Volver

Penelope Cruz in Volver

Pedro Almodóvar is bang back on form in a film celebrating a way of life he’s spent the best part of his artistic life revolting against – family centred, non-cosmopolitan, conservative, Catholic. Well, Generalissimo Franco has been dead a while now.
The word Volver means “return” in Spanish, and if Almodóvar is returning to something he long ago rejected – with a fair degree of tenderness (ah, maturity) – Penelope Cruz is also back in a Spanish speaking role, in her home country, in the sort of film she started out in, a drama with its feet in familiar soil but its head who knows where (see Abre los Ojos).
It’s set in one of those small, bright Spanish towns with a large cemetery at its edge, where the women do all the hard work and the dead are always present among the living. Almodóvar making this doubly clear with a detail – in this town women don’t fully depart this life even when they’re dead, and might well take up residence with a relative, helping out with the cooking when they are supposed to be resting in the ground. Riding this dividing line between death and life is Raimunda (Cruz), a mother who works as a cleaner and is forced to pull on the apron and clean up the blood after her own daughter stabs her father to death after he made an advance on her.
What are we watching – a comedy, a thriller, a feminist fairy tale, a magic-realist ghost movie, or what? From the colour palette of bright colours and red in particular, the heightened emotions, it looks most like the sort of film Douglas Sirk used to make in the 1950s, Sirk being a sort of godfather to the young gay directors who came a generation later.
With Sirk we always knew where we were – elbow deep in melodrama, emotional blood and guts everywhere – but Almodóvar has added the wrinkle of genre obfuscation and keeps us guessing, thematically tracking the whodunit of the plot with the whatisit of the genre.
On both levels he succeeds, delivering his best film in years, Cruz also majestic as the knockout beauty to whose face and body a life of drudgery has added a blowsy allure.
This is a “dive in an enjoy” sort of film, a rich thing of texture to be devoured visually. Look out for the constant imagery of things rotating, revolving, returning – Almodóvar has made peace with his past, but on his own terms. File alongside All About My Mother as the very best of his work.

 

Volver – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

 

 

The Departed

Jack Nicholson in The Departed

 

 

Martin Scorsese’s remake of the brilliant 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs adds 50 minutes of flab to what was a lean, taut thriller. The plot is the same – cop bosses Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg send in undercover man Leo DiCaprio to bust a gang. Unbeknown to the boys at the precinct, gang boss Jack Nicholson is one step ahead of them and has been grooming a placeman of his own (Matt Damon) for years, and he’s now deep deep inside their gangbusting team. The drama springs from the “Who is going to get whacked first?” premise as each side works out after a while that there’s a mole on the team and then tries to work out who it is.

Scorsese gets busy with the digressions from the start, with a Goodfellas opening (thanks to William Monahan’s script) intoned by Nicholson – “I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be product of me. Years ago we had the church…” And through the rest of the film Scorsese keeps adding self-consciously “Marty” touches – the use of the Stones and John Lennon on the soundtrack, the acres of wiseguy smalltalk that used to be fun until everyone started doing it, the “big man” acting style. If Scorsese is puzzlingly behaving as if Tarantino hasn’t happened, the basic cat-and-mouse of Damon and DiCaprio remains nailbiting, and the fact that the two stars are dressed and coiffed similarly is clearly also saying something about 21st century law enforcement (the usual thing, but hey). And Alec Baldwin, as the reptilian alpha male, toilet-mouthed and very violent cop, also reminds us what presence and acting chops are all about.

As for Jack Nicholson, the extra length of this film vis a vis the original looks to be down to the fact that it’s been rewritten around him, possibly to encourage him to sign up. Nicholson and Scorsese have never worked together before, and the suspicion is that Scorsese sees The Departed partly as a way of bagging another 70s legend. But though Nicholson’s presence can be justified in so many ways – his Frank Costello is based on real-life Boston crime boss “Whitey” Bulger, his character allows Scorsese to get religion in, and widen the film out into a discussion about morality and guilt, and so on – the story isn’t about him, or shouldn’t be. And as if to show he knows everything has been bent too far out of shape to accommodate him, Nicholson delivers a finger-flick performance. Scorsese-philes and Nicholson groupies will love all the masturbatory touches. The rest of us will console ourselves with the Hong Kong original, which actually concentrates on the show rather than the sideshow, and with the fact that for all its flaws this is Scorsese’s best film since Casino, so maybe the man is on the comeback trail.

 

The Departed – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Love + Hate

Samina Awan in Love + Hate

 

 

 

My heart often sinks when “the movies” decide to do a story of love across the racial divide. Too often the result is melodrama overplaying relatively unimportant differences (like skin colour) while underplaying the ones that do matter (ie culture). See Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss, for example. Or, from the other end of the spectrum, the buffoonery of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Director Dominic Savage’s Love + Hate manages to avoid these pitfalls. It’s a “nice Asian girl meets racist white boy” story set in a town in Northern England and is Romeo and Juliet on a shoestring.

At the Asian end of the relationship there’s the male/female double standards in an Muslim Asian household where the brother is allowed to go out wherever he wants but the sister isn’t. On top of that is the fact that the brother is appalled that his sister is seeing a white boy but doesn’t think it’s so awful that he’s been seeing a white girl. Meanwhile, their white counterparts are a scarily racist family who see Asians as a threat and applaud their son’s forays into ultraviolence against their brown-skinned neighbours.

So far, so stereotypical. What gives Love + Hate a kick up the rankings is that the plot has been worked at until it dovetails together with a craftsman’s precision. If it strains credulity that the father of Person A is working with Person B, the daughter of whom works with the sister of Person B, who is the… I lost the plot, to be honest, but the film doesn’t. And it’s a small town, so maybe everyone would be vaguely in bed with each other without knowing.

Second plus is the acting, wildly variable but bracing. The cast are mostly non-actors and they’re all largely improvising. Which does make you realise how much work Mike Leigh puts into his similarly improvised dramas. But where Love + Hate does really well is in its Juliet aka Naseema (aka first time actress Samina Awan) who can be a star if she wants to be and has the sort of skin and bone structure that cameras love.

Though it struggles to get to the magic 90 minutes and wanders into melodramatic water towards the end, Love + Hate has heart and passion, does manage to say some interesting things about being a Muslim in a post 9/11 world and paints a picture of cultures whose conflicts can be resolved, but not always in easy-peasy fashion.

© Steve Morrissey 2005

 

Love + Hate – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Puffy Chair

Mark Duplass and Kathryn Aselton in The Puffy Chair

 

 

Here’s a simple story about Josh (Mark Duplass), his needy girlfriend (Kathryn Aselton), Josh’s hippie-dip brother (Rhett Wilkins) and their cross-country journey to take collection of an overstuffed couch-potato chair they just bought on ebay, and take it to the guys’ dad (played by Duplass’s dad, Larry Duplass).

 

Shot for $10,000 by first-timers, this is one of the handful of films first to be called “mumblecore” – Wikipedia tells me that the term was first applied at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2005 to a trio of films – this one, Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth, and Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski (often called “the father of mumblecore”) But how many other mumblecore films earned their writer/directors a bungalow on the Universal lot, as The Puffy Chair has done?

 

The reasons for that are clear – in spite of its superficial commitment to a shoe-gazey, indie style of naturalism, this is a Hollywood movie, albeit one shot for buttons on a single handheld camera, a road movie in which most of the dialogue is improvised by Duplass and Aselton, who go into who knows what dark personal places (they’re affianced in real life) to paint a portrait of a relationship on the skids.

 

Why Hollywood wants the Duplasses is not because of their way with a tiny budget – that way madness lies – but their ability to deliver freshness, believability, a genuine emotional connection, and, more cynically, a new age demographic. The rank amateur looks of The Puffy Chair perfectly suit its theme – the general rubbishness of humans, particularly the male of the species, especially when it comes to the relationship thing.

 

Though it’s made by, and seems mostly to be about men, given its subject matter it’s quite likely that women might appreciate it more. Any boyfriends watching with them will most likely deny that they were finding any entertainment value in the fine features of Kathryn Aselton, a former Miss Maine Teen 1995.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2005

 

 

The Puffy Chair – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Thin Red Line

Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line

 

 

In the mid-1990s it was more or less universally accepted that Terrence Malick had given up making films. He’d made Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978, both of them the sort of films that have critics coining new superlatives, but that was that. Then, 20 years after Days of Heaven, he came back as if from nowhere with his version of The Thin Red Line – there’d already been an adaptation of James Jones’s novel in 1964. And like Badlands and Days of Heaven it took a familiar genre – the war film in this case – and gave it a typically reserved Malickian treatment.

Malick’s WWII actioner is not exactly an exercise in turning war-film conventions on their head, though it certainly does do that. Instead of concentrating on one Rambo-style character while everyone and everything around is being blown into the next world, Malick shoots the film as if he were a visitor from that next world. Drifting from soldier to soldier, his camera glides through the landscape and makes as if to enter the soldiers’ souls. The soundtrack is spookily calm, sometimes silent, particularly in the big action scenes. Like all good war films, The Thin Red Line is not about moments of great heroism or dick-measuring hardware face-offs (though it does that, too). It’s about the equation that all wars turn on: how many soldiers is it worth losing in order to win? And what is the personal price of victory?

The film is also, as all Malick films seem to be at some level, about humanity’s fall from grace – paradise lost. Audiences who first saw it were perhaps not ready for such a meditative war film. They probably weren’t ready for Malick’s casting decisions either. There are lots of big names in the credits to The Thin Red Line – Sean Penn, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Adrien Brody – though the focus of the drama is on lesser known names such as Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin. Though special mention in despatches must go to Nick Nolte, brilliant as the rabid lieutenant-colonel hungry for war glory, and one of the few carry-overs from the more traditional war epic.

Was Malick’s return welcomed with open arms? The answer is mixed. Critical reaction ranged from “cliched, self-indulgent” (Salon.com), and “heartfelt but not profound” (Roger Ebert) to “a genuinely epic cine-poem” (Time Out London). Whichever way you look at it his film made an interesting counterblast to Saving Private Ryan, which for six months had been the war movie everyone was talking about. And it broke the logjam – Malick, one of the great stylists of cinema, was back.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Thin Red Line – at Amazon