FANTASIA 2001: MORIARTY Digs EL CELO, THE OTHERS, and HEART OF THE WARRIOR!!
Published at: Aug. 14, 2001, 3:44 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
It’s been a very strange week at the Labs. I’m in that particular Hollywood limbo known as “waiting for an answer” right now. Not just about one thing, either, but about three or four separate things, leaving me tense and nervous pretty much 24 hours a day. It’s my least favorite part of things. I’m a big fan of doing the work, or talking about the work, or selling the work, or not selling the work, as long as things are moving forward. It’s sitting in neutral that drives me freakin’ batty.
Thankfully, there’s still that stack of screeners I’m working my way through, all graciously provided by Pierre Corbeil and the rest of the great staff of the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, and this weekend, I decided to watch two films by Spanish directors. Well, three if you count Alejandro Amenabar’s THE OTHERS, which I went to see Friday night. I had a great time with the movie, even if I wasn’t fond of the crowd. You can tell someone’s bored when you’re sitting in a theater and they decide to spend the last ten minutes of a film burping loudly. You can tell someone else is equally interested in the film when they loudly proclaim, “If you do that again, I swear to God I’ll fucking kill you.” From the microcosm of this fascinating ideological standoff, you get a portrait of filmgoing in the San Fernando valley.
THE OTHERS isn’t a film made for audiences ruined by CGI and MTV editing. It’s a classically styled ghost story, European in feel, that relies primarily on mood and performance to keep things on a slow simmer that only explodes in the final reel. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, the mistress of a house on the Jersey shore in the days just following WWI. Her husband vanished at the end of the war and hasn’t been heard from since. She’s been holding her house together, raising two children by herself, and as the film opens, she’s looking to replace a domestic staff that simply disappeared. From the very first scene, Amenabar shrounds the whole world in fog and shadows, and he sculpts the film as much as he shoots it. His director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe, works with him to make the most out of every inch of the frame, creating a feeling of dread that is pervasive and convincing at every turn.
Alakina Mann and James Bentley as Anne and Nicholas, Grace’s children, both do distinguished work. There’s a wonderful sort of battle of the wills that Mann plays out with Kidman over the course of the film that feels real. Mothers and daughters are capable of spectacular conflict, world class explosions that have been the fodder of a thousand made-for-Lifetime movies. Here, it’s used to disguise exactly what it is that’s being argued about.
I’ve heard many people talk about the film’s “twist” ending, which I won’t even hint at here, but I don’t think it’s really a twist. I think the film announces its intentions from the very first frame if you’re paying attention. Amenabar isn’t trying to fool anyone. Instead, this is a film about a journey towards an understanding of something, and he allows you to follow along with Grace. I think the film is well worth seeing, especially in a theater with exceptional sound where all of Amenabar’s careful work will pay off to maximum effect. Although I don’t think the film is a classic in the sense that it is a milestone of the genre or a shattering revelation, I do think it’s one of the summer’s few intelligent high points, and it rewards a serious viewer with very specific and special delights.
It was definitely a Latin weekend at Casa De Moriarty. After seeing THE OTHERS, I wanted to watch a film called EL CELO with my girlfriend. She’s from Argentina, and I thought EL CELO was going to be in Spanish. It was, after all, made in Spain by a Spanish director named Antonio Aloy. I thought this adaptation of Henry James’ TURN OF THE SCREW would be a nice compliment to THE OTHERS, but in her language. Turns out, the entire thing was shot English language. We were both fascinated by the movie anyway, though, and there are any number of images and moments from EL CELO that have stuck with me in the day since I saw it.
Sadie Frost plays a young woman who is hired to be the Governess for two children who are being raised by their Uncle (Harvey Keitel in a cameo at the beginning). He travels and is never home to see them, so he wants someone who can dedicate herself to the children completely. Frost has just buried her father, an abusive monster, and wants to get as far away from her past as possible. To her, it sounds like the ideal job. She is welcomed to her new position on a remote island by Madame Remei (the indestructible Lauren Bacall), and at first she has trouble breaking through to Flora (Ella Jones), the young girl she is charged with looking after. She gradually wins the girl over, though, and in some ways, it’s because she’s no more than a girl herself emotionally. There’s a kinship between the two of them, a childlike friendship, a peer situation that evolves. They tell each other secrets, sleep in the same room. Frost thinks she’s really breaking through with the girl until Miles (Nilo Mur) comes home from school, fresh from expulsion.
Miles is a few years older than Flora, but still very much a boy. He behaves much older, though, and there’s both cruelty and coarseness in his manner, hidden under a thin verneer of oily charm. He’s a lout in the way he makes advances on his governess, oblivious to how young he is and how inappropriate his behavior is. At first, Frost just shakes it off as boyish behavior. Gradually, though, she comes to believe that something more sinister may be afoot, something that has to do with a groundskeeper and the former governess, something evil and corrupt, something that will not die.
EL CELO is very effective, and it boldly uses sunlight for much of its running time, managing to make daytime just as terrifying as night. There’s a scene where Miles challenges his Governess about her fear of the dark, blindfolding her to prove a point. It’s a disturbing mix of erotic intimacy and potential violence, and that’s actually a good description for most of the film’s running time. This was released in Spain in 1999, but is just now getting limited exposure in North America. I think I’m going to go see THE INNOCENTS at the American Cinemateque on Thursday night just to finish out with my “creepy kids in spooky houses” trio for the week.
To round out my weekend dose of Spanish films, I tossed in Daniel Monzon’s EL CORAZON DEL GUERRERO, making it three for three in the “pleasant discovery” category. HEART OF THE WARRIOR, as the program for the Fantasia Festival listed it, is a hard film to describe. It defies easy classification by genre, and that’s part of the film’s appeal. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, some insane plot twist suddenly turns it into something completely different. Of the three films mentioned here, HEART OF THE WARRIOR is easily my favorite, and I have no idea how the majority of you are going to get a look at it.
The film starts in a dungeon. Beldar and Sonia (Joel Joan and Neus Asensi) move through, a Spanish Conan and Valeria in leather and fur, both weilding swords with deadly accuracy. They break into the Tomb of 1,000 Eyes, where they steal a jewel called The Warrior’s Heart, a giant glowing jewel that comes complete with a curse. Beldar and Sonia have to fight their way out of the Tomb, and midway through their attempts to do so...
... Beldar wakes up. He’s still a huge barbarian in furs, but he’s in a teenager’s bedroom, and his mother is waking him up for school. She drags him out of bed and into the bathroom, where she dunks his face in the sink to try and snap him into some semblance of consciousness. It’s only gradually that Beldar sees a new face in the mirror, a gawky teenaged kid named Ramon (Fernando Ramallo). It’s a really well-staged opening, and as Ramon moved through his day and hooked up with his D&D buddies for a nighttime game atop the roofs of the various hotels in the city, I thought it was going to be a film about the escape of role-playing. This is the only time I’ve ever seen someone get the exact mood of those nights of role-playing at the age of 14 exactly right. I haven’t done much of it since then, but I remember why it was so appealing at that particular time and place, and this film brought that back in one big nostalgic rush.
But that’s not the film, either. Eventually, it takes a major left turn and becomes something akin to THE PARALLAX VIEW or THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, an audacious move that really pays off. Ramon becomes convinced that he really is Beldar, that he’s caught in the body of a kid in a parallel dimension as part of his curse, and that his Sonia lives in both dimensions. He finds her spitting image alive and well and working the streets as a whore coincidentally named Sonia. Neus Asensi does very good work here in her dual role, and she reminds me of Nancy Allen’s work in BLOW OUT in some regards. Fernando Ramallo also does exemplary work, and he looks like a Spanish Topher Grace, all angles and elbows.
This is a debut film for writer/director Monzon, and I’d love to see more work from him. He handles difficult tonal shifts like an old pro, making the film both funny and exciting and moving and sad, nimbly skipping from moment to moment. I found myself rooting for the film to pay off with something truly worthwhile, and it does. It’s solid all the way through to the end, and I hope there’s an opportunity for American audiences to get a look at the film in some form soon. I think there’s a huge audience out there for this original blend of thriller/character drama/fantasy adventure, and not sharing this with them would be a crime.
I think I’m going to try to sit down for a double feature of BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE and VISITOR Q in the next few days. I’m growing quite fond of the current batch of Korean filmmakers, and those two back to back sound like fun to me. I’ll be back with another Fantasia report at that point, but until then...