Posts Tagged ‘2000s’

There are lots of things I haven’t done since 2009, but the one that we should concern ourselves with particularly today is watching James Cameron’s Avatar. I think this is mainly because the film is such a big old beast, but there may also be an element of – well, faint disdain, I suppose. I remember watching it and thinking ‘yeah, this is a decent enough fantasy blockbuster, but I don’t quite get what all the fuss is about’. I still don’t, to be honest, and thirteen years on, sequel or not, claims that it was the future of cinema look to have been rather optimistic – that was all to do with the 3D, an effect which I’ve never much cared for.

Nevertheless, there is that even more substantial sequel nearly upon us, with at least one more set to follow even if it flops. If the new episode does well, Cameron has promised – or threatened us with – at least four sequels he’ll direct personally, and then an unspecified number of future episodes to be handled by other people. As ever, you can’t accuse James Cameron of a lack of self-belief.

Then again, we were discussing the whole question of ‘the most successful film in history’ at work the other day. Currently the title is held by Avatar or Avengers: Endgame, depending on what you think of that slightly sneaky trick where Cameron’s film was re-released in China for a couple of weeks just to make another $200 million or so and reclaim the title. Before that it was Titanic (it’s that man again), before that Jurassic Park, before that E.T., before that Star Wars, and so on… you don’t have to go very far back before the title reverts to Gone with the Wind, but I digress.

The interesting thing is that nearly everyone you meet seems to have seen Titanic, whereas asking if anyone had seen either of the most recent films resulted in a lot of head-shaking and blank looks. This is probably to do with the list being based on box-office gross rather than actual ticket sales (which means that inflation is a factor – Gone with the Wind is still on top if you go by numbers of tickets sold), and maybe also has something to do with people going to see the same film multiple times (I will confess to watching Endgame twice myself).

No-one doubts the continuing popularity of the Marvel franchise, but it is curious that a few of these list-topping films almost seem to have melted into the ether somewhat. People of the right age are nostalgic for E.T., I suppose, and the same factor probably explains some of the success of the more recent Jurassic Park films, but the long wait for the Avatar sequel does mean the world of the film hasn’t expanded since it initially came out. Doing the sequel creates the kind of narrative space where fandom makes a home for itself; the fictional universe of Alien only really exploded in popularity with the release of the first sequel there, too (it’s that man again). It will be interesting to see if the same thing happens to Avatar – not least because Avatar and Aliens have a peculiar similarity to each other.

Both films start with a rather despondent, damaged protagonist, surveying a dead-end future on a grim, corporate Earth of the future. In Avatar‘s case this is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, who Cameron openly presents as a warrior looking for a cause. Perhaps this comes along when he is recruited to replace his dead twin brother on a mission to Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri system – his DNA is the most important factor in his recruitment, as the job will involve having his consciousness projected into the body of a specially-grown replicant of one of the intelligent natives of the planet (the avatar of the title).

Corporations are busy exploiting the vast mineral resources of Pandora, but meeting with increasing resistance from these natives, the Na’vi. Chief scientist on the project Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is all for doing research and finding a way to live in peace – she is less than delighted to have someone she considers a trigger-happy jarhead joining her team – while security chief Quaritch (Stephen Lang) sees no prospect of co-existence and wants Sully to act as, essentially, a spy, learning about the natives, particularly their weaknesses. In return he will see to it that Sully gets the expensive spinal repair operation that will allow him to lead a more normal life back home.

This sounds good to Sully, until he comes to appreciate the natural beauty of Pandora and the value of the Na’vi culture (regular readers may suspect the dreaded words ‘the Important Things in Life’ are drawing close to this review), especially as he finds himself making a close personal connection to Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). But which set of loyalties will prevail when the chips are down…?

There are lots of things that Avatar is not, and the most obvious one is subtle – the story is straight-forward, the characters are drawn in pretty broad strokes, and the message of the film may as well be flashed up onto the screen in large letters at regular intervals. A month or so before the film even came out over here I found myself writing a fairly mean-spirited parody of it, about what would really happen if a bunch of elves with bows and arrows tried taking on enemies armed with near-future technology. But, and I think this should not be disregarded, when I actually came to watch the movie I found myself actually getting quite invested in the story and letting my emotions be manipulated by Cameron in exactly the way he wanted. People may have been lured to see the movie by the promise of its 3D effects, but they ended up paying it attention because they cared about the story.

And watching it again now, it’s a rather more interesting film than seemed to be the case at the time. Naturally it’s a very proficiently-made film, with both the human and the Pandoran environments persuasively realised, at least on a superficial level (I still don’t buy this ‘brilliantly designed alien ecosystem’ idea – how exactly did everything end up evolving those USB cables in their hair and ears? How come the Na’vi are the only vertebrates on the planet who don’t have six limbs? And let’s not get started on the floating mountains), and no-one has ever accused Cameron of not being able to put together a first-rate action sequence. The film also manages to assimilate a wide range of visual and cultural cues (everything from Vietnam movies to Mesoamerican culture) into a largely coherent whole. But beneath all of this is a very competent demonstration of how to use science fiction as a way of realising a metaphor.

It’s there in one of the core ideas of the film, that of the avatars themselves – the notion of ‘going native’ becoming literally the case. It’s also there in the concept of the entire planet functioning as a single entity (which Sully manages to rouse and get on his side when it really matters during the climactic battle). Serious scientists have proposed what is usually called the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that the entire biosphere of Earth can be viewed as a single organism; Cameron finds a way to incorporate this into the plot in a dramatically interesting and accessible way.

The one element of Avatar that struck me as – well, slightly amusing, to be honest, back in 2009 was the climax, in which a human in a powered exoskeleton must fight hand-to-hand against an enraged female alien whose family has come under sustained attack. It’s basically the climax of Aliens, but flipped, of course; I thought it had something to say about how Cameron’s career had progressed, and maybe the genre as well.

Watching the film again I noticed the sheer number of resonances and connections between Aliens and Avatar. There’s Sigourney Weaver’s presence, obviously; Michael Biehn was at one point considered to play Quaritch (a part which eventually went to Stephen Lang, whom Cameron remembered from an unsuccessful audition for… well, guess). Giovanni Ribisi’s slimy corporate executive is clearly a close cousin to Paul Reiser’s character. It’s marines against aliens in both films.

But it goes deeper. Aliens is about an encounter with a hideous alien ecology, one which seeks to consume and exploit human biological tissue. The situation is simple: exterminate or be exterminated. The planet in Aliens is a grim and inhospitable wasteland, of course, totally unlike Pandora – a lush and verdant world teeming with life. The ecology in Avatar is a much more welcoming and benevolent system, capable of accommodating and aiding its human visitors. Here the implacable exploiters and consumers are the human beings themselves. The two films mirror and complement each other in a weirdly comprehensive way, but it’s noticeable that while the aliens and their worlds are totally different, there’s very little to choose from between Quaritch and his men and Hicks and the marine squad.

It’s an interesting effect, and I’ve no idea how conscious of it James Cameron was when making the film – whatever the merits or flaws of the sequel, it’s hard to imagine it containing a similar element. I still don’t think Avatar is perfect, but you can hardly hold it responsible for all those terrible 3D-ified movies that followed it. The question of whether or not it really deserves to be the most successful film of time is ultimately a fatuous one; what matters is that it is a vivid and persuasive adventure, not a story told with the subtlest of brush-strokes, but well-told all the same.

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Sometimes you come across a movie or TV episode which is very obviously a ripped-from-the-headlines hot take on an issue or event which was topical at the time it was made – but the weird thing is that, when you check, the movie predates the event it seems to be a response to. Starship Troopers is one of the best and most intelligent films about the American response to the September 11th attacks – but it came out nearly four years earlier (something similar is true about a couple of Star Trek episodes about a terrorist attack on Earth).

And the same sort of thing is going on with Alex and David Pastor’s film Carriers, which I came across the other day while browsing one of the major streamers. To be honest, I thought it was another zombie movie, which is kind of the McDonalds’ of horror at the moment, and didn’t realise it wasn’t until some way into the story. It turned out I wasn’t paying a very great deal of attention most of the time I was choosing the movie, to be honest.

We find ourselves in the company of a somewhat mismatched quartet on a rather tense road trip: the de facto leader is Brian (Chris Pine), a jockish loudmouth; accompanying him is his younger brother Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci), and also his girlfriend Bobby (Piper Perabo) and another young woman named Kate (Emily VanCamp), whom Danny sort of vaguely knows. It transpires they are heading to a beach resort the brothers enjoyed visiting as children. This is not for a holiday, but because the world is in the grip of a horrendous respiratory virus, which is hugely contagious and – as far as anyone can tell – 100% lethal.

It does feel rather like a zombie film in its atmosphere: civilisation has broken down and the survivors are understandably wary of going anywhere near one another. When they meet a young man who needs petrol so he can take his daughter to a medical centre, their response is to give him a wide berth – until they need a new ride, at which point they steal his car (he and the kid stay in the back for, you know, plot reasons, though it’s reasonably credibly-scripted). Will everyone make it to sanctuary alive…?

I’d never heard of Carriers before the other night when I watched it, clearly didn’t pay much attention to the on-screen information given about the film, and rapidly, understandably, and entirely erroneously came to the initial conclusion that it was a new movie, part of the first wave of post-Covid horror films. Why understandably? Well, it’s a film where everyone zealously wears PPE when dealing with strangers – the zombie movie dogma of ‘don’t get bitten’ is here replaced by ‘don’t get coughed on’ – as a result of a virus devastating society, the virus apparently having been brought to the US from China (prescient, but on reflection not outstandingly so).

Anyway, as the film went on I found myself starting to doubt my own judgment: Chris Pine hasn’t starred in a decent live-action movie in five years, but he is still (somewhat bemusingly) a big star, and it seemed unlikely he would turn up in an unheralded low-budget Netflix horror movie – let alone that he would be second-billed to someone largely unknown (Pucci has yet to star in a high-profile mainstream movie). And there was also the fact that Emily VanCamp, who has inevitably acquired a bit of a profile through her association with Marvel, looked suspiciously young. It turned out I was right the second time around – Carriers was shot in 2006 and then sat on the shelf for years until Pine’s rise to prominence in his first Star Trek movie.

Does any of this really matter? Probably not, but – other than a reminder of the kind of oddities up-and-coming actors occasionally appear in – Carriers is an interesting example of the unintentionally predictive horror movie. To be fair, people have been telling stories about apocalyptic pandemics since at least the 1950s, so someone was eventually going to score a near miss,  but even so. This does look very much like a zombie movie which has managed to reduce its budget by taking the actual zombies out, but that at least gives it a point of distinctiveness – it also takes itself quite seriously (perhaps a bit too seriously), feeling like a slightly stagey character piece in parts: the big moments aren’t action sequences but actors emoting very earnestly at one another. No-one, I suspect, was talking about post-horror as a thing in 2006, but this is certainly tending that way (it would make an appropriate companion piece for It Comes at Night).

Nevertheless, the low-budget ultimately doesn’t do the film many favours. As apocalyptic horror stories go, this one is basically from the ‘true nature of the catastrophe’ tradition – by which I mean the really terrible thing that happens is that the main characters’ civilised nature is brutally torn away from them by the necessities of survival: they are obliged to lie, steal, and kill innocent strangers in order to stay alive. The problem with opening this kind of story post-disaster is that we never actually get to see the characters being civilised and so the contrast, and much of the tragedy, is lost. This being the case, the film essentially devolves into a series of downbeat scenes of characters doing rather grim things, without much in the way of context; the pre-existing relationship between the two brothers is likewise not really developed enough for the ending of the film to be effective.

However, some of the details of the post-apocalyptic world are effectively done – abandoned garbage trucks filled with occupied body bags, and so on – and the acting is, on the whole, pretty effective. Pine plays a sort of irresponsible frat-boy, and does it pretty well, but then this is essentially his default performance (or so it seems to me). He still copes with the somewhat theatrical nature of the script as well as any of the others. This isn’t a great film, but nor is it an especially bad one: it’s bleak and heavy without being especially frightening, which may explain why it seems to have languished in obscurity. While it’s probably only marginally successful as a horror movie, as a genre-inflected drama it’s not too bad.

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Sometimes, the desire to do or possess something can become so overpowering you almost forget the reason why you wanted to do or own that thing in the first place, or even exactly when and where it first gripped you. So it has been with me and Matthew Bright’s Tiptoes, which I must have heard of back in the mid 2000s – I honestly have no idea. The sheer staggering misconceivedness of a central element of this movie, and the weirdness of the rest of it, seized my imagination in a vice-like grip; this same elements, ironically, mean it has virtually been obliterated from history. Long-suffering readers may recall my oft-expressed hope that my DVD rental service would, sooner or later, send me a copy of Tiptoes (they never did; I’m not even sure it’s available on disc in this country); since that company folded I may have still occasionally expressed a vague desire to see the film, but never with any great expectation of it coming to pass. Tiptoes became a kind of chimerical beast or cultural legend: I would hear vague rumours of it, and there was enough hard evidence to convince me that it really did exist, but there was no more chance of actually watching it than there was of encountering Bigfoot or a sea serpent.

Nevertheless: post-pandemic, major life changes loom, with the outcome still uncertain in many ways. And so I decided I would be damned if I did not make a proper effort to finally see Tiptoes before all of this came to pass. Is it on any of the streaming sites? It is not. Is it available to rent through the Main Big River service? Only if you live in the States, apparently. All seemed lost until a search of a prominent video-sharing site turned up the entire movie, which had been there for nearly six months. It was dubbed into Polish or Russian, in the crushingly artless way that former-Soviet Bloc countries normally do their dubbing (a gravelly male voice intones all the dialogue in a monotone), but it was better than nothing; and I have always felt that with a proper movie you don’t really need the dialogue to follow the story. So off we went, Tiptoes and I, together at last (albeit in Polish or Russian).

There’s a sense in which Tiptoes is a fairly straightforward comedy-drama with elements of romance to it. As it opens, the couple at the centre of the action are Steve and Carol. Steve trains firefighters for a living, while Carol is an independent, free-spirited artist. All is well, except for Carol’s nagging concerns that despite their plans to marry, he has yet to introduce her to anyone in his family.

The reason for this becomes clear as we see Steve entering a convention centre which is full of – and here we must be careful to get our terminology right – short people. Yes, there is a gathering of short folk underway, their number including virtually Steve’s entire family: he is the only person of normal stature in the clan. Even his twin brother Rolfe is short.

When Rolfe turns up at Carol’s studio looking for Steve, she is naturally surprised, but both of them are perturbed about Steve’s decision to keep quiet about his family’s shortcomings. Is he ashamed of being the scion of such a diminutive clan? The issue becomes a pressing one when Carol discovers she is pregnant, and there is a strong possibility the child will also be short. Can Steve overcome his issues and fully commit to both the relationship and parenthood, or will Carol be forced to fall back on the help of Rolfe and the rest of the family?

Yeah, well, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? I mean, I should say that the movie itself is a bit more tonally distinctive than it sounds – it’s not like this is some earnest issue-of-the-week telemovie: the B-plot appears to concern a French Marxist biker short person played by Peter Dinklage, who engages in a wild affair with a free-spirited and open-minded woman played by Patricia Arquette (the scene in which the two of them consummate their relationship, to a reggae soundtrack, is not one which quickly or easily fades from the memory). It does have some star power attached to it, too. Carol is played by Kate Beckinsale. Steve is played by Matthew McConaughey. And Rolfe is played by Gary Oldman.

(A brief pause to let that sink in is probably appropriate at this point.)

Yes: Rolfe the short person is played by Gary Oldman, who is five-foot-nine (174cm, for metricalists) and thus not the most obvious choice for the part. Oldman himself has said he thought it was a dream of a role, but admits that playing a short person was ‘a stretch’ (a perhaps infelicitous choice of words). He spends the majority of the film shuffling around on his knees, or kneeling down behind things, or with his lower body concealed inside furniture and tiny prop legs arranged in front of him. The prosthetics and so on are all acceptably well-done, but it’s still obviously Gary Oldman on his knees attempting a role for which he is arguably not qualified. I mean, it’s Oldman so he gives a great performance, as usual, but it’s like watching a man attempting complex and subtle card-tricks while the building around him burns down: your attention is always being dragged elsewhere.

Gary Oldman is on the left, in case you were wondering.

I’m not normally one to get too exercised about the whole issue of ‘appropriate casting’, but in this case it’s a difficult thing to get past – this one creative decision sends the whole film into a spin, making it uproarious and risible even when it’s trying to be serious. The presence of Dinklage really strips away the producers’ possible defence that a capable short-person actor was not available (though to be fair, Dinklage has defended the casting of Oldman).

I suspect that at this point in his career, Matthew McConaughey was doing whichever script landed at the top of the pile on his doormat, but the presence of Kate Beckinsale is at least a little curious: apparently she agreed to do the film at a greatly reduced rate, provided she was allowed to wear her lucky hat on-camera. This sounds like a bluff to me, but the director agreed (a row about the hat between the director and the producers ensued). Exactly what Kate Beckinsale’s lucky hat looks like I’m not sure, as she explores several curious avenues of the milliner’s art in the course of the movie; she is playing the type of character who tends to express their individuality by putting weird things on their head.

It’s hard to imagine Tiptoes having been made with a different cast – the extant version does burn itself into the memory once seen – but even so, I think the audience would still have been in for a rocky ride with this movie. It’s not just the casting that makes Tiptoes feel quite so off-kilter and peculiar, it’s the script. Towards the end all the weirdness with French Marxist bikers and the sex lives of short people drops away and it turns into a rather contrived and sentimental melodrama, as Steve falls short of meeting his responsibilities and romance blooms between Carol and Rolfe. If, as some would have you believe, this is a rom-com, it’s a rom-com where the main character abandons his wife and child and she then settles down with his short-person brother instead. Richard Curtis this is not.

No wonder the film has essentially vanished into obscurity. Is it worth watching? Well – if you’re a particular admirer of Gary Oldman and his undoubted talents, then perhaps,  but for everyone else this is the kind of film you only watch in order to confirm for yourself it actually exists. It does: it is every bit as magnetically weird and appalling as I had suspected (and hoped). I don’t have much of a bucket list, and the one I do have is now appreciably shorter.

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Just when I was thinking that the best guarantee of some privacy and isolation at the moment was a trip to the cinema, I actually found myself at a screening which almost resembled how things used to be in the old days: the place wasn’t exactly packed out, but it was still comfortably fuller than on most of my recent trips – the auditorium felt so crowded that I felt obliged to wear my mask, which hasn’t been the case previously. It was obviously slightly ironic that this should happen at a cinema which is about to close indefinitely due to lack of audiences, or films (depending on how you look at it). So, what secret had the Jericho Phoenix stumbled upon to lure in the crowds, given that there were only two of us at an Odeon screening of a commercial Hollywood genre movie the day before?

Well, it appears that if you really want to attract the punters, obscure foreign-language films from the early years of this century seem to be the way to go, for the Phoenix has been showing Memories of Murder (K-title: Salinui Chueok), the first major success of Bong Joon-ho’s career. When a previously little-known director wins a major prize, it’s quite common for the art house cinemas to dig up some of their older films (for instance, after Kore-eda won at Cannes with Shoplifters, the Phoenix revived After Life), but not normally for a full run. Did Memories of Murder do such good business at every showing? Oh well: strange days, as I’ve been saying since the middle of March. (It could be the high turn-out was due to the free popcorn being offered to every film-goer, a consequence of the place being about to close indefinitely.)

Memories of Murder is set in the mid-80s (the historical context does inform the story somewhat), in a small town in rural South Korea. Song Kang-ho (the father from Bong’s Parasite) plays Park, a local detective, who finds himself hunting a murderer after a young woman’s body is found in a drain. Finesse is not really a part of Park’s repertoire, and his approach is usually to decide who he thinks is the guilty party, contrive some evidence, and then get his sidekick Cho (Kim Roi-ha) to kick a confession out of them. This is not an ideal methodology for tracking down a serial killer, which is what they find themselves doing when a second body is discovered, and Park finds himself teamed up with Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), a cerebral detective from Seoul who is openly contemptuous of Park’s bull-at-a-gate approach to the case.

Unsurprisingly, the case Park has been trying to build against a scarred local youth with learning disabilities collapses, and the duo have to start again, trying to establish some kind of pattern – all the victims were dressed in a particular way, and the murders all took place on rainy nights. Could the playlist of the local radio station prove to be significant? How about some of the urban legends told by schoolchildren in the area? The detectives’ determination to solve the case increases as the killer strikes again and again, apparently with impugnity, but are they in danger of losing their objectivity with reagrd to the case?

Whatever else you might want to say about this film, it is not short of cheerleaders: its Wikipedia page currently suggests it is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time (not bad for a film I’d never even heard of until a couple of days ago), while Quentin Tarantino has also listed it amongst his favourite films of this century (which I suppose is the kind of recommendation which carries weight in some quarters). This is the kind of paragraph which seems to be heading for a ‘yes, but’ moment, and it is – however, only to the extent that I still think this is an involving and extremely well-made film, always certain to draw very positive notices.

The film is apparently based on the case of a real-life serial killer at work in South Korea in the late 80s and early 90s, but there is something quite universal about the story – indeed, given the acclaim Memories of Murder has received, I’m a little surprised we haven’t been treated to an American remake, as in many respects the film could easily work in another setting. You can see how Park fits into a distinguished lineage of corrupt small town cops from films dating back decades, and the friction between him and his bookish colleague also has a classic vibe to it. Strong performances from both actors give the film a really solid core, while Song in particular finds moments of black comedy that leaven the almost Stygian grimness of much of the story.

This is as gritty and bleak as any western crime drama, and its more sordid and repellent elements are handled graphically enough to make me suggest that this is not a film for those of sensitive dispositions, even though the level of actual violence is quite restrained. This is the kind of film where almost no-one seems without flaws or foibles, some of them quite serious. The cops’ building sense of frustration as one perverse inadequate after another proves not to be the murderer is almost palpable, and leads naturally into the climax of the film.

Here it takes a hard turn, in terms of genre conventions if not the actual plot: what has previous seemed to be a bleak police-procedural movie turns into much more of a drama, as the cops make serious mistakes that threaten not just the investigation but their careers. If the two of them eventually find a sort of understanding, it is under the bleakest and most downbeat of circumstances. I would imagine that many people may find the conclusion of Memories of Murder to be a disappointing anticlimax, but I think Bong just about pulls it off: this is more than just a detective story right from the start. Not an uplifting or escapist film, but a serious and ultimately satisfying drama.

(And when it was over, we emerged into the foyer to be greeted by a poster for No Time to Die proclaiming ‘Coming November’. Not November of 2020, though; if it turns out to be November 2021 – or even sooner – one wonders if there will still be any cinemas left to show it. I suspect films of Bond’s stature will always find a home; it’s the less-mainstream productions like Memories of Murder that will vanish from our culture if we lose the art house and independent cinemas. Lives matter more than culture, of course, but what is the value of life without art and stories? The cultural damage done by this virus is threatening to be every bit as severe as its economic impact, if not worse.)

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I almost get the sense that 2020 is a moment the world got stuck in and can’t get out of: in some respects, at least. The much-feted reopening of cinemas doesn’t seem to amounted to very much at all, with Tenet only having made about $36 million at the US box office after several weeks of release, doubtless partly because cinemas are still closed in some major cities. (Yes, a paltry sum indeed – I should like to say, for the benefit of any moguls reading this, that if they would like to give me a lump sum, a mere 10% of Tenet‘s American take, I will happily never say a bad word about a James Corden-starring movie ever again. Everyone has their price, even if it’s a mere three and a half million dollars.)

As you’ve probably read, the studios have taken fright at this and suspended the release of any other substantial movies – the kind that the average cinema relies upon to earn its crust. People aren’t going to the cinema, so new films aren’t being released, so people aren’t going to the cinema even more. It’s hard to see where this will stop. The art house in Oxford closes again as of Friday, while the big commercial cinema is down to a three-day-week from the same point.

The bellwether in all of this certainly looks like the decision to postpone the release of No Time to Die from November this year until early spring of next. (I don’t believe in this notion of ‘cursed films’, but given all the travails this one has suffered, from losing Danny Boyle onwards, I’m almost inclined to declare an open mind where Bond 25 is concerned.) Eon have taken some stick for what unsympathetic commentators have decried as an act of cowardice, but I’m not sure I can bring myself to be quite so critical: the Bond movies are their main source of income, after all, and it’s in their interest to try to ensure both the films themselves and the manner in which they are released are as good as they can manage.

I’ve been musing on all things Bond-related recently, for a number of unconnected reasons, and this led me to (finally) watch Matthew Vaughn’s 2004 film Layer Cake, a film which has certainly ended up in the orbit of the Bond franchise, even if this wasn’t the intention at the time: back when it was new, everyone’s point of reference was Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and the plethora of mostly underwhelming knock-off lairy gangster movies it went on to spawn.

The title of the film, lest you be wondering, is a metaphor for the hierarchy of the criminal underworld, which is the milieu in which almost all of it takes place. Daniel Craig plays an ambitious young professional – his name is never revealed – whose industry of choice is the drugs trade. He is, very pointedly, not a gangster – he is a goal-oriented businessman, with a plan to make his money and then retire. It seems like he knows all the angles and has the firmest of grips on what’s happening around him.

(Not entirely surprisingly, the film seems to have no moral qualms about depicting drug dealers, and indeed narcotics themselves, in a moderately sympathetic light – one of the few times Craig sounds morally outraged is when musing on the fact that, if convicted, he’d do more time inside than a rapist, the implication being that drug pushing is a trivial offence compared to sexual assault. Hmmm, well. It certainly seems of a piece with the non-judgemental view of drug users from the second Kingsman film, also directed by Vaughn.)

All this changes for the Craig character, however, when senior gangster Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) puts the brakes on his plans to retire – at least until he’s done a couple of jobs for him. One of them is finding the errant young daughter of Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), another businessman with a portfolio which is not 100% legal, the other is handling the disposition of a huge quantity of Ecstasy which a gang of small time criminals – these guys are basically idiots – have nicked from a gang of Serbians.

Craig protests it’s not really in his line, but Price is insistent: things proceed to get worse and worse. It turns out there is more to the missing young woman than initially meets the eye: murky gangland politics are involved. It turns out that the Serbians, meanwhile, think Craig is responsible for the theft of their drugs – due to one of the gang of idiots shooting his mouth off – and have dispatched an assassin noted for the savagery of his methods to retrieve them. It’s almost enough to make a serious-minded professional contemplate violence…

I must confess to a bit of a dislike of the laddish gangster movie as inaugurated by Guy Ritchie, even though I’ve only seen one of Ritchie’s movies which qualifies as such – 2005’s baffling Revolver. It’s probably because of my exposure to all those knock-offs, some of which I have had the misfortune to see: 51st State, Love, Honour and Obey, and Rancid Aluminium (supposedly the worst film ever made in the UK: given this list necessarily includes titles like Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Peter Rabbit, the mind boggles as it has seldom done before).

I suppose my dislike really stems from that very laddishness of the films – a sort of crass hetero-normativity, coupled to amorality and the idea that violence and criminality is inherently funny. One point in Layer Cake‘s favour is that much of this is dialled down to the extent that it is simply background noise – although it almost goes without saying that this is still a very blokey film: Sienna Miller plays Craig’s love interest, and is almost wholly decorative, while Sally Hawkins plays ‘Slasher’, one of the gang of idiots. Nevertheless, the film does handle its subject matter and the consequences (mostly) thoughtfully – the nature of the drugs trade isn’t dwelt upon, but at one point Craig realises that the only way to avoid a lengthy prison term and the loss of all he’s acquired is to kill a man in cold blood, and the corrosive effect of this, and its aftermath, are considered and depicted at some length.

There’s something very familiar about this bit, in particular, especially nowadays: the dead, icy look appearing in Craig’s eyes as he accepts he has crossed a line and can never go back. If Layer Cake is remembered for one thing, it’s as the film that swung Craig the role of Bond, and you can see why – he looks good, handles the violence and the womanising equally well, and also can clearly bring the extra level of humanity to the part that Eon were looking for at the time. Yet it is a different character, less of a rogue than Bond, more cerebral – to begin with at least. (Interest for Bond-followers in the film may be added by the presence of Michael Gambon, who turned down the role in 1971, not to mention Craig’s several scenes with Ben Whishaw, while we can only hope that the presence of a young Tom Hardy in a small role is a portent of future pub-quiz questions to come.)

Craig is very good as a man who’s forced to get his hands dirty and come to terms with the fact that, when it comes to criminal politics, being the smartest man in the room isn’t always enough to get results. This is the script’s main thesis, which it puts across well enough – though a lot of it is the usual gangster nonsense, presented fairly stylishly. The rest of the performances are also rather good – Colm Meaney is also in the gang, as is George Harris, while Gambon is genuinely frightening as the senior man on the scene.

In the end I would say this was a good film rather than a truly great one – good performances and ideas are not quite elaborated upon enough in the script, and it does still fall into a few of the typical post-Ritchie potholes. Nevertheless, this is a superior, tough thriller, which deserves to be remembered on its own merits rather than as an extended audition piece for its star’s most famous job.

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Time runs in reverse, characters’ relationships remain clouded, the viewer’s brain ends up in a knot – are we talking about Tenet or Christopher Nolan’s 2000 movie Memento? The director’s work seems to be suffering from a case of deja vu, or perhaps it is stuck in a time loop. This was Nolan’s first ‘proper’ movie – his actual debut, Following, was made in black and white on a punitively low budget, resulting in a concomitantly brief running time. Nevertheless, it was successful enough to get him his foot in the door with Hollywood, and this is the result. No-one was yet likening Nolan to Stanley Kubrick at the time, but what is striking is the extent to which this film resonates with the much bigger-budget films he has essentially moved on to since.

Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator with a curious affliction: he cannot form new memories. He forgets everything that happens to him unless he makes a point of physically writing it down – otherwise it just slips away in a matter of minutes. Vital information is tattooed about his person so he sees it whenever he goes to the bathroom. His pockets are stuffed with notes-to-self and polaroid photos (one of the things which slightly dates it – and may have made it seem a little odd even when it was new) is that it seems to hail from an era before the invention of the cellphone, let alone the smartphone, a device which – one imagines – might have a fairly dramatic impact upon the plot.

How has Leonard ended up in this rather unfortunate state? The last thing he remembers is a brutal attack on his wife and himself, in the course of which he suffered brain damage (hence his problems in the recollection department). Now he has a tattoo across his chest telling him the first name and initial of the man who apparently raped and murdered his wife (Jorja Fox). His overriding obsession is to find this man and kill him, even though – and this is pointed out to him, though of course he can’t retain the idea for very long – any satisfaction he gains from succeeding in his quest will necessarily be short-lived (he’ll soon forget he ever did it).

The movie follows Leonard over three quite eventful days in the pursuit of his quarry, in which he has various encounters with mysterious figures (to be fair, everyone seems like a mysterious figure when all you can ever know about them is what can be written on the back of a polaroid), including a barmaid (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a man claiming to be a cop (Joe Pantoliano).

What follows is essentially Christopher Nolan doing his usual thing of taking the tropes of a genre movie and putting a soaringly high-concept spin on them, usually involving the way the narrative is presented to the audience. There is a sort of faint and possibly misleading resemblance to the kind of Tarantino pastiche that everyone seemed to be making in the late nineties and early years of the new century: it’s a twisty-turny LA-set crime thriller, with an innovatively non-linear narrative structure. However, what Tarantino appears to have been doing as a gimmick is at the heart of how Memento functions as a film.

How do you put the audience in the position of someone with no-short term memory? Nolan’s solution is simple: most of the narrative of Memento is shown backwards – not actually backwards, a la Tenet, but divided into chunks which are then shown in reverse order: Leonard repeatedly finds himself in situations with no recollection of how he got there, which is a sensation the audience obviously shares in the circumstances. Obviously this presents enormous potential for plot twists and reversals, as Leonard is told one thing only for it to be revealed in a later (i.e., earlier) sequence that what really happened was quite different.

He is, as you might expect, an easy target for manipulation and deceit, and it’s a wonder he’s not more paranoid than appears to be the case. Nevertheless, he does come across as a lonely and rather tragic figure, obsessed with his meaningless crusade. At several points he even sets out to mislead and manipulate his future self into certain courses of action, indicating a degree of psychological instability which is actually rather concerning. Needless to say this is a movie which is heavy on the existential trauma, consistently returning to questions of identity and motivation. Without memories, how do you know what you want to do? How do you even know who you are? Leonard keeps referring back to his past life as an insurance assessor, but the implication is that the things he has done since the incident which damaged his brain are the acts of a very different man.

Nolan is therefore obviously hitting the viewer with a mighty double whammy of a film which is both structurally and thematically intensely complex – a friend said after watching Tenet that ‘it put a knot in my brain’ and I felt the same while viewing Memento. What is likely to make things even more of a challenge for the viewer is that in addition to the reverse-chronology element of the film (shown in colour) there is also a normal-chronology element (shown in black and white), interwoven with it. The relationship between the two is not immediately apparent, which just adds to the general sense of Nolan trying to drive the viewer nuts, but this does lead up to the bravura moment when the black and white image slowly bleeds into colour and everything suddenly becomes, if not clear, then certainly clearer. I don’t think this is quite one of those films demanding a second viewing in order for them to become totally comprehensible – but the facility to string the whole narrative together in conventional chronological order would certainly be a bonus, and I am amused to see that several of the movie’s DVD releases do present this as an option.

Your attention in this movie is invariably on the storytelling and direction, but it works as well as it does because of solid performances from the three leads, especially Pearce, who’s in virtually every scene. It’s obviously a challenging role, but he finds the pathos in it, and the humour, and an unsettling note of detached ruthlessness that sets up a memorably vicious ending. Or beginning. Or middle. It’s that kind of story.

What’s striking is how much this film anticipates the concerns which have driven virtually all of Christopher Nolan’s work since: his films seem to be obsessed with how we perceive time, and the interface and relationship between reality and our memories of it. You could even argue that Leonard’s pathological quest for justice anticipates that of Bruce Wayne in the Batman movies. Nolan has, obviously, moved on to much greater things in the two decades since this film was released, but the raw material remains the same, as does – on the whole – the quality of the results. This is one of those films which feels like a young director laying down a marker – in this case, a director who more than made good on the promise he showed here. An essential movie for Christopher Nolan fans and a great, intelligent thriller in its own right.

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So here we are, with the world seemingly on pause for the foreseeable future, and the main challenge of each day being how to fill it. I could be learning another language, or practising the ukulele; maybe writing another terrible, unpublishable novel, or working on my long-mooted guide to running Lovecraftian role-playing games, Terror Without Tentacles. But I’m not. Instead I find myself watching obscure Vin Diesel movies that I happen to have missed the first time around.

I’ll be honest with you, for all that I occasionally refer to him as ‘the great Vin Diesel’ (it is meant with affection if not complete seriousness) I have never been a completist when it comes to the artist formerly known as Mark Sinclair. Didn’t see Pitch Black at the cinema, nor the first four Fast & Furious movies, nor xXx – I think you’re getting the point. In the circumstances it’s not really surprising that a minor film like F Gary Gray’s A Man Apart slipped through the net.

This movie was originally released in 2003 (but more on this later) and opens with a brief sequence describing the vast quantities of narcotics smuggled over the US-Mexican border every week by the drug cartels. This is narrated by a tranquilised-sounding Diesel and it’s hard to tell whether it’s more like a Trump campaign video or an advert for cocaine. As a means of establishing the mise en scene, though, it is reasonably effective.

When Vin eventually pops up, he is playing Sean Vetter, member of a cool, unorthodox squad within the DEA. After seven years they are about to finally collar senior drug lord Lucero (Geno Silva) inside a rather peculiar club or nightclub (Lucero seems to have no problem with groping various scantily-clad dancers in front of a crowd of his cheering employees and their families). The bust goes down, and Lucero is successfully nicked, but not before Vin has to chase down his getaway car on foot (heavy traffic congestion in Mexico City, plus the fact that Diesel was carrying a lot less bulk twenty years ago, mean this is slightly less ludicrous than it sounds). Cheerful Vin repeatedly asks his boss if he can go home and see his wife.

Yes, Vin has a lovely wife (played by Jacqueline Obradors) who is a maker of scented candles, and a cat (played by a cat) who is not. Various scenes ensue making it quite clear just what a devoted and loving husband Vin is, and the general effect is as if they had painted a large bullseye on Mrs Diesel’s forehead. So it proves, for it seems that with Lucero in jail, a lethal new drugs kingpin known only as ‘Diablo’ is taking over the business, and (I know this doesn’t make a great deal of sense) Diablo decides to take out the man responsible for disposing of his predecessor. In the ensuing hit, Vin is shot and wounded and his wife killed (their cat vanishes out of the movie at this point, but I fear the worst).

Vin wakes up in hospital to discover that his wife has not just carked it, but been buried while he was in a coma. This upsets him a bit, and his performance of distraught grief is such that the audience will probably find it quite gruelling too. A preposterous scene ensues in which Vin is let out of hospital (his serious bullet wound disappears from the movie along with his cat) and driven to the cemetery after dark by his long-suffering partner (Larenz Tate) to visit the grave. Well, item number one on Vin’s agenda is now to get his revenge on Diablo for making his cat disappear (and killing his wife too, probably), but can he keep his volcanic vengeful fury under control long enough to do it?

The first thing that strikes you about A Man Apart is just how young and slim Vin Diesel looks in it: positively baby-faced and whippet-like. (For much of the film he wears a goatee, which is a pretty good look for him.) The reason for this is that while the film was released in 2003, it was actually made a couple of years earlier (it’s hard to find out for sure exactly when, but apparently a court case concerning the film’s original title of Diablo was in progress in 2001) and then sat on the shelf, only earning a run in theatres after The Fast and the Furious and xXx confirmed Diesel as a genuine star. The thinking seems to have been that this film would have vanished without trace without a star name on the poster, and I can see where they were coming from, because A Man Apart is not much cop.

I very rarely bail out of a movie part-way through, even at home, but in this case I did come close, about half an hour in. By this point it was clear that A Man Apart was not going to be any good, but neither was it going to be bad in a particularly interesting or entertaining way. It’s just mediocre in virtually every department. At the heart of the film there seems to be a distinct lack of certainty as to just what it’s supposed to be – a tough action thriller about the battle with the Mexican drug cartels, or a more introspective character piece about a man driven half-mad by grief and the desire for revenge. It just about hangs together, but it’s a near thing.

There’s a phenomenon known as ‘fridging’, which refers to the tendency of female characters in films and other media to exist only so they can be murdered or otherwise brutalised by the bad guys in order to motivate the hero for the rest of the story (the title comes from a mid-90s issue of Green Lantern in which the title character comes home to find his girlfriend’s corpse stuffed in the refrigerator). It’s a trope we seem to be moving on from, but it is very noticeable that the main plot function of most of the women in A Man Apart (maybe not the scantily-clad dancers) is to be fridged. It’s that kind of movie – driven by the protagonist’s need for revenge – but Jacqueline Obradrors’ character is so obviously just there to be offed that you never really buy into their relationship, so it all feels very formulaic.

I’ve discussed in the past the difference between Escapist and Reminder forms of entertainment and the problems which can ensue when film-makers get the balance between them wrong or otherwise mix them up. In the end, most of the problems with A Man Apart arise from the fact that the film’s tone and setting are inescapably quite grim and depressing, and concerns serious social problems and issues, while the plot itself is shallow and simplistic, a-man’s-gotta-do stuff. The conclusion of the film attempts to subvert expectations and suggest some kind of moral victory for Diesel, but you just end up thinking what a weak climax it is after all that has gone before.

Now, having said all this, and bearing in mind I come here to praise Vin Diesel, not bury him, he is still very watchable in this movie: he passes the test of a genuine movie star by still having genuine presence and charisma, even in a bad film. One wonders exactly why it is that he has struggled so badly so sustain a career outside of one or two franchises (you know the ones I mean): is it simply that he really is as limited in his range as his choice of movies would suggest, or just that there’s something about him which has led to his being typed so badly? Whatever the answer, A Man Apart is not going to change anyone’s mind about Diesel and his career: this is a thorough-going dud.

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I have to admit the possibility that there may be people who have decided to Google for ‘Bad Education Movie’ in the hope of getting access to someone’s considered opinion of the forthcoming Hugh Jackman film (not actually on release yet, I think) – well, sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place. Nor is this the place to be should you (for whatever reason) be interested in the movie spin-off of the sitcom starring Jack Whitehall, which came out a few years ago (the temptation to say that if this is the case, you should maybe rethink some of your life choices, is almost irresistible). Seriously, they ought to do something about people re-using titles on films.

Anyway, the Bad Education we are here to discuss is the 2004 movie from Pedro Almodovar, originally known as La mala educacion. Not that this really does a great deal to eliminate potential confusion, as that’s just a direct translation into Spanish, of course. No Almodovar movie seems to be completely bereft of a certain kind of humour, but this is certainly one of his more serious films: perhaps that’s a big enough point of distinction. It’s not as if this is a film which it’s easy to mistake for anything else, though.

When I was writing about Talk to Her I ventured the suggestion that there was an undercurrent to it which was almost Hitchcockian in its tone and style – almost from the start, it seems that this influence has grown enormously, for the opening credits and music suggest nothing as much as an energetic pastiche of films from Hitchcock’s own late 50s-early 60s imperial phase. It takes a little while for this to show up in the actual story, though. Much of the film is set in 1980, and concerns (amongst others) Enrique (Fele Martinez), a film director looking for his next project. His ruminations are interrupted by the appearance of an old school friend named Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal). Ignacio is an actor and writer, looking for work, but he also leaves a short story entitled The Visit with Enrique – apparently it is a sort of roman-a-clef, partly based on their own experiences together.

The film then shifts its focus, apparently presenting the story of The Visit. This concerns fictionalised versions of Enrique (Alberto Ferreiro) and Ignacio (still Bernal), with the considerable difference that the Ignacio in the story is a transsexual nightclub singer, going by the name of Zahara. With the aid of her friend Paca (a brief but very big performance by Javier Camara), Zahara is out to get revenge on Manolo, the Catholic priest who abused her as a boy (the priest is played by Daniel Gimenez Cacho), intent on blackmailing him for the money that will pay for her sex-change surgery.

Obviously, this strikes a significant chord with the real-life Enrique, and brings back all kinds of memories of his childhood friendship – more than friendship – with Ignacio, a friendship which ended when Manolo had him expelled from the school they attended together. He decides to go ahead with the movie, even though Ignacio seems greatly changed to him, almost unrecognisable as the same person…

It all sounds relatively straightforward when you write it down like that, but Bad Education is really far from straightforward in terms of its narrative – I have skipped over some of the many ambiguities and sleights-of-hand in the plot; for instance, it’s not made at all obvious at first that Ignacio and Zahara are both played by Bernal. As the film progresses, it grows increasingly dense and subtle in its storytelling – there are, as you can see, lengthy flashback sequences, and also a film-within-the-film. Elements of these echo and repeat each other, and the line between the two is eventually elided, up to a point. This is a film you do have to give your full attention to, but Almodovar maintains an exemplary grip on what could have been an extravagantly confusing story.

Is it really valid for me to compare it to one of Hitchcock’s entertainments, though? Well, obviously Hitchcock never made a film as graphically explicit as this one, and it’s difficult to imagine him openly addressing material like transsexuality and child abuse, or even homosexuality, in one of his films. But, on the other hand, the tricky and repetitive structure of the film, the eventual appearance of long-buried blackmail and murder, and the fascination with identity – how well can you really know a person? How much can someone change, over time? – are all things one would easily associate with some of Hitchcock’s finest films. Pedro Almodovar has a reputation for making big, sensuous, emotional films dealing with issues of sex and gender, but it seems to me he has all the necessary tools in the kit to be considered a terrific director of thrillers, as well.

Nevertheless, this is one of his darker films. While there are some beautifully lyrically scenes early on, depicting the childhoods of the characters and everyday life in the school they attend, the tone grows steadily more serious as it progresses (Javier Camara’s big comic turn only appears in the early part of the film). There is still humanity in the film – the present-day version of Manolo, when he eventually appears, is a pitiable figure, and we are encouraged to pity him despite his terrible offences – but it is overall less optimistic and warm than in previous films, and the ending is inconclusive and ambiguous. Then again, perhaps there is no other choice here: the film is ultimately about the life-long emotional damage done by child abuse, and the ripple of collateral damage spreading out through the friends and acquaintances of those at the heart of it. Almodovar is too good a director to be excessively on-the-nose about this, but the shadows lie deeply on all the survivors at the end of this film, and the implication is clear. This is another well-acted, well-directed and exceptionally well-written film, dark and complex without feeling excessively grim or heavy: colourful and deft enough to be genuinely entertaining, but still a work shot through with a profound seriousness.

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Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her (title en Espanol: Hable con ella) opens rather theatrically, which may not come as a huge surprise to anyone familiar with this director – the curtain rises and we are treated to a display of interpretative dance from Pina Bausch. Watching it are the two main characters of the film, Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), although at this point they know each other as little as we know either of them. Marco is moved to tears by the performance, a fact which does not go unnoticed by Benigno.

Slowly a narrative begins to form, piecemeal and out of chronological order. Marco is a writer, mainly of travel books, though the story from his point of view starts when he is sent to do a piece on up-and-coming female matador Lydia (Rosario Flores). After an unpromising start, mainly because both of them are carrying baggage from previous relationships, romance seems to kindle between them.

Bullfighting is a bit of a cliché in many people’s idea of Spain, and it’s obviously a controversial topic. All that aside, Almodóvar’s presentation of scenes set in the bullring is exceptional – they are beautiful and grotesque at the same time, colourful and vibrant but also laced with horror. That the danger is not all on the bull’s side is reinforced when Lydia comes off second best in a bout with a bull and ends up in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state – in other words, a coma, and one there is virtually no chance she will ever emerge from.

Marco, who has never been the most articulate of people, has no idea of how to cope with this, but finds himself making friends with Benigno, who is a private nurse employed on the same ward. His duties only extend to looking after one particular patient: Alicia (Leonor Watling), a dance student who was involved in a car accident. Benigno is clearly a deeply committed and very caring nurse, who happily talks to Alicia about everything going on in his life; he is completely unlike Marco. And yet the two of them do become friends.

However, this is a friendship that is soon to be put to the test. Not all is as it initially seems in these relationships, and the story is about to move into some very strange and dark territory…

Yes, I know, if two Almodóvar reviews in a week was a bit irregular, three in a fortnight in really pushing it. Well, I warn you, they’re reviving Bad Education this week, and thank your lucky stars I’m away on holiday the week this revival season concludes with Volver. What can I say? Blame the late-summer interesting-movie drought. And while I know I’m ridiculously late to the party, I’m still kicking myself for not checking Pedro Almodóvar’s back catalogue before now: he deserves every bit of his reputation.

Talk to Her is, first and foremost, a really excellent movie, fully deserving of its reputation as one of the best made so far this century. However, it is also one of those films it is somewhat difficult to write about in detail without venturing into spoiler territory. I turned up to watch it with only the vaguest idea of what the story was about – the non-chronological nature of the plot means that the Wikipedia plot summary isn’t especially rewarding if you only skim read it – and the fact that it’s almost impossible to predict which way the story will go at any given moment is one of the pleasures of the film. You really want to know as little about the story in advance as you can manage.

So what can I really say about Talk to Her? Well, the first thing is that this is not quite the schmaltzy romantic melodrama it looks like it’s going to be – in fact, Almodóvar is relatively restrained when it comes to the plotting this time around; there are none of the outrageous coincidences that often pop up in his scripts. His subtlety and playfulness are still entirely intact, and you could argue that for much of the film he is cheerfully engaged in misdirecting the audience, turning their expectations against them. You are watching it and enjoying what has so far been an engaging and very well-made romantic drama, touched with elements of tragedy, and then suddenly and without your really being aware of it, the film has taken on something of the aspect of a psychological thriller – the kind of film that Hitchcock might have felt moved to have a go at, had he spent twenty or thirty years in therapy. Elements of the story which have previously been wholly innocuous suddenly look horribly suspect, and you question just exactly what kind of people some of these characters are.

It works as well as it does because of the brilliant performances given by the two leads – the two women in the comas are also good, but perforce have rather limited scope to participate in the film. Camara is very good in a hugely challenging part, managing to find all the subtlety it requires; Grandinetti has the tough job of playing someone who isn’t naturally very demonstrative, but finds the chinks in the armour that make it work. But the magic of the film is in the scripting and direction – as mentioned, there is a very black cheerfulness at work here, and an immense deftness when it comes to tone (just when you think you have the film figured out, Almodóvar throws in the eye-popping silent movie vignette).

But perhaps the most impressive thing about it is Almodóvar’s ability to retain his humanity and compassion even in a film which deals with topics as dark as the ones here. There is always room for subtlety, no-one is wholly good or bad, they are simply human and worthy of at least a little understanding. And beyond this, he even manages to conclude the film on a quiet moment of hopeful promise, something that would have seemed impossible only a short time before. As I said, Talk to Her is an excellent movie in every way.

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Not for the first time recently, we went on holiday only to find our arrival coincided with regrettably unseasonal weather conditions: ‘WINTER STORM EXPECTED SUNDAY PM/MONDAY AM’ flashed every roadside information board all the way from JFK into Manhattan. Probably just a coincidence, and I suppose it could have been worse: it was only the first day or so of the trip, when we were taking it fairly easy and trying to get over the jet lag.

The prospect of spending the evening in the hotel room was brightened a bit when Travelling Companion spotted that the movie on BBC America was King Kong. This seemed (potentially, at least) a very appropriate film for the situation – it’s one of the great, iconic New York movies, and we were staying just round the corner from the Empire State Building. The only slight cause for uncertainty was that there was no way of finding out which version of King Kong we were going to be treated to, because personally I find that my mileage differs radically (I have written in the past about my very unfashionable fondness for the reviled 1976 version). Well, we settled down in front of the TV, and I have to confess that my heart sank a bit when it became clear we would be going through the experience that is Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of this classic tale.

Surely everybody knows the basic plot of this archetypal fable: it is the early 1930s, and many Americans are struggling with the consequences of the Great Depression. Amongst them is vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who is out of work and struggling to even eat. Hope glimmers when she encounters maverick film-maker Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing the part as Orson Welles at his most Machiavellian), who whisks her off to star in his new movie, to be filmed on location on an uncharted island. Also shanghaied for the trip is earnest young playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Soon enough (well, maybe not, but we shall return to this) everyone sets sail for Skull Island, little anticipating the unusual ecosystem that has survived there: arthropods of unusual size, relict dinosaurs, and a large gorilla population (there’s actually only one gorilla, but it is very large).

Well, the natives take a fancy to Ann and end up sacrificing her to the ape, known to them as Kong (Andy Serkis does the mocapping essentials). Even as her colleagues mount a desperate attempt to rescue her, Ann finds herself realising that Kong is not quite the savage beast he first appears to be, while Carl reaches the conclusion that the ape could be just what he needs to make his career – all he needs to do is get Kong back to New York. What could possibly go wrong with an idea like that…?

Peter Jackson is quite open about the fact that the original King Kong is his favourite film of all time – well, there’s nothing wrong with that, it is an essential classic and one of the foundation texts of the fantasy and monster movie genres. He initially wanted to make it in the late 1990s, when I seem to recall it had acquired the title The Legend of King Kong, but for various reasons the project got put on hold while he pushed ahead with his noted jewellery-related triptych.

Personally I would quite like to look into that parallel dimension where Jackson made King Kong before Lord of the Rings, as I think the version they have there would be very interesting and quite possibly better. For me the extant version feels very much like the movie equivalent of one of those brick-sized mid-to-late Harry Potter novels written when J.K. Rowling had become so successful she could do anything she wanted and nobody, it seems, was brave enough to suggest that more is sometimes less.

It’s hard to imagine that the pre-Rings Jackson would have been indulged in making a version of Kong that runs for over three hours, nearly twice the length of the original film. Certainly, the 1933 film moves along at a brisk clip and skimps a little bit when it comes to things like characterisation, but it’s a pulp monster movie and that is the source of most of its charm. Blowing the movie up to proportions even vaster than that of the title character changes it entirely, making it ponderous and a source more of bathos than genuine pathos.

It is, for example, an hour into the movie before they even arrive at Skull Island, and obviously more than that before we see any monsters: Jackson has cast a trio of hot young stars (Brody was relatively fresh from his Oscar win, making this a curious inversion of that phenomenon where successful young actresses are almost instantly cast in fantasy and superhero movies – cf. Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson, etc), but they struggle with a script that simply feels bloated – Peter Jackson and his collaborators clearly have their hearts set on making an epic movie, perhaps rather in the same vein as Titanic, but they struggle to find anything appropriately profound to say, and the film feels like it’s taking itself very seriously considering it is essentially about an island full of dinosaurs and a giant gorilla rampaging through Manhattan. It also feels like there’s an awful lot of filler (a subplot about Jamie Bell and Evan Parke’s characters doesn’t contribute much of anything and could easily be snipped entirely).

Despite being essentially a homage, the movie seems to have a curious and by no means uncritical attitude towards the 1933 film. There are, of course, a number of in-jokes and references scattered throughout it, but one gets a general sense of Jackson and his writers attempting to update and ‘fix’ the original story. This is fair enough: the 1933 Kong‘s presentation of the islanders is horribly awkward and dated, which the newer film acknowledges by modelling Denham’s ugly and garish stage extravaganza on these scenes. But again, this is hardly done with the lightest of touches.

The really successful element of the 2005 film, at the heart of the sequences where it genuinely feels as if it’s coming to life, is its handling of Skull Island itself: what’s a fairly generic ‘Lost World’ backdrop in the original has obviously been the source of much (maybe even too much) thought and imagination, with new species of dinosaur and creepy-crawly developed to populate it. The bits of the film where Jackson genuinely feels like he’s enjoying himself all derive from this, and diverge considerably from the source: the sauropod stampede, the nightmarish chasm scene, and the fight between Kong and the vastatosaurs.

The special effects are, of course, state of the art, but again one has to wonder about some of the creative decisions involved – it’s shorthand to describe King Kong as a gorilla movie, but the makers of most films involving this character have played it a little fast and loose when it comes to presenting the giant ape – the most recent Kong movie, for instance, opted to make him more bipedal and humanoid, simply because this suited the feel they were going for. The Jackson-Serkis Kong, on the other hand, is the most authentically gorilla-ish Kong in movie history, but it’s not really clear what dividend this pays.

What does feel like a definite misstep, motivated perhaps by that decision to go for a Titanic kind of vibe, is the choice to make Kong an almost entirely sympathetic character from much earlier in the film. It’s only comparatively late in the 1933 version, when it becomes obvious he is doomed, that Kong becomes the icon of pathos and tragedy he is best remembered as – prior to this, he is an ambiguous and often frightening figure. Jackson and company clearly want us on his side all the way through, one of their main tactics being to get Naomi Watts to do her sad-open-mouth face whenever Kong is in trouble (which she ends up doing a lot). The problem is that by trying to solicit pathos rather than thrills, the film usually ends up generating neither.

Despite all of this negative talk, I would still have to agree that King Kong is a case of a great director producing a magnificent folly more than an outright failure. There is all the material here for a potentially great fantasy film, but there’s just too much of it, along with plenty of other stuff which wouldn’t ever normally appear in a conventional monster movie. In the end, this is a lavish, impressively-assembled film, but it’s saddled with an inappropriate tone and a misconceived sense of its own significance that makes it a tough slog to get through.

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