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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

When it comes to Rupert Goold’s Judy I find myself in grave danger of repeating things I’ve already said at least once this year. Within the wonderful world of cinema there is, of course, space for many weird and niche subgenres – I recall relatives boggling, many years ago, when I sat down one evening to watch a documentary focusing on Mexican luchador wrestling horror movies – but I never really thought of the ‘biopic focusing on the declining years of a Hollywood star, preferably set in the UK’ to be one of them. But it seems I could be mistaken: a couple of years ago we had Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, then earlier on this year there was Stan and Ollie, and now we have Goold’s Judy Garland movie.

The resemblance between Stan and Ollie and Judy is particularly pronounced – to the point where they both feature the impresario Bernard Delfont as a character – and one wonders why nobody on either production noticed this, especially when you consider that both have been made by the film wing of the BBC (hence all those UK settings). Oh well – I suppose that sometimes there’s just a natural, obvious way of telling a story, and you may as well stick to it. The potential downside to this is that you end up making exactly the film everyone is anticipating, which can be a problem.

The movie flashes back and forth between Judy Garland’s early career in the late 1930s and early 40s, where she is portrayed by Darci Shaw, and the late 1960s, by which point she has turned into Renee Zellweger. (It will probably come as no surprise if I say there is rather more Zellweger than Shaw in the film.) By this point Garland’s life has become dismayingly chaotic – she is hugely in debt, unable to get work, rootless, addicted to all kinds of substances, reduced to dragging her children on stage with her in small-time shows. One of her ex-husbands (Rufus Sewell) begins proceedings to take custody of them. The only bright spot seems to be her new friendship with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a young entrepreneur.

Desperately needing money, Garland agrees to a stint appearing at the Talk of the Town in London, as this will provide funds for the custody battle if nothing else. But the ghosts of her past are hard to shake off, and her assistant/minder (Jessie Buckley) finds that she really has to earn her money getting Garland on stage, on time, in a fit state to perform every night. Is this residency in London the start of a new beginning for her, or just another stage in her decline and fall?

Well I think we all know the answer to that one, as part of Judy Garland’s still-potent allure is the heady mixture of Hollywood glamour and pervasive tragedy surrounding her: no matter what her talent as a singer – and the film does not equivocate in its presentation of her as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century – if she had turned her life around and retired into obscurity, she would not be the legend she remains today. But the film suggests this was never really an option, that the manipulation of her life by Hollywood studio bosses from a very young age, and the pressures of stardom, hollowed out Garland as a person – such was the focus on her image as a star that the real Frances Gumm disappeared somewhere along the way, and Garland was left only having any real sense of who she was while performing to an audience.

It’s a tragic story but it does rather lend itself to the style of performance that Renee Zellweger opts to give: she is playing Garland the icon, all sass and vulnerability, the brittle diva. It’s an impressive physical transformation, to say nothing of Zellweger’s recreation of Garland’s vocal style. All together, it’s very much one of those full-on I-want-an-Oscar-and-I-want-it-now turns, and I wouldn’t bet against Zellweger snagging a nomination at least. But I’m not sure she does any more than hit the marks you’d expect in a Garland impersonation; I don’t think she necessarily finds anything unexpected in the role.

Nevertheless, she does dominate the movie (as you would expect). This is almost a shame as the film does feature some very capable performers who are perhaps a bit underserved as a result – most obviously Jessie Buckley, a tremendously capable singer and actress herself, doesn’t get a huge amount to do as Garland’s handler. The brevity of Michael Gambon’s contribution as Delfont is also somewhat disappointing. A pleasant surprise is a brief but affecting appearance by the magician Andy Nyman (creator of the brilliant Ghost Stories) as a dedicated Garland fan, acknowledging her enduring popularity with a particular fanbase. I feel obliged to mention the faint oddity of John Dagliesh showing up as Britain’s King of Skiffle Lonnie Donegan, but manage your expectations: we don’t get to see Renee Zellweger giving us Judy Garland’s cover version of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ (the film would have been a bit more interesting if it had).

On the whole the film sticks pretty closely to the template for this kind of thing, with the hugely talented icon given humanity by the insight into their human failings and frailties. The film plays this rather smartly – it doesn’t shy away from depicting Garland as being demanding, needy and often nearly impossible to work with, but at the same time ensures she retains audience sympathy by the inclusion of the flashbacks depicting her treatment by Louis B Meyer and others: treated as a commodity from a very young age, not allowed to eat or sleep properly, manipulated by the studios to the point where it virtually constitutes abuse. Cynical and desensitised though I obviously am, I still found these scenes to be affecting and I was surprised to find myself quite angry on Garland’s behalf; likewise, the climax of the film proved to be unexpectedly moving.

It’s not quite enough to lift the film to a higher level – it doesn’t provide the same insights as Stan and Ollie did, for example. It gives you the Judy Garland you’ve heard about and are expecting to see, but not much more than that. It is well-mounted, decently-scripted and the performances are generally well-pitched. It’s by no means a bad film, but whatever power and emotion it acquires are derived entirely from its subject.

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At what point does entertainment cross the threshold of genuine art? Is it even a meaningful distinction? Does your story have to have a certain degree of complexity or depth to it? Or can it just be a simple tale, told with artfulness and care? If so, at what point does worthwhile embellishment become actual pretension and self-indulgence? Lots to think about here, and the film that got me pondering this particular issue is Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta, from 2016.

(Yes, it’s another Almodovar review – what can I say, having finally discovered this director I’m in a hurry to catch up, and having bought two boxed sets of his films recently I would anticipate a string of further reviews to come. What can I say? At least you’re not having to pay for this stuff.)

Not for the first time, the film initially presents a kind of narrative puzzle-box, the contents of which only become clear as it proceeds. The central character is Julieta (Emma Suarez), a middle-aged woman living in Madrid. She and her partner Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) are on the verge of completing a long-planned move to Portugal together, even though it seems that Julieta is not quite as committed to this as him. Then, quite by chance, she meets a young woman in the street – a childhood friend of her daughter’s. The friend reports meeting Julieta’s daughter and family in Switzerland. It is a casual conversation for the friend, but the impact of it seems to strike Julieta like a hammer-blow. She abandons her plans to go to Portugal, ignoring how hurtful this is to Lorenzo, moves into an apartment in the building where she used to live, and begins to obsessively write an account of her life, for her daughter Antia’s benefit.

It begins many years earlier, when Julieta (played in her younger days by Adriana Ugarte) had yet to settle down and was working as a supply teacher. While travelling by train one night, her journey is disrupted by the suicide of a fellow passenger – but as a result of these events she embarks on a passionate relationship with Xoan (Daniel Grao), a man she has just met. She takes his letters to her as a tacit invitation, and they resume the affair in the town where Xoan lives once her current job is over. Then it transpires that she is pregnant, and naturally everything changes. As the child, Antia, grows up, Julieta is perhaps a little dismayed that Xoan has a better relationship with her, but still reasonably happy. But tragedy is waiting for the family, and will inflict the kind of emotional wounds from which some people never completely recover…

Some people mellow with age, but Almodovar seems to have grown sourer, if that’s quite the right word for it. Certainly, while Julieta retains the outward colour and vibrancy which in many ways the director’s trademark, the story has a darker and more sombre tone than that of his most famous films. The narrative has a degree of the subtle complexity of those films, but for the most part this is a simple case of a story told mostly in flashback, the opening and closing scenes basically being a framing device. And, while the resonances with Hitchcock are less pronounced than in some other films, the story itself moves through dark territory. Julieta’s life is shaped by random chance, and many of the key events are tragic, to say the least: a suicide, a fatal boating accident, and so on. The corrosive effect of deceitfulness and dishonesty within families is also dwelt upon. The losses Julieta experiences come close to breaking her as a person – much of the film is about loneliness, isolation, and just how difficult it is to recover and rebuild when closure has not been fully achieved.

It sounds like pretty heavy going and to be honest it is – no matter how well-told the story is, there’s no escaping the fact that it gets progressively tougher to watch as it continues. It’s as close to bleak as you will find in a Pedro Almodovar movie, although the director apparently enforced a strict ‘no crying’ rule for his two lead actresses, on the grounds that this is a film about long-term despair rather than particular outbursts of grief and sadness. It is to Almodovar’s credit that the film stays as watchable as it does, given the subject matter.

This is also, of course, because of the very strong performances of both lead actresses, who keep the film accessible even when the character is not the most accessible or sympathetic of individuals. It is undeniably a little odd that the lead role is split in the way it is – when the film jumps back in time from the older Julieta (Suarez) to her younger self (Ugarte), you almost do a double take and wonder if that’s really supposed to be the same person. It soon doesn’t matter, for you get used to Ugarte’s engaging screen presence, and it does allow Almodovar one of his most impressive cinematic flourishes – when the film reaches the point at which the older Julieta is again played by Emma Suarez, it happens mid-scene, and again you almost do a double-take, the change is not immediately obvious.

Still, the decision to split the role remains a slightly curious one, which the director defended by expressing his doubt about the believability of old-age make-up and the unique presence possessed by older actresses. (At one point this film was intended to be Almodovar’s English-language debut, to be made abroad and starring Meryl Streep as the older Julieta – one wonders who would have played the younger one.) It is just one of a number of choices which some might take issue with. The film is a relentlessly emotional one, with stirring music non-stop on the soundtrack (or so it feels, anyway); if it were just a little less subtle you could easily call it a melodrama. Still, this isn’t the first Almodovar film you could call a bit melodramatic. Then there is the question of the unresolved conclusion of the film, which I would imagine seriously hacks off anyone who sits through the film’s heavy third act in the hope of a carthatic, affirmative ending with everything resolved. Personally, I think the ending works – it’s a bold choice, but it certainly feels like it suits the rest of the film.

I think it would be stretching a point to suggest that Julieta is quite up to the same standard as the films he was making in the late 1990s and early 2000s – it falls just a little short in terms of ambition, if not in execution, and it doesn’t have the same kind of audacity or life to it. Nevertheless, when even a slightly sub-par film is as good as this, it’s a sign that the person responsible is a director of the first rank. Even off-the-boil Almodovar is still a formidable talent.

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There are a number of ways one could approach the discussion of Todd Phillips’ Joker. One of the best jokes in last year’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies concerned a succession of spoof Batman spin-offs desperately trying to wring every last drop of commercial potential out of the character’s mythology – a movie about the Batmobile, a movie about Batman’s utility belt, and so on – and from a certain point of view the new movie does look like exactly this sort of thing.

Or, one could suggest that the new film comes from the same place as recent successes like the Deadpool films and Venom: there does seem to be a market for dark, morally ambiguous fantasy films aimed at an older audience, and you don’t get much darker or more morally compromised than the world’s most famous supervillain. (If you wanted to be really nasty you could start comparing it to the 2004 Catwoman film, which it likewise bears a passing resemblance to, but that would surely qualify as unnecessary cruelty.)

Then again, you could also view it as the inevitable next step in the rise of comic book movies to complete world domination: superhero films routinely make billions, and are beginning to acquire a certain sort of respectability – Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture, and it’s a reasonable bet that Avengers: Endgame will be, too – and Joker looks very much like a calculated attempt at a classy, serious film intent on receiving critical acclaim in addition to its almost-inevitable financial success.

Who knows? Maybe it’s all of these things. What we can definitely say is that it is set in a squalid, 1980s version of Gotham City, where we find Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). By day, he is a white-faced, green-wigged clown for hire; by night, an aspiring stand-up comedian (unexpectedly, pretty much the only joke we hear him deliver is a classic Bob Monkhouse line). He is a deeply troubled man twenty-four hours a day, though, living alone with his mother, obsessed with a TV chat show host and comedian (Robert De Niro), taking seven different medications for various psychiatric conditions, and afflicted with a curious nervous complaint causing him to laugh uncontrollably in stressful situations.

But, over the course of one hot summer, with the city wracked by a financial crisis, those stressful situations keep coming, taking their toll on Arthur’s fragile mental state. The tipping point comes when he is attacked on the subway by three entitled, arrogant young employees of the Wayne corporation: in a matter of seconds his assailants are dead and he realises he feels much more cheerful and comfortable with himself. News reports of a killer clown preying on the wealthy are soon spreading, while it is becoming increasingly clear that a nihilistic force of chaos is incubating within Arthur, only waiting for the right moment to manifest itself…

It may be a coincidence, but films featuring the Joker have a tendency to attract controversy more or less in proportion to the acclaim received by the actor in the role: the 1989 Batman featured one of Jack Nicholson’s biggest turns, and was a very rare example of a film which required the BBFC to create a new certification for it (the 12 rating, should you be wondering). Heath Ledger famously won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in The Dark Knight, but the film was again mired in controversy for supposedly glamorising knife violence. It should come as no surprise that Joker is also getting some commentators hot under the collar, the suggestion being that it may inspire copycats to perpetrate the same kind of violence that the Joker indulges in here.

There is certainly a question to be asked about what exactly is going on with a film like this, and it’s the same one many people asked about the last movie to feature the Joker, 2016’s Suicide Squad: why do a movie about the Joker without Batman in it? Isn’t the whole point of the character that he’s an antagonist and a foil to someone else? One of the many smart things about The Dark Knight was its handling of the unhealthily co-dependent relationship between the two of them. All the word on Joker is that this is a standalone film; any appearances of the character in the foreseeable future will feature the Jared Leto version, not Phoenix’s. So what’s the point of an origin film for a someone we’re never going to see again?

Well, the quality of the film is more than high enough to answer most criticisms along these lines: the depiction of a grimy, seething Gotham is as good as any other we’ve seen in the movies, and the film is built around a characteristically intense and committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. This is quite a long film, with the recognisable Joker persona not appearing until the closing stages of it, and Phoenix takes us through every step of Fleck’s psychological disintegration and transformation. This is the kind of performance that normally gets award nominations when it isn’t in a comic book movie; it will be interesting to see how hard the old prejudices die.

Phoenix works hard to be pitiable and relatively sympathetic early in the film, but by the climax the character has convincingly become a genuinely unsettling and frightening psychopath. The film obviously owes a big debt to The Dark Knight – in both films the Joker chooses to paint his face, rather than having his skin chemically bleached in an accident – but the climax is equally obviously inspired by a sequence from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (probably the single most influential Batman story of all time). It’s Miller’s version of the Joker which Phoenix seems to be channelling.

It’s still the case that the film-makers have made up a new genesis for the Joker from scratch (the Joker’s creators felt that giving him a history would humanise the character too much, something Christopher Nolan later agreed with) and so the decision to make the film about mental illness is a deliberate choice on their part. Again, one wonders whether this is a slightly portentous comic book movie which has adopted some very mature subject matter in order acquire some spurious gravitas, or if it’s a seriously-intentioned drama about the corrosive effects of urban alienation and isolation that’s roped in some of the Batman characters to make itself more commercial. I’m really not sure; the answer may actually lie in the film’s various homages to films made around the time it is set – most obviously King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, of course, but there are also surely references to Network and The French Connection.

All the call-backs are respectful and clearly sincere, but they seem to be the main reason why the film is set decades in the past. This is another decision which does have awkward consequences, especially when you consider that Joker seems to want to comment on various current social issues – for instance, the Joker finds himself adopted as the figurehead for an Occupy-style anti-capitalist movement (in line with this, the film features an atypically unsympathetic take on Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen)). None of this feels especially thought-through, though, and the film doesn’t feel like it’s presenting a cohesive thesis. Heath Ledger’s enigmatic Joker was an agent of chaos and madness, demanding the other characters in the film re-assess their attitudes and moral choices; Phoenix’s more accessible Joker is just a symbol of chaos and madness, the film too introspective for him to be anything more.

Then again, in the absence of Batman, he doesn’t really need to be. I suspect that this is a film which is liable to be over-praised for the way it brings a grim, gritty, psychologically naturalistic approach to its comic book source material (ironically, the writers of comic books figured out that going dark and mature was essentially a blind alley over two decades ago). The film is impressively made and Phoenix, as noted, gives a brilliant performance, but it offers little in the way of genuine insight and it runs the genuine risk of taking itself too seriously. Without Batman or an equivalent figure to engage with, the Joker isn’t an especially interesting or significant character. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix are to be commended for making a film which to some extent manages to avoid confronting this problem, but this doesn’t mean they’ve solved it. Joker is very impressive on its own terms, it’s just that those terms are undeniably odd.

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One of the running themes hereabouts over the last umpty-tump years has been the way in which the cinematic landscape has been changing – not just with the Death of the Movie Star, or the fact that virtually every really big film these days is financed by Disney, but also in an odd form of cinematic climate change: you used to get certain kinds of films only at certain times of the year. Big genre movies started to show up around the beginning of May, had their moment in the sun, and were all finished by the end of August, to be replaced by early awards contenders. Nowadays, of course, you can potentially come across something hoping to be a blockbuster at any time of the year; no month is immune to the spread of big dumb genre movies.

It must make it trickier for anyone looking to release the less commercial kind of movie and make an impression – but still they soldier on. Good word-of-mouth and early buzz still counts, and on this score Lulu Wang’s The Farewell has a good chance of doing okay for itself – good, but not great, for this is still a slightly oddball film with a couple of elements which can’t help but impair its chances of connecting with the wider audience.

The film opens in New York with Billi (Awkwafina, which – should you be wondering – is the stage name of the performer Nora Lum), a young Chinese-American woman struggling to find her place in the world – she is far from financially secure and has a strained relationship with her parents. However, she is very close to her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who still lives in the old country.

So when she learns that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Billi is deeply upset – although it’s not entirely clear what’s more distressing to her, Nai Nai’s condition, the fact that her family have chosen to keep Nai Nai in the dark about this, or their decision to exclude her from the family get-together that has hastily been convened, on the ground that her American acculturation will make it impossible for her to maintain the pretence that her grandmother is really okay.

Apparently this is how things are routinely done in Chinese families: learning you are dying of cancer is considered to be upsetting and bad for your health, and so people are routinely lied to. In this case it extends to Billi’s clan flying in from all over the world, for the (fake) wedding of her cousin to his understandably confused-looking girlfriend. Despite her parents’ wishes, Billi ends up flying to China to say goodbye along with everyone else – but will she be able to keep herself from blurting out the truth? Should she even try?

The consensus review for The Farewell would probably consist something along the lines of ‘One of the best/most moving films of the year’, more likely than not accompanied by five stars. Well, it’s certainly better than Angel Has Fallen or Fisherman’s Friends, and this is certainly a film that’s been made with a great deal of skill and intelligence, featuring the kind of performance from Awkwafina that launches careers.

Based solely on the premise, you would expect this to be a film about grief, and loss, and quite possibly the differences between western and Asian cultures, and to some extent you would be right. However, it’s the kind of movie which starts off looking like one thing but actually ends up being something quite different. There’s actually relatively little in the film directly addressing issues of grief and bereavement, although much of the film’s drama derives from the tension resulting from most of the characters being in the sway of strong emotions they are unable to express. (I suppose in itself this is possibly intended as a new way of exploring the stereotype of the supposedly inscrutable Asian.)

Instead, the film starts off with a nicely underplayed scene setting up the theme of the morality of deception, particularly when the person you’re deceiving is a close relative: Billi and Nai Nai share a pleasant, loving long-distance phone call, in the course of which they repeatedly lie their heads off to each other. Neither is left any the worse for the experience, which of course makes Billi’s upset when she learns of the greater lie perpetrated upon her grandmother a little hard to justify. There is a genuine attempt to explore the difference in attitudes, and the issue of who is really being kind to who in these situations. However, the film has other things to consider within a relatively brief running time: what it means to be a product of two cultures, for one thing; Chinese life in general, for another. The film may largely occur in subtitled Mandarin, but the family tensions and concerns it deals with are to some extent universal.

Prior to this film, I only really knew Awkwafina from Ocean’s Eight, where I felt she turned in a fairly indifferent performance in an undistinguished movie – here, though, she is very good, authentic, believable, and often touching. This is particularly true of her scenes with Zhao Shuzhen, who delivers the kind of turn that people who vote for acting awards often really respond to – it might be worth a flutter on Shuzhen picking up a few Supporting Role gongs next awards season; this is the kind of film juries like to reward, but I’m not sure it’s really going to be a contender for the big prizes.

Anyway, this is a thoughtful and well-played film, with an engagingly compassionate sensibility. It may just be that I am emotionally atrophied (too many Jason Statham and Gerard Butler movies, no doubt), but I didn’t find it to be either as absolutely heart-warming or tear-jerking as some others seem to have done – there are certainly moments of piercingly acute pathos and emotion, but for the most part the film takes an oblique and underplayed approach, encouraging the audience to find their own meaning in events on screen rather than actively trying to manipulate their emotions. I suppose this is one of the things that make The Farewell a drama rather than a melodrama; regardless, it is an impressive movie which deserves its success.

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There has been some concerned muttering amongst the commentariat of late, brought on by some unusual statistics from the global box office – while this year has indeed seen the most successful movie of all time, attendance in general seems to be on a downward trajectory. People are going to the cinema less, and when they do go, it’s probably to something funded by Disney. Coupled to this is the fact that, of the top twenty films at the US box office so far this year, only two of them have not been a remake, adaptation, or some form of sequel, and barely any of them have been star vehicles in the traditional sense. Perhaps it is the case that the old star system is withering away – I have commented here in the past that while audiences have turned out in droves to the last two or three movies featuring Thor, Chris Hemsworth is not capable of opening a movie playing any other character. Why this should be of genuine concern to anyone other than millionaire movie stars I’m not quite sure, but there you go.

All of this makes James Gray’s Ad Astra more than usually interesting, for it looks very much like an attempt at an old-school big movie – it’s not a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation (though this is a point we shall be returning to), and it’s built around a big star performance from Brad Pitt, a leading man of the old school. (I do recall stories from about fifteen years ago, when Marvel were just setting up their operation, about them hiring big names to play all their characters – Tom Cruise was in talks for Iron Man, Brad Pitt was mentioned as a candidate for Captain America, and so on. Clearly either these guys all asked for too much money or Marvel figured out very early on that the appeal of these films would lie in the characters, not the performers.) Nowadays, as noted, this is noteworthy, and the fact it looks like another attempt at making the ‘proverbial really good science fiction movie’ (S. Kubrick, March 31st 1964) only makes it more interesting to those of us who love the genre.

The movie is set in an unspecified near future (technology has advanced to the point where they can get a spacecraft to the outer planets in well under a year, but Subway are still in business), and Pitt plays top astronaut Roy McBride, renowned for his eerie calm in stressful situations. One of these comes at the top of the film, where a strange power surge results in him falling off what’s essentially an orbital tower and having to keep it together long enough to open his parachute. It turns out there have been a string of such incidents, which the powers that be have determined to be the result of cosmic rays emanating from somewhere in the vicinity of Neptune. It is feared that this is the result of the long-lost Lima project, which was sent to this region to use anti-matter to search for alien intelligences. As Roy’s dad Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones) was in charge of the mission, and is missing presumed dead in space, the authorities have decided it would be a good idea to get Roy to send him a message, presumably in the hope this will make him knock it off with the cosmic rays.

For important and serious plot reasons, Roy has to go to Mars in order to talk into a radio set, and so off he sets, accompanied part of the way by one of his dad’s old colleagues (Donald Sutherland): first to the Moon, then to the red planet itself. Along the way there is a moon buggy chase with laser guns and an encounter with killer baboons (I did wonder what the killer baboons were doing in space, but then I had misheard the name of McBride Sr.’s mission as the Lemur project, and assumed there must be some primate-based connection).

Now, if you’re anything like me, you will probably be thinking something along the lines of: killer baboons? Laser gun moon buggy chases? What kind of movie is this, exactly? Well, quite. The thing about Ad Astra is that it may not actually be a sequel, adaptation, or remake, but it is certainly a highly derivative movie – there’s more than a touch of Apocalypse Now to the structure of the plot, but mostly it draws upon the better space and SF movies of recent years. There’s a lot of Interstellar to this tale of a lengthy voyage in supposedly realistic spacecraft, but also the basic premise and subtext of the movie is that of Gravity, inasmuch as the external adventures undergone by Pitt’s character mirror the way in which he comes to terms with more personal, psychological issues as the story progresses. This makes for a thoughtful, stately, and arguably often portentous movie.

Hence the buggy chase and the baboons, I guess: they have the feel of something inserted, not especially credibly or organically, just to pep the movie up a bit whenever it gets a bit too slow. I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much, as they did jolt me back into paying full attention when I was honestly flagging a bit. We seem to have arrived back at point where new SF films are either good-looking, but entirely cerebral and humourless, or almost wholly camp fantasy; Ad Astra sorely needed to be a bit more fun.

It would be remiss of me not to say that this is still a lavish, very good-looking film, and Brad Pitt gives an excellent, subtle performance that is honestly rather better than the script deserves. The world created by the film doesn’t make a very great deal of sense (as mentioned, it features Subway and laser pistols in close proximity), but it’s not without interest, even if the director’s intentions are occasionally difficult to make out (flying to the Moon is explicitly likened to air travel nowadays, which is an odd approach to a film supposedly about the mystery and wonder of going into space).

In the end the script just isn’t good enough, and the film feels compromised by the need to include obvious action beats to break up Pitt’s introspective monologuing. What was left implicit in Gravity is gone over very heavy-handedly here; there’s a slightly clunky plot device where Pitt has to keep making log entries recording his psychological state, just to facilitate the subtext of the movie. The fact it is also essentially about a troubled father-son relationship also feels like a hoary old chestnut. I mean, fair play to the film-makers for having the guts to make a film like this one, and Pitt carries the movie well. But good intentions alone won’t necessarily carry you very far, let alone to the stars.

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If you can tell a lot about a movie from the kind of audience it attracts, I wonder what you can infer concerning Adrian Grunberg’s Rambo: Last Blood? Uniquely in my recent experience, the turnout for the screening that I attended was made up entirely of men – young and middle-aged – all of whom seemed to have come on their own – no-one had brought a friend. Is this a sign that people are embarrassed to ask their friends to go and see a Rambo movie with them? Or is it just that this is a film solely appealing to sociopathic loners? It’s a tough call.

Forget about The Matrix or The Terminator: the index case of a good, thoughtfully-intentioned movie being slimed in the minds of the public by dodgy sequels is surely First Blood, the original Rambo film from 1982 (well, along with Robocop). Though a highly influential action movie, buried in there somewhere is something quite heartfelt and serious about the plight of American veterans of the Vietnam war – the subsequent transformation of Rambo into a Reaganite wish-fulfilment figure means all this tends to get lost.

But here we are with Rambo: Last Blood. Rambo is one of the two characters, along with Rocky, whom Sylvester Stallone never seems entirely capable of leaving behind – when he revives one of them, it’s usually followed by a return appearance by the other. The well-deserved success of the recent Creed movies perhaps should have tipped us off to the fact that Stallone would be dusting off the bow and arrows – anyway, now he has.

The new movie finds John Rambo (Stallone, of course) now living on the family ranch in Arizona in something close to a state of peaceful contentment, although he has spent the last ten years digging an alarmingly extensive system of tunnels and engaging in various other survivalist hobbies. The apple of his eye is his innocent young niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), soon to go off to college. As a going-away gift he has forged her a letter-opener but, being Rambo, it is about a foot long and probably capable of disembowelling a rhino. (Given the fuss the film makes about the knife, I was expecting this to be the set-up for a concluding beat where it ends up buried in the villain’s head, but the movie kind of fumbles this point.)

Well, the thing on Gabrielle’s mind is the fact that her father abandoned her and her mother when she was very young, and she wants to know why. (Rambo’s excuse that her father just has a black heart full of evil cuts little ice with her, possibly because it is borderline-unintelligible.) A dodgy friend down in Mexico has managed to track him down, and so – ignoring Rambo’s pleas that the world beyond the ranch is a horrible, chaotic place full of bad people – Gabrielle, who is presented as naïve to the point of actual imbecility, drives south of the border and promptly gets herself drugged and captured by an evil cartel, who hook her on drugs and instal her in a brothel.

The intelligent reader will probably be able to imagine Rambo’s response to this news, when it arrives, and there is indeed a good deal of torture, mutilation and brutal violence before everyone involved has settled their differences. Certainly, there are a lot of things about this film which are problematic, to say the least – quite apart from the extended sequences of grisly, graphic violence, the film’s depictions of Mexico as a depraved hell on Earth, and the majority of Mexicans as wholly morally bankrupt, are also difficult to stomach. We should not overlook the misogyny which the film is also arguably shot through with – women are almost exclusively objects or trophies, to be used, protected, fought over, or avenged – or the film’s grindingly simplistic moral schema: some people are just born evil, and a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, especially when that comes to exacting a brutal revenge.

And yet, and yet… Last Blood is never entirely as bone-headed or offensive as you might expect it to be – indeed, in places it bears a startling resemblance to Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, an art-house darling from last year. Stallone brings a massive physical presence to Rambo, but more than just that – he is an essentially ambiguous figure throughout, not simply a hero to be cheered on. I remember reading somewhere that the first book about the character is at its heart a riff on Frankenstein, with Rambo a sympathetic monster created by forces he barely comprehends. Here, too, he is terrifying, but also damaged and somehow pitiable – the fact that Stallone only seems to have about 10% of the normal movement in his face isn’t actually that big a problem, as the alarming mask that results just adds to the impression of a frightening, not entirely human creature running somewhat out of control. I should say that he makes the most of the subtler elements of the script (Stallone co-wrote, as usual), and even manages to bring Rambo a rather soulful quality, verging on genuine pathos. Or perhaps it’s just the usual disagreeable right-wing sentimentality; it may be a matter of personal taste. Certainly, the final act of the film, which is essentially a cross between Home Alone and a live feed from the CCTV in a slaughterhouse, is disappointing in the way it sublimates all other concerns to a string of rather unimaginative gory deaths.

That said, the whole film has a kind of sincerity to it which I did find myself responding favourably to – the story may be simple to the point of predictability, but it’s solid and involving and may well surprise the unsuspecting viewer at one point, at least. This isn’t a film trying to tick fashionable or especially progressive boxes – you may not agree with its politics or morality, but for all that they are simplistic, they are also coherent. And I suspect that, for good or ill, people (all right, mostly men of a certain age range) will respond to films like this (that said, one person at my screening hooted with laughter at each grisly demise during the climax, which alarmed me somewhat).

Obviously Rambo: Last Blood isn’t for everyone. Obviously, this is a film which has serious issues, more than it is about them. We really should hope that the ambiguity of the ending here does not indicate that further outings for this character in future (by rights, he should end up doing serious time in some kind of mental institution). However, it is always a little bit cleverer, a little bit more subtle, and a little bit more surprising than you expect it to be. A horrible film, but somehow not a bad one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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