The Queen of Spain
During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Macarena Granada (Penelope Cruz) returns from Hollywood to Madrid to film a "The Queen of Spain" for the often drunk director John Scott (Clive Revill) who chanels John Ford and screenwriter Jordan Berman (Mandy Patinkin). She develops a romance with a set worker, Leo (Chino Darín). Cary Elwes plays the leading man, Gary Jones, Arturo Ripstein plays the film's producer, Rosa Maria Sarda shows up as Gary's co-star as does the delightful Jorge Sanz.
Although the characters in The Queen of Spain are quite lively and the performances are solid, especially Penelope Cruz's, the shallow screenplay by Fernando Trueba feels tonaly uneven and fails to maintain wit. Finding the right balance between comedy, satire, drama and romance is no easy task, to be fair, but the film never really becomes funny, biting, moving enough to rise above mediocrity. Some scenes drag while some of the humor falls flat even the actors try their best to overcome the mostly dull screenplay.
Perhaps brilliant directors like Christopher Guest, Armando Iannacci or Barry Levinson would've done a better job with the comedy and satire elements if either of them were this film's director. They would've probably taken more risks with the humor and added more bite to the satire. At a running time of 128 minutes, which easily could've been trimmed down by at least 20 minutes, The Queen of Spain is a well-acted, but overlong, clunky, and underwhelming satire.
Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a businessman, goes to a maximum security prison for committing a DUI and vehicular manslaughter. He leaves behind a wife, Kate (Lake Bell), and son. Prison life turns him into a completely different kind of person as he deals with the prison gang system while defending himself against prison gangsters nicknamed The Beast (Holt McCallany). Harlon even gets his own nickname: Money. After released from prison on parole, Harlon turns to crime by getting involved in a gun smuggling deal.
Shot Caller follows a path well-travelled by other prison films, i.e. A Prophet, which cover similar ground, but at least it follows that path engagingly. Writer/director Ric Roman Waugh opts for a twisty, non-linear plot structure that starts with Harlon writing a letter to his son when he's about to be released for parole before flashing back to show how he ended up in Prison. Then there are flashbacks to his family life. The prison scenes are slightly more captivating than those outside of prison. Waugh avoids bombarding the audience with a lot of physical, gory violence---there are violence scene, but they're not there for shock value. He goes for emotional grit more than the physical grit, and for the most part, he succeeds in acheiving that kind of grit while avoiding lethargy.
It's interesting to observe how Harlon transforms into a tough guy while climbing the prison's gang system. His innate struggles, though, are what ground the film in humanism even if he's not a very likable person. He shows some regret albeit briefly which means he does have a conscience, although it's buried deep inside him. Flawed characters, after all, are what makes a film all the more entertaining; it would be boring and unrealistic to just follow around someone who's 100% decent who has never made a mistake. Granted, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's raw, commanding performance also enhances the believability in Harlon as a character. Other actors in smaller roles, i.e. Benjamin Bratt, Jon Bernthal and the underrated Emory Cohen, also get a chance to shine. Perhaps some of the running time could have been cut down from 121 minutes so that it wouldn't feel a little bloated by the end, but there's rarely a dull moment to be found, so the film doesn't feel longer than its running time. Shot Caller would make for an interesting double feature with Bronson.