Our queen in Ha­vana

Less boy-meets-boy than boy-meet­shim­self, this tale of a Cuban drag artist is qui­etly se­duc­tive, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC - DON­ALD CLARKE

VIVA Di­rected by Paddy Breath­nach. Star­ring Hector Me­d­ina, Jorge Peru­gor­ria, Luis Al­berto Gar­cia, Laura Ale­man, Luis Manuel Al­varez, Paula Ali, Jorge Martinez, Luis An­gel Batista. 15A cert, lim­ited re­lease, 100 min “The most beau­ti­ful slum in the world.” An­gel (Jorge Peru­gor­ria), an ail­ing, el­derly boxer, de­scribes Ha­vana thus in Paddy Breath­nach’s tri­umphant drama, and the film-mak­ers work hard to prove him right.

Cathal Wat­ters’s cam­era dis­cov­ers bal­ance in ev­ery peel­ing wall and crum­bling colo­nial boule­vard. Hector Me­d­ina, sym­pa­thetic as a hair­dresser and aspir­ing drag queen, Je­sus, could not wish for a more de­li­cious back­drop. Few films this year have been so qui­etly se­duc­tive.

A brief synop­sis sug­gests other roads wisely not taken. Je­sus makes a poor liv­ing cut­ting old ladies’ hair and primp­ing wigs for the drag artists at a nearby club. Des­per­ate for money and in­trigued by the en­ter­tain­ment, he au­di­tions and – com­pared un­favourably to Donatella Ver­sace – fast dis­cov­ers this mim­ing lark is not as easy as it looks.

Mama (Luis Al­berto Gar­cia), the charis­matic im­pre­sario of the re­vue, makes it clear there is noth­ing in­sin­cere about cre­ative camp. This is one of sev­eral lessons Je­sus will even­tu­ally take on board.

That story could eas­ily have ac­com­mo­dated the broad strokes and loud noises of Baz Luhrmann, but un­stop­pable poly­math Mark O’Hal­lo­ran, co-cre­ator of Adam & Paul and Garage, has writ­ten a more nu­anced piece.

The core of the film con­cerns the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Je­sus and his fa­ther, An­gel. The older man, re­cently re­leased from pri­son, turns up at the club and for­bids his son to per­form. The kinder, more flex­i­ble Mama urges him to break free and fol­low his dreams.

There is a bit of Billy El­liot here – with the ex­cel­lent Gar­cia as a con­vinc­ing standin for Julie Wal­ters – but, un­like Billy, Je­sus is a grown man who des­per­ately needs to as­sert him­self. A calm pres­ence with a sad face, he ends up at the rough end of ev­ery re­la­tion­ship. As An­gel be­comes sicker, the son takes on the role of par­ent. He is too for­giv­ing of his close pal who boots him out

Hector Me­d­ina in Viva

of the flat to have sex. Most puz­zlingly, he seems to have no urge for a ro­man­tic life of his own. (The only sex scene fea­tures a dis­creet cameo from the screen­writer.)

Most en­gaged view­ers will want to give the lad a firm shake and urge him to stand up for him­self. Of course, that’s where the film’s ten­sion comes from. Viva is less boy-meets-boy than boy-meets-him­self.

There are no huge sur­prises in the pas­sage of the two key sto­ries – strug­gles with dad and strug­gles with drag – but Breath­nach, di­rec­tor of the much-loved I Went Down, con­firms a gift for mod­u­lat­ing the ac­tion to­wards a de­served big fin­ish.

The first Ir­ish film ever to be short­listed for the best for­eign-lan­guage Os­car com­fort­ably jus­ti­fies that hon­our.

Be sure to stay for the cred­its and a de­light­ful lit­tle epi­logue. LIGHTS OUT Di­rected by David F Sand­berg. Star­ring Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bate­man, Alexan­der DiPer­sia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Ali­cia Vela-Bai­ley, Lotta Losten. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 81 min }We hor­ror fans must take what we can get. David F Sand­berg’s fea­ture de­but is not in the same class as re­cent hits such as It Follows or The Babadook (a film Lights Out su­per­fi­cially re­sem­bles), but this is a very eco­nomic piece of work that gets just enough mileage out of its key high con­cept.

The no­tion was first hatched in the di­rec­tor’s short film of the same name. What we have here is a crea­ture that ap­pears only in dark­ness. Keep a flash­light with you and the hiss­ing Diana – far from the most ter­ri­fy­ing name ever – will not be able to sink her long fin­gers into your flesh. It hardly needs to be said that our he­roes are for­ever en­coun­ter­ing blown fuses.

Like a few too many hor­ror films, Lights Out take a slightly reck­less ap­proach to men­tal ill­ness. The de­press­ingly un­der-em­ployed Maria Bello plays So­phie, a dis­turbed mother who lives alone with her re­source­ful son (Gabriel Bate­man). The two mud­dle on well enough de­spite So­phie hav­ing fre­quent con­ver­sa­tions with a mys­te­ri­ous pres­ence in shad­owy cor­ners. When things get too hairy, Martin ends up stay­ing with his goth sis­ter Re­becca (Teresa Palmer). But some­thing looks to have fol­lowed him there.

The script is far too con­cerned with a back-story about which no­body will much care and fails to clar­ify what the he­roes be­lieve is hap­pen­ing in the last act. Never fret. The thrills are well or­ches­trated in a flick that knows not to out­stay its wel­come.

Get used to Diana. Hav­ing made close to $100 mil­lion in the US on a $5 mil­lion bud­get, it is al­ready one of the year’s most prof­itable films.

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