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Posts Tagged ‘Awix’s picks’

Back a couple of months ago when they first announced the re-opening of the cinemas, the lack of new movies was supposedly going to be made up for by the reappearance of many old classics to lure people back into the habit of going to the flicks. In Oxford at least this never really happened, as most of the cinemas are still shut and will stay that way for nearly another week – the Phoenix showed a revival of Spirited Away (which, to be fair, they seem to do about once a year anyway) and a screening of The Blues Brothers and that’s about it. (Would I have been tempted out by the promised showing of The Empire Strikes Back? We shall never know. I wouldn’t have wagered against it.) Maybe this would have paid dividends, however, as I am pleased to report that this week’s cinema attendance was up from two to five, possibly because the film on offer was another revival, if perhaps not quite a golden oldie: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.

Of course, there are revivals and revivals, and it is telling that the spruced up Inception re-release was preceded not just by a short retrospective film concerning it, but a preview piece for Nolan’s latest, Tenet. I am beginning to worry that expectations for Tenet are running impossibly high – even if it weren’t for the fact that the film has taken on a kind of totemic significance as the First Big Post-Lockdown Release, the look and feel of the publicity is leading people to think it is somehow a spiritual successor to Inception itself. Living up to this will be a stern test of even Nolan’s abilities.

I say this mainly because Christopher Nolan is possibly my favourite living film director: no-one currently working in mainstream cinema has the same track record when it comes to making films which are not just technically proficient, but also sophisticated and resonant, taking what look from some angles like glossy genre pictures and turning them into something affecting and mind-expanding (even Dunkirk, which is the first Nolan film I was significantly disappointed by, is still made to the highest of standards).

And (as you may have guessed) Inception is my favourite Nolan film: I saw it on its opening weekend ten years ago, staggering back to my digs in a due state of happy disbelief straight afterwards. I watch it once a year or so, on average: I seem to have ended up with two copies of it on DVD, although I have no real recollection of where the second one came from.

What makes it so special, in my eyes at least? Well, let us consider the situation pertaining at one point towards the end of the film. A group of people are on a plane, sleeping. They are dreaming that they are in a van in the process of crashing off a bridge. Some of the dream-versions of themselves in the van are asleep, dreaming they are in a hotel where gravity has been suspended. The dream-versions of some of the people in the hotel are also asleep, dreaming they are in an Alpine hospital surrounded by a small private army, with whom some of them are doing battle. Others are asleep, and are dreaming they are exploring an infinite, ruined city of the subconscious mind. So, just to recap: they are on a plane dreaming they are in a van dreaming they are in a hotel dreaming they are in a hospital dreaming they are in a ruined city. The miraculous thing about Inception is not merely that this makes sense while you are watching it, but it actually feels entirely logical and even somewhat straightforward.

One element of this film which I feel is too-little commented upon is the playfulness of it – a very deadpan sort of playfulness, admittedly, but even so. The main characters are thieves and con-artists, for the most part, and there’s a sense in which Nolan himself, as writer, is pulling an elaborate con-trick on the audience. A writer I interviewed many years ago suggested to me that writing pure fantasy is essentially cheating at cards to win pretend-money: a pointless exercise. The internal mechanics of Inception are pure fantasy: the story is predicated on the existence of technology allowing people to dream collectively, which is entirely fictitious (and the film naturally just treats it as a fact, not bothering to even suggest how it works). Yet Nolan comes up with underlying concepts and principles for the dream-sharing experience which are so detailed and plausible you buy into them without question, even though this requires the film to teach them to the viewer, in some detail, starting from scratch. Simply as a piece of expository work it is a startling achievement: militarised subconsciousnesses, dream totems, the ‘kick’ used to waken dreamers – all of these are very significant to the plot, and the script elegantly explains how and why without slowing down or seeming unnecessarily convoluted (I’m not going to pretend Inception isn’t convoluted or somewhat demanding for the viewer, but the rewards are more than worth it).

Just conceiving the world of the movie and then communicating it to the audience to tell a story of guys on a mission to break into someone’s subconscious mind and plant an idea there would be a noteworthy achievement, but threaded through this is a much less procedural and genuinely moving story of guilt and grief: main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) – but, this being the story that it is, this becomes literally true. In the dream worlds memories and metaphors have genuine power and existence, and the dream motif which dominates the film seems to me to mostly be there to facilitate this metaphorical level to the story – the heist-movie trappings are yet another mask, or con trick.

And yet there is another level to the movie, too – or perhaps another way of looking at it. For what is going to the cinema at all if not an exercise in collective dreaming? The idea of dream-as-movie is another pervasive one – Nolan uses the standard techique of beginning a scene with two characters already in place to indicate the discontinuities of the dream world. And the dream worlds the characters descend through, getting further away from reality as they go, resemble increasingly outlandish kinds of thriller – initially something quite gritty and urban, then the slick and stylised interior of a hotel where a complex Mission: Impossible-style scam is attempted, and then finally the Bond-like action in and around the Alpine fortress. Is it a coincidence that the next Bond film to be released featured a lengthy sequence in a ruined city bearing a striking resemblance to the subconscious realm of this one? Perhaps a compliment was being returned.

Great script, great direction: superb cast, too, many of them doing what is surely amongst their best work. You watch it now and are suddenly aware that Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to name but two, seem to have dropped out of sight as far as mainstream cinema is concerned; even Tom Hardy seems to be only doing one film every two or three years, and those mostly blockbusters. (You look at Hardy in this film and realise that he does seem to be doing his audition piece for Bond: he seems either unaware of the fact that he’s not the main character in this movie, or deliberately choosing to ignore it.) I suppose there is still the consolation of Ken Watanabe making Transformers and Godzilla movies in the meantime.

For something to really grab my attention it usually has to be very big or very complicated, or preferably both: Inception meets these criteria, and then some. Every time I watch the movie I see something new, some new angle or connection or little piece of trickery, usually in the least expected of places. Add Hans Zimmer’s score to all the other things I’ve mentioned and – well, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Inception is not the best film of the 21st century so far. But I cannot think of another candidate.

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People talk a lot about the decline and even the death of the western as a film genre, despite the fact that they still make cowboy movies, just nowhere near as many as they used to. Just when the genre fell out of favour is relatively easy to determine: as long ago as the late seventies, John Badham was making Outland, which is essentially just a western set on one of the moons of Jupiter, his logic being that it was easier to raise the money for a science fiction film than something with a historical frontier setting.

More evidence for the ‘George Lucas killed the western’ school of thought, perhaps (a little ironic given the western imagery and tropes sprinkled through the first of his stellar conflict movies in particular). If we accept this, we can quite accurately date the Last Days of the Western (as a popular mainstream genre, anyway) to 1976 or 1977 – which, if nothing else, bestows the title of Last Great Traditional Western on Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, a film better equipped to bear it than almost any other.

Eastwood himself plays Wales, who at the start of the film is a struggling farmer with a wife and young son. But then they are caught up in the savagery of the American civil war: his home is burnt to the ground and his family are killed by Unionist fighters. For a moment the familiar chilly Eastwood mask slips and we see him rendered almost insensible with grief: but then he teaches himself to shoot and  joins up with a Confederacy militia.

As the opening credits end, so does the war: with defeat for the Confederacy. Wales’ commander, Fletcher (a terrific performance by John Vernon, who is rather under-used) has negotiated the terms of their surrender – but Wales cannot yet bring himself to relinquish his hatred, and does not go with the others. This proves to be a wise move, for Fletcher has been sold a pack of lies: the other soldiers are ruthlessly shot down after giving up their arms. Despite an attempted rescue (this yields up the daunting image of a grim-faced Eastwood manning a gatling gun), only Wales and another young man escape, and the lad is grievously injured.

Perhaps not quite realising who they are dealing with, the Union authorities commission Fletcher to hunt Josey Wales down, so he can be killed by Terrill (Bill McKinney) – the man who killed Wales’ family – and his men.

It almost sounds like a chase movie, but for the fact that after a while, Wales isn’t sure he’s being pursued (he does keep running into bounty hunters everywhere he goes, though).  But where is he running to? Nowhere, really: he’s just running. Even this would be easier if he didn’t keep acquiring waifs and strays and misfits on the trail: an aging Cherokee chief with a nice line in dry repartee (Chief Dan George), two settlers heading for a new home in Texas (Paula Trueman and Clint’s then-wife Sondra Locke), and so on. As the chief suggests, Josey Wales is very good at getting rid of people he doesn’t like – but will he find it quite to easy to dispense with people he does genuinely care for?

The context for The Outlaw Josey Wales is interesting. You don’t really need to know anything about the American civil war to follow the story, but if you do know the topic it is immediately apparent this is another film laden with regret regarding the conflict. I always used to think it felt almost as if Hollywood believed that the wrong side won – you can sense that same regret in movies from Gone with the Wind to Cold Mountain – but now I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly. This movie doesn’t concern itself with the causes or politics of the war any more than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in which it is just an appropriate backdrop for a cynical tale of adventurous gunmen trying to get rich quick. However, The Outlaw Josey Wales deals with the end of the war, and feels almost post-apocalyptic in places: there is a sense of a shattered civilisation beginning to pull itself back together and rebuild, particularly in terms of the nascent community that Wales finds himself increasingly committed to.

This itself is a bit of a departure considering Eastwood’s role in his films for Sergio Leone was essentially that of the Angel of Death, cooler, faster and meaner than anyone else in the west. The role is almost an operatic cartoon character; what sets the two great westerns Eastwood directed apart is the way in which they examine how a person gets that way (or at least gets to be perceived that way), and – crucially, in the case of this film – if there is a way back to being a human being.

‘We all died a little in that war,’ says Eastwood towards the end of the film, basically encapsulating the theme of the movie. The story is about death, and loss, and grief, and then learning to go beyond it  and find hope somewhere else. At one point, when the climax seems imminent, Wales rides off to single-handedly take on the local native tribe, with little expectation of a safe return – but rather than the bloodbath the audience may be expecting by this point, Eastwood (underplaying masterfully) delivers a quiet speech about the unimportance of governments compared to the reality of people learning to live together in peace, without endless violence. When I first saw this movie it felt like a left turn; now I watch it and it is one of the most moving and powerful scenes I can think of. (Needless to say Eastwood knows his audience and still manages to orchestrate the movie so it concludes with a hum-dinger of a shoot-out.)

That’s the joy of The Outlaw Josey Wales: you get all the stuff you want – Eastwood at the height of his powers, commandingly cool, with great one-liners and superb action – but also a genuinely touching story about a man who has surrendered himself to violence finding the courage to contemplate that, perhaps, there is another way of living. If this movie does mark the end of an era, then it does so in the best possible way, for this is an excellent film.

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John Carpenter’s 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 opens with a cosmopolitan group of young Los Angelinos out for a walk one night. As their neighbourhood is perhaps not the swankiest, they have opted to play it safe and are all carrying automatic weapons. Unfortunately, when they bump into a group of police, the officers of the law are likewise not inclined to take any chances and mow them all down with pump-action shotguns, apparently before the youths manage to get a shot off. These days this sequence feels rather provocative, though it was probably never intended to.

The rest of the movie takes place in the course of the next twenty-four hours. The leaders of the street gang whose members were killed meet and swear a blood oath to exact vengeance for the deaths of their friends – quite who is never made entirely clear. Initially it seems to be anyone who crosses their path, particularly ice-cream men, before they settle for ‘anyone sheltering someone we don’t like’. This is a plot device, to be honest, but a very functional one.

Carpenter goes on to introduce the various characters who will populate the story: Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker), a Highway Patrol officer on his first night’s duty – a decent, principled man, keen to make a difference, Bishop isn’t completely delighted to be given a posting supervising a near-derelict police station on the verge of being entirely shut down. All he has to do is answer the phones, redirect anyone who comes in to the new station, and make friends with the secretaries (Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis).

Meanwhile, a group of prisoners is being transferred from one penal institution to another. Amongst them are Wells (Tony Burton), a fairly undistinguished crook, and Napoleon Smith (Darwin Joston), a celebrity multiple-murderer with a bit of an attitude, not to mention an ego. Also going about his business is Mr Lawson (Martin West), a man taking his young daughter to visit his mother. And, of course, the gang warlords are on the prowl, looking for trouble.

Needless to say, all these characters eventually come together at the virtually-abandoned old precinct: Lawson has a shocking run-in with the gang and ends up killing one of them. With the others on his tail he takes refuge in the precinct, where the bus carrying Wells and Smith has made a brief stop. Before anyone realises what’s happening, the building has been surrounded by dozens of heavily armed gang members, all apparently out for Lawson’s blood, and all of them totally psychotic.

The movie basically treats the gang members like something out of a horror movie, which makes the ensuing alliance between Bishop, one of the secretaries named Leigh, and the two convicts more plausible. The quartet have to work together in order to fend off the waves of attacks the gang throw against the precinct, all the while trying to raise the alarm or find a way to escape…

The last time I wrote about a John Carpenter movie, I was unfortunately obliged to be fairly unkind about it, and proposed the standard thesis: that Carpenter is one of those people who for some reason has done his career backwards. It’s perfectly understandable for people’s work to improve over time, as they practise and learn from their mistakes – the fact that this happens is one of the very few benign laws of nature – but there is something a little bit baffling about people who get worse as they progress through their career. Carpenter started with this film, Dark Star, Halloween, The Fog and The Thing, but then unaccountably seemed to go off the boil, and what ensued is essentially – oh, dear, I feel awful for saying this – a long slide into creative irrelevance.

But this movie – oh, boy! If we’re going to go with the ‘backwards career’ notion, it follows that Carpenter’s first proper movie should be amongst his best – and so it is. Halloween is the early Carpenter film that gets all the attention, not least because it was a huge hit and consolidated a new horror subgenre (I hesitate to say it actually invented the slasher movie, because, you know, Psycho). I fully see why Halloween is so acclaimed, but for sheer pleasure and entertainment value, this is the Carpenter movie for me.

Of course, watching it now, you can see that this was a director who would at some point do something noteworthy in the horror genre – the faceless, silent gang members have something of George Romero’s zombies about them, and the precinct-under-siege of course recalls the embattled farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead (Carpenter has acknowledged the debt). But you might also anticipate there would be a proper western somewhere in Carpenter’s future, given Assault kind of resembles a mash-up of a zombie movie and a cowboy film – I’ve heard it described as an ‘urban western’, which strikes me as as good a description as any (always assuming we’re still allowed to use the word urban figuratively, anyway).

What we can learn from a film like this is that sometimes a script doesn’t need a lot of subplots and subtext and character motivation: it sets up the situation and characters with supreme economy, and, once it has brought them together, proceeds to play out virtually in real time, apart from a couple of cutaway sequences. Even then, there is barely a wasted moment or line – virtually all of Darwin Joston’s dialogue in the first part of the film is setting up a pay-off near the end. Carpenter has said the final script was put together in not much more than a week, which only goes to show that an intense creative blitz can sometimes pay dividends.

Having the right neighbours probably helps, too: Carpenter was living in the same building as Darwin Joston at the time, and Joston knew Austin Stoker from other acting work, and this was how the film found its two male leads. It is almost impossible to look at this film now and not wonder why Stoker, Joston and Laurie Zimmer did not go on to much more substantial movie careers – Joston in particular is effortlessly charismatic, but the others aren’t far behind him. The pay-off to the whole movie comes in the final shot, when Bishop and Smith walk out of what’s left of the precinct side by side, and it’s one of those moments which almost lifts you out of your seat.

The rather charged by-play between Joston and Zimmer, not to mention some of their other dialogue, does betray Carpenter’s great fondness for the films of Howard Hawks – Assault also owes a debt to his Rio Bravo – a classic Hollywood touch to what is still clearly a low-budget exploitation movie with some notably graphic violence. There’s still a film-school-punk edge to Carpenter’s work at this point, most obviously in the ice cream scene – the censor insisted Carpenter remove this, or the film would be given an X certificate (Carpenter obliged, but then put the offending moment back in for the film’s wider release). Even the director has since admitted he perhaps goes a little too far at this point.

Well, maybe: but it’s the combination of traditional virtues and restless edginess that gives the film its energy and ability to relentlessly grip and entertain. It occurs to me we are sometimes a bit too hard on John Carpenter, and are too inclined to judge him based on his later films: if you or I happened along and made a film as good as Assault on Precinct 13, then promptly retired, we would still be acclaimed as having made a significant contribution to cinema. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing go to comprise a very impressive legacy, to say nothing of Carpenter’s other movies. But for me, this is the one at the top of the pile.

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My usual position when it comes to Theatre of Blood (1973) is that it shows that everyone has at least one great film in them – but only one in some cases. The script is wonderful, the direction is capable, and the music is fantastic – and yet none of the people responsible for these things have a noteworthy career beyond this film. The one who came closest was Douglas Hickox, the director, who had a longish career, much of it as the AD on fifties potboilers: I’ve heard of some of the films he made (Behemoth the Sea Monster and Zulu Dawn, for example), but would struggle to describe them especially distinguished. Nevertheless, every year BIFA gives out the Douglas Hickox Award for the best new director, which probably isn’t anything to do with Theatre of Blood – but I can’t help feeling it should be.

The movie is set in the present day and opens with pompous theatre critic and grandee of London society George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) being summoned by the police to move a gang of homeless people on from a property he is involved with. Maxwell wades in fearlessly – ‘We’ll have no trouble here!’ he cries, unwittingly spawning a catchphrase for a future age. However, the mob of homeless people clearly would like there to be some trouble, and set upon Maxwell, bloodily stabbing and hacking him to death, all in sight of an oddly detached policeman and a poster advertising a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Maxwell’s fellow critics are upset, which rapidly turns to alarm when a second of their number (Dennis Price) is run through with a spear and his corpse tied to a horse’s tail, thus reproducing the death of Hector from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. A third (Arthur Lowe) has his head sawn off in his sleep (this one comes from Cymbeline). Someone is clearly staging a season reviving some of Shakespeare’s most spectacular murders, with the members of the Critics’ Circle in the central role each time. But who, and how?

The surviving critics are uneasily reminded of the actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), who would only ever appear in Shakespearean roles and whom they were all routinely very cruel to: in the end, their mockery, and the fact they refused to give him their award for best actor, drove Lionheart to apparently commit suicide by diving off the balcony of leading critic Devlin (Ian Hendry), into the Thames. But his body was never found – could he have survived somehow? Devlin approaches his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), but she is hostile and uncooperative.

Meanwhile the murders continue, restaging scenes from Richard III, Othello and The Merchant of Venice (a radical reinterpretation where Antonio does get his heart cut out – ‘Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare,’ says a shocked Devlin, who seems to be more aghast at this than the death of his colleague). Can the police track Lionheart down before there’s no-one left in England to write theatre reviews…?

Quite why this particular group of people wound up making a film as distinctive as Theatre of Blood remains a mystery, but the lineage of the film itself is rather less obscure: it’s obviously a successor to the two Dr Phibes films Price made for American International in the preceding couple of years, but one which greatly refines and enhances the same formula. The basic plot, of a vengeful madman committing a series of extravagant murders, is retained, but the slightly laborious, almost steampunkish whimsy of the Phibes films is dispensed with along with the period setting.

Perhaps most significantly, the weird decision to make Phibes horribly scarred and functionally mute, thus seriously impacting on Vincent Price’s ability to give a performance in the role, is no longer a consideration. As a result this is one of the actor’s greatest films, as he gets to play not just Lionheart, but Lionheart performing many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. One of the reasons why many horror films from the fifties, sixties and seventies are so memorable is because they feature some of the finest actors of their generations, never quite getting the respect they deserve: you could argue that Theatre of Blood is on some level an oblique commentary on this whole phenomenon. But let’s not overthink this – it’s Vincent Price and Diana Rigg performing a range of characters (policemen, masseurs, rather camp hairdressers called Butch), causing mayhem and performing Shakespeare: how can it not be brilliant?

The film’s other stroke of genius, or possible good fortune, comes in the casting of Price’s victims, for Theatre of Blood has possibly the most distinguished ensemble of any British horror movie (even if most of them are only in extended cameos): quite apart from Price, Rigg, and Hendry, the cast includes Hordern, Price, Lowe, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, and Diana Dors. (Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes play the detectives.)

I suppose some people might say that Theatre of Blood isn’t really a horror film because it’s not actually scary – and it is true that it functions as a knowing, grand guignol comedy more than anything else. But even here the film has a few surprises to offer: in places it actually becomes genuinely moving to watch. You believe in the relationship between Lionheart and his daughter completely, and the critics do seem unspeakably cruel as they mock and scorn Lionheart just before his ‘suicide’. The film has an unexpectedly bittersweet, melancholic tone to it, almost as if it is suggesting that there is no place for someone like Lionheart in the modern world – that, rather than taking his revenge on the critics, his plan is simply a doomed parting shot from an earlier age of sincerity (even if it is rather hammy sincerity).

Because, apparently, even as late as the 1970s, it was apparently unacceptable for a film to conclude with Vincent Price getting away with it. Perhaps this was the result of moral concerns, or perhaps because one of the things that lifts the film is that fact that Lionheart is somehow a doomed, tragic figure from the start. The manner in which his plan comes undone is one of the few weak links in the script, but it does lead to an appropriately spectacular and operatic finale. This was apparently one of Vincent Price’s favourites from amongst his own films; Diana Rigg feels it is one of her best, as well. I can’t argue with that. This is one of the great obscure treasures of the British horror tradition.

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I can’t help thinking that there have been a lot of drossy movies on this blog in the last few days, and watching and thinking about all these bad movies does wear one down a little (the films I watched but didn’t bother writing about – Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, two of the Indiana Jones series, and Krull – were hardly classics, to be perfectly honest). So let’s look at some good films, for a change, undisputed works of brilliance – undisputed by me, anyway, and as this blog is run on a democratic, one-person, one-vote basis (I’m the person and I get the only vote), I get to decide what counts as brilliant.

There was a time when I was in my late teens and early twenties when I would occasionally have cause for great excitement: I was already very interested in films, and was starting to get a sense of what was agreed to be in the canon of great movies. Occasionally something I really wanted to see would come on TV (as often as not in the middle of the night, but so it goes) and so I would have the slightly nervous experience of setting the VCR, then checking the settings several times, coming down early to make sure the film had recorded okay, and then finally watching it (frequently to discover it didn’t quite live up to expectations – for example, it took me many years to learn to appreciate the quality of an oddball film like Phase IV).

One film that did live up to expectations was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (J-title: Shichinin no Samurai), which played very late one Sunday night just before my last few A-levels. It felt like a very well-timed reward for the end of my school education, although it was a few days before I could secure the TV for long enough to actually watch it. I had already seen a couple of Kurosawa movies by this point – Yojimbo and Ran had both been on in the previous couple of years – but I knew that Seven Samurai was the big one, already guaranteed a place in cinema history simply because of the number of other films and TV episodes that had, essentially, ripped it off (three of those, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Battle Beyond the Stars and the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, I’ve looked at already).

The movie opens with a brief caption explaining the strife-riven nature of sixteenth-century Japan, then fades up on a black horizon under a gloomy, overcast sky. Armoured horsemen rise into view, silhouetted in long shot, and the thunder of hooves is the only sound. These are the bandits who are the chief driver of the plot. They halt atop a hill overlooking a small village, and have a shouted discussion as to their plans: the villagers will have nothing worth taking at the moment, but if they return once the crops are harvested…

The bandits ride off, and will not appear again until the second half of the movie. But their plan has been overheard by a villager, who tells his fellows, and there is a fraught debate as to what to do – try to appease the bandits? Mass suicide? Attempt to resist them? Every option seems to end with the destruction of the village. The oldest and wisest man in the village has another idea, however: recalling a similar situation where the bandits were driven off by samurai warriors hired for protecton. But how are they to pay for the services of these elite, aristocratic warriors? ‘Find hungry samurai,’ is the old man’s advice.

This proves to be slightly trickier than expected: on going to the nearest big town, their first candidate proves to be a lazy, craven slob. But things turn around when they meet Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a vastly experienced warrior prepared to make sacrifices if the cause is right. He is soon joined by Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young boy looking for training; Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a strongman who becomes Kambei’s lieutenant; Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), an old comrade of Kambei’s; Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), an irreverent clown; and Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a supremely skilled swordsman. Also tagging along, and bringing the numbers up to that all-important seven, is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who affects to be a samurai but is really an uncouth, unpredictable slob.

You’re probably already familiar with this story, even if you haven’t seen any of the various remakes and reimaginings that have followed it: the samurai return to the village, where they gradually win the trust and respect of their new employers. Preparations are made and then the bandits finally return, in which the skill and determination of the defenders is tested to the utmost. It is such a sturdy story-structure, with its various sub-components (for instance, the recruiting of the team) able to be extracted and repurposed as well. And Kurosawa seems to have invented it virtually from scratch, even if he did apparently get the idea for the film from an actual historical incident.

Apart from the fact that this film was made by one of the masters, there are a couple of things that elevate it above the films and TV episodes that followed (and, it must be said, some of those are also very good indeed). The sheer length of the film – getting on for three and a half hours – gives space for a plethora of subplots and character moments, giving each of the seven – and many of the villagers – a chance to develop into a genuine character. They play off each other in a variety of combinations throughout the film; no-one is there just to make the numbers up, everybody gets at least one big moment. This may be a long film but it is also supremely economical: there is barely a wasted moment.

The other thing that distinguishes it is that most of the films that followed are fantasies, one way or another: even the original version of The Magnificent Seven, which is supposedly a ‘straight’ western, is obliged to engage in some awkward plot contrivances to preserve Kurosawa’s structure (keeping the Mexican government on-side may also have been a factor). This version, however, is set in a specific historical context, which heavily informs the story. Many of the subplots arise from the tensions arising between the farmers and the samurai, who are basically from different social castes and are initially somewhat suspicious of each other (perhaps with good reason). You possibly have to be Japanese to appreciate all the nuances of this, but you can get a strong sense of what’s going on no matter where you’re from.

In the end it resolves with the famous battle in the rain, a last-man-standing struggle to the death between the samurai and villagers on one side and the last few bandits on the other. Obviously, the technical capacities of the 1950s were different from those of today, and this is reflected in the special effects and fight choreography, but in terms of movement and composition and editing, there are still few things to match the battle sequences of this film for fluency and energy.

You probably know how it concludes: there are winners and losers, possibly on the same side. But there is still something about the ending that seems very satisfying and appropriate, for all of the sadness that comes with it. Sadness for the fallen villagers and their defenders, and sadness that not even this film can go on forever. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think it probably will.

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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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I used to get a little bit exercised by people choosing inappropriate titles for their movies. I don’t just mean bad movies using good names, just titles which seem… not quite right for the movie. Back in 2011, Paddy Considine released a film called Tyrannosaur, which is a perfectly good title for a film featuring a carnivorous theropod on the rampage. Attaching it to an (admittedly very good) downbeat naturalistic drama about the corrosive effects of male rage struck me as a bit of a waste, to be honest.

When I first started hearing people talking about a movie called Parasite, I was pretty sure I knew what they were on about: I have vague memories of the film in question, which was directed by low-budget maestro Charles Band, released in 1982 and features Demi Moore in an early role. Suffice to say there is a lot of icky body horror and slimy things with teeth infesting various secondary members of the cast. This is exactly what I would expect from a movie called Parasite.

Of course, we now live in a world where – as is occasionally the case with films with mononymic titles – anyone wanting to watch Demi Moore just starting out had best take care, as there is now another, rather better-known film called Parasite. Not that confusion is particularly likely, of course: the 1982 movie has an 11% rating on a solanaceous review aggregation site, and won no awards whatsover, while the new one, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is currently scoring 99%, in addition to winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes and Best Picture at the Academy Awards – the first film to win both in 65 years, and the first film made in a foreign language to win the big prize at the Oscars.

This is the kind of acclaim that often leads to impossibly high expectations, but on the other hand it does work a treat in getting a slightly arty-looking subtitled film a major release – I note that, in the UK at least, Parasite didn’t start to appear in some multiplexes until after it won the Oscar. Certainly, to begin with it bears a passing resemblance to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, another acclaimed Asian movie which didn’t get a major UK release.

To begin with, we are in the company of the Kim family, a penurious Seoul family reduced to living in a basement and folding disposable pizza boxes to scrape a living. Patriarch of this unprepossessing mob is Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), a moderately successful hammer thrower now gone to seed, his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and their children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). The Kims are living so close to the edge that their neighbour putting a password on her wifi constitutes a significant problem for them.

However, this all changes when Ki-woo’s friend Min finds him a job giving English lessons to the daughter of the wealthy Park family – Min has a mind to woo her once he gets back from a trip abroad, and has thus recommended Ki-woo as someone from such a poverty-stricken background can’t possibly be a romantic rival to him. He also gives the Kims a lucky rock, which will supposedly bring them good fortune. ‘Wow, it’s so metaphorical!’ cries a delighted Ki-woo, in one of the script’s many droll touches. Ki-woo duly passes muster with the slightly dippy mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) of the Park family.

What rapidly becomes apparent is that this is the sort of opportunity the Kims have clearly been waiting for for quite some time. With the speed and ferocity of a burrowing maggot, they waste no time in inserting themselves into the Parks’ lovely home: Ki-woo spots that his new employers’ hyperactive younger child likes drawing, and thus introduces Ki-jeong as a potential art therapist for the lad. The sacking of the family servants is ingeniously contrived, creating vacancies that the two senior Kims can fill. Soon the whole family is cheerfully soaking the Parks for whatever they can get, with their hosts blissfully unaware even of the fact they are unwittingly employing four members of the same family. The Kims begin to have dreams of a better life and a better future – because what could possibly go wrong…?

Needless to say, something goes wrong, but the volta that occurs halfway through Parasite is so startling and genuinely unpredictable that one would have to be a real cad to give more than a few hints as to what goes on in the second half of the film. Needless to say, class tensions bubble to the surface, there’s an epically unsuccessful birthday party, the issue of body odour proves unexpectedly significant to the plot and the lucky rock proves to be quite unlucky, for one character at least.

So, this isn’t really a horror movie, but if it is an art-house movie it’s only because of the subtitles (‘the one-inch-tall barrier’, as the director so aptly put it). This is really no more ‘arty’ than a film by Christopher Nolan or Stanley Kubrick, unless by arty you mean made with tremendous imagination and skill. I didn’t see Snowpiercer (someone gave it to me on a hard drive, which then went pop before I could watch it) and my admiration for his giant pig film was qualified at best, but this is a terrific movie.

Obviously, this is a film with things to say about serious and universal themes: the awkward relationship between wealth and power, and class consciousness, most obviously (you could draw a definite thematic parallel between Parasite and The Time Machine, if you really wanted to). Not that the title is without a degree of ambiguity – it’s clear that both families need each other in order to function (so perhaps Symbiosis would be just as apt a title). You could also argue that the film takes the fact that servants and lower-class people often seem to be invisible to the rich and powerful and makes it one of the central metaphors of the movie. There is a lot going on here.

Nevertheless, the denseness of the film’s ideas never get in the way of its entertainment value, or its achievement as a piece of cinema. Almost from the start you are swept along, as the Kims put their plan into motion with a gleeful ruthlessness – they are such an agreeable bunch, and Mrs Park in particular is so useless, that you can’t help but want them to get away with it, even though what they are up to is deeply morally questionable. Towards the end of the film the comedic elements inevitably fall away, however, and the film becomes darker and more complex, but the shift is as impeccably handled as the rest of it.

Parasite has pretty much everything one could hope for from a movie, and it is fully deserving of all its praise and accollades. Hopefully the one-inch-tall barrier will not keep too many people from watching it, for this is a film which balances serious themes with superb storytelling skill and the result is a film which is compellingly watchable from start to finish. Proof that the Academy Awards do sometimes get things right.

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As I’m sure I’ve probably said, the films that get released around this time of year generally tend to fall into a few specific types. You know what I mean – prestigious literary adaptations, stirring true stories from history, omphaloskeptic celebrations of the movie industry itself, and so on. And then of course there is the serious contemporary drama category, which is frankly not short of material at the moment. We’ve recently discussed Bombshell, which deals with current issues surrounding gender politics, and also Just Mercy, which takes as its topic racial inequality in American society. As noted, my inclination was to rather cynically dismiss the latter film as an exercise in box-ticking.

Also out at the moment is Waves, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Shults was also in charge of the uncomfortable-to-watch post-horror movie It Comes at Night, which was probably very good (I was seeing it under less than optimal conditions); the new movie sees him raise his game to a whole new level, though.

Again, based on the advertising, I was inclined to dismiss Waves as another pretty calculated piece of work: another film about the Black experience in contemporary America. The trailer made it look very much as though this was a film following in the wake of Moonlight (which I thought was okay, but not as great as all that) – artily independent, where a film like Just Mercy is solid studio fare.

(You know, anything I say about the actual story of Waves is probably going to lessen the impact of the film; the sheer sense of dislocation produced by not knowing quite where it is going – but fearing the worst – was an essential part of my experience of seeing it. So I would almost suggest you skip the next couple of paragraphs and start reading again after the poster. Or even just skip the rest of this review and find a cinema showing this film: it’s well worth your time, and quite possibly one of the films of the year.)

The film begins by introducing us to the Williams family, affluent African-Americans living in Florida. They have a very nice house, with the parents (father and step-mother) running their own business; the son and daughter are successful both in school and socially. But Ronald, the father (Sterling K Brown), believes in tough love: he pushes his son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) particularly hard, believing that the nature of the world demands it. For his part, Tyler seems to accept this, to begin with at least.

But then gradually, and almost imperceptibly at first, pressures start to mount up on Tyler. A member of the school wrestling team, he ends up badly damaging his shoulder, and starts taking painkillers to cope with it. The habit grows. At the same time, his long-term girlfriend discovers that she is pregnant. Tyler is only eighteen; he does not cope well with this, he makes some very bad decisions. As a result the whole family is affected and almost torn apart. Can his parents and sister (Taylor Russell) come to terms with the aftermath of what happens?

The first part of the film builds up to a horrible incident, the kind of thing that gets briefly mentioned on the news as a one or two-line item. What Shults does is show us the people and emotions involved in it and how they ended up in that place, transforming it from an ugly example of what’s wrong with society today into a genuine human tragedy. This doesn’t make it any easier to watch, of course. As the story develops it has that slow-motion car-crash feel to it. You know that this is building up to something dreadful, but you can’t look away as the events of the film unfold.

However, not knowing quite how long a film is going to be can sometimes lead to interesting experiences, and I was a little startled when what I anticipated would be a brief coda to the film’s story of one person’s tragic fall from grace turned out to be the start of a whole new section of the movie. The tone and focus of this is quite different: it is less intense, much lighter and more gentle. The change of gear is a startling one, but Shults makes it work. I imagine it is the first half of Waves that audiences will find seared into their memories, but it is the second which gives the film its scope and depth.

Again, this is on some level a film about race in America – were Tyler’s father not such a hard taskmaster to him, the story might have a very different outcome, but Ronald sees himself as having no option given the extra challenges they face as African Americans – but only tangentially so. It works so well because it is about recognisable and believeable people, and as such it benefits greatly from a terrific set of performances, mainly from the family members (in addition to Harrison, Russell, and Brown, Renee Elise Goldsberry plays the stepmother), but also Lucas Hedges and Alexa Demie.

However, for all the power of the story (which is considerable), what really gives the film its impact is a bravura directing job by Shults himself. The movie opens with a sequence which lights up the screen with colour and movement, the kind of thing that would surely count as showing off if it weren’t so clearly a considered piece of work. Throughout it is vibrant and colourful without ever seeming garish or lurid; choices which might seem affected – at a few key points, scene transitions take the form of swirls of colour filling the screen – are somehow absolutely of a piece with the rest of the movie.

In short, I liked Waves much more than Moonlight; I liked it much more than most films I have seen recently. ‘Liked’ is a funny word to use, for this is a serious and intense film, and not easy to watch in places – but its pace and vitality keep it very watchable, and the manner in which it resolves means it does not come across as something wholly downbeat and depressing. I am genuinely surprised this film has not received much greater acclaim and awards recognition, for it is a hugely impressive movie, and I am very curious to see what Trey Edward Shults does next.

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It’s always a sure sign that the year hasn’t got long left to run when the independent cinemas start cranking out their seasons of traditional Christmas favourites. Frankly, my response to this depends what they show: I was much taken by the Phoenix’s decision to revive Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves a couple of years ago, but more traditional choices seldom light my tree. Perennial over-exposure has left me indifferent to The Muppet Christmas Carol and even It’s a Wonderful Life, while they could put every copy of Love Actually into a shipping container and dump it in the ocean and I would not be especially troubled.

Die Hard, on the other hand – now that’s my idea of a proper Christmas treat, especially back on the big screen. I know that its status as such has been a bit debatable on occasion in the past – ‘it’s not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!’ is the considered judgement of, er, Bruce Willis – but in addition to leaving you with a warm feeling inside, it is ultimately about a family being reunited, the forces of goodness and justice being triumphant, and people recapturing the joy of living (by the end, Reginald VelJohnson has rediscovered how satisfying it is to gun someone down in the street). It’s still the only Christmas favourite to feature someone being repeatedly shot in the crotch at close range, but that just makes it all the more distinctive.

It seems a bit odd to recap the premise of a film as iconic as Die Hard, but the form demands it. Wiseacre New York cop John McClane (Willis) flies into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to attempt a reconciliation with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) – see how Christmassy this is already? – and is taken to the skyscraper where she works, where he mingles with various archetypal yuppie scumbags (this is 1988, after all) at her office party – see, yet more Christmasiness. Needless to say, not all goes well at the office party, with the appearance on the scene of a truck full of armed, mostly European miscreants, led by the eminently hissable Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Through sheer good fortune McClane manages to evade capture by the bad guys, and soon figures out there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Very soon the upper reaches of the building become a battlefield as Gruber’s men hunt McClane through the corridors, elevator shafts and air vents of the tower. How long can he manage to stay one step ahead?

Die Hard is one of those rare movies which, seemingly ex nihilo, manages to create its own subgenre – and one which was virtually done-to-death within ten years, with endless new variations on the formula – Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard up a mountain, Die Hard on a battleship, and so on. Yet the origins of the film are remarkably obvious once you become aware of them – author Roderick Thorp saw The Towering Inferno, had a dream where the fire was replaced by men with guns, and turned it into his 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was eventually turned into this film.

One consequence of this was that, for slightly obscure contractual reasons, they had to offer the lead role in the movie to Frank Sinatra. To say it is difficult to imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes hurling himself about in a vest and blowing away terrorists at the age of 73 is something of an understatement, but thankfully he said no. It seems like they offered almost every actor in Hollywood the part of McClane before they reached Bruce Willis, but reach him they eventually did, much to the film’s benefit. If nothing else this film shows that great Hollywood careers can start long before people reach Hollywood itself, for at the heart of Die Hard are two actors, neither of whom had starred in a major movie before, and one of whom had never appeared in a movie of any kind: Willis’s background was in American TV, while Alan Rickman had been a stalwart of the RSC and the BBC classic serial.

Much of the film’ energy and excitement comes from the clash of these two very different actors, playing very different characters. Hans Gruber is sleek, composed, and has clearly planned everything down to the last detail; McClane is sweaty, frantic, and obviously making it all up as he goes. There is perhaps the faintest touch of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in McClane’s characterisation, but apart from this he is a very different kind of action hero, compared to what had been seen prior to this point – he is defiantly rough around the edges, a blue-collar hero.

This element is essentially carried through into another of the film’s more crowd-pleasing features, namely the way in which it is openly scornful of pretty much every authority figure on the scene outside the tower: police chiefs, news reporters and FBI agents alike are all depicted as self-serving idiots who are really only pawns in Gruber’s elaborate scheme. (The film arguably improves and refines Thorp’s book, where it is implied that if the McClane character had not become involved, the situation would have resolved itself without anyone actually dying.) McClane is there with a pithy, probably profane wisecrack, keeping it real (I believe that’s what the kids are saying), doing what needs to be done to save the day.

McTiernan makes it all look very easy, naturally, although even the most cursory examination reveals that the script for this movie is every bit as clever and intricate as Hans’ brilliant plan to steal $640 million – both of them depend for their success on very specific things happening in a specific sequence. Quite apart from this, the director mounts some brilliant action sequences, which are still genuinely thrilling nowadays.

It is customary, when thinking of how the reputations of some genuinely great movies have effectively been slimed by their proximity to horrid, tossed-off latter-day sequels, to discuss things like RoboCop, Alien, Predator, and The Terminator – it does seem that eighties action movies are particularly prone to this sort of thing. And yet it does seem to me that Die Hard is very deserving of its place on the same list. True, most of the sequels aren’t too bad – although the most recent one was a bloody awful mess – but they still don’t come close to the immaculate near-perfection of the original. A tremendous Christmas movie, but also a film for all seasons, and the ages.

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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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