I recently decided that I’m going to try to review every movie I see. I don’t think reviews of crappy movies will run very long (see my review of Sorcerer’s Apprentice). But in general I’m kind of a long-winded guy and if you’re reading this you no doubt have figured that out.
Anyway, I want to try and champion some lesser-known movies that I end up seeing because I do follow that shit. If even one more person sees a truly underground movie because I suggested it, this will be justified. I have seen two such movies in the past week and instead of doing two separate blogreviews (I feel one update a day is more than enough at this point) here is two whole reviews in one blog update. Bang for buck! Two for one! Buy now!
The first of our two-parter is the science fiction film TiMER. I watched it partly for the concept and partly for the present of Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Emma Caulfield. Anya was one of my favorite characters so I’d watch this girl in anything except whatever shitty TV show she’s on. Ha.
Anyway, the movie concerns itself with an alternate present in which a device was invented that can count down the time until you meet your true love. This technology was invented 15 years prior to the events of the film and it has permeated American culture in very interesting and resonant ways. The world-building, kids. That’s what it’s all about. Anyway, the way it works is that you get stamped with a neat digital timer in your wrist. It stays blank until your “One” gets a timer of their own, then the countdown begins. When it runs out, you will meet your One within 24 hours. In terms of the plot, it’s actually pretty light, if downbeat, romantic comedy type of stuff but it does ask some interesting philosophical questions about what such an invention would mean for the way we conduct our pairings.
Emma Caulfield is Oona, a 29 year old orthodontist whose timer is blank. Her overbearing mother is entirely preoccupied with timers and her kids’ romantic happiness. The family is interesting, setting up a lot of what makes Oona who she is. Her mother and father split up over timers, when theirs revealed they weren’t meant to be and when she found her One, he had a daughter (Steph) Oona’s age in whom Oona found a probably unlikely best friend. They have wildly different personalities but their relationship feels real and provides most of the emotional core of the film. Fusing this family even further is a younger brother, half-brother to Oona and Steph. All of this happens before the film begins, leaving the audience to pick it up and realize that in this case, this unlikely family is the result of the timers’ effect on the generation that was already having kids before its inception. Such families would be a thing of the past which is an interesting element since they are so common now. In one particularly great scene, Oona questions her mother about how she can be both meant to be and a mistake. These are the kinds of questions an entire generation of people would ask themselves in a world where there’s obviously a “meant to be”.
In fact, this technology is obviously proof of determinism and that leads to some interesting trends. Some people won’t sleep with anyone else before meeting their One, believing it to be spiritually cheating. Others fuck anything that walks either out of rebellion or because their One ain’t coming for a long, long time. Steph, for instance, is stuck waiting til she’s 43, and it isn’t until she meets Dave that she has any lasting interest in any one man. On the other end, Oona meets a young musician who uses a fake timer to justify their dalliance which quickly becomes a full blown love affair. Oona’s preoccupation with the concept of having a One gets in the way. It’s interesting to think about why Oona is so obsessed with this, to the point of bringing new boyfriends to an Apple Store-like timer outlet to “make sure”. The film never comes out and says it’s about her parents and what happened between them, but it’s definitely there in its myriad pieces.
The interesting thing is that TiMER doesn’t cop out of its deterministic universe by showing that the device is all bullshit or that people can and should defy destiny. Destiny is undeniable and it is this commitment to fatalistic love that makes the movie so earnest and compelling and also, for a guy like me, a bit depressing.
Cell 211 is a Spanish film set in a prison over the course of about a day. It’s about a young man named Juan who shows up a day early to both learn the ropes and show some initiative for a new job at the prison. Unfortunately for him, some Basque terrorists have been temporarily transferred in and a shrewd little bulldog named Malamadre uses this as an excuse to throw a big ol’ riot. In the chaos, Juan gets knocked unconscious and left behind in an unoccupied cell. When he wakes up, he has to act fast and pose as a prisoner to keep from getting killed or used as leverage. What follows is a pretty intense series of moments, most of which concern Juan’s desperate but intelligent maneuvering to keep his cover going. He inserts himself directly into the plans of Malamadre, making loud suggestions that the other prisoners support. As he proves himself an asset, he is brought into the inner circle of thugs and murderers who are managing the riot, using the terrorists as leverage to make some surprisingly reasonable demands concerning the treatment of prisoners.
I don’t want to spoil anything which means this review is going to be short but I do want to praise the performances of Alberto Amann (Juan) and Luis Tosar (Malamadre) on whom the entire thing is hinged. They are incredible and I’d be happy to see them both in many more movies to come. Luis Tosar in particular looks like a short little Elias Koteas with a raspy, bandito voice that spits Spanish like it’s burning his tongue (but he likes it). Alberto Amann is his equal, playing a difficult role that calls for a lot of deftness. You need to be able to see this guy’s inner tension through the veneer of confidence he projects to the prisoners around him. Amann pulls this off without effort, making him a young actor to watch in other Spanish films down the line.
To geek for a moment: Luis Tosar played Archangel de la Jesus Montoya in Miami Vice an underrated classic from my favorite filmmaker, Michael Mann. That is fucking awesome. Especially since Montoya is such a scrawny, white collar guy in that movie and such a goddamn animal in this one. Wow.
The beauty of the film is that you sympathize with both of these men. Juan is in an impossible situation and is forced into increasingly desperate measures to stay afloat. Malamadre is a crafty but charismatic thug with a cartoonish voice and short stature. He doesn’t look too threatening except in his scarred visage and the intensity of his gaze. He has some genuine concern for Juan’s plight, believing him to be a new prisoner whose pregnant wife is worried about him (and he her). This is pretty close to the truth and Malamadre’s own feelings about a woman and child he left in his wake cements the foundation of their rapid bond.
Cell 211 is a total thriller and the best jailhouse movie I’ve seen since A Prophet. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets a Hollywood remake in the near future (hooray…) especially since the concept is so sharp and fresh while still being obvious. Do yourself a favor and see this before the inevitable remake.