Friday, April 3, 2015

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)

WILD TALES (Relatos salvajes)                   B                    
Argentina  Spain  (122 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Damián Szifrón          brazil official movie website

Not all that it’s cracked up to be, though this starts out in the most wildly inventive fashion that it probably has the viewer’s head spinning with crazy delight.  Written and co-edited by the director, this is a highly entertaining collection of six separate stories, each with a different set of actors, all stand-alone dark Spanish comedies dealing with strangely absurd stories of vengeance and revenge, where troubled souls who have been wrongly mistreated strike back in extreme fashion at what they feel has been a glaring social injustice.  The film was one of the five finalists in the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards, a rarity for a comedy, ultimately won by Pawel Pawlikowski’s more hauntingly bleak 2014 Top Ten List #2 Ida (2013) from Poland.  Premiering in competition at Cannes, the film reportedly received a ten-minute standing ovation, breaking the mold of what more typically qualifies as the more serious minded films that dominate the festival, often forcing the viewer into some degree of discomfort.  It’s rare for comedies to make the cut, adding a breath of fresh air to the slower, more somber programs.  Starting out with a bang, the two best (and shortest) films come first, which unfortunately sets too high a standard for the rest of the stories to match, as both are outrageously funny, among the funniest moments viewers will spend in a theater all year, and while the rest are clever and amusing, it just doesn’t reach the same level of laugh out loud hilarious.  While the director is primarily known as a television writer and director in Argentina, this series of tales caught the eye of Pedro Almodóvar, who signed on as one of the executive producers.  The first story called Pasternak reflects his imprint, finding audacious airplane humor while flying through the skies, much like I'm So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros) (2013), but far different circumstances.  It’s something of a slow tease, where what feels like an inside joke involving a single person named Pasternak suddenly spreads like wildfire, going viral, so to speak, in its final implications.  This has the feel of a perfect wish fulfillment dream, where everything turns out exactly as one hopes, catching everyone off guard, motivated by a deep-seeded anger that has been a long time developing, punctuated by a near perfect final shot, the kind of rare cinematic moment that always puts a smile on people’s faces.        

What follows is a needed change of pace, taking place in a small empty diner off the highway where only a naively delicate waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) and her gruff, more battle-hardened cook, Rita Cortese, a large-framed woman whose deadpan expression resembles something out of a bleak, Black & White Eastern European film of dour unpleasantness, stare out at the empty tables, seemingly without a thought in the world.  When a single customer comes in, looking like a professional businessman, the waitress goes into a fright, realizing he’s the man responsible for ruining her family, driving them from their home, where she’s remained in hiding ever since.  Showing jittery nerves when she takes his order, he seems oblivious to her identity and just wants to eat.  Breaking down into panicked fear in the kitchen, the cook calmly suggests they use rat poison in his food.  While she’s aghast at the very idea, thinking they could go to jail, the cook reminds her that jail isn’t so bad, as they provide shelter and free meals.  Despite the reservations expressed by the waitress, who continues to fumble and perform awkwardly with the customer, the cook goes ahead anyway, where they both stare out in utter amazement as the man is joined by his son, both eating from the same plate.  Looking for any excuse, the waitress boldly interrupts and insists on removing the food from the table, only to be attacked by the exasperated man who just wanted to eat and be left alone.  This sign of agitation on his part is apparently more than the cook can stand, taking matters into her own hands, where she can be seen afterwards being taken into police custody in a bizarre turn into comic absurdity.        

The next is an episode of road rage out in the middle of a desolate landscape that only escalates from the bizarre and truly strange into the darker elements of the surreal, featuring one wealthy man Diego (Leonardo Sbaraglia) in a hurry riding in the comfort of a luxury car who decides to pass Mario (Walter Donado) riding in a slower jalopy carrying a load of junk in the back who is swerving back and forth, preventing him from passing.  When he finally passes, Diego gives him the finger and a few insulting remarks before heading up the road, seemingly resolving the matter.  But some time later, he gets a flat tire, leaving him exposed and vulnerable for the utter mayhem that follows when Mario catches up to him.  While much of this is ridiculously funny, escalating so out of proportion that it defies comprehension, reaching an altered state of belligerence and ferociousness with each other, each time compounding matters and making it a million times worse, where it just gets goofy after awhile.  A slight verbal insult along with poor car etiquette soon becomes a life and death issue, transforming to an all-out assault, risking life and limb to make a point that only gets lost in a matter of minutes.  The vehemence of the anger, which goes off-the-charts ballistics, resembles an exaggerated Hollywood movie spectacle where everything is blown up to such wild excess that it actually becomes tiresome after awhile.  Despite the male adolescent view of each having to top the other, the segment remains clever enough to maintain the humor throughout, even as it escalates to horror, where both cynically get what’s coming to them in the end.

The familiar face of actor Ricardo Darín is Simón Fisher, a demolitions expert, seen professionally leveling a large building at the outset to the delight of a gathering crowd and local television cameras.  Well-liked and appreciated by his co-workers, this is a man of some repute, heard talking to his wife on his cellphone where his ego is quickly brought down to size by a reminder that he needs to pick up a birthday cake for his young daughter.  While all is pleasant inside the bakery, he receives a rude awakening to discover his car has been towed from the spot where he parked nearby. After waiting in line in the offices of the towing company, he refuses to pay the fee and demands an apology, proudly standing up to the indifference of this incompetent bureaucrat.  The clerk behind the bullet-proof glass reiterates the company policy that payment is needed before the car can be released, so either pay or step aside.  While he continues his senseless argument, as the person behind the glass is only a lowly clerk, not a policymaker, the people waiting in line behind him quickly turn on him in wrathful indignation, like who does he think he is?  Finally realizing he has no other recourse but to pay, his reward is to get stuck in standstill, rush hour city traffic arriving home with the cake just as the guests are leaving, his wife fuming at him in anger.  He repeats his same argument with the City Clerk, refusing to pay the parking ticket, demanding the towing fee reimbursement and an apology.  These clerks work behind protected glass partitions for a reason, as these irate customers couldn’t be more unhappy about having their cars towed, where Simón grows so frustrated at the dumfounding level of indifference that he literally assaults the glass, trying to get at the clerk, seen hauled away by security guards to the cheers of the onlookers.  His angry face is plastered on the front pages of the newspapers, a local resident going berserk, causing him to lose not only his job, but his wife leaves him as well, seeking a divorce with full custody of their daughter that he is no longer allowed to see.  When applying for another job, his efforts are in vain as the person he needs to see is supposedly not there, still out to lunch at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but his car has again been towed.  When seen again, instead of the red-faced anger we’re used to, he has a calm expression on his face as he sits having coffee in a corner café, where the glass windows give him a front row seat to watch his car towed away yet again, which this time he relishes in delight, as he’s packed the trunk with explosives and detonates the bomb once it’s parked in the towing lot.  Because of his professional expertise, no one was injured, but he’s hauled off to jail where he is worshipped as a local hero, called “Dynamite” by his fellow inmates as his wife and daughter happily visit him in jail, both beaming with joy, bringing him a cake with a tiny tow truck on it. 

The fifth episode is the least successful, where viewers may find themselves drifting off from lack of interest, as it deals with the foibles of the super rich.  When a spoiled, teenage son from a wealthy family hits and kills a pregnant woman with his father’s car, he leaves the scene without stopping and returns home weeping and wailing about how “his” life is ruined, never giving a second thought to the person(s) he killed.  The family patriarch, Oscar Martinez (Mauricio Pereyra Hamilton), immediately hatches up a plan to blame their family caretaker in exchange for a large sum of money, where any subsequent jail time would be well compensated.  While the accident is all over the news reports, with the unborn baby dying as well, the media graphically exploits the gruesome details of the crime, making this the focus of the public’s attention.  But instead of anyone being hauled off to jail, everyone’s more interested in their cut, where the caretaker demands an apartment as well as the cash, the family lawyer pays off the prosecutor, who in turn demands more money to pay off the cops and all interested parties, where the entire criminal justice system is awash in bribes, each stepping over the other to get more, all taking advantage of the unfortunate incident that could easily disappear from public view.  Of course, no viewing audience would stand for a family this morally defective to actually get away with the crime, so when the caretaker finally gets the agreed upon price and steps out into a waiting police car to take the rap for the teenage son, unforeseen circumstances dictate a slight twist in the events, where the husband of the deceased suddenly leaps out from behind the crowd and attacks the unsuspecting caretaker with a hammer.         
The final episode is a fitting end to this manic walk through the dark side, taking place at a festive wedding party that looks like it would cost a bundle, where the young bride, Érica Rivas as Romina, couldn’t be happier with the groom, Ariel (Diego Gentile), as both families reveal precious secrets about their little darlings who both seem to be enjoying their special day.  All is going well until Romina spots Ariel getting a little too close to one of the invited female guests, supposedly one of his coworkers, where she cleverly calls one of the favorite numbers from his cellphone, which happens to be her, exposing a secret affair on the day of their wedding.  From that point on, all bets are off, as she humiliates him in front of everybody at the obligatory next dance, turning into a runaway bride, eventually heading for the roof.  While perched near the edge, one of the hotel kitchen workers taking a smoke break puts it all in perspective, becoming amazingly sympathetic, so by the time Ariel makes it to the roof, she and the hotel worker are furiously having sex, threatening to have sex with every man she meets that shows any hint of interest, taking him to the cleaners if he tries to divorce her, returning to the party triumphantly with a refreshed glass of champagne.  Targeting the woman her husband had an affair with, she pulls her out onto the dance floor, supposedly making nice, but she twirls her with such force that the girl is slammed into a glass mirror, both ending up covered with blood.  In this disheveled state, she continues her tirade against her husband, making sure all the activities continue as planned, becoming adamant that the photographer get pictures of Ariel weeping uncontrollably in his mother’s arms, calling him a cowardly “Mama’s boy” who doesn’t have the balls to stand on his own two feet, at which point the respective fathers have to stop the mother from attacking her in a furious rage.  While seemingly enjoying wreaking havoc on her wedding day, Romina gets an unexpected surprise, as Ariel finally gets ahold of himself, grabs the knife to the gasps of the dumfounded guests, all thinking the worst, but he cuts himself a piece of the wedding cake, slurps down some accompanying champagne, and then invites his new bride to dance.  After a slight hesitation, their dance leads to an impassioned embrace where the two grow inseparable, leading to a public exhibition of having sex on the table, knocking the cake to the floor, as the astonished guests stream out in droves.    

While there is a demonstration of cinematic flair throughout, there’s no real depth underneath it all, nothing that will make this an essential work in the coming future, but it is thoroughly entertaining to watch, making it an odd selection that exists in a kind of Buñuelian universe of its own.  A film of closely kept personal secrets and feelings that become damaged, infuriated, and somehow unleashed with an astronomical force, rivaling the volcanic fury of nature, where lurking deep inside the human condition is a  colossal force crying out to be heard, that is ignored at one’s own peril.  There are other films that are as wildly inventive, some that express more complexity and insight, like the dark absurdity of Jens Lien’s THE BOTHERSOME MAN (2006), but also the originality of Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret’s Jellyfish (Meduzot) (2007), Eran Kolirin’s The Band's Visit (Bikur Hatizmoreth) (2007), and more recently François Ozon’s In the House (Dans La Maison) (2012) and Miguel Gomes’ 2013 Top Ten List #4 Tabu (2012).  These are all brilliantly written, startlingly original works shot in a similar vein that demand to be seen.  Other attempts that have generated mixed opinions all over the map, some superlative, but others less than enthusiastic might be Matteo Garrone’s Reality (2012), Mika Kaurismäki’s Road North (Tie pohjoiseen) (2012), Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman (2013), Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners (2014), and even to some degree the heavily acclaimed and somewhat mystifying film by German director Ramon Zürcher, The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen) (2014).  WILD TALES fits in this latter category, where there are bursts of creative spontaneity, but also fairly conventional moments, where audiences will assuredly identify with some sections more strongly than others.  It’s hard, for instance, to see how this film was chosen over Ruben Östlund’s breathtaking Force Majeure (Turist), or Xavier Dolan’s superb Mommy (2014), which didn’t even make the earlier round of nine films by the Academy selection committee.  All in all, handing out awards and evaluating films can be a very dicey affair because art is so subjective.  It’s unfortunate that the world of professional film criticism has largely been replaced by rabidly interested amateurs (such as myself) writing on the subject, where Tweets have become the stand-in for an actual film review, especially immediately after festival screenings, as most of the professional critics have been squeezed out from various newspapers for economic reasons, and the best writers with the most knowledge and experience have become a select few that are harder and harder to access, where even Manohla Dargis and A.A. Scott of The New York Times are hidden behind an online paywall, where one is only allowed ten views per month for free.  Similar obstacles exist for other newspapers and various periodicals, creating a kind of academic caste system where the best writers that display a unique capacity for wisdom and insight are reserved only for the elite class.  So we make do with what we have, where the Internet brings us closer together, but it still remains an open question whether it makes us any smarter. 

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