Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

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Wild Oats (2016)

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Shirley MacLaine is the beloved retired schoolteacher whose husband dies and her insecure unhappily married fusspot daughter Demi Moore (looking about 30 – sheesh!) brings a realtor to the funeral to assess her home for post-mortem sale. MacLaine insists upon staying there and is mistakenly sent a life insurance cheque for $5 million instead of $50,000.  Best friend Jessica Lange encourages her to make off with it and the pair of them embark on the adventure of a lifetime – fetching up in the Canary Islands where they enjoy very different romances. Divorced Billy Connolly hits on MacLaine but all is not what it seems when she wins nearly half a million euros on blackjack and a US insurance investigator turns up to ask about the unfathomably large cheque, encouraging her to bribe him and bolt while Connolly disappears. Is he a conman?! Meanwhile Lange gets involved with a younger man with a Mrs Robinson fixation. Back in the US, another company rep, the wonderfully sentimental Howard Hesseman, pairs off with Moore to bring Mom back home and face justice. It all winds up in a shootout at a winery with the island’s biggest gangster. You have to be there! For armchair tourists – this looks gorgeous and the ladies are quite the heroines. The gray dollar audience is being well catered for. This is better than assisted living! Directed by Andy Tennant from a screenplay by Gary Kanew and Claudia Myers.

Ma Ma (2015)

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A movie about breast cancer? Hardly a seasonal choice. Ever. I had to watch this because it’s made by Spanish auteur Julio Medem, one of my favourite filmmakers in the Nineties (The Red Squirrel, Lovers of the Arctic Circle) and he went off my radar, at least, in the interim. Penelope Cruz is the wife of a philandering university professor who’s spending the summer vacation with another student. She’s left at home with their young son, a talented footballer. She gets a bad bill of health from her gynaecologist and then attends a match where a Real Madrid scout (Louis Tosar) falls over upon receiving the news that his daughter has been knocked down and killed and his wife is in a coma. She takes him to the hospital where her son joins them and while he deals with the inevitable funerals and she with her cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, they end up making a life together. The gynaecologist (a talented singer) is supposed to be adopting a daughter from Siberia and this figure in a photograph on his desk becomes the centre of Cruz’s fantasies as she creates a coping mechanism in a film whose aesthetic belies the misery narrative by utilising a fantastic array of editing techniques to convey a state of mind:  parallel cutting, flash backs, flash forwards, dreams, enhancing the surreal component of illness and the effects it might impinge on a person’s thoughts. Fascinating but uneasy viewing.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

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Great books should make great films, isn’t that how it goes? That’s how it should go, most people reason. Hemingway’s finest novel (at least at that time, perhaps – some of us might beg to differ) about the Spanish Civil War got the A treatment at Paramount. The author himself hand-picked Ingrid Bergman to play Maria the abused guerilla fighter and Gary Cooper to play Robert Jordan the American college instructor volunteer who is being deployed to blow up a bridge to face off the fascists. The problem is, the screenplay by Dudley Nichols is a rackety thing that doesn’t entirely subscribe to Hemingway’s vision and in this version (130 minutes broadcast edition – there are THREE others!) it takes a whole hour to get going which means the structure is wrong. But then it REALLY gets going and never lets up. The romance between our mismatched pair ratchets several notches – Kiss me!  she dares him. You’re shameless! he retorts. I’ve never been a fan of Bergman but she gains a little in magnificence here. Cooper is probably the perfect Hemingway man. They have a double agent in the ranks and an army to fight off. The direction is okay by Sam Wood, who was directing the second of three (in a row) films with Cooper – the previous was The Pride of the Yankees (Cooper got an Academy Award), the next would be Casanova Brown. But what is amazing is the score by Victor Young which became the first soundtrack album. The strings are sweet and greatly underline the emotions. The Technicolor photography by Ray Rennahan is also notable even if it looks a little off these days. Not really great filmmaking, but eventually worth a look, especially for the pretty thickly cut ham from Katina Paxinou as Pilar the gypsy which earned her an Academy Award. Most people in the film got nominations and it was the biggest box office hit of the year.

Blood and Sand (1941)

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Wonderful old-style melodrama, a remake of the Blasco Ibanez novel that had starred Valentino, a rags to riches tale of illiterate Andalucian matador Tyrone Power, torn between his love for childhood sweetheart and wife Linda Darnell and wealthy mistress Rita Hayworth (on loan from Columbia). When critic Laird Cregar sees Hayworth arrive at the bullring for the first time he declares, If this is death in the afternoon, she’s death in the evening! And so it proves … Gorgeous looking film directed by Rouben Mamoulian with magnificent production design and cinematography influenced by the great Spanish artists, together with stunning costuming – have you ever seen more splendid white dresses on more glorious women?! Mexican Bullfighter Carlos Arruza served as the film’s technical director.Big wow from Twentieth Century-Fox with an effective screenplay by Jo Swerling. Look for Linda praying to La Macarena! And great silent star and producer Alla (Garden of Allah) Nazimova as Power’s mom telling her not to have sons! Power is fabulous in the second of his three Latino roles – after Mark of Zorro, before Captain from Castile. Lush.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

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Vicky and Cristina leave the US for a sojourn in Barcelona to, respectively, study Catalan identity (or possibly escape a suffocating engagement) and find something to do, when a newly divorced artist hits on them both. A truly funny adult comedy about sex and marriage and adultery and artists and their muses.(The art is by Agusti Puig.)  One of the later Woody Allen works that came as a total surprise after some serially indifferent work in Europe. This is the first time that Scarlett Johannson seemed like a girl’s girl and Hall is a very fine actress playing a funny role dead straight.(They previously worked on The Prestige together.) Javier Bardem is terrific as the Lothario whose crazy ex (Penelope Cruz) comes back to haunt them all. Allen is so good that we are at risk of underestimating him. This is just great.