to crown Miss Baja. The film shows Laura at home in a shack with her father, who sells clothes for a living and a small brother, Arturo. Laura’s father objects to her competing in the beauty contest and his objections arise from the “environment” she’ll be in. Laura, forges ahead in spite of his objections and together with her friend, Azucana, they apply and make the list of contestants. So far so good….

That night, the two girls visit the Millenium nightclub and so begins Laura’s incredible, unintended and fateful descent into the organised drug world. Becoming the pawn of the leader of La Estrella gang, and in particular the object owned by its reptilian leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez), Laura discovers that organised crime opens doors that were once slammed in her face. Trapped between Lino and DEA agents, morally compromised Laura has no escape and nowhere to turn in a country rife with corruption.

Stephanie Sigman as Laura does a fantastic job in this role. At one point, when she first signs up for the contest she’s told by its organiser not to smile so much. That comment wasn’t needed as that is the last time Laura smiles in the film. From this point on, she’s shuffled through various nefarious drug related activities that are so stunningly bold, that by the time the film ends she’s a terrified girl who’s afraid of making the slightest wrong move. What’s so interesting here is how Laura handles the brazen daytime gunfights, shootouts and executions. At one point, she’s handed a thick wad of bills by Lino and told to go buy herself a dress for the pageant. She ends up at a swanky shop where the snooty assistant condescendingly tells her that all the dresses are custom made and run around 1,000. Laura has the money, but instead of lording it over the woman (who’s asking to be brought down a peg or two), Laura, numbed by recent events,  insists she has the money and carries on with the task at hand as if the slight didn’t happen. In one great scene, during the pageant, she’s asked by the host if she wants money or fame–a telling and ironic question as it turns out, and one which she cannot answer. By the film’s spectacular and surprising conclusion, we ask ourselves just how much has been contrived from the very beginning, and Laura who started with just her looks–looks good enough she thought they would take her from the poverty of Tijuana, discovers, the hard way, just where looks take her.

Miss Bala, and Bala translates as “bullet,” by the way, is an inversion of two extremely popular American film themes: 1) the underdog film in which the outsider longs for an opportunity to prove himself/herself and then who beats the odds and rises to the top, and 2) the woman-in-danger who grabs a gun and suddenly becomes some type of super female. I’m thinking Angelina Jolie here, and is it any coincidence that the star of Miss Bala, Stephanie Sigman, looks like Jolie? While Jolie’s roles seem intent on uncovering her inner Assassin/Amazon–complete with skills that frequently defy logic, Miss Bala’s Laura is the opposite.  Director Gerardo Naranjo inverts the American dream–the outsider who makes it against the odds–and converts this into the Mexican nightmare. We don’t see Laura Guerrero discovering (a la Jolie) her inner assassin. Instead we see a terrified young girl who does just as she’s told as she become a wheel-woman, a mule, and an arms runner. This edge-of-your-seat thriller which terrorizes without gore shows that there’s no exit, no fantasy, no choices for someone like Laura–and her looks… well her looks just land her in trouble.

Miss Bala is an entry in Caroline’s and Richard’s foreign film festival

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Caravan (1946)

You’ll oblige me by keeping her ladyship out of that dirty mind of yours.”

Based on a novel by Eleanor Smith, Caravan, a costume drama from Gainsborough Pictures is set in the 19th century and features versatile Stewart Granger at his swashbuckling best. Granger plays Richard Darrell, a penniless author who hopes to make his fortune in order to marry his childhood sweetheart, Oriana Camperdene (Anne Crawford). Darrell, the son of an English country doctor and a Spanish mother has no fortune of his own, but he’s not without talent. His childhood was spent brawling with the gypsies, poaching on the land of the wealthy,  and picking up various survival skills. One of Darrell’s significant childhood relationships is with Oriana, but he has competition in the form of wealthy Francis Castleton. Francis is a sneaky underhand boy who grows up to be a cruel womanizer who will stop at nothing to possess Oriana. Flashback scenes from Darrell’s childhood establish his early rivalry with Francis over Oriana’s affections.

When the film begins, Darrell, eyeing a window full of succulent food, contemplates using his last coin to buy supper, but fate intervenes when Darrell comes to the aid of wealthy Spaniard, Don Carlos (Gerard Heinz) who is robbed. Darrell not only fights the two men who are attempting to rob Don Carlos, but he also returns him, wounded, to his home. Don Carlos, a dealer in precious jewels, is grateful to Darrell, and arranges to get his book A Way Through the Woods published. Then he employs Darrell to deliver a priceless necklace which once belonged to Queen Isabella back to Spain. Darrell takes the mission because it will help fund his writing career and enable his marriage to Oriana, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to leave her.

While Oriana and Darrell see their separation as the necessary precursor to their marriage, Francis (a dastardly Dennis Price), sees Darrell’s trip to Spain as an opportunity to rid himself of his rival. Darrell’s departure leaves Oriana unprotected as her father has recently died, and since he gambled away most of the estate, she is left with a 100 pounds a year on which she must live. Francis sees Oriana’s penury and isolation as the perfect setting to manipulate her into marriage, and with Darrell off to Spain, Francis plots the destruction of his rival using his evil sidekick, Wycroft (Robert Helpmann),  and he also leads Oriana into believing she is in his debt.

If this all sounds like great melodramatic romance and exotic adventure, well it is. We have the star-crossed lovers, Oriana and Darrell who become separated by circumstance–some planned and some caused by fate. The exotic sets are mostly just that–studio sets, so don’t expect much authenticity here. In fact, the film’s glaring weaknesses are apparent in the opening credits when we see the back of man with  a guitar who is supposedly serenading a woman up in a balcony. Apart from the fact that if he is singing, the song goes on for far too long, he never moves, so the opening creates a wooden artificiality while the opening was supposed to set the scene for romance. With Caravan, you have to accept the fake stuff to enjoy the fun of the story which is over-the-top at times. Caravan is basically a 1940s version of a bodice ripper, and there are plenty of allusions to what goes on behind bedroom doors including a libidinous husband who promises not to demand his rights and then immediately reneges on the deal. The marvellous Jean Kent plays Rosal, a hot-blooded gypsy girl who makes her living as a dancer, and this involves banging a huge tambourine and stamping the floor from time-to-time. The passionate, wild,  and jealous Rosal is in complete contrast to the very correct British Oriana. Both women love Darrell of course, and here he’s cast as an Errol Flynn type character with all of his physical abilities on bold display: boxing, horse riding and even whipping. The film’s best scenes include Francis and Oriana–although there’s another marvellous scene involving  a group of London prostitutes who meet Oriana.

Dennis Price is deliciously evil as the dastardly Sir Francis, and he has the best role and the most memorable lines in the film–some of which refer to Ariane’s sexual incompetence, suggesting at some points that she could learn a few things from prostitutes and that she needs to start delivering the goods. Due to its sometimes over-the-top moments, Caravan does have its camp factors, so just sit back and enjoy the show. The story is great fun–believable or not.

“You see my dear, I suffer from an exaggerated sense of property and having gone to the trouble of getting something, even though it may be rubbish, I have the awkward habit of hanging onto it.”

Directed by Arthur Crabtree

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Filed under British, Period Piece