April’s Daughter (2017)

April’s Daughter manipulates us almost as well as its central character, whose charm wrecks the lives of everyone around her.

April's Daughter / Las hijas de AbrilMexico
4*

Director:
Michel Franco
Screenwriter:

Michel Franco
Director of Photography:
Yves Cape

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Las hijas de Abril

It should be “April’s Daughters”, plural, not “April’s Daughter” as the official English title would have us believe. The distinction is important because the daughters, plural, are important. In fact, there are three of them. But there is only one April, and thank god for that.

Set in the city of Puerto Vallarta on the exotic Mexican coastline, the story gives us the calm, then the storm that turns into a hurricane fast. April (played by Emma Suárez, who, the film never ceases to remind us, is in fact Spanish) is a single woman who looks younger than her biological middle age. She is full of life and in control of her own destiny, but she is living on her own, and her relationship with her two daughters is complicated. Then again, her two daughters seem to have their own share of problems.

In the opening scene, played for deadpan comedy, the elder daughter, Clara, who wears the same pyjama-like blouse throughout the entire film, is making breakfast. In the next room, her half-sister, Valeria, is having sex with her boyfriend, so loudly the walls are nearly shaking. The boyfriend is 17-year-old Mateo (the striking, curly-haired Enrique Arrizon), and their sex drive seemingly has not abated since they discovered Valeria is pregnant. Valeria asks her sister not to let their mother know about the pregnancy, but Clara doesn’t listen, and one night, April turns up at the house.

Seemingly generous and caring, April turns up at Valeria’s father’s house in Guadalajara to seek help, but he wants nothing to do with her. From the looks of it, he is just paranoid or overreacting, but we soon realise that April is a something of a sociopath as she turns into a busybody who wants to be in control of Valeria and, when the time comes, her daughter, too. Clara, who is all but catatonic throughout the entire film, offers no support to her sister and simply relents to whatever demand their mother makes. Both daughters’ inaction leads to April taking major decisions on their behalf, one of which is to have Valeria’s rights as a mother terminated.

April’s behaviour in this regard is bad enough, but then her libido kicks into overdrive. The object of her affection? Valeria’s boyfriend and baby daddy: Mateo. While not at all unexpected, this is a fascinating development because the young Mateo is so vulnerable. He is not married to Valeria, is barely out of school and still lives at home with parents who want nothing to do with raising their bastard granddaughter. Predictably, he lets April take control of the situation, as this relieves the pressure on him to be an adult, even if it means he has to sleep with his daughter’s grandmother. But in the process, this young man is thoroughly emasculated, a point that is driven home by the fact that, after just a few days or weeks of living with her, he can no longer get it up. 

While Clara, who runs a print shop, is a cipher who speaks little and does even less besides eating and smoking, the supposedly immature Valeria gradually comes into her own. This kind of growth (the only real development manifested by any of the five central characters), which lights the fuse of the fireworks in the film’s final act, grants the story a deeply satisfying conclusion. Her actions transcend revenge and highlight the superiority of her morality of that of those who stabbed her in the back.

With very little fanfare, director Michel Franco reveals some shocking behaviour on the part of April. But because all of this takes place in the middle of the summer under the glare of near-constant sunlight, it takes a while for the full scope of April’s wickedness to hit us in the face. The visuals, often single takes, draw little attention to themselves and let everything play out in real time without emphasis or acceleration.

This glimpse of a master manipulator (obviously, April, but also, not insignificantly, Michel Franco) is engrossing, even though there is little sign of character development beyond the kind Valeria undergoes against her will. The chill that Mateo’s parents exude and the webs in which April spins everyone around her with her charm are both comically absurd and shockingly diabolical. This volatile tone, along with Emma Suárez’s starring turn in the lead, offers an absorbing experience that takes us all over Jalisco and into Mexico City, where Valerie cuts the Gordian knot with the sword of a mama bear.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2017

Savages (2012)

An unconventional relationship takes a backseat in Oliver Stone’s dissapointingly conventional film about the drug business.

savagesUSA
3*

Director:
Oliver Stone

Screenwriters:
Shane Salerno

Oliver Stone
Don Winslow
Director of Photography:
Dan Mindel

Running time: 130 minutes

Drug films are usually all the same. The build-up shows one or two likeable stoners lounging on a beach dreaming of making it big, so they start off with their knowledge of fine weed and hatch a business plan that ultimately makes them so rich they don’t have any space left in their house to put all the cash. Bunkers full of genetically engineered supermarijuana appear below the house, but, before they know it, the friends have turned on each other, there is some big shootout, and everybody loses.

Oliver Stone, the director of significant films in the 1980s and 1990s who hasn’t been at the top of his game since the landmark projects that were JFK and Natural Born Killers in the early ’90s, has fashioned a drug film that feels slightly different from the others, but not much.

The central relationship – two guys and a girl – in Savages is the film’s most important hook, but while it sets up a nice bit of drama, the questions it raises (or rather, the questions some of the characters raise about this romantic combo) are never addressed. Only near the end of the film, as the two guys drive towards a meeting place in Southern California, not far from the border with Mexico, do they finally express their love for each other, but, despite the camera swirling above them, this exchange has nothing on Thelma and Louise‘s famous final moments.

The girl in the trio, O. (Blake Lively, who acts like she’s being fed her lines through an earpiece), believes her living situation is perfect, because she shares her life with these two attractive men who seem to share her willingly with each other. But, as the crime boss Elena (Salma Hayek) makes clear in one of their heart-to-heart discussions, they very likely share her only because she means less to either of them than they mean to each other. But nothing comes of this very convincing insight into the men’s psychology.

 

The two men, botany and business graduate Ben (Aaron Johnson) and former soldier in Afghanistan Chon (Taylor Kitsch), have grown some of the most potent marijuana anyone can produce, thanks to the fusion of Ben’s green fingers and Chon’s sticky fingers (he brought back some premium seeds from a tour in Central Asia). They are running a multimillion-dollar business, but Ben wants to move on and invest more in helping children in Africa.

Chon isn’t quite sure what he wants yet and spends the day, as O. puts it, giving her orgasms, while he just has “wargasms”. No, this is not the informative nor informed kind of writing one would expect from Stone, but perhaps it is not entirely out of place in this genre.

Despite their not being sure exactly where they stand – both with each other and the small business they run – they go to a meeting with a representative from a nasty-looking Mexican drug cartel, whose skills in the art of decapitation are well-known. The Mexicans make them an offer they plan to refuse, but, before they can start a new life elsewhere, O. is taken prisoner, and her life remains in the balance until the end of the film.

Elena, the head of the cartel, is a woman who seems to be in complete control of her business, one she inherited from her late husband. Hayek is unimpressive as the drug queen, and the black wig on her head in this film makes her look a bit like Elvira, though without the semi-beehive. The viewer is kept in suspense throughout as to whether her soft-spoken demeanour is actually just cold-heartedness or whether she is genuinely vulnerable, as suggested by the fraught relationship with her estranged daughter.

Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta also star in the film, both playing to type, the first as a drug dealer, the second as a bent cop also heavily involved in the trade, though one shouldn’t underestimate Del Toro’s character, who, despite a very bad mullet, can dispatch his enemies at the drop of a hat.

Savages starts with O. telling us, “Just because I’m telling you this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.” Stone has a nifty surprise in store for his audience at the end of the film, as a big twist is suddenly twisted out of shape even more. The film will give you your fix of mellow drama punctuated by sudden acts of violence, particularly when Del Toro wields a pistol, but overall the film lacks a vision for depicting with real insight the drama of the drug trade and the three young people caught up in it. We don’t get any real joy out of the characters using drugs, but nor do we get a firmer grip on their lives beyond their smoke-filled bubble.