FROM THE LEFT SIDE OF THE BALCONY
The Monthly, January 2017
By Reese Erlich
Two films opening this month in the Bay Area, by some cosmic coincidence, deal with the same theme. One finds a mother trying to unravel the mysterious disappearance of her daughter. The other finds a daughter searching for her mysterious father. One is directed by the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. The other isn’t. It proves that even with the same theme, the experience and skill of the filmmaker make all the difference.
Julieta, directed by Pedro Almodovar, opens Jan. 6, San Francisco: In Almodovar’s earlier films (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and All About My Mother), he features strong women characters making tough life choices in a patriarchal society. His most recent films have fallen flat in my opinion, in part, because he strayed from his early roots and strong women characters. His 20th and latest feature film, Julieta, combines the best of his women-centric tales with touches of Alfred Hitchcock mystery.
We first meet middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suarez) as she’s about to move from Madrid to Lisbon with her boyfriend. She packs her books and art work at a slow and deliberate speed, helping set the pace for the entire film. Almodovar grabs our attention not with fast action, but with carefully framed shots and attention to the smallest detail.
Julieta is a sumptuously filmed piece of art. Cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu presents many shots as still photos and then backs up the camera to reveal the full scenes. He makes use of bare white rooms to depict loneliness and rich color to show love.
Julieta meets an old friend who had a chance meeting with Julieta’s daughter Antia (Blanca Pares). We learn that Antia walked away from Julieta 12 years earlier without a word of explanation. Julieta’s grief and guilt show in her face. She decides to cancel the move to Lisbon and relocate to her old apartment in Madrid in case Antia wants to contact her.
Much of the rest of the film is told in flashbacks as Almodovar slowly unwraps the mystery of Antia’s disappearance. We see a young Julieta on a train encountering a creepy stranger, a character you might find in a Hitchcock film. Almodovar focuses the camera on the frightened Julieta as the musical score swells, a decidedly Hitchcock touch.
On the same train ride, we later see Julieta falling in lust with a handsome young fisherman. Xoan (Daniel Grao) and Julieta make passionate love. Thus Xoan becomes Antia’s father.
The other stranger on the train commits suicide, something the lovers discover after their tryst. Months later, Xoan’s comatose wife dies just two days before Julieta comes to live with Xoan. Joyous love affairs involving other characters are each punctuated by death.
In anyone else’s hands, this linkage of sex, love, and tragic death would seem maudlin and weird. In Almodovar’s world, it seems natural.
Let’s face it, movie fans, Almodovar often focuses on some unconventional and kinky themes. Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down was an examination of brutal sadomasochism. But, hey, Hitchcock was obsessed with young blondes.
Ultimately, you have to judge artists by their work, not their personal lives. In Julieta, the sex emerges organically from the plot, and while the deaths come as a shock, none are gratuitous.
Smile Again, Jenny Lee directed by Carlo Caldana, opens Jan. 20, Roxie Theater, San Francisco: The best part of the new film Smile Again, Jenny Lee is its great shots of San Francisco. You’ll recognize various hotels and bars. Director of photography Chris Kurose paints the beautiful SF skyline with clouds whizzing by.
Other than the scenery, the film is an intriguing disaster. Director and screenwriter Carlo Caldana uses mostly Bay Area actors and tries hard to create an original story. He creates potentially interesting characters.
Jenny, a surly but highly successful tennis star, falls on hard times after she’s beaten by a mysterious assailant. Desperate for money, she launches a search for the father she never met in hopes of getting some cash. She discovers important life lessons along the way.
Roughly the first third of the movie is distinctly un-mysterious. Jenny, played by Monique Hafen, is totally off-putting. We wonder why anyone would care about this self-centered brat.
We later learn more about the mysterious father. But the plot becomes totally confusing as various characters tell conflicting tales without any indication of which version is correct. If you’re going to tell a mystery story, the audience should be able to fit all the pieces together.
The film becomes a soap opera with plot twists that defy logic but keep the action going until we get to the obvious ending. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Linda Demetrick, who plays Jenny’s evil mother, had previously appeared in the classic soaps General Hospital and The Young and the Restless.
It would be great to see a film featuring local actors and fine cinematography set in the Bay Area. Unfortunately, Jenny Lee isn’t it.
Movie worth seeing: Rarely do mainstream films portray blue-collar workers with any sympathy or insight. Manchester by the Sea, produced by Matt Damon and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is an exception. In the opening scenes, we see Casey Affleck working as a handyman in several apartments, facing clogged plumbing and abusive, entitled tenants. We come to understand that Affleck’s character is deeply troubled.
The film has a credible plot, but it’s really a character study of working-class families in Manchester, Mass. Affleck turns in a nuanced acting job of a man feeling guilt and despair, but who is determined to muddle through.
Manchester is not an overtly political film, but you come away with a deeper understanding and profound respect for these working-class folks. And don’t expect a Hollywood happy ending. The film ends like real life—unresolved.
Oakland journalist Reese Erlich writes this arts and culture column every month. Follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich, on Facebook (facebook.com/reese.erlich) or contact him by email,