Biutiful, Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

Uxbal, sporting a rather fetching sports jacket, not unlike the Gael García Bernal getup in Amores Perros

A tender moment between Uxbal and estranged wife Marambra, played by Maricel Álvarez

You’d be forgiven if The Pursuit of Happyness first springs to mind when you hear about Biutiful; single fathers struggling to provide a stable life for their children and misspelt film titles dressed up as phonetic clarifications for the younger characters of each film. That’s as far as the comparisons will hold, though. Alejandro González Iñárritu has penned, along with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, a film much more ambitious in scope.  On paper it’s a massive, overwrought plot with far too much going on.  Javier Bardem is Uxbal, the go-between who negotiates slave labour deals with unscrupulous Spanish employers for illegal immigrants. In spite of wholly abhorrent circumstances we suspend our disbelief to accept that Uxbal is essentially a decent guy, readily sympathising with his struggles, especially as the odds are stacked against him. With a bipolar estranged wife who is sleeping with his brother and a devastating diagnosis from the doctors, the jeopardy is fairly abundant. Oh, and Uxbal is also a medium who travels to wakes and is paid by the mourners to provide the dead with passage to the afterlife. Though not quite like Derek Acorah, much more brooding and Spanish.

There is a sense that Iñárritu – Mexican-born but with Basque heritage – is casting an eye back to Spain, exploring the implications of diaspora on identity.  The film is majorly preoccupied with fatherhood and an affectionate paternalism appears from time to time. When Uxbal describes his father to his children, a political exile of Franco’s dictatorship who died shortly after fleeing Spain for Mexico, his fate is seen to be due to an unwillingness to keep his mouth shut. Uxbal toes a line between pragmatic opportunism that involves exploiting those who are trafficked and an inherited sense of social justice.  State oppression has been replaced by the individual who is prepared to profit from human currency.  The corrupt police officer, the Chinese sweatshop owner, and Uxbal himself rationalise their behaviour with the excuse of putting food on the table for their own families.  The touches of magical realism that emerge throughout the film also signal a shared tradition with South America.  The intermingling of generations from beyond the grave of the final scene calls to mind the village of ghosts of Pedro Páramo, by celebrated Mexican writer Juan Rulfo (incidentally, an adaptation of which by Mateo Gil and to star Gael García Bernal, has been stuck in production limbo for the last three years due to a lack of funds).

Barcelona is an omni-present force; the gaping chasm between the city’s outward-looking face, painted for an international palate, and the dank quarters inhabited by its stowaways, is striking.  The rose-tinted, soft focus of Bardem’s outing with Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is worlds apart from the Barcelona of Biutiful.  The Ramblas and the Barceloneta beachfront, among the city’s trademark tourist attractions, designed to cater to the moneyed foreigner are hijacked, and become the stage where the downfall of the Chinese and African characters who dared to aspire for a better life is played out.

At the heart of Biutiful is the suggestion that contemporary injustices are murkier than the clarity of the ideological struggles against fascism of the 20th century.  And yet Uxbal’s moral compass is informed by that of previous generations.  Iñárritu’s zeal for stories with an international perspective has never been so effectively realised.  His idiosyncratic approach that was quirky in Amores Perros became fragmented and aimless in the Babel vignettes.  Although the focus is largely on Uxbal (garnering Javier Bardem a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actor), the complexities of the surrounding characters are subtle yet captivating. Broad brush strokes are nowhere to be seen; the Chinese sweatshop has his own personal conflict to consider, compromised by a tug-of-devotion between his family and his gay lover. It is through Uge, the Senegalese woman who becomes surrogate mother to Uxbal’s children, that we see the possibility of hope.  In a tender moment that hints at a shared future, she confirms that her son is named in honour of the erstwhile striker for Barcelona, Samuel Eto’o, when prompted by Uxbal’s youngest.

And if all that leaves you feeling rather heavy, with Heath Ledger’s Joker crowing “Why so serious?” in your ears, here’s a little light relief from Bardem, that’s over twenty years old, and provides a fortuitous segue from superhero fathers:

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Take the Money and Run, 1969

Two twists of fate colluded in Woody Allen’s accession to the movie-making holy trinity of writer/director/actor, thus joining the rarefied ranks of Charlie Chaplin, John Cassavetes, John Huston and Orson Welles. *Ahem* Ben Affleck was to come later.  At first eager to take the reins in the wake of Casino Royale’s opulence-sodden raving lunacy, a last minute crisis of confidence saw him look to Jerry Lewis to jump in as director only to be thwarted by clashing schedules. The first mockumentary with a wide release, Allen considered the dry, fact-based documentary format (narrated by 1940s radio star, Jackson Beck) ripe for parody. It’s a detachment that will be pivotal in developing the signature Woody Allen voice. As with What’s New Pussy Cat?, we begin with how innocence informs experience and the sticky-fingered miscreant Virgil Starkwell is the inevitable product of his environment. In spite of flirtations with a cellist career and enlisting in the army (invoking, as it happens, a rather creative interpretation of the Rorschach inkblots: “Two elephants making love to a men’s glee club”), Virgil’s unalterable lot is the  life of the incompetent petty criminal.

Virgil's parents, thin disguises of Allen's comedic inheritance

The pet shop robbery backfires

 

Virgil's early parole depends on voluntary medical tests with temporary Rabbi-fication side-effects

On hearing the first appeal from the interior Allen voice to viewer, it’s difficult not to feel party to a privileged sharing of confidences. After meeting the woman who he will marry he quietly confesses:

“I know I was in love, first of all I was very nauseous. I never met such a pretty girl.  I guess I’m sensitive; real beauty makes me gag.”

Of course Allen’s aim is always locked squarely on getting the laughs out, yet the subtlety of method is evolving. The leaner and more substantial later outings will thread sentiment and zinger side by side, and see the greater returns for it. For the moment, toe dipped, Allen is content to sit back and let the quips do the work:

“The only girl I’d ever known was a girl in my neighbourhood who was not an attractive girl.  I used to make obscene phone calls to her collect, and she used to accept the charges all the time.”

Despite the avowal that “the object of the movie was for every inch of it to be a laugh”1, he doesn’t quite pull it off. The second half loses steam as the slapstick starts to wear a little thin. A notable mention goes to James Anderson’s chilling turn as the chain gang leader, reawakening the sinister Bob Ewell of To Kill A Mocking Bird from the other side of the decade. Additional trivia: the closing sequence features Louise Lasser, Allen’s wife of the time. A coincidence Virgil’s wife is named Louise? Most likely another layer to the muddling of man and movie.

 

1 Schickel, Richard (2003). Woody Allen:a life in filmIvan R. Dee. p. 92.

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Casino Royale, 1967

The 60s must’ve been exhausting. Or maybe it’s just watching the 60s filmed in the 60s that’s so wearisome.  Three instalments in on my Woody reappraisal, and I’ve learned that in this decade, everything hangs on the acquisition of a mess of girls. The second thing I’ve learned is there was a serious preoccupation with Ursula Andress; man, woman or beast. A cameo appearance in What’s New Pussycat?, drawn by Peter O’Toole’s magnetism through the roof of his convertible, is followed by a reference by the Talking Head Woody Allen to “that Bond girl” in What’s Up, Tiger Lily? I also learned why she was on the brain of every beating heart, (and how she even was to pursue Mike Myers’ thoughts, decades later):

 

Casino Royale is bombastic and intensely colourful in every respect. Yet anarchy bridges into chaos all too often and the inconsistencies detract from moments where the laughs and visual indulgences are laid on thick.  It comes as no surprise that the film’s production was beleaguered with jealousy between Orson Welles and Peter Sellers that saw Sellers leave the set before shooting had ended.  At its best it is clever and camp: Woody Allen as Bond’s wastrel nephew Jimmy emerges as the villain who, with the aid of biological warfare, would annihilate all men over 4 feet 6 inches tall leaving him free to enchant women with his comparative great height. His evil plan, however, is foiled when he is tricked into taking one of his own pills and hiccups until he explodes.

Even Woody gets in on the action

Something about this slapstick parody certainly caught the attention of the Hollywood glitterati: a string of directors that included John Huston; uncredited writers that number Joseph Heller, Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht, Terry Southern, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen among them; and a sterling cast including David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Peter Sellers, William Holden, George Raft, Charles Boyer and Jacqueline Bisset. Even Anjelica Huston got her acting chops posing as Kerr’s hands. And I almost forgot about the Orson Welles taking a turn as a Le Chiffre dripping with blondes!

 

A film that can do this to Deborah Kerr:

deserves to be feared if nothing else.

 

 

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What’s Up, Tiger Lily? 1966, Dir. Woody Allen

With only one other picture under his belt, the title could be called derivative.  Recycling Japanese spy movie “International Secret Police: Key of Keys” for his directorial debut? Doesn’t seem like the most auspicious of beginnings. Yet, Allen is playful with the audience’s expectations and rewrites the plot so that the lead character – secret agent Phil Moskovitz, “loveable rogue” – is charged with the mission of retrieving from enemy hands the holiest of holy recipe grails: egg salad. Adding to the self-referential vein in this exercise in post modernism, the film is framed by a documentary-styled interview to introduce the premise of the spy movie pastiche.

The interviewer: “Woody, since the story is a bit difficult to follow, would you mind giving the audience and myself a brief rundown on what’s gone on so far?”

Woody: [casually] No.

As with What’s New Pussycat, the plot is seen as simply an excuse to engage in a bit of a verbal romp that would make Groucho proud:

Teri Yaki: [talking about Shepherd Wong] I’d call him a sadistic, hippophilic necrophile, but that would be beating a dead horse.

Sophisticated character development is hardly within this film’s remit, yet Phil Moskowitz shows sparks of a magnetic charm that’ll entice me to return to it in the future when my hand wanders near its perch on the dvd shelf.

Phil Moskovitz: Meet me in the bedroom in five minutes. Bring a cattle prod.

Suki Yaki: I’m such a great piece!

Teri Yaki: I wish Phil would get here. It’s getting awfully late.

Suki Yaki: [Running to answer a knock at the door] It’s Phil, bringing the promise of joy and fulfillment in its most primitive form!

Teri Yaki: I hope he brought the vibrator.

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What’s New Pussy Cat? 1965, Dir. Clive Donner

To these weary 2011 eyes, it comes as a surprise to learn it was this film that launched the song. More pertinent to the task at hand however, it is the first major screenplay penned by Woody Allen.  Hijinks are the order of the day in this aimless run-about where plot is always intentionally secondary to maximum wise-cracking. Woody Allen’s cap is permanently doffed to Groucho Marx; in fact he he was first in line for the Dr Fritz Fassbender role that eventually went to Peter Sellers.  It doesn’t take much to imagine his delivery of the superbly sophisticated exchanges between Dr. Fritz Fassbender and his wife. Anyone involved in a loveless marriage would do well to take heed:

Dr. Fritz: “Silence when you’re shouting at me!”

Dr. Fritz: “You’re grotesque!”
Anna Fassbender: “Lascivious adulterer!”
Dr. Fritz: “Don’t you dare call me that again until I have looked it up!”

Dr. Fritz: “You’re a bull in an ox’s body!”

Dr. Fritz: “I hate you and I hate you, in that order!”

In production Warren Beatty was to be replaced by Peter O’Toole as the lead, huffing as his role was diminished in favour of Allen’s character.  O’Toole womanizes within an inch of his life in a rare turnout as a Don Draper with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Doesn’t he look like he’s having fun though:

The razor sharp wit and paralysing self-doubt of Allen’s character is instantly recognisable for those familiar with his more established films. Victor is the antithesis to O’Toole’s Michael; effortlessly successful, he constantly fires on all cylinders and picks up the star of the strip club where Victor works.  A fastidious costume designer, he’s found perhaps the single arena where his work would be least appreciated.

Victor, seated outside the Lost Generation's favourite haunt, the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse. Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec can be spotted quaffing pernod at the next table.

The film culminates in a chase scene where sex-starved maniac is in hot pursuit of sex-starved maniac… who is in turn hoofing it after yet another sex-starved maniac. Scrappy, yet wildly riotous, it wouldn’t feel out of place in a Buster Keaton picture. Looking ahead, Allen’s prodding of psychoanalysis, an aversion to commitment and inferiority complex for a laugh, will of course be resurrected. Only the underdog will have a little more meat on the bone.

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Retro-in-specting Woody Allen

The inaugural whistlecrow outing concerns itself with ruminations on a theme, Woody Allen: the man, the myth and the movies.  Allen is nestled in the indie cinema-goer’s heart by virtue of a signature touch most successfully executed in Manhattan, Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. In honour of his new release this March (You Will Meet A Dark Stranger), I’ll be casting an eye over a career that has exceeded fifty years to see what can be gleaned from the overlooked as well as the obsessed over.  How does the fledgeling Woody Allen stand up to his later pieces? And what of the merits of his more recent releases? The one time voice of a generation, Allen managed to explain the absurdities of sexual relationships with a touch that was at once droll and delicate.  The hostile reception for later films has seen Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian make the case for treating each Allen film in isolation on its individual merits, with every attempt to disassociate it from the weight of expectation that is generated by brand Woody.   A worthy suggestion, and yet, I suspect, a hopeless one.  My trek through the dusty Allen archives will hopefully demonstrate the rewards for the viewer who considers the corpus as a whole. Of course, what will actually  be unearthed is anyone’s guess.

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