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Posts Tagged ‘romance’

The day before my sister turned 21 I travelled down to visit her and, as we had a bit of free time, decided to rent a video before going out for the evening (this sort of indicates how old my sister is, but I’m sure she’ll be fine with that). After the usual wrangling and discussions over what to see (what used to happen in video rental stores now happens while looking at the front end of Netflix or Mouse+, that’s progress for you) we ended up watching The Meaning of Life, which – of course – also included the supporting feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. I remember enjoying this enormously and commenting to my sibling on how very Terry Gilliamish it was.

She is less versed in the ways of film (and, indeed, Python) than me, and admitted that she didn’t actually know what that meant. I, on the other hand, will happily turn up to see anything made by Gilliam, always assuming it gets a proper cinema release wherever I’m living at the time. (This is quite a big qualification as I don’t recall Tideland or Zero Theorem showing up at all, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote only scraped a small release in an independent cinema.) And generally I have a pretty good time, and occasionally a great one.

The only Gilliam film I didn’t get the first time I saw it was The Fisher King, his 1991 film. This is arguably a bit of an outlier in the Gilliam canon anyway, as it was a film he made as a deliberate change of pace after some stressful experiences in the 1980s – he is even on record as having said he didn’t want to make another ‘Terry Gilliam film’ while shooting it. He was much more of a directorial gun for hire on this movie, as opposed to the auteurial role he usually plays.

The movie takes place in New York City in the present day (which is to say, in the late 80s and early 90s) and the protagonist is one Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio ‘shock jock’ and provocateur. In true late 80s style Jack is callous, materialistic and self-obsessed, and believes his career is about to really start going places. He is correct – but not the places he is hoping for. An unstable listener takes one of Jack’s rants rather too seriously and is spurred to commit a spree killing in which several people die.

Several years on Jack is at a low ebb: his broadcasting career is over and he is working as a clerk in the video store of his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) – it is perhaps not entirely surprising that posters advertising Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prominently displayed around the place. Anne clearly adores him, but he is too drunk to notice this most of the time.

While contemplating suicide one night, he is set upon by thugs who believe he is homeless, but rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), an actual homeless person who believes himself to be a knight of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail. (The Holy Grail is in the library of a wealthy architect on the Upper East Side, naturally.)

Jack’s initial gratitude and bemusement become something more significant when he learns that Parry used to be a successful and happily-married historian until he was widowed in the spree killing Jack was partially responsible for. He feels a sudden responsibility towards Parry, and perhaps the need to redeem himself. Maybe getting Parry together with the woman he is infatuated with (Amanda Plummer) could be a start…?

So, yes, this is the third sort-of Arthurian movie we’ve talked about in the last couple of months. Why should this be? Well, I’m still a bit peeved about The Green Knight having its release postponed, and these other films are filling the gap until (we may hope) it eventually appears. Also, my friends and I are playing King Arthur Pendragon at the moment, so anything with a whiff of Camelot about it is grist to my mill.

The Fisher King sounds like the name of a grand fantasy movie – at least, it does if you know your Arthuriana. The thing is – and I think this may be why I didn’t really take to it on my first viewing – it’s not actually a fantasy film in the traditional sense at all. The only thing epic about it is the length (which is arguably a little bit excessive). The Fisher King legend as related here does not bear much resemblance to the one traditionally associated with the Arthur cycle, and even then it is mainly just a metaphor for the central relationship in the film (it’s not even immediately apparent who is playing the role of the Fisher King in the story).

Instead, this is almost more like a slightly hard-edged Woody Allen comedy-drama about the lives and loves of various New Yorkers (albeit of a lower social stratum than usual), with occasional contributions to the art direction by Hieronymus Bosch. Gilliam seems to have been born several centuries too late and appears to gravitate towards mediaevally-inclined projects – he was the knight with the rubber chicken in Python, co-directed Holy Grail, did Jabberwocky on his own and creates some magnificent knights in this film and his version of Don Quixote – the fire-breathing Red Knight which pursues Parry (a metaphor for the real world, with all the pain and sorrow that involves) is one of Gilliam’s finest bits of conjuring.

If you approach The Fisher King fully cognisant of the fact that it’s only tangentially about the legend in question and more a piece of magic realism than full-on fantasy, I think the film is rather winning, and very worthwhile. It is humane, thoughtful, and quite happy not just to broach the topic of homelessness in the US, but to present homeless characters as sympathetic and intelligent people. The relationships between the four main characters are convincing and, without exception, extremely well played – Robin Williams gets top billing, but Jeff Bridges is at least as good in what’s arguably the central role, while Mercedes Ruehl deserved all the awards she won for a properly layered and utterly convincing performance as his girlfriend.

It’s a little odd to watch a Terry Gilliam film which is basically people just walking around and talking to each other, but the maestro finds plenty of opportunities to bring some visual distinctiveness to the film – quite apart from the Red Knight, there’s the lovely scene in which the crowd in Grand Central Station all start waltzing as Parry stumbles after the woman he’s fallen for. Given the slightly frenetic grimness which occasionally popped up in Gilliam’s films from the 1980s, it’s rather lovely that this one is so genuinely charming and romantic; it suggests he has a range as a director which he has never really got to fully explore (it’s perhaps slightly facile to make comparisons between Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but I think there are certainly parallels).

As I said, the film is probably about twenty minutes too long, considering the slightness of the story, but apart from the slightly languid pacing this is a really well-made, thoughtful film for adults. Before watching it recently, it was never really one of my favourite Gilliam films, simply because it doesn’t have that obvious Gilliamishness which is so obvious in The Crimson Permanent Assurance and his earlier feature films. However, it turns out that Terry Gilliam is still a great director even when he isn’t trying that hard to be Terry Gilliam.

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It is curious to reflect that, as he settled comfortably into a prosperous middle age, Sean Connery seemed quite happy to spend most of his professional life in the middle ages, too. Think of a noteworthy Connery film from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties and there’s a good chance it will feature our man swinging a sword and possibly wearing chain-mail, too: Robin and Marion, Highlander, The Name of the Rose (all right, he’s a monk in that one), Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, Dragonheart… in retrospect it’s something of an achievement that he managed to wrench himself back to the present day for so many of his final films.

We can only ponder as to what quality Connery possessed that made him such a good fit for this sort of film – Terry Gilliam once spoke of Connery’s essentially telluric nature (in the context of why he would have been a poor choice to play Quixote), and he does have that unreconstructed alpha-male aura going on for him, which may indeed go quite well with tales of an earlier and simpler time. Whatever the reason, the result is a CV featuring such plum roles as Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart, William of Baskerville and (potentially the biggest of the lot) King Arthur.

This was a late-middle-ages role for Connery, coming in Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight. (Connery had previously played another of the great Arthurian roles, the Green Knight, in 1984’s Sword of the Valiant.) Zucker had scored a big hit with his previous film, the extravagant weepie Ghost, and this has the feel of a ‘classic’ Hollywood period movie, the spiritual successor to things like The Black Knight and Knights of the Round Table.  From the opening moments it goes full-bloodedly in search of the closest thing to Merrie Olde England camp you will ever find in a Hollywood movie of the 1990s.

King Arthur’s realm is finally at peace (it’s taken longer than usual, as he’s clearly in his sixties) and the monarch is intent on marrying, despite the lurking threat of a renegade knight (Ben Cross is playing the role of Malagant, who is essentially playing the role of Mordred in this version of the tale). Also wandering the realm is Lancelot (Richard Gere), who on this occasion is a charmingly roguish trickster leading an aimless life.

Prince Malagant is intent on taking over the land of Leonesse, which appears to be a titchy little realm between Malagant’s domain and that of Camelot, and this involves his men terrorising the local peasants (keen-eyed viewers may spot a young Rob Brydon hamming it up ferociously in the crowd scenes – Brydon was offered a bigger part but had to go and be at the birth of his child, or something). Playing Malagant’s chief lieutenant is Ralph Ineson, who – at the time of writing – is appearing (or not, depending on where you live) in the title role of David Lowery’s The Green Knight, and you have to wonder if the two facts are in any way connected.

Off the peasants stagger to tell the ruler of Leonesse, Guinevere (Julia Ormond). Her one-of-the-people credentials are established by the fact we initially find her playing football with another bunch of peasants. Lending the film some twinkly gravitas but making no substantial contribution to the plot is John Gielgud as her wise old mentor. It turns out that in addition to facing the threat of annexation, Guinevere has to decide whether or not to marry King Arthur. Needless to say she agrees.

However, on the way to Camelot, Malagant’s men have a go at kidnapping Guinevere, and she is only rescued by the timely arrival of Lancelot, whose charmingly roguish ways we have already been introduced to in the pre-credits sequence. Guinevere is soon roguishly charmed up to her eyeballs, but her sense of duty and self-respect require her to carry on to Camelot where she (and the audience) meet King Arthur (finally).

The film has been going for a bit by this point and it’s frankly a relief to finally meet Sean Connery, who is, after all, top-billed. To be honest, I find I can often take or leave these mid-to-late period Connery performances, as the actor often seems just a bit too ready to trade on his natural charisma and established screen persona rather than actually do any work. Here, though, he is rather good as the aged version of the King, a decent and just man, veteran of too many wars, who wears his vast authority very lightly. You can see why Guinevere loves him, but is it in truth a love with any fizz and wow to it? How does it, in fact, compare to the sizzling chemistry she clearly shares with Lancelot? Hopefully the threat of Malagant will somehow enable everyone to work through all their personal issues…

So: a story credit for Lorne Cameron, one for David Hoselton, and one for William Nicholson (who’s credited with the actual script). No story credit for either Chretien de Troyes or Thomas Malory, presumably because they just don’t have good enough lawyers (being dead for centuries can really affect your ability to get good legal help). Still, this is fairly recognisable as the classic story of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, very much chopped down, speeded up and rendered digestible for the perceived requirements of a modern audience.

As you might expect, the various changes to the story inevitably impact on how it plays out – Lancelot meeting and falling for Guinevere before he even meets Arthur or becomes a knight really shifts the dynamic of the story – but none quite as much as the decision to dispense with virtually all of the mythic and mystical aspects of the story. So this is (spoiler incoming) a tale of the twilight and fall of King Arthur with no Mordred, no Morgan le Fay, no Merlin (not that you’d strictly speaking expect him to be around at this point), no Excalibur, no Avalon, and so on.

A non-mythological King Arthur movie is a curious choice but not necessarily a risible one; the 2004 film with Clive Owen made a similar choice, going all in on historicity and period detail and gritty realism. First Knight ditches all the mythology, but (as this is a family-friendly romantic adventure) can’t find anything to replace it. As a result the film fails to convince, either as fantasy or anything else. Even the romance feels rather turgid: Lancelot and Guinevere talk a lot about their feelings but they never come across to the audience; there is no actual sense of passion at any point, despite the fact that Ormond at least is working hard to convince. (Gere seems rather out of his comfort zone, to be honest.)

The result is one of those slick but bland movies that they seemed to make a lot of back in the 1990s. I suppose people with a taste for soft-focus romance in a cod-mediaeval setting may find it passes the time quite agreeable; the rest of it is not entirely bereft of interest – there are some interesting faces in the supporting cast, Ben Cross is not bad as the panto villain the film requires, and much of the fight choreography is likewise well up to standard – but it’s essentially unsatisfying as either an adventure film, a drama, or a screen version of one of Britain’s greatest myths.

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It’s a bit of a shock to realise that we still haven’t had any ‘new’ films for 2021 – not since the cinemas reopened, anyway. Virtually every major release has been something that was scheduled for early last summer: there’s a real sense in which we are still only catching up with the backlog, at least as far as the big studios go. One got to see the trailer, then the pandemic intervened, and now, sixteen or eighteen months later, we actually get to see the movie.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to remember what I saw the trailer for Jon M Chu’s In the Heights in front of. As we have established, films are trailed before other films of a vaguely similar kind, on the whole, but as there aren’t many hip-hop contemporary musical-comedy-dramas troubling the multiplexes it must have been something else. Was it in front of Parasite? I can’t actually recall.

That trailer made heavy reference to the fact that the guiding spirit behind the musical the film is based on – conceiver, producer, composer and lyricist – is Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of those people who you’d expect to be able to write their own ticket in terms of simply doing anything they feel like (and making a big song and dance out of it, ha ha, ho ho). This is mainly due to the success of the stage musical Hamilton; In the Heights is an earlier work which has taken a circuitous route to the big screen (casting issues, a change of studio, the Weinstein scandal, and then of course the delay due to the virus).

Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, owner of a convenience store in the Washington Heights district of New York (the issue of his somewhat unusual nomenclature is addressed in the course of the film). His family is from the Dominican Republic, and his ambition is to return there and re-open his father’s old bar. Most of his neighbours have some kind of Latino background as well, not to mention concerns over their own futures: beauty salon worker Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants to become a fashion designer with a downtown address, while her friend Nina (Leslie Grace) is struggling with the pressures placed on her as the first person from the neighbourhood to go to an elite university, not to mention the prejudices and provocations she encounters in the wider world.

And the neighbourhood seems under threat: quite apart from the fact that so many of the young people seem to be intent on leaving, the businesses are being bought out or forced to leave by rent increases. When Usnavi learns that someone in his shop has bought a lottery ticket worth nearly $100,000, it seems like a portent of things changing forever…

If you only go to see one musical set on the streets of Manhattan this year… aha, but that’s the thing: one of the films being trailed before In the Heights was Spielberg’s likewise-delayed new version of West Side Story (the trailer was almost good enough to make me reconsider my position that a remake of the Robert Wise version isn’t just necessarily redundant, but folly). Spielberg’s film is likely to crush Chu’s in terms of box office returns and critical profile, which is a shame – but that’s what brand loyalty is all about, I suppose.

This is quite a different animal, anyway, less centred around a single narrative line and more concerned with the lives and experiences of an entire neighbourhood: one of its great successes is in the presentation of a vibrant, realistic community, somewhere it might actually be quite nice to live.

Well, realistic up to a point, anyway: people keep bursting into song and performing massed dance routines. A touch of realism goes a long way, but one of the reasons that musicals never really completely disappear from the cinema landscape is that they have a special magic all of their own – by being so proudly and completely non-naturalistic, at their best they have a truthfulness and sincerity about them which no other genre can quite match.

So it is here: the big routines have a joyousness about them which is utterly captivating, and bring to mind the best musicals of the past. The whole movie is quite classical in its form and structure – the songs are a mixture of ‘I want’ and ‘I need’, you can track the structure of the acts as the story develops, and so on – even if the mixture of musical styles is quite innovative (Latino music and hip-hop make up most of the score).

As a celebration of Latino culture in New York, the film is a success – but it’s also notably politicised. Everyone is talking or singing about their dreams, but slowly this turns into a discussion of the fate of Dreamers, undocumented immigrant children. Viewed in this light, and bearing in mind it was intended to be a 2020 movie, it’s hard not to conclude that In the Heights was intended to be a challenge to Donald Trump and his views on immigrants and Latino and Hispanic culture. Well, if nothing else we should always be glad that this is a blow which no longer needs to be struck with quite such urgency.

On the other hand, as well as engaging with political issues – and it’s more than just bashing Trump, the complex realities of the immigrant experience are handled with intelligence and nuance – the film is also a romance of a very traditional kind, a comment on the fate of neighbourhood communities, and several other things besides. The sheer breadth of material and willingness of the film to try and do everything eventually becomes slightly exhausting, and results in a lengthy film that none of the plotlines are really strong enough to support.

Still, it’s often hugely enjoyable while you’re watching it, even if it does lack focus. The cast are mostly unknown (apparently Anthony Ramos was in the most recent A Star is Born, a Godzilla movie, and a Liam Neeson thriller), but put across their turns with charm and energy. Probably the most famous face in the main cast is Jimmy Smits, who as it turns out can sing quite well, while Lin-Manuel Miranda himself pops up from time to time as the neighbourhood slushy salesman.

Miranda’s appearances are one of the many small pleasures which pepper a hugely likeable film. It’s true that this is film which feels like its trying to do too much, possibly as a result of having been significantly altered from the stage incarnation (the central romance is more prominent, while the political elements have been amended to reflect the modern situation) – but it does package one of the most enduring pleasures of cinema very appealingly indeed. Worth the wait.

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If you’re looking to make an uplifting family-friendly musical, starting off with your protagonist being pursued by the police is not the most obvious choice, but it’s the one that director Roman White makes at the start of A Week Away (currently showing on a Netflix account near you). Yes, our hero is a lad named Will (played by a dude named Kevin Quinn, whose striking similarity to a young Zach Efron it seems to be compulsory to mention). The script has a tricky balance to strike, in that the plot requires Will to have a long history of trouble with the authorities, while the general tenor of the film (not to mention its target audience) means that he must also be, in the final analysis, essentially wholesome and non-threatening.

The compromise they hit upon is that a) we don’t actually see Will doing anything naughty, the film just starts with him being pursued by a cop and b) at least some of his misdemeanours are presented in a ho-ho-ho slightly ironic way (he has supposedly put his high school on Craigslist, for instance). Anyway, he is duly nicked and we get some background: orphan, long list of expulsions from various schools and foster homes, and so on, but his most recent exploit – stealing a police car – has landed him in particularly hot water.

Normally I would have said the essential non-naturalism of the movie musical was epitomised by the fact that people keep singing and dancing about every few minutes. This does happen in A Week Away, but it is still somehow rather more realistic than a young male stealing a cop car in the US and pretty much being let off, which is what happens here. Will’s social worker does a lot of more-sorrowful-than-angry head-shaking and offers him a tough choice: he can go to Juvie, or… he can spend a week at camp with one of the foster parents (Sherri Shepherd) and her family. Hmmm, poser.

So off they go to family-friendly camp, which is run by the only person in this movie I can ever recall having seen before, David Koechner (previously in the Anchorman movies and Snakes on a Plane). Will bunks with his new foster mum’s son (Jahbril Cook), who is a nice guy but terribly uncool and hopes Will can give him advice on getting it together with one of the girls there (Kat Conner Sterling). Will, however, is rather preoccupied by Koechner’s character’s daughter (Bailee Madison). But given her thorough-going perky wholesomeness, how will she react if she eventually learns of Will’s scallywag past…?

The word ‘wholesome’ has cropped up a few times so far, along with ‘family-friendly’. It should therefore come as no surprise if I reveal there is a bit more to this movie than just a sort of chaste take on the Dirty Dancing-style holiday-romance plot structure. The first big musical number, only a few minutes into the movie, opens unexceptionally enough until Shepherd starts belting out lyrics about ‘the grace of God’ which the chorus all enthusiastically join in with.

This turns out to be a motif in the songwriting of A Week Away. The songs are not painful to listen to, and the performances are decent if not outstanding (in a similar vein, the choreography is hardly up to Gene Kelly standard but performed with gusto). Most of the numbers cover commendable themes encouraging teenagers to have confidence and self-esteem, but you can’t help but notice that the grace of God does get mentioned quite a lot. There’s another song called something like ‘Whoa, God is Awesome’ and one of the oldies smuggled onto the soundtrack – the kids in the target audience will be too young to recognise this – is ‘Baby Baby’, by arch CCM-pop-crossover star Amy Grant. In short: yes, this is a faith-based movie.

Full disclosure: I’ve never found a religion that actually worked for me, though only a fool would dismiss the importance of the great faiths to world history and culture. Faith-based movies? Not so much. These things tend to get pretty brutally reviewed, on the whole, and the only one I’d actually watched prior to A Week Away – just to see if it was quite as bad as its crits – was Last Ounce of Courage (yes, it was). I’m not sure why it should be such an iron law that faith-based movies are invariably so bad, but then of course I’m sure that many people of faith must find them entirely satisfying entertainment in the way that non-faith-based entertainment presumably isn’t. Perhaps we touch upon a deep truth about how one’s belief system colours one’s perceptions of the world here. Nevertheless, to paraphrase someone off Roger Ebert’s website, even the best of these films put me in mind of a commercial for a product which everyone in the target audience already owns.

And, to be fair, A Week Away isn’t anything like as bad as Last Ounce of Courage. True, early on I did catch myself wondering if I could somehow throttle myself into unconsciousness and get to the end a bit quicker that way (in the end I just ended up playing a lot of 2048 while watching it just to keep my higher brain functions busy), but it’s sort of amiable and unmistakably good-hearted, even if the requirements to be wholesome and family-friendly mean that it is almost totally innocuous, lacking drama, tension, or any sense of threat. It’s almost as if near-total blandness is a genre convention for this kind of film. Jokes which poke very gentle fun at faith-based organisations probably count as edgy, subversive material in this kind of film. (Not that there isn’t the odd particularly weird moment: at one point the leading couple experience a moment of shared triumph by wreaking havoc together on the paintball course, which feels rather tonally wrong – there are various other points where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to seem cool.)

Oh well. In the end, this kind of film really isn’t my kind of thing, but it’s bright and colourful and some of the songs are pleasant enough. I suspect that Netflix (who are streaming it) don’t feel any great ideological affinity with it either, but the Christian-movie audience is large and juicy and they probably need the subscriptions right now. I wonder how Christian movie-watchers feel about being exploited and/or pandered to in this way? It’s hard not to conclude that Netflix’s investment in this film is ultimately quite cynical and calculated. There are strong and less-strong ways of running your movie streaming service – and I can’t help but think that this is a weaker way.

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There’s a game you can play, if you get really bored and someone is prepared to do the research: it’s called Oscar or Not? and you play it like this. Someone says the name of an actor and everyone else has to say whether or not they ever won an Oscar. Easy peasy, right, but as ever, there may be a few surprises.

So – Woody Harrelson: Oscar or not? Not. Jason Robards? Oscar (two back to back, in fact). Jim Broadbent? Oscar. Peter O’Toole? Not (eight times). Brad Pitt? Oscar (two, but only one for acting). As you can see, there are literally seconds of fun to be had. Go on then, one more: Harrison Ford: Oscar or not?

If you don’t know the answer, it’s a tricky one, n’est-ce pas? Harrison Ford’s the kind of person who must have won an Oscar, surely? A few years back, someone did the sums and worked out that Ford’s movies, collectively, had made more money than anyone else’s collated filmography, and that kind of box office clout is not the sort of thing the Academy usually overlooks. (Then again, someone may have snuck past Ford in the intervening period, mostly likely to be either Christopher Lee or Samuel L Jackson, and neither of them have picked up a little gold homunculus.) On the other hand, as we have noted hereabouts in the past, Harrison Ford has stuck pretty strictly to his only-one-movie-a-year regimen for the last forty years, and for the last couple of decades his projects either haven’t been particularly high profile (I give you Crossing Over, Morning Glory and Paranoia, just for starters), or have been calculated franchise extensions mainly noted for being considered inferior to other Ford films from the 1980s.

Well, fear not, I shall put you out of your misery. Not by bringing this piece to an end (ha, ha) but by going to the point and revealing that, no, Harrison Ford has never won an Oscar (and if you ask me, he’s leaving it a bit late if he’s serious about getting one). The closest he came was in 1986 when he was nominated for Witness (this was a fairly noteworthy occurrence, as the film was actually released prior to the previous year’s Oscars rather than in the traditional awards period).

The film was Peter Weir’s first US project. It opens with the wide open spaces and swirling grassland which form the backdrop of most of the movie, as the people of a old-fashioned rural community come together for a funeral. The young widow, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), struggles through bravely; one of her neighbours (Alexander Godunov) is clearly looking to press his suit, but circumstances dictate he bide his time. Not long after, Rachel and her son Samuel (Lukas Haas), set off to stay with relatives – which involves passing through another world.

For they and their community are Amish, devout Anabaptists who eschew most contacts with the modern world. This makes travelling through Philadelphia a bit of an adventure, for Samuel at least, but things take a darker turn when he witnesses a brutal murder in the railway station restroom. Soon on the scene is detective John Book (Ford), who reveals that the victim was an undercover cop. Despite Rachel’s desire to get away from this sordid world, Samuel’s testimony will be vital – especially when it looks like the killer (Danny Glover) is himself part of the police department.

However, Book shares his suspicions with the wrong person, for his captain (Josef Sommer) is part of the plot as well. Book takes Rachel and Samuel home, trusting to the insularity of the Amish world to protect both them and himself – for an attempt on his life has left him wounded. But can a big city cop fit in here well enough to hide from the men who are hunting him?

This is essentially the first act of the film, which handles the requirements of its thriller element briskly and with clarity. There’s a sense in which this is a rather calculated piece of work – you can tell that director Peter Weir isn’t really that interested in a thriller about being on the run from dirty cops, but at the same time no major studio is going to put money about a clash of cultures mostly taking place amongst the Amish of Pennsylvania (‘we don’t make rural movies,’ insisted one big-name studio when offered the chance to finance the film).

The thriller plot is very straightforward and mainly there to make the film appealing to a wider audience; the latter is also really true of the presence of Ford himself, who at this time was overwhelmingly known for his various films with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. All of those were big, flashy, often noisy movies, with Ford’s main duty arguably to bring a little humanity and self-deprecating humour to great machines which could easily have becoming grating and soulless. You can see why the actor would jump at the chance to appear in a much quieter film with only the most cursory genre elements – and he makes the most of the opportunity, still retaining his movie star charisma but giving a performance of great warmth, subtlety and wit.

Witness is often acclaimed for its success as a romance, but while this is ostensibly a relationship between Ford and McGillis, there’s a sense in which she represents the totality of the rural experience and the environment in which Book finds himself – something totally new to him, for there is a sense of community here which seems to be lacking in the big city. The most famous set-piece of the film (if set-piece is the right way to describe a sequence in which a group of people build a barn) depicts the community coming together, and the long middle section of the film portrays Book slowly assimilating amongst the Amish, and becoming accepted by them.

The dictates of the plot, however, require that this be a less than total assimilation: Book isn’t capable of passively accepting the crass behaviour of tourists, thus standing out in the community, and in the end he leaves and returns to his old life. That this somehow feels an acceptable and logical ending for the film – Book really has little to return to, as we have already seen – suggests that Weir never quite stops presenting the Amish something as other and somehow strange, literally otherworldly. Nevertheless, the film is striking for its openness toward stillness, silence and simplicity: this is what marks it out as something unusual amongst studio thrillers, and perhaps what has given it its reputation for artiness. But this is also what makes it such an impressive and satisfying film, one of the best in Ford’s filmography.

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Retentive masochists who’ve been hanging around this blog for a number of years may recall that a while back I looked at a number of famous musicals, mainly ones that I really liked: Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver!, and so on. I have to say that I did tend to find myself in a sixties and early seventies sweet spot, mostly containing films which used the soothing and appealing nature of the non-diegetic musical as a way of addressing challenging real-world issues such as racism and political extremism. On the other hand, I didn’t really care much for Guys and Dolls, which is really just a whimsical romantic comedy.

Perhaps there is a place for the musical purely as a piece of escapist entertainment, though. On a whim I sat down and watched On the Town the other night – I’d sort-of watched it before (this is code for ‘had it on TV in the background while I did something else’) and clearly it made some sort of impression on me. This is a film that was originally released at the back end of 1949, based on a stage show from a few years earlier (with many of composer Leonard Bernstein’s songs cut and replaced by new ones, which caused a few ructions). The film is directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (his first time in this particular role).

This is one of those films which is really a love letter to New York City: it’s not just that practically the whole thing is set there, some of it is even filmed there, which I would suggest is a lot less common. It opens at 6am at the docks, with excited sailors on leave spilling off their ship, much to the amusement of the passing workers. Amongst their number are the trio we will follow: Gabe (Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin). The three of them have never been to the Big Apple before, and have only twenty-four hours to avail themselves of its various distractions.

A somewhat improbable whistle-stop tour of various sites ensue, as the trio belt out ‘New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town’ – a sentiment I would certainly agree with myself, although my Significant Other might be a bit less generous in her praise. However, the three guys just rattling around tourist sites wouldn’t be much of a movie, and so we get to an inciting incident: while travelling on the metro, Gabe spies the poster of ‘Miss Turnstiles’ (Vera-Ellen), a promotion which he assumes is a big deal but means nothing to most Manhattanites. Needless to say he is instantly smitten and resolves to find her so he can take her out dancing that night. This being a musical, however, he and the others actually bump into her having her photo taken, but she gets away before he can ask her out (her real name is Ivy Green).

With the help of a passing lady cab driver, Hildy (Betty Garrett), the sailors set off in pursuit of Ivy, based on the personal bio on her poster. Hildy seems rather taken with Chip, hence her willingness to help out. They end up visiting a museum, where Ozzie is bagged by a passing anthropologist (Ann Miller) allured by his resemblance to a prehistoric man and a dinosaur skeleton falls down, before they decide to split up and help Gabe find Ivy again (some of them take rather idiosyncratic approaches to this task). Is Gabe going to be stuck without a date on his one and only night in New York?

As I say, there’s a time and a place for dealing with serious themes in a musical entertainment, but New York City in 1949 is clearly not it: the Second World War is not long over, America is bursting with confidence and energy, and anything is possible if you put your mind to it. This is one of those quite rare movies without a single really unsympathetic character in it: certainly people have their problems, but these are just issues of circumstance and misunderstanding – when it really comes down to it, everyone turns out to be decent and sympathetic. Films like this have the knack of completely bypassing the shell of cynicism I habitually operate within: I find it very hard to be genuinely critical of them.

Not that there is much here to be critical of, anyway. Perhaps the least positive thing I can say is that it comes close to breaching my usual guideline that a great musical should have (mostly) great songs. You can perhaps detect the difference between the small number of original Bernstein songs that have survived and the new ones added from other composers (Bernstein’s seem to be more ambitious musically); most of them are certainly agreeable to listen to, but I don’t think you really go home whistling selections from the film. Instead, I would suggest this is an example of a musical where the dancing is probably more distinguished than the vocal work – Ann Miller’s performance of ‘Prehistoric Man’ gets better and better as it goes on, mainly because it turns into a dance number: she’s a good singer, but a sensational mover. The same is also true of Gene Kelly, of course, and you remember the footwork from a number like ‘Main Street’ more than the vocal.

Just as charming as the musical numbers is the general tenor of the piece, which I suspect may have been slightly daring back in the 1940s. You might expect a story about three sailors looking for fun in New York City to get fairly raucous and suggestive (cue jokes about the fleet being in, and so on), but the film very sweetly flips this on its head: the three guys are all basically hicks, and very innocently so. Gabe is the only one who actually chases a girl, but does so entirely honourably (this being Gene Kelly, you completely buy into it) – the other two sailors are basically picked up by women who are, to put it mildly, romantically pro-active (Garrett and Sinatra perform ‘Come Up to My Place’, which she sings to him, and she’s not looking to show him her stamp collection).

Despite the fact the film is basically about young (or fairly young: Kelly was 37, Sinatra 35, and so on) people looking to hook up on a night out, On the Town retains that sweetness, innocence and optimism I was talking about earlier. It’s not about anything more serious than being excited and hopeful in one of the world’s great cities. You can possibly dig deeper for a more substantial subtext, but I doubt you’ll get anywhere with it. A great piece of escapist entertainment.

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Yes, it’s true: my significant other turned up with Dirty Dancing on DVD for our latest interlude together (at the risk of over-sharing, we are in one of those long-distance relationship things, currently made even complicated by the viral situation). ‘How wonderful,’ I said when she broke the news of this surprise. This is a movie we have occasionally discussed in the past, the conversation usually running along the lines of ‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen this movie!’ – ‘I find this fact to be entirely credible’, and so on.

Given some of the horrors (literal and metaphorical) I have inflicted on Significant Other over the years, I could not refuse to watch this one small movie with her without experiencing considerable negative relationship feedback. So down we sat, and after all the reasonable bodily restraints had been clamped and locked into place, we were off: Emile Ardolino’s 1987 legendary (it says here) classic (ditto) Dirty Dancing.

The movie kicks off with credits running over grainy footage of people dancing in a way which I would characterise as intense but not necessarily ‘dirty’ per se. From here we are off into voice-over land as our main point of identification, a character named Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey), waxes nostalgic about the summer of 1963 and her family’s trip to what looks like a pretty grim resort hotel somewhere in upstate New York. She is youthful and innocent, and the apple of her father’s eye. Said father is played by Jerry Orbach, in a role which does not stretch him much – on the other hand, none of the acting here requires a great deal of pliancy, as most of the characters have been issued with one expression or posture (two at the most) which they assume throughout the movie as required. In Grey’s case this involves just standing there with either a look of glimmering burgeoning sexual awareness in her eyes or angst and outrage at some injustice or other. For Orbach it is basically paternal pride or disappointment.

Anyway, not long after arriving at the resort, Baby’s holiday takes a different turn when she stumbles, almost by accident, into the throbbing demi-monde of the below-stairs staff, who appear to spend all their spare time engaging in suggestive dancing. Masters of this shadowy realm are show-dancer and tutor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and his female opposite number Penny (Cynthia Rhodes). Rhodes’ character’s signature move is go about attempting to kick people in the eye socket while dancing with them; Swayze’s is to perform whole-body pelvic thrusts, which Baby seems to take a particular interest in.

Well, the plot thickens (or at least manifests) when it turns out that Penny has been impregnated by a snobby waiter at the hotel, and can’t take the time off to go and have an abortion without losing her job (and costing Johnny his). But wait – could somebody learn the routines and dance with Johnny, thus letting Penny slope off somewhere and get herself seen to? Could be!

I knew all the things about Dirty Dancing that a reasonably culturally-literate person who’d never actually seen the movie could be expected to know: setting, rough thrust of the plot, the odd well-worn line of dialogue, some people standing in a lake, the song from the finale, and so on. Given the film’s impressive reputation, though, I was expecting something a bit more polished and, well, substantial than the thing I actually ended up watching.

What Dirty Dancing most reminds me of is the kind of movie that was being aimed at teenagers at around the time it was made – or even a few years earlier: an exploitation movie aimed at a teen audience, with a strong moral message, plenty of popular tunes, and nothing too likely to outrage the sensibilities of any parents who might inadvertently find themselves watching it. For a film which is supposedly searingly erotic, this struck me as very tame stuff indeed, with only a handful of moments (and much of the subplot about the abortion) that made it feel like a movie from the 80s rather than the late 50s. On the other hand, the nostalgia element of the movie is one of its most successful – the goings-on at the hotel are amusingly shabby and unimpressive, although the odd classic tune makes it onto the soundtrack.

Of course, at fairly regular intervals, some sort of melodic time warp seems to manifest in the Catskills and music from the actual 1980s starts playing in 1963, usually just in time for Swayze and Grey to start dancing to. Needless to say I did not find this especially immersive, but on the other hand it was much of a muchness with a film which I honestly found to be unexpectedly primitive in a number of departments, primarily the script and direction. For a romantic melodrama (let’s not argue about it, this is a melodrama) there isn’t much sizzle going on, and no sense of developing romantic tension between the two leads: Grey abruptly declares her interest in Swayze, with no real foreshadowing. The burgeoning womanhood of Grey’s character is likewise not handled with any real subtlety: she goes from frumpy mouse outfits to something rather abbreviated and clingy in the space of a montage sequence. The romance plot is resolved and Grey and Swayze’s happy ending assured by a supporting character acting like a complete idiot for no reason other than the pacing of the film demanding it.

However, you may be pleased to hear I am still in a relationship and this is largely because I did find Dirty Dancing to be fairly entertaining to watch, albeit not in the way its makers were probably hoping, and this was enough to satisfy Significant Other. There is something oddly pleasurable about clunky and obvious storytelling, weird continuity and melodramatic plotting – I found the climactic sequence to be especially entertaining, particularly the moment where a bit of dodgy editing makes it look like a guy with a trumpet is playing a sax solo.

Even so, I think this is a movie which you have to be a thirteen year old girl to really appreciate, and (spoiler alert) this is not a constituency to which I have ever belonged. Thirteen year old girls have the right to have their own movies just the same as the rest of us, and while I could hope they received something better than Dirty Dancing, I suppose it will do for them in a pinch. It’s one of those films which suggests that a movie can be a classic while still not actually being any good. Or perhaps that’s too harsh: this is a hard film to dislike despite its various deficiencies. Harmless, silly fun.

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A German woman writes:

Being the girlfriend of one of the biggest movie fans and film bloggers in Great Britain really gives you some special responsibilities. Your beloved regular correspondent has a special relationship with all kinds of King Kong movies and died a few deaths while watching Peter Rabbit a couple of years ago, but now I think the time has come to give him a real challenge. You know what heroes do for their girl: they jump out of helicopters, they swim through ice-cold water and they carry the girl they love into the sunset. Or they watch a chick flick with their lady!

If you are a man who wants to score points with your woman, please think about watching one of the most romantic movies, absolutely beloved by women everywhere. For those of you who like facts, it is not just my opinion that Dirty Dancing is the women’s movie. A survey from May 2007 listed Dirty Dancing as number one on the list of women’s most watched films, above the Star Wars trilogy, Grease, The Sound of Music and Pretty Woman [I expect it just edged out The Human Centipede: Full Cycle – A].

If you have ever asked yourself what women do when they get together in a group [Frankly, that falls into ‘best not comtemplated’ territory for me – A] while you drink beer with your friends [Bit sexist – A] [Nothing wrong with a good cliche – GW], here is the answer: we put a lot of cream on our faces, wear cosy pyjamas, eat quite unhealthy food and watch Dirty Dancing for the forty-seventh time.

In 1987 this movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was released in the US on the 21st of August. The director was Emile Ardolino who also made Sister Act. He won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 1983’s He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing. The main song, ‘I’ve Had the Time of My Life’ won a Golden Globe, the Oscar for Best Song, and a Grammy award. [Yeah, but Peter Rabbit won an AACTA gong, which shows how much you can trust awards ceremonies – A] Let’s not forget that lead actor Patrick Swayze sang ‘She’s like the wind’ which he co-wrote with Stacy Widelitz.

What is the movie about, you may ask, especially if you are similar to your regular correspondent and haven’t seen Dirty Dancing. Maybe films from this time may seem old and obscure to adults in their twenties (I myself have been officially 28 for over ten years). Dirty Dancing did celebrate its thirtieth anniversary a few years ago, after all. It may seem to you like a very old movie. [GW seems to think the regular readership of this blog is teenage boys, which I strongly doubt – though if you are a teenage boy reading this, drop us a line and say hello – A] Let me give you a bit more historical context.

The movie was released in Germany in 1988. At this time Germany was divided into East and West Germany following the Second World War. [Light-hearted film review blog – A] Berlin in particular was a divided city – can you imagine? A wall through the whole city. [This is turning into The World at War – A] When I visited a city in East Germany for the first time in November 1989, I remember seeing a poster for Dirty Dancing at a cinema.

Back to the movie. It is early summer in 1963, in America. Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey with her original nose, before having the plastic surgery which showed that we girls and women should think twice before having this sort of procedure) [Miaow – A], her parents (Kelly Bishop and Jerry Orbach), and her sister (Jane Brucker) are on their way to a holiday in a resort called Kellerman’s. At this time there are big social divides between the guests and the employees. The waiters who are in contact with the guests are mostly students doing a holiday job to finance their study. All the other employees are effectively second-class citizens or worse.

Guests spend their time playing different games during the day, taking part in competitions, playing golf or taking dance classes. In the evening every day is a big elegant dinner, perhaps a bit like on a modern cruise, but without the ship. Johnny Castle (Swayze, 34 years old and a former dancer) is a dance instructor. His dance partner and friend Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) is pregnant by one of the waiters, Robbie (Max Cantor). He doesn’t want to help her. She would like to have an abortion, but doesn’t have enough money. Baby discovers this situation and asks her father for the money, without telling him the reason.

At the same time Johnny and Penny are due to give a show dance, so Baby agrees to fill in for her, practising for days with Johnny before the performance. The abortion goes wrong, leaving Penny in a lot of pain, and Baby has to call in her father, who is a doctor. He thinks Johnny made Penny pregnant and is angry with Baby for not telling him the reason why she borrowed the money. He also orders her to stay away from Johnny. But she meets with him secretly and their relationship starts to get intimate.

A bored older woman (Miranda Garrison, also the film’s assistant choreographer) wants to get intimate with Johnny, too, but he rejects her offer and in revenge she accuses him of stealing her husband’s wallet. The owner wants to fire Johnny, but Baby gives him an alibi. The real thieves are caught, but now Johnny is fired for having a relationship with Baby. He has to go.

As you can imagine the overall mood is not great now. On the last day of the holiday there is a big talent show for all the guests. Robbie [For no obvious reason – A] admits to Dr Houseman that he got Penny pregnant, which leads to Houseman angrily withdrawing the medical school recommendation he had provided. Johnny arrives with a few other dancers and announces that he is the one who traditionally dances the last dance of the season, and he’s going to do so this year too, with Baby. They get on stage and dance successfully. Baby’s family is stunned by her talent. Slowly everybody starts to dance and Dr Houseman apologises to Johnny for being dismissive of him earlier.

And where are the watermelons? They appear when Baby meets Johnny for the first time. If you have ever been in an awkward situation where you thought ‘why did this happen to me?’, think of this scene and you will immediately feel happy again.

(While writing this review it was my pleasure to do some research, and I learned the crew had to battle with extreme weather conditions and high temperatures. People passed out, and Patrick Swayze hurt his knee doing his own stunts. All of this delayed the shoot, they had to spray the Autumn leaves green again, and the famous scene in the lake was filmed in October.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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