The propaganda game (Álvaro Longoria, 2015)

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The propaganda game, directed by Álvaro Longoria (2015).

Score: effective.

Álvaro Longoria is one more of the many Westerners interested in learning what is going on in North Korea. The Hermit Kingdom is incredibly hard to visit (despite how many tourists they brag about having) and Longoria was authorized to enter the country by mediation of Alejandro Cao de Benós, the notorious Spanish ally of the North Korean regime.

Being a documentary sanctioned by the regime, both men are always in the company of a supervisor and have limited freedom of movement. Since Longoria, like everybody else, cannot question the regime’s official version of facts, the documentary becomes a ping-pong match of Longoria asking about the most common conceptions about the country and Cao de Benós grimacing, laughing and countering with North Korea’s own propaganda. Since nothing else can be done, Longoria leaves it up to the viewer to make up their minds about what might be going on in there.

A variety of topics are discussed, including the army, nuclear weapons, education, the Juche, economy and cult of personality. Basically, Longoria gives the official Western version, aided by various experts in the topic as well as North Korean defectors and Cao de Benós and inside specialists deny everything and give an alternative explanation.

Cao de Benós explains they won’t let their enemies, who “insulted their father”, in their country but that still doesn’t explain why North Koreans are not allowed to go anywhere, not even inside the country in many cases. A tour agent comments that tourists who think what they see when they visit is made up for them think themselves very important. It is a good point, but even so, given that so few people are allowed in and they are supervised at all times, it’s perfectly possible. Longoria is taken to a luxurious apartment with a woman wiping the kitchen counter and saying she’s cooking dinner. She’s clearly not cooking dinner, she won’t show what’s in her fridge and she even refuses to answer the harmless question “what are you making for dinner?”, a great opportunity to thank the Great Leader for the plentiful and healthy food he provides for his children. Questions about Juche philosophy are swiftly avoided with an “are you an expert in philosophy?” like the damn thing is more complicated than Hegel and Heidegger put together. Longoria is taken to a Catholic church to show there is freedom of cult, but is is also admitted that getting Bibles in the country is a criminal offense. I love how Cao de Benós mentions they do know how to get around the US blockade to import HP computers but he won’t tell how because it’s a secret. It’s like he didn’t even bother to justify why they need to buy computers instead of making their own, much better and the envy of the world.

On the other hand, North Korean propaganda is a damn effective thing. It sometimes gets you thinking: “gee, maybe it’s not all that bad after all… it looks like they’re all truly equal”. I’m not familiar with defectors’ narrations yet but that’s something I plan on researching next. Whatever it is that made them want to leave, I believe it’s not pretty at all. The film also explores another side of the question that is very frequently overlooked: how the West will believe anything about North Korea, whether there is any sort of proof or not. Jang Song Thaek was reportedly shot to death instead of fed to rabid dogs, but some Western media didn’t allow the truth to get in the middle of a great story.

All in all, it’s a good documentary. Like with everything else related to North Korea, there is very little real information in it. Even North Korean propaganda is very limited to a few slogans and explanations that even I can reproduce after little to no research.

Further reading: Without you there is no us: Undercover among the sons of North Korea’s elite (Suki Kim)

La isla mínima (Alberto Rodríguez, 2014)

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La isla mínina, directed by Alberto Rodríguez (2014).

Score: excellent.

Rural Andalucía, 1980. Two teenage girls have disappeared during the village fair and two homicides detectives are sent from Madrid to find them, Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo). Pedro is younger and an enthusiast of the newly born democracy, while Juan is more conservative, promiscuous and willing to get his hands dirty to get the job done. Together they will get immersed in a complicated scheme in the deep South marshlands.

Alberto Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos do an excellent job at taking the traditionally English-speaking genre of detective fiction and transplanting it to Andalusian culture and history. There are great writers of detective fiction in the Spanish language in different media, and La isla mínima is a specially good blend of both cultures and has good understanding of the rules of the genre. There are twists and turns and red herrings in the story, as well as very interesting dynamics between the two detectives. I’m pretty sure True detective had some influence in its inception and the result is brilliant.

This features three of the best Spanish actors alive right now: Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo and Antonio de la Torre. Look out for Salva Reina in a new adventure after his many years of work as a stand-up comedian. While the acting is great, the actors tend to mumble and slur their lines which makes following the dialogue difficult even after turning the volume up. Slurring is great for realism, but I want to understand the movie!

The aesthetic and art direction is awesome. It’s hard to convey to that level of detail the atmosphere of a farming village thirty-five years ago, and it’s all spot-on: the clothes, decorations, house interiors, furniture, everything. The color palette and photography are beautiful.

To wrap it up, totally worth your time.

Tres bodas de más (Javier Ruiz Caldera, 2013)

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Tres bodas de más, directed by Javier Ruiz Caldera (a.k.a.Three many weddings, 2013).

Score: fun.

Ruth (Inma Cuesta) is an insecure marine biologist. Three months after being dumped at her boss’s wedding she gets invited to the weddings of three of her exes. Since she’s terrified of going alone and looking like a loser, the new intern at her lab, Dani (Martiño Rivas) offers to go with her. At the first wedding, Ruth meets handsome and sophisticated plastic surgeon Jonás (Quim Gutiérrez). But the happy ending to her story is not with him.

The film is aimed at people over thirty because of the themes it deals with and the sense of humour. Teenage-like approach to sex and drug use is largely avoided, and though there is some toilet humour, the gags and dialogue are more subtle and toned down. This makes them funnier for people my age, probably more boring for younger people. The characters discuss sex, drugs and relationships in a nonchalant way, and some more politically incorrect situations arise, such as an older woman openly admitting to hiring male prostitutes or an arc involving an extremely bitter and mean handicapped woman. In consequence, the acting is quite restrained and evades extreme slapstick.

Tres bodas de más has a refreshing take on the Betty and Veronica love triangle. While Jonás is a quite typical Veronica, Dani is a kind of Betty you don’t see a lot. He not only supports Ruth in everything she does, but encourages her to be more confident in her abilities and helps her advance her career. He doesn’t love her the way she is (insecure and self-conscious), he sees her potential and wants to help her achieve it. He’s not intimidated by an older, more experienced woman. When Jonás’s lie is discovered, Dani doesn’t whine to Ruth about what a nice guy he is, but calls Jonás out on it. When Ruth is hurt and vulnerable, Dani refuses to kiss her because he doesn’t want to take advantage of her. I wish more love interests in movies were like Dani.

All in all, a fun little movie to watch when you feel like some light entertainment.

Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

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Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie (and Donald) Kaufman (2002).

Score: meta-rrific!

Adaptation is what happened when Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) was asked to adapt Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) The orchid thief, a non-fiction book about Floridan horticulturist and orchid poacher John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Because Hollywood will try to siphon money from anywhere. Kaufman found himself unable to adapt the work into a fiction movie so he ended up handing in a screenplay about himself failing miserably at adapting The orchid thief and hoped for the best.

Charlie lives with his (fictional) twin brother Donald (also Nicolas Cage) who decides he also wants to be a screenwriter. But Donald’s interests are more prosaic than Charlie’s: Donald has attended a three-day, five hundred-dollar creative writing course and is determined to write a thriller where the cop, the killer and the victim are the same person with split personalities (and the killer’s modus operandi is feeding his victims morsels of themselves, as suggested by Charlie). Charlie is overly irritated by his brother’s enthusiasm and obliviousness as Charlie struggles with his deadline as well as self-consciousness and social anxiety. Charlie wants to make something unique, faithful to the spirit of Orlean’s work and above all, avoid clichés and shorcuts.

The action is further advanced by inserting scenes between Susan Orlean and John Laroche (also primitive protozoa, lunged fish and apes in an evolution of live beings time lapse) that come from Charlie’s failed drafts. Kaufman wrestles with writing something that he feels is true and good quality, while Donald symbolizes his writing persona that wonders whether he would be better off sticking to a formula he hates. Some of his creative writing musings are hilarious and a highlight of the film (”Maybe you guys could collaborate. I hear mom’s really good with structure.”)

This movie can also be enjoyed innocently and obliviously, I know because I watched it back in ‘04 or so and didn’t understand a single thing but still liked it. I remember I liked the ending because it finally tapped into some tropes I was familiar with. ***SPOILERS*** When we enter the last third of the movie and Charlie finally decides to embrace his inner cheesy writer, I am admired at how many of the things he didn’t want to do he actually does. The voice-over is gone, a sexual relationship between Orlean and Laroche is introduced, suddenly a drug is extracted from the ghost orchid, Charlie and Donald decide to have an intimate conversation while Laroche is trying to kill them, Amelia (Cara Seymour) confesses her love to Charlie in a blood-curdling closing scene and I’m convinced the car accident counts as a deus ex machina.***END SPOILERS***

Seeing Nicolas Cage’s face onscreen made me want to stop the movie and play something else but he manages to make you forget all his horrible acting and does a decent work. Technical aspects look more than correct to me.

A fun and intelligent little movie, more than recommended if you have enjoyed other works by Jonze and/or Kaufman.

Les quatre cents coups (François Truffaut, 1959)

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Les quatre cents coups, directed by François Truffaut (1959, a.k.a. The four hundred blows).

Score: excellent.

Antoine Doinel (Jean Pierre Léaud) is a Parisian schoolboy in the mid-Twentieth century who just can’t find motivation. His mother (Claire Maurier) despises and neglects him and his father (Albert Rémy) is not much better. At school, his teacher (Guy Decomble) is unsupportive and unsympathetic and they follow a syllabus that does little to retain the interest of children. Antoine tries hard to please the adults in his life but nothing works so he ends up turning to playing truant and petty crime.

Les quatre cents coups (meaning “to raise hell” or “to live a wild life” in French) is a mostly autobiographical movie and one I can easily relate to given that my father tells very similar stories of his schooldays memories. The values dissonance is huge for a contemporary viewer: the school scenes show physical punishment, memorizing pointless information, a total disregard for student motivation and a lack of sympathy and the most basic psychology on the part of the teacher. My friend and I wondered whether Truffaut was truly outraged by his schooldays experiences in a similar way we were while watching his movie or if he just wrote what he knew. I guess it’s hard to tell: people tend to justify the way things were done when they were young even if deep down they know there was room for improvement.

Antoine’s parents have more in common with some contemporary parents: they look like they didn’t want kids in the first place and they clearly don’t have the patience or interest to raise him. They argue about him in front of him, scorn him. They don’t encourage him or even give him time to do his homework. He enjoys reading Balzac, a difficult author, but nobody seems to care that he does or encourages it. His mother’s idea of motivation is promising him a thousand francs if he gets top marks, but showing him affection is unthinkable. When Antoine gets arrested, his parents even expect law enforcement to bring up their son on their behalf.

The underlying theme of the film is failure of education, for the reasons pointed out above. Truffaut’s approach is subtle: he constructs the narrative from scenes in the life of Antoine, showing him at his best and his worst, but not pushing his point of view. That may be why some people are left scratching their heads at the movie. This is what I read on it but it’s open to other readings, naturally. Léaud’s acting works very well in this direction: paroxysms and annoying cuteness and mischief are largely avoided.

To wrap it up, worth your time.