Joe's Movie Reviews

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Little Ashes

The movies have often tried to bring us stories of the lives of creative artist types. Whether the film industry in question is Hollywood, Indiewood or some other country, they just can't resist trying to tell stories about how creative types create and what inspires them. Usually they fall short of the mark, even when made by talented filmmakers. "Little Ashes" does better than most in a lot of areas, but also has a few problems that keep it a bit short of complete success.

This film attempts to tell the story of rising young Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca and aspiring filmmaker Luis Bunuel, and what happens to their relationship after a newcomer, ambitious young artist Salvador Dali, enters the picture. Any one of these men could have made for a fascinating film, so one about all three ought to be a sure thing, right? Well, some of the time, yes. First-time director Paul Morrison paints an authentic picture of Spain in the early twenties to 1936, as fascism was rising and unorthodox artist types were finding it more difficult to create anything unconventional, or to question authority. And in two of the three principal characters, he has given us strong, effective portraits of driven, creative individuals and made us understand why and how they created the art they did. But before I get into why the film doesn't always work, I should note the things that it gets very right.

Chief among these are the performances of Javier Beltran as Federico Garcia Lorca and Matthew McNulty as Luis Bunuel. With only a minimum of background information about their pasts, they give you the feeling that you really are watching close friends who are dedicated to each other even as they often disagree about the use to which they choose to put their art. Beltran captures Lorca's fire and intensity, and totally makes you believe he would write the poems and plays that inspired a nation. And McNulty is his equal, giving Bunuel a fierce devotion to art as a tool to change the world. Together with Morrison's aforementioned realistic portrait of the time and place, they go a long way to making "Little Ashes" succeed where other similar films have failed. But then the movie stumbles.

It stumbles at first because of the cast's weakest link, Robert Pattinson ("Twilight") as Salvador Dali. After being unimpressed by Pattinson in "Twilight", I was surprised by his performance in "How to Be" and thought he had real potential. But as Dali, he gives the wild surrealist even less personality than his "Twilight" teen vampire. Dali is played most of the time as semi-catatonic and soft spoken to such a degree that no trace of personality peaks through. Pattinson's Spanish accent keeps appearing and disappearing in alternate scenes, and is never very convincing when it IS present. And when Dali suddenly gets excited and starts into a speach about how artists have an obligation to go beyond the boundaries of conventional morality, it's startlingly out of place for the character: you ask yourself "Where did THAT come from?"

The film goes further off track by its concentration on an off-and-on affair between Lorca and Dali. Granted, I've established myself here as no fan of movie romances, but (straight or gay) if done well they can provide insight into characters in ways no other kind of story can. But here, we just see endless scenes of romantic montages that give us no real feeling for how the relationship is affecting or changing the partners, or how it may have inspired their art... which IS supposed to be the chief subject of the film. (It doesn't help that a oouple of these montages are scored with music that blatantly rips off my all time favorite film score, Ennio Morricone's music for "Cinema Paradiso".) It just distracts from the point of the film to no good effect, and results in Bunuel... a fascinating character both in life and here... being reduced at times to a minor supporting role as the film forgets about him for long periods of time. You find out about his surprisingly intense dislike of gay people and see a brief excerpt from his collaboration with Dali, the film "An Andalusian Dog" (Lorca was Andalusian and convinced the title was a personal insult), but that just makes you frustrated that the film couldn't find more use for him.

I'm of really mixed feelings about whether or not to recommend the film. I guess ultimately I would say yes, with reservations. I'm sure that a good film could have been made about Lorca and Dali's relationship, but this isn't it. And Pattinson's performance keeps pulling you out of the film. But when it does concentrate on its ostensible subject, "Little Ashes" is an examination of creativity and what inspires it in a way that makes you understand the questions it raises far better than most, and contains a couple of the year's best acting jobs. Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good, and in spite of how frustrating the film can sometimes be, there is still plenty of good in "Little Ashes".


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