Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Review: The Skin I Live In

I'm not a huge appreciator of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. I had seen his fan-favorite films Women on the Verge of a Nervous BreakdownAll About My Mother and Volver, and disliked the jarring way they combine goofy, campy humor with gritty themes such as incest and parental abandonment.

When my brother Ray asked me if I would be interested in seeing Almodóvar's then-latest film The Skin I Live In ('La Piel Que Habito' in its native Spanish) (2011), I naturally said no. 'Yeah, I wasn't too interested at first', Ray told me, 'but check out this trailer'.

Now, your standard movie trailer is essentially a point-for-point presentation of the film's entire plot - complete with delineations of the basic conflicts and dramatic high-points using the bluntest dialogue excerpts possible - 'I'm not a smart man...but I know what love is.'You shoulda killed me when you had the chance!'

The trailer for Skin is less desperate plea for attention, and more minimal mood piece. We only see snatches of scenes - a bald woman in a pantyhose one-piece and translucent rubber mask, a petri dish containing a synthetic skin sample, a man licking a screen displaying the woman - all accompanied by a sleazy Trentemøller track.

It's like the classic trailers for AlienThe Shining and Psycho, the latter of which which simply follows Hitchcock as he rambles around the Bates Motel set and issues tantalizing clues: 'And in this house, the most dire and horrible events took place...' 

'...and what of this wretched man?'

The Psycho and Skin trailers are wriggling, juicy lures meant to hook the viewer in with the promise of macabre mystery. Just enough to reel you in, but not enough to ruin anything. If you clicked on the trailer link and were similarly intrigued, feel free to stop reading this and go watch The Skin I Live In cold.


Esteemed surgeon and scientist Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) delivers lectures on face transplants and his own genetic experiments:

'Our face identifies us. For burn victims, saving their lives is not enough. They need to have a face, even if it's from a corpse. A face with features so they can gesticulate.'

'I have given the name 'Gal' to the artificial skin I've been working on in recent years. This skin is resistant to every insect bite, which means a natural barrier to malaria, for example.'

When a fellow scientist (José Luis Gómez) suspects Ledgard of illegally experimenting on human subjects, Ledgard counters with a classic mad-scientist riposte: '...but it seems the ultimate paradox. We interfere in everything around us; meat, clothes, vegetables, fruit, everything. Why not use scientific advances to improve our species?' Ledgard is threatened with an inquiry should his experiments continue.

Meanwhile, the panythose-clad Vera (Elena Anaya) wordlessly builds sculptures and does yoga stretches to while away her time as a prisoner in Dr. Ledgard's home.

Lengthy flashbacks show us seemingly unconnected events such as a wedding party during which Ledgard's daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) absconds with rakish lad Vicente (Jan Cornet) and shares a strange sexual encounter with him. We notice that Norma is almost a dead ringer for Vera.

What does it all mean?!

My Take

The plot of a typical kidnapping-centric film (The Silence of the LambsThe Gift, Taken, and countless other thrillers) follows the investigators trying to find the kidnap-ee. The interplay between kidnapper and victim consists of forceful threats and ear-splitting crying, and the overall tone is fast-paced and overtly scary.

Almodóvar's approach with Skin is scary in an insidious way - As Almodóvar succinctly states, his film is 'A horror story without screams or frights.' Indeed, there is no murderous rampaging, gratuitous gore, jump-scares, or other such cheap horror tropes. Instead, the menace operates on a low - but constant - simmer. Vera is clearly a fearful victim and Ledgard a controlling sociopath, but their exchanges are muted and spare. 

Take an early scene where Ledgard tests the durability of Vera's new super-skin with a small blowtorch:

(Ledgard): 'Now there won't be any more burns.'

'You said that a year ago.'

'I was hasty.'

Vera is past the point of crying and panicking, and has more-or-less accepted her position as a captive.

Vera's cell isn't a dank dungeon; it's a huge, sunlit room in Ledgard's impressive mansion. Ledgard's housekeeper Marilia (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes) arranges her meals neatly on a tray, complete with sanitary plastic wrap, and sends them up to the room via dumbwaiter. The whole arrangement seems eerily cushy and normal.

Furnished, room and board, free housekeeping, second-storey with a view, cable...what's the catch?

While the tension of the typical kidnapping-thriller is pretty simple: 'Will they get there in time, or will the victim die?', the tension of Skin is murkier: 'She's been here for over a year? How long is she going to be stuck there? If he's not going to kill her, what is he planning to do to her?'

The tone of Skin is not as relentlessly bleak as the premise might suggest: just after the film establishes Vera's dire situation, an interloper appears in the form of a man in a tiger outfit (Roberto Álamo). The usually forbidding Marilia softens as she recognizes her estranged son Zeca.

While Zeca is imposing and menacing, his stupidity provides Skin with an odd levity. When he demands access to Vera's room and Marilia directs him to a hidden key in a drawer, Zeca exasperatedly huffs:

'There's just an envelope that says 'clips'.'

(Marilia): 'That's to fool people, idiot.'

This reminded me of Shakespeare's proto-Gothic play Macbeth, in which a horrible murder is instantly followed by a tangential scene (Act II; scene III) which features an oblivious, comically drunken porter.

The characters of The Skin I Live In do have moments of full, intense melodrama, but most of the time the performances are subtle. Antonio Banderas in particular belies his passionate-heartthrob persona to create a truly nasty character whose anguish and rage doesn't explode, but seethes behind a glare that Kubrick would be proud of.

All work and no play...

Almodóvar is likewise restrained in his direction. He ditches his usual bright exuberance and respects the Gothic horror genre with an earnestness comparable to masters such as Guillermo del Toro and Park Chan-wook. The film is just realistic enough for its characters to feel real, and just operatic enough to also feel like a twisted nightmare.

Skin's visuals do have the saturated reds, purples and blues of Almodóvar's signature style, but they only appear as accents to the sterile whites and pale-blues of Ledgard's surgical gear and Vera's spartan room.

The camera's attention to tiny details - drops of blood on a microscope-slide, gleaming scalpels, the swelling of Vera's chest as she breathes - really conveys Ledgard's cold, painstaking perfectionism. Meanwhile, Alberto Iglesias's score of wildly arpeggiating strings sympathizes with Vera whenever Ledgard looms towards her door.


Further Reading

For more films that aren't in the English language, you can see my posts about MotherNine Queens, and Troll Hunter.

The Skin I Live In was produced by Blue Haze Entertainment, Canal+ España, El Deseo D.A. S.L.U., FilmNation Entertainment, Instituto de Crédito Oficial, Instituto de la Cinematografía y de los Artes Audiovisuales and Televisión Española. The UK DVD was distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's

I don't know if Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961, trailer) is the prototype of the romantic comedy movie, but it is certainly a famous example of it.


Writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into a Manhattan apartment where he befriends and falls for his neighbor, the happy-go-lucky glamour girl Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn).

As if you're thinking of any other image right now.

My Take

My beef with Breakfast at Tiffany's is that it is a bland, formulaic mangle of a complex and interesting source novel. First off, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's is neither romantic, nor a comedy. In fact, the story's male protagonist and narrator (unnamed in the book, but nicknamed 'Fred' by Holly) is a closeted homosexual. 

'Fred' is single, lives alone, and never hints at any attraction to women in speech or narration. He does, however, go into much detail to describe a man he encountered on happenstance:

'...I was charmed. He'd been put together with some care, his brown head and bullfighter's figure had an exactness, a perfection, like an apple, an orange, something nature has made just right. Added to this, as decoration, were an English suit and a brisk cologne and, what is still more unlatin, a bashful manner.' (Capote 46-47)

In case these reasons seem too subtle to confirm 'Fred''s homosexuality, there is a scene where, shortly after meeting him, Holly climbs into 'Fred''s bed - 'Do you mind? I only want to rest a moment. So let's don't say another word. Go to sleep.' (29-30) - and he lets her sleep next to him. This told me that 'Fred' and Holly share a platonic relationship.

Later in the book there is another scene where 'Fred' obliges Holly's request to spread tanning oil onto her nude body. The fact that Holly doesn't mind 'Fred' seeing her naked like this implies to me that she knows he isn't straight.

A throwaway reference to 'Fred''s sexual orientation is when Holly casually calls him 'Maude' (93), which in the gay slang of the time refers either to a male prostitute or a homosexualPlus, Truman Capote himself was a New Yorker, a writer, a socialite and a gay.

In the Breakfast at Tiffany's film, Paul's apartment is a love-nest paid for by a wealthy woman (Patricia Neal) who is having an extramarital affair with him. I guess this development is the filmmakers' way of making it abundantly clear that their leading man ain't no fruit.

Whaddaya mean gay? Don't you see this woman standing near me?

This woman barely figures into the story and never interferes with Paul's desire to pursue Holly, so as far as I can tell she's nothing but a 'get out of Gay free' card.

Breakfast at Tiffany's tries to have its cake and eat it too with the gay/straight thing: It lifts most of the book's scenes and dialogue of a gay character, then in the final reel: Bam! Romance! To illustrate just how much this misses the point of the book, I invite you to imagine if someone did a Great Gatsby adaptation where Gatsby and Nick Carroway lightheartedly pal around, then fall in love at the end. A ridiculous and stupid idea, right?

So if the Breakfast at Tiffany's novella isn't the romance story that everyone associates the title with, then what is it about?

Well, it's about a the friendship of two complex characters. 'Fred' is a cynical neurotic who is drawn to Holly's optimistic free spirit:

'...For I was in love with [Holly]. Just as I'd once been in love with my mother's elderly colored cook, and a postman who let me follow him on his rounds, and a whole family named McKendrick. That category of love generates jealousy, too.' (71)

'Fred' both admires Holly and envies her. When Holly shares her fantasy of moving to Brazil, starting a family, and triumphantly visiting New York with a brood of children in tow, 'Fred''s reaction is:

'And I said: 'do shut up', for I felt infuriatingly left out - a tugboat in dry-dock while she, glittery voyager of secure destination, steamed down the harbor with whistles whistling and confetti in the air.' (78)

Holly Golightly is bubbly, sociable and adventurous; but the flipside of this is that she is irresponsibly trusting, has a tenuous grasp on reality, and invests huge importance in maintaining her shallow, glamorous lifestyle:

'Do me a favor, darling. Call up the Times, or whatever you call, and get a list of the fifty richest men in Brazil. I'm not kidding. The fifty richest: regardless of race or color.' (94)

While 'Fred' is heavily anchored to his grim reality, Holly is so unattached that she doesn't own furniture, she has a business card that read 'Holiday Golightly, Travelling', and she refuses to name her pet cat because '...I haven't any right to give him [a name]: he'll have to wait until he belongs to somebody...he's an independent, and so am I.' (39-40)

Holly's desire for complete independence reaches an ugly crescendo when, on the way to the airport, she stops the cab and drops the cat onto the street.

'I was stunned. 'Well, you are. You are a bitch.' We'd travelled a block before she replied: 'I told you. We just met by the river one day: that's all. Independents, both of us. We never made each other any promises. We never-' she said, and her voice collapsed, a tic, an invalid whiteness seized her face. The car had paused for a traffic light. Then she had the door open, she was running down the street; and I ran after her.'

'But the cat was not at the corner where he'd been left...children emerged from doorways and ladies leaned over their window sills to watch as Holly darted up and down the block, ran back and forth chanting: 'You. Cat. Where are you? Here, cat.'...The limousine had followed us. Now Holly let me steer her towards it. At the door, she hesitated; she looked past me, and she shuddered, she had to grip my arm to stand up: 'Oh, Jesus God. We did belong to each other. He was mine.'' (98-99)

Breakfast at Tiffany's screenwriter George Axelrod takes this sobering and symbolic scene and ladles schmaltzy goo all over it. Now, when Holly's just about to lose all hope of finding the cat, the music swells, and - meow - the cat appears!


Movie Holly Golightly is absolutely the whimsical, superhumanly perfect fashion plate that pop culture says she is. This required a lot of modification from the source material.

In the original novel, Holly is only nineteen years old, and had run away from her Texas hometown and the husband she had married when she was only fourteen. Audrey Hepburn was 32 when she played Holly, and this Holly's marriage 'was annulled ages ago, but he just won't accept it'. Hepburn-Holly's advanced age dodges any implied underage sex theme, and the 'annulment' part is a carefully wholesome whitewash that sidesteps any scandalous divorce- and runaway bride-business.

Capote's Holly Golightly was promiscuous: '...I've only had eleven lovers - not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn't count.' (76) and the 'powder-room money' she received for her high-class escort work is implied to - at least some of the time - pay for sexual favors. Needless to say, the Tiffany's film never addresses this. We can't have Holly Golightly prostitute herself; then she wouldn't be the cute and spotless girl who adorably keeps perfume in her mailbox.

Capote's Holly was also cattily combative with fellow society-girl Mag Wildwood, and sometimes made vaguely homophobic and racist declarations. Movie-Holly is a harmlessly zany fantasy girl who never causes trouble and is pretty much perfect.

Instead of delving into the darker underbelly of the source material, Breakfast at Tiffany's pads out its runtime with a lovey-dovey Disney-esque score and wacky slapstick comedy. There's an extended party sequence featuring both a drunk woman having a lively conversation with her own reflection, and Holly's long cigarette holder accidentally setting another woman's hat on fire. Later, when Holly tries her inexperienced hand at home cooking, the pot loudly blows its lid off and ruins the dinner. D'oops!

Mention the title Breakfast at Tiffany's to anyone and, regardless if they have seen it, they will picture the iconic one-sheet of Audrey Hepburn with the Little Black Dress, pearls, sunglasses, gloves and long cigarette holder.

When I think of Breakfast at Tiffany's, the image that comes to my mind is this one:
Birth of a Nation Part 2: Breakfast at Tiffany's

This alarming caricature is Mr. Yunioshi, a man living in Holly's building. In the source material Yunioshi is a regular, Fresno-born American who just happens to be ethnically Japanese. The pictured Yunioshi is white American comedian Mickey Rooney in yellowface, squinty-eye makeup and oversized prop teeth. His recurring comedy bit is that he is always angry at Holly's loud parties, and he yells about it.

At the beginning of the film we see him rouse from his floor-mattress, hit his head on a paper lantern, then march out into the hallway. 'MISS GORIGHTRY! Dis time I'm a-warning you! I am definitery dis time going to calling da porice!' Then he turns around and - in an inspired comedy twist - walks into his door.

All of these complaints elaborate why I dislike Breakfast at Tiffany's, but the reason I hate it is because the movie's dopey, two-dimensional love story is the definitive version that exists in the cultural unconscious. A few years ago I saw an Anna Friel-starring stage production of Tiffany's that seemed to follow the Capote original until, sure enough, the plot doglegged into romance in the final act. I lament that this dreck outshines the original, and that there may never be a real Tiffany's adaptation.

Why couldn't the filmmakers have made up an original ditzy-girl love story, and given it a different title? Why isn't this adaptation as derided as other mutated misfires like The Scarlet Letter, The Bonfire of the Vanities, or the Jack Black Gulliver's Travels?

As I found out on the comments on the film's IMDb page, Tiffany's fans just love its syrupy sentimentality:

'I like Holly. She's too beautiful to dislike.' 

'Audrey Hepburn would never play a hooker.'

Happy happy Holly Holly romantic perfect classic lovely Audrey. They must get together at the end. She would never be a hooker. No divorce. No infidelity. No nasty conflict. No lost cat. No occasional curse word. No references to sex or drugs. Absolutely no references to homosexuality. T
his film is much too classy for all those sorts of things.

Truman Capote's novel Breakfast at Tiffany's is available at all good bookstores and online retailers.


Further Reading

Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of my 'big ones' - either the obscure films that I have a serious appreciation for, or the popular ones with which I have a serious bone to pick.

For other big ones, see my posts about Across the UniverseThe Fall, Kick-Ass, Into The Wild and Drive.

For more about 1960s cinema, you can see my post about Peeping Tom.

Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany's. St. Ives: Penguin, 2000. Print.
Breakfast at Tiffany's was produced by Jurow-Shepherd. The UK DVD was distributed by Paramount Pictures Corporation.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Review: Anaconda

The idea of 'so bad it's funny' (or 'so bad it's good') is oft-mentioned by movie buffs, especially in the context of sci-fi and monster movies. Before discussing Anaconda (1997, trailer), I feel I should explain exactly what I mean when I say 'so bad it's good', because the phrase seems to mean different things to different people.

Some people find legendarily bad movies like The Room, Troll 2 and Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space hilarious. I don't really understand this, as I don't find cheapness and poor execution to be funny. I need a film to have some form of basic competence to be able to watch it.

Cheesy flicks like the 1966 Adam West Batman and the monster movies Arachnophobia, Lake Placid and Tremors don't count as 'so bad it's good' to me because they are intentionally tongue-in-cheek, and I think that they succeed in that capacity.

When I say 'so bad it's good', I'm talking about movies that are well-funded and well-constructed, but suffer glaring stupidities; like using too serious a tone for a silly idea, or making dumb casting choices. A good example of the latter is Outbreak, the blockbuster that inexplicably cast a 58-year-old Dustin Hoffman as its action hero. 

I guess some people like to laugh at bad creature effects, but Anaconda has a really well-made animatronic snake.

Compare with this picture of a real anaconda

I don't think a movie with bad creature effects is anywhere near as funny as a movie titled 'Anaconda', with a perfect anaconda effect, that still finds ways to be moronic. Jaws wasn't even lucky enough to have a decent mechanical shark.

I feel like ridiculing an Ed Wood movie is kind of mean; like laughing at an ill-equipped, untrained football team. Of course it's going to lose.

I can laugh at films like Anaconda because they have no reason to lose. Anaconda is like an extremely well-trained team with great equipment and players (director Luis Llosa, composer Randy Edelman, cinematographer Bill Butler, editor Michael R. Miller), but when the game starts it inexplicably blunders around the field and scores an own-goal.


Anaconda starts with a classic cold-open. After a threatening title crawl - 'Anacondas are among the most ferocious creatures on Earth...They regurgitate their prey in order to kill and eat again...' - we see a first-person view of the snake advancing on a sweat-stained man as he pleads and panics into his boat's radio. As the music reaches maximum anxiety, the doomed man shoots himself.

Cut to a completely separate group of people who, being clueless Americans, are clearly the true focus of the movie. They are a documentary crew set to head off down the Amazon river in search for an elusive tribe.

On their way the crew rescue the menacing Paul Sarone, who gradually engineers for the team to help him capture a big anaconda for a million-dollar cash prize.

My Take

Now, one of the problems with choosing a man-eating snake for your creature-feature is that its prey can just go inside and shut the door. It's not like the monster is a werewolf, an axe-wielding maniac, or a zombie that can pound down the door.

The way Anaconda gets around this problem in the opening is to have the snake pound its way in anyway - through the floor. Furthermore, it bangs so hard that nails fly out of the floorboards and six feet into the air.

No self-respecting schlocky flick doesn't cast Danny Trejo.

The documentary crew is played by actors seemingly picked out of a hat: Jennifer Lopez as the tight-panted director, Eric Stoltz as the khaki-clad scientist, Ice Cube as the stereotypical hip hop-loving black guy cameraman, Jonathan Hyde as the stereotypically snooty English presenter, and Owen Wilson as well.

The dialogue in Anaconda is completely shonky and on-the-nose. To establish that Terri (Lopez) and Steven (Stoltz) are looking forward to working together, Steven tells her: 'We're gonna make a great team'.

To establish that Gary (Wilson) is attracted to Denise (Kari Wuhrer) he feeds her this terrible line: 'Is it me, or does the jungle make you really, really horny?'

The crown jewel of Anaconda's players is Jon Voight, whose prize-ham portrayal of snake-catcher Sarone belies his distinguished, Oscar-awarded acting career. Sarone is physically imposing, wild-eyed and secretive:

'Snakes. I catch them. For zoos and collectors.'


(Sarone pauses, looks away, then responds:) 'Poaching is illegal.'

In case you weren't suspicious enough of his incredibly sketchy behavior, his default facial expression is one of the great cinematic sneers.

Sketchy guy? I don't see any sketchy guy. What, behind me?

Sarone completely steals the show from the dull-faced Jennifer Lopez with his outrageously campy behavior and his many asshole-ish, Hispanic-drawled lines. For example, halfway through the movie the boat's captain Mateo mysteriously disappears.

Sarone is convinced that the anaconda has killed him, but everyone else insists on keeping the boat anchored until Mateo returns. When Jennifer Lopez wakes up the morning after, Sarone simply taunts: 'Still, no Mateo...'

The Sarone character seems almost as if Jon Voight wasn't aware he was being filmed, and was on some kind of Amazonian actors' retreat where he went all-out in a Method exercise.

While the dialogue is bad and the acting inconsistent, Anaconda exercises enough adventure/horror tropes - such as a cold open, red herrings and a snake scene at regular intervals - that it's always entertaining. 

I have a special affection for Anaconda because it was one of the ten non-Disney VHS tapes I had growing up. Sometimes when I'm entertained by the snake sequences, I wonder whether I even really think it's bad after all...

...but then a character says something really silly ('How did we go from taking Cale to a hospital to catchin' a God-damn snake?!'), or there is a shot (1:06:52) that I can blatantly tell is reversed because water is going up a waterfall.

When it comes to badness, Anaconda is never bad.


Anaconda was succeeded by three sequels of steadily-declining budget: Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Anaconda: Offspring and Anacondas: Trail of Blood. Not even practical creature effects can save these movies, because they nixed animatronics in favor of uproarious CGI.

When it comes to badness, Anaconda: Offspring truly can't be beat.

Further Reading

The late Roger Ebert explained a similar feeling to my kind of 'so bad it's good' appreciation in his review of The Mummy:

'...There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it. I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored, and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased. There is a little immaturity stuck away in the crannies of even the most judicious of us, and we should treasure it...'

Screengrabs: Anaconda was produced by Cinema Line Film Corporation, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Iguana Producciones, Middle Fork Productions, Skylight Cinema Foto Art and St. Tropez Films. The UK DVD was distributed by  Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Anaconda 3: Offspring was produced by Castel Film Romania and Hollywood Media Bridge. The UK DVD was distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.