Some Beasts (2019)

aka Algunas Bestias

2020 #225
Jorge Riquelme Serrano | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Chile / Spanish

Some Beasts

Sometimes, one thing can ruin an entire movie. Depending on how harsh a critic you are, I’d say that’s quite rare. Unless it’s threaded throughout the entire film (like, say, a terrible lead performance, or a consistently poor cinematography decision), a small constituent part would have to be truly horrendous to take the entire rest of the movie down with it. Some Beasts is one of those films. The problem arrives in the final 20 minutes, which makes it a massive plot spoiler. Out of some lingering respect for storytellers, I provide this spoiler warning; others would argue content of this nature doesn’t deserve such courtesy.

Anyway, before I get to that: the film’s first hour-or-so. It’s about a family — mum, dad, teenage son and daughter, and their maternal grandparents — travelling to a small island near Chile that the mum & dad have just bought. They want to turn its ramshackle house into a luxury hotel, and they want her rich parents to stump up some money. They’re a snobby bunch — not horrendously so, but with that creeping sense that their grumpiness isn’t just a bad day, it’s a lifelong sense of entitlement. They’re accompanied by a guide, but after he’s accused of being inappropriate towards the daughter (which he wasn’t) and he’s groped (against his protestations) by the grandmother, the family wake up the next day to find he’s disappeared, stranding them on the island.

Some Beasts is labelled as a thriller, but there’s not much thrilling about it. By the halfway point, people are literally sat around staring into space… On the surface, it’s just a family on a bad holiday; but there are obvious interpersonal tensions, which combine with some occasionally ominous music and unusual shot choices (like a series of straight-down bird’s eye views that open the film) to lend a mildly unsettling atmosphere. As the film goes on, their behaviour gets worse, but it’s in small increments on a long sliding scale.

Abusers

Later, they all play a board game. And we watch. In real time. And we join it halfway through, so you’re not going to know what the game is or how it’s played. Then the tensions explode and everybody’s arguing. The whole of this unfolds in one long static take, which is either an impressive bit of staging and acting or just directorial showing off, depending how you want to take it. I tend towards the latter, given what happens next.

The final 20 minutes suddenly throw in a very sensitive and emotive subjective, presenting it in a deliberately provocative fashion. To be clear: the grandfather gets into bed with the teenage daughter and rapes her. Like the board game, this is presented in a couple of long static wide shots, meaning we witness more-or-less the whole thing. A raft of questions are posed. Is this the first time? The daughter seems awfully accepting of it. Not that she likes it, but is resigned; she barely protests. If not, when did it start? There’s only been the vaguest hints earlier in the film about the grandfather’s feelings. Who knows about it? Because there are some cutaways that suggest some of the other characters know what’s going on. And the next morning, it seems like they all know — so when did they find out? And what happens next? Because there’s no blazing row; no calm confrontation, either. They all sit around a bit more, looking shocked… then get in a boat and go home. The end. It’s like there’s not enough screen time to deal with the subject in sufficient detail, so the film doesn’t even try. Except, of course, that it’s the filmmaker who decides the running time and the pacing. There’s no “oops, I introduced a serious issue too late in the day and now I don’t have time to examine it properly!”

Because the film doesn’t actually explore with the topic it’s raised, that means we’re left primarily with the manner of its presentation. That seems consciously designed as an assault on our sensibilities via a brazen depiction of something morally abhorrent. Rather than any meaningful engagement with the multitude of questions and issues it raises, it pokes at us for a reaction, being about as provocative as a child saying a rude word at an inappropriate moment — the scene, and its explicit detail, exists only to say, “look how edgy I am! Look how I’m prepared to show things that shouldn’t be shown!” I’ll be the first to argue that depicting something is not necessarily to endorse it (cf. the endless stupid debates about Scorsese’s oeuvre), but when the Bad Thing goes as unexamined and unpunished as it does here, one starts to wonder about the real intent of the filmmaker.

Abused

The first hour or so of Some Beasts is mostly uneventful; the final 20 minutes are offensively ill-judged. I don’t think you get to throw something that serious into your film, and shoot it so provocatively, without also tackling what it means. You can’t take something that so profoundly affects people who’ve suffered it and treat it in such an off-hand manner. Taboo subjects can and should be tackled in films, but you have to engage with them in thoughtful and meaningful ways, not use them as something shocking for the sake of being shocking. The ending is so egregious, it kicks aside what value there was in the earlier portion of the film. It actually made me feel kind of angry, which is not the kind of reaction I normally feel towards a film.

Some Beasts is well made, in its way, but it’s a bad film.

1 out of 5

Some Beasts is screening on AMPLIFY! until Sunday. It featured on my list of The Worst Films I Saw in 2020.

The Mole Agent (2020)

It’s Day 2 of the AMPLIFY! film festival (new content goes live at 1am, FYI). Among today’s additions is the UK premiere of The Mole Agent — one of 18 UK premieres that are part of the festival.

My review of that in a moment, but first, also debuting today are…

Incidentally, I’d recommend Rose Plays Julie, an engrossing and powerful psychological thriller (I’ll review it in full soon, time permitting).

The Mole Agent
(2020)

2020 #231
Maite Alberdi | 90 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Chile, USA, Germany, Netherlands & Spain / Spanish

The Mole Agent

It’s easy to make The Mole Agent sound like the setup for a comedy: it’s about a doddery 83-year-old who must learn to be a spy. And, indeed, there are scene where the film is very amusing; particularly early on, when the octogenarian in question, Sergio Chamy, struggles to get to grips with the technology he’ll need to use, much to the exasperation of his spymaster, Rómulo Aitken.

Except that premise, which the film has leant its promotion on (note the tagline on the above poster: “it’s never too late to become a spy”), is slightly misleading. Aitken isn’t a spymaster, he’s a private detective, who’s been hired to investigate allegations of abuse at an old people’s home — hence the need for an old person to go in as an undercover observer. It’s not exactly Bond, or even Le Carré, is it?

Indeed, director Maite Alberdi leans into a different genre — film noir — shooting the early briefing scenes with a heavy use of venetian blinds, either peering through them or employing their distinctive shadows. It’s a level of visual panache you’re not used to from a conventional documentary. It might lead you to question if what you’re watching was entirely documentary in nature, were it not for the fact that these scenes take place in the ‘safety’ of the PI’s office —it’s not unreasonable to assume the film crew semi-staged a couple of ‘scenes’ to add a bit of visual interest. (They clearly did it for the promo photos, too. I mean, just look at this one…)

Secret agent men

The real questions of form begin to emerge once Sergio begins his undercover mission. To be able to film what he’s up to, the documentary crew have inveigled themselves into the same old people’s home with the cover story that they want to make a film about a new resident — so when Sergio turns up, what a perfect coincidence, and excuse to focus their filming on him. Except… if this care home is abusing its residents, are they going to continue doing that with a film crew present? Heck, surely they wouldn’t even agree to a film being made at all?

Well, the whole investigative goal goes out the window pretty quickly, anyway. Sergio is initially diligent about snooping around and secretly recording his reports for Rómulo, but he soon begins to make friends and become involved in the life of this little community. The other residents become his friends, and he’s more invested in their wellbeing as their comrade than as an outside observer. Concurrently, the film becomes less interested in the comedic fumbles of an octogenarian secret agent, and more in exploring the lives of these old people. Sergio’s fellow residents aren’t faceless possible-victims, but characters we get to know too.

What Sergio ultimately finds (spoilers!) is neglect — not by the staff, but by the families that shoved their elders away and forgot about them. For the film, that’s a much bigger observation; one on the state of society as a whole, rather than the misdeeds of a single care home. (If anything, the home is wholly vindicated, because we see how much they care for and support their residents.)

Friends to the end

If The Mole Agent has a fault it’s that it can be a little slow at times — though, given the pace these (often delightful) oldies move at, perhaps that was unavoidable. But it’s worth the investment nonetheless, because it’s ultimately a powerfully affecting experience. It’s a film that intrigues you with its laughable premise, then swings round to punch you in the emotions with a crystal-clear message.

4 out of 5

The UK premiere screening of The Mole Agent is on AMPLIFY! until Friday 13th November. It’s on general release in the UK from 11th December.

Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

No (2012)

2014 #96
Pablo Larraín | 112 mins | TV | 4:3 | Chile, USA, France & Mexico / Spanish | 15 / R

No1988: due to international pressure, Chile’s dictator, General Pinochet, has acquiesced to a vote on whether he should continue ruling the country. Despite the violent takeover he orchestrated, and subsequent murders and ‘disappearances’, the country has prospered under his rule, and many — especially influential affluent people — are keen for him to stay. The anti-Pinochet “no” campaign are allowed a daily slot on state-controlled television in the run up to the election, and they hire advertising exec René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) to mastermind the campaign. Cue internal conflict — the politicos want dour films highlighting Pinochet’s evil; René wants to use the language of advertising to sell the promise of a happy future — before the campaign itself finally gets underway, and the “no” campaigners become targets of the ruling regime’s evil tactics…

That’s most of the plot anyway, but the devil is naturally in the details — I mean, you probably know how it’s going to end, right? It’s how writer-director Pablo Larraín (adapting from a play by Antonio Skármeta) tells this tale that matters, and fortunately he does so with considerable class and intellect, albeit with the occasional obtuseness of Art cinema.

Most strikingly, the whole thing is shot on genuine ’80s videocameras, complete with poor resolution, colour bleeding, and all that jazz. Sounds like a pretentious gimmick, doesn’t it? It actually works rather well: it quickly evokes the era, it allows genuine news footage from the period to blend seamlessly with freshly-shot material (and it really does), and you quickly stop noticing. Or at least I did, but then I also watch a fair amount of classic TV, so I’m used to 4:3 black bars and the picture quality of video (though to suggest something likeThe Good Guys classic Doctor Who has picture quality as poor as this is an insult to the professionals who made it and those who restored it for DVD). In an era where the goal is often clean-as-possible ultra-HD images, it’s almost nice to see something so left-field used for excellent effect; a bit like when Pixar got over digital precision and started using soft-focus and the like in Ratatouille.

It seems many have made comparisons between No and the TV series Mad Men, because both are period-set pieces about ad men and the power of the work they produce. It’s a superficial comparison, though. For all its funny camerawork and subtitles, No is a much more straightforward story than Matthew Weiner’s frequently allegorical and oblique TV series. At the same time, Larraín’s film can be trickier to follow, guiding us less clearly through the thought processes behind the adverts, for example. Both have their merits, but the similarity is an incidental one — liking Mad Men does not mean No is a film for you, and vice versa. Unless you really like to see behind-the-scenes of advertising in any form, that is.

And on another aside, is it telling that Channel 4 premiered No in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum? The two votes had surprisingly similar results: about 45% for Yes and 55% for No; except in Chile it was “no” that was the vote for change. Very different political situations, of course: one vote was trying to overthrow an oppressive right-wing regime that had brought misery and instilled suspicious pseudo-Americanised values for far too long, and the other was trying to get rid of General Pinochet. Ho-ho-ho! The Bad GuysBut seriously, there’s not really a comparison between the brutal military regime that ruled Chile — which nonetheless many were happy with because it had brought modernisation and prosperousness for some — and the voluntary union between the rest of the UK and Scotland. I’m sure some of “the 45”, as they now call themselves, would identify with those battling for freedom in this film, but I think that might be taking it a bit far.

No has enough of the thriller about it to be entertaining and overcome its occasional desire to be needlessly Artsy. It’s also about the power of people to democratically bring about change, it’s lesson here perhaps being that for that to happen you need to stop lecturing the public on things they “should” care about and engage them on their own terms. Something a lot of organisations could benefit from learning.

4 out of 5

No is on Film4 tonight at 1am.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.