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Penelope Cruz sends up movie people and a bit of politics in The Queen of Spain, one of my VIFF picks

Also: Arty types get their due in The Square and Western finds today’s European colonialism

Amid the often grim stuff, I’ve enjoyed some very funny comedies at VIFF this year. Next week, I’ll tell you about The Party. Today you can read about The Queen of Spain and The Square.

The some, but not much humor in the other film I review today, Western, which is basically about modern colonialism.

The big film of these next couple of days is also said to be a comedy, albeit a bitter and twisted one. That makes sense as it comes from the acerbic mind of Michael Haneke. He attacks the privileged airs of the upper class during the refugee crisis in Europe. Its first screening is this evening and I’ll report on it Thursday.

These three I’m already recommending:

The Queen of Spain: 3 stars

The Square:  4

Western:  4

 

THE QUEEN OF SPAIN: That would be Penelope Cruz but she’s not playing Isabella in this film. She’s playing an actor who is playing the Catholic queen in one of those giant epics American producers used to make in Spain. She’s Macarena Granada, the star actor who went from Spain to Hollywood in the 1950s and came back for this film. Never heard of her? Some cinema buffs will recognize her from a 1998 film called The Girl of Your Dreams, to which this is a years-later sequel. Well OK, it’s all fiction, she, her story and all the characters around her but you’ll recognize the types and the tropes they’re sending up. And having great fun doing it and passing it on for our enjoyment. 

 

The story never really gels into one because it meanders. The American producers arrive, with the camera-playing Macarena,  a self-impressed male star (Cary Elwes, spouting quote-ready platitudes), a blacklisted writer (Mandy Patinkin) working anonymously and a drunken director with a John Ford eye patch who prefers to sleep. Somebody else has to yell “Action” and “Cut”. Meanwhile a once-famous Spanish director (Antonio Resines) takes a small job with the film, impresses but is arrested and sent to a work camp. This was the time of Franco, who shows up in a vicious parody late in the film. Fernando Trueba, the director who won an Oscar for Spain over 20 years ago, inserted political flashes into his satire but not to great effect. His best spoofing is of movie types, both Hollywood and continental, their pretensions, backstage pecadillos and grating egos. (Plays Wed and Fri) 3 out of 5

THE SQUARE: Remember a Swedish film called Force Majeure from VIFF 2014 that skewered men’s pretensions of courage? Well, Ruben Ostlund, the man who made it is back with this stab at artistic pretensions and he does it with a big burst of humor this time. This one is very funny. At first it’s about the curator of a Stockholm modern art museum who removed a military statue and replaced it with a 4 x 4 metre square said to represent trust and caring, equal rights and obligations. How to publicize it? Two consultants suggest ways to cut through the media clutter. They cause a virulent controversy. Museum supporters are parodied and a performance artist upsets their banquet with a monkey imitation. The film asks what is art, are there limits and who are the people who lap it up and talk it up?  

 

ÖClaes Bang, from Denmark, plays the curator. He sounds pompous in an interview with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss, also in another film this year, Top of the Lake), ends up in bed with her and gets his comeuppance in a side story that parallels his theory of art reflected in everyday items. Pickpockets get his phone and wallet and a scheme to get them back has hilarious repercussions. This is a sly movie swaying back and forth between two types of humor, droll (most of the film) and blunt (as in the pseuds corner-like presentation disrupted by a man with Tourette’s. A terrific satire. (Tues) 4 out of 5 

WESTERN: Who would ever imagine that a film about some German construction types building a dam in Bulgaria would be compelling entertainment. Well, here it is and it is highly involving because it’s a thoughtful essay by a German writer-director about her country’s status. Not only in Europe, where we know it is dominant, but by implication in the whole world. Is it like the ugly American we used to hear about? Is it acting superior, a colonial power lording it over the smaller countries? Has it got things to learn from them? Questions only people over there and some students of world politics think much about. Valeska Grisebach has worked them all smoothly and powerfully into this drama.

 

The contractors fly the German flag on their compound, avoid or condescend to the locals, call some of their women “hot stuff” and feel free to wander into their orchards and help themselves. Some do. Not all. And some of the locals aren’t angels either. A few are quick to fight after a card game with a German. They had felt they could “squeeze him dry.” Similarly, the gravel seller doesn’t deliver, though he’s been paid, and blithely demands more money. One German does make friends with the locals but his boss undoes that over water rights and a horse. This is power politics at a small-town level and a very good movie. The actors are non-professionals but you’d never know it. They come across as real people.  (Wed and Oct 13) 4 out of 5   

 

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