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BRAND NEW! Rare & OUT-OF-PRINT! UNOPENED/FACTORY SEALED. Discontinued by MGM/UA. Authentic NTSC - Region 1 DVD! I am not a hard to deal with large faceless company, just a person who loves movies and has an extensive collection and knowledge of films and DVD'S. I specialize in Rare & NEW Out-of-Print (OOP) DVD sales...
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Acclaimed Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar (Oscar for "Hable con ella" ["Talk to Her"]) plus over 100 other international wins, has crafted an involving, unpredictable, R-rated story of crime, passion, betrayal and redemption.
* Penélope Cruz ("Volver") only appears in the opening scene, but her baby is born on a city bus, so she and the baby have lifetime bus passes. The pass and that baby soon show up in the movie.
* Liberto Rabal ("Arrayan") Victor is that baby, now grown to a poverty-stricken young adulthood, fresh from his first sexual encounter, using his bus pass to try and find that willing young woman.
* Francesca Neri ("Hannibal") is Elena, that gorgeous but fickle young woman. Wealthy, self-indulgent (drugs), and wary of poverty-stricken young men (other than briefly); she calls the cops when Victor shows up at her door.
* Javier Bardem ("Skyfall") is David, one of the two cops who respond to Elena's call. This will be a life-changing moment in David's life!
* José Sancho ("Talk to Her") is Sancho, the other cop. He's a bit distracted because he's having trouble at home.
* Ángela Molina (Lots of Spanish TV) Clara is that trouble. She hates Sancho's heavy drinking and wants a divorce. His reaction is brutal.
As you will see, Victor is soon in jail. Instead of allowing himself to become a hardened thug, he launches a self-help regimen which includes working out, studying the Bible and doing lots of additional reading. Now he has a plan... Watch him put it into action as soon as he has served his sentence.
This is another time you will be impressed with Javier Bardem. He is so convincing in later scenes, you will go back and check on him in earlier ones.
I found myself switching loyalties as the story progressed. I discovered that I had not one, but two people to root for. And that's a good thing! I had to replace my DVD because someone didn't return the first one. Aarghhh!
Top international reviews
The simplicity of the film’s melodrama is encapsulated in the narrative’s journey from one birth to another. Our main hero Victor (Liberto Rabal) is born on a bus in January 1970 to his prostitute mother Isabel (the beginning of Almodóvar’s relationship with Penélope Cruz). Jump forward to 1990 and Victor is a young man infatuated with Elena (Francesca Neri), a rich diplomat’s daughter and a drug addict. Forcing his attentions on Elena, a gun accidentally fires which brings the attention of two policemen, Sancho (José Sancho) and David (Javier Bardem). A hostage-style confrontation between the four results in Victor struggling with Sancho for the gun, David rescuing Elena (a significant erotic glance taking place between them as she walks past) and eventually to the shooting of David in the back. Jump forward to 1992 and David is now a cripple playing wheelchair basketball for his country in the Barcelona Paralympics in a game televised in prison where Victor is serving out his sentence for the accidental shooting. He notices David is now married to Elena and vows revenge on the two. Jump forward to 1996 and Victor is released having learned several trades including gaining a teaching license by correspondence. His mother has died and he returns to a desolate slum area to take up his inheritance, a broken up pre-fab home and a few thousand pesetas in the bank. On visiting his mother’s grave he encounters Elena, David and Sancho at Elena’s father’s funeral. After consoling a shocked Elena Victor stays on and eventually meets Clara (Ángela Molina), Sancho’s wife who has come too late to catch the funeral. They embark on an affair. Turns out Clara is unhappily married and in need of emotional support while Victor is still a virgin and in need of sex education which she provides over several ‘lessons.’ Victor warns her unsuccessfully not to fall in love with him for he still has eyes for Elena. He takes a job in the orphanage which Elena is financing to look after the lost children of Madrid. Elena is forced into accepting him, but David has been following Victor since he learned about the funeral confrontation. The two meet each other in Elena’s office where it is revealed that it was Sancho who fired the bullet that crippled David, not Victor. Sancho had found out David was having an affair with Clara and that Clara wanted to move in with him. When Elena learns the truth of Victor’s innocence she decides to give herself sexually to Victor for one night on the condition he never sees her again (the terms of Victor’s original plan for revenge). She plans to continue her marriage with David, but when she tells him what she has done, the marriage is in effect over and David calls Sancho to tell him about Victor’s affair with Clara, the idea being Sancho will then go and kill Victor. Victor in the meantime has ended his ‘education’ with Clara who is returning to Victor’s place to write a goodbye note when Sancho arrives. Husband and wife shoot each other as Victor returns. Clara dies immediately, but Sancho implores Victor to finish the job. Victor refuses and Sancho shoots himself dead. In the meantime Elena is approaching from a distance and hears the final gunshot. Fast forward to Christmas 1996 and Elena and Victor are now an item both still working at the orphanage with her on the verge of giving birth. By postcard David has now accepted his guilt for the bloodbath of a year before. The film finishes as it began with childbirth - the birth of Elena and Victor’s baby in the street, outside the same building and under the same star that Victor had entered the world 26 years previously.
On paper, the story sounds a lot more complicated (and a lot more artificial) than it actually is. Basically we have the staple ingredients of any full-blooded melodrama – love/hate, trust/jealousy, revenge/reward, faith/non-faith, desire/rejection, dependency/independency, suffering/bliss, and much more all filter down through a series of finely nuanced encounters which cut to the very foundation of what makes these five characters tick. Almodóvar has always been a wonderful actor-director and he is helped here courtesy of an outstanding script written together with Jorge Guerricaechevarria and Ray Loriga, astute casting and the sheer quality of his performers. It would be unjust also not to mention Alberto Iglesias’ wonderful accompanying musical score and Antxon Gomez’s stunning production design (with colors less explosive than usual) in contributing to the total effect, but the superior melodrama is most obviously achieved through the memorable and deeply believable characters and what follows is a brief examination of each one before I go onto the film’s double allegory.
Liberto Rabal is superb as the sensitive truly beautiful young man who is at first the victim of circumstances, then a man bent on revenge and then finally a paradigm of Christian virtue. Cast our memory back to our own first sexual encounter (and how powerful a memory that first time is!) and we appreciate how real his feelings of humiliation are when Elena castigates him for his failure to make love to her properly and the resulting confusion which in turn leads to the unfortunate shooting incident. We watch his innocent purity perverted into hatred and desire for revenge and brace ourselves for a typical genre revenge thriller only for Almodóvar to ingeniously subvert our expectation by showing how self-help (courtesy of self-study in prison of not only teaching but also other practical occupations and theology) leads to eventual charity and forgiveness. The scene on the bench outside the orphanage where he describes to Elena how his initial desire for revenge has transmuted into forgiveness, works beautifully to show us the boy’s extraordinarily pure inner beauty. This role would have been taken by Antonio Banderas a few years before (the raw nature of obsessive desire and the practical application of Ricky in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! being very obvious throughout), but Rabal gives something here which is even more sensitive, perhaps underlined most of all by the fact that he is a new face and doesn’t bring the kind of prior expectations that Banderas would have aroused had he have been cast. Crucially, his warmth is enhanced by lacking Banderas’ sinister borderline psychotic edge.
The object of Victor’s passion is also given a convincing sense of rounded reality. When we first see Elena as a desperate junky in her frizzy blond hairdo we could be forgiven for thinking she is Yolanda (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) from Almodóvar’s earlier Dark Habits (1983), but unlike in that film, the capacity for human beings to redeem themselves is illustrated most persuasively by the script subtly emphasizing how addictive tendencies can transmute into servile help rendered unto others. Her ‘guilt complex’ is what keeps her with her husband David and her whole life is given meaning by playing benefactress to an orphanage for lost children. Ex-addicts often work as care workers in reality and Elena’s character is defined purely by the need to help others as a way of helping herself. She tells David she wants to stay with him purely because he needs her more than Victor does, but this is undercut by David’s jealousy and ultimately by the fact that he can’t make love to her like Victor does in their night of passion. Francesca Neri brilliantly nails her character down, especially in that wonderful groin-moving slow motion pass by David as he rescues her on their first meeting (the sexual baroque painting on the wall behind helps a lot here!), and then later in her reaction to Victor on the bench. We see she DESIRES her ‘revenge’ perhaps even before she has formulated it in her mind at this point. It is perhaps significant that the night of love spent between them is the most successful heterosexual sex scene in all of Almodóvar’s films. The deliberate shots of pulsating flesh sans head and feet melding into one another to the point where we can’t tell which is male and which is female says everything about Clara’s first lesson in love which Victor receives earlier – that it takes two people to make love. Coupled with beautifully chosen music, the sexiness of this scene raises the temperature of the film to dizzying heights.
The two policemen are also given great depth and provide for considerable sympathy which is remarkable, especially in the case of Sancho. José Sancho plays a role here similar to Almodóvar’s typical male chauvinist take on characters deliberately meant to evoke the ‘old’ Spain of the Franco régime. He abuses his wife, drinks heavily and is clearly a figure of desperation throughout the film, but Almodóvar refrains from judging him. He never contextualizes and we are never sure if his suffering is brought on by himself or by outside circumstances. Clearly Clara’s infidelity goads him toward self-destruction and in that sense he is a classic cuckold. Whether Clara cheats on him because he has abused her, or he abuses her because she cheats on him, is not as important perhaps as the state of Spain (life in a newly democratized Spain where fascism lingers on) that has forced both to behave badly towards each other. One scene expertly speaks volumes about this. Clara returns to her home after a long day of passion with Victor to find Sancho cooking for her. It turns out to be the day of their 13th wedding anniversary. Roles are reversed here as Sancho plays the woman cooking in the kitchen, preparing his wife’s drink, wearing an apron and doing all the things a dutiful housewife should do while Clara sprawls out on the couch after a long day’s hard labor(!) playing the chauvinist husband. The script even directly alludes to the very way they have exchanged their roles. This prompts Clara to get up the courage to suggest separation (in Spain this can only be done with the consent of the man) to which Sancho replies by slapping her face. Clearly the change in Spanish society from the male chauvinist fascist past to the sexual equality of the democratic future is something he can’t adjust to even though he does try and the film demonstrates how the social change wreaks havoc on his life. His appalling behavior then is to be understood as his confused reaction to events around him that have created the very dysfunctional elements within his own marriage. Therein lies the sympathy we have for both partners. Ostensibly it might appear that Clara is the primary victim, but it is revealing that when she walks out it is Sancho who we feel sorry for. The expression on his face after being sprayed in the face and before he is shot in the leg is one of sheer pathetic weakness as clearly Clara means the whole world to him and José Sancho captures this abusive/loving dichotomy within his character absolutely brilliantly.
David is perhaps an even more intriguing character, outwardly seeming to be much more worthy of sympathy than Sancho, but actually equally compromised. When we first see him he is the long-suffering partner of a drunken psychopath in the making. David is the figure of calm and authority. He rejects the booze offered by Sancho and courageously takes charge of the hostage situation, for which he wins the love of Elena. The bullet in the back marks him out as a sympathetic victim and we are encouraged to admire his resurrection as a basketball player and feel sorry that he can only pleasure his wife via cunnilingus. We even feel sorry for him as he desperately tries to stop Victor and Elena from connecting, his voyeurism excused by his wish to preserve his marriage. Almodóvar seems to enjoy keeping his audience on edge by expertly hiding whatever is going to happen next in the narrative. An example of this is the scene where David visits Victor to warn him off his wife. At first we are with David as he negotiates his wheelchair through the detritus of urban decay to get to Victor’s house. Then when he confronts Victor and threatens to hurt him if he continues to follow Elena we become unsure. So far we think David is ‘good’ and that Victor is ‘good’ inside but still has revenge on his mind and is thus ‘bad.’ The animosity is brilliantly broken courtesy of a football episode on TV which unites them both in enjoyment. For a fleeting second we sense neither are bad and may even be friends under different circumstances. Then the old confrontational feelings come back and David clatters awkwardly back down the stairs and makes his slow way back to the car, actually shown in painstaking detail by Almodóvar to contrast with the push-ups done by Victor which poo-poo any idea that the impotent David could ever physically hurt him. Sexual virility plays impotence here with no clear-cut winner. Things change after this scene though as gradually Victor gains our trust and David by contrast starts to lose it. The next key scene is clearly the second confrontation between them in Elena’s office where Victor ends up demonstrating how Sancho pushed his finger onto the gun trigger and tried to kill David. Clara has told Victor that in addition to the shooting not being Victor’s fault, the motivation was David’s own affair he was carrying out with her. The moment we understand this final point the pendulum of sympathy swings completely and we start to see the darkness in David. In a way, it is he who was responsible for his own injury and for Victor going to prison, and also for condemning Clara to longer years of loveless marriage, he being her exit plan which was consequently so rudely taken away. We see David’s true nastiness when he plays dirty in a televised basketball game and then by his decision to virtually order Sancho to kill Victor by showing him pictures of Victor and Clara making love. In a way that is very typical of Almodóvar David is presented as having good qualities as well as bad right through to the end. He doesn’t have to tell Elena about his affair with Clara, but he does. Similarly he never doubts the integrity of Elena who is known to be ‘indecently honest’. In the end he accepts his culpability for causing the final bloodbath and intriguingly Almodóvar presents the bond between David and Sancho as stronger than either of the marriages we see. When David shows Sancho the incriminating pictures Sancho believes what he’s told (that David isn’t seeing Elena again) and lets David dress his gunshot wound. This implies both policemen are bound by the kind of male-chauvinist honor that we associate with the Franco years. Like Sancho, David is having a hard time adjusting to a society which has basically taken all power away from the police force. The General Election of 1977 has rendered the police either drunk or impotent and any moral imperfection in either of the characters is more indicative of the surrounding society (which they can’t adjust to) than about the inherent ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ that exists in either of them. Javier Bardem gets a great deal of screen time compared to the other actors and he manages to convey the moral duplicity of David with consummate ease. We start liking him, end up doubting him, but always recognize he is a mixture of good and bad just like the rest of us.
The fifth character is of course Ángela Molina’s Clara and she gets the least amount of screen time. Conversely, she gets the two most electric dramatic scenes and acts them with such extraordinary conviction that in retrospect she seems to dominate the film from start to finish. The most tragic character of the five, she is the most obvious victim of Francoism – the long suffering recipient of domestic battery from her husband Sancho. She has tried repeatedly to escape but each time to no avail. She is immediately attracted to Victor on first sight at the cemetery and I think it shows Almodóvar’s class that he doesn’t have her leap immediately into bed with him. A woman from a bourgeois background she is genuinely shocked by Victor’s rough neighborhood (“it’s like Sarajevo,” she says) and walks away from him for this reason. This shows Clara being motivated by love rather than lust when we next see them together through David’s camera lens. Clearly the relationship starts off with her in the commanding position over him, administering his sex education and ordering his house, but gradually it shifts as Victor graduates from his studies obviously with outstanding results (!) and becomes master over her, she needing him more than he needs her. The scene where he tells her they must stop seeing each other is a model of how such things should be done, the expression in Molina’s eyes so hurt and so destroyed, the flames of the stove literally reflecting the devastation wreaked on her as she brokenly totters off through the urban wasteland, Almodóvar taking a leaf out of Michelangelo Antonioni’s book in letting landscape speak volumes about human emotions. Then there’s the climactic scene where she returns to tearfully leave a good-bye note in Victor’s Bible. No matter how great the writing, the casting or the direction, it still takes great acting to bring off moments like these and Ángela Molina delivers in spades here – these two scenes are among the very greatest in any Almodóvar film.
Explosive melodrama this film certainly is and any viewer who in real life has shared in the gamut of emotions felt by any of these characters will be richly rewarded, but what gives Live Flesh that extra bight is the fact that it is about actual events and means something concrete, appealing to the head as well as the heart. It is the first Almodóvar film to feature a firm politico-historical framework. All of Almodóvar’s films up to this point have dealt with the transition that took place in Spanish society from Francoism to democracy and the director’s main themes read as an attack on the foundations of the former and a celebration of the freedoms that came with the latter. In What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) he offers a wild sexed-up allegory on this transition (please see my review), but without grounding it in firm historical fact. In Live Flesh he kicks off with an epitaph, quoting directly the words of Minister of the Interior Fraga uttered in January, 1970 as the military under Franco asserted greater power over the country: “A state of emergency has been declared throughout the country. The articles affecting freedom of speech, freedom of residence, freedom of association, and habeas corpus, have been suspended.” Not only are the words held on the screen for a long time, but Almodóvar highlights each restriction in bold red literally forcing us to read. This alerts us to pay attention for what follows in the film is a full blown allegory on the socio-political change that engulfed Spain from 1970 through to 1996. This is stated boldly with the two births that book-end the film. Victor (the heroine of What Have I Done…? is named ‘Gloria’ by the way) is born on a bus at the same time as Fraga’s decree, one clearly the product of the other. The circumstances of his birth are appalling. It is Christmas time but with a military-enforced curfew in place nothing could be less cheery than the cold, deserted streets and the out of service bus on which his mother gives birth to him. Almodóvar has stated that a baby could not have been born at a worse time. The film charts Victor’s first 26 years in which he overcomes adversity fighting against circumstances and finally achieving ‘victory’ with the love of his life – Elena. The film ends with Elena giving birth in 1996 to their son in circumstances that couldn’t be more radically different. It is Christmas again, and the birth is carried out on the same street, in front of the same building and under the same starry Christmas decorations, but this time the streets are alive with the sound of joy, people laughing and talking and a football game going on conveyed by the roar of a nearby stadium. In a voice-over Victor describes the miraculous change of national circumstances and declares, “The Spanish have lost their fear.” In essence then the film tells the story of the birth of freedom and love (democracy) out of restriction and hate (fascism).
This story is told with characters representing different facets of Spanish society and how they renegotiate their lives in changed circumstances. The forces of law and order were key in the upholding of Franco’s dictatorship and the two policemen obviously represent enduring fascism which is persisting in Spain after the 1977 election. Sancho is a draconian wife-beater, a male-chauvinst pig old style fascist who simply can’t adjust no matter how hard he tries, while David is the softer (but equally corrupted) version of the same who also tries to adjust (he marries the younger Elena and takes up basketball to assert his manhood against the odds). Both are rendered rudderless by the advent of democracy which has left them with nothing to do except cruise the streets and moan about the decline of moral standards. Actually, the moral standards of both are even lower than those they criticize, Sancho an alcoholic pseudo-psychotic and David a soon-to-be-crippled adulterer. It is inferred that both are paying the price for years of collusion with the forces of fascism – indeed that they ARE part of fascism itself. Clara is their poor victim. Usually in Almodóvar films women will unite in a sisterhood and triumph against male oppression as a group (something stated most emphatically in Volver), but here Clara stands alone and is eventually crushed. Elena and Victor represent the young generation revolting against the old past and within that, the spirit of democracy. Note they represent two social classes, Elena the privileged haute-bourgeoisie and Victor the dispossessed proletariat. The policemen are of course the petit-bourgeoisie, the very sector of society which provided most support for fascism. All five conduct their socio-economic class warfare in the slum area of Madrid which Almodóvar clearly advances as a representation of Spain itself, a country in transition with all the people scrabbling in the rubble trying to make sense of their lives. It is revealing that both Elena and Victor succeed in reforming themselves. Elena stops taking drugs and devotes her family fortune to setting up an orphanage to literally make a better country out of the ruins. Victor learns several trades in prison, including teaching and comes out a force for the establishment of a new ‘good’ Christian country. His work at the orphanage with Elena and the child the union eventually produces amounts to the new hope for a country which has finally emerged after 40 years of fascism. The forces of fascism of course self-destruct, the nastiness imploding on itself as husband and wife kill each other, the latter the victim of an enforced fascist patriarchy from which she can't escape. There is still hope for David however who has finally come clean about his past adultery and role in ‘policing’ the country, but it is suggested he has to escape to the USA to be able to do this fully. A policeman crippled by the change in society, there is no role left for him to play back home outside a basketball court.
Working in tandem with politics is a Christian allegory with Victor representing Jesus Christ no less. He is born Christmas time and Almodóvar strongly emphasizes the religious significance of this. The first image we see in the film after the words of Fraga is a huge star being maintained in the street. This is part of Madrid’s famous Christmas decorations. A woman’s scream brings us into a brothel. We see a Christmas tree while hearing Fraga’s words on the radio. We see a woman lying in bed in labor, a picture of Jesus Christ and other icons on the wall above her. The house madam hails a bus in which the poor mother sits in agony. She observes an angel about to fall from a roof and then finally gives birth in the stationary bus under the star. All of these religious references clearly underline Victor as a Christ figure, as does the Madonna and Child image on TV of the mother sitting in a hospital bed, Victor in her arms, a crucifix on the wall and government and bus company officials playing the part of the Magi bearing gifts - a floral bouquet and a free bus pass! Later he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and is sent to prison (the long years of wilderness) where he learns how to live a good clean Christian life. He learns theology and his Bible becomes his most treasured possession in which he keeps his other valuable keepsakes, a photo of his mother, a beer mat with an impression of Elena’s lips. On release from prison he is the model of a reformed youth, working hard and devoting himself to charity work at the orphanage. When he starts there Elena is at first reluctant to accept him, but he throws a long quote from the Bible in her face: “You will be damned in the town, and in the country. Damned will be the fruit of your body, the produce of your soil. You will be damned coming in and going out.” (Deuteronomy, ch.28) The words of Moses thick on his tongue, he buries his past feelings of vengeance in favor of charity and community work. He is prepared to live near Elena but without taking possession of her. He takes up a job loading fish crates to force her out of his mind. Prior to Elena giving herself to him (after realizing the wrong she had done him in the past) Almodóvar points his camera at a copy of The Song of Solomon (the most erotic book in the Bible) lying by his bed. Their night of love is thus cast as a night of religious ecstasy and the produce that issues forth (the baby at the end) is love itself, the very foundation of the Christian faith.
The Christian allegory is intimately connected with politics as we know that the Catholic Church was the main instrument Franco used to enforce his fascist rule. Almodóvar is here demonstrating that far from hating religion (as many have asserted), he actually believes in God and the power of the teachings of Christ. It is the way religion was used by Franco that Almodóvar detests. In Dark Habits and in the later Bad Education this is stated very clearly, but in Live Flesh he actually demonstrates how religion should be used to revivify society and make it strong so that children can grow up and be given a chance. Society should and will reward those who lead good God-fearing lives. It is revealing that when Victor visits his mother’s grave we see the family name is ‘Cabellero’ which happens to be Almodóvar’s own name, his mother appearing in four of his films under the same title. Victor then is a composite of a democratic freedom fighter, Jesus Christ and Almodóvar himself, and it is amazing indeed that the director succeeds in welding such a masterful 'simple' film where multiple layers of meaning are so expertly poised and stated with such precision without ever being hectoring, didactic or verbose. The politics and the religion are there, but then so is the lush melodrama and the free interplay of human emotions which make for such an enticing and finally over-powering cocktail made from the some of the biggest ingredients there are. Masterful filmmaking, Almodóvar may go on to make another film as good as this (Volver achieves this I think), but he will never make anything better.
However the bleeding heart of the film is provided, for me, by Angela Molina in a performance so searing one cannot but be moved to the verge of tears by her. It's one of those performances that leave you flabbergasted at the depth of feeling she conveys, the misery, dissolving in waves of pure emotion. Her scenes with Rabal have a sexual frankness that seems to go even further than anything Almodovar had done before, but mining a comic seam also used in, say, Law Of Desire. It has further shades of that film in the setup, the fire motif from Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, but given a more moving mise-en-scene - truly incendiary - as Rabal struggles with the flames in full frontal display that could have weaker souls reaching for the pause button in spite of the tautness of the plot by this point ... It also involves some childlike images of butterfly and flower cutouts as Elena works at a nursery; there are cut oranges, water rinsed from eyes in which substances have been flung, shots of Rabal in underwear converted to stills, his bottom like a white butterfly's rounded wings in itself ... plus the usual attention to bright colours and interiors, extraordinary openings-out of the material, all crammed into 96 minutes. Each film you see tends to make you think it is the best on coming back to it, but this one is awe-inspiring in its flights of emotion and the beauty of its symmetries. It is based on a story by Ruth Rendell, which seemed surprising at the time, but in view of this and the recent film by Francois Ozon, The New Girlfriend, also based on something she wrote, you have to think she must have had quite a special talent to have inspired such cinematic brilliance.
The picture and camera work is exquisite, it starts with the first scene on the bus and follows through with the picture seen on the cover of the DVD, which doesnt do the real scene justice at all.
I watched intently the whole movie without as much as shifting on my sofa and that means this film is not for fans of the average Hollywood blockbuster watching of which causes me to fall asleep after 10 minutes...