Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 04, 2022 8:43 pm 
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A chilly and polished look at movie pretension

This is a chilly, self-conscious kind of humor; its intellectualism seems European in an old fashioned way. It's elegant, polished, dryly witty, but disappointing for pandemic stay-at-homes who want something richer in the way of film fantasy. It's about the rivalry and egotism of actors - and directors - of films, and it plays around a bit with plot lines and surprises. A.O. Scott in his Times review calls it "a one-joke movie" and a "shaggy dog meta-narrative" but "not a bad joke." No, it's not a bad joke. But it's over long and under entertaining. Roger Moore of Movie Nation says "it feels like an 80 minute spoof bundled in the gauze of a 115 minute film."

I saw the two directors' The Man Next Door in the New Directors/New Films series in 2010, and liked it. Their current effort aspires to more glamour, and that's part of the problem, because it makes one expect more excitement, more brilliance. They have managed to engage perhaps the two most internationally famous Spanish-language screen actors today, Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, who of course have done many wonderful things with Pedro Almodóvar. What are they doing away from Almodóvar, who got Banderas the Best Actor award at Cannes a few years ago, and in whose latest film, Parallel Mothers, Cruz starred? Neither Banderas nor Cruz needs to prove anything. It almost feels like playing hooky. I innocently assumed this was Cruz's directorial debut. Perhaps this is a nod to the cinematic talent of Latin America, of which there is plenty, and which is little known away from international film festivals (like New Directors/New Films).

Cruz is cast as Lola Cuevas, one of the world's "great" directors, also pretty crazy, as indicated by the wild mountain of curly red hair that's differently arranged on her head in each successive scene. But first there's a rich Spanish guy, Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), who's turned 80 and, realizing he's never done anything to make people remember him (some rich men might think that dead lucky), decides to leave a mark by financing a "great" film. He pays a bundle to buy a famous novel, and then persuades Lola Cuevas to direct a film version of it. She agrees but warns her version will be wildly free. What does Sr. Suárez care? He hasn't even read the book.

Cohn and Duprat get around the messiness of making a movie about making a movie by focusing on nothing but rehearsals of the two men engaged to play the lead roles of two brothers whom a fatal accident and an accusation makes into enemies. They are Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Ivan Torres (Oscar Martínez). Martínez is Argentinian, like the writer-directors, and there's a passing joke, that he's lived in Spain for twenty years but Felix is still bothered by his Argentinian accent. They're more at odds than that: they illustrate diametrically opposed acting styles. The stuck-up, pretentious Ivan is a teacher and theorist into elaborate "method" acting, requiring deep delving into the background of his character. The more internationally famous Felix, a popular Hollywood star and master of seduction, just believes in saying his lines and trusting his enthusiastic audience will be more than satisfied with the result.

Ivan is infuriated by Felix's imagined laziness, and implicitly by his fame. Felix is maddened by Ivan's snobbism and implicit denial of his, Felix's, accomplishments and talent. It's not going to end well. Meanwhile Lola is playing with them: she begins by making Ivan say the first words of the (in her text elaborately scrapbooked) screenplay, which is just "Buenas noches," a dozen times before she's satisfied, and then makes Felix render a small speech as a 3.5-degree drunken person pretending to be sober. Of course this is treating both actors condescendingly and exhibits Lola's own monstrous ego.

Later, both Felix and Ivan use their acting skills to play dramatic real-time tricks on each other, and on Lola. By the second time, if not before, any dolt has guessed what is going on. There are numerous other jokes and devices used to ramp up the excitement of the rehearsal-reading, most memorably one involving some of both actor s' most treasured trophies from awards they have received, in Felix's case, ones - like Banderas' - including that Cannes award. We are supposed to gasp in shock or ho-ho-ho, one supposes, but the incident is symbolic of the power of ego in the acting life and the need to control it.

All this is played out not on a sound stage or in a film studio but in a foundation's palatial minimalist modern buildings, which A.O. Scott thinks reflects a shoot during the height of pandemic shutdowns since it creates large spaces between people. It is also elegant and beautiful (and reflects the filmmakers' interest in striking modern architecture) but also contributes mightily to the chilliness of the whole film. Everything here seems artificial, unreal, jokey, conceptual.

Strangely, there's a big champagne reception at this place to celebrate nothing more than the end of the drawn-out rehearsals - more drawn out because they are further exercises in ego since the three principals alternate in making the others wait before they show up for them. And then come several surprises. Whether one believes in them, whether one cares, is another question.

These actors can make all this work if anybody can; they're great. But it's still an artificial exercise.

Official Competition/Competencia oficial, 115 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 4, 2021, playing at Toronto, Donostia-San Sebastián, Zurich, Vancouver, Tallinn Black Nights, Taipei, and numerous other distinguished international festivals, including Tribeca Jun. 12, 2022 and opening by IFC in US theaters Jun. 17, 2022. Screened for this review at the Landmark Albany Twin, where it opened July 1, 2022. Metacritic rating: 76%.


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