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Bar, The
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by Jay Seaver

"More mainstream there, harder to find here."
4 stars

Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia never really became popular in the United States, the way some European filmmakers do, but there was a decade or so when you could reasonably expect his films to show up somewhere, if not necessarily in the big multiplexes: They'd be on the genre film festival circuit, sometimes making it into the more mainstream fests, get picked up by an indie distributor with the reach to get them into boutique and repertory theaters (if only for late shows) and then onto store shelves once they were on disc. Between the business and his output changing to different degrees, that's no longer the case, to the point where I had to import a copy of his 2017 film from overseas. It's a perfectly fine movie, if not as crazy as some of his earlier work, and it seems like it should be easier to see it.

It starts with snatches of phone conversations on the streets of Madrid that leads a few people to wind up in a somewhat rundown bar/cafe run by Amparo (Terele Pávez): Elena (Blanca Suárez) is trying to meet a first date, got lost, and has ducked in hoping to charge her phone; Sergio (Alejandro Awada) is a traveling salesman; Trini (Carmen Machi) is a regular who mostly plays the slot machines. Already there are bartender Sátur (Secun de la Rosa), retired policeman Andrés (Joaquín Climent), and Nacho (Mario Casas), headphones on and kind of oblivious to the world. Two people who don't look to be in great shape soon follow, one heading straight to the restroom and Israel (Jaime Ordóñez), homeless and possibly mentally ill, accepting a little charity from Amparo. There are a couple of others, but they're not really worth mentioning, as a sniper takes them out as soon as they leave. The street clears, the already-shoddy cellular service gets worse, and while everyone is panicking and diving for cover, the bodies disappear, leading everyone in the bar to wonder just what is going on and if any of the other people in this small room is so dangerous that it's worth shooting anyone who may have come in contact with them.

The answer to that is pretty clear from the opening credits, even if they don't specify the exact form of contagion that the group may have been exposed to. The script by de la Iglesia and regular collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría is, by and large, what it looks like on the surface - clues doled out early on tend to support the most obvious reading and attempts to hint at something else are usually not just red herrings, but often ones that come across as people acting suspicious more because the filmmakers need to draw things out a bit than anything else, and any satire or other commentary about the draconian methods of the authorities is hindered by the decision to stay inside the bar. There are hints of it, as well as of class issues, but de la Iglesia either rushes past them or lingers on the obvious.

If he often sacrifices depth in favor of immediate thrills, de la Iglesia's instincts are usually good in the moment. He's ruthless in deploying violence and maybe knows enough about his own reputation to get tension from teasing a gross-out that may or may not come, and keeping the audience busy enough with one thing to keep their attention away from what's going on elsewhere. It becomes fairly episodic at a certain point as the filmmakers find ways to switch the environment up despite the film being set up as being trapped, and there's a nice sense of a descent into hell, although it does get stretched out a bit.

The film puts Blanca Suárez at its center early, and she does well there; Blanca is established early as kind of bougie but not to the extent one would make fun of her, and she's good at reacting to how guys can't stop putting hands on her shoulder or back so that it's in mind toward the end without making it too central. Mario Casas has a sort of nerdy charm to play against that, while Terele Pávez and Secun de la Rosa give distinct working class vibes. Jaime Ordóñez brings a sort of mania to Israel that might fit better in one of de la Iglesia's more frantic movies, but there's tragedy to him without him being mournful.

Toward the finale, "The Bar" is a bit stretched-out, and being less of a flight of fancy than de la Iglesia's previous films, it maybe doesn't quite stand out so much from the hundreds of genre thrillers available on VOD now. It's nevertheless unnerving how it feels as though de la Iglesia disappeared from view for all but the most dedicated fans in America even as he has seemingly become more mainstream in Spain.

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originally posted: 01/01/20 14:05:19
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