PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES

Glasgow Film Theatre, 26.09.11

The demise of the print news industry over the last ten years has been making headlines itself, and it becomes the focal point of Andrew Rossi’s behind the scenes access film – Page One: Inside The New York Times.  The New York Times has the third largest circulation numbers in America, behind USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, but like all newspapers around the globe has seen that figure drop drastically, falling below 1 million daily sales for the first time in 2010.  At the same time as readership dropped, so the advertisers disappeared, finding the internet a far more effective advertising tool than dated print media.  This leads to painful cutbacks at the NY Times, but so far, it has avoided the fate of several American newspapers, mentioned in the film’s opening, that have gone bust and ceased to exist after histories of a hundred years-plus.

Rossi makes this the central theme of his film, and follows the newly created NY Times Media desk, as they cover media-related stories and the changes that new technology are bringing to the media industry, threatening the very existence of the publication that they work for. We follow new kid on the block, Brian Stetler, who came to the NY Times via his creation of a blog about media news, and contrast him with old hand, ex-drug addict and voice of experience, David Carr, along with their Media editor Bruce Headlam.  While Stetler and Carr come at their journalism from opposite technologies, they both end up at the same point – that there is no substitute for detailed, properly researched and fact checked journalism.

The clash between Stetler’s new style and Carr’s old school approach provide several humourous moments – Carr threatening to confiscate Stetler’s smart phone if he doesn’t stop checking it during a BBQ; Carr’s resistance too and eventual submission and championing of Twitter – and also give the film its central argument.  Essentially, as Carr advocates, social media is all well and good, but proper journalism and news reporting will always have its place at the heart of any society, and in fact, the social networking world we live in is based on and built around the news that the major corporations and newspapers provide.  It’s a pretty easy case to make – one look at the Twitter ‘trends’ column reveals that Twitter, rather than making or breaking news, acts as a conduit through which users can gather and discuss news seen elsewhere, usually whatever happens to be on television at the time, or indeed, any recently breaking major news story from newspapers or the internet websites of the major news companies.

Having established that it is not the craft or job of the investigative journalist that is under threat, but the traditional institutions where these individuals would normally find a home, Page One shows an answer for the future for the media corporations.  This seems to manifest itself, as Stetler enthusiastically agrees, and Carr cynically admits, in utilising the new technology of the internet and the income that can be generated from it.  Tablets are heralded (somewhat contradictingly) as the saviour of the newspaper industry, meaning of course the corporations and journalists themselves, rather than the media of actually printing copy, which is given no hope of reprieve in this film, by anyone.  The film opens in the NY Times actual printing press, but it seems like an inevitable, and regrettable,  goodbye to this old style of delivery.  The quote that the tablet (specifically the ipad here) is the saviour of news corporations comes from none other than Rupert Murdoch, owner of the mighty News Corporation, and a man whose media empire was initially built on newspapers all over the globe.  During the course of filming, the NY Times introduces a pay wall onto its website – the third most visited news website in the U.S., and the staff seem to regard it as an inevitability.  Despite any grievances they have, they seem reluctantly approving of this step.  The first paper to introduce pay walls was of course Murdoch’s all-powerful News Corporation on its titles like the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and in the UK, The Times. Murdoch famously has said that readers should pay for any content on the web, as they would in print, and so it seems inevitable that the rest of the industry will follow.  Interestingly, the wider debate about media plurality is not touched upon at all, something that would seem relevent to the New York Times, which is still owned ostensibly by the Ochs-Sulzberger family, as it has been since its establishment, while  it’s rivals, like The Wall Street Journal and New York Post, along with many others, have been swallowed up by the News Corporation behemoth. 

This tablet reference is the only mention of Murdoch or News International throughout Page One, and that glaringly highlights the age-old problem of cinema as a medium for delivering topical documentaries.  Although the phone-hacking scandal at News Corporation’s News Of The World paper had been rumbling on in the UK for a number of years, the real breaking of the scandal that took this story global happened seems to have happened after Page One was more or less complete, as it gets no mention anywhere.  We have mention of the scandals that have embroiled The New york Times in recent years – the fake and plagiarist reporting of Jayson Blair and the poor journalism of Judith Miller in the lead up to the Iraq War, but News Corp. gets away scott free.  The phone hacking scandal, that led to the closure of the historic News Of The World paper has, without a doubt, done more damage to the reputation of journalists and the media corporations than any other single incident in recent years.  Interestingly, while NBC television news is used to highlight a story of poorly researched news gathering and staged media headlines, Fox News is notable in its absence.  Perhaps the film-makers felt News Corporation takes enough of a bashing from other sources without the need to join in, but in a film dealing with the stature and state of modern journalism, it seems like a massive white elephant in the room where News Corporation’s part should be at the centre, not skirted around.

It can also be argued that by concentrating on the Media desk and the very future of the New York Times itself, Rossi and his team may have missed the bigger news stories.  As important as the state of journalism is, and the fate of the Times is clearly the story Rossi wished to follow, it may have provided for a much more meatier film to follow the other news desks, such as the big political, war or crime stories that the Times covers, and in providing a detailed report on just how difficult and demanding proper journalism is, in that way have mounted an even stronger defence of the craft.  The main story we do see David Carr investigate is the collapse of their rival Tribune Group (including the newspapers The Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun), and the scale of wrong-doing that led to it.  It’s a great piece of work, and seeing Carr on the office phone, tucked into his messy cubicle, is a reminder of what journalism should be about.  It’s enough to make one rewatch newsroom-set films like Kevin MacDonald’s State Of Play (2009) or the ultimate journalist film, All The President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula).  Carl Bernstein, half of the team that broke the full-scale of Nixon’s corruption in the Watergate scandal, makes a brief appearance towards the end of Page One, and serves as a reminder of the great things a free press can achieve in holding to account those in power.  It’s just a shame that in trying to make this argument for The New York Times, Page One arguably follows one of the less significant, if no less valuable,  desks.

Carr comes out of the film as a star. Cynical and world-weary he defends The New York Times against all who seek to bad-mouth it, and through him we see the character of the dogged, put upon, hard-working, thorough journalist of old, a dying breed perhaps amongst his younger, socially savvy colleagues.  But through his story and the team at the Media desk we do find the same newsroom feel of those films mentioned, along with an almost wistful camaraderie. No matter what the media and news world looks like in the future, it’s easy to surmise that the loss of the paper newsroom and the people who make an honest living in it would be a massive one.

Film Rating 3.5 out of 5.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE MULTIPLEX: WHAT’S WRONG WITH MODERN MOVIES?

by Mark Kermode

Mark Kermode and I have a number of disagreements about films. Not that he is aware of them of course, having never met me or read anything I have written or said about films (despite the fact he has worked on BBC TWO’s The Culture Show, as I have in the edit, but our paths have never crossed to date).  One of the most well-known and well-liked film critics in the UK, Kermode has always advocated a subjective attitude to film criticism, where it is as much about a personal reaction to a film as it is any critical analysis.

In his latest book, Kermode dedicates a section to his view of the role of the film critic as someone who with an educated film background, is someone who is there to simply relate their views on films they have seen within the context they choose to see them.  Here we agree, and conversely, this is what leads to my disagreements with Kermode.  So, as in the past, here Kermode champions the horror genre of film – his repeated claim is that The Exorcist is the greatest film ever made – and, like another well-respected UK film critic, Kim Newman, is a massive fan of B-movies and little known curio films.  I find it difficult to like many horror films, all that killing and blood and being scared, although I do recommend The Exorcist.  Interestingly, I am in agreement with him that more recent horror films have descended into sick gorefests that have little of the charm of the classic horror he adores.  Kermode lays into the acting style of Marlon Brando – I love Brando at his best, although admit his later work is awful.  He mounts a rather unexpected defence of the Twilight films and Zac Efron – I cannot stand either.  But, with his definition of film criticism as something that is first and foremost a personal opinion, it’s okay for us to disagree.

Which is good, because as it turns out, there are many things we agree on.  The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex is essentially a good old-fashioned rant about the state of modern pictures, not just the content of them, but the way in which we are forced to watch them.  The first section of the book is a recounting of a particularly horrific visit to his local multiplex with his daughter to see the latest Zac Efron film.  In it, Kermode touches on all the annoying things that make many cinephiles despair at the state of modern multiplexes.  The cost of tickets, the cost and pressure applied to buy junk food, the poor customer service, the impersonal and incorrect film projection of the digital age, the difficulty in finding any member of staff who is aware of correct film projection and so on.  He doesn’t quite get to the point of the people who attend the cinema and spend the entire film chatting or on their mobile phone, but they come in for criticism later on.  It feels like an amalgamation of everything that can go wrong in a cinema visit, but the fact is, as an avid cinema viewer, I can relate to each and every incident, as they have occurred to me on multiple occasions during my many trips to the cinema.  Which as always brings me back to my question – that if I, everyone I go to the cinema with and have talked to about going to the cinema, and Mark Kermode get so annoyed about all these things – why do the multiplex chains continue to get away with doing it?  Can we hope they will read Kermode’s book and do something about it? Probably not. As Kermode notes, the multiplex chains are only interesting in efficiency and making profit.  That’s why, as Kermode recounts, as the technology developed that allowed cinemas to do away with dedicated professional projectionists, so the chains got rid of them – not to provide the customer with a better experience, but so they could provide a slightly worse experience, but with more profit margin.

Kermode goes on to offer his view that blockbusters these days are so bullet-proof against failure, due to home viewing sales having the ability to save any cinema duds, that they should inherently be better, because the studios can afford to take risks with them so long as they stick to basic ingredients – star names primarily – that will guarantee they will find an audience. So there is no excuse for some of the lazy, by-the-numbers fodder recently served up.

One thing on which I completely agree with Kermode is the disaster that is 3D films.  He offers a concise history of 3D’s attempts to win over the wider audience – it’s been around as long as cinema itself – and explains on each occasion why it has failed miserably.  Usually 3D is rolled out by studios and cinema chains when they perceive a threat to the audience figures of cinema goers.  So in the 1950’s as television took off, 3D was used to attract people back to the cinema, but faded out when rival technologies such as Cinemascope proved much more successful.  In the 1980’s home video arrived and again 3D was rolled out, dying away once more due to a general lack of enthusiasm.  The latest flavour of 3D, as a reaction to piracy and film downloading seems likely to suffer a similar fate.  Kermode argues, and I agree, is that in order to attract more people to the cinema it is quite simple – make better films, and give people an experience that is affordable and enjoyable – not expensive and stressful.

A further section on the misguided state of the UK film industry – the problem is not production but distribution, and the inevitable swamping of our multiplexes with inferior American product – rounds out the musings, and Kermode offers his solutions to the whole messy problem. Unfortunately, its difficult to imagine a world in which the main players will go for his ideas, and I suspect he himself knows this, but it doesn’t stop him arguing a very convincing case.  Which is, of course, where Kermode’s humourous, compelling and grumpy style comes from and excels.  A good read for anyone with a passing interest in the present state, and the future, of cinema going.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

Odeon East Kilbride, 16.09.11

The popular truth is that the demographic of cinema-goers is made up of primarily the 16-24 years old age group, and as such, if you want to have a hit movie then you have to appeal to the sensibilities of that group.  Action, sex, comedy, celebrities to the fore; drama, literary adaptations, plot, character development, character acting take a seat at the back of the class.  Yet in its opening weekend, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film epitomised by the latter list of characteristics, sat pretty at the top of the UK box office, having taken nearly £3million, more than the recently released The Change-Up (David Dobkin), Friends With Benefits (Will Gluck) and I Don’t Know How She Does It (Douglas McGrath) combined, films that fall firmly in line with the former group.

The risk, of course, in targeting a film at a more mature audience is that this audience is far more discerning.  If the film is bad, the audience will stay away, unlike the celebrities or big set piece effects that can still draw in a younger audience to a poor product.  The benefit is that if you can get it right, there is a largely untapped adult audience out there just waiting for a good reason to go to the cinema.  Make a good mature film, and the audience will come.  All this relies on huge generalisations and a prescriptive view of film-making and marketing that fundamentally reduces all teenagers to unthinking neanderthals, which is of course false.  Yet it is the model on which the film industry in both America nd the UK seems to work.  Therefore, the ideal for any film production company is to find the magic formula that combines the smart, intelligent serious film with an equal appeal to a younger age group.

With his last film, the brilliant Let The Right One In (2008), Tomas Alfredson managed to do this, combining a traditionally teen-friendly genre (the vampire movie) with an exquisitely made drama about childhood, friendship and bullying in 1980’s Sweden.  It was so successful as a foriegn language film that Hollywood felt the need to try to cash in, and gave us the awful Let Me In (2010, Matt Reeves), a film that expertly highlights the current state of un-originality and desperation for a quick buck that pervades modern Hollywood cinema.  Thankfully, the producers of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy have found a much more rewarding way in which to bring Alfredson’s brand of film-making to the wider English-speaking public, by recruiting him to helm this superior adaptation.

Based on the modern classic novel by ex-British spy John Le Carré, Tinker Tailor tells the tale (loosely based on real life events) of the hunt for and unmasking of a Russian mole operating at the very heart of the British Secret Service at the height of the Cold War in the 1970’s.  An aging Control (John Hurt) and his loyal right hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced out of the Service when an operation in Hungary goes badly wrong, and a new breed of ambitious, career-driven agents take over.  When another agent, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), returns on the run from Europe with information that confirms what Control thought – that there is a Russian spy at the centre of the Service – the government re-enlist Smiley to unravel the mess and unmask the traitor in their midst.  Control has given a codename to each potential traitor: Tinker is Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), his replacement at the top of the organisation; Tailor, the charismatic Bill Hayden (Colin Firth); Soldier, the dogmatic Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds); Poorman, Hungarian immigrant Toby Esterhouse (David Dencik); and Beggerman – Smiley himself.  Along with his loyal companion Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley sets about examining the evidence and eventually makes a revelation that will shook the Service to its very core.

Wisely, the plot sticks fairly closely to the original novel and manages to cram in much of Le Carré’s intricate plotting and characterisation into its slim 127 minute running time.  Oldman, as the film’s still centre is excellent, capturing the quiet, unassuming yet ruthless Smiley, and successfully managing to step out of the long shadow of Sir Alec Guiness, who embodied Smiley in a BBC mini-series adaptation in 1979.  Other stand outs include Cumberbatch, adding another impressive performance to his growing C.V., Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs – another of the old guard forced out of the Service – reminding us again just how much of her career and talent was wasted messing about on throwaway television comedy, and Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux, whose initial shooting sets the whole plot in motion, finally getting to do something other than play a Cockney hard man or villian.  Trying to cram so much into one film does lead to some loosing out – Colin Firth’s Hayden gets short screen time to establish his flamboyant character, and similarly Ciarán Hinds gets little time to register.  The acting, from such a high quality cast, is however, uniformly brilliant.

The film-makers have made some modifications. Moving the initial shooting of Prideaux to Hungary rather than Czechoslovakia seems a rather unmotivated move, it’s only consequence to possibly add more suspicion to the Hungarian born Esterhouse. Guillam is given a new scene that explicitly reveals his homosexuality, something that is only very oblique, if at all present, in the source novel. It seems a rather pointless addition, a glimpse into a personal life that has little relevance to the central plot.  More successfully, Alfredson uses a central scene of an office Christmas party, used in flashback throughout the film, to neatly sum up individuals characteristics neatly and efficiently.  So we have Control, drunk and alone, Smiley quietly watching everyone, Hayden the extrovert and Alleline and Bland scheming at the back of the room.

Alfredson’s direction is a masterclass in composition and restraint. Much like Let The Right One In, he trusts his material to let the camera sit and watch, and use movement and changes in pace as a release from built tension and as a tool to punctuate points.  Similarly,the editing,by Dino Jonsäter,allows shots to take their time, cuts only when necessary and increases the pace when the story dictates it should.  Cinematographer Hoyte Von Hoytema paints London as a grey, dim fog enshrouded city and the interiors are all a similarly smoke-filled fug, embodying the murky world Smiley has to unravel. When the traitor is revealed, the room is noticeably well-lit and clear, as Smiley literally sees the light. 

The whole thing is so well-engineered and clinical, and so much attention to detail is laboured over that it could be argued there is a coldness, or a certain coolness, to it. But this is the world the characters inhabit. The characters don’t let their personal lives enter or complicate their profession, and it is Smiley’s main flaw that his socialite wife Ann has left him, and continues to carry on very public affairs which George is fully aware of.  Again, this strand of the story is diluted down from the source novel, but this works to just hint at the human behind his cool demeanour.  He only raises his voice once throughout the film, when confronting a life long friend who has betrayed him so completely. Smiley is a man tired with the world, but struggling to maintain his own personal control within it.  When he takes his place as the new head of the Service at the end of the film, there is the hint of a smile as he takes his place where he belongs and where, conversely in the muddled world of spies, he is most in control.

The central scene in which Smiley confronts his Russian spy nemesis, Karla, is mentioned, and that enhances the possibility of filming the further two novels that make up Le Carré’s ‘Karla’ trilogy, something that on this evidence (and box office success) would be welcomed.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may not please everyone – it remains to be seen if those that haven’t read the book will fully understand what is exactly going on – especially those looking for action set pieces, explosions and sex that are generally associated with the spy thriller genre, but it is difficult to imagine a more definitive or successful adaptation of this complex novel into a film.  Let’s hope other film-makers take Alfredson’s lead and have faith that the people who go to the cinema the most also like to see genuinely good films in amongst the trash.  One of the best of this, or any, year.

Film Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

DRIVE

Cineworld Glasgow, 23.09.11

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive follows two well-worn film paths – that of the violent crime thriller, and secondly the thrill of fast cars and driving action – and manages to combine the two to make a fresh, exciting and distinct film.

Ryan Gosling stars as the unnamed Driver, who works part-time driving stunt cars for movies, as a mechanic for his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals.  He’s set up as the typical Man with No Name, and Man with No Past.  All we learn from Shannon is that he walked in to his garage six years ago and can drive cars better than anyone.  Gosling’s performance typifies this unknown quality. The script offers the Driver little dialogue (at Gosling’s request, much of the dialogue was taken out of the original script), so Gosling relies a lot on his face and body to convey thoughts and feelings, and by maintaining a frightening stillness throughout, he hints at the simmering ability to resort to violence that erupts halfway through the film. As the film’s nominal ‘good guy’, Gosling is both scary and compassionate.  In fact the first half of the film, aside from an opening police chase and punctuations of speed, is a very still, quiet drama.  Not only does the Driver not talk much, but he doesn’t talk much to very few people.  He has no attachments and in fact seems almost socially retarded, unable to communicate with other people in normal ways. In his new neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), he finds someone with whom he can relate to without having to resort to typical human conversation.  Of course, the absence of much dialogue draws attention and givers added significance to the dialogue that does remain, and much of it is smartly written and expertly delivered.

Having fallen for Irene, he agrees to help her ex-con husband do one last robbery. When things go badly wrong, the Driver is left to try to protect Irene and Benicio, himself, and escape the gangsters whose money he has escaped with.  From this point on the film doesn’t so much increase its pace, but rather more frequently punctuates the stillness with more and more excessive outbursts of violence and speed action.  The violence is extreme, and is sure to make any audience wince, and the film so stylishly shot, that it could be argued that it borders on becoming gratuitous.  What prevents this is that the violence has justification, and represents the world in which the Driver inhabits, and the danger that he and Irene are in.  It is also very definitely used as punctuation points to highlight and rack up the tension as the film drives towards its conclusion.  All the violence is clearly motivated, and I would argue, unlike the scenes of mass carnage seen in 12A or 15 certificate films where countless of faceless people die with no consequences, clearly justified.  And while a couple of scenes of violence border on cartoonish and will undoubtedly lead to some uncomfortable chuckles from the audience, they are less flippant and stylised than the likes of Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez.  Some scenes, like the confrontation between Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Shannon, manage at the same time to be horrific, violent, touching and muted.

Refn’s film is beautifully shot. The city is the neon lit backdrop for the action and the crisp sharp photography of Newton Thomas Sigel looks stunning.  Suitably for a film called Drive, there are loving shots of cars and plenty of well-executed driving action.  The cast are uniformly excellent, Gosling a revelation at the films centre, but ably supported by Brooks, Cranston and Ron Perlman, whom it is nice to see being allowed to act without being covered in layers of cosmetics and prosthetics.  If anyone suffers its Carey Mulligan as Irene, who has to settle for the role of timid love interest in need of saving, but does well to convey Irene’s sense of having becoming trapped in a world she can’t control, struggling against the overwhelming tide of masculinity and violence that she wants to protect her son from. 

Although no time in history is given for the film (one assumes it is set in the present), there is a conscious 80’s styling to the photography and the opening credits, while the cars range from the modern to the classics of the 1970’s.  The 1980’s feeling is enhanced by the score from Cliff Martinez and the female-voiced guitar rock that punctuates the film.  The mixed styles and times are added to in details like costume, with the Driver wearing an ’80’s era shiny silver jacket, emblazoned with a scorpion, and leather driving gloves, which become a sign that mentally he is in ‘driver’ mode.  Outside of these clothes he is calm, still and compassionate.  The outfit become like his superhero uniform that he dresses in to give him his underworld identity. 

Add to all this Refn’s European (Danish) background and Drive feels more like a well-funded, stylish European thriller that just happens to involve Americans and be set in Los Angeles.  The mish-mash of styles helps to make Drive feel like something new and different, and genuinely exciting.  If anything lets the film, down it’s the inevitability of the plot. Strip away the stylings, the stillness and the violence, and it’s a fairly typical crime thriller, but there is no harm in taking popular genre conventions and executing a well made film using these, and that is exactly what Drive does, and in doing so, arguably exceeds the boundaries of a typical crime thriller.  Destined to become a cult classic.

Film Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN

Cineworld Glasgow, 08.09.11

It’s impossible not to discuss the central themes of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, The Skin I live In, without giving away a central plot point, so if you are considering seeing this film in the future, it suffices to say that it is another impressive work from the Spanish director that explores his recurring themes of sex and sexual identity, absent or misguided fathers, sisterhood and motherhood.  Thoroughly recommended viewing for Almodóvar fans and newcomers alike, but only read on if you have already seen or never intend to see this film.

The plot for Almodóvar’s latest manages to be both fresh and touch new ground, while at the same time referencing his previous work and centering on familiar themes.  The film opens with Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a respected plastic surgeon, who has secretly imprisoned a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), and has given her a complete skin transplant with a new skin he has artificially produced. Only he and his housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Parades), know of his secret captive.  While Robert is out one day, his brother, Zeco (Roberto Alamo) arrives, ties up Marilia, and rapes Vera. Robert arrives home and kills Zeco.  Robert and Vera then sleep together. In flashbacks, we learn that Robert lost his wife,  when she committed suicide after she was badly burned in a car accident caused by Zeco. Despite Robert’s best efforts to reconstruct his wife’s appearance, she sees her reflection and throws herself from a window. The suicide is witnessed by Robert’s daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez).  Later, Robert attends a wedding, at which Norma is subjected to an attempted rape by Vicente (Jan Cornet). Mentally scarred, Norma is kept in a psychiatric hospital, where she eventually kills herself by throwing herself from a window.  Seeking revenge, Robert kidnaps Vincente, and we learn that he reconstructs him as Vera.  Back in the present, Vera manages to escape from Robert, killing him in the process, and returns home to his mother and the fashion shop she once worked in.

The main topic of the film, as with most Almodóvar films, is the question of sexual identity.  The character of Vera/Vincente is the ultimate realisation of Almodóvar’s questioning of fixed sexual identities.  His canon of films is littered with transvestites, transsexuals, lesbians and gay men, and the culmination of this theme is reached in The Skin I Live In.  By taking the character of Vincente and adding an element of sci-fi with the ability to create perfect, soft skin, a man can completely transform into a woman, whom no one would mistake for a transsexual.  It obviously negates some of the issues that concern transsexuals in the real world, the bone structure, the harsh skin, body hair, and Adam’s apple, or the masculine voice that are often the tell-tale signs that give away a transsexual identity are swept aside, which obviously also negates the mental and physical concerns that these cause.  If all transsexuals ended up by looking like Elena Anaya, then I’m sure the transition would not be as traumatic and ridiculed as it can be in the real world.

However, these issues can also be overlooked by the fact that Vincente is given a vaginoplasty and then re-created as Vera against his will.  As in previous films, The Skin I Live In continues Almodovar’s attempts to create a world almost exclusively inhabited by women.  The physical transformation Vincente undergoes seems like Almodóvar’s ultimate dream, that envisages a world that does away with the male figure completely.  Once again the father figure in The Skin I Live In is almost completely absent.  Vincente lives and works with his mother and Christine, a lesbian shop assistant.  Robert, by contrast, as a male at the centre of an Almodóvar film, is an unusually developed male role, but ultimately becomes a figure of evil, a mad scientist whose values have become squewed by revenge.  His brother, Zeco, appears only as a criminal on the run after committing a robbery, who rapes Vera.  dressed as a tiger, he rapes Vera as though ravishing a meal.  Vincente himself is presented as a lazy young man, content to be out drinking with friends and looking to sleep with as many young women as he can find, possibly with the aid of drugs.  However, his alleged rape of Robert’s daughter is less than straight forward.  When Norma realises what Vincente is attempting to do to her, she panics, and cries out.  Vincente relents and stops the sexual act, but a panicked Norma runs away and tells her father she has been raped.  In both cases sex is represented as an act of violence, of rape.  The other sexual encounter central to the film, Robert sleeping with his creation, Vera, is presented as a loving coupling, but of course it is not simply this straightforward.  Robert has held Vera captive for years, against her will.  He has constructed her in the image of his dead wife.  they only consummate their relationship after Zeco’s rape of Vera, and for a brief time are able to live together, as though in a normal relationship.  Marilia has already warned Robert over the trouble that will come from Vera, and advised him to kill her rather than fall in love with her.  Eventually, Vincente is reminded of how she came to be with Robert, and came to be the woman she is, and escapes, killing Robert in the process. 

The film closes with Vera returning to the shop where his mother and Cristina still work, and they are greeted by her announcing who she is.  In the end we are left with the image of the all female family, mother, daughter  and lesbian friend.  The male from this trio has been replaced, literally, and transformed into a woman.  It ends with a familiar Almodóvar trait of the family that exists without the male, familiar from Volver (2006), but here more distinct by implying that the male, son, father, can be physically replaced completely in the family unit.  The central males in the film Robert and Zeco are dead, or have become a woman, Vera.

The Skin I Live In is yet another good film from the always controversial, and always worth watching, Almodóvar.  Around the central issue of sexual identity are his usual touches of humour, and added to that here are elements of sci-fi and the thriller, all with his distinctive Spanish flavour.

Film Rating: 4 out of 5.