David Stratton and Evan Williams give their verdicts on the latest movies
Living is Easy With Eyes Closed (Vivir es facil con los ojos cerrados) (M) Limited release Son of a Gun (MA15+) National release
IN 1966, Spain had been ruled by the Franco dictatorship for almost 30 years following the defeat in 1939 of the elected government in a bitter civil war. Despite this, for 10 or so years the country had become a popular destination for tourists from other parts of Europe, thanks to the low prices and warm weather; it also had become a mecca for filmmakers. Italian spaghetti westerns and Samuel Bronston swashbucklers were all shot in the south of Spain, as were a couple of films by Richard Lester, the American-born, London-based director who had come to fame directing two films with the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Lester made a very enjoyable version of the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Bronston Studios and, in 1966, returned to Almeria to film his offbeat comedy How I Won the War, starring Michael Crawford and, in a non-singing role, John Lennon. It was during the making of this film that Lennon began writing the song Strawberry Fields Forever, which contains the lyrics that give this Spanish film its title — and accurately reflects on the fact living in Spain at that time was, at least for the well-todo, easy as long as you closed your eyes to the actions of the dictatorship.
This is the backdrop to David Trueba’s enchanting film Living is Easy With Eyes Closed, which is about a small-town schoolteacher from La Mancha obsessed with the Beatles. Antonio, superbly played by the fine actor Javier Camara, is so Beatle-fixated that he teaches his English class the lyrics of Help!, and the film’s opening scene amusingly depicts the struggle of these kids to master the difficult pronunciations. When he hears that his idol is actually in Spain, Antonio decides to drive to Almeria and try to meet him; not only is it a question of hero worship, he also wants to beg Lennon to publish the lyrics of the songs along with the LPs, something that did, indeed, occur after Lennon’s Spanish sojourn.
During the drive south, Antonio picks up a couple of young runaways, both fleeing from the oppressive paternalism of the society in which they live. Juanjo (Francesc Colomer) wears his hair Beatles-style, and has been abused and humiliated by his policeman father (Jorge Sanz), while sweet Belen (Natalia de Molina) is three months pregnant and has escaped the strict home for unmarried mothers where she was dumped by her family.
Their adventures are the subject of a delightful feel-good movie that skilfully combines humour, sentiment and tart political commentary. For Spanish audiences it surely resonates even more since one element of the comedy deals with the different dialects and attitudes found in different parts of the country (the owner of the run-down hotel in Almeria speaks with such a strong accent the visitors find it hard to understand him, while the owner of the local bar is Catalan). “Too many people live in fear in Spain,” Antonio says at one point, and the casual violence with which authority figures suppress those in weaker positions (both a priest and a cop are seen to hit children violently) is testament to that. The dictatorship would last for another 10 years. Incidentally, in a possible in-joke, Camara is made to look a lot like Phil Silvers, who starred in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. BY now there’s plenty of evidence that this has been a bad year for Australian films, at least in terms of local box-office results. Nor has it been, I think, a vintage year in terms of quality. The chief supporters of local cinema appear to be art-house audiences, and they are unlikely to rush to see a horror film such as The Babadook (arguably in terms of sheer quality the best Australian film of the year so far) or even apocalyptic thrillers such as The Rover and These Final Hours. Local audiences will support entertainments, such as Red Dog and The Sapphires, in substantial numbers, and they’ll go to a thriller such as Animal Kingdom not only because of positive reviews but also to see much-loved Jacki Weaver play such a commanding role.
Which brings me to the latest Australian release, Son of a Gun, a thriller set in Western Australia, written and directed by Julius Avery, his first feature after making his mark with some well-regarded shorts. The film is a generic thriller, a story of a young man who, while doing time in a high-security prison, comes in contact with serious bad guys, gets involved in prison escape and becomes a member of the gang and participant in the robbery of a gold refinery. It’s the sort of thing Hollywood has been doing successfully for years.
The first thing to say is that the film is for the most part very well made. Aside from some unnecessary but minor wobbly camerawork in