Thursday, 16 May 2019

L'enfer

I'm back on my European cinema kick here, with a 2005 art-house offering directed by the Death in Sarajevo man, Danis Tanovic. Based on some of the Heaven, Hell and Purgatory writings of Krzysztof Kieslowski (Trois couleurs, Dekalog, The Double Life of Veronique et al) the story tells a modern tragedy in love and misunderstanding, based around the lives of three estranged sisters.

The first part of the tragedy is when the three sisters' father is sent to prison in Paris when he is caught in a room with a naked young man in his charge. We find out later that this was not all it seemed but that no opportunity was afforded the man to escape the wrath of the court. Time passes and the three sisters have grown up, but because of the tragedy and resulting actions on the father's release from prison, have no contact with each other.

Sophie is married to a photographer with whom she has two children, but he's cheating on her. When this is exposed, more tragedy ensues for all involved. Anne is a student who had been having an affair with her tutor, but got pregnant - with tragic consequences for all. Céline would like to find love but doesn't and is the only one of the three who has contact with their mother, now in a care home, who she visits periodically. The boy involved with their father's case, back in the day, is now trying desperately to reveal to the family his part in the father's downfall, to rid himself of the guilt. Céline misinterprets this as amorous advances, which leads to further tragedy!

The film portrays layers upon layers of tragedy, not only in the story itself but also in the imagery it offers, depicting tragic scenes in nature often, but also ultimate glimpses of hope, colour and beauty. The disturbing history of the family, the current crises of each arm of the family, the situation of the mother in a care home - would make you think that this is just a European filmmaker playing pretentiously with the audience's emotions - and indeed there are many clichéd art-house trappings which have been fallen into along the way. But that doesn't take away the fact this is a beautifully crafted film full of interesting imagery, lovely photography, excellent sets and fabulous lighting. As a work of art, it's a joy to watch.

How deeply the viewer wants to delve into the analogies relating to Dante's living hell or Greek Mythological Medea is up to each. It's certainly there for those who wish to, and you can just see classrooms full of students being taught the deeper meanings in Media Studies or the like! For me, I like to see it at face value, a story about people in a social situation which could well happen. The effects of actions on the lives of others, the impact of saying, or not saying, the right things at the right times to smooth troubled waters and how human nature often destines itself towards tragic outcomes. Some people's hell.

The key actors do a grand job. Very convincing, though at times directed towards the purposefully theatrical. The very attractive Emmanuelle Béart (Un Coeur en Hiver) playing Sophie beautifully, pouting to the last(!), Karin Viard (Delicatessen) as Céline, Marie Gillain (Mon père, ce héros) as Anne and (not very well made up to look old) Carole Bouquet (For Your Eyes Only) as the mother.

If you're a fan of Neeson, Reynolds, Willis and Gilson you're going to hate this film! The pace is slow for the purpose of musing and digestion. Move along to the popcorn stand for lighter consuming! The rest of us can hopefully grab much from the experience. I don't pretend to understand all the deeper meanings on offer here and maybe I'm under-qualified to review such films, but I have been able to enjoy it and would suggest that, approached with the right frame of mind, some folk reading this might take something enjoyable and meaningful away from a viewing.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight

Here's a trilogy of films about a couple of young people who happen to meet on a train and start to fall for each other in a short space of time. The films follow their path over the course of the next two decades, as they contemplate the meaning of life, existence, their place in the universe and the social constructs around the role of men, women and relationships.

Richard Kinklater (Boyhood, School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) directs and links up with actor Kim Krizan to write much of the storyline - and latterly, joined by the two stars. The two young people were Jesse and Céline played by Ethan Hawke (Snow Falling on Cedars, A Midnight Clear, Boyhood) and Julie Delpy (Three Colours White, Killing Zoe, Europa Europa) and are largely the main players through the three films.

Before Sunrise is the start of it all when a couple meet on a train and experience an instant attraction. Instead of going their separate ways, they agree to spend what time they can together waiting for connecting transport in Vienna. The film then depicts their whirlwind love blossoming as they spend the rest of the day and throughout the night together, wandering the streets, until she has to get back on the train and he, a plane. They agree to meet back on the same spot in exactly six months.

Before Sunset catches up with them 10 years later in Paris, he, by this time a successful author, having sold the story of the first film's encounter, in the story, not for real! They spend the day together in Paris, catching up, we find out more details about what happened about the six-month rendezvous back in Sunrise as they reminisce and bump about in Paris together, only to have to part again (or do they?) when the successful author has to catch a plane. Again.

Before Midnight moves us on another 10 years and again, we catch up with what happened in the second film, filling in some gaps and this time, spending time with the couple - and others - on a Greek Island. The film, again follows through a day-in-the-life and lets the viewer catch up with, what is (maybe?) the last of the series of films. I'll stop there, having tried to use my words carefully so as to give a flavour of the chain of events, but not anything away that will spoil viewing. All I've given away really is that they're both alive over a couple of decades and still know each other!

What's different and nice about these films, raising them above the ordinary slushy love clap-trap is the way in which they are presented, filmed and most importantly, reliant on the script and dialogue. It's obvious throughout that the actors are given some freedom to ad-lib with the material, inject philosophy, meaning of life and love stuff - of which Woody Allen would be proud. The dialogue is snappy and engaging, so much so that it almost doesn't matter for a lot of the time which city or country they happen to be in! It reminded me also of the dialogue which might be written by Tarantino, where what people are saying is as important as what they're doing.

It does sometimes feel a bit like a tourist-office supported venture as they wander past famous sights and buildings, but it's never aggressive in that respect, more passive and in keeping with the nature of the story and films. It's refreshing not to have solutions and outcomes served up on a plate but rather engage the audience in imaginative work to create their own idea about endings - or new beginnings. The two actors have a real chemistry going on and that oozes out in almost every scene, whether they're in each other's arms or arguing about their differences. They have been cast well and warm beautifully to the task.

It is a series of films which could easily be passed off as romantic escapism, but they are much more than that, having something meaningful to say about almost every topic and theme under the sun, as well as the character's time and potential future in each other's lives. Good stuff, well produced, excellently performed - a thinking person's romantic trilogy.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Pixel 3a

The Pixel 3 was only made available last autumn but just a few months later in Spring this year, along comes the Pixel 3a. There's also the Pixel 3a XL but I don't have that to hand just yet, so will focus on the smaller brother and compare it with the Pixel 3, which I do also have to hand.

First impressions are very much about how light it is in comparison, though in actual fact, the weights are almost the same, by 1g! This is because the 3a is bigger. It's bigger in all directions, slightly taller, slightly wider and slightly fatter. The screen is 5.6" instead of 5.5" but the real-world difference is really only the width when using the keyboard, the experience being not quite so cramped. The 3a is made of plastic and glass, rather than the aluminium and glass found in the 3. I don't really think this is significant as although the 3 might 'feel' more premium because of it, the 3a is lighter and will bounce more readily without denting!

The screen does not go as far out to the edges as it does on the 3, though the 'chin' is the biggest offender here, for those who don't like bezels, as it is significantly bigger, even though it doesn't need to house a front-facing speaker like the 3 does. The corners of the OLED panel are wonky, too! Take a closer look and you'll see that they haven't been 'rounded' properly! Only a small point and hardly noticeable, but who let that through QC?!

LG's P-OLED panel of the 3 has been replaced with OLED, which, on the face of it seems like the wrong way round! You'd think that the more economic version would have the 'plastic' version, but that's not taking into account that the P-OLED screen is newer (and presumably more expensive) as we move towards foldable and flexible panels. It makes no difference here really, except for the money. All of these OLED panels, as I understand it, are AMOLED whether or not they're made by Samsung, LG or some Chinese outfit.

What is significant however, is that the screen on the 3a is 'whiter' (full brightness, Adaptive off, 100%) than the 3's - the latter retaining that LG blue cast. Looking straight on from the front it's only very very slightly noticeable, but as you tilt the device, it becomes more apparent. We've had this in numerous devices and the user gets used to it of course. The Pixel 2XL was a culprit - as is my beloved Nokia 8 Sirocco - all with LG panels. But it's not really significant, rather worthy of note. In terms of brightness, I think they're about the same. The 3a appears brighter, just, but only because it's whiter.

Both screens are 1080p and their pixel-count is about the same at around 440ppi. Returning to those bezels, and particularly the chin, brings us to the speakers and the fact that instead of the (faux) stereo speakers both facing forward on the 3, so left/right in landscape, the 3a follows the herd and places the 'bottom' speaker to be downwards-firing. I really don't see why they had to do that, except to reduce the chin, which has got bigger! But then I'm no mobile phone engineer! Net result, pragmatically, is that it's easier to block with fingers.

The sound coming from both devices is this popular kind of 'stereo' which isn't, but emulates it by tuning and overall rounded delivery. As I've said before, I don't really care much about stereo on such a tiny device as nobody is really expecting a surround-sound cinema experience in their pocket, but what is important is overall output volume and quality. The volume of these two devices is about the same, I reckon. Maybe the 3 just edges it, but the difference is in the quality of sound. The 3 sounds significantly better than the 3a, which is slightly more tinny, less rich, less bass'y and an altogether less appealing sound. This is, of course, test-bench situation! If you didn't have the devices alongside each other testing them note-for-note with all the same settings, sounds and software of course, the average user would be more than happy. But for me, there is a difference. How much it has to do with speaker placement, I don't know. If the speaker components are the same ones, then maybe that's it. I suspect however that the 3a has not quite so good parts and it's reflected in the output.

What the 3a does have, however, is the 3.5mm audio-out socket, which it can boast over the 3! The return of sanity! Not that I use it much personally, but for those who do, it's clearly a bonus. I do get very confused still when comparing headphone output from 'apples and oranges', so I just listen with what is supplied (and my headphones) and judge on that, not on what dongle is doing what - as the average user will just use what's supplied and available. So my test is with my headphones and the supplied USB-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box with the 3 - and just plugging straight into the socket on the 3a. For what it's worth, the same applies as it does with the speakers - the sound coming from the 3 is markedly louder, richer, bass'y and more qualitative than with the 3a. Again, most people using this will be more than happy - but up against the 3, I can tell the difference even with my wonky old ears!

Battery is worth a mention here, not because the 3a's has been increased from the 3's 2915mAh to 3000mAh, which seems a little insignificant, but that the 3a is missing the wireless Qi charging which the 3 has. Now, how much this matters to the user is a personal thing. I find that if I have Qi available I'll use it, but if I don't, I don't tend to miss it! The advent of widespread USB-C means that plugging in cables is no longer a fiddly gamble and most phones these days get the user to bedtime anyway, obviously depending on usage pattern. In my short use, it's a bit hard to say, so I'll point to others who report that on slightly longer use, the battery is performing more robustly than the 3 - so no trouble at all getting through a long day with medium/mixed usage - partly due to the demands of the different chipset.

The chipset in question in the 3 is the (near) top-end SnapDragon 845 whereas in the 3a, the more modest SnapDragon 670 has been used. I have been playing with both phones for 2 or 3 days now and I really can't see any problem with that - except for a couple of notables. Firstly, if you're a demanding 'gamer' you might see some slowdown not experienced with the faster processor - and secondly, if you're a pixel-peeping photo-taker! In a sense, the 3a has been made for the likes of me and photographs - the very casual snapper, not advertising-board poster-creator! What's missing from the otherwise almost identical camera setup is the Pixel Visual Core thingie! They've tried to rework this machine-learning algorithm for the SD670 but the net result seems to be that it's slower to process shots, for those who are counting! OIS, AI digitally enhanced zoom, excellent Portrait and Night Sight remain in the main camera, which is the same 12MP f1.8 with all the Google software magic. Well, most of it! The selfie camera is apparently not as good either, for those who go pubbing! Anyway, I'll leave further analysis of the camera to those who care! All the above add to the battery's performance of course and help it to stay a cut above the expectation of the 3's.

One of the things that's really important to me still (I know, I'm a dying breed) is storage. Not having to rely on always-connected cloud-based access to data and media. I don't think we've got there yet, to rely on such services (though I have to admit that we're pretty close). In the meantime, 64GB storage is pretty much a deal-breaker for me. With the other Pixel models there was always a 128GB option for more cash (often disproportionate) and armed with 128GB for all the stuff I want to carry and access instantly, I can live with that. But not 64GB. It's a bridge too far! Having said that, the USB OTG capability and big-capacity microSD cards do enable a wallet-based expansion of these facilities and maybe it won't be too long before I reverse my position. As long as Google don't remove that functionality to further drive consumers online!

The software experience is, of course, identical to that found on the 3. All the glorious Vanilla flavoured Android, pure as the driven snow straight from HQ! We've covered the ins and outs of this before, and you don't need it all spelling out again, just to remind you that the promise of (pretty much) immediate monthly updates will be here, like with all Pixels, 2 years of OS updates and 3 years of security, minimum. Some find it boring, being so clean, as we know, and like to dabble with what other manufacturers are adding over the top, whereas others see that dabbling as a hindrance. Some of us even sit on the fence, the wind blowing to lean us one way or the other as the weather shifts! I must admit that I approach Pixel as a reference device, not daily, so that I can enjoy the enhancements of others - but I'm soon running back in the first week of every month and following major OS updates!

To wrap up a couple of lingering points, there's no IP6/8 environmental protection (that it's been tested for) and the USB-C port is rated as 2, not 3.1 like the Pixel 3 has, which means data transfer speeds of about 500mbps, from memory, on the new one instead of 10Gbps on the old.

Now we come to the most important factor. Price! In the UK, the Pixel 3 (64GB) was released last autumn for £739. This 3a is £399. There are many who will say that the original 3 should really have been pitched at this £399 price to begin with and that Google were taking the rise, working on an algorithm of market expectation. This price is much more in keeping with the original Nexus theme for reference device mainly for development. Having said that, there's no sign of this being a replacement, rather to sell alongside. It is, however, hard to imagine anyone with their head screwed on now buying the 3. Yes, it's plastic, has no Qi charging, has a lesser chipset, no waterproofing and very slightly less good camera and speakers, but it's also a bit bigger and has a battery that lasts longer. Might be a difficult choice for some, but not from where I'm standing! The Pixel experience is all about the software and services, which you will get with both.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

L'illusionniste

Director, writer, animator and all-round talent Sylvain Chomet was only really on my radar because of the mime-orientated segment Tour Eiffel contributed to the beautifully crafted anthology piece Paris, je t'aime. I'll come to that another day. For now, I wanted to enjoy L'illusionniste again and am very pleased that I took the time.

In English known as The Illusionist and not to be confused with the Edward Norton mystery drama from 2006, this animation is a pure delight. I have been watching a number of animated features lately, some from Studio Ghibli and it's great to see the art form continuing without the need for big-bucks Hollywood agendas.

L'illusionniste is a story about, not surprisingly, an illusionist. The film is based on an unproduced script written by French mime, director and actor Jacques Tati in 1956. Made in 2010 but set in 1950's France, England and Scotland, we follow the path of our central character as he tries hard to find work with his simple stage act, whilst all around him, the landscape of stage acts, performance and theatre shifts and changes for a more modern world.

He leaves Paris, flunks a contract in London and takes a long journey to an offshore Scottish Island, before settling into Edinburgh's Music Hall and Theatre scene with a young female fan in tow, collected by accident on the island. He takes rooms in a run-down hotel amongst (and run by) actors, artists and performers all trying to find work and to put a foot in the door of modern life and demands.

The artwork is quite magical with very little dialogue from anyone, a throwback to near-silent film, reflecting the theme depicting new and old entertainment. Every frame is a work of art - there's so much going on in every scene, in every corner of every frame, that to digest it properly requires repeated viewings. Attention to detail to introduce interesting asides, characters, items around the scenes - which most people would miss on one viewing - reflect the time and effort, not only in the making of the animation but also imagining so many ideas and having an insight into what could well be going on in any given street or social setting.

It's often funny, sometimes sad, always stylish but also moving as the story expands and heads towards its conclusion with insights into the post-1950's era of shifted public expectation regarding entertainment and the demise of many old fashioned artists. The pairing of the young girl, getting ready for a life in the times ahead - and the older performer winding down, reflects a clear division of the theme and is used throughout to paint the picture.

The music is always appropriate to the scene, floating between Music Hall pomp to orchestral to rock'n'roll and much between. Very often the haunting sounds of solo piano are at the forefront in the more reflective and poignant scenes. I don't think anyone providing the voices, where there is very brief grunts/dialogue, are in any way famous and the thrust here is clearly the writing, script, direction, story and animation. All of which are a delight. Has to be seen to be appreciated of course - but I can't think that anyone would be disappointed investing their 80 minutes. Highly recommended. Next stop, Les triplettes de Belleville!

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Shoplifters

The original title of this 2018 Japanese film from unknown to me (I need educating) director Hirokazu Koreeda is Manbiki kazoku. It's an odd tale about a group of people who are initially presented as a family living together in a poverty-stricken area of a Japanese city.

The group leap from opportunity to opportunity in terms of income and work - and when they can't, some of them at least turn to shoplifting to get by. But before we get there, we're given an insight, very early on, as to how the unit membership works when they find an abandoned little girl, who they take pity on, take in, make no attempt to tell the authorities or find a family - and in the end, start trainer her too in the craft of shoplifting!

It's quite hard to describe or review this film without a couple of spoilers, but I don't think it matters as the viewing experience is much more about understanding the underlying messages than just the storyline. So if you'd rather watch it first, stop here - be but be assured that it's an excellent film and well worth seeking out!

Quite early on in the film, we get to realise that the group are really not a family after all, and that the film is asking questions about that throughout, challenging the viewer's concept of what a family is and whether or not people living in a group need to be related. The grandma of the group has a pension, but we find out later that she's as much on-the-make as those out there shoplifting - which is a switch for the viewer who is led to believe that the grandma figure is actually the one with the values, standards and morals!

As the story unfolds and events take place, we begin to analyse the motivation of the group, how their loyalties to each other work, including towards an incoming new member and why they have taken up shoplifting - hailing it amongst themselves as a reasonable career path in the centre of all this poverty. The narrative touches on the effect on the shopkeepers who lose out, with ruthless attitude as long as it's short of bankruptcy. The group work hard, as a team, to survive with challenges along the way - at one point the father-figure damages his foot at work but is unable to claim compensation. They need to shift their behaviour in order to compensate themselves instead.

We discover that each of the group have a back-story which has led them to this situation, often from within damaging relationships and situations. There's something being said there again about family life, what family is in relation to society's expectations and asking the question about validity of social norms. And then there's death to be dealt with. We discover how the group deals with death when they don't have the means to pay for a funeral and end up breaking the law to find a solution.

Eventually, the little girl is spotted, the law-breaking catches up with them and we enter the most powerfully acted part of the film in the last 20 minutes when the police are interrogating each of the surviving group in turn. We can now see how well these actors portray the anxiety involved for the characters and the rationale of how they explain their actions and life choices. Significantly, at the end of the film, even then, the family club together to dictate an outcome which makes the most of their situation, minimising the impact on the group.

It's a quite excellent film and it has much to say about society, poverty, how human beings adapt to their surroundings and previous experience, keeping their heads above water. It's very much about the family unit and what that means, challenging us all about our expectations therein. I'm sure that I've come away from the viewing missing some of the points being made, so I'll have to watch it again - but that really will be a delight rather than a chore.

It's shot beautifully. The sets are claustrophobic, streets natural and all the actors (of whom I'm afraid that I don't know any - more learning for me) play their parts expertly. It's clearly in Japanese and I watched with subtitles, but there are dubbed versions for those who prefer. Highly recommended.

When Marnie Was There

This 2014 Studio Ghibli film, original title Omoide no Mânî, is one of a number of masterpieces of animation created at the studio. To quote Wiki, Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation film studio founded in 1985, based in Tokyo and is best known for its anime films.

It's easy for people in the west to pass these films off as poor relations compared to what comes out of American production firms, but the class of animation is cult-in-style and purposefully not the near-real-life leanings created across the other side of the Pacific. The topic is a broad one and I'd point you to Wiki first if you're interested in following a path of exploration about Japanese animation.

In the meantime, I'll talk about this film. It's about a girl called Anna who has been taken into a foster family following the death of her parents. She's not thriving and discovers that the family are being paid to keep her - as professional foster parents. She's not making friends, has low self-esteem and this is impacting her physical health more as time goes on. The medics can't get to the bottom of it but eventually one suggests that the asthma she is suffering, apart from anything else, might be improved if she went away to stay with relatives on the coast for a while.

The foster mother, who, although, yes, being paid, is distraught and Anna is not opening up and telling her how she feels and why. She gets sent off to stay with relatives and this is where the adventure begins. She remains a loner but starts to explore in an nonjudgmental, open environment where the relatives show her nothing but warmth and care.

There's a house over the water where she bumps into Marnie, a girl with long blond hair, who she can't quite work out. One time she goes to the house and it's full of life, the next time, derelict. Marnie only turns up now and then and Anna starts to wonder if she exists at all. Just when she begins to give up on Marnie, up she pops again. Then the house is sold and the derelict premises is overhauled. A new girl is a part of the incoming family, who starts to find clues in the house as to who Marnie is, was, and what the mystery is all about. No prizes for guessing the outcome, that through a series of relations and a closely-knit set of constructs in the story, Anna finds her self-esteem, works out much about her background, her place in the world and moves forward in a positive way, making friends and becoming whole.

The style of animation is charm itself, the music is a delight throughout and the story unfolds at just the right pace in order to keep the viewer interested. Yes, on the face of it, it's a children's film with a moral tale to tell, but it's also very much pitched at adults and certainly kept this one's attention. I have watched and enjoyed another Ghibli production, quite widely known as their best - Spirited Away - and this one is really not far from offering the same quality and charm. I watched a version in Japanese with subtitles, but you can also get a dubbed version, which certainly kids would do better with - if they don't understand Japanese, that is! Highly recommended - I shall be looking for more.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

13 Minutes (Elser)

This 2015 film from the German director of Downfall Oliver Hirschbiegel depicts the true story of Georg Elser who single-handedly in 1939, seeing what was coming, attempted to change the course of events in Europe by assassinating Adolf Hitler.

Hitler was at the height of his power in 1939 and had convinced much of the population that his world-view was right - and the country's people raised up in support. Georg Elser was a pacifist who believed that nothing could ultimately be achieved by violence and that if Hitler was allowed to go on, not only would Germany be destroyed by other powers but that huge numbers of people would lose their lives.

Elser did not belong to the opposition party, so avoided being drafted by Hitler as an undesirable and into forced labour. He was a simple man, local worker and musician. A free spirit who just wanted everyone to get along with everyone else nicely. What is presented here is the story largely in reverse, starting with the bomb exploding, which sadly missed Hitler by 13 Minutes due to a schedule change, Elser's arrest - caught pretty much red-handed, his treatment by the Nazi staff and large chunks of flashback showing his life events leading up to the attempt.

Parts of the film make for difficult viewing as we see how the officials treated Elser, Hitler himself believing that no man could have done this himself and leaning on his staff to uncover the ring of people who Elser was in league with to carry out such an action. As the staff on the ground interrogating begin to realise that Elser was indeed telling the truth and was working alone, it still didn't wash with Hitler who wanted to string more than just one man up for the crime. The staff are forced to become more and more irrational with pressure from above to find the others, who don't exist.

Christian Friedel, who played the School Teacher in Michael Haneke's excellent The White Ribbon, depicts the role of Georg Elser quite brilliantly, demonstrating all the emotions that most of us can only imagine at time of crisis and equally well the happy-go-lucky musician during the more liberated times. Burghart Klaußner is also an actor from, amongst many other projects, The White Ribbon, and plays the frustrated Nazi with menace and sympathy. Katharina Schüttler is Elsa, Elser's lover and supports convincingly.

The director does an excellent job pulling the threads together, keeping the flashbacks from being an annoying foray into the present and minimising the irritating use of handheld camerawork. The sets are well chosen, from the grizzly and threatening interiors of the Nazi buildings to the carefree rural village from where Elser hails. Photography is well thought out and executed, keeping the audience focused on what matters. German dialogue, thankfully, with subtitles rather than English-speaking actors putting on German accents!

It's not an easy watch at times, but as is often the case with films like this, what carries it for the audience is the knowledge that the story is a true one and (most of) these things actually happened. I say most of, as there is a waiver at the end saying that the events are true but some of the background of Elser's personal life may have been changed. Which is a shame, but only drives me to now go and find out what was added or removed by researching the facts. Highly recommended viewing.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Volver

The Spanish cinema scene is easy to miss (from here) when much of European film is from other countries and, from where I'm standing, seems to be somewhat introverted. So much so that I have to admit that the only person I've heard of in relation to Volver is its star, Penelope Cruz. This is, however, an excellent little drama/thriller created by writer/director Pedro Almodóvar in 2006.

Raimunda (Cruz) travels with her daughter Paula to the old family village, rife with superstition (which locals link to the wind!) and a history of somewhat questionable people and motives. As the film proceeds, more is unravelled and we get to understand what's what. She and her sister Sole, played excellently and with great humour by Lola Dueñas, have suddenly had their mother turn up, who they thought was dead - or was she? Thus fuelling the superstition!

Simultaneously, Raimunda's husband, a good-for-nothing layabout who drinks too much and takes far too much interest in Raimunda's 14 year-old girl, is heading towards getting his comeuppance! This is where the story takes a dark turn, and without giving too much away, the family take matters into their own hands in order that the women stick together and address infiltrations. This is a film very much about the power and control of women, particularly in Spanish society, with the vast majority of the excellently supporting cast female.

The family is poor and pull together to take advantage of any opportunity for work and income. They take a short lease on a cafe to provide for a film crew shooting in the area for a couple of weeks and it is apparent that the community pulls together in order to make that a success so that they can all benefit. All this is going on amongst the backdrop of rekindled relationships between families and friends - and the uncovering of truths buried for decades about many of them, what has happened, who's who and reparation. I'd better stop there for fear of revealing too much!

It would be tempting to dismiss this as a 'chick flick' or RomCom with subtitles but although it could be consumed in that manner, it's much more than that. It's an interesting, shocking, funny and dark tale carefully interweaved with much learning for the unenlightened viewer about Spanish rural culture, superstition, the role of women there and dealing with death and dying. Penelope Cruz is, as always, great to watch and is clearly the star of the show performing quite brilliantly, but all of the female players are warm and engaging too. Recommended.

L'enfer

I'm back on my European cinema kick here, with a 2005 art-house offering directed by the Death in Sarajevo man, Danis Tanovic. Based o...