Category Archives: peliculas

Las mujeres de Almodóvar : Chus Lampreave

I was going to start this post off by saying that I’ve been in a real Almodóvar-watching mood recently, but that would be a ridiculous thing to say because I’m always in the mood for watching his films.

More accurately, I’ve been in the mood for rewatching some of my favorite films by him, including Volver, Oscar winner Hable con ella (Talk to Her), and Oscar nominee Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). And if you haven’t seen any of those, please rush out and do so immediately.

Almodóvar’s films always have a few elements in common: humor, passion, bright colors, Madrid, men who make bad decisions, and women who have to deal with the repercussions of those bad decisions. But it’s not just themes that pop up over and over in his work. Actors also often appear regularly in his productions—he started the careers of Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas after all. But one of my favorite character actors who appears in almost every Almodóvar film, including the three I’ve rewatched most recently, is Chus Lampreave.

Lampreave is a veteran Spanish actress whose career dates back to the 1950s, including extensive work in Spanish television, and who usually shows up in an Almodóvar film as some batty landlord or crazed relative. I first saw her in Mujeres al borde 10 years ago; she plays a stubborn Jehovah’s Witness who refuses to lie for the philandering Iván in that movie. I’ve kept a keen eye out for her ever since. And in my opinion, one of her best roles is as tía Paula in Volver.

Lola Dueñas, Penélope Cruz, Yohana Cobo, and Chus Lampreave in "Volver"

Paula is a nutty old aunt to sisters Penélope Cruz and Lola Dueñas (another Almodóvar regular who kills it in everything she does) who lives in a small village in La Mancha—a town whose inhabitants suffer from chronic insanity caused by strong winds. It’s a classic Lampreave role in a Almodóvar picture: old, stubborn woman who is out of her mind. Paula has been talking to the ghost of the sisters’ mother lately. It’s probably just the wind, but of course…you should see the movie yourself! Lampreave’s character isn’t in much of the movie, but for the few scenes she has, she absolutely steals the show. That’s saying a lot when she’s sharing the screen with Penélope Cruz, an actress who garnered an Oscar nomination for her role in the film.

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Oswaldo on Béisbol

When I was a kid growing up in Indiana, our Little League team took an outing every year to see a game at Old Comiskey Park in Chicago. While I wasn’t much of a White Sox fan, I did always enjoy going to see a game, and I particularly enjoyed watching the Sox’ shortstop Ozzie Guillén play. Guillén had a quick hand in the field and a light stroke at bat—something I appreciated since I wasn’t much of a power hitter myself. Guillén was from Venezuela and part of a sustained wave of players that came to Major League Baseball from that country in the 80s.

But Guillén is better known these days for being the manager of the White Sox. Through that role he became the first Latin-born manager to lead a team to a World Series victory when he took the White Sox to their first championship since 1917 in 2005.  Guillén is also known for being outspoken on…well, just about everything. He even tweets—both in English and Spanish. And he’s never had much love for umpires.

Recently, Guillén’s been making headlines for a comment he made in an interview about the treatment of Latino players versus other foreign-born, non-native-English-speaking players, particularly ones from Japan and Korea.

“I say, why do we have Japanese interpreters and we don’t have a Spanish one. I always say that. Why do they have that privilege and we don’t? … Don’t take this wrong, but they take advantage of us. We bring a Japanese player and they are very good and they bring all these privileges to them. We bring a Dominican kid … go to the minor leagues, good luck. Good luck. And it’s always going to be like that. It’s never going to change. But that’s the way it is.”

You can hear that quote in context in the following video.

Usually when Guillén opens up like this he gets eaten alive by sports media. But he’s actually gotten a little support on this one from some in the sports journalism crowd, though he’s also been blasted by most. Guillén often touches a nerve when he rants about society or the state of baseball or just about anything else. But in this case, he irritated that racial sore that still won’t heal in this country. However, I think he’s also talking about one of the major economic truths of sport: players are products.

In the case of MLB, Asian players are seen by many in baseball management as a precious investment to be protected. Japanese and Korean players also come from industrialized nations, so playing the game in North America is often a career choice for them, not a means to escape poverty—a major bargaining chip when in contract negotiations. Latino talent, on the other hand, is plentiful. Latin American players are an inexpensive investment for teams because many are coming from nations in development or poverty, and they can easily be replaced because there’s always a large group of young players coming up behind them. It’s all about the marketplace. To put it in context, when the Oakland A’s signed Dominican star Miguel Tejada, they paid $2,000 for him. When the Boston Red Sox won the bidding war for Daisuke Matsuzaka, it cost them $102 million. That’s a big gap!

There was an interesting film about the subject of how Dominican players are recruited for the league a few years ago called Sugar. I recommend it. It paints a vivid picture of how baseball can eat up the hearts, minds, and talent of young boys from the island and then dump them on the street corner when their skills have been used up. It can be a brutal world.

The Maid (La nana) : a film by Sebastián Silva

Silva based his film La nana on his own experiences growing up in Chile with a live-in maid. He even meticulously recreated his own bedroom drawings on the walls of the set. That background gives the movie a documentary feel that made me squirm at times—it’s a little too real, but you also can’t turn your eyes away.

There must be an awkwardness that inevitably comes with having another human being share your house and your secrets, but not necessarily your family’s kinship. Because of the employer-employee relationship between a maid and a family, there will always be some boundaries. So after the family in La nana gives a cake and a litter of presents to Raquel—the family maid from the title of the film—for her 41st birthday, she’s still expected to wash the dishes afterward. Of course, she herself expects the same having already served the family in such a way for 23 years.

The film is basically a character study of Raquel…and she is quite a character. She’s grumpy, duty-bound, feisty, and mysterious. She has a different relationship with each of the family members. The head-strong daughter thinks Raquel hates her (and she’s probably right!), father is aloof, mother is her apologist, and the sexually awakening son seems to have stronger feelings of affection for Raquel than for his own mother.

Early on in the movie we discover that the years of toiling for this moneyed Chilean family has started to take its toll on the maid. Raquel is popping painkillers because of her extreme headaches, and she’s walking through the days like a zombie at times. Mother decides to bring on extra help for Raquel, but that just makes things worse. She’s not much for sharing duties, and it seems that having another maid in the house violates all of Raquel’s conceptions of personal space and individual responsibility. And so, at least for this audience member, one has the feeling that this is all building towards some horrible end as a cold war between maid and family daughter escalates, and an active war between maid and the helper of the week gets downright nasty. But Silva doesn’t let things get totally out of control before shifting gears, and the film takes a couple of twists no one would have guessed. Mostly they come because of the introduction of a character very different from Raquel—a free-spirited helper from the countryside named Lucy. Lucy has more than one surprise in store for Raquel, who is used to being the one with surprises…especially for new labor in the household.

I was worried when I first saw the trailer for La nana. I thought it might be torturous to watch. But Catalina Saavedra is mesmerizing as Raquel, and she is surrounded by a strong cast, including the director’s real-life brother Augustín, who plays the family’s teenage son. And as I suggested before, the film takes some turns—very good ones I should add—that I never would have guessed from the preview. As well, the movie ends in a place I never would have guessed from sitting through the first half of the film. I definitely recommend this one.

El secreto de sus ojos : a film by Juan José Campanella

I guess it took winning an Oscar back in March to finally bring this movie to St. Louis in June! But it was worth the wait for sure.

The film begins with former federal justice agent Benjamín Espósito paying a visit to his former colleague Irene Menéndez-Hastings. Espósito has spent most of his life tortured by the events surrounding a brutal rape-murder case he covered with Menéndez and Espósito’s assistant Pablo Sandoval in the mid-70s. Espósito wants to clear the ghosts of his past by writing a novel about the case, and he needs Menéndez to give him the case file for his research.

At that point, the film dives back into the 1970s and most of the narrative takes place in a flashback, as we’re shown the events that lead up to Espósito taking the case, as well as his frustrated attempts to find justice for the husband of the murdered victim. Layered on top of this is an intense attraction between Espósito and Menéndez that has more than one obstacle in its way, some serious drinking problems on the part of Espósito’s assistant Sandoval (my favorite character in the film!), and the political climate of Argentina during the 1970s version of Peronism.

While he hasn’t made a perfect film, Campanella, who has worked on American TV shows such as Law & Order, has certainly given us a crime drama that kicks the butt of almost every US-made movie that came out last year. And there is some great cinematography—such as the following use of fútbol in the film.

(Btw, if you didn’t already know, Argentina demolished South Korea today in the World Cup. “El Pipita” put on a scoring clinic.)

Edimburgo Part I : Romero Place

I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time in Scotland last month, mostly in the capital city Edinburgh. While there, I was comfortably bunking in a quiet residential neighborhood near the University of Edinburgh. On more than one occasion, I made my way along Dalkeith Road, in order to reach Holyrood Park, a picturesque green space with towering hills and great views of the Royal Mile, the Scottish Parliament, and the Queen’s residence in Scotland. The University’s Pollock Halls of Residence are situated on Dalkeith, so I passed by them several times during my visit. But I must have been staring at my feet for the most part because I didn’t notice that one of the halls is named “Romero Place” until my last day in the city.

Even then, my first thought was only that it was just a strange name for a place in Scotland. A British friend told me that a lot of Italians live in Edinburgh, so I figured the residence hall must be named after some generous Italian immigrant who perhaps attended the university or served in its community in some capacity. But then I noticed a relief sculpture embedded in the stone wall near the name plate.

Campesinos collecting culture from a tree that appears to be rooted in the body of a man? Very odd.

Then I noticed the inscription surrounding the image.

Que mi sangre sea semilla de libertad y la señal de que la esperanza será pronto una realidad.
Let my blood be a seed of freedom and a sign that hope will soon be a reality.

The quote is from the Salvadoran martyr Óscar Romero. And I immediately felt like an idiot when I realized that the residence hall was named after this great defender of human rights. How had I missed this when I had passed by the building so many times before?

Archbishop Romero’s story is an interesting one. He grew up in a relatively poor family but didn’t take to his father’s wishes for him of becoming a carpenter. He entered the priesthood instead, and actually spent the early years of his career not as the social justice stalwart we remember Romero as today, but as a believer in church hierarchy and the separation of religion and politics. While he was climbing the ecclesiastical ladder, he was considered a conservative and far from a friend to devotees of Liberation Theology. There was actually a great deal of consternation among the political left when Romero was named Archbishop of San Salvador. But Romero had greatly reconsidered his politics and philosophy before taking on that important place in the Salvadoran church’s hierarchy. He had witnessed first hand the neglect of poor while serving in his previous position as Bishop of Santiago de María, and he had become conscious of the ruthless slaughter of individuals who stood in the way of power. Now in a position of authority to speak out against such atrocities, he did so and became a marked man. Ultimately, Romero was gunned down by the Salvadoran right wing on March 24, 1980, while he was in the midst of performing a mass at a hospital. With the saintly leader now gone, all hell broke out in El Salvador, and the country fell into a twelve-year-long civil war.

Romero’s work for the political freedoms and human rights in El Salvador has since become immortalized in the arts. A sculpture of his likeness fills a prominent place in the Gallery of Martyrs at Westminster Abbey in London. Songs and poems have been written about him. And Raúl Juliá even portrayed the Archbishop in the 1989 film Romero.

But I’m still trying to figure out why this particular residence hall in Edinburgh bears his name. Is there a special connection with the university? or the city? All I know is that I wish I had lived in a dorm named after a human rights champion when I was a freshman in college.

Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist) : a film by Juan Antonio Bardem

Recently I saw a classic of Spanish cinema, Juan Antonio Bardem‘s 1955 film Muerte de un ciclista, and I was engrossed. Bardem, uncle of the actor Javier Bardem, used cinema to tell stories—either directly or indirectly—about the repressions brought on by the Franco government in Spain, and Muerte is no exception. On the face of it, the film is the story of a murder. A university professor is riding along a rural roadway with his mistress—a well-connected, upper-class glamor girl—when their car strikes a working-class man on a bicycle. The cyclist survives the impact, but the couple leaves him to die, fearing that their tryst will be exposed if they help him.

After returning to their “normal lives,” the couple quickly falls into individual feelings of guilt and paranoia over the incident. The mistress becomes convinced that a manipulative art critic knows the truth about their affair, as well as the accident. She fears that he’ll either expose the couple to her rich husband or bleed them financially through blackmail. Either way, she’ll be out of what she seems to love best … money. The professor, on the other hand, loses his composure because of his feelings of guilt, and he takes his frustrations out on a young co-ed math student one day during class. (The incident has some interesting repercussions, by the way.) Tension builds between the professor, the art critic, and mistress, and it comes to the attention of her husband, which is brilliantly shown in the following sequence from the film.

(left screen to right: professor, mistress, critic, husband)

But beyond the story of a murder, Bardem investigates the dynamic of social class in this movie. During one scene, for example, the professor ventures into the poor, bombed out section of Madrid in which the cyclist lived. Posing as a journalist, he asks around for the dead’s man wife—he wants to make sure that neither she nor anyone else knows a thing about what really happened on the road that day. But the wife is gone. She went looking into the possibilities of an insurance payout for her husband’s life. We assume it’s a necessity to keep her family going. Does the professor have any concern for her needs or the repercussions of the couple’s actions on her life? Maybe. You’ll just have to see the film yourself to find out. As for the mistress, if the bicyclist’s wife doesn’t know anything she might be willing to make an anonymous donation to the poor woman’s family. But for now, she’s got a bigger problem—that pesky art critic. Oh, the follies of the upper class.

La misma luna : a film by Patricia Riggen

Since we took our written final last week, we finished up this semester of Spanish by watching La misma luna (English title: Under the Same Moon) today. The film is mostly in Spanish, but has a fair bit of English dialogue. It follows the story of a young Mexican boy crossing the border in order to look for his mother who works illegally as a housekeeper in Los Angeles.

Surprisingly, since most of the film takes place in the US, it only had a limited release here, and I don’t believe it ever made it to my little nook in the Midwest. But it was a great film to show to a Spanish class. Much of the dialogue isn’t too difficult for students to understand (especially with the English subtitles turned on–ja!). However, the movie is at times overly dramatic and there are a couple of unbelievable coincidences. But Adrian Alonso, the young actor who plays the lead—little Carlos Reyes—is captivating in his role. Even this jaded viewer was on the edge of tears a couple of times when Carlitos got himself into a difficult situation or would get emotional over his mother.

Like any good drama though, there were several moments of delightful comic relief … such as this cameo appearance by the Mexican norteño superstars Los Tigres del Norte.

I also enjoyed the use of Kinky’s cover of Los Hermanos Ortiz’ song “Superman es ilegal” (Superman is an illegal) as the background for this scene about migrant labor. ¡Es un pájaro! ¡Es un avión! No, hombre, ¡es un mojado! (It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, man, it’s a wetback!)

Obviously the issue of illegal immigrants—particularly Spanish-speaking ones—gets lots of folks worked up in this country (I’m looking at you, Jan Brewer). But I think this film does a decent job of suggesting what the risks of crossing over are, what challenges face illegals once here, and how the issue affects families south of the US border. The movie is certainly not neutral on the issue, however. I don’t think I’d sit down to watch it with Glenn Beck anytime soon … unless he brings the popcorn and promises not to talk or send text messages during the film.