By Preston Wilder
It’s a bit of this and a bit of that at the cinema this week. Actually, it’s been that way for a couple of weeks: kids’ cartoons have been blazing the trail, with contributions from Mexico (Top Cat Begins), Brazil (Lino) and Germany (Rabbit School) breaking Hollywood’s stranglehold. This week you have Lara Croft, of course, but you can also watch Loveless (in Russian, with Greek subtitles) at the Pantheon in Nicosia; or you could watch the Spanish horror movie about killer Muses.
That would be Muse, which is partly Spanish – it’s directed by a Spaniard: Jaume Balaguero, best known for [REC] – but also set in Ireland, for no discernible reason except Irish funding; oh, and French and Belgian companies were also involved, and of course the film is in English. A bit of this and a bit of that, just like most Euro-flicks nowadays – though something may have been lost in translation, given the puzzling premise. There were nine Muses in Greek mythology and they did nothing but good, inspiring artists to create – but Muse posits seven Muses, who behave more like witches. They use literature (mostly poetry) as a weapon, speaking verse to inflict physical pain. A single line from Cavafy can produce pus-filled sores. One of their victims is found devoured from the inside by insects, with a quote from Baudelaire tattooed on his corpse. You get the idea.
There’s some unexamined animosity here, mostly directed at women. Our hero Samuel, a literature professor (played by Elliot Cowan, a sensitive beardo with a tragic expression), has his life upended by a woman who beguiles him, needily gets him to declare his love for her, then slashes her wrists (no spoiler; it happens before the opening credits), haunting his memory forever. “My love is not so simple. I’m a lot of things at the same time,” says another woman later, speaking perhaps for her whole gender. Muse is imbued with a sense of females as aloof, unreasonable creatures, leading Samuel on, making impossible demands, then threatening to kill him if he doesn’t deliver.
More importantly, the film is cliché-ridden, visually harsh and tortuously plotted, the kind of movie that stalls unconvincingly (“We have to wait for the ambulance,” says Samuel, when they obviously don’t) in order to contrive its effects, the kind that’d probably be half as long if people would just tell each other what’s going on. Muse has its moments but it’s mostly a turgid mess; then again, what can you expect from a film that’s afraid of poetry?
Not much poetry in Gringo either, this being action-comedy farce with a touch of Tarantino; a case of energy over excellence. The energy is definitely there, however, juggling a dozen characters, most of them bad (in a nutshell, it’s a film about bad things happening to bad people). Only two could plausibly be described as good: mild-mannered Harold (David Oyelowo), the closest thing we have to a hero, and the aptly-named Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), who sunnily tells our Nigerian gringo that “things are going to start getting better, I can feel it” – just before a couple of thugs burst in and beat him up.
It’s a typical joke in a film of broad strokes and heavy ironies – but the cast is very watchable, led by Joel Edgerton (his real-life brother Nash directed) as a piggish corporate type, Charlize Theron as his Machiavellian second-in-command and Sharlto Copley as Joel’s scruffy bro, a former assassin turned aid worker. The setting is mostly Mexico, a place of scams and sadistic drug lords, the film’s ethnic politics also taking in a subtle racial undertow: not only is Harold – who of course is black – consistently exploited by his selfish white bosses, he also has to listen to ‘helpful’ stories about gorillas and bananas. It’s a nice touch – unless of course Gringo is doing it for shock effect, which is not unlikely.
The film tries to shock, being essentially vulgar. Corporate Charlize makes fun of deaf people and fat people, in addition to Mexicans. The sadistic drug lord cuts off a victim’s big toe with a pair of pliers in between discussing which is the best Beatles album (he’s obsessed with The Beatles), a joke that should probably have stayed in the 90s. Some of this is funny, and/or lively – but the constant cross-cutting ends up weakening the movie, making it feel like a patchwork of vaguely related stories. Charlize seduces a nerdy exec (good old Alan Ruck, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) in a bar – then we leave her in the bar, just as things are hotting up, and jump to another strand, then another and another. Gringo gives a bunch of talented actors a chance to strut their comedic stuff, for which much thanks, but there’s no momentum, it’s just random jokes. A bit of this, and a bit of that.
DIRECTED BY Jaume Balaguero
STARRING Elliot Cowan, Franka Potente, Ana Ularu
Spain/Ireland/Belgium/France 2017 107 mins
DIRECTED BY Nash Edgerton
STARRING David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, Sharlto Copley
Australia/US 2018 111 mins