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Mexican dogs
A region 1 DVD review of AMORES PERROS / LOVE'S A BITCH by Slarek
 
"You and your plans. You know what my grandmother used
to say? If you want to Make God laugh...tell Him your plans."
Susana to Octavio

 


If you are a devoted dog lover, one who hates to hear of even the slightest harm being visited on a member of the canine community, then Amores perros is going to present a few problems for you. Dogs are key to all three of the main plot lines, but more significantly so is their suffering and injury. If that hasn't put you off then welcome aboard, because the canine (and human) suffering was all simulated and carefully handled, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's extraordinarily confident debut feature is without question one of the most compelling and impressive character dramas of recent years.

The film tells three separate but interlinked stories from different levels of Mexico's class structure, all of which revolve around dogs and a single, fateful car crash. In Octavio and Susana, young, penniless Octavio has fallen for his brutish brother's wife Susana and envisions a possible future for the two of them when he begins making big money on dog fights, having discovered that his dog is a natural killer. Daniel and Valeria sees TV producer Daniel leave his family and spend every penny he owns to rent an apartment for beautiful young model Valeria, the woman he has fallen for, whose life is turned upside down when the aforementioned car crash confines her to a wheelchair. Her mood is further darkened when her only daytime companion, her beloved small dog, chases a ball through a hole in the floorboards and refuses to return. The final episode, El Chivo and Maru, follows the fortunes of an ex-revolutionary turned hobo El Chivo, who supports himself by working as a part-time contract killer. He has many dogs of his own, but when he rescues another from the crash that cripples Valeria, he takes on more than he bargained for.

Though the three stories are presented as individual episodes, they do overlap and are not isolated to their specific sections of the film. Daniel and Valeria's story is set up during Octavio and Susana's segment, and by the time we get to El Chivo we are already very familiar with key elements of his life (though a tantalising number of important facts are kept hidden until then). The lives of each of the characters are interesting in themselves, but subtext plays an important role in each tale, dealing with issues such as poverty, the fragility of fame, family ties, loneliness, absent fathers, dependency, greed, and a host of other topics with a sleight of hand that ensures they all hit home without feeling preachy. And I'm speaking from an English perspective – a colleague of mine who once lived in Mexico assures me that the middle segment, Daniel and Valeria, is loaded with subtle social commentary that you had to be familiar with the country and its social structure to fully appreciate, suggesting the rich layering that is accessible to an international audience is just the tip of a subtextual iceberg.

The title itself is intriguing (it translates as 'Love's a Bitch'), and dogs are key to both plot and character development – not only does their loss and suffering mirror that of their human companions, but they are also major catalysts for narrative change. Both Octavio and El Chivo's lives are altered in major but very different ways by the very same animal, and a small dog trapped under the floorboards accelerates a year's worth of relationship breakdown into a few days for Daniel and Valeria.

Coming from an established and experienced filmmaker, Amores perros would have seriously impressed, but for a first film it is little short of astonishing. The opening car chase and crash are shot and edited with attention-grabbing energy and dynamism, but the twitchy, hand-held and very mobile camera and toned down colour scheme give even the quietest scenes an intimacy that most effectively connects us with characters and situations. The use of Mexican and Spanish rock music, meanwhile, drives the action forward without ever sounding like and ad for the soundtrack CD.

Performances are uniformly excellent. Gael García Bernal is expertly cast as young Octavio, his energetic and youthful likeability making him oddly sympathetic, no mean feat when you consider that he gets rich on dog fights and covets his brother's wife. (García has since confirmed his status as one of the country's most exciting new actors with his performances in Alfonso Cuarón's superb Y tu mamá también and Carlos Carerra's The Crime of Padre Amaro.) Vanessa Bauche as Susana and Marco Pérez as the brutish Ramiro are both utterly believable, and Gerardo Campbell manages a really nice balance of sleaze and integrity as Mauricio, the organiser of the dog fights and Octavio's sponsor. In the second story Goya Toledo proves she is very much more than a pretty face, the pain and mental anguish she suffers in the later stages portrayed with sometimes heartrending conviction. But the highest honours must fall to Emilio Echevarría, who creates the film's most fascinating character in down-and-out hit man El Chivo. Hidden behind a thick beard and wild hair, he communicates a huge amount through his eyes and body language, whether it be quietly warding off a gang looking to set their dog on his, playfully watching over his next intended victim, or sadly observing the daughter he cannot be there for. When his story kicks in, a different side to his character starts to emerge, an energetic, self-confident and caring man with a complicated past, whose transformation towards the end is genuinely startling.

Amores perros has certainly been influenced by Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, in the titled, interlocking three story structure, the mixture of violence and human drama, and the non-linear narrative – the opening even mirrors a key early scene in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (though screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga claims not to have seen that film until shooting had begun and names writer William Faulkner as the key influence on the script). But Amores perros stands strongly as its own film and never for a second looks like a Mexican Pulp Fiction knock-off. This is most obvious in the characters – whereas in Pulp Fiction they were the stuff of dime novels, fleshed out with smart dialogue, cool music, drug imagery and pop-culture referencing, in Amores perros they all feel real, and even living as they do at extremes of society, they are easier to connect and identify with. Pulp Fiction may have been one of the smartest, hippest films of its day, but Amores perros is easily its equal, and in many ways a whole lot more human.

menus

A very nicely designed main menu features a variety of graphic transitions moving between short snips from the film, accompanied by one of the key music tracks (interestingly, the region 2 disk has a similar approach for the main menu, but a different design and a different music track). The menu selections drift between English and Spanish, a style reflected on the special features menu, where the options are all in English, but change to Spanish when selected. None of the other menus are animated, but the style remains consistent and pleasing. All of the menus and sub-menus appear to be accompanied by a different musical track from the film.

sound and vision

Amores Perros has a deliberately stylised look, the pared-down colour scheme and grittiness of the first and third segments achieved by shooting on a faster stock than that used for the midsection. This is reflected in the transfer, which shows some minor grain in these sections, but not in a detractive way – this is how it looked in the cinema, and thus how it should look on the disc. A very faithful and very pleasing transfer, with rock solid reproduction of the chosen colour palette and no obvious edge enhancement or intrusive artefacting. This was how the film was meant to look.

The Spanish 5.1 is first rate, starting with deep subwoofer rumble under the opening credits and exploding onto the full soundstage in the opening car chase, delivering a real wallop when the cars collide a couple of minutes later. Even when things quieten down, the 5.1 continues to impress, the front and rear speakers used most effectively to create atmosphere – inside the dog arena, for instance, the all-around crowd noise and the acoustics of the room very effectively place you in the middle of the action. The music comes off best, the Spanish rock/rap tracks really filling the room and given a superb bass kick by the low frequency work on the subwoofer. A really well mixed and impressive soundtrack.

extra features

For a foreign language release, this is a very well specified disk with a first-rate collection of extras, perhaps reflecting just how much impact this film has made outside of its native Mexico.

The commentary track from director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga is conducted in Spanish with English subtitles and barely pauses for a second, both men having plenty to say about the film, the technical aspects of the production and the thinking behind individual scenes and the story as a whole. There are a fair number of sometimes extraordinary anecdotes, my favourite being the gang that held up and robbed the film crew, only to be eventually hired by Iñárritu as set security to ensure other such opportunists were kept at bay. Overall this is a first rate track that only suffers, especially in the later stages, from incomplete subtitling – the two men will discuss a scene, then continue on into what sounds like an amusing story, but the subtitles only cover the first part of the discussion. Though not a major problem, but it is a tad irritating for us non-Spanish speakers. The commentary cannot be switched on while the film is playing and has to be activated on the Special Features menu

There are 16 minutes of deleted scenes, presented in non-amamorphic 16:9. All of these are interesting and give extra information about the characters, and a couple even answer a question some might have asked about the middle story. There is also a commentary track from Iñárritu and Arriaga, but to hear this you have to activate the commentary track for the main feature, then back-track to the deleted scenes. As with the feature commentary, there are no dry spots and both men contribute well. Most scenes appear to have been cut for well-argued reasons, but Iñárritu still expresses regret at the loss of a couple.

An 8 minute behind-the-scene featurette manages to be a little more interesting than the usual EPK, in part because it gives us a useful look at Iñárritu at work, though there are the usual collection of crew and cast members briefly and sincerely explaining their characters, the story, and the reasons behind the film. This is shot on video, 4:3, in Spanish with English subtitles.

Los Perros is a 6 minute look at how the on-screen dog suffering was carefully faked, and must come as something of a relief to those who were convinced they were watching real dogfights (certainly they are realistically staged, even though you actually see very little). Curiously, this featurette is missing from the region 2 disk released in the UK, a country whose love affair with dogs would seem to demand its inclusion.

3 music videos of songs featured in the film are presented in a variety of aspect ratios, but all non-anamorphic. Julieta Venegas singing 'Ma van a matar' is a very typical film-tie-in video, with moody black-and-white shots of the singer intercut with extracts of the feature itself. Café Tacuba's 'Aviéntame' is directed by Iñárritu himself and looks very much a companion piece to the film, playing as a heated and ultimately ghoulish drama with much the same look and texture as the main feature. Control Machete and Ely Guerra's 'De Perros Amores', co-directed by Iñárritu, is at the same time the most glossy and most perverse, showing a variety reactions from customers at a peep show where humans watch dogs having sex. I liked this one the most. All three are in Spanish with subtitled lyrics.

The storyboards and photo gallery are of limited interest – they presented at a decent size, but there are very few examples in either section.

Finally there is a trailer for the film, presented 4:3 and stereo but very nicely and seductively cut together. Somewhat typical of American trailers for foreign language films, shots are cut to music, for to let the characters speak would give away that the film is not in English. At the end of this is a very funny written biography of the director. The trailer is accessed by highlighting the Lions Gate logo on the main menu screen.

summary

Amores Perros is a terrific slice of modern world cinema: gritty, edgy, violent, compelling, intricately designed and executed with the confidence and style of a seasoned film-maker. Iñárritu is certainly going to be a talent to watch, assuming he is not gobbled up by the Hollywood system, which he has already moved into for his latest work 21 Grams, with Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts. This region 1 DVD from Lions Gate does the movie proud – a fine transfer, great sound and a solid set of extras. The region 2 disk from Optimum is almost its equal, featuring the same transfer and sound and most of the extras, but is missing one featurette and, crucially, the director/writer commentary track. If you can live without those then go for the region 2 – it can be picked up for an insanely low price on-line.

Amores Perros
Love's a Bitch

Mexico 2000
153 mins
director
Alejandro González Iñárritu
starring
Emilio Echevarría
Gael García Bernal
Goya Toledo
Álvaro Guerrero
Vanessa Bauche

DVD details
region 1
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Digital 5.1
languages
Spanish
French (Dolby 2.0)
subtitles
English
French
Spanish
extras
Director/writer commentary
Featurettes
Music videos
Trailer
Deleted scenes
Storyboards
Stills gallery
distributor
Lion's Gate
review posted
27 November 2003

See all of Slarek's reviews