MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

Stephen Frears’ ‘The Queen’ and Pedro Almodovar’s ‘Volver’

Stephen Frears and Pedro Almodovar.

Two great filmmakers whose work goes great together at film festivals.

But more importantly, these two non-US filmmakers have once again achieved what seems to endlessly elude Americans working in either the indie or studio systems. They deliver unique, beautifully made, clean, crisp, compelling films year after year. You can hear their voices but their films are not really about them. They are intimate instant classics without trying to be classics or awards chasers. These men are precious, but their work is not.

The Queen is Frears’ latest and it is so simple and so complex and so polished to just the right degree of shine that he makes something so few can do look effortless.

The movie is about, as you probably know, HRH Queen Elizabeth II, the current monarch of England, in the period just before and after the death of Diana. Helen Mirren lives at the center of the work, underplaying the role to within an inch of not connecting with us, but keeps us firmly at the end of the leash until it is time to show us this very reserved character’s heart. But it is the conceit of the piece, written by Peter Morgan, that drives this surprising film experience. Morgan goes inside – without any inside access – the walls of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street to dramatize his view of how traditional power (the Queen and those around her) and new power (the freshly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair) came together to chart an unsteady course for the future.

(Interestingly, Morgan also has a play premiering this week at London’s cutting edge theater, Donmar Warehouse, called “Frost/Nixon,” which considers the before, during, and after of the famous/infamous interview the duo did in 1977. Here is one review.)

Obviously, Morgan and Frears and Mirren don’t know what exact words and specific actions took place over that long two weeks in 1997. But, like any powerful dramatic look at history, they bring the heart of the matter to life. And like all great art, they have found a theme that will inspire passion in the audience. In this case, it’s what is good and bad and ugly and beautiful about tradition and the nature of moving into the future.

The nature of this conflict is what gives The Queen – quite separately from other small high-quality, oscar-hopeful films like Little Children and Babel – a real shot at a Best Picture nomination from the Academy, a group of mostly older people, many of whom grew up and worked in a more traditional movie era, but who, like Mr. Blair in this film, understand that change has both good and bad points. The Queen respects its subject, even when it conflicts with its subject. And, in doing so, shows a unique degree of respect and even love (though I am sure it was the last thing on the mind of any of the artists involved) to the people who will be asked to embrace it at year’s end.

It is time for Stephen Frears to be given his due as one of the very finest working filmmakers on this planet. Of course, he has had his misses in the 21 years since he burst into the American film lover’s consciousness with My Beautiful Launderette. But how many filmmakers in history can offer a quality resume that has the variety of Launderette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, Mrs Henderson Presents, and now, The Queen. Those are eight DVD library must-haves in 21 years. And there is great work, however flawed the final product, in projects like Sammy & Rosie Get Laid, The Snapper, Hero, The Van, the grossly underappreciated The Hi-Lo Country, Liam and even the TV version of Fail Safe.

Frears’ work here is sublime and amazingly, not a retread of any of the previous work. There was plenty of brocade in Dangerous Liaisons, but the Palace is a very different place here. There is old English empire thinking, but none of the sentimentalism of Mrs. Henderson Presents. And there is gritty, modern English populism, but not a whiff of the world of Dirty Pretty Things. Frears finds the right voice, a new voice, for every picture. And from the elegance of his recreation of part of the evening on which Diana died to the life of the Queen to the fish-in-new-water world of Tony Blair and his family, Frears makes it all real and intimate and yet a little magical.

Besides Dame Helen’s Oscar nominated performance (no need for qualifiers on this one), there is exceptional work in every other speaking role in the film. Michael Sheen, barely recognizable from Kingdom of Heaven or Underworld, turns the trick as both a comic and earnest Tony Blair (a role he also played for Frears for a Brit TV film called The Deal). His evolution, in the performance and on the page of the script, is a surprise and one of those turns that is so hard to get right, but will not be praised enough.

James Cromwell as Prince Phillip is perfect and, while I was aware that he was James Cromwell, he was an inspired choice by Frears. Roger Allam, who we saw in March in V for Vendetta as a Brit version of a blowhard Fox News host, hits a perfect and uninvasive pitch as the Queen’s personal secretary. Sylvia Syms doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but makes the most of it as the Queen Mother. And in what at first seems like a throw away, but turns into a key role, Helen McCrory walks the tightrope as Mrs. Blair.

The big mistake would be to expect a Big Movie when you see The Queen (and you must). This is a small movie. But what seems to be specific turns universal at some point. And that is the wonder of it. A really compelling story, terribly well told.

And that is a happy segue to…

Volver is Pedro Almodovar’s latest joy to behold.

And part of that joy is that, in the end, it is just a movie. This is not a case of damning with faint praise. Volver and The Queen are both reminders of just how starved we are for top quality filmmaking that is not made with the awards season as its cause for existence.

Simply, Almodovar is a great filmmaker and while he sometimes makes films that really do change your perspective on film, what I love most about him is that he really is out there just making movies. He sees the world through eyes unlike anyone else’s. He plays with genre and tradition and our expectations. But in the end, we watch his movies with popcorn and soda and a box of Jujubes like he probably dreamed of doing as a boy in the rundown dark theater in Calzada de Calatrava and did in his 20s in Madrid.

Volver is another Almodovar mix of street reality and magical thinking. A movie almost exclusively in the world of women, it tells the story of Rainmunda, a woman in a bad marriage with a beautiful young daughter, a sister with a secret hairdressing business in her apartment, and a still painful memory of the loss of her mother and father in a fire years earlier that has left her enraged at her mother ever since. Things take a turn for the weird when her aunt, who has long lost her mental grip, passes away and the question of whether her “conversations” with her dead sister are crazy or if the sister (Rainmunda’s mom) is really a ghost haunting all of their lives.

There is a lot more than that… but to describe another inch of Almodovar’s story would be an act of cruelty. Almodovar works outside of the box and each person should be allowed to discover the turns in that map for themselves. But I will say this… the film is emotional, but it is also fun, wild, busty (Mr. Cruz’s push-up is on par with Ms. Roberts’ in Erin Brockovich), mournful, loving, and loaded with the brio of life.

And Almodovar continues to show more and more skill as a director. There are things here he does with easy directorial confidence that are just great to see… even if most audiences won’t notice. He has the assurance behind the camera that allows him to do things he needs to do, but without ever falling into that trap of doing stuff just to prove he can.

Penelope Cruz, being touted as an Oscar contender, does a terrific job here, going through the wild ride with an assurance and ease that answers the question, “Can she really act?” with an unqualified, “Yes.” And I suspect that this performance will change Hollywood’s view of Cruz. She is more than a pretty face. She can play Everywoman. And she can deliver the full range of emotion.

She is perfectly deserving of an Oscar nomination for her work here. I don’t know that it is a showy enough role to get Academy members to rethink her position in the acting hierarchy. That is a challenge. It feels more like the role that leads to a nomination for the next film. Wondrous groundwork though.

Also delivering big time in this film are the rest of the family… Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas (who you’ll recognize from her sensational turn in The Sea Inside), Yohana Cobo as Rainmunda’s daughter, and Blanca Portillo.

Volver, in the end, is really about the repeating circles of our lives and how we get trapped inside of them and the challenges of escaping to a better place. As much as it is a genre ghost movie and a thriller in a minor key, it is a heart movie. And it is likely to take a small, easy place in your heart, commanding, not demanding a space. A terrific original, unexpected story so nicely told.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin