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Posts Tagged ‘Antonio Banderas’

One fine day in the summer of 1995, I finished my university finals. Nearly everyone went off to get wrecked in celebration, but not I: even back then I find that I was dabbling with the abstemiousness which has now become my standard operating procedure, while other habits and tendencies were beginning to manifest themselves: I left my peers in the bar that lunchtime and went off to the cheapest of Hull city centre’s three cinemas, which was a place that gave one the chance to catch up on films that had come out a few months earlier at the now-unbelievable price of only £1.50 a ticket. So, you may be wondering, what did I see? Well, I caught the afternoon showing of Leon. And then, feeling almost dizzy with the heady knowledge I would never have to answer an essay question on epistemology again, I saw the teatime show of Interview with the Vampire. And finally, with the words ‘what the hell!’ distinctly resonating in my brain, I saw the movie version of Stargate in the evening.

My main recollection of that day is an inexorable decline in the quality of the movies, to be honest: Leon remains a film I really like (I still think it’s far and away Luc Besson’s best work), while I’ve never been able to get on with Stargate in any of its incarnations, to be honest (this despite generally being well-disposed towards Roland Emmerich’s SF movies). But what of Interview with the Vampire, first released in 1994 and directed by Neil Jordan. Well, I tend to like Jordan’s stuff, or perhaps it’s better to say I usually find things to enjoy in his films: I liked the visual style of The Company of Wolves and the sheer bonkersness of Greta, for example.

I have to say, though, that I found Interview with the Vampire to be slimmer pickings than most of his work – which was a surprise to me, as I have been a fan of vampire movies since discovering Hammer horror in 1987, at least. Mind you, I also found Anne Rice’s source novel to be pretty heavy going – I think I originally bought the damn thing second-hand in 1998, bounced off it a couple of times, found another copy in a ‘free books’ box outside the neighbours’ house fifteen years later, and finally ploughed through it then. (A review of the book is here.)

Any version of this story you care to mention concerns the life (brief), death (very brief) and thereafter (extremely lengthy) of a vampire named Louis (played by Bradley Pitt), who is telling his tale to a Studs Terkel-esque writer (Christian Slater). Louis, by his own account, is driven to the verge of suicidal madness by the death of his wife and child in 1790s Louisiana, at which point he crosses the path of a hedonistic vampire named Lestat (Tom Cruise). With Louis’ permission, Lestat brings him over to his side of the street, with the promise of immortality and eternal youth…

Yes, I suppose we’ve all wondered what we would do with such a gift. What Louis mostly does with it is brood and complain, although occasionally he takes a break in order to complain and brood. Apparently he doesn’t like drinking human blood, which leads one to wonder why he agreed to being turned into a vampire in the first place. God knows why Lestat puts up with him (this is not a healthy relationship). Lestat decides that having a child will save their partnership (not the first time someone has made this rather suspect decision) and turns a young plague survivor named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst, in her movie debut), and the three of them pass many years brooding, complaining, and thinning out the local population.

There’s a good deal more in this vein (sorry) but it has to be said that this is not a film with a particularly strong narrative line. The only thing that makes it a conventional narrative (as opposed to just a series of episodic vignettes) is the persistent focus on Louis’ relationship with Lestat. Possibly one of the reasons I’ve never been a particular fan of this film is that it takes all the trappings of a traditional vampire movie but uses them to tell what’s basically a story about a dysfunctional relationship – a bit like the Hunger Games movies, which come on like dystopian SF thrillers but turn out to be something more nuanced and introspective.

The thing that makes Interview with the Vampire rather unusual for a big-budget studio movie is that all those Gothic horror trappings are basically there to hide the basic subtext of the story: which is that of a man forming a relationship with another man, and becoming part of a hidden subculture which more traditional folk sometimes find either alluring or revolting. The main character feels terribly guilty about his new lifestyle. Needless to say both Pitt and Cruise look – how best to put this? Androgynous isn’t quite the right word – somewhat ambiguous in this movie, with lovely flowing long hair and clear complexions. In short, this is surely one of the gayest films to come out of a major studio in the 20th century.

I said something similar in the review of the book, and, as you may have seen, someone took issue with this, suggesting that Rice’s vampires transcend conventional notions of romance and sexuality. Hmmm, well, maybe. The thing is, any sane person writing about vampires is going to use them as a metaphor for something – to do anything else would be to perpetrate vacuous fantasy – and it’s worth mentioning that at one point Rice rejigged the story so that Pitt’s character would be a woman, to be played by Cher. Her reasoning? She assumed that Hollywood would be too homophobic for the story as she wrote it. I’ll just put my case down here, shall I?

The BBC showed Interview with the Vampire the other night, and the following evening their late movie was Behind the Candelabra, which is either one of those coincidences or evidence that someone in scheduling has a sense of humour, for if you do accept that the primary subtext of Jordan’s movie concerns a gay relationship, then the throughlines of both it and the Soderbergh film are strikingly similar, with Louis as the young semi-innocent and Lestat as the preening older man (Lestat does play the piano in a couple of key scenes, as well). Of course, what may keep the film from being wholly embraced by the LGBT community is that one of the main drivers of the plot is that Louis spends most of the movie feeling terribly guilty about being a vampire (i.e. gay) and most of the vampires (i.e. …oh, you get the idea) are nasty, bitter, bitchy types.

None of this is really why I’m not a particular fan of this film – there are lots of different ways of doing vampire movies, from Nosferatu to Near Dark to Captain Kronos, for the vampire metaphor is unusually adaptable. I think it’s mainly just the style of the thing, which feels very much like the work of a novelist rather than a screenwriter: a bit too much reliance on voice-over for exposition, and a fondness for characters telling each other things rather than doing things. All mouth and no trousers, really.

All the moments you remember from the film have much to do with the script: they’re visual rather than narrative. Jordan mounts a very impressive movie with a real sense of style about it, and gets a really good performance out of an eleven-year-old Kirsten Dunst. None of the performances are what you’d call actively bad; Antonio Banderas gets one of his better early English-language roles (now I think of it, it would be fascinating to see Almodovar’s take on this material). Tom Cruise is… well, he’s in his ‘give me an Oscar’ mode, which he is wont to slip into in this kind of prestige production (perhaps we should be grateful he mainly does thrillers these days), and his performance is just pitched a bit too high.

I feel obliged to say, though, that it’s still a damn sight better than the sequel. But if we’re going to look in that direction, it is interesting to note that if What We Do In The Shadows (both movie and TV show) is spoofing anything in particular, it’s this movie (the episodes with the vampire council make this particularly clear). Not many things this year have made me laugh as often or as hard as the What We Do… TV show, so I suppose Interview with the Vampire deserves credit for that. Fairly faint praise, I admit, but sometimes you have to take your damnation wherever you can find it.

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As I have noted in the past, one of the few reassuring universal truths is that nobody is brilliant at everything, and even those who are brilliant at something are almost never brilliant at it all the time. This surely comes as a great reassurance to those of us who are never especially brilliant at anything, at any time. It can still be a bit disconcerting, however, to come across an instance of someone who is usually reliably brilliant – this piece is not scoring highly so far for its range of vocabulary – turning in subpar work.

Still, it happens. It would almost be invidious, and certainly unacceptably negative, to give too many examples, and so I shall just move briskly on to our main topic for the day, and the source of this observation, which is Pedro Almodovar’s 1989 movie Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (title en Espanol: ¡Átame!).

Now, as regular readers will know, in the course of the last year I have gone from having only a vague awareness of Almodovar’s work to becoming a bit of an enthusiast, and I feel like I am starting to get a feeling for the kind of general trajectory of his career: a gradual increase in the sophistication and confidence throughout the 1980s films, followed by the imperial phase movies of the late 90s and early 2000s – then perhaps a little bit of a wobble, before consolidation in his current position as one of the most respected names in world cinema.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a film which doesn’t really fit into this pattern, simply because it’s not very good. It did, however, lead me to contemplate what it is we mean when we talk about good and bad movies. Certainly it is a more polished and coherent movie than, say, Dark Habits, and the key roles are better acted. And yet I find it to be a poorer film. Perhaps the key difference is between weakness of conception and weakness of execution – I find the latter easier to forgive than the former.

The movie opens with a young man named Ricky (Antonio Banderas) being released from a psychiatric institution, which the director clearly finds rather distressing as she is much taken with the lad: there is a note of over-the-top campness here which suggests a much broader film than this actually turns out to be. His first act upon getting out is to find some chocolates and track down the location of a young actress named Marina (Victoria Abril), with whom he had a one-night stand some time earlier.

She is coming to the end of making a horror movie for wheelchair-bound director Max Espejo (Francisco Rabal) – there is possibly an attempt to suggest this is a Spanish take on an Argento-style giallo movie – and looking forward to a break. However, she is nevertheless pounced upon by Ricky when she returns to her apartment, tied up and informed that he will keep her like this until she does the sensible thing and falls in love with him as completely as he is devoted to her…

Looking back upon my life, I now realise that the key factor responsible for my lack of romantic success in my younger years was my ASD, but second to that was probably my deeply misguided belief that copying Roger Moore’s lady-killing moves from his James Bond films would naturally lead to similar results. I can only be grateful that things didn’t get any worse, as they might well have done if, rather than the Bond series, I had taken my cues from films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and other films from what I can only describe as the ‘coercive romance’ subgenre.

By this I mean movies where the male character contrives to put himself in a very controlling position with regard to the female character, but she falls in love with him anyway. Sounds pretty niche and unpleasant, right? Presumably pitched as a wish-fulfilment exercise for a certain kind of male viewer with limited social skills? Well, you might think so, but that’s a pretty good description of the premise of Passengers, which I have seen some women favourably compare to the much more conventional romance Titanic. It’s far from the only film based on the same idea: namely, that women will forgive a man anything as long as his devotion to (or, to put it another way, obsession with) her is strong enough. Is there another trope which makes it quite so clear that the film industry is still largely run by and for men?

It’s still a bit disconcerting to find Almodovar’s name on a film based around such a dubious central idea, but I can imagine how a worthwhile (if still inevitably provocative) film on the topic could be attempted – but it would have to be in part a spoof or deconstruction of the whole notion of coercive romance, perhaps demanding the kind of ironic sensibility and knowing playfulness Almodovar often employs so well. Unfortunately, this is one of his films where these qualities are much less in evidence: the central relationship is handled very ‘straight’, and the film-within-the-film is meant to be a commentary on the story, this is handled with much too light a touch (there’s a line suggesting romances and horror stories are sometimes indistinguishable).

And, crucially, it just doesn’t convince. Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril are both very capable and charismatic performers, but the key moment of the film – when Marina submits to her growing attraction to Ricky – feels sudden and unwarranted. Normally Almodovar makes a virtue of the melodramatic nature of his stories, and the outrageous plotting, but here it doesn’t work: they don’t feel like a natural part of the film’s ethos, but something limited to just this one scene in order to make the film function as a romance.

Compounding the problem is the way that Almodovar concentrates on the central relationship quite strongly, with the result that many other potentially interesting characters and ideas are shuffled off to the fringes of the film – Rabal’s character is an interesting one, as is Marina’s sister (played by Loles Leon), but neither of them get very much to do. This feels like one of the director’s more straightforward films, in terms of its thesis – all the usual unconventionality seems to have been converted into the weirdness of the central relationship, although this is still unusually graphic for what’s theoretically a romance: a graphic sex scene, a couple of scenes with people on the toilet, and a startling moment where Marina finds a new use for a bath toy all conspired (it is suggested) to ensure Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! got an X certificate on its initial American release (something usually reserved for actual pornography).

Maybe they had a point, I don’t know. Perhaps I am letting the fact that I find the idea at the centre of this film objectionable colour my opinion of it too much. Maybe it is possible that by insanely kidnapping a woman, threatening to kill her, and keeping her tied up, you can eventually kindle the flames of love between you and her. But I still think this is a long shot, and to suggest it’s a dead cert is not just misleading, it’s arguably irresponsible, especially when the film doesn’t even suggest it has its tongue in its cheek: the happy ending feels entirely sincere. Whatever touches of quality the film has as a piece of cinema – and these are inevitably present – it’s hard to get past the problem at the heart of the story.

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For a while there I thought I wasn’t taking this Almodovarathon idea nearly seriously enough, with weeks often going by between my watching the different films in question. But that was when I rather foolishly thought the world would only be on pause for a few weeks, maybe a month or so: I’m quite glad I didn’t rush through them all, to be honest, because I would have run out a while ago.

And so I find myself watching the first Pedro Almodovar movie to acquire any sort of cultural traction in the UK (by which I mean, of course, that it warranted a mention in the cinema review section of Radio Times): Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, released in 1988. It has been pointed out that this film has not quite been optimally translated into English, certainly when it comes to the title. The Spanish title is Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, and apparently (snappy though the extant English title is) ataque de nervios more accurately means an attack of nerves, or panic attack.

Certainly there are a lot of stressed women in this film, chief amongst them being Pepa (Carmen Maura), a reasonably successful actress (she gets recognised in the street and asked to do commercials, in both cases because she plays ‘the killer’s mother’ in a popular crime TV show). She also has a gig doing the Spanish dub of various foreign movies, and it seems that it is here she has met Ivan (Fernando Guillen), one of those charming, silver-fox kind of older dudes who ladies seem to go for. Pepa and Ivan have been an item for some time, but now it seems they have split up – Pepa, however, urgently needs to speak to him about a pressing personal matter.

Pepa’s futile search for Ivan is the core of the movie, and she grows increasingly frustrated and perhaps a bit erratic as the film goes on and he seems to be actively trying to dodge speaking with her. Other elements of her life start to pile up on her, making things even more confusing and complex: her young friend Candela (Maria Barranco) turns up at her flat, confessing that she has unwittingly become romantically involved with a group of Shi’ite Muslim terrorists; a young couple, looking to lease the flat, arrive for a viewing and – in a typically outrageous piece of Almodovar plotting – it turns out that the young man (Antonio Banderas) is actually Ivan’s son. Ivan’s mentally unstable ex-wife arrives, and so do the police, not to mention a phone repairman (Pepa has been taking her frustrations out on the handset). It seems like the only person not wanting to talk to Pepa is Ivan himself…

At one point a minor character, who’s just had the events of the movie summarised for him, looks blank and says ‘You’ve got to be pulling my leg’: this is blatantly a black, screwball farce, and the director seems to be revelling in how preposterous it all is. That said, it does take a little while to get up to speed, and the first act is something of a slow start, where it’s unclear exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be and how we are supposed to respond to it. Or perhaps this is another sign of Almodovar’s increasing confidence and deftness as a director: as we first meet and get to know Pepa, she does seem genuinely upset and the film looks like it may be dealing with relatively serious issues. But once all this is established and we’ve become invested in Pepa and her situation, the tone of the film noticeably lightens and the pace picks up. Before long there are tongue-in-cheek gags about Islamic terrorism, a running joke about a jug of gazpacho soup spiked with sleeping pills, and by the end Almodovar can cheerfully include a car chase involving a gun-toting mental patient on a motorbike and it somehow feels like much of a piece with what has gone before.

The combination of outrageous plotting, vivid characterisation, and colourful composition does seem to me to mark this as the film in which Almodovar’s classic style first comes together – needless to say, several members of his unofficial rep company also appear in the movie. Chus Lampreave gets a small part as the Jehovah’s Witness concierge of Pepa’s building, Banderas gets a nice, but relatively minor role, and the film is essentially carried by Carmen Maura, who gives another one of those strong-but-quietly-vulnerable performances which are practically another hallmark of Almodovar’s style.

As the title suggests, this is a film almost exclusively about the actions and concerns of its female characters, and it’s told from their perspective. The men are almost exclusively feckless, useless, or actually stupid, almost without exception a source of problems for the women around them. Pepa’s success at the end of the film, when it comes, is not that she finally manages to track Ivan down and have the conversation with him she’s been desperately wanting all film: it’s that she realises what a waste of space he is and decides he’s no longer worth her time, as a result becoming much less stressed and unhappy.

It’s an appropriate note for the film to close on, and entirely fitting for a film with a definite (if initially well-hidden) feminist subtext to it. The end of the film satisfies, even if, as a whole, it is not quite as masterfully assembled as some of Almodovar’s later films would be: the focus is not initially clear, and the director is not quite as slick as he would later become in selling his more outrageous turns of plotting to the audience. Nevertheless, this film is a lot of fun, once it gets going: it is still a bit rough around the edges, but in its tone, style, and outlook, it is the earliest Almodovar film that I’ve seen which genuinely feels like it anticipates the likes of All About My Mother and Talk to Her. Even if it’s not quite up to their standard, it’s still well worth watching.

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One issue with the Almodovarathon which I recently embarked upon is that I don’t have a full set of the great man’s films: I have a box set covering the mid-to-late eighties, and another with all the movies from the late nineties to the beginning of the current decade. If I had all of them, the obvious thing would be to start with Pepi, Luci, Bom and work my way through to the present day (or at least, the most recent film I haven’t seen, which I believe is the very camp one set on the airliner). But I can’t. Oh, the agonies of indecision. Luckily, my Significant Other came to my assistance (she is a great support to me, even when we are in lockdown on different landmasses). ‘Have you seen the one with Antonio Banderas as the mad scientist? Then put it to the top of the list!’ came the command.

Having spent my formative years in the provincial north of England, I was sort of vaguely aware of Almodovar growing up, particularly after Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, but his films never really made it to the local multiplexes. It was only when I came to Oxford and had an arthouse cinema within easy reach that the opportunity to see one on the big screen came along. And this first happened in 2011, with the UK release of The Skin I Live In (title en Espanol: La piel que habito). However, I suppose I was still relatively young and foolish and must still have felt that Pedro Almodovar was not quite my kind of director, and – if memory serves – was quite happy watching The Guard and Cowboys and Aliens and even, God help me, the Inbetweeners movie. Needless to say I am kicking myself now, because I am pretty sure The Skin I Live In would have rocked my world in 2011. I say this because watching it in 2020 has rocked my world.

The most immediately noticeable thing about the film is that it marks a welcome acerciamento between the director and Antonio Banderas, with whom he had not worked in decades after the actor went off to be a star in Hollywood. Here, Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a brilliant doctor, surgeon and scientist, who is apparently in the process of finishing up his work on developing a new kind of genetically-modified synthetic skin to help burn victims (Ledgard, we are told, lost his wife to severe burns injuries some years earlier). Ledgard is clearly an intensely dedicated man, and his work has brought him many material rewards, most obviously his lovely mansion (which contains its own laboratory and operating theatre), where he does most of his work.

All very well, but it is already apparent that all is not quite right. Resident in the house, apart from Ledgard’s devoted housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes), is a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), who appears to be being held captive in one of the upstairs rooms. Ledgard seems obsessed with her and her wellbeing, but there seem to be serious issues here – Vera attempts suicide, pleads with Ledgard to let her die. Naturally, he refuses.

It is all very mysterious and somehow indescribably unsettling, not least because Ledgard is clearly using Vera as a guinea pig in his experiments. The first hints of an explanation for all of this come when life in the mansion is disrupted by the arrival of Marilia’s estranged son Zeca (Roberto Alamo), who is a violent criminal. (This being an Almodovar movie, Zeca arrives wearing a spectacularly fabulous fancy-dress tiger outfit.) When he sees Vera, he mistakenly recognises her as Ledgard’s wife Gal, with whom he seems to have had a history. She does not disabuse him. But we have already been assured that Gal is dead – just what exactly has Ledgard been doing for the last few years?

The distinctive thing about this film (there was a lengthy debate on the BBC’s flagship film programme as to whether The Skin In Which I Live wasn’t actually a more grammatically accurate title than The Skin I Live In) is that it is much more obviously a genre movie than most of Almodovar’s work. Now, obviously many of his films include suspense-thriller elements, but what brings a new flavour to this one is that it does approach the territory of the horror movie (whether you want to qualify that by calling it a psychological horror film, or a psychological horror-thriller, is up to you; I can see some merit to all of them). You have to admire Almodovar’s audacity, as usual: English-language horror cinema largely abandoned the mad-scientist-doing-weird-experiments-in-his-home-laboratory set-up by the early sixties, on the grounds it was inescapably campy and ridiculous, but el maestro revives it here and sells it the audience as something entirely fresh and reasonable (he has acknowledged the debt this film owes to Les Yeux sans visage).

Then again, floating the most outrageous characters and plot developments past an unruffled audience is really Pedro Almodovar’s speciality. Here he is on top form, even though this is a much more plot-driven film than most of his past works. The plot is an intricate trap, unfolding largely in flashback – there is, inevitably, more than a touch of melodrama (two characters turn out to be siblings, but this is unknown to either of them), as well as what initially looks like a conventional revenge thriller largely concerning a character played by Jan Cornet. However, despite the unfamiliar approach and focus, very familiar Almodovar themes of sex, obsession, desire and gender slowly begin to make their presence felt.

For me, the result is a film which for most of its duration is as strong as anything else in Almodovar’s canon. It looks as fabulous as one would wish, has a superb script (loosely based on a novel by the French author Thierry Jonquet), and the performances are uniformly terrific. Watching this film, you do see what Almodovar meant when he suggested that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Antonio Banderas – in his English-language films, he tends to be cast as a romantic-comedy lead or athletic action hero, but he is entirely convincing as someone obsessive to the point of being actually insane. (That said, he’s still had better opportunities than Elena Anaya – another of those very talented and photogenic actresses Almodovar seems to effortlessly turn up whenever he needs one – whose American work has largely consisted of playing henchwomen in blockbuster fantasies.)

Then again, it is entirely possible I am not being objective about this film, but this is because it connected with me in a way which very rarely happens. Alan Bennett once said (according to Mark Gatiss, anyway) that we all have only a few beans rattling around in our tins, and at the heart of this film is a notion which has fascinated me for many, many years, one I have touched on repeatedly in the small amount of fiction I write. Suffice to say that Almodovar elevates it to a level I can barely credit, and handles it with his usual skill, investing the film with a rich sensuality and eroticism that makes most so-called ‘erotic thrillers’ feel very bland and tame.

I would call this another masterpiece, were it not for the last few minutes of the film. Here there is a mis-step, and a story which has worked hard to challenge the audience and resist conventionality becomes both traditional and conventional. It is very disappointing, for the ending on the screen does not ring quite true, nor does it really provide a sense of closure. The film even seems to be acknowledging this in the manner of its ending, fading out awkwardly partway through a scene.

It really is a shame, because it could surely have been avoided – it feels like a deeply uncharacteristic failure of nerve and imagination on the director’s part, and all the more telling because the rest of the film has been so supremely accomplished and powerful (or so it seems to me, at least). Still, this is one of Almodovar’s best films, and comes tantalisingly close to being one of the best I have ever seen.

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Long-term readers may recall that towards the end of last summer, the release of Pain and Glory and an accompanying season of revivals led to my discovering (at long last, some might say) the work of Pedro Almodovar. If there’s a flaw in Pain and Glory, it’s that it’s so rooted in the Almodovar canon that many of its subtleties aren’t apparent to the newcomer (at least, they weren’t to me at the time I saw it), but there’s very little at all wrong with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, or Bad Education, all of which were shown around the same time. I had a holiday booked in September, which meant I had to miss the screening of Volver, but looking on the bright side our trip did take us to places which still have DVD stores and I was able to pick up two boxed sets of Almodovar movies – not quite the complete collection, but most of the major works.

The challenge after such a purchase is finding the time to actually watch all the movies – I have a couple of box sets of Kurosawa movies I bought in 2012 I still haven’t watched all of – but I suppose one of the few advantages of the world being on pause is that one no longer has any serious excuse for not catching up on culture. For no particular reason, I decided to commence what could become an Almodovarathon with his 1987 movie Law of Desire (title en Espanol: La ley del deseo).

This is the movie which first brought Almodovar to wide international attention, although it is actually his sixth film. Perhaps it is therefore no surprise to discover that many elements of the now-recognisable Almodovar style are already present, if perhaps not quite fully developed: the mixture of provocative melodrama with suspense movie tropes, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, the tendency towards outrageous plot developments.

Eusebio Poncela plays Pablo, a successful gay film director whose latest film has just been released (Law of Desire kicks off with a scene from the film-within-the-film, which appears to mainly be there to challenge the audience). Pablo is involved with a younger man, Juan (Miguel Molina), who isn’t sure he wants a serious relationship or not. They part, and Juan goes to spend his summer on the coast. Pablo devotes himself to working on his next project, a stage play to star his sister Tina (Carmen Maura), a transsexual.

While doing so he encounters Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a young man who initially seems a bit conflicted, to say the least. However, after spending the night with Pablo, Antonio becomes obsessed with him to the point of violent possessiveness…

It takes quite a while for this to become apparent, however: the film begins by looking very much like a ‘conventional’ drama about the life of a writer and film director and those around him (to the extent that any film directed by Almodovar can be described as conventional, anyway). Only gradually – but, it must be said, fairly comprehensively – does it slide into the realms of the suspense thriller. By the end, however, there has been a murder, a car crash, someone has been in hospital with a rather convenient case of amnesia, there has been some stalking, a hostage crisis, gunfire and a suicide.

Even then, however, deep in the third act Almodovar still finds time for a scene between Pablo and Tina which is obviously very significant: Pablo is in serious trouble by this point, but this does trigger what is clearly the first serious conversation he and his sister have had in many years. It almost goes without saying that the back-story Tina reveals (which is almost wholly incidental to the plot, if not her character) is far-fetched to the point of being completely ludicrous. As ever with Almodovar, you end up accepting it, though this is largely due to the strength of Carmen Maura’s performance – Maura’s character is one of the elements of the film which is most memorable, and even though she is really a secondary character, it almost functions as a character piece about her.

You would really expect it to be more about the character of Pablo, but he does remain an oddly passive presence at the centre of the story. Perhaps Law of Desire does have something to say about the ironies of attraction – Pablo pursues Juan, who isn’t sure if he wants him, and tries to reject Antonio, who is besotted with him – but this is left implicit; the film always seems to have other things on its mind. It’s not that Eusebio Poncela (resembling, to my mind, Graham Chapman in his later years) gives a particularly bad performance, but he is out-horsepowered by both Maura and Antonio Banderas.

Antonio Banderas is such an established face in Hollywood movies now that I suppose it’s quite possible to have followed his career reasonably closely and still not be aware that he rose to fame off the back of a string of fairly provocative movies made with Almodovar: possibly the closest Hollywood ever came to acknowledging this was in Philadelphia, where he was cast as Tom Hanks’ lover. Here, Banderas’ sheer charisma, coupled to the fact that he is a very handsome chap, means that you’re looking at him whenever he’s on the screen: it doesn’t hurt that his character is the main driver of the plot, either.

If you were watching Law of Desire as a ‘new’ movie, with no idea of its historical context, I imagine you would conclude that it’s a curious but mostly successful attempt at combining elements of drama and thriller: possibly also that it’s equally successful in including LGBT elements in a film which is still appealing to a mainstream audience. All of this obviously true – it’s only when you consider the heights to which Almodovar was later to take this kind of film that you become aware of the ways in which this one is not quite as deft or assured or as satisfying. Nevertheless, Almodovar himself says this is the most important film in his career, and given that historical context, you can see what he means.

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Whether or not you feel the last few weeks have seen a bit of a drought when it comes to interesting and worthwhile filmgoing experiences is, of course, a matter of taste, but there are signs of an upturn of sorts (although again, you may find your mileage varying). You do not often find films like Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (title Espanol: Dolor y Gloria) turning up in UK multiplex cinemas, but here it is – is it simply because of the director’s formidable reputation, acquired through decades of quality work? Or is there honestly not much else around to occupy that particular screen? One would like to think the former.

Yes, I know: you wait nearly ten years for an Almodóvar film to be reviewed and then two turn up in the same week. What can I say? The first thing that makes Pain and Glory a slightly odd fit for the typical multiplex is, obviously, that it is in Spanish, the second is that it is also really an art house movie. It features a couple of famous performers, but it doesn’t fit easily into any particular genre and is arguably not the most accessible of films, on a number of levels. I won’t say the film is one long in-joke, not least because it isn’t actually a comedy, but a degree of familiarity with Pedro Almodóvar’s life and works will probably help you to appreciate where the film is coming from.

Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mello, the world’s most famous Spanish film director, who as the film opens has not made a movie for some time, primarily for health reasons (or so he says). His rather listless existence receives a jolt when he is informed that one of his films from thirty years ago is to be revived, and presented to a new audience by the lead actor (Asier Etxeandia) – to whom Mello hasn’t spoken since it was finished, following a big row between the two.

(Already there are multiple layers of self-referentiality and irony going on here for the in-the-know – it is fairly clear who the character of the world’s most famous Spanish film director is based on, and the plot is likewise informed by the fact that Banderas and Almodóvar had a major falling out when the actor – who Almodóvar discovered – went off to make English-language movies, and didn’t work together for twenty years afterwards.)

Well, one thing leads to another and Salvador finds himself reconnecting with all manner of people from his past, from artistic collaborators to his first real boyfriend (Leonardo Sbaraglia). He also picks up a bit of a drug habit, which seems to lead to his having vivid dreams about his youth half a century earlier, and the fraught relationship between his parents (his mother is played by Penelope Cruz, another actor with a long track record of working with this director). But is this all just a sign of a slightly sick man settling into a premature decline? Or can Mello find a way to get himself out of this slump?

It quickly becomes apparent that Pain and Glory has little of the colour and vibrancy that many of Almodóvar’s most famous films are distinguished by. This is a sober, restrained piece of work, both introspective and retrospective – it’s very hard not to interpret it as the director looking back on his life and career, with appearances from other actors who he has worked with in the past – Cecilia Roth, from All About My Mother, has a small cameo, for instance. It almost seems to have a valedictory quality, which is surely a bit premature given that Almodóvar is not yet 70.

However, the film retains much of the clever playfulness and subtlety of his best-known films, not to mention his fondness for outrageously implausible plotting. Almodóvar is never afraid of using a credibility-strangling coincidence to move one of his scripts along, and this happens here in a couple of places too. The trick is that you become so invested in the characters and their situations that you suspend your disbelief, and this does happen here as usual – it’s curious to think that Anglophone audiences tend to think of Antonio Banderas as either a light comedian or (more bizarrely) an action hero. Perhaps Almodóvar’s imprecations that he would waste his talent in Hollywood had some truth to them, for here he gives a very strong and rounded dramatic performance, in what can’t have been especially easy circumstances (he is essentially embodying the writer-director of the film).

I note that Penelope Cruz has managed to wangle herself the ‘with the special collaboration of’ credit on this movie, which I’m guessing is the Spanish version of ‘special guest star’ and indicates the actor is doing the director a favour by turning up. Well, her charm and ability are undiminished and she is also caught up in the artifice of the film’s structure – towards the end the distinction between the film’s flashback sequences and its present day setting is knowingly collapsed, raising the possibility that Cruz is not just playing the Almodóvar-substitute’s mother, but playing herself playing that role – but this is not dwelt upon unduly.

If our thesis is correct, and Pain and Glory is really an introspective film about Pedro Almodóvar considering his own life and the key moments and relationships within it, do we learn much? Well, it does seem that the director is feeling his age a bit, but also that he has lost none of his warmth and compassion, nor his willingness to be open about some of the more intimate elements of his life – if the film is to be interpreted in these terms, the suggestion is that he may not have had the easiest of relationships with his parents, for instance. However, you could certainly argue that the film is arguing that it is through human contact that life acquires genuine significance – it is through recollecting his own first real romance, and before that the initial awakening of his sexual desire, that Salvador begins to find the answers to his own problems and sets out on the path to a kind of redemption.

This is a film about getting older and considering the choices you have made along the way, but it is also an ultimately humane and optimistic one. It is a more measured Almodóvar than has perhaps been the case sometimes in the past, but the director’s skill is still fully in evidence. This is a fine and often moving drama.

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I think we sometimes underestimate the influence of context on how others perceive us. To my landlady I expect I appear as a quiet, affable, accommodating type, while to my students I suspect I am a more challenging and unusual figure. To the staff of the local art house cinema, however, if I am anything at all, I am that bloke who only seems to go to see Woody Allen movies. Much as I like the place and its ambience (the gents’ lavatory door is marked only by a striking life-size painting of Toshiro Mifune from Yojimbo, for instance) I’ve only got down there twice, on both occasions to see something of Allen’s.

This is not because I am a particular fan of Woody Allen’s work. It is rather that I only go there when absolutely nothing piques my interest at the mainstream multiplexes, and – this may be a coincidence, but may not – these quiet times seem to be when Allen’s work gets released these days. It certainly doesn’t show up in the major chains, anyway. The first time I trotted along to the art house it was to see last summer’s Whatever Works (which certainly didn’t). This time it was for his latest movie, touted as a return to form and entitled You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

To be perfectly honest, the movie this reminded me of most was Eugene Lourie’s classic 1961 offering Gorgo, in which avaricious chancers capture a giant sea monster and put it on display in the centre of a major city, only for disaster to ensue when the monster’s humungous mother shows up to rescue it. All You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger shares in terms of its plot is the setting, which is London: but in both cases the style and sensibility of a film usually set elsewhere (in Gorgo‘s case, Tokyo; in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger‘s, New York) has been transplanted to the city, with results which seem inexplicably peculiar.

The general consensus is that Allen isn’t the film-maker he was thirty or even twenty years ago, but his ability to attract impressive performers to his films is undiminished. In this one, for example, people like Ewen Bremner, Philip Glenister, Meera Syal and Anna Friel all turn up in minor roles, which is more than a little startling. Further up the cast things are even more glittery.

This is another of Allen’s stories of the complicated personal lives of affluent metropolitan types, based around an older couple (Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones) and their daughter and son-in-law (Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin). Hopkins has a (slightly late) mid-life crisis and divorces Jones, eventually marrying a prostitute (Lucy Punch). Distraught (and tending towards alcoholism), Jones is encouraged to seek solace in visiting a fortune-teller (Pauline Collins) by Watts. Watts is contending with a growing attraction to her art-dealer boss (Antonio Banderas), her desire to be financially secure and start a family, and her useless husband. Brolin is a struggling writer trying to sell a book but increasingly besotted with a woman (Freida Pinto) whose apartment he can see into.

All these threads amble along inoffensively enough for the most part (though the stuff with Brolin essentially letching at Pinto getting changed, with which she seems perfectly okay, felt a bit icky) – as I said, it’s the same sort of affluent-lives-in-crisis material which has powered many of Allen’s other films. It’s very clearly not set in a version of London remotely resembling our own: this is a film so far detached from reality that a minor but pivotal character can be called Henry Strangler without it seeming at all weird.

It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere special for much of its running time: Hopkins’s thread is probably the best, Watts’ the least involving. There are some odd choices of what to show on-screen: ‘Sally decided her marriage was over and asked Roy for a divorce,’ says the chirpy (American) narrator at one point – that’s the kind of scene most films would feel it worthwhile to include, but not here.

But then – and this completely threw me at the time – something really odd happens. (Spoilers follow, so be warned.) Hopkins discovers Punch has been unfaithful to him and the child she’s carrying may not be his. Brolin, who’s stolen a brilliant manuscript written by a friend he believed to be dead, learns his friend is in fact only in a coma and may recover, which would be catastrophically bad news for him. And having encouraged her mother’s mystical beliefs as a way of keeping her happy and occupied, when Watts asks her for a loan to help her start her own business she is refused on the grounds the psychic says it would end badly. Genuine tension and raw emotion appear for the first time in the movie… which then abruptly ends, none of these things resolved, the final scene being given to Jones’s character, who’s the only happy one, being on the verge of marrying an occult bookstore owner.

I couldn’t figure out why Woody would make an hour and a half of faff – which is what the majority of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is – and cram all the interesting stuff into the last ten minutes without following any of it to a conclusion. However, I believe I have figured out what his intention was: this movie is supposed to be about the fact that happiness sometimes walks hand-in-hand with delusion, and it’s supposed to be blackly ironic that Jones’s mysticism has made her happy while all the others’ more ‘realistic’ view of the world has caused them nothing but pain.

Except the execution of the idea kills it. This would only work if Jones was mocked and scorned throughout the film and the others were presented as likeable, successful people in comparison. But they’re not. Beneath the mild and easy-going exterior this is a rather misanthropic film (even moreso, misogynistic: the presentation of Lucy Punch’s character is particularly uncomfortable), and no-one comes across particularly positively. You know Hopkins is heading for a fall from the moment you meet his new bride, and Brolin’s character is just an unpleasant loser throughout. It’s not a sudden reversal when they end up in a bad place. Watts’s character is decent enough, but she never convinces: the fact it’s a British character written by an American and played by an Australian may have something to do with this.  Allen’s point is still there, just about: but you really have to strain to see it and it doesn’t really have much impact once you discern it.

Most of the cast is effective enough, Hopkins particularly so, and there are lots of mildly amusing bits along the way. It’s certainly not as thorough-goingly awful as Whatever Works was: but the fact is that this is a movie which had an interesting idea at its heart, the execution of which has basically been bungled. And that’s just rather frustrating. If nothing else, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger shows that Woody Allen hasn’t completely lost his edge: it just seems, sadly, that he can’t seem to find a way to employ it effectively anymore.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 5th October 2003:

Sometimes cinematic careers run in an odd kind of parallel way, two or more actors or directors collaborating or making similar films at the same time – consider Pacino and de Niro in the early and mid-1970s, or Lucas and Spielberg a little later on. Occasionally such parallel tracks remain in synch, in which case, if the artists in question are successful enough, the popular perception of an era can be established. What’s possibly even more interesting is if their paths diverge – Spielberg has recently hit a vein of impressive, largely gritty and downbeat form, to some critical acclaim, while Lucas’ return to directing has been financially successful but critically pilloried.

Two other directors whose careers have spiralled around each other for many years are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino, virtually singlehandedly, started the geekpunk charge out of the video stores and garages and into the movie studio offices, and Rodriguez was amongst the highest profile of those who followed the trail he blazed. Rodriguez directed an early Tarantino script, and Tarantino appeared in more than one Rodriguez movie.

With Tarantino’s first movie in over five years soon upon us, it seems only appropriate that it should be heralded by an offering from Rodriguez. (One difference between the two is in their workrate – Rodriguez has directed more movies in the last three years than Tarantino’s managed in over a decade.) It’s an appropriately old-school exercise in hyperkinetic action, winkingly entitled Once Upon A Time In Mexico.

Johnny Depp, exercising pretty much the same acting muscles as he did in Pirates of the Caribbean, plays certifiably eccentric CIA agent Sands. Sands is involved in a complex scheme to topple the President of Mexico, foil a coup organised by criminal mastermind Barillo (Willem Dafoe), and then clear off with an awful lot of pesos and his exceedingly gorgeous ladyfriend Ajedrez (Eva Mendes). To assist with this he recruits ex-FBI agent Ramirez (Ruben Blades), who has a grudge against Barillo, and a legendary gunslinger known only as El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), who’s dropped out of sight following the murder of his wife (not much more than an extended cameo from Salma Hayek).

From this point on the plot does get terribly, terribly complicated, as there are a lot of characters all of whom are bearing grudges, double-crossing each other, and following their own agendas (frequent flashbacks to Banderas and Hayek’s earlier exploits also appear) – I just about managed to hang on to what was happening by my fingertips. This movie is obviously a homage to the epic spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, but at only 100 minutes or so in length this is a very cramped, half-pint sort of epic, particularly when – alongside all the plot – Rodriguez crams in extended gun battles at fairly regular intervals. This is a film that shows all signs of being heavily edited for length – the plot is incoherent and the characterisation skimpy (although, to be fair, this is something of a stylistic trait in Rodriguez movies, especially Desperado, to which this is a sort-of sequel).

However, the action sequences are as frenetically intense and inventive as any Rodriguez has come up with in the past, and a surprisingly eclectic cast (Banderas, Defoe, Mickey Rourke, Enrique Iglesias) keeps it engaging. The star turn of the movie is Depp, however, as for the second time in not many months he effortlessly blasts the ostensible leading man off the screen with a magnetic performance as the deeply morally ambiguous CIA agent. He’s witty and drolly funny, which matches the tone of the most of the film: this is a romp and not to be taken too seriously. Depp should probably make his next few script choices carefully, though, as he’s in danger of getting a reputation as a Nicholson-style pep-pill to boost underperforming scripts.

If you liked Desperado, it’s a safe bet you’ll like this – gentlemen will enjoy the high action quotient, and any ladies disappointed by the relatively small role played by Banderas will surely find consolation in the amount of Depp on offer. It’s even less thoughtful and considered than the previous film, but makes up for it with ambitiousness and bizarre humour. But it’s becoming obvious that Rodriguez is a director first and a writer second – all his films have terrific camerawork, editing, and visuals, but a distinct lack of depth or characterisation. His style hasn’t really developed in the decade since the original El Mariachi appeared, which is inevitably a bit of a disappointment. But the same can arguably be said of his peers, people like Kevin Smith and Tarantino himself, and at least his films are seldom less than entertaining. Once Upon A Time In Mexico certainly kept me amused, even if it’s nowhere near as substantial as the films it’s a homage to.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 11th 2001:

(Much pretentious waffling about the possible impact of the September 11th attacks and the following change in world affairs on cinema has been snipped on the grounds it’s unreadable guff, and turned out to be completely inaccurate.) 

…all this preamble was supposed to lead into a review of the war drama Enigma (clever, eh?), but due to the impressive incompetency of the local multiplexes and some startlingly inaccurate listings, let’s talk about Original Sin instead.

(One of the good things about being a critic, even an unpaid, vanishingly obscure one that about three people in the world read, is that you can excuse slumming it in potboilers like this one by telling yourself it’s for the good of your readers.)

Original Sin is not, I suspect, going to be a blockbuster or even a sleeper hit. Until well into the ‘Coming Soon’ ads I was the only one in the theatre, a pleasure I’ve not had since going to a weekday matinee of Space Truckers back in 1997. Then three ladies of a certain age turned up and proceeded to give a running commentary on events on the screen to one another, which is always a bonus, I find.

Anyway, this is a full-on period literary adaptation, by far my least favourite cinematic genre. It’s got a Caribbean setting, though, which at least makes the appearance of Prunella Scales on a Grand Tour of Venice rather less likely. Antonio Banderas, still smouldering manfully away outside Hollywood’s A-list, plays Luis Vargas, a coffee tycoon in 1880s Cuba. Barely credibly, he can’t find a wife, and so has recruited a mail-order bride. Her name is Julia Bennett, who’s played by Mrs Billy Bob Thornton herself, Angelina Jolie (looking as usual like a couple of airbags have gone off in her mouth). Mrs Billy Bob comes across as all demure and proper to start with but five minutes with Antonio and it’s a different story. (Yes, readers, they do. And for rather longer and in more detail than I thought was strictly necessary even in soft-core cobblers like this.) Antonio’s wedded bliss comes a bit unstuck when his bride suddenly turns into a cigar-smoking, canary-strangling raver and then nicks off with the family fortune, he obligingly having signed her up for a joint account. Antonio discovers Mrs Billy Bob was an impostor and not the bride he ordered, and recruiting a convenient Yankee private detective (Thomas Jane), sets off to find her.

With a title like Original Sin and this sort of set-up you’d be forgiven for expecting a sort of high-quality late-night Channel 5 movie (or so what I’m told about Channel 5 leads me to believe…). And that’s pretty much what you get, albeit with a lot less rumpy-pumpy. There’s a faintly unsavoury feel most of the way through this movie, despite writer-director Michael Cristofer’s obvious belief he’s making a very serious drama about love and lust and identity. The direction is workmanlike at best, the script is crunchingly unsubtle and a little confused in parts, and it’s at least fifteen minutes too long. There is a plot twist about half way through which you may find involving, but dodgy exposition earlier on confused me into guessing the surprise much too early.

There are things to enjoy here if you really look for them. The period setting is pretty good, but no cliche is left unturned – cheerful Creole servants round the hacienda, billowy white lace curtains, far too much flamenco guitar, sugar-cane fields (on a coffee plantation…?), etc, etc. There’s only actually one intentional joke in the whole movie, and that’s about a supporting character getting an eyeful of Antonio’s ahem, but this is more than made up for by a hilarious card-sharping sequence where Mrs Billy Bob starts giving Antonio ‘secret signs’ revealing his opponents’ hands – the ‘secret signs’ appear to be bookie’s tick-tack, or possibly semaphore. And early on someone else says ‘I can’t stand cheap melodrama’ which is only asking for trouble in a movie like this one. The epilogue is laughable too, and seems to have been half-inched from the far superior Revenge of Frankenstein.

Of the three leads, we can dispense with Mr Jane quite quickly; he has a duff part to play and makes a very average job of it. Antonio Banderas, though, simultaneously displays the electric screen presence that should have made him a superstar long ago, and also the dodgy quality control that’s ensured he hasn’t become one. He’s never less than watchable, is certainly the best thing in the movie, and looks very comfortable in period costume. The same can’t be said for Mrs Billy Bob, whom I still reckon is a weird looking kipper at the best of times. She comes across rather like a pneumatic version of Helena Bonham-Carter, even down to the voice, but just didn’t convince me at all. She and Banderas don’t have the incendiary screen chemistry you might expect, either: she just spends all her time giggling or looking torn or staring off into the middle distance.

Still, there are no bad movies, only boring ones, and this one just manages to avoid being a real chore to sit through. What can it tell us about ourselves? Well, probably just that movie producers have dirty minds. Sinful? Yes. Original? Not on your life.

(Nearly ten years on the only thing I can really remember about this movie is that it was the first one I went to see solely in order to have something to write about in the column. Dearie me.)

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